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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-21 13:50
2018 Halloween Bingo: The Books So Far
Penhallow - Georgette Heyer,Ulli Birvé
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip,Dina Pearlman
Their Lost Daughters - Joy Ellis,Richard Armitage
The Wychford Poisoning Case - Anthony Berkeley,Mike Grady
Verdict of 13: A Detection Club Anthology - Ngaio Marsh,The Detection Club,Gwendoline Butler,Julian Symons
The Ballad of Frankie Silver - Sharyn McCrumb
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley, Emilia Fox
Nights At The Circus - Angela Carter,Adjoa Andoh
Ghosts: Edith Wharton's Gothic Tales - Edith Wharton,Corinna May,Tod Randolph,Jonathan Epstein,Alison Larkin,Jim Frangione
The Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett,Nigel Planer

... in the order in which they're appearing on my card (not the order in which they've read them).

 

Soooo ... in this year's twist on RL doing its best trying to throw a spanner in the works of Halloween Bingo fun, I've been spending the better part of the month either sitting around in conference rooms or glued to some piece of writing on my computer screen (or both).  Fortunately this has so far involved a fair amount of driving, too, so I've largely been able to shift my bingo reads to audiobooks ... without, however, also having a whole lot of time to write reviews.  Looks like right now is one of those moments where I might have a shot at catching up -- so let's give this a try, shall we?

 

In other words: Halloween Bingo 2018: the (mostly) audiobook version.

 

 


Georgette Heyer: Penhallow

On the face of it, your classic country house mystery, country estate and horse farm in Cornwall and all; but Heyer wrote this as a contract breaker, and boy, does it ever show.  Neither seekers after romance and after knights in shiny armour nor seekers of a genteel country house atmosphere need apply here, and what might be termed "a somewhat crotchety original" in any other book (including but not limited to Heyer's own), here is styled as a crass, meanspirited old family tyrant who likes nothing better than bullying each and every member of his vast and long-suffering family into submission and downright terror.  With the exception of two creations by Agatha Christie (Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot's Christmas and Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death), I can't think of any character in another mystery, Golden Age or not, who is so totally devoid of redeeming qualities.  However, while both of Christie's two infamous bullies -- who clearly come from he same mold as old Penhallow -- meet their ends fairly early on in the respective books and thus relieve both the reader and their families of their continued presence, we (and Penhallow's harrassed household) have to suffer until almost the 65% mark of this book until someone's nerves finally snap once and for all.  We actually get to witness the murder, so there's no great mystery as to whodunnit -- although I admit that for the longest time I kept hoping for a Christie-esque twist, but that was not to be. 

(Also, though this is a far cry from George R.R. Martin, be careful which of the other characters you invest your sympathies in ... though God knows, few enough of them deserve any empathy to begin with; but then, with old man Penhallow around, it's hard to see how any of them could have grown both a spine and halfway decent manners at all.)

(spoiler show)

There's some ambivalence as to the book's two LGBT characters -- one son of Penhallow's who is obviously modeled on Oscar Wilde and who, apart from a few witticisms, comes across rather negatively and as checking off pretty much every anti-gay cliché in the book, and a daughter who, apart from being a bit "bossy", is one of the few members of the younger generation endowed with a brain, a healthy dose of common sense, and the gumption to stand up to her father (albeit helped, no doubt, by the fact that she is also one of the few family members not financially dependent on the old man).

 

All in all, a far cry from your typical Heyer (or at least, from her mysteries -- can't speak to her Regency romances) -- I'm not sorry I read it, but as far as grumpy old patriarchs and bickering families go, I vastly prefer one of her Inspector Hemingway mysteries, Envious Casca (republished as A Christsmas Party).

 

 


Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

My first book by McKillip; a short(ish) fantasy tale substantially in the traditional mold with a strong female heroine -- a sorceress living on a mountainside high above the fighting human empires down in the plain; alone but for the company of a number of magical beasts.  At the risk of sounding jaded, the basic plotline (and the type of ending) is pretty much telegraphed from the very beginning; still, the characters are emphatically drawn, there are enough twists and turns over the course of the story to always ensure that the book held my attention, and I'm definitely interested in reading more books by McKillip in the future.

 

 


Mary Roberts Rinehart: Locked Doors

The second of Rinehart's "Nurse Hilda Adams" stories; in terms of setup, of the "woman in peril" kind of tale that Rinehart specialized in -- and which I'm usually not a fan of, but I'll gladly make an exception here.  Nurse Hilda is the epitome of what is called a "feisty" young woman in certain types of fiction: especially taking into account that this story was written shortly after the turn of the last century (published in 1914), she is independent (and independently-minded) and able to take care of herself to an extraordinary degree, and thus makes for an admirable protagonist.  Here she takes a position in a stately home where, as she soon finds out, bedroom doors are locked at night, beloved pets go missing, all the servants have recently left or been let go, and there seems to be a strange, slithering presence on the stairway at night and a mystery madwoman (or invalid) in, you guessed it, the attic -- but before you cry "Gothic cliché", beware ... just like Nurse Hilda, Rinehart actually had her feet planted firmly on the ground, and was also very much up to date with the state of medical knowledge and research, which in an unexpected way made this story an enjoyable companion read / listen to Jennifer Wright's decidedly less enjoyable Get Well Soon.  I guess at some point I should also read Rinehart's Circular Staircase, which I'm still not entirely sold on however, but I'll definitely read more of her Nurse Hilda stories.

 

 


Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters

Why, oh why did anybody think that this book's title (!!) needed an appendage such as "a gripping crime thriller with a huge twist" on Amazon (and likely thus also on every other site that draws its feed from Amazon and where there aren't any librarians to do away with this sort of nonsense) in order to generate proper sales?!  That sort of hype is, ordinarily, a sure fire turn-off for me, and it almost would have been here, too, had Their Lost Daughters not been reviewed favorably by friends whose opinions I trust (and, cough, I admit the fact that the audio version is narrated by Richard Armitage helped as well).  As a result, I'd almost have missed out on one of the best books I read all year ... and that makes me even madder at whoever was the eejit that came up with that super-hypey tag line.

 

Beyond the fact that this begins as a "missing girls" investigation, there is little I can say in terms of plot description that wouldn't be a huge spoiler, so let's just stick with the fact that Ellis draws the sombre, downright oppressing Fenlands setting very, very astutely and expressively, and her team of detectives (led by DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans) are among the most likeable, rounded, and overall believable investigators that have appeared on the mystery scene in recent years -- and I also very much like Marie's (Welsh) mother, who I hope is going to be a continued presence in the series, too.  That all said, and much as it pains me to admit it, the "huge twist" thing from Amazon's abominable tagline is actually true: even if you think you sort of see part of the solution coming, you don't clue into how it all hangs together until it's unraveled right under your very nose.  (And lest anyone say the solution is too outlandish to be true, there are several real life cases published in the past couple of years that featured decidedly more gruesome facts, and which may easily have inspired this book's solution; or at least, certain parts of it.)

 

 


Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Reviewed separately HERE.

 

 


Anthony Berkeley: The Wychford Poisoning Case

The fifth time, this year alone, that I've found myself running into a fictional incarnation of the (in)famous real life case of Florence Maybrick, the American-born Liverpool housewife convicted, in 1889, of having murdered her husband by administering to him a dose of arsenic obtained by soaking flypaper in water -- allegedly in aid of concocting a beauty cream.  Mrs. Maybrick's method, if indeed this was how her husband found his premature end, may have engendered several real-life copycats (including, most famously, just after the turn of the 20th century, Frederick Seddon and Herbert Rowse Armstrong ... if the medical evidence given at their respective trials is to be believed, that is), and British mystery writers have downright flocked to her footsteps ever since in fiction as well.  Agatha Christie used a variation of the Maybrick case as a basis for Crooked House; Anthony Rolls based Family Matters on pretty much every salient detail of the Maybrick story except for the flypaper bit; which in turn, however, makes a starring appearance in P.D. James's short story Great Aunt Ally's Flypaper (later republished as The Boxdale Inheritance), which features a very young Sergeant (Inspector-to-be) Dalgliesh and is included in my very first read of this year, the P.D. James short story collection The Mistletoe Murder (as the title indicates, a "holdover" from my 2017 Christmas reads), as well as in the Detection Club anthology Verdict of 13, which I read for this year's Halloween Bingo (see mini-review below).  Finally, also in that latter anthology, Christianna Brand has the real-life Mrs. Maybrick meet two other alleged, famous 19th century women poisoners in a story aptly entitled Cloud Nine.

 

No wonder, then, that Anthony Berkeley, like his fellow Detection Club members acutely aware of the criminal causes celèbres of his own and of bygone eras, would also seek inspiration in Mrs. Maybrick's legacy.  Martin Edwards makes the case, in The Golden Age of Murder, that Berkeley's books offer clues -- perhaps more so than the books of his fellow Golden Age mystery novelists -- to his own personality, experience, and outlook on life.  I haven't read enough books by Berkeley yet to make up my mind how much I think there is to this theory, but if The Wychford Poisoning Case is any indication indeed, Mr. Berkeley (despite his reportedly boisterous persona) was, deep down, a very reticent and private man ... and supremely uncomfortable around women, who are either "high" or "low", either vamp, stupid chicken, naughty girl, mother, MissMarpleSilverBradleyVane incarnate, or grand dame, and only in the last-mentioned cases accorded a halfway rounded, three-dimensional, individual personality (with some allowances made in favor of girls from a decent background, who have the makings of turning either into true ladies / grand dames, or into women detectives or fiction writers, or even into all of the above, later in life).  There are passages in this book that are redolent with blatant mysogyny, and yet, I hesitate to append this label wholesale ... more than anything, it seems to me that Berkeley very much wanted to, but simply didn't "get" women and, consequently finding himself rejected and dissatisfied (none of his several marriages were happy), resorted to the stereotype prevalent in his era anyway; essentially, the "sinner or saint" dychotomy.

 

That all being said, the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and notably this is not the only book where Berkeley's series detective, Roger Sheringham, comes into the case on the side of the accused woman and with the express intention to exonerate her from what he considers a rash and unjustified charge.  And while the true facts of the Maybrick case will almost certainly never be unraveled, it is just conceivable that Berkeley did, in fact, hit on the one solution that was closest to the historic truth.

 

 


Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon

Reviewed separately HERE.  Also a Flat Book Society read.

 

 


The Detection Club: Verdict of 13

An anthology published by the 1970s' incarnation of the Detection Club, edited by its then-president Julian Symons, featuring 13 short stories all premised, in a very loose sense, on the concept of a jury (even if it's only a jury of one).  Contributors include -- in addition to Symons -- P.D. James and Christianna Brand (see comments above, re: The Wychford Poisoning Case / Florence Maybrick), Gwendoline Butler, Dick Francis, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, Patricia Highsmith, Celia Fremlin, H.R.F. Keating, Michael Underwood, Ngaio Marsh, and Peter Dickinson.

 

The stand-out stories, to me, are P.D. James's Florence Maybrick-inspired look at an early moment in Inspector (then-Sergeant) Dalgliesh's career (see comments above) and Michael Gilbert's Verdict of Three, a cleverly constructed public-school-morphing-into-public-service combined update of Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventure of the Second Stain, The Naval Treaty, and The Bruce-Partington Plans, told from the perspective of the person who, in a Sherlock Holmes story, would be Holmes's client (except that Holmes, here, has contrived to be part of the jury).  "Place" and "show" honors go jointly and equally to Ngaio Marsh's Morpork (which I'd also read before, but long ago; a story set in the wilds of her native New Zealand); as well as Dick Francis's  Twenty-One Good Men and True (involving race track betting), Gwendoline Butler's The Rogue's Twist (in which dogs are, depending how you look at it, either part of the jury or part of the prosecution), and Michael Underwood's Murder at St. Oswald's (as the title indicates, another story set in a public school; here, involving a bullying teacher).

 

 


Mavis Doriel Hay: Murder Underground

Hay's first of the only three mysteries she ever wrote, but the last one I read.  Of the three, I'd rate it the middle entry -- it's not anywhere near as enjoyable as The Santa Klaus Murder (Hay's final book and one of the highlights of my 2017 Christmas reads), but I liked it quite a bit better than Death on the Cherwell.  Oddly, the titular murder is completely taken as a fait accompli here: we're not even in on the discovery of the body, never mind meeting the victim-to-be in the flesh and seeing her interact with the suspects-to-be (all of them, residents of the same North London longterm-accommodation hotel as herself; two, in addition, young relatives of hers and her presumptive heirs).  As a result, I needed quite a bit of time to find my way into the story and connect with the characters, only few of whom I ultimately ended up liking (though I will say it was refreshing to see a male TSTL character for a change).  Still, even though I had a suspicion as to the murderer early on, which turned out to be correct, it was a fun, light, if somewhat chatty read.  Hay could write, and she'd definitely found her stride by the time she got to The Santa Klaus Murder -- it's a shame she stopped just when she'd gotten going for good.

 

 


Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad Frankie Silver

Holy hell St. Maloney, what a book.  Part of McCrumb's Ballad series set in the Appalachian Mountains, this is the story of two executions -- and the convicts sentenced to death in each case, as well as their (purported) crimes and the lawmen called upon to witness their executions.  In modern times, Sheriff Spencer Arrowood (one of the Ballad series's central characters) is called upon to witness the execution of a man whom he himself had helped convict of murder when he was young and comparatively inexperienced, but all the more cocksure to make up for his lack of experience.  Recuperating from an injury sustained on the job and thus with some spare time on his hands, he decides to take a fresh look at the case ... and comes away dismayed and disillusioned.  He also sees parallels to the (real life) case of Frankie Silver, an 18 year old girl hanged for the murder of her husband in Burke County, NC, in 1833; probably the first white woman to be executed in that county. 

 

Frankie's story makes up the bulk of the book: we're learning it chiefly from the (fictional) diary of the 1832 Clerk of the Court, Burgess Gaither, who witnessed both her trial and the execution of her death sentence; interspersed with some passages in Frankie's own voice.  Her story stayed alive and became a local legend on account of the girl's ethereal beauty and meak, yet diginfied persona, as much as on account of the fact that she was very likely innocent of the crime of which she was convicted and went to her death in order to protect the real culprit; all of which also contributed to (alas, futile) efforts by prominent citizens of the community to obtain a gubernatorial pardon.  This is not an easy book to digest -- it does not flinch from a close-up view of all aspects of the death penalty, as administered both then and now; and it asks hard questions about justice, equality, and the judicial process.  Yet, precisely for this gut-punch quality, and for Sharyn McCrumb's spellbinding writing, it makes for an absolutely unforgettable experience.

 

One additional word on the audio version, which is narrated by McCrumb herself: Though by far not all authors excel at reading their own books, Sharyn McCrumb is one of the truly happy exceptions, and listening to the story read in her own voice greatly contributed to the lasting impression of this particular audiobook experience.  Even among the many excellent narrations I've had the pleasure of listening to this month so far, Sharyn McCrumb's performance is a stand-out experience ... singing of the titular Ballad of Frankie Silver included as the icing on the cake!

 

 


Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Sigh.  There is a lot to like in this book: the writing, the setting and the atmosphere, the underlying historic research (including appropriate pop culture references as much as a sensitive treatment of post-war PTSD), the opening nod to Jane Eyre, the bickering sisters, the fact that Flavia has given her bike a name and treats it as if it were a horse, and, well, the mystery as such.  Unfortunately, the one character I'm having a problem with is Flavia herself.  Oh, I get it -- she's intelligent and beyond precocious, she loves books, and she spends a lot of time alone and she has decided to turn vice into virtue ("if nobody else loves me, I have to love myself" -- remarkable insight to be expressed by an 11-year-old in pretty much these terms). 

 

But that's exactly where my issues begin ... despite the odd age-appropriate behavior towards others, by and large both her mental processes and many of her emotional responses come across as way too adult.  I'll even grant her love of chemistry -- Graham Young was obsessed with chemistry from an early age, too, and knew enough about poisons to murder his stepmother, after almost having succeeded in killing his sister, at the tender age of 15 -- and nearly get away with it, too.  But leaving aside that going from age 11 to age 15 is still a virtual quantum leap in the development of a child: (1) knowledge of chemistry doesn't equal medical knowledge, and Flavia seems to dispose of an unreasonable amount of highly specific medical knowledge along with her knowledge of chemistry, including certain rare medical conditions (and don't get me started on how she could (not) have read about all of that in Gray's Anatomy); (2) book knowledge doesn't equal experience, and more often than not Flavia's analysis, actions and responses are not explicable by book knowledge, but only by the insight and reflections generated by a life experience far above and beyond even the most precocious 11-year-old child (this is particularly true in the final scene -- actually that whole scene is ridiculously implausible on pretty much every single level, but Flavia's age-inappropriate responses had started to bother me right at the beginning, with her discovery of the dying man); and (3) similarly (and on a related point), the grown ups' treatment of Flavia is way too "eye level" to be believable.  Kudos to her dad for taking her seriously and trusting her with the full, tragic back story of the events, but for anybody else, let alone a policeman, to take an 11-year-old girl entirely seriously and communicate with her essentially like they would with an adult is just simply not realistic.

 

Maybe I've simply outgrown "child investigator" books -- I used to love the Three Investigators series and Enid Blyton's Famous Five, and Arthur Conan Doyle's "Baker Street Irregulars" make me smile to this very day.  But even the "Irregulars", for however streetsmart they are, don't display any age-inappropriate behavior or reasoning; ACD knew as well as Enid Blyton and the Three Investigators authors that adults tend not to take children seriously, and even more importantly, they all understood that even fictional children get to outfox the police only if the policemen in question are just plain too dumb to solve the case on their own.  But Inspector Hewitt doesn't strike me like that at all.

 

So, sorry for spoiling everybody else's party; I know I'm the odd one out here.  Don't mind me -- just go on enjoying Flavia's adventures.  I simply won't be along for the ride.

 

 


Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus

You know that scene in Amadeus where the Austrian emperor comments on Mozart's music that it contains "too many notes"?  That's how I began to feel after a while about the individual episodes, destinies, and narrative detours making up the sum total of this book -- they simply started to run into each other.  Adjoa Andoh, who reads the audio version, said in an Audible interview about Nights at the Circus that Angela Carter is "generous" with her use of words (and towards her characters) ... which I don't necessarily mind; in fact, I've been known to downright revel in exuberant prose, but I confess that Carter has tested even my limits here. 

 

Based on a simple premise -- journalist interviews "human swan" trapeze artist in the attempt to show her up as a fraud, instead falls in love with her, and ends up joining her circus as a clown so as to follow her to Russia --, this is an exploration of the world of Victorian carneys, circuses, and freak shows, of the divisions of class and culture(s), and of the exploitation of women and of the disabled (especially those perceived as freaks).  If, going in, you have any misconceptions about the nature of Nights at the Circus based on its title and setting, or based on the fact that it is frequently described as "magic realism", at least in the audio version Adjoa Andoh's earthy reading will disabuse you of any such notions literally from the first word on: there is no question that Fevvers, the book's protagonist, is cockney to the bone; and more generally speaking, between them Carter and Andoh leave no doubt about the fact there is (or was) nothing remotely glorious or magical about the behind-the-scenes world of Victorian carneys -- nor about the previous lives of most carney artists, or the destiny awaiting them once they were too old to be able to perform.  While pulling off enough of the veil for the reader / spectator to understand that much of what (s)he sees is an illusion, the lines are occasionally blurred, and not all is revealed to the naked eye -- and even where Carter applies her exuberance to the plainly ridiculous, never once does she lose an ounce of respect for her characters (nor, for that matter, does Andoh's narration).  Yet, this is one book where I'll likely want to revisit the printed version at some point in the future, because Andoh's performance, splendid as it is, is so dominant that I couldn't help wondering sometimes if the characters -- first and foremost Fevvers herself, but others as well -- would have sounded exactly the same in my head without anybody else's intervening interpretation. 

 

In the meantime, though, give me Fellini's La Strada (and The Clowns) any day of the week ...

 

 


Daphne du Maurier: Frenchman's Creek

If it weren't for du Maurier's indisputable gifts as a writer, and for the splendid things that are Rebecca and The Birds, my most recent reads of hers, between them, would have seriously made me doubt if she is for me at all, had these been my only introduction to her writing.  While Jamaica Inn at least excels in terms of creating a truly oppressive and spooky atmosphere (and since I read it primarily for that, I was willing to give du Maurier considerable slack in terms of the plotline ... until I got to the beyond-eyeroll-worthy ending, that is), Frenchman's Creek lost me even before it really had started to get going and never recaptured my attention.  That being said, it's the sort of totally implausible, romantic pirate adventure that would have riveted me in my early teens.  Problem is, I'm not a teenager anymore, I expect people (both fictional and in real life) to act with at least a minimal amount of rationality -- and book characters to be at least substantially self-consistent (and consistent with their station in life) --, and I no longer believe in insta-love.  So I'm just going to say thank you to Ms. du Maurier for once more taking me to 19th century Cornwall, which comes across as decidedly more lovely here than it does in Jamaica Inn (but then it would, this being a romance at heart), and thank you to John Nettles for giving his utmost to make this a captivating audiobook experience.  But for once, I was glad to have contented myself with an abbreviated version ... and I don't think anything will tempt me to revisit this novel anytime soon (even though here, too, I actually own a print edition as well).

 

 


Edith Wharton: Ghosts: Edith Wharton's Gothic Tales

As the title says, a selection of audio narrations taken from Edith Wharton's collection of ghost stories: big on atmosphere and on Wharton's lovely, insightful, empathetic writing; negligible to nonexistent on blood and gore.  This is how I like my gothic fiction!  As in her novels, Wharton relies entirely on subtle means of psychology; on our innate fear of the unknown, on our need to empathize, on uncertainties -- about the right way, about another person, or the accuracy of ancient writings and legends, or how far to trust our own senses; on changes of light, visions barred, sounds more devined than actually heard, and ethereal smells wafting by but impossible to source.  There is room for delicate humor here as well as for compassion; my favorite stories being, probably, Mr. Jones and Kerfol

(warning, however: the dog dies.  Or rather, the dogs die -- several of them in short succession.  But they get their revenge in the end)

(spoiler show)

... though, really, it's difficult for me to pick any clear favorites at all.

 

 


Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

"The discworld offers sights far more impressive than those found in universes built by Creators with less imagination but more mechanical aptitude."

Aaah ... Sir Terry.  What would Halloween Bingo possibly be without you?  Especially this year, what with Wyrd Sisters being the official bingo group read --and having inspired Booklikes's very own Discworld group, which very properly decided to read all the books in the order of publication.  So, another Halloween Bingo with no less than two Pratchett books -- yey!

 

Before I started to explore the Discworld universe, people told me to just dive in anywhere, it didn't matter with which book I started; and that's just what I did.  But after going a-roving here and there, it's been pure joy to come back to the very beginning and see where it all started.  The Colour of Magic is a hilarious romp through 1980s fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) conventions; Big Bang turtle theory, imagine-dragons, magic sword, hero lore, staffless wizard (Rincewind), naive tourist and all.  The tourist (Twoflower: an inn-sewer-ants agent by trade with a reckless disregard for his own and Rincewind's personal safety) has even brought a precursor of the glorious Hex, as it were; an iconograph ("device for taking pictures quickly") with a demon inside who will sketch a perfect likeness of you in anywhere from 30 seconds upwards.  And then, of course, there is The Luggage ... can there possibly be a more apt application of the "Relics and Curiosities" bingo square?  All the essentials of what makes Discworld -- well -- Discworld are in place here already, even if Pratchett may have further fine-tuned his style in the subsequent books (many of which, as a result, are even funnier).  I was glued to my speakers from the first second of Nigel Planer's hilarious, spot-on narration, and I also have to say that I liked The Colour of Magic quite a bit better than Equal Rights, the first Witches book (and overall, Discworld #3).

"This tourist is a thing that is out of place.  After acceding to his master's wishes Nine Turning Mirrors would, I am quite sure, make his own arrangements with a view to ensuring that one wanderer would not be allowed to return home bringing, perhaps, the disease of dissatifaction.  The Empire likes people to stay where it puts them."

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-09-21 12:45
DRAWING BLOOD by Poppy Z. Brite, narrated by Matt Godfrey
Drawing Blood: A Novel - Matt Godfrey,Crossroad Press,Poppy Z. Brite

A good old haunted house story is something I've always loved, so when the narrator of this tale offered me a chance to listen to the audio in exchange for a review, I jumped at it. Poppy Z. Brite is an author I've heard a lot about and I've been wanting to read his work for quite some time. I learned a few things while reading this book and one of them is that Poppy Z. Brite can write.

 

Trevor is a young man returning to the house where his mother and brother were killed 20 years ago. Shortly after his arrival in Missing Mile, his old hometown, he meets a young computer hacker on the run, named Zach. The two immediately feel a connection and together they go to face Trevor's childhood home. What will they find there? Is the house actually haunted? You will have to read this to find out. 

 

While the writing quality here was good, I have to admit that I was disappointed in the story itself. This is not the author's fault, nor the narrator's,  it was my sky high expectations. I expected a scary as hell story- and while there was a little darkness,  there was way too much romance for me. I don't mind explicit sex scenes, (gay or straight),  if they are integral to the story. Now I totally get the term insta-love. These two just met, one of them a virgin, and before you know it they are going at it at a breakneck pace. And going at it again. And again. The sexy times were sexy, don't get me wrong but after a while they finally led me to ask "Can we get to the horror already?"

 

Eventually, we did get to the horror, but after such a long build, it failed to move me much. I'm not sure if I was just bored by that point, or if all the romance had inured me to what should have been an exciting finale. 

 

The narration by Matt Godfrey was excellent as always, I especially loved his Jamaican accent. Yeah, mon! 

 

As I said, I did like the writing, and in a few spots it was nearly lyrical. From what I understand this is one of Poppy Z. Brite's, (now he goes by the name Billy Martin), earlier works. While I didn't find this novel to be a true horror story, I'm told his later works definitely are and I will be tracking those down in the future, maybe even the near future. 

 

Recommended, as long as you're not looking for a horror tale and you don't mind a lot of romance and sexy times! 

 

*Thanks to Matt Godfrey for the audio of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is it.*

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review 2018-09-20 18:12
Phew.
Where All Light Tends to Go - David Joy

This book has broken me. Heart, soul, body, all entirely shattered because of this damn book. I'd read it again though, because it was honestly that good of a book. David Joy has my utmost admiration and respect for his writing abilities. He's definitely going on my list of authors to watch.

 

Hilariously, this book affected me so much that I tried to listen to my cozy mystery book this morning and I wanted to scream at the protagonist about how easy of a life she had and would she just SHUT UP about all her woes? I might need a buffer book before I read anything cheesy.

 

Phew.

 

 

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review 2018-09-20 03:55
The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp
The Atrocities - Jeremy Shipp

The spooky house and governess heroine made me think this was a historical story at first, but it's actually contemporary-set. Danna has been hired to teach Mr. and Mrs. Evers' young daughter, Isabella. The Evers' home, Stockton House, is an odd place. It used to be a church, and in order to get to it, it's necessary to walk through a labyrinth populated by the Atrocities, statues depicting horrific violence and suffering. Stockton House's interior is no better - every wall and nook and cranny has something grotesque and unsettling on/in it.

Danna has her own horrors to deal with. At times, she slides into what she calls her "hospital dreams," vivid and twisted nightmares that feel terrifyingly real. She tries to focus on the job at hand, teaching Isabella, but it soon becomes clear that there's a lot the Evers didn't tell her about themselves and their daughter.

This had a feel to it that reminded me a lot of the game Fran Bow. Danna's "hospital dreams" were about as horrifying as Fran's visions when she took her pills, and The Atrocities and Fran Bow both had startlingly sudden endings that were open to interpretation.

However, whereas Fran Bow took its time, letting players gradually get to know Fran and the horrors she and others went through prior to the game's beginning, The Atrocities felt like it barely scratched the surface where Danna was concerned. Readers knew she'd once been married, that she had a son who'd died, and that she had a cousin who tried to keep her spirits up by texting her cute pictures on a daily basis. That's pretty much it. Danna's hospital dreams were never really addressed. Did anyone other than her know about them?

The novella's ambiguous ending frustrated me. Taken at face value, it was a "good" ending. Danna's sometimes shaky grasp on reality made me wonder, however, whether her experiences at the end were real, or just something she'd cobbled together to reassure herself. Readers who like this sort of ambiguity may enjoy this, but I wanted something a little more solid.

I loved the overall atmosphere, and the mystery of the Evers family intrigued me. Unfortunately, the ending was a disappointment.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2018-09-19 12:26
A magical visit to Barcelona and to the world of books and stories. Unmissable!
The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Thanks to NetGalley and to Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion Publishing Group) for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I enthusiastically and freely chose to review.

I read the first two novels of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books series years back, in Spanish. I have recommended The Shadow of the Wind to anybody who would bother to listen to me (probably multiple times, sorry) and was enthralled by the complex tale of creation and mental unravelling span by The Angel’s Game. In the maelstrom of the last few years, somehow I lost track of the series and missed the publication of The Prisoner of Heaven (although I have been trying to locate a copy since I started reading this volume), but when I saw the last novel in the series was being published in English and offered on NetGalley, I knew it was my chance to catch up. As I also do translations and had read two of the novels in their original Spanish version, I had the added interest of scrutinising what the translation into English would look like. Well, I must say I thought it was superb, in case I forget to mention it later. Lucia Graves manages to capture the style of the author, the complexity and beauty of his language, and translates the local peculiarities of the dialogue, helping readers feel the joy and the intoxicating and magical experience of reading the original. Hats off!

If you’ve read up to this point, you’ll likely have guessed that I loved this novel. To get it out of the way, I’ll clarify that I think it can be read by itself, or as a starting point to a reader’s visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and although perhaps somebody who starts by reading this book will feel s/he knows already the whole story, I suspect they’ll feel curious and intrigued and will want to learn the full details of the stories that come to fruition here (this is my case as well). Here, the author of the story inside the book, Julián, (yes, the story is full of books and writers) explains how the series works better than I can:

The way I dreamed of it, the narrative would be divided into four interconnected volumes that would work like entrance doors into a labyrinth of stories. As the reader advanced into its pages, he would feel that the story was piecing itself together like a game of Russian dolls in which each plot and each character led to the next, and that, in turn, to yet another, and so on and so forth. The saga would contain villains and heroes, and a thousand tunnels through which the reader would be able to explore a kaleidoscopic plot resembling that mirage of perspectives I’d discovered with my father in the heart of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books.

This is a long novel, and a complex one, although not one difficult to read or follow (I don’t think). As the quoted paragraph says, there are many stories here, and many memorable characters, some dead, some alive, and some… (among them, Alicia Gris, femme-fatale, spy, little girl, seductress, avenging angel, long-suffering survivor of a terrible war; Daniel Sampere, bookshop owner extraordinaire searching for answers; Fermín Romero de Torres, whimsical, fun, full of life and common-sense, witty, heroic, down-to-earth;  Julián Sempere, the stand-in for the author and heir to a long tradition; Isabella, a mysterious figure much of the action revolves around; authors David Martín, Julian Carax, Víctor Mataix; the fabulous Vargas, a hard-working an old-fashioned honest policeman with some secrets of his own; the complex Leandro; the horrifying Hendaya; the intriguing Rovira…). The story moves back and forth in time, from the time of the Civil War in Spain (1938) to its aftermath during the Franco regime, and into 1992. We visit Madrid, Paris —however briefly— although the main setting, and the main character, is Barcelona, in all its glory and horror.

In the darkest corner of her heart, Barcelona, mother of labyrinths, holds of mesh of narrow streets knotted together to form a reef of present and future ruins.

I kept thinking what genre one would fit this book into. Amazon has it listed in the categories of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries. All true, I guess. There are secrets, mysteries, action, revenge, intrigues, crimes, murders, torture… The novel reminds me, in some ways, of the big adventures and narratives of old, novels by Victor Hugo (whose pen, possibly?, makes an appearance in the novel), Jules Verne, the Dumas (father and son), with its sprawling narrative, its wondrous descriptions of people and events, its historical background (the Spanish Civil War and the postwar years, accurately reflected through a fantasy lens), and even its gothic setting (we have mysterious mansions, dungeons, cells, castles, underground passages, true labyrinths…). This book bears homage to literature, to books, to authors, to the power of imagination, and to the magic of reading.

The book talks about books and writing and contains plenty of advice on writing, some of it contradictory, and there are many different types of writers contained in its pages. It is metafictional at its best, and I was not surprised when I read that the author also composes music. There are variations on a theme in evidence (stories are told and retold: sometimes different versions, sometimes from different perspectives, and in different formats). There is plenty of showing, there is telling from direct witnesses, or third-hand, there are documents that bring us missing pieces from the pens of those who are no longer able to tell their own stories, and everybody gets a chance to tell his or her own story, be it in the first person or the third, be it directly or through a narrator. The author has explained that he writes his novels in a similar way to how movies are conceived and designed, and that is evident when one reads the story, as it is impossible not to visualise it. Carlos Ruíz Zafón professes his admiration for Orson Welles and that comes across loud and clear in this book. But, however much he loves movies, he believes books can conjure up worlds that no filmmaker would be able to bring to life, and that is his stated reason for not selling the rights for the film adaptation of the series. Part of me would like to watch it, but I am convinced I’d be disappointed, so incredible is the world the author has built.

I have mentioned the style of writing when I talked about the translation and I have shared some quotes. I kept highlighting and highlighting text while I was reading it and I found it very difficult to select some to share, but I hope the few fragments I have included will pique your curiosity and make you check a sample if you are not sure if you would like it (you would!). One of the tips on writing contained in the book highlights the importance of the way the story is written, above and beyond the plot, but in this case, the two mix perfectly.

I have mentioned some of the themes, the historical background, and the mystery elements included in the story, with some gore and violent scenes, but there are plenty of magical, lighter, and funny moments as well, and I wanted to share a couple of sentences from Isabella’s notebook that I particularly enjoyed, to illustrate the sense of humour (sometimes a bit dark) also present:

We were three sisters, but my father used to say he had two daughters and one mule.

I didn’t like playing with the other girls: my specialty was decapitating dolls with a catapult.

I’m not sure what else I can tell you to try and convince you to read this book. I am from Barcelona and love the city, even if some of the places mentioned in the novel no longer exist (or not in their original form). You could use the book as a guide for a visit (and I know there were tours visiting some of the streets and settings of The Shadow of the Wind), or you could lose yourself in the labyrinth of your imagination. You could imagine the movie, cast the characters, or put yourself in their place (I’d happily be Alicia Gris, pain and all). If you need to live some adventures and take a break from your life, go on, enter the labyrinth and visit the cemetery of the forgotten books. You might never want to find the way out. I am rearing for another visit soon.

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