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.