Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Enterprise of Death, by Jesse Bullington. Orbit Books, 2011

This is historical fantasy like I’ve never read before. When a ship wreck leaves teenagers Awa, a Moorish slave, Omorose, her harem girl master, and Halim, a eunuch, stranded on what is probably the Rock of Gibralter, they are found, imprisoned, and trained by a necromancer. His attendants- including his mistress- are animated corpses ranging from the recently dead to skeletons and they prevent any escape. In the end, only Awa is left alive as the necromancer’s protégé. He leaves her for ten years to await a horrible fate, which she hopes to avert by finding the necromancer’s book- which could be anywhere.

Set around 1500, Awa has three strikes against her as she searches Europe for the book: she’s Moorish, she’s a lesbian, and she’s a necromancer. The Spanish Inquisitors don’t like any of those things, and neither does the general population of the time.  But thankfully not everyone has these prejudices, and she finds a few friends who help her along the way as she searches graveyards, fights a demon, is hunted by Omorose and an Inquisitor, and gets caught up in battles.

I really enjoyed the story, but I suspect not all will. There is lots of vividly described gore, lots of sex (including with the dead), and most of the characters can’t utter a sentence without swear words in it, most often the F bomb and frequently the verboten C bomb. But watching the characters grow- especially Awa- through the story is engaging and it’s a fine comrades-in-arms chanson de geste. A few of the characters are plucked from history, such as Paracelsus, and Awa’s friend the artist and mercenary Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, and that, along with reference to the rulers and battles of the time, allow the reader to have a sense of the time and place. I stayed up late reading this one. 


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, by Neil Young. Blue Rider Press, 2012

‘Waging Heavy Peace’ is Neil Young’s 500 page autobiography. He used no ghostwriter or collaborator; he just sat down and started typing in such an easy, conversational style that the reader can imagine themselves sitting down with him in front of a fire, listening to him talk.

The book covers his life from childhood to present; his music, his friends, his failed relationships, his children, his fellow musicians, his health (lots of problems), his love of toy trains and big old 1950s and ‘60s cars, and his two current projects: Lincvolt, an old Continental turned into an electric car; and Pono (originally PureTone), a super high quality music system that can be streamed. It’s a bit of a ramble; he jumps from the here and now- what is happening with the Lincvolt project, with Pono- to his early days, starting out in music; then to a reverie about The Horse, as he refers to Crazy Horse, his long time band, which he speaks of as an entity that is more than the people who make it up. He mentions more than once that, on his doctor’s advice, he has quit smoking pot and drinking. His father had dementia, and the doctor has seen a shadowy ‘something’ on a brain MRI. He points out that since he quit, he has not written one bit of music, and you can tell there is some fear there that this dry spell might be more than a spell. But he’s still got lots of projects going; even if he was to never write another note of music he’d still be busy for the next 40 years at least. I do hope that does not turn out to be the case, though!

More than once I got lost as to what point in time Young was writing about after a sudden switch, which forced me to go back a couple of pages and see where I’d missed the transition, but it’s small price to pay for this journey through his past. I found the passages about his music the most interesting, how the songs related to things that were going on in his life. He wrote ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, and ‘Down By the River’ in one feverish day while he had a bad case of the flue. Another album was written while he waited for the operation to repair a brain aneurysm. The sheer volume of things Young has accomplished is amazing: all the music, the benefit performances, the Bridge School, Farm Aid, his work on model train advancements, Lincvolt, Pono, creating ways for his quadriplegic son to be included in everything the family does. He is an inspiration. Long may he run. 


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans. Three Rivers Press 2007

George’s marriage is ending because he cannot bring himself to touch his newborn son- even though he loves the child. His therapist suggests that he writes in a journal to try and uncover the reason; the ensuing outpouring is a tale of horror from when he was eleven years old. Dealing with the recent and unexpected death of his father and other changes in his household, he becomes haunted by his Friend, an entity that looks just like him- an entity that causes violence to happen to people. The question is: Is the Friend real, and a demon, or is George mentally ill and performing the violence himself from some subconscious need? The authorities believe the latter, but friends of George’s father believe the former, because of beliefs the father held. A tug of war ensues for the right to help George; it becomes psychiatrist versus religion. Who is right?

The story is creepy and you just never know if George is mentally ill or if he is truly possessed. Just as you’re convinced he’s mentally ill, an event happens that is definitely supernatural- an event seen by two other people. This introduces a third option- that there is a poltergeist, activated by George’s subconscious turmoil.

This book is a horror story that reminds me a lot of some of what was written in the 70s- The Exorcist, The Omen. It has the same ability to make the skin crawl because of the uncertainty as to what is real- and how far the violence and evil may go. I’m surprised that no one has made a movie of this yet. 


Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Concubine’s Children: The Story of a Chinese Family Living on Two Sides of the Globe, by Denise Chong. Viking, 1995

This is a family biography, the story of a family split by an ocean and by different ways of life. It’s a sad tale of prejudice, war, and brutality, as well as of love.

Chan Sam had a wife and land in southern China in the 1920s, but word was that one could make enough money at ‘Gold Mountain’- Canada or the USA- for a person to set themselves up for life. So Chan Sam went to Canada to make his fortune. He didn’t like being alone- there were very, very few women in the Chinatowns at the time. He acquired a concubine from China: a 17 year old May-ying, who was basically sold. Chan didn’t have the money to pay for her, so he made a deal with a tea house owner: the girl would be Chan’s concubine, but during the days and evenings she would work at the tea house to pay off her own purchase price. That’s not an auspicious start for a relationship.

As time went on, May-ying had two baby girls. Chan wanted them educated in China, and between the two of them they had made enough money to go home for a while. When Chan Sam and May-ying returned to Canada, her daughters remained in China with Chan’s wife. They returned just in time for May-ying’s third child to be born on Canadian soil. It wasn’t the hoped for son that would have given her some prestige in the family, but another daughter- worthless in her eyes. In time, Chan Sam returned to China without May-ying to try and sire a son on his wife. This left the young May-ying in the unenviable position of financially supporting not just herself and her daughter, but Chan Sam, his wife in China, and her two daughters over there. Not to mention the costs of the mansion (by rural Chinese village standards) that Chan Sam was building in his village. That’s a lot to expect of a young woman. Even after Chan Sam returned to Canada, but had separated from May-ying, he showed up every week to collect the money she had earned. Not that he was lazy; he did back breaking work in the shingle mills and at any other job he could find. Employment was severely limited for the Chinese in North America.

May-ying was a badly damaged person. She sought solace in alcohol and gambling, and abused her daughter both physically and emotionally. I was horrified by the way she treated her, but the circumstances of May-ying’s life might have broken anyone. Thankfully, the daughter, who took the English name Winnie, had the inner reserves to survive, concentrating on school and getting away from home. She succeeded in doing so, through hard work and marriage, and brought up a great family. The author is Winnie’s second daughter.

After 50 years, the Canadian sister and the Chinese sister finally managed to meet in a 4 day visit that brought tears to my eyes. But what really hit an emotional chord was the way the Chinese family viewed May-ying: basically ignoring the money she’d sent for years, they saw her only as a very bad wife who brought only misery to Chan Sam. They were only given half the story.

It’s a very sad story of the miserable lives the Chinese in North America lived during the first half of the 20th century thanks to prejudice, and an even sadder one that as bad as those lives were, they were considered worth while because monetarily it was even worse in China. I’ve read a number of books about the Chinese in North America, and this one is the grimmest. But it’s a story I couldn’t put down and stayed up half the night reading. 


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, 2011

This is a magical little book, a tale of unusually talented children, time travel and monsters, illustrated with black and white photographs. Sixteen year old Jacob is devastated when his grandfather, Abe Portman, dies in his arms, killed by.. something. Everyone says it was dogs, but Jacob saw a humanoid being that even his friend standing right there didn’t see. Jacob comes to think that perhaps Abe’s wild stories of an orphanage on a tiny Welsh island filled with children who could levitate, or lift huge boulders, or create fire in their hands, and that he killed monsters, just might be true after all.

Circumstances make a trip to Wales possible-encouraged by Jacob’s therapist. Once Jacob arrives on the island his grandfather spent time on during WW II, things turn out to be even weirder –and more dangerous- than his grandfather described.

This is a lovely coming of age story as Jacob is forced to grow up abruptly. He’s faced with things that not only endanger friends but challenge his entire world view. This story has been compared to the X-Men’s school for mutants, but Miss Peregrine really doesn’t train the kids to use their talents to fight; she’s content to keep them alive and safe, isolated from the world. It’s got a touch of Shangri-La, and a bit of the feel of Gaiman, but it’s totally original. I hear there is a sequel in the works, which makes me very happy. 


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Scent of Darkness, by Margot Berwin. Pantheon Books, 2013

Evangeline spends every summer with her grandmother, Louise, because her single mother doesn’t want her around. Louise lives in a stone house in a tiny town, hanging out with her Tarot reading friend and making scents. While Louise loves Evangeline and teaches her many things, she never lets her into her workroom. That area is closed to her until Louise dies and leaves her house to 18 year old Evangeline.

Evangeline, arriving at the house the day after she graduates from school, finds a young man sitting at the kitchen table- it’s the only quiet place he has found to study for med school. Gabriel is a beautiful young man, and Evangeline is drawn to him and allows him to continue coming to the house to study. But there is a problem: Gabriel has a girlfriend.

Louise has left Evangeline another item: a tiny vial of ruby glass with a small bit of scent, with a note: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change” Evangeline feels her life sucks, so how can she resist? Of course she opens it and applies the scent, which penetrates her skin and becomes one with her. The scent starts coming off her in waves, even several showers and days later.

The scent makes her irresistible. Gabriel leaves his girlfriend for her, strangers are drawn to her, women put their noses in her hair, cats and dogs want to get close. Suddenly, Evangeline is the special girl that she has never been. But being universally attractive has its problems- bad is attracted along with good. Evangeline must decide between bad and good, while trying to decide if she is loved for herself, or just for her magical scent. What is real and what isn’t?

This is a coming of age story in magical realistic style. Evangeline has come to the point in her life where she must find her own identity. The author paints her as an empty vessel into which the scent is poured; Evangeline has no friends, no interests, no ambitions. Will she allow the scent to continue to be all she is, or will she chose to fill herself with something more?

The story itself is interesting; the scent is a unique idea. But Evangeline herself never came to life for me; her lack of interests and drive made her flat. Gabriel isn’t very deep either; he exists to study for med school and to love Evangeline. The villain is well done; he is warped and made my skin crawl. I give this one 4 stars. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kiss of Steel, by Bec McMasters. Sourcebooks, 2012

I picked this book up at the library because of the steampunk aspects. It is set in a steampunk type universe- an alternate 19th century England which can’t be called Victorian because the queen is named Alexandra- with advanced medicine and mechanical men, but the steampunk aspects are definitely background, not the main event. It’s actually a paranormal romance between a human woman and a… well, not quite a vampire yet.

In McMaster’s world, the need to feed on blood is caused by a virus. The infected can live for many years with accelerated healing and enhanced speed and strength, but ultimately they succumb to ‘the fade’, where they turn pale, lose their hair and also lose control of their minds. These demented monsters are what the people of this world call vampires. The upper class keeps tight control of the virus; they only allow members of the elite to become infected because of the advantages it provides for decades. The infected are known as ‘blue bloods’ because of the color their blood becomes after infection- a little play on our own use of the term!

Blade is a rogue blue blood who runs the Whitechapel district, the part of London that is home to thieves, prostitutes, murderers and fugitives from the law. Honoria is one of those fugitives, running from an evil duke who basically feels he *is* the law. In addition to keeping herself hidden, Honoria has to protect and feed her younger sister and brother- a brother with a secret of his own.

What happens between Blade and Honoria is fairly predictable: they meet; they are both disagreeable even though they are irresistibly drawn to each other sexually. But they aren’t childish about it, thankfully. They keep secrets from each other but not as badly as most romance characters. Their relationship makes progress throughout the book rather than waiting until the very end. And Honoria is honest with herself about how she feels, rather than going through 200 pages of denial.

There is a lot of action and some unexpected events. The world building holds together. I enjoyed the book a lot, although I have to say that if I had read about what Honoria’s nipples were doing one more time I might have screamed. I will read the next in the series if I see it at the library. There is a LOT of sex in the book, but it’s pretty well done. 


Friday, January 11, 2013

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. Harper Collins, 2013

I’m a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates, so when I discovered she had a new book out, I was excited. I was even happier when I found that it was another volume in the gothic family saga series she started many years ago with ‘Bellefleur’, which is one of my favorite books. The 660 page length didn’t bother me; she’s an author who, at her best, can fill that many pages with brilliance. I greeted the book like it was a big box of candy.  

I’m afraid I was disappointed. There are a lot of good things in the book-an extended patrician family living in Princeton is cursed. Voices say bad things to people, ghosts are seen, a shape shifting demon walks among them and leads them into tragedies. At the same time, they have to deal with the demons of their everyday life: racism, misogyny, classism, the Machiavellian politics of Princeton University. I liked having a narrator who only knew the story through the diaries and papers he discovered long after the events took place. Half the population of the book are real people: Woodrow Wilson is president of Princeton U, Grover Cleveland and his wife are part of the social circle, Upton Sinclair has a large part devoted to him, Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain all make appearances. But the lessons about society are a little heavy handed, and I’m really not sure that some of the historical characters added to the story. Upton Sinclair and Jack London didn’t seem to be connected to the family and the curse but took up a lot of pages. The only way I could see that they added to the story was by showing the reader what the attitudes of people of the time were, but I know enough history that I didn’t need that and I’m sure there are many other readers like me.

Oates has written a great story, but every story needs an editor. At least a hundred pages could have been cut without the story losing anything and the book would have been much sharper. I enjoyed the book, but got impatient with it frequently. 


Friday, January 4, 2013


In 2012, I read 100 books. Admittedly, some of them were short- mostly the ebooks- but still, my yearly total usually comes up somewhere around 75 or so. I didn't set out to read 100 books; it just happened. Okay, I didn't set out to do it until around mid-December when I realized how close I was to that number and decided what the heck, I'd shoot for it. I did purposely avoid starting a long book right then, putting off the newest Joyce Carol Oates novel until January first. I finished number 100 around 9 PM on New Year's Eve.

I doubt I'll reach that number again, unless I'm invalided in some way. It's not really an achievement- I wasn't reading the 100 greatest books in history or anything like that. There was some nonfiction and some literary novels, but there was also a lot of steampunk and horror in there. But, still, some weird ego place in me went "Hey, cool!"

Manhunt in Pere Lachaise, by Claire Splan. 2012

An essay rather than a story, the author writes of her experience at Pere Lachaise Cemetary in Paris, where many famous people are buried. She is in search of the grave of Victor Noir, hero in France for daring to criticize Napoleon’s cousin. According to lore, anyone who touches the tomb of Noir will be married within the year. On her way to his tomb through the 118 acre park, she passes the graves of many of the famous and infamous interred there.  Many of the tombs and monuments are touching and even lovely.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a pretty little piece, almost a prose poem.


Spiders, edited by J.W. Brown. May December Pub. 2012

While I value the place of spiders in the world and the work they do in the garden, they scare the bejesus out of me. There is something about the speed with which they can run or sail, the ease with which they bite, and the squishiness of some of their bodies that just puts me over the edge. So of course I read an anthology of horror stories with a spider theme.

The entire e-book gave me the willies, but some were worse- better?- more effective than others. Christine Morgan’s ‘The Fate Spinners’ is one of the scariest things I’ve read, because I’ve had spiders come down from the ceiling onto me when I’m sleeping and to the arachnophobe, it’s only a small step to giant spiders coming down from the ceiling. There are multiple stories where people are held captive in spider filled basements, but they each have a different take on it. The spiders aren’t always evil; sometimes they are the persecuted, wanting revenge and sometimes wanting only to live. ‘The Golden Rule’ is one of those stories where you can see where it’s going, but go along for the ride anyway just to see how horribly it turns out for the people. ‘The Rules of Magic’ has a sense of irony in it, like what would result if O. Henry had written horror fiction. Sometimes, as in the last two stories, the spiders come in disguise and lure their victims in by seeming harmless. Those may be the worst, because you trust the faces they wear right up until the end.

If you like horror and are scared of spiders- or at least admit to their possibilities as monsters- this book will be right up your alley. 


The Middle Ground, by Margaret Drabble. Borzoi Books, 1980

“The Middle Ground” is basically a novel without a plot, a book driven by the characters. A middle aged group of British spouses, lovers and friends seeks to find their ways through mid-life crises time.

Kate, a journalist, sees her job changing and maybe going away; she has been a writer of pieces about women, their problems and how society is wronging them. She had a liaison for many years with the husband of her best friend, with the blessings of said friend, as said friend didn’t want to have sex with the man any longer. That’s over now. Her children have grown up and no longer need her. What is next for her? What is next for her friends, who are also at changing points in their lives?

While mainly about the changes of middle age, this novel was written from a feminist viewpoint in the era when so many authors were writing feminist novels. Thankfully, this one has men who are not all selfish idiots. Well, her ex-lover is a selfish idiot, but the others aren’t. Everyone in this story is flawed but with a basic core of decency and respect for others; this is not a book of good and evil caricatures but of realism. The book follows them as they go about their everyday live, lives full of the same pains, problems and joys we all share. Though far from being Drabble’s best work, ‘Middle Ground’ is a warm paean to friendship and survival.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tentacles An Anthology, by Eva Lefoy, Don Larson & Haley Whitehall. Smashwords, 2012

‘Tentacles’ is a small gem of an anthology. The four stories are all written around the theme of tentacles, but that is the only thing they have in common; all give you the creeps in a very different way. ‘Solar Pioneer’ is a short space opera where an attempted rescue operation goes horribly awry- ‘Alien’ has nothing on this story! ‘Mr. Sweede’ doesn’t have the crashing action of the first story; instead, it has a horror that creeps over you in a near physical way. ‘Zaural’ is a work of hard science fiction; it’s not horror but has a kind of weird beauty to it, while ‘The Sacrifice’ is, while horrifying in a way, quite touching and funny, too. If you have a love for the slimy, creeping tentacle, read this book!