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. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

John Saturnall’s Feast, by Lawrence Norfolk. Grove Press, 2012

‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ is set near the start of the English Civil War. John is the child of a woman who is a sort of outcast; an herbalist and midwife, she lives on the outskirts of the village and doesn’t go to church. Of course this means she is thought of as a witch. When a plague runs through the village, she is blamed and they are run out of town. They take up living in a deserted house in the woods, living on late season fruit and chestnuts. She is dying, of both starvation and disease, but before she dies, she teaches John to read from a book about a strange feast held in Buccla’s Wood. It encompasses every form of food; fish, fowl, vegetables, sweets, mammals are all included, and the feast is for everyone, not just the rich as is the way of the land at the time. At her wish, after her death, he is taken to Buckland Manor where he is put to work in the vast kitchens. 

John’s life changes totally. Used to being alone or with only a couple of people, he is now constantly pressed by people on all sides. He works every minute of the long day and falls directly into a sleep that never seems to be long enough. Still, given the time and place, it’s a good situation. Food is abundant here, he’s living inside, and after awhile he gets to learn cooking. He’s in a better place than a lot of people.

This is primarily a love story; a love that crosses classes and is forbidden- preserving estates and titles takes precedence over love. It’s also an adventure story; the kitchen staff marched with the lord of the manor when he went to war supporting King Charles, and they were expected to fight with the soldiers. I liked the characters. They are not likable all the time; they do stupid, human, things sometimes. But, in the end, it’s a story about food.

We might think that cooking back in those days was fairly primitive, but it wasn’t. It was actually very sophisticated. One of the culinary trends back then was to create dishes that looked like something else – parts of animals and birds sewn together to create a mythical beast, meat in pastry to look like a bird, sugar creations in the shape of just about anything. Cooks vied to create the most elaborate and surprising dishes- a sort of Iron Chef, Stuarts edition. Most of the year, the diet was rich and varied; the manor supplied fish from its own ponds, poultry, eggs, dairy products, pork, honey, wheat, fruit and vegetables (they did eat their ‘sallets’) and much was stored for winter. A stable trade system meant the upper classes enjoyed sugar and spices. The sheer amount of person power it took to feed a manor was incredible- most workers were specialists, turning the spits in the kitchen, washing the endless stream of dirty dishes, plucking fowl, managing the fish ponds, the dove cote, the hen houses, the spice room, making the salads, cutting up the meat… and all those people had to be fed, too. You can see how a book can be created around a kitchen of the era! The food, and John’s relationship to it and how he uses it to speak to the lady of the manor, is lovingly detailed, much more so, really, than the people.

Food was not always plentiful, however. It was easy to starve back then. The stark difference between the incredible plenty of the start of the story versus what they have to deal with when the Roundhead soldiers steal the food from the manor and destroy what they cannot take shows how dramatically life can change. John falls back on how he and his mother lived in the woods, and on what he learned from the book of the Feast. He is the hero of the tale, for all the people living on the manor.

What the Feast was is never made clear. It’s like a myth of a Golden Age, when all were equals and food was plentiful. Was it a pagan community that had existed in the woods before Christians arrived? Was it a myth to comfort the reader, a dream to hold onto? Did it have a direct bearing on John’s ancestors? Was the book a semi-magical teaching aid that allowed John to excel in the manor kitchens later? In the end, it doesn’t matter. It allowed John to hold on and to save the manor.

‘John Saturnall’s Feast’ is a story of cycles and renewals, both earthly as the wheel of the year turns and spiritually, as human hope and happiness comes up again and again. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle. Spiegel & Grau, 2012

Pepper, a guy who is a bit of a trouble maker but harmless is put into a psychiatric hospital even though he is not mentally ill. That’s bad enough, but there is a monster that roams the halls at night and kills inmates. Sounds like a cross between ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and a Stephen King novel. That was enough to convince me to read it. I expected a creepy story; I did not expect a book about large themes that engaged the heart. But that is what this novel is.

Pepper is taken to the psychiatric ward of New Hyde, a grossly under funded New York city hospital, because he took a swing at three plainclothes policemen in the process of trying to scare off the stalker ex-husband of his neighbor. Because it’s the end of shift, and they won’t get paid overtime for doing paperwork, they dump him for a 72 hour psychiatric hold, which requires only a few minutes of their time. This by itself would be the stuff of a Kafka story, but things rapidly get much, much worse. Pretty soon Pepper has been drugged (Haldol, an antipsychotic, and lithium, a mood stabilizer, given without a diagnosis or even an indication of his needing them), put in restraints for days, given tranquilizers so heavy duty he has no recollection of time passed, and visited by the monster. New Hyde isn’t a place where patients get treatment. It’s a place where they are warehoused. Few walk out the door. Everyone is drugged into submission. If the drugs don’t take the spirit out of an inmate there, the boredom will- their sole source of entertainment is a single TV set. There are no activities and the food is nearly inedible. Things couldn’t get much worse, could they? Hold on to that thought.

A monstrous Minotaur stalks the halls at night. It’s real; the staff sees it, too. In the process of discovering its secret, Pepper will have to make his way through a labyrinth, without a ball of string to help him find his way back. Pepper will also have to learn a lot about himself and grow up, going from somewhat narcissistic doofus to a caring person who thinks of others. The story is as much about people, relationships, race, society, and cruelty as it is about horror.

The novel is gripping, although it has some oddities. The omniscient narrator frequently breaks the 4th wall, speaking to the reader directly and inserting rants about society that I thought would have been better shown to us than hitting us over the head with them- in fact, the story itself pretty well shows them to us anyway. In a way, those interludes are amusing, but they do break the mood. The end left me with questions about how the revealed monster could have done the things it did. But these are minor quibbles; the book is an excellent blend of horror and literary fiction. 


Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey, Interviews Selected and Edited by Karen Wilkin. Harcourt 2001

This is a sort of mini-autobiography of artist/writer Edward Gorey (1925-2000), presented through the medium of interviews that took place over the years from 1973 to 1999. Edward Gorey has- and has had, for many years- a cult following for his slightly skewed, morbid but funny books. Working almost exclusively in pen and ink, his drawings most often present a late Victorian or Edwardian setting, frequently drawn with lush detail- particularly the backgrounds- where something is just off. Gardens contain plants that eat people; strange looking guests appear uninvited, people die off constantly. But Gorey was not just interesting for his work; he was a bona fide eccentric, dressing in sneakers, ankle length fur coats, and lots of chunky jewelry. And, of course, his cats. He loved his cats above all things, allowing them to do their will unimpeded, and left his estate to animal charities.

Telling a person’s life through interviews results in being able to see what Gorey thought about from various times in his life. A lot of things didn’t change; his voracious appetite for reading, his lack of need for human contact, his artistic style. Some things did; he moved away from New York City permanently because the one thing that held him there, the ballet, evolved into something he no longer cared for.

Because interviewers tend to ask the same questions as each other, there is a lot of repetition in the book. Throughout the years, he tends to answer them the same way every time. It would have been hard to edit all the repetitions out, and it’s easy enough to skim past those sections. But even with the repetitions, each interview reveals something just a little different about Gorey. The book has illustrations from his various works scattered throughout. It’s a fun, interesting book that’s fast to read. 


The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow. Night Shade Books, 2012

This is as good a collection of horror as you’re going to get. The book starts with Stephen King and ends with Peter Straub, and the authors in between are no slouches, either. There was only one story I didn’t like (Straub’s ‘The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine’) and that’s not because it’s a bad story; it’s just not a style I care for.

The stories are all over the map in terms of style; Margo Lanagan’s ‘Mulberry Boys’ is set in a sort of alternate world, a sort of fantasy/horror cross; Littlewood’s ‘Black Feathers’ rather reminded me of Bradbury; Laird Barron’s story put me in mind of Algernon Blackwood and I don’t think that was just because the name of the story is ‘Blackwood’s Baby’. Some are set in cities; some in the remote woods. This collection shows us horror in every setting. The one that I found the most unsettling was ‘The Moraine’ by Simon Bestwick, where a husband and wife get trapped on a mountainside by heavy fog, only to discover that it’s not just the exposure to cold they need to worry about. The horror in that one comes from a direction that one would never think of and, yes, we do have areas of moraine on the hill on the back of the property…

It’s not often I find an anthology that is so even in quality all the way through. I highly recommend this one! 

The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume, Tilar J. Mazzeo. HarperCollins, 2010

Chanel No. 5 is the world’s best selling perfume- and has been for decades. It’s been so popular for so long, in fact, that it’s actually become a sort of cultural icon- a symbol of luxury, capable of being recognized by the bottle shape, even by those who have never smelled the juice inside. This book is the ‘biography’ of No. 5.

I have a great interest in perfume, so I had high hopes for this book. As I made my way through it, though, I kept feeling like I’d read it before. I hadn’t, but I had read a biography of Coco Chanel a number of years ago. Unlike many modern fragrances which are created by committee (independent niche perfumes excepted), the story of No. 5 is closely tied to Chanel’s life. The majority of the story of No. 5 IS the story of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. It had great personal meaning for her; supposedly it combined scents from her past- rich flowers from around the convent school she grew up in, clean sheets, and the sweaty body of her great love, Boy Capel.

There are a great many myths out there about No. 5, and this book lays them to rest. It wasn’t the first perfume to use synthetic ingredients- not by a long shot. It wasn’t the first perfume to use aldehydes. And it wasn’t even a new perfume- it was a remake of one made for Russian royalty.

It’s an interesting story, how this one fragrance has held up all these years, despite business infighting, world wars, lack of (and even disappearance of) raw materials, terrible decisions, and changing tastes. But the book is repetitious- the author repeats the same facts chapter after chapter. It would have been a much better book had it been shorter. And it really never does discover the final secret- what is it about this scent that has made it survive so well?

Park Lane, by Francis Osborne. Vintage Books, 2012

This book follows two women who live in a mansion on Park Lane: Bea, the single, recently jilted, daughter who still lives at home, and Grace, working as a housemaid despite her secretarial training because her lower class, northern accent bars her from London office work. Both Grace and Bea have secrets; Grace has told her family that she’s doing respectable office work rather than being a maid; Bea is joining her aunt as a follower of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, while Bea’s mother has long supported the non-violent suffragists. Bea and Grace are at the opposite ends of the social hierarchy in the house- and personality. Bea is an excitement junkie; loving fast cars and motorcycles, the thrilling fear at the suffragette rallies, fast ambulance driving practically on the front, and meeting a man who is ‘not of her class’. Grace seeks safety and worries constantly about not living up to family expectations.

Divided into years, the story covers 1914 to 1923 (with a gap between 1918 and 1923). This is a tumultuous age in England; WW I, socialism and the women’s suffrage movement all changed the lives of rich and poor alike. There is violence at the suffragette rallies, incredible loss of life in the trenches of WW I, post traumatic stress for both men and women (who drive ambulances in the war zones and nurse the torn up men), class differences come to mean a *little* less, and women gain more freedom well before they get the vote.

I enjoyed the book- I find the era fascinating (while a fan of Downton, I first was introduced to the era when PBS ran ‘The Forsyte Saga’ way back around 1970) and Osborne knows the time intimately- she had to, to write the brilliant biography ‘The Bolter’- and she has a great power of description. But I feel the book could have been better. Bea comes off as rather hard and it’s difficult to sympathize with her. Grace likable enough, but passages about things she goes through that should make us terrified for her are a bit flat. One character who connects the two women, Grace’s brother Michael, seems like he was created only to connect them- he’s introduced as a socialist, a budding writer, but he doesn’t really do anything with it. A subplot about sneaking books out of the house to him starts out extremely tense but is allowed to peter out to nothing. Because of these faults, I’m afraid I can only give the book four stars. But remember that this is Osborne’s first fiction book- when that’s taken into consideration, it’s pretty great. 

The Broken Lands, by Kate Milford. Clarion Books, 2012

This book is set in an alternate history New York of 1877 and populated with a diverse and appealing cast of characters. It’s a fantasy, a battle of good vs. evil, and a coming of age tale. And it’s magical. It captured me almost instantly.

A force of evil is coming to New York, and his advance troops- a couple of supernatural beings- are planning on delivering the city to him. But they aren’t the only supernatural beings in the city, and when some of them get wind of the plot, a small group forms to stop them. It’s a diverse group: people with magical powers, teen aged orphans, and a journalist who actually existed, Ambrose Bierce. The teenagers risk their lives numerous times and have a huge learning curve to develop the skills that will allow them to take on the evil beings, but while they question their ability to do the job (and their sanity for trying it), they persevere. It’s a large cast of characters, but the main ones are Sam, a 15 year old card sharp, and Jinn, a young maker of explosives who travels with a fireworks show.

Milford tackles –lightly- some of the social issues of the day that would have affected the characters, like race and class prejudice. Jinn is a Chinese girl, Sam is poor, one character is black and poor, and one half black- but thankfully she has money. Not that that protects her entirely from the nastiness of bigots. There is also the issue of how poor Chinese girls could end up treated when there was no one to protect them, feet bound and used as slaves. These things are treated casually and not much is made of them -it’s just how it was then – but it’s there. The author has not tried to clean up the world of 1877 and make it look like 2012, and I think that’s a very good thing.

The characters are appealing and well done, and the plot is compelling, but Milford’s genius is in description. The places come alive with sounds, textures and smells. The magic becomes real in her hands, and I was reluctant to leave her world when the book ended.