Thursday, August 29, 2013

Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean. DC Comics, 2012

This book gathers the three part graphic novel story arc of Black Orchid into one paperback. Originally published around 1990, this the origin story of a DC character that had been around for years but little used. The original character was a woman of mystery; she never even had a secret identity given to her. This book explains why: she had no human identity, but was created by placing the genes of a specific woman, Susan Linden, into an orchid plant. Black Orchid was not born, but grown.

It’s a very violent story of vengeance and greed; film noir meets superhero story. Other characters from the DC universe are in it; Lex Luthor places a large part, while others make only brief appearances. It’s very different from what I would have expected from DC comics in that era; it’s not just a superhero story, it’s a very personal one. Black Orchid’s relationship with the plant world in the Amazon is almost spiritual. The art is stunning; McKean’s use of light and dark is beautiful.


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Deeply Odd, by Dean Koontz. Thorndike Press, 2013

This is the latest volume in the Odd Thomas series, about a young man who can see the lingering dead and has the ability to find people by a sort of psychic magnetism. Trouble seems to seek him out, and his conscience won’t let him step away from it when he can possibly help someone. This book starts out with Odd walking to the store, only to run into a someone he tags ‘the rhinestone cowboy’, a trucker who tries to kill him right in the grocery store because Odd was looking in his truck. When Odd touches the trucker, he sees a man torching some children, and he knows he has to follow the rhinestone cowboy to prevent the deaths of innocents. With the help of the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock and a little old lady with a 12 cylinder Mercedes limo, he goes into action against the most dangerous foes he’s faced yet, a demon worshipping cult. He also learns that the world is a far, far weirder place than even he thinks it is.

Koontz writes a find blend of horror and black humor. Written in the first person from Odd’s point of view, he gets to make dry comments about society that wouldn’t be possible in a different format. He describes things in a these are just the facts manner that is none the less very humorous, a relief from the suspense of the rest of the writing. I love this series, and I see I’ve missed a couple. I must remedy that before the next one comes out- one that may be the last of the series. 

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Pantomime, by Laura Lam. Strange Chemistry, 2013

Iphigenia Laurus (who prefers to be called Gene) is the daughter of one of the noble houses on Ellada. She is being taught the usual pursuits of a noble lady- embroidery and the like- which bore her to tears. She prefers reading, or the company of her older brother, Cyril, and running through the woods with him, climbing trees and scaffolding in the city. At the same time, she loves dancing and lovely dresses. Her parents have her future all planned out for her: a proper marriage that will bring more fortune to her family. When she finds out that something awful is planned for her before her entry into the marriage market, she wants to flee.

Micah Grey is a teenaged runaway, trying to join the circus. To prove they should take him in, he does some crazy things on the high wire- despite never having been on one before. He impresses the aerialists, Arik and Aenea, enough that he is taken in, a new member of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic.

I’m not giving anything away by letting out that Gene and Micah are one and the same – you can figure it out in the very beginning of the story. That’s not all that unusual a situation in a YA story where there is a teen runaway. But Micah/Gene has a secret that, if discovered by the wrong people, could get hir beaten, ousted or killed.

This is fantasy, an incredible coming of age story where the protagonist has a lot more to discover about them self than the usual teen, a circus story, and a love triangle all brought together beautifully by the author. In a cast of fleshed out, well drawn characters, Micah/Gene is a brilliant creation. I eagerly await the next book in the series! 

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The Small Hand and Dolly: Two Novels, by Susan Hill. Vintage Books, 2010, 2012

Susan Hill is the author of “The Woman in Black”, and so I expected some very creepy ghost stories. With “The Small Hand” she delivers beautifully. A man, lost while driving to a client’s house, accidentally comes across a deserted house and garden in the English countryside and he feels drawn to it; while there, he experiences a small, childlike hand grasping his own- except there is no child there. Most people would want no more to do with the premises at this point, but the man- Adam Snow- delves into the history of the property with the aid of his client’s wife. While she does this, though, he finds that the invisible child has followed him- unusual for a ghost as they seem to be tied to a property. And the child keeps trying to pull him into very dangerous situations. Who is this child, and why has he attached himself to Adam? A discover by the client’s wife gives him a clue not just to who the child is, but to his own past. The ending was a great surprise to me; it was not what I was expecting. A very good, creepy story.

“Dolly”, on the other hand, left me cold, and not in the good, scary way. Cousins Edward and Leonora are sent to spend a summer at their Aunt Kestral’s house in the English countryside. Kestral has no children and has no experience dealing with them; the only other person in the house is her housekeeper Mrs. Mullen, who actively dislikes children. The cousins are pretty much on their own and it soon becomes apparent that Leonora is a budding sociopath, just like her mother. When Aunt Kestral, aided by Edward, attempts to give a nice birthday present to Leonora it’s not the right doll and she rejects it, smashing on the stone floor. That action is to have consequences forty years down the road.

Evil inanimate object stories can be very scary, and dolls can creepy just sitting still. There are eerie moments- rustling sounds and crying in the night- and Hill is the master of atmosphere. But somehow the story just didn’t hang together. It’s more a story of “Well, that’s truly unfortunate” than horror. 

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This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. This in no way altered by review. 

The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD. W.W. Norton, 2013

This book is a very thorough overview of what is available out there for mental health care in the USA. While there is a large section that describes the various mental disorders, what symptoms the patient is apt to display, and what therapies (both medications and talk therapies) are useful for those disorders, this is not a self help book – there are no work sheets or exercises for the mentally ill. This is for helping the family (or the patient) find professional aid. This book can help save precious time and money by seeking the correct treatment right off the bat. If you have a family member or friend with a mental illness and they aren’t getting help, this can help guide you.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Clockwork Heart, by Liesel Schwarz. Del Ray, 2013

After reading the first book in this trilogy, ‘A Conspiracy of Alchemists’ I had hopes for the second installment. Sadly, the things that disappointed me in the first book didn’t get any better in this one. Elle Chance, the main character, now married to Hugh Marsh, has not matured. She still refuses to take advice or even listen to people, acting like a sullen 14 year old. As the Oracle, she can hear the voices of all the Oracles before her- a source of great wisdom- and she banishes them because she is tired of listening to them. Hugh, with his powers bound because of his marriage, is bored with life as a mortal, especially with Elle still running her airship business; a number of reviewers have condemned Elle for continuing to fly after her marriage, but Hugh knew she was an avid pilot before he married her! And the couple hasn’t learned to talk to each other.

The ideas presented in the story are good- Hugh has gone missing, and someone is kidnapping people, replacing their hearts with clockwork, and using them as a zombie army. But while there is a lot of action, it frequently fails to thrill. It’s like the author was just getting it out of the way, doing a job. Adele the absinthe fairy has a part, but it’s an unsatisfactory part. Baroness Belododia the vampire plays a large part in this novel, but she’s not enough to save the story. It’s just… flat.

I’m torn about reading the next installment when it comes out. Will Elle and Hugh mature and become a team? I’m not sure I care enough to find out. I probably will end up reading it, because there is so much potential here, but it will be with some trepidation. 

This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. The fact that I got it from them in no way influenced my review. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through it and buy the book, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influences my review. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

The most people think of hallucinations as things on people suffering from a psychosis have, it looks like the majority of hallucinations aren’t caused by psychosis at all. There are all sorts of hallucinations that arise from all sorts of disorders, including migraine, Parkinson’s, sensory deprivation (including loss of sight for whatever reason), and falling asleep and waking up- this last type can be terrifying.

The book starts with one disorder, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes occurs in people who have lost their sight. Suddenly, they will begin to see again- except they are the only people who can see the things. Once told that the people (or whatever) are not real and that there is nothing wrong with them, some patients actually find the illusions interesting and amusing and even miss them when the hallucinations abate.

Those things we ‘see’ in the dark as we’re falling asleep are hypnagogic hallucinations; they usually have no emotional impact. Hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis, however, can be terrifying. Occuring as the person wakes, these hallucinations happen with they eyes open and are projected into the external environment and seem real- the monster is in your bedroom. Add sleep paralysis, where the mind is awake but the body hasn’t gotten the message yet, and you can’t fight or escape from the monster, dubbed in the past as the Hag or the Night Mare.

Told in Sacks’ usual amusing but informative style, this book is rich in detail but easily understandable by the person with no neurological knowledge. In this book, Sacks tells us something of his own history with hallucinations due to drug use in the 60s. One doesn’t expect this sort of openness in a medical book and I found it amusing as well as instructional; he can look at the drugs from the point of view of both doctor and user, providing an unusual balance. As always with one of Sacks’ books, it’s not to be missed if you have an interest in the brain. 

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Goldcord Asylum, by Jude Starling.

Set in northwest England in the year 1866, this heartbreaking novel is of a woman put into a mental institution by her husband- a husband she never wanted. Ivy Squire, nee Greenlake (having to change her name was an irritation to her) was married by her parents to Benjamin Squire as a social and economic move; Squire’s mother, who made the match, only wanted someone decorative and fertile. Ivy was not consulted at all- not at all unusual for that time. Ivy, an avid reader and devoted to her invalid sister, had no interest in leaving home. But her odd ways had always been an embarrassment to her mother, and this marriage offer was a good arrangement in her eyes.

Sadly, her odd ways make her less than satisfactory to her new spouse and mother-in-law, and Ivy is revolted by her husband and his demands. When she finds secret ways to maintain some autonomy, her happiness proves short lived.

Ivy’s odd ways are simply Asperger’s syndrome, unheard of in the Victorian age. In our day, people with Asperger’s are just beginning to be accepted as normal (whatever that is); imagine how much worse it would have been back then, when every inconvenient female was considered to have a mental illness, as was every one who did not adhere closely to the prevailing way of life.

Problems at the institute make Ivy’s – and the other patient’s- situation worse. Enoch Gale, founder of Goldcord and Medical Superintendent, has secrets that would ruin him were they known. To add to Gale’s problems, the Commission in Lunacy, which oversees mental hospitals, is starting to frown on the fact that very few patients are released as cured. Dr. Ballard, new to Goldcord, and the new nurse, Tilly Swann, show promise of making humane changes, but can they do this before a panicked Gale destroys lives?

While told in the third person and weaving together the stories of Ivy, Ballard, Swann, Gale, and the Matron, Eugenia Harvey, the heart of the story is Ivy’s, told to Tilly Swann. Ivy comes through as a determined person who may not always make choices that everyone would but has to be admired for her strength, loving nature, and intellect. The characters all come to life on the page, but I felt I knew Ivy as a living, breathing person. A lot of research went into this book and the historical aspects are spot on. I very, very rarely do this, but I cried at the end of this story. I highly recommend this book. 


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My copy of Goldcrop Asylum was given to me by the author in return for a fair review; this in no way affected my review.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. Thorndike Press 2013

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is a collection of eight stories of magical realism. As with all story collections, some work better than others. The title story was nice but didn’t do much for me; the one I liked least was the very odd- but not in a good, creepy way- ‘Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating’ in which the spectator sport of watching whales eat krill is taken to the levels of American pro football fans. It was a funny idea, but it was too long by half.

The second best of the book, I feel, is ‘The Barn at the End of our Terms’, in which deceased American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses. With Rutherford B. Hayes as the main protagonist, they wonder why, and how, and some of them set out to escape. It’s a sad but humorous tale. The very best, though, is the horrific ‘Reeling for the Empire’, in which young Japanese girls go to work at a silk factory, only to find themselves given an odd tea and trays of mulberry leaves and locked in a large room. They find themselves transformed into human silk machines, each day hooked up to reeling machines that take it out of their bodies- thankfully, the author does not go into great detail about his aspect! But though prisoners, they discover a way to regain the freedom they’d thought to find by moving to work in the factory.  It’s a very satisfying story, and I came to love the protagonist.

All in all, it’s a worthwhile read, with more hits than misses. 

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. William Morrow, 2013

An unnamed, forty something man returns to the small Sussex town he grew up in for a funeral. With an hour to kill, he finds himself back on the lane he lived on when he was seven. It seems that the Hempstocks still live on the farm at the end of the lane; this was once the home of his first friend, eleven year old Lettie Hempstock. He only knew her for a few days, however, before she had her going away party and left for Australia to live with her father. But as he sits by the duck pond, he suddenly remembers: that’s not what happened. Not at all. And he remembers a lot more, too.

The narrator’s family (also unnamed; they could be any family) has fallen on hard times. Right after our hero’s seventh birthday party- to which no one shows up- they take in a boarder to help pay the mortgage. An opal hunter- whose first act is to accidentally run over the boy’s new kitten, he displaces the boy from his room, forcing him to share space with his little sister. This boy is a resourceful loner; he explores the land and reads a lot. But he’s not a miniature adult; he’s afraid of the dark and knows that asking adults anything is pretty useless. The opal hunter isn’t there long, though; one night he takes the family car, drives down the lane to the Hempstock farm, and kills himself with carbon monoxide. This is when the boy meets Lettie; her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock – a perfect maiden-mother-crone group.

It’s obvious right away that they possess magic; the boy takes this in stride. He loves mythology and fantasy, after all. Then they find that the opal hunter’s death has turned something bad loose into our world, and it’s up to the boy and the Hempstocks to fix things.

I love Gaiman’s work, but have never found it scary. This book had me scared for the people and unable to put it down- I read it in two stretches, only taking out time to sleep. Obviously, the narrator survived, but what about the others? This – thing- seems to have the power to destroy the world; certainly it is destroying the boy’s family and the other townspeople. What price will be paid to be rid of it?

In this book- which reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s work that featured kids- ordinary things become magical. A puncture wound in the foot becomes a hiding place and a passage. Fabric becomes alive. An ocean- not just any ocean, but the ocean from which all energy, matter and magic arises- fits in a duck pond or even smaller space. This is the way kids see the world at some point: a place where magic, wonder and terror is not just possible but an everyday occurrence. A father’s abuse is brought on by magic; food is extra delicious when prepared by magical women who just happen to show concern and affection for a mostly ignored boy.

The tale is full of wonder, and terror, and courage, and sadness. For most people, as they grow up, the magic falls victim to life. But it’s good to remember, at least once in a while, that it exists. This book proves that. 

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Conspiracy of Alchemists, by Liesel Schwarz. Ballantine, 2013

This steampunk novel, the first of a trilogy, introduces us to Elle Chance, owner of her own airship and daughter of a renowned inventor. To pay for her ship, she runs it as light freighter. Most companies won’t hire her, though, so she takes what she can get. So when she is offered an under the table job of transporting a small box from Paris to England, she takes it. No sooner does she do this, however, than trouble starts- and doesn’t stop for 400+ pages.

This is a 1903 where airships and horseless carriages are run on steam powered by mysterious (to me) spark reactors -I never figured out if that was magic, or science, or something in between. The world is divided into Light and Shadow, with fairies, vampires, warlocks, fauns, airship pirates and I’m not sure what else. For a long time, Light, the side of science and logic, has ruled, but members of the Shadow side aim to put an end to that soon- and to end a long time pact with some associates. Not only does Elle get embroiled in this fight by having the box, but it seems she has a talent that both sides want, too. Of course, there is the handsome, troubled hero, whom Elle finds attractive but cannot trust or get along with, Hugh Marsh, Lord Greychester.

While Elle seems to get past her troubles when she makes it safely home, that changes when her father is kidnapped and she goes out for blood. As she and Hugh try to rescue her father, the way this world works is unfolded for us and it’s an interesting world, with some interesting characters in it.

Sadly, Elle is sometimes not the most interesting of them. She starts out fine, brave, smart, and capable of making her own way in the world. But meeting Hugh seems to rob her of a part of herself and turn her into a teenager who reacts emotionally when she shouldn’t and refusing to listen to important things about herself and her family. I’m hoping that in the next volume she comes around and faces things as an adult. Everyone is entitled to scared and petulant moments, but when it becomes one’s personality, that gets irritating.

I’m also hoping to see more of some of the characters introduced in this book: Adele the absinth fairy, Baroness Belododia the (good) vampire, and Inut the half-faun boy. They made more of an impact that one would expect for the limited number of pages given to them, which is why I’m hoping they are given more space in Book Two. Which I will be reading. 

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A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd. Bantam Dell, 2013

Victorian era thief-taker (private detective) Charles Maddox has been working with is great uncle, also named Charles Maddox. Now, a stroke has rendered Maddox the elder incapable of doing business, so Maddox the younger takes on the latest case, which turns out to be a hire by Sir Percy Shelley, son of the Romantic poet, and his wife, Jane. It seems someone-namely Clair Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Wollstonecraft, the widow of Shelley, former lover of Lord Byron and probable lover of Shelley as well- is threatening to make public certain papers of the long dead poet unless . Sir Percy- and especially Jane, who has a shrine to the poet in the living room- do not wish anything to tarnish the reputation of Shelley senior. They want Maddox to find out what, exactly, she has.

Through the acting abilities of Nancy, a prostitute and friend of an informant Maddox has used before, Charles Maddox finds himself a roomer in Clairmont’s house. It doesn’t take him long to discover some of the papers. It doesn’t take long, either, for Clair to confront him about what he’s doing in the house. She tells her side of the story and makes a counterproposal. That should be about the end of it, right?

Not even close. This all takes place in the very beginning of the book. As Maddox discovers that there are missing pages in his uncles record books about a case concerning Shelley before, he looks deeper. And deeper. More papers turn up, more tales from the past are told. It seems that the poet’s life was very tangled, involving several women, several children who died, and just possibly murder. Nothing about Shelley, it seems, was ever as it appeared to be.

It’s an interesting story, and Shepherd has researched her subjects well. Her story is not one of alternative history but of things that could well have happened in the missing spaces of what was recorded. She’s caught the flavor of the era well. Sadly, I found the book hard to follow. Too many people of the same or similar name, too many contradictory backstories. Told by an omnipotent third party and several characters, there is sometimes little to go on when a shift is made between narrators. I also wondered about the inclusion of Molly, the housemaid; she seemed like an expendable afterthought, something thrown in to show that Maddox had some iota of a personal life. She would have made a lot more impart if her character had been fleshed out –I have to admit, however, that I have not read the first two books in the series and she may well have played a bigger role in those.

The ending of the novel, though- that is really well done and totally unexpected, and made the whole thing worthwhile. Just maybe it should have a few tweaks before going to press. 

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This book was given to me as part of the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

When Frost and Steketee first started investigating hoarding, they figured they wouldn’t find very many cases. To their surprise, they found many. The items hoarded ranged from fine arts to new items still in the packages to old newspapers to animals to garbage. What drives people to amass things like this? And where does the line between collector and hoarder fall?

Hoarding was formerly thought to be part of OCD; Frost and Steketee feel it’s a separate disorder. While OCD and hoarding can co-occur, the majority of hoarders fail to show signs of OCD. This probably explains why OCD can successfully treated, while hoarding is much more resistant to treatment. Forced removal of the hoard, ala ‘Hoarders’, never works and merely increases the stress the hoarder feels.

The authors cite numerous cases from their practice to show their treatment methods; it’s a very interesting book that offers hope to hoarders (and their families). 

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