Friday, December 28, 2012

Playing With Fire (Anthology of Horror) Alchemy of Scrawl, 2011

Nine horror stories are presented in this anthology, two of them excerpts from novels to come. They range from human horror to ghost hunters, from fantasy to science gone wrong, from a house that’s haunted in a very different way to witchcraft, and one that I never figured out if it was a werewolf or a zombie story. The scary factor will vary according to what the reader’s particular psychological makeup is like; for me, none were creepy crawly but all were well written. The ghost hunter stories I feel would make a good TV series, while “This Dark Magic” has enough twists and false leads to keep things very interesting. The formatting has some rather unique problems, which are annoying but not enough to make me stop reading. A quick and fun read for horror fans.


Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. Black Cat, 2012

When a baby is born, the first question anyone asks is “Boy or girl?” It is accepted that gender is the most important thing about the child, before questions like “Healthy?””All limbs and digits present?” or “Brain inside skull properly?” No, the shape of the genitals is the most important thing to society.

In 1968, in a barely populated area of Labrador, a baby is born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake. Born in the bathtub with three neighbor women in attendance, only one person, Thomasina, notices that the child is not quite the same as most babies. This child has both penis and vagina. With the exception of the parents and Thomasina, no one in the area knows the child’s secret. Treadway names the baby Wayne, declares it will be raised as a boy, and not long after, the vagina is sewn shut. Treadway, a man who spends the better part of the year running trap lines in the wild forests of Labrador and lives a basic, homesteading life, goes out of his way to teach Wayne to be a man of the same sort: tying knots, trapping, reading sign, skinning and preserving pelts, snowmobiling. He fears any sign of femininity in Wayne; the facts that the child’s best- only- same age friend is a girl and that s/he prefers reading and drawing to rebuilding engines provokes Treadway to doing something that severs the friendship between Wayne and the friend. What Treadway doesn’t know is that for several years, Thomasina, as Wayne’s school teacher, nurtured the interests that weren’t “male” and provided a safe person for Wayne to talk to- and at one point, saves Wayne’s life.

Treadway is a decent man. He is not mean or nasty or even a misogynist. He simply knows that life will be easier for Wayne if there is no question as to gender. And life is easier for men than for women. Still, I had a very hard time empathizing with Treadway. Despite his love for Wayne, he cannot see gender as anything other than a strict binary. Jacinta is a dim character, not fully realized. Thomasina is the liveliest of the adults. Almost too good to be true, she is open to most everything in a way that the other residents aren’t.  

The location itself is a character; it is brought up frequently and shapes the people and their lives. It’s almost like another book is inserted into Annabel’s tale; there is the story of Wayne/Annabel, and there is the story of the land, and, to a degree, Treadway’s relationship with it. Sometimes the stories intersect; most often they do not. The story of the land is achingly beautiful, but I found myself wondering at times why it was in that book.

This is Wayne/Annabel’s coming of age story, but it’s also a late coming of age for Treadwell, Jacinta, and Thomasina. Wayne/Annabel is not a girl in a boy’s body, as some seem to think, but both male/female in both body and soul, and this is still a hard situation to live in today; think how hard it would have been in the 1970s, especially in a rural area.

The writing itself is beautiful, especially in the descriptive passages. But the characters could have used more work, and the book could have lost some of its size and gained focus. When considered as a first novel, though,, it’s a stupendous achievement, and I can’t wait to see what Winter does next. 


Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Pleasures of Men, by Kate Williams. Hyperion 2012

Set in 1840’s London, ‘The Pleasures of Men’ tells the tale of orphaned nineteen year old Catherine Sorgeiul after she is taken in by her uncle. Uncle lives in genteel poverty amidst books and anthropological artifacts. Encouraged to not think about the tragedies of her past that led her to be institutionalized for a time, but given nothing to do that interests her, she becomes obsessed with the Man of Crows, a serial killer who is targeting young women. To try and get a handle on how he thinks, she begins to write about the victims without realizing that she is drawing bad intentions to herself. Soon she finds herself unable to trust anyone.

The atmosphere is wonderfully created- the heat of the city in summer, the claustrophobic life Catherine lives, the fear, and the uncertainty as to what is real and what isn’t – and made me feel like I was there. It was murky and shadowy, as I imagine Catherine’s mind must have been. As more and more peculiar discoveries are made that don’t seem to fit together quite right, the mystery deepens instead of being solved.

However, the story changes point of view and point in time frequently, from Catherine to the several girls who are murdered to, finally, the murderer. This made it very hard to follow. Most of the characters were poorly developed; perhaps it was to allow us to see that Catherine wasn’t really interested in them and just saw their surface, but it made it hard for me to care about them. Catherine herself, despite her situation, was hard to care for. The story seemed to lack a clear focus, and in the end it left me disappointed. 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us, by John Ratey, M.D. & Catherine Johnson Ph.D. Bantam Books 1998

The title tells us accurately what this book is about: mild versions of mental illnesses. The authors state- and I believe them- that a mental disorder is not a discrete box to fit people into; mental disorders exist on a continuum, from almost unnoticeable to full blown psychosis (or, in the case of autism, Kanner’s syndrome). They examine mild forms of mania, ADHD, depression, OCD, anger, anxiety and autism, and say “If mild forms of mental disorders are making you (and those around you) miserable, you should seek treatment and be able to be happy”. They also point out that some of these mild disorders can confer advantages as well as problems: a person with hypomania can get a lot of things done; people with mild autism can focus incredibly well. Obviously, not all shadow syndromes have good sides; constantly being sad, lacking emotions, being angry all the time, perpetual worrying and having obsessions are not good things.

The authors are able to show that different mental disorders are caused by variations in brain chemistry; the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in various amounts create different effects. Antidepressants, tranquilizers, lithium and other psychiatric meds bring the neurotransmitters back into balance. Not that the authors feel everyone with a shadow syndrome needs to go on meds; their basic prescription for brain health is enough exercise, eating healthy, proper sleep, stress relieving techniques and therapy.

I think this is a very good book that makes a very valuable point about mental disorders, that mild forms are being overlooked and the sufferer being left unhappy. I would love to see a newer version; in fourteen years a lot more has become known about the brain. 


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The White Forest, by Adam McOmber. Touchstone, 2012

This story, set in 1850s England, starts out seeming to be a simple historical novel, perhaps a historical romance. We have two young women and a young man who are best friends, but who, in their early twenties, are feeling attraction for each other. In a rural area just outside London, they are cut off from most people and have spent most of their free time together for years. Soon- very soon- fantastical elements enter the story. The narrator, Jane Silverlake, has an odd power- she hears objects. Everything makes sounds. And when in direct contact with her skin, others can hear these strange sounds. Her friends, Maddy and Nathan, are aware of this.

The novel jumps around in time a lot, frequently going back over the same time span with added information. The story revolves around the disappearance of Nathan and the search for him; no one knows if he is dead or alive. He had become obsessed with a cult that seeks a paradise called the Empyrean- and thinks Jane can help them get there. The leader of the cult will stop at nothing to achieve his paradise; Maddy and Jane will stop at nothing to find Nathan. There is more to Jane’s abilities than hearing the souls of objects and this may be the key to Nathan’s fate. As images of a chthonic goddess start appearing around London, Jane tries to figure out her powers

This is a very dark story. The first layer is the simple one of friends roaming the woods; the further the novel goes, the deeper we dig into their psyches and emotions, as well as into the backstory of Nathan’s interest in the cult. At the deepest layer, we find that nothing is as we thought it was, and the ended totally surprised me. Well crafted and very detailed, this book held my attention all the way.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Habits of the House, by Fay Weldon. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Ever since reading (and watching the TV series) ‘The Forsyte Saga’ in my teens I’ve had a passion for late Victorian/Edwardian British stories. I was very excited to receive a copy of ‘Habits of the House’ set in 1899.

The story revolves around the household of the Earl of Dilberne. He himself is deeply in debt, from both business ventures gone badly and from trying to keep up with his friend, the spendthrift Price of Wales; his wife, Isobel, daughter of a tradesman who brought money to the marriage, spends on clothing and dinners. His daughter, Rosina, spends her time going to lectures of the leftist kind and despises the moneyed class while enjoying the advantages it offers. His son and heir Arthur cares nothing for business or politics, freely spending on clothing, his mistress, and his steam powered automobiles. When the latest venture, a gold mine in Africa, is taken and flooded by the Boers, bankruptcy looms. The earl and his lady’s reaction to this is that their children (in their 20s) must marry for money. Everyone has their own opinion on how this should be accomplished, including the staff of servants who have a surprising influence on the lives of their employers.

What follows is a tangled web of greed, bigotry, and lies. There are no blameless characters here, but neither are there any monsters. These are all just flawed human beings, most of whom are fairly decent at heart. They are muddling through their lives, regretting their pasts, and trying to puzzle out what kind of future the want. These are not particularly deep characters; they are rather sketchy.

I enjoyed the book. Despite the unusual layout – a lot of very short chapters, each devoted to a character’s actions in a short period of time- sometimes as little as an hour- it reads fast. The entire book takes place over the span of a little less than two months- but the first 86 pages is devoted to a single day. At the beginning I did have trouble at times figuring out which character was which. There is enough description to set the reader firmly in the era. Standing outside of the time, the author skewers the manners and prejudices of the time. Is it great literature? No. Is it good enough that I’ll be seeking out the next two volumes? Yes. 

Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? By Marty Becker, DVM & Gina Spadafori. Health Communications, Inc. 2006

An alternate title for this book could be “Trivial Pursuit: Cats Edition”. All those weird little things cats do get explained here: what exactly is a hairball, why do cats eyes glow at night (it’s not really lasers), who invented kitty litter, why they knead on you, why they pee on your pillow when you go away for a few days. Each entry is short; one or two pages. It’s a quick, fun read for cat lovers, and the information is solid. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Whole Health for Happy Cats: A Guide to Keeping Your Cat Naturally Healthy, Happy and Well-Fed, by Sandy Arora. Quarry Books, 2006

Sandy Arora has been researching and working with holistic cat health for eight years, running a web site and email list devoted to the subject. Her book provides her reasoning behind using a raw food diet for cats, and recipes to do so, as well as hints for transitioning cats to the raw food diet. She’s had remarkable success with her system, with chronically ill cats regaining health. Sadly, the recommended foods (the ideal cat diet doesn’t include easily available meats like pork & beef) are expensive and frequently difficult to find- emu, rabbit, pheasant and quail aren’t carried by most supermarkets, although one can raise mice pretty easily. Thankfully, she realizes that the ideal isn’t reachable by most of us, and tells us what to look for- and what to look out for- in commercial foods. There is also good information on litter boxes, dental health, vet care, etc. Where she loses me is when she reaches the part about homeopathic remedies for symptoms that could signal serious illness, although she does recommend a trip to the vet for symptoms like blood in the stool.

A good, solid book for an introduction to a raw/natural diet for cats, but do research outside the book for medical issues. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel. Henry Hold & Co, 2005

This novel is both horrifying and maliciously funny. Alison –Al- Hart, overweight medium, is making a good living, giving private readings and doing psychic fairs, but is always alone- at least, where living people are concerned. She can never escape from the dead, who follow her and bother her constantly. And here’s the thing: people don’t get any smarter or nicer when they die. They don’t undergo any spiritual awakening. If they were nasty and mean in life, that’s how they are in death. Al, survivor of a horrific childhood of poverty and abuse, finds she has an old childhood tormentor as her spirit guide. He swears, drinks, gropes women, and sits around masturbating. Only Al can see him, but that’s bad enough.

When fate brings bitter, recently divorced Colette her way, Al hires her as a manager/partner. Colette takes charge of Al’s finances and schedule, and they find themselves enjoying a moderate success. Al jumps at her chance to live in a place where no one has lived before, where she hopes she will encounter no spirits. But life cannot be nice for Al; nastiness follows her even into a newly built subdivision (which has its own special brand of horror). Even though she tries to do good things and think good thoughts, she is tainted by her past. She attracts badness to herself; she must come to terms with her past to rid herself of it.

The book is brilliant, and very dark. Mantel’s wit cuts like a knife through the middle class, the lowest of the lower class, the way heavy people are treated, real estate developers and New Age believers. This is not a cheery type of funny book; the title tells us how black the humor is. This is very unlike Mantel’s Cromwell books, and just as good in its own way.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pyramids, by Terry Pratchett. Harper, 1989

In ‘Pyramids’, master storyteller and satirist takes on the funeral industry, philosophy, and more. Teppic, heir to the throne of Djelibeybi (which bears more than a passing resemblance to ancient Egypt), has just passed his final exam to become a member of the assassin’s guild in Ankh-Morpork when his father dies in a bit of madness. He returns home to take on his responsibility, for which he is totally unprepared. Even though he is king and considered a god, he finds he has no say in anything at all; because of the high priest, his is merely a ceremonial position. The story is no mere court intrigue, though; the Djelibeybian custom of building a bigger, more impressive pyramid for each kingly generation’s resting spot creates havoc when the new pyramid proves to be so large that it creates a warp in space and time. Teppic, with the aid of a handmaid and Discworld’s greatest mathematician (a camel named You Bastard) must put things to rights before Djelibeybi is destroyed by gods who have suddenly manifested on the physical realm and before war breaks out between the countries on either side of where Djelibeybi used to be.

While certainly amusing (the assassin’s final exam is particularly good), this isn’t one of Pratchett’s stronger stories. It’s disjointed and a lot of things happen that don’t advance the story- the gods becoming physical and apparently witless being one of the worst. The characters aren’t as vivid as in most Pratchett stories. Teppic and Ptraci are likable but not compelling. The best characters are the dead king and Dios, the power mad high priest who turns out to be motivated by good. But still, a not so great story by Terry Pratchett is better than a lot of some authors best stories, so it’s certainly worth the read. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. Viking, 1999

On a whim, Vianne Rocher and her 5 year old daughter move into a tiny town in France that is basically run by Reynaud, the cure`, a stern man who shepherds the villagers through their every move. With their brightly colored clothing and  outgoing ways, Vianne and Anouk  stand out like macaws in a flock of crows. Both Vianne and Reynaud have deep secrets and Vianne earns Reynaud’s enmity almost at once by opening a chocolate shop- which would be bad enough in his view, but to add insult to injury, she does it at the beginning of Lent, when Reynaud wants all to deny themselves any kind of pleasure. At first he feels she will fail quickly, but she has a touch not just with candy making but with people- she has the ability to know what people want or need. When she announces plans for a chocolate festival to be held on Easter Sunday, it’s war.

 This is a work of magical realism, but one where the magic is denied. We’re never entirely sure it’s real… but despite the denial, there are some pretty strong signs it is. It’s also a book about jealousy, prejudice, the value of being true to one’s self, aging with élan, love, loss, abuse, bullying and a lot of other things that make up life no matter where. Told in the alternating, first person POVs of Vianne and Reynaud, the book opens their pasts enough to us so we know why they act as they do, but leaves enough unsaid to keep us wanting more. The descriptive prose is glittering: the chocolates, the wrappings, the foods, the wine and champagne all appear in three dimensions and five senses. Don’t read this book if you are dieting; it provokes cravings that, in my case at least, will not be denied. A beautiful book. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Freud’s Sister, by Goce Smilevski. Penguin Books, 2012

Sigmund Freud had several sisters; Adolfina was the one he called ‘the sweetest and best of my sisters’. She never married, was treated poorly at home, spent years in a psychiatric hospital, and ended her life in a Nazi concentration camp. This book is historical fiction, not biography- it would be difficult to write a biography of Adolfina as there is not much known about her. But it’s more than a fictional biography; it’s also a treatise on the lack of meaning of life and how horrible most lives are. Everyone seems to have mental health problems- Adolfina’s mother is emotionally abusive, her lover suffers from extreme depression, her best friend Klara Klimt (sister of artist Gustav) spends years in the asylum rooming with Adolfina, Sigmund, while brilliant, is fixated on the Oedipus syndrome and penis envy. A fair part of the novel takes place in the asylum, describing the patients there. All of the people except Sigmund Freud have hard, hard lives. The story is brutal and moving, albeit written in lovely prose (no mean feat when the story was written in Macedonian and translated to English).

The question that this story hangs on is this: When Sigmund Freud got visas to leave Vienna for the safety of England, why did he take, along with his wife and children, his wife’s family, his doctor and his family, and the house servants, but not his four sisters? Did he not value them? He was dying of cancer; did the pain affect his thinking? Did his wife’s family have something to do with it? The question goes unanswered.  I personally thought the story was good, but I did not enjoy it. 

The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009

The boy in the moon is Brown’s son, who has an extremely rare genetic disease that has given him both mental and physical handicaps. CFC- cardiofaciocutaneous- syndrome is not a hereditary disease but one that randomly crops up, so the author and his wife had no inkling that their second child might not be like their first one. Walker cannot speak or even swallow (he is fed through a tube directly into his stomach) or control his bladder or bowels, and requires constant care, which his parents (both writers and so home a great deal of the time) and a nanny provide for him at home for the first 11 years of his life. The hardest part of dealing with him, however, is not the diapers or lifting a child growing into his teens or the fact that they never get to sleep an entire night, but the fact that Walker hits himself in the head all the time. As one can guess, that’s agonizing to watch. And it finally comes to a point where they just can’t do it by themselves anymore, physically or emotionally; they have to place Walker in a home.

The first part of the book is biographical: Walker’s and their history, what they did and how they did it. The second half is spiritual and philosophical: what is the meaning of Walker’s limited life? What is the meaning of anyone with a mental handicap? What do they teach the rest of the population? The author gives us a history of how the mentally handicapped and mentally ill have been treated in the past- for the most part, horribly. He spends a good deal of time with the people of a group of communities called L’Arche, founded by Vanier in France forty years ago and extending into Canada and the USA now. In these small communities, the mentally handicapped are treated as the norm. They and their care givers have meals together, go out into the towns, and are all equals. It’s a fairly ideal situation, and there is a twenty year waiting list for people to get into these communities. The home that Walker is in isn’t quite as good as L’Arche, but it’s pretty good. Brown also makes great efforts to medically understand Walker’s disease; he has genetic tests done to try and get a positive diagnosis of CFD (he doesn’t) and an MRI to see what Walker’s brain looks like. He goes from place to place, trying to find out how Walker works, whether Walker has any sense of self. He keeps hoping that there is some way to ‘fix’ Walker.

In the end, Brown really gets no answers. Walker has made his father into a different person that he was before- less selfish, more attuned to others, more appreciative of his friends and family, and, finally, a person who has to accept that Walker cannot be fixed, he can only be loved for who he is. If he has a ‘purpose’, other than to just live, if may be that.

The book is, frankly, pretty grim. No matter how much love there is, taking care of someone who is severely handicapped is hard work and it’s very hard on families. That they were able to keep Walker home for over 10 years is testament to their devotion. But despite its grimness, the book is a well written meditation of what it means to have a family member with a mental disability. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, by Cyndi Lauper & Jancee Dunn. Atria Books, 2012

Cyndi Lauper’s autobiography begins with her running away from home to escape her step-father the sexual predator. Things don’t get much better for her for quite some time- some truly horrific things happen to her on her way to success. And success is illusive- for all Lauper’s hard work, hit records, and Grammy nominations, she has never become as rich and famous as one would think she should be.

Recognition didn’t come to Lauper until she was thirty. Through her twenties, she worked menial jobs, sang in cover bands, and was never taken seriously, even by her own band mates- she was even sexually assaulted by some of them. She gave free rein to her eccentric style (which has been copied endlessly) and didn’t pull any punches about what she thought, and these habits didn’t endear her to record execs. And so much of the time, she just has had plain bad luck. It’s not that she is blaming fate for her own short fallings; she readily admits when she screws up. This woman never stops working, and, I suspect, never will. Her creative force is just too strong. She describes how she works, and it’s remarkable how she dissects music and puts it back together in new ways.

The book is written like you’re sitting down with Lauper, listening to her tell her story. She narrates with an immediacy that puts you right in the scene. She also digresses like she were sitting in front of you talking. This is not a dry, moment by moment biography! I highly recommend this if you’re a fan. 

The Witch of Exmoor, by Margaret Drabble. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1996

‘The Witch of Exmoor’ begins with the adult children of Frieda Haxby Palmer having a weekend together for the purpose of deciding what to do about their mother. She has, they feel, lost her mind or gone senile. The problem is, there is not one sign that she is incompetent, except by the standards of her upper middle class, consumerist children. What they call signs of a failing mind are selling the house they grew up in, suing the government over tax issues, making a public investigation and scene over a manufacturer of over processed foods, and moving to a rambling, falling apart white elephant on the coast far from ‘civilization’. And embarrassing them in the process of all that. That’s the worst; the embarrassment and the worries over what she might be doing with their future inheritance. Frieda doesn’t care what they think; she’s never been an attentive mother; when they were young, she was busy writing and earning a living, now they mostly bore her so she doesn’t bother with them. The only family members she cares to interact with are her son-in-law, who believes in social activism, and his son, who is bright and curious and has so far avoided becoming average. Her children feel she is a monster because of her past and current inattentiveness. They really have no idea how she spends her days and who her friends are.

The characters are close to caricatures:  the moral-less lawyer, the good wife who hides concerns in a Martha Stewart existence, the bad child (drugs), the good child (does what her family wants), the poor man who has no chance at an equitable life because of the circumstances of his birth, etc. Frieda is the character who is best filled out; she is like a 1960s hippie and feminist who has grown into old age with her values intact; we find more and more about her as the book goes on, like peeling an onion.

The book is really less a family novel (although it is that) than it is a social commentary that is as apt today as it was in 1996. Britain is still trying to figure out how to fix the NHS, human rights are still being trampled everywhere. Corporations are still soulless entities who will do anything for a profit.

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted to know more about Frieda; she’s a woman with a sense of adventure, one whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and a good conversation with. She’s a real person in a cardboard world. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Another Second Chance: God’s Story- How a Stranger’s Kidney Saved My Brother’s Life and Mine, by Troy Lewis. Writing Career Coach Press, 2011

In 1992, the author’s first child was born. Although a very healthy 24 years old at the time, he decided that he should do the responsible thing and purchase health insurance. Unexpectedly, there was protein in his urine- a sign of kidney disease. A nephrologist diagnosed his problem as Iga Nephropathy (Berger’s disease), a very rare disease. 80% of the people with it live their lives symptom free; the other 20% decline abruptly around age 40 and go into kidney failure. Knowing this, Lewis had checkups to keep track of his kidney health, and sure enough, around age 40, his kidneys started shutting down. Over the next few years, he progressed into end stage renal disease and required dialysis.

Very involved in his church, Lewis believes that this is God’s plan for him, and that he should just trust. And trust he does. As with anyone with a severe illness, he has a lot of ups and downs. Papers aren’t filed on time with the transplant coordinators, his brothers turn out not to be suitable donors, dialysis treatments cause his blood pressure to climb to dangerous levels. In the end, though, a series of events and a group called the Alliance for Paired Donation, gets him his needed kidney – and saves his brother’s life.

Lewis lays this at the feet of God, pointing out that his brother was a minister, his own donor was a minister, and that he himself had played Jesus in the church pageant for a number of years. Personally, I see it as a lot of good people doing the right thing- and going above and beyond that in several cases. His wife managed progress through the transplant program, making sure every paper was where it needed to be. He was very proactive in his own care. I’m happy that he had his faith, and that of his family and friends, to help him through this, but it was also very important that he helped himself. The book is decently well written and reads as if the author was telling you the story in person. If you’re looking for medical detail, this isn’t the book you want, though. 

Ragnarok The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. Canongate, 2011

This small book is a retelling of the Armageddon of the Norse myths, Ragnarok, as framed by the mind of the ‘thin child’. This thin child- pretty obviously Byatt herself- has been evacuated with her mother and sister from London to the English countryside. She picks up a book of Norse myth, and finds herself swept up in it, finding it the perfect reading for how she feels about her own life- she does not expect to see her father come back from the war alive, she is aware that her parents feel as helpless as she does, she finds the Norse gods more fitting than the Christianity that is taught each Sunday. She finds an odd solace in the idea that the end is written already, no matter what the gods do to prevent it.

Byatt, curious as most children are (or used to be), presents Loki in a more favorable light than most tellers do. He is the curious one; he wants to know what lives in all the dark corners of the earth and sea. Thor and the other gods are not curious or noble; they seek to torture and destroy Loki’s children simply because they exist. They write their own future destruction.

Inserted into this telling is an ecological warning; that the abundance of plants and creatures that thrived in the English countryside of Byatt’s youth is disappearing. Humans, like the Norse gods, are writing their own doom.

When I picked this book up, I thought it very different from the author’s other works. I didn’t realize it was written for a series of myths retold by famous authors; that explains my feeling that the book was not up to Byatt’s usual many-layered, ornamented style. As a novel, it’s not great; as a myth telling, it is. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shadows, by John Saul. Bantam Books, 1992

Josh MacCallum is ten years old and having a hard time. He lives in a small California desert town with his single mother and baby sister, is a genius, and has just been skipped forward in school a second time,  making him two years younger than his classmates. Friendless, he is bullied constantly. It’s no real surprise when, in a fit of anger, he cuts his wrists. His panicked mother agrees to look into The Academy, a school for gifted youngsters affiliated with a university. Despite her reservations, the school seems to fit Josh’s needs, as well as being offered at no cost. For the first time Josh starts to make friends and is actually in a group of his peers. Things look happy.

But things start going wrong quickly- students are committing suicide at an alarming rate. Mysterious sounds are heard at night. And the ‘special seminar’ that Josh and his new best friend, Amy, are invited to join is downright creepy.  It’s supposed to be about artificial intelligence, but it really seems to be more about how living brains work. The head of the Academy, Dr. Engersol, seems all too bent on isolating brains from body.

It’s really hard to write about this book without giving huge spoilers. Suffice it to say that what Josh uncovers is a truly skin crawling situation, that bad things happen to good people, and that it’s reasonably well written. The book was written 20 years ago and features computers and how they are interconnected, so one must remember what the state of computer technology was like back then to realize how freaky some of the things that happen in the book must have seemed to readers back then- there was no World Wide Web and modems connected your computer directly to another computer through the phone lines, not routing through a server. Some of the story is predictable, but there are surprises, particularly an unhappy twist at the end. 


The Knife and the Wound it Deals, by B.E. Scully. Amazon Digital Services, 2012

This is a collection of short horror fiction. Some, like ‘Champ’s Last Round’ make me think of the Twilight Zone- they would have made great episodes. Others, like ‘Grief Assassins’, are very poignant. ‘Released’ is achingly sad. ‘A Simple Game of Chess’ could easily have been written by Poe. There is dark fantasy (‘Earth Shall Return Them’) and the author’s version of the selling your soul to the devil tale.

It’s a well rounded collection; the stories are all very distinct. Scully avoids excess gore and blood in favor of more subtle, sophisticated horror. This is a connoisseur’s anthology.  


Fujisan, by Randy Taguchi. Amazon Crossing, 2012

Fujisan, by Randy Taguchi. Amazon Crossing, 2012

While little known in America- ‘Fujisan’ is only her second book released in English- Randy Taguchi has written 14 novels and many short stories and essays and is immensely popular in Japan. The four stories in ‘Fujjisan’ are all set on or near Mt. Fuji. That, and the fact that all four protagonists are struggling psychologically, is what connects these stories together. In ‘Blue Summit’, a former cult member working in a convenience store strives to deal with life now that he is allowed free will. ‘Sea of Trees’ is a coming of age story, as three boys in their early teens meet danger and death for the first time. ‘Jamila’ is the name of a hoarder, the psychological opposite of the narrator, who throws away his past like dirty hankies. In ‘Child of Light’, a nurse faces life and death and the human spirit- far from the first time for her- as she wonders about her future.

The protagonists are all struggling to reconcile their images of themselves. Faced with change on a deep level, they are all knocked off balance and into new understanding of themselves by other people. The stories are quiet and reflective like a Japanese garden but deeply moving.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Journal Fodder 365: Daily Doses of Inspiration for the Art Addict, by Eric M. Scott and David R. Modler. North Light Books, 2012

 This book doesn’t really have 365 daily prompts; it actually provides 48- it’s divided into twelve monthly sections and each section has four prompts. There are a lot of art techniques in each chapter, though, so you could still consider it to have 365 ideas.

The authors expect the reader to do some deep journaling. Along with the more common subjects of dreams and personal history are ones like owning your shadow self. They recommend strongly against using standard imagery- like the ever popular woman with wings or a crown- and coming up with your own- use pictures of yourself and ephemera you’ve saved. They don’t want you just creating collages; they want the collages to be personally meaningful.

Unlike many art journal projects, they don’t advise that you have to own every art supply ever made to do the job. In fact, the basic list is very short- journal, colored pencils, glue stick, scissors, water colors and a few pens, pencils and markers. These simple supplies- and a few others recommended in each chapter- are used in numerous ways to create many different looks. Each chapter shows different techniques for writing, drawing, painting, collage and more. There is even a URL you can go to for extra technique tutorials online. There is a lot to the book.

The down side is that the techniques are fairly basic. They are geared to the beginner artist. This is not a bad thing- it’s great that there is a book that won’t intimidate the beginner. But a more seasoned artist may want to seek out a more advanced book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Noughties, by Ben Masters. Hogarth, 2012

‘Noughties’ takes place over the course of one night- and over the course of four years. The narrator, Eliot, is spending his last night at Oxford with his fellow grads, going from pub to bar to club. As the night goes on (and Eliot and his friends drink aggressively), Eliot reminisces over his last year of school, his entrance to Oxford, his three years there, his ex-girlfriend Lucy, the people he is drinking with. He is faced with becoming an adult, and is woefully unprepared. His time at Oxford has taught him a tremendous amount about English literature, an equally tremendous amount about drinking, and not much else. Up until this night, his course of action was always laid out for him; his lower middle class parents expected him to do better than they did and to them it was a given that he would attend university; once at Oxford, his course was set for three years. Now he has to make his own decisions.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The mixing of past and present work well. I thought the sections about the tutorials were brilliant- the way the students were set into competition against each other, the professor who cultivates a persona of shocking hipster. The characters, however, all seemed somewhat stereotyped, and Eliot is a total prat. He’s horrible to women and not the greatest friend. He’s so eager to hide his origins from his Oxford mates that he decides his girlfriend from home is embarrassing- and is upset that they like her. While most of us aren’t at our best at his age, Eliot is hard to take. It’s difficult to empathize with someone who has no redeeming characteristics. All in all I liked the story, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. I do think Masters has a great future as a novelist, but he needs more years of writing under his belt.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, by Pam Johnson-Bennett. Penguin, 2004

This cat behavior book focuses on the special problems that can arise when you have a multi cat household. Cats adapt to living together despite not being pack animals, but they do have a hierarchical social structure that is invisible to many humans. Awareness of this structure, and the various cats’ places in the structure, helps immensely in keeping things peaceful. While knowing general cat behavior modification techniques is necessary when you have multiple cats, knowing the signs of dominance and stress, and how to recognize the cats’ territories within your house, is not something addressed in most cat behavior books. This book emphasizes making sure that each cat is secure in their territory, whether they are the top cat or the bottom, and how to keep common areas peaceful. I’m looking at our house differently now!

Is Your Cat Crazy? Solutions from the Casebook of a Cat Therapist, by John Wright, Ph.D., and Judi Wright Lashnits. Castle Books 1994

This book explains a lot about why cats do what they do, and how to work with that so that the cats behave in ways acceptable to humans. Written in an easy to read style, the author takes us on a tour of the world as seen by the cat. Cats are hardwired in some ways, and to ignore this fact is to face failure in dealing with them. Thankfully, what a cat needs is usually not unreasonable and is fairly easy to provide. The authors give concrete advice in anecdotal style. Good reading for anyone with companion cats; I learned a lot, and I’ve had cats all my life. The basic message is to not demand things of cats but to work with their instincts, whether the problem is with scratching, biting, or inappropriate elimination (the most common problem).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik & Monica Murphy. Viking, 2012

Rabies has been with- and horrified- people throughout history. The virus can infect any warm blooded creature and is nearly 100% fatal once symptoms show. It travels directly through the nervous system rather than the more usual route of the bloodstream, allowing it easy access to the brain. Once there, it takes over the victim’s actions, creating an aggressive, raving, biting disease vector in the place of the familiar creature or person.

The authors follow rabies through history, both medical and cultural, positing that rabies may be behind the legends of zombies, werewolves, and vampires. They write about how so many truly horrible diseases are zoonotic- originating in animals and passed to humans: influenzas, plague, ebola, hanta, anthrax. A lot of space is devoted to Louis Pasteur’s development of a rabies vaccine- the only really effective method of stopping the virus. And they write about the status of rabies today.

In America, we tend to think of rabies as pretty much under control. There are cases of it, but they are fairly rare and most often in wild animal populations. In other parts of the, though, that isn’t the case. In India, someone dies from rabies about once every 30 minutes. And events in Bali show how easy it is for rabies to be reintroduced; they had eradicated the virus on the island until someone broke the law forbidding the importation of dogs and brought one in with rabies, which spread rapidly because not only had they stopped vaccinating for it, but there was no decent rabies vaccine available for either pre- or post- exposure use.

Given the horrific subject matter, the book could have easily taken a tabloid tone. The authors steered away from that, though, and have presented an even, thoughtful book, albeit one that will have the reader giving the side eye to the raccoon at the trash can. 


Guest post- Mary Sharratt!

Today we have a guest post by Mary Sharratt, author of the wonderful new book 'Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen' that I reviewed recently. Thank you, Mary, for sharing this with us!

"Viriditas: Visions of the Green Saint by Mary Sharratt

Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, composed an entire corpus of highly original sacred music, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. 

In May 2012, 873 years after her death, she was finally canonized. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Previously there were only thirty-three Doctors of the Church, and only three were women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

But Hildegard’s life and work transcends faith boundaries. Her visions of the Feminine Divine and of Viriditas, the sacred manifest in nature, have made her a pivotal figure in feminist spirituality.

Hildegard’s concept of Viriditas, or greening power, is her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.

I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.
Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)

Hildegard’s philosophy of Viriditas went hand in hand with her celebration of the Feminine Divine. Although the established Church of her day could not have been more male-dominated, Hildegard’s visions revealed the Feminine Divine. She called God Mother, and said that she could only bear to look upon divinity in her visions if God appeared to her in feminine form. Her visions revealed God as a cosmic egg, nurturing all of life like a womb. Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrated immanence, of God being present in all things, in every aspect of this greening, burgeoning, blessed world.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.   

O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

This might be read as an ecstatic hymn to Sophia, the great Cosmic Mother.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Book of the Month and One Spirit Book Club pick. Visit Mary’s website: "


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Magnificent Mistakes, by Eric Bosse. Ravenna Press, 2012

This collection of short- some very, very short- stories roams all over the map, but they are all disturbing. Some depict monstrous people. ‘Plantlife’, wherein a lonely widow’s plants all pull up roots and take over her property, is funny and touching. ‘Eight Years Later’, at only two pages, is redemptive. ‘The Invisible World’ leaves you wondering where a trio of people will end up now that truth has come out. There tales of bondage, abuse, ghosts, suicide attempts, choking- it’s a wild collection. I enjoyed some, found some unpleasant and creepy, but they all held my attention

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Laura Lamon'ts Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. Riverhead Books, 2012

Elsa Emerson grows up in small town Wisconsin, in a household that is also the local little theater. Every summer, young actors come and stay with the family and put on shows in the converted barn, inspiring a love of show business in the two younger sisters. She makes her escape from Door County by marrying an aspiring actor who is heading for Hollywood, a move that becomes a misery to her but also the vehicle to the life she wants. When she meets studio manager Irving Green, he turns out to be the answer to her dreams, both personal and professional. He changes her from blonde Elsa to brunette Laura Lamont. For awhile, her life is perfect. But life doesn’t offer nicely packaged happy endings like movies do. Laura’s life takes a lot of twists and turns before it’s done.

The book is interesting; the second section is set during the days of the Hollywood studio system, where the studio took over every aspect of the actor’s life. Thinly disguised celebrities fill the book; Irving Green is obviously Irving Thalberg (although Laura is not Norma Shearer); Laura’s best friend is Lucille Ball; Jack Warner, Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland also appear, all with fictitious names. A parallel thread to Laura’s life is the changes that take place in Hollywood through the decades.

“Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures” isn’t Emma Straub’s first book, but it is her first novel. As such, it shows some deficits. Laura- all the characters, in fact- come off rather two dimensional, although perhaps that is intentional- pictures are, after all, two dimensional. But I never felt any real attachment to Laura. She’s not unpleasant in any way, but neither is she magnetic. I wanted to love this novel- old Hollywood is an interest of mine- but while I liked it, I did not love it. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012

When Hildegard was eight, her mother gave her to a church to be bricked into a chamber in a monastery wall as involuntary handmaiden and student to an ascetic teenaged girl of noble birth, Jutta von Sponheim. Hildegard had visions, and was thus unmarriageable. Giving her daughter over to this purpose not only disposed of her honorably, but bought the favor of Jutta’s rich mother, enabling Hildegard’s sisters to meet wealthy mates. As Jutta slowly killed herself with anorexia and self punishment, Hildegard and the two other girls that joined them in their dark hell longed for sunlight and freedom for over thirty years before Jutta finally died and Hildegard demanded their freedom. Her time in that dark prison wasn’t wasted, though; a kindly monk brought her books from the monastery library and plants for her to grow in the tiny courtyard. By the time Jutta died, Hildegard was very educated, an able healer and a brilliant composer. She went on to found her own abbey and criticize the corruption of the church. She was an incredibly accomplished woman in a time when women were thought of as little more than breeding machines or servants.

‘Illuminations’ is the prefect title for this novel; illumination fills the story. The great illuminated texts that Hildegard learns from, the great visions of light that fill her, her illumination of the corruption in the church; light fills Hildegard’s life even at its darkest points. This is a triumphant story told in lyrical prose that brings the era and monastery life into brilliant, colorful focus. But it’s not a one sided glorification of Hildegard; she’s a living, breathing woman with the faults all humans share. It’s not a religious book at all; it’s a story of people and spirit. Whether you’re Catholic or not, or even Christian or not, Hildegard von Bingen was a fascinating woman. Sharratt’s writing held me suspended in Hildegard’s life throughout the novel, and it left me wishing the book was twice as long. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Crackpot Palace, by Jeffrey Ford. William Morrow, 2012

This is an outstanding collection of weird fiction. The twenty stories include horror, magical realism, fantasy, and even a steampunk one. Some are outright fantasy from start to finish; others are so subtle that it’s like they are our normal world, but someone has pulled it just ever so slightly out of kilter. My favorite was “Down Atsion Road”, in which an aging artist is pursued by a Native American demon. The scariest? “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening”, which will give anyone with arachnophobia the creeps. Note: the creature is not just a spider. It’s far, far worse than that.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Devil of Echo Lake, by Douglas Wynne. JournalStone, 2012

Billy Moon is a rock star, an idol to Goths around the world in the late 1990s. The producer who made him a star, Trevor Rail, holds a contract that requires Moon to create one more album for him. Rail is a creepy dude that no one likes and who scares most people. Moon thinks Rail might just be the devil himself. And now Rail has called in his chip, and takes Moon to a secluded compound in the mountains, with a studio in an old church, to force him to write and record a new album in record time.

Moon is willing, but his mind is not all on the music. He’s dealing with the sudden death of his father, and strange things are happening in the church, which serves as Moon as living quarters as well as studio. Legend has it the church is haunted, and it’s starting to look like it’s true. Rail doesn’t believe it, though; he makes a point of telling others that Moon is under stress and unbalanced. But Moon isn’t the only one seeing and hearing odd things; Jake Campbell, fresh out of college assistant sound man, is witnessing it, too, as well as the terror that is crazy man Rail.

This is very well done horror. Part psychological and part supernatural, it isn’t until the end that the reader gets to see where the boundaries of each are. Tension is sustained throughout the book, and the end is unexpected. I hope this book gets picked up by Amazon and other distributors so more people can enjoy it. Right now it seems to only be available from the publisher, JournalStone

Coming to My Senses, by Alyssa Harad. Viking 2012

“Coming to My Senses” is a memoir of a short period of author Harad’s life, covering the time between her discovery of perfume blogs and shortly after her wedding. It is all about how perfume became not just an interest, but a passion, and how it changed the way she thought about herself.

Harad was a scholarly, feminist free lance writer who hated shopping and had no interest in feminine frills. Then she clicked by accident into some perfume blogs and got hooked on the descriptions of scent- what the perfumes contained, how they made the wearers feel. This struck a chord in her, and she started to find out more about perfume, and started using it. For a long time she kept her interest to herself, not wanting to be made fun of by serious minded people. But as she started bringing the subject up, she was amazed to discover that it was a love of many people- including those serious minded ones.

But it wasn’t just an interest or hobby. Wearing perfume started to change how she felt about herself. An elegant perfume made her want to change out of her boring work-at-home clothes and into something prettier. She started going to a gym, and feeling more in touch with her body, more balanced. Ultimately, it made her decide, after living for years with someone, that she wanted a girly wedding.

The book is a memoir, not a treatise on perfumes. It’s all about her relationship with the scents and with herself, not about the perfumes themselves, although she does write about a few of the perfumes and perfume components- it would be hard to write about perfume without giving some history. One thing that really disappointed me was that the author didn’t give the names of many of the perfumes she talks about. It would be fun for a reader to sniff perfumes and compare their reaction to what her’s was. And I really want to know what is the name of the one that is honey based and makes her husband follow her around the house?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt & Co, 2012

‘Bring Up the Bodies’ is the sequel to ‘Wolf Hall’, the story of how Thomas Cromwell helped engineer King Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon so he’d be free to marry Anne Boleyn. In ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, we find Henry tiring of Anne, her continual demands and her inability to deliver a live baby boy- the longed for heir to the kingdom. Cromwell must now undo what he has helped Henry do, no matter the human cost, and fix it so Henry can marry the next in his series of wives.

While many, many books have been written about the Henry VIII and his wives, Mantel has approached the story from a different angle; in both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, Mantel has taken the point of view of Cromwell. Usually considered a horrible villain, Cromwell emerges here as brilliant, hard working, capable of love and a servant to the king alone. Not servant to the Boleyns, the Seymours, the queen that was, the foreign ambassadors, the Pope; just the king and England.  That is why he had so many enemies; he did not care who was discommoded in his efforts to please the king and keep England together. And pleasing Henry was not an easy job; Henry was monstrously egotistical and his moods and loves were fickle. He could love and favor someone one day and the next, after some poorly worded comment or even a lie from someone else, that person could end up banished from the court, stripped of their wealth or dead. And no matter how many times Henry changed his mind, his ability to feel himself innocent of wrong doing is astonishing. No matter what he said or did, it was always because he was deceived or bewitched, not because he simply got tired of someone and wanted them gone. Yet, despite these faults, he was also an intelligent and passionately curious man who cared about running the country. He just happened to care about himself more.

Here is what makes Mantel’s writing rather brilliant; despite the fact that you know what’s going to happen to Anne, there is still an awful feeling of suspense. I found myself hoping that she and the men executed with her would find a way out!

While this is a stand alone novel, it is probably best appreciated read after ‘Wolf Hall’ unless you are already familiar with the politics of the time and the story of Henry, Katherine of Aragon and Anne. And even if you are, seeing the story from Cromwell’s point of view casts a different light on it. This isn’t ‘The Tudors’ where lust reigns supreme; this is about political machinations and spinning spider webs of doom around those the king wishes to rid himself of. It’s about a man who accumulated much wealth, but didn’t have the time to enjoy it because his master wanted him available 24/7. Mantel manages to make Cromwell a human, but not a likable one. The writing is rich and creates the Tudor world before our eyes without getting bogged down in description. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sleeping in Flame, by Jonathan Carroll. Tom Doherty Associates, 1988

Walker Easterling, divorced American screenwriter living in Vienna, meets the woman of his dreams, Maris York. Their attraction is immediate and goes far beyond physicality; they are connected on a deep level from the first minute of meeting. At the same time, some strange things start happening. Not just strange- things that should be impossible. But in this world of Carroll’s, magic is not only possible, but not even very remarkable. What alarms Walker and Maris is that bad things start happening, too. A friend knows a shaman, though, who can probably help Walker. A southern Californian, TV and sandwich obsessed shaman with a bulldog and a pot-bellied pig for companions.

It soon becomes obvious that Walker has lived previous lives, and that his father may be at the heart of his troubles. An adopted child, Walker doesn’t know who is biological father is. Finding out turns out to be key to saving his life and the lives of those he loves. And not only does Walker discover that not just magic and reincarnation are real, but some fairy tales are, too.

The book is modern magic, old fairy tales brought into the late 20th century. Walker is the knight on a quest, and Maris is the enchanted princess he must save. It’s a lovely, fun story to read, right up to the end. The end is good- it’s fairly unique- but it comes off as rushed, as though Carroll ran out of time to finish. All the pieces are there at the ending, really, but they’re just thrown together. Still, that isn’t enough to make me call it a bad book. Just not a perfect one.