Sunday, November 11, 2018

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Laura Purcell's The Silent Companions

 
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Published by: Penguin Books
Publication Date: March 6th, 2018
Format: Paperback, 404 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Elsie is being exiled to her husband's decrepit country estate, The Bridge. She feels like they are burying her along with her husband. A pregnant mermaid drowning in black crepe. That is all she is now, the vessel for her dead husband's heir. Her marriage to Rupert Bainbridge was meant to raise her above her station. No more work at the match factory where she and her brother Jolyon slaved away until Rupert bailed them out of a tight spot. Now she'd have an idyllic life of luxury where she would walk through the streets of Fayford giving her beneficence to her new tenants. Instead on arrival she is greeted by her husband's corpse laid out in the great hall, a paltry indoor staff of three she can't bear facing, and the new knowledge that the villagers view the house as cursed and won't even deign to work there let alone accept anything from her. In fact the only person who has come to view her husband's body is the local preacher, Mr. Underwood. So here Elsie will waste away with only Rupert's cousin Sarah for companionship and the occasional visit from Mr. Underwood. But then there are the noises in the night. A hissing sound the cook writes off as the cat, or perhaps a nasty nest of squirrels. Only when Elise finally enters the locked room from whence the sounds came she finds no squirrels.

There are two eyes looking at her. She thinks it's a painting but it's "as if someone had cut the figure out of a painting and mounted it on a plank of wood." Elsie is intrigued by the figure that oddly looks like her, whereas Sarah is taken by the two slim volumes next to the figure, the diary of her ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who was the doyenne of The Bridge when King Charles I and his wife visited in 1635. As uncanny happenings increase after the finding of the figure, with rooms changing and shifting, figures multiplying and poses changing and eyes following the two volume diary of Anne Bainbridge might hold the answers. Because it was in 1635 that The Bridge got it's nasty reputation of losing it's heirs, leading it to be left abandoned for years and years on end. Elsie laments that her life is starting to read like a bad penny dreadful. Only is this really happening? Perhaps the answers that Sarah finds about Anne and her husband Josiah, and their daughter Hetta, their miracle child who unnerves the servants and is otherworldly, and the Bainbridge Diamonds, will stop whatever is currently happening at The Bridge. Because it was Anne who brought these "silent companions" into the house. A trompe l'oeil treat bought in Torbury St. Jude that was just the thing to please his majesty. Or perhaps Elise is mad. Left silent in a sanatorium after her experiences at The Bridge.

I have a friend Matt. We've often joked that we should do a podcast because we literally do not agree on anything. Any book I love he hates and vice versa. Therefore it came as a shock to both of us to discover we agreed completely on The Silent Companions. I don't know what stars aligned or what parallel universe we entered, but we came to a consensus; we both thought it should have been more. The silent companions themselves were lacking. I think this has a lot to do with whomever wrote the cover blurb. Shame on you! When Elise opens "a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure - a silent companion - that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself" I know every single person reading that thinks wooden weeping angels. There is not a single person who thought that the silent companions were basically set flats. I'm sorry, but set flats aren't scary. No matter how much they "change" or "multiple," cut-outs dragging their wooden selves across now deeply grooved floors doesn't inspire any kind of chills going up and down my spine. In fact I found them bordering on laughable. I don't know if this is because I am inured to cut-outs due to the popularity of having a cut-out of an actor from your favorite TV just chilling about your house or because I worked in theater... but the fact of the matter is, I was underwhelmed. By it all. I was sold by the blurb and the reality came nowhere near that frisson of fear I had the first time I read the synopsis.

Reading this book around the same time I was watching the new Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House I realized there was one area in which this book succeeds which I think is vital to the success of any true book purporting to be Gothic, and that is Laura Purcell nailed the sense of place. She nailed The Bridge and because of that there is a lot that can be forgiven plot wise. In fact, as I discussed this book with my fellow book club members I posited that I think I could actually draw the blueprints for this house. If there's one thing that I hate it is when I read a book and I can't get a good sense of the surroundings. I need to ground the characters in their setting. This book took it to a new level. Not only did I have the sense of the house, the house became a central character to the book, which I think was necessary for the narrative. That is why I compare it to The Haunting of Hill House. While the buildings have supernatural elements and events, you can still know where everything is and therefore when it changes, even subtly, you know something "other" is going on. Thinking on this further, and tying it into the set-piece like nature of the companions themselves, I wonder if there's a theatrical aspect that this book is embracing. Everything laid out just so so when it goes off the rails, you know where you were supposed to be but aren't any longer.

Enough about what I liked, an aspect of the book that really annoyed me was that Laura Purcell has an elliptical storytelling style. She drops potential plot points and red herrings all along the path and maybe one or two are actually resolved. I know there are people who say, but that makes the book more realistic, not having everything tied up in a neat little bow. To them I say, that's why I read books! Because unlike in real life everything can have a resolution and you won't be grumbling about what exactly happened in the heroine's past. Because really, there is a lot of heavy-handed doom and gloom about what went on in Elsie's life prior to her marriage. Abuse allegations about her parents, the struggling match factory, and her relationship with her brother... and yet not a single one of these is dealt with. We don't even really get any sense as to why Rupert married her. And I think the event that then catalyzes the entire narrative of the story should at least be discussed don't you? What annoyed me most though is that the book drops hint after hint that Elsie's much younger brother, Jolyon Livingstone, was perhaps her son. It would explain the strain in her relationship with her parents, whether Jolyon was the product of incest, again strongly hinted at that would be firmly rooted in the Gothic, or whether they were just forced to raise their grandson as their son, it would explain a lot. But nope. Nothing whatsoever is elucidated and for a minute I thought the book could be completely written off.

But Laura Purcell finally delivered! It's amazing how the final few pages of a book can retroactively fix many of the issues you previously had. And yes, I'm looking at you The Circle. Sure, there are all these threads left dangling, but the most important, the crucial thread was picked up and given a tug. I was wonderfully surprised that one of the many plot points Laura Purcell set up actually paid off with a little twist at the end. And no, I am not going to spoil it for you because you'd be able to pick up the one important thread at the beginning and not follow all the ones that are cut short. Yet I will say that what I liked most about this twist was that it took several of the unnatural occurrences at The Bridge and put it on one character's shoulders. Everything weird and uncanny tied back to one character. What's more, this had the added benefit of tying the two timelines together. Often in books with two timelines so far apart, two hundred years here, authors tend to have the past inform the present but not really carry anything over of importance from the past. Here that's different, and I think that is what raised this book up to being a satisfying read while also firmly classifying it as Gothic. So while this might not have been everything I wanted it to be, it surprised me in the end because the author broke her pre-established patterns and gave us one satisfying answer.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Jewell Parker Rhodes's Voodoo Dreams

 
Voodoo Dreams by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Publication Date: 1993
Format: Kindle, 404 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Marie Laveau has spent her life in the swamp. Surrounded by nature and the enfolding arms of her Grandmere. Yet she's always wondered about her Maman, the other Marie. The truth, which her Grandmere hides from her in the comforting lie that her daughter, Marie's Maman, is off in New Orleans and has no interest whatsoever in her daughter, is that Marie's Maman died at the hands of an angry mob while she publicly practiced Voodoo with her partner in crime, John, a Voodoo priest. If only Marie had the ability of foresight she could have lived in ignorant bliss all her life, instead the world she grew up in starts to shrink, her Grandmere's lap is no longer inviting, and the siren call of New Orleans and her Maman is always present. Eventually her Grandmere relents and they pack up their lives and head off to New Orleans. The city presents countless sights and sounds and so many people for a girl raised in the presence of one woman. There are the DeLaviers, wealthy whites, the girl Brigette looking like a princess out of a fairy tale. There is Jacques, a young sailor who falls for Marie. But there is no Maman. Because even now, in the city where she supposedly resides, Marie's Grandmere can not bring herself to tell her granddaughter that her mother is dead. There would be too many questions.

Those questions can be answered only by a select few. Nattie is an old family friend and therefore has many skeletons in her closet. So while Marie at first stays on the straight and narrow, marrying Jacques, taking care of her Grandmere, trying to find work as a hairdresser, soon Nattie helps to lure her away to Voodoo and John. John wasn't just Maman's partner in crime, he was also her lover, and this is the role he wishes Marie to fulfill. She will make him powerful and young again. She will bear him children that will rule over New Orleans. But John is a very bad man. He is only interested in his power, no matter the cost to those around him. Marie is drawn to him. She needs him like she needs air and she will do whatever he wants her to. Locking her up during the day to bring her forth at night as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans John isn't a true believer, though he takes advantage of the powers of Voodoo. Marie though. Marie scares him a little, because she knows that the power is real. She knows that the spirits talk to her and when John thinks she is performing she is channeling a power greater than any of them. That power scares John and soon it becomes clear; only one of them can survive in New Orleans, and Marie, despite her need for John, is going to make sure she is the victor.

I don't quite know how to describe Voodoo Dreams other than a book I would avoid at all costs. The Emily Windsnap-esque cover design leaves any conception of what you might find between the covers a mere mystery. Needless to say, unlike Emily Windsnap, it is not a middle grade read about mermaids, instead it is about the Voodoo Queen of New Oreleans, Marie Laveau, and is part historical fiction part cathartic sexual predation exorcism for the author, who clearly has many unresolved issues. Having no preconceptions going into this book I was surprised at first by how much Voodoo Dreams reads like so much historical fiction that I love. But any initial regard I had for the book was quickly destroyed by historical inaccuracies, illogical character motivations, just plain creepy and as one of my friends wrote, repellent scenarios, and more than anything, the repetitive writing style. Because I read this book on my Kindle I was curious to see how many times the author used the words "Maman" and "Grandmere." Well, seeing as the book is only 404 pages, coming in at 391 appearances, "Maman" is almost on every page. But the real winner is "Grandmere" coming in at 981 appearances, meaning it's on every page at least twice! Seriously, I never want to read those two words again.

Yet again and again this book would baffle me with what it included and what it omitted. Marie Laveau lived a long and fascinating life. When lifespans were short she lived to be at least seventy-nine years old, and some say, including Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story fame, that perhaps she never died. Perhaps she lived on to die battling the Antichrist or whatever. Therefore it is baffling to me that this book takes place over such a short time frame of Marie's life. We follow Marie's life from 1812 to 1822, with a few little snippets starting each chapter from her deathbed in 1881. So instead of seventy-nine years we get ten. And most of those ten are her just hanging out in the swamp with her Grandmere... Why would you choose such a fascinating and underrepresented subject for your book and then constrict yourself to a narrative of only a few years? What's more, her power, her rise to power are almost background noise to the solipsistic narrative that traps us inside Marie's head and her thoughts of her Maman and Grandmere. What about her spy network of hairdressers? What about the true power of Voodoo versus the trappings of the religion to con the gullible whites? Why isn't there really anything of Marie on these pages? Why instead are we part of this weird disconnect where even Marie is just an observer of her own life?

In fact, why doesn't this book actually explore the tenants of the Voodoo religion more? There is no place anywhere in this book that clearly states what the purpose or practices of Voodoo are. What about the narrative tradition brought down through the generations from Africa and the Caribbean? Because I really don't know anything about Voodoo. I don't believe in any organized religion and I kind of let my blanket disbelief cover all religions. If I don't believe in the one I was raised in, I don't believe in others. Yet Voodoo seems fascinating in that so much of the followers history and culture is tied into it therefore I would be interested to learn more, even though I will still be a non-believer. This book is so long and, let's put it nicely, long-winded, and there should have been some place to put in these details but instead I was just grateful that I read Voodoo Dreams on my Kindle because my Kindle means I have access to Wikipedia, and therefore any term or folktale character I could just look it up and fill in the blanks myself. Here's a sign of a bad book, when the reader is spending more time on Wikipedia trying to learn about basic worldbuilding you should have included in your rambling narrative but didn't seem to find the time.

But the most baffling inclusion in the book is the DeLaviers. The DeLaviers are a family that Marie first encounters when she and her Grandmere arrive in New Orleans. The kindhearted Louis spends his life married to his cousin Brigette while pining for Marie. He is also the one writing in his journal on her deathbed while Marie tells the story of her life. Or in this case the heavily edited cliffs notes version of her life. I would say Bowdlerized, but seeing as I'm about to start talking about incest... that would be a vulgarity Thomas Bowdler would heartily disapprove of. Yes, so onto the incest... Brigette's lover and eventually the father of her child is her brother Antoine. I have no idea if these people really existed or are an entire figment of the author's imagination, but either way, why are they here!?! What purpose do they serve the narrative? Is it to show the decadence and double standard of the wealthy elite in New Orleans? Because I think she could have done so without resorting to incest. Again, this secondary storyline takes up chapters that could have been devoted to actually learning the tenants of Voodoo, or even giving some idea of what the city of New Orleans was like during this time. Instead we are stuck in a suffocating room with a guilt ridden woman pregnant by her brother for no reason I can see.

Though this book does specialize in the creepy sexual encounters that will make you want to take a bath in carbolic soap or perhaps even bleach. I will place a trigger warning here, because dear me, I so wish I had been warned. The first of the really creepy encounters with John, the Voodoo priest who will use Marie to rise to power, is when she is a girl of twelve and he comes out into the swamp and fingers her. OK, so that's, yeah, that's gross and child molestation, but it's passed off as maybe a dream, but it so isn't. Oh, but John's creepiness doesn't end there, oh no. Later when Marie is fully under his control and she never leaves their house in New Orleans she bears him a daughter. A newborn daughter he takes out into their little courtyard behind their house and holds in his arms and then starts fingering her vagina while his enormous erection is described. In detail. Until he cums. I actually felt psychically ill. I in fact am physically ill just writing this. To molest your newborn!?! What the hell!?! Why is this in the book? Yes, we've seen the evil ways of John throughout the book, but this seemed like a step too far on the part of the author. It wasn't narratively needed to drive Marie to kill John, it was extraneous, egregious, and just too much. While there was a part of me that kind of liked the book up until this point, every single shred of any positive emotion went directly into pure hatred. This book is beyond repellent. It is odious and every fiber of my being hates it.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

 
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: 1902
Format: Hardcover, 192 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

221B Baker Street has had a visitor. Only Holmes and Watson were out. Though the person left behind a walking stick and the two men seek to analyze it in the hopes of a clue. They don't have long to wait to figure out whose deductions were right (Holmes) and whose were wrong (Watson). The potential client is one Dr. James Mortimer who brings a bizarre story about a family curse. The Baskervilles of Devonshire are supposedly cursed by a hound that wanders Dartmoor due to the nefarious deeds of Sir Hugo Baskerville hundreds of years earlier, thinning their ranks whenever possible. Dr. Mortimer would agree with Holmes and Watson that this is all a fairy tale if it wasn't for the recent death of his dear friend, Sir Charles Baskerville; whose body was found near massive animal footprints that could only have been left by a hound. Though Dr. Mortimer kept this canid observation a secret at the inquest, fearing what people would say.

The reality versus the mythical is what interests Holmes, but if Sir Charles is dead, why does Dr. Mortimer care? Because his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville has arrived from Canada and is to take up residence on the moor and Dr. Mortimer doesn't know if the story will scare him or prove as a warning. Though it is quickly apparent that Sir Henry is in danger, from a real, not a mythical foe. He is followed, one of his new boots is stolen, and he receives a letter that is either a threat or a warning. Holmes decides that Watson will accompany the two men to Devonshire while he finishes up some pressing cases in London. Watson had scoffed at the story of the hound, but down in Devonshire, there's something primal about the moors that make myths seem real and not something to be scoffed at. Can the two men save Sir Henry, or is he going to be yet another victim of the bloody Baskerville legacy?

There are only four stand alone Sherlock Holmes books, and I can guarantee that the only one that everyone knows is The Hound of the Baskervilles. They might not know what it's about, but it has proliferated across people's bookshelves all over the world. I actually don't know how many copies I have around my house, it being part of set of Sherlock Holmes from the Book-of-the-Month Club I have as well as a classics set, not to mention the old children's library edition I am reviewing here. But it's the classic one I remember so well. It was cloth bound and had a glowing hound on the cover, even though the edition of Frankenstein in that set was far more memorable with the turquoise binding and the monster having long flowing hair. I remember this edition so well because I was supposed to read it in seventh grade. Note the "supposed to" in that sentence. My grade school had crazy amounts of homework. I kid you not. On average I had eight hours of work a night. This paid off when I went to high school because I was so good at multitasking that I could finish all my work during class time during the two days a week I actually bothered to show up.

In fact I didn't really have any outside homework until my junior year in high school, and that's only because I finally got a teacher who inspired me to work. But back in seventh grade, besides those eight hours of work a night we were expected to read two other novels a month and write lengthy book reports on them. Seeing as I actually needed to sleep occasionally I sometimes wouldn't have the time to finish these extra books. So while I was supposed to read The Hound of the Baskervilles, in fact my mom read it and wrote the book report. In fact at one time or another every one of my family read and wrote a book report for me in an effort to keep my pre-teen sanity, thank god for a grandmother who loved to read! But of all those books I was supposed to read, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the one I actually wanted to. So now I finally have and I hope this review will stand in lieu of the book report all these years later. Though I kind of wish I could read what my mom thought I would have written...

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it was written prior to The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I had always understood it as Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in 1893, hue, cry, uproar, people cancelling their magazine subscriptions left and right, publisher weeping to Conan Doyle to not destroy him and Holmes, but Conan Doyle staying firm till ten years later he caved into demand and starting writing the short stories again in 1903 with "The Adventure of the Empty House." But this is not the case! The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialized in The Strand Magazine from 1901 till 1902! So he caved twice! I've always found it odd how much Conan Doyle seemed to hate his own creation, much like Victor Frankenstein of the aforementioned turquoise bound book. He hated his creation so much he killed him only to have the death not stick. He is immortal because of Sherlock Holmes, and yet he tried everything not to write him. In fact, The Hound of the Baskervilles was never intended to be a Sherlock Holmes story! As he was writing it he realized that Holmes was necessary, in fact essential, and as an added bonus it would appease the public.

But there is one person, narratively speaking, who lucked out with Conan Doyle's hesitance to write Holmes, and that is Watson. By keeping Holmes at bay Watson was left to play. Yes, Watson still has a little too much of the "I wish Holmes was here" obsequiousness, but the fact remains that Holmes is hardly in this story. He's there at the beginning and at the denouement to tie up all the loose ends, but in-between it's all Watson all the time. It's Watson's observances and recollections that help Holmes solve the crime. It's Watson taking the risks and striking out onto the moors alone. Sure Holmes gave him the basic outline of what he should do, but it's Watson risking his neck everyday for Henry Baskerville. While the previous volume of adventures showed the development of Watson as more than just Sherlock's number one fanboy and biographer, it's The Hound of the Baskervilles that sets Watson up as Holmes's equal. As I have said before, I've never been down on Watson like many are. In fact I've always rather liked him. But the truth is it's not until this point, which is ironically the half-way point in the Sherlock canon, that Watson finally gets his props. Go Watson! You did good no matter what Sherlock says!

Though what I loved about this book had nothing to do with Watson or Holmes and everything to do with the mood. The awesome Gothic mood. Myth and legend were the starting off point for this book, so it makes sense that this eerie atmosphere pervades the book, with the misty moors and the baleful howls on the wind. Because it's set on Dartmoor not far from Daphne Du Maurier's Bodmin I couldn't help but compare this story of Conan Doyle's to Du Maurier's work. In fact, I would place money on Du Maurier being inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles to a great degree in writing her seminal work, Jamaica Inn. Both books have outsiders haunted by the bleakness of the moors and the dangers of hidden mires, and the dark majesty of the tors. In fact it was kind of like stumbling on a lost classic by Du Maurier. The truth is that I can see how it could have worked without Holmes, he's just the deus ex machina as many have complained. The real star of this book is the land. Even if you're not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I urge you to pick this up just for it's Gothic awesomeness.

Yet I must warn you. Though I will totally stand behind this book I will add the caveat that Conan Doyle is a clunky writer. Sometimes with older books you have trouble adjusting to the writing style. It takes awhile to get into the flow when reading Jane Austen, or more specifically Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of those writers who you're lost for about the first third, and then everything clicks and when you reach the end you really want to go back to the beginning because now you're in the zone. There is no zone with Conan Doyle. There is no time at which his writing flows and you're like, yeah, bring it on. It's a struggle. Constantly. And all uphill. Back when I did Sherlocked, reading five of his books in a row I never found any nice common ground where my mind could rest and just enjoy the reading experience. You will have to fight the text to enjoy these books, which is probably why I have found them more enjoyable as a re-read. I've fought the text once and won so I know I can do it again. So you can be victorious and come out enjoying the book, but you will also be a little exhausted by the whole experience and occasionally find your mind wandering. Which might be how Watson viewed this whole case...

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Natasha Pulley's The Bedlam Stacks

 
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: August 1st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ 
To Buy

Merrick Tremayne worries he may be going insane. Yes, prolonged removal from society for recuperation on his family estate in Cornwall doesn't help, but he has precedence; his mother went insane at about his age and is locked up in an asylum. A very nice asylum, but an asylum nonetheless. She claims she saw a stone statue move and Merrick is sure that he has just seen the same thing. Therefore the arrival of his old comrade in arms, Sir Clements Markham from the East India Company with his wife Minna is a welcome diversion. Clem wants Merrick to go with him to Peru and smuggle out some cinchona cuttings because India is in desperate need of quinine, which is made from the bark of the cinchona trees, and the Company is sick of paying the Peruvian monopoly. Merrick is uncertain, before his injury he wouldn't have questioned his ability to pull off this heist, but now? Yet Clem is insistent that the expedition needs Merrick. Their destination is New Bethlehem, lovingly christened Bedlam. The Tremayne family has a connection to that town going back generations. Merrick's grandfather lived there for awhile learning to speak Quechua. Therefore if their cover as "mapmakers" is exposed Merrick's connection might save their lives. Merrick accepts. Mainly because if he is going insane he might as well go out with one last great adventure. With their guide, Raphael, who is the local priest in Bedlam, Merrick learns that what is commonly accepted by the world at large isn't necessarily so once you get off the beaten track. There is danger in the woods, statues that are revered, and a mystery surrounding Raphael... how could this young man have known Merrick's grandfather for a start?

I love magical realism. I love seeing the world we know and love with that little something extra. That spark of magic that makes everything just that much more marvelous. Most people think of magical realism in a modern setting yet, when you think about it, my most favorite subgenre of all, Regency Magic, is magical realism but set in an historical setting. Because I love nothing more than magical historical fiction. Seriously, I can't think of a combination of all the disparate things I love coming together perfectly than in this motley blend. Which is why I love The Bedlam Stacks. Sure, it's set some twenty-two to thirty-nine years after the Regency, depending on whether you believe the Regency ended when Queen Victoria took the throne or before, but it has all those wonderful elements that I love about Regency Magic. There's the real, human need for quinine, but there's also the deeper human need for fables and folk tales and how they come to be. This gives The Bedlam Stacks a mythical quality. There's what is real and what people believe to be real. And Sir Clements Markham's 1859 journey for cinchona actually happened. It happened entirely different, but the core, the basic framework is there. Which is why the magic is so easily grafted on. It's believable that in this foreign country you could wander into a land that time had forgot. Because magic is just something we don't understand. As I remember Philippa Gregory saying in a talk once about writing The White Queen, she wrote the witchcraft as witchcraft because that is how it appeared to the people of the time. This merging of the magical and the historical results in a fairy tale that would be worthy of Doctor Who. Early Doctor Who. Because there's your learning moment and then there's your adventure.

But then there's the Steampunk element. As you probably have guessed over the years by my reading choices and some of my sartorial choices at conventions I have fully embraced Steampunk in many aspects of my life. And there is this element here. Though I would go further and analyze this more, because I think most people are basing this label on the cover coupled with Merrick's insistence that the statues in Bedlam are clockwork. Needless to say covers are designed to sell and Merrick is very much mistaken. Yet I do believe that categorizing The Bedlam Stacks on the outer fringes of Steampunk isn't wrong. The reason I believe this is because of the lamps. Yes, the lamp on the cover is one of them. Sure, they have clockwork in them, but it's not the clockwork in my mind that makes them Steampunk. What makes them Steampunk is that they are utilizing technology and knowledge available to them and creating something new and functional. Much like the fantastical creations in Steampunk based on steam power being the only option these lamps use clock gears to constantly stir up the pollen of the trees in the woods that give off light. The Bedlamites have made something that is completely unique to their region, trees with lighted pollen and a tendency to go boom, and found a way to make it work for them. Throughout the Stacks, there are just little things here and there that show the ingenuity of these people, but there is no greater example than in these lights. I also very much want one for myself.

While the Steampunk elements might be a fascinating aspect of this book it's not why I am so in love with it. What got me was the human element. The connection that each and every character has to the other. Clem and Merrick, who have a strained friendship, in fact prior to his injury Merrick didn't even think they would consider each other friends. Seeing them put through their paces and how their comradely nature erodes is a feeling anyone who has traveled with friends will relate to, and they didn't even have the ability to have the whole music/no music while driving argument. The business nature of Clem versus the more exploratory nature of Merrick allows Merrick to forge connections in Bedlam with the locals. He becomes a part of their community. And as the community of Bedlam is made up of all injured or disfigured people Merrick's leg injury doesn't seem like such a burden anymore. He is considered more fit than the majority of the residents. This, more than sitting in Cornwall with his brother, does more to help him recover than anything else. Yet it's his constantly evolving friendship with Raphael that is the cornerstone, the bedrock, the ONE THING, that this book is about. Two men, from totally different cultures and times, coming together to be friends. The layers of Raphael's reluctance that are broken down and through over time, that let Merrick see who he truly is, that's almost the most magical aspect of The Bedlam Stacks. Though I do have this caveat, their relationship is ambiguous to whether or not it evolves into romantic feelings. Some people are all for this, some people are not. I have no problem with this and do agree that what they felt for each other was love, but I'm uncertain if I think or want it to be romantic in nature. At the end this reveal seems a little forced. They love each other and I don't think it needs definition.

Throughout the whole story, magical and human, I have come to one conclusion, I would die of altitude sickness. I had kind of thought this in passing before but now I have 100% certainty. I would die. This started years ago when watching An Idiot Abroad with Karl Pilkington when he made it three-quarters of the way to Machu Picchu and gave up requesting a Sir David Attenborough-esque voice-over. I'm pretty sure this would be me. Is the journey worth the reward? Worth the pain? Well The Bedlam Stacks made me think 100% no. As Natasha Pulley said, she had no idea the horror of altitude sickness and now her research made sense once she experienced it first had. The inability to think, like you're living in a fog. The headaches, the nausea, the incapacitation, all of it! Weird asides like Sir Clements Markham being unconcerned his team were being followed, because he didn't have the ability to care or worry! Yet the nail in my coffin was the whole nosebleeds issue. As in you get them all the time up there where the air is clear. Here's the thing. I have a lifelong fear of nosebleeds. Why you might ask? Well, I used to have them daily. Also horrifically. Once I had a nosebleed while in Milwaukee when I was little that lasted the entire trip, two full days. I just laid on my uncle's living room floor thinking everything in his house is white what will he do if I get some blood spattered about... he went ballistic when he thought I broke his toy robot, which I didn't by-the-way. Once in grade school I got a nosebleed at recess that soaked my entire sweatshirt before I could get to the nurse's office. This all culminated in my having to have my nose cauterized in 2002. Therefore to willingly go somewhere where this could happen? Sorry I'm out. Ah books, showing us places we could never go to. Now that's magic.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber

 
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 1979
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

A young and blushing bride is rushed by her new husband to his isolated castle. She doesn't love him, but he is wealthy, and that decides her mother. Once in his domain he subjects her to humiliations and sexual sadism. Yet this is just his character. A character that will test his new wife beyond sanity. For he purposefully leaves her alone to her own devices and she finds that which brings her husband joy. Torture. Murder. Death. All his previous wives' corpses in the cellar. All brutally slain at her new husband's hand. Man's baser desires and his ability to overcome or embrace them run thematically through these ten classic stories which are reinterpretations and retellings of some of the most famous of fairy tales. Or distillations if you will, as Carter said, "My intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories." Beasts from vampires to werewolves stride across the pages of Carter's collection. Some of the beasts look dangerous but are truly kind, while man may look harmless yet he can be the most dangerous of all. And while they are adult, brutal and sensual, they aren't just versions, despite Carter not wanting them to be labelled as such she can't escape the classification, but they are something more. They are subversive, they are feminine, they are something entirely new that spawned many imitations and inspired many authors with her magical realism. They are their own thing, but the beginning of something new is often not the best or the final version of what was attempted.

There is no doubt in my mind that The Bloody Chamber is a classic. Female empowerment through the retelling and restructuring of fairy tales was at the time it was written original and has now evolved into a subgenre all it's own thanks to the groundwork laid by Carter. Yet because something is a classic doesn't mean it's enjoyable. Yes, you can have admiration for something that you just don't quite like, and that's how I feel about this collection of short stories. I feel as if they were written to be studied, not enjoyed. Carter was pushing boundaries, establishing ideas that would development into today's literary tropes, but these stories come across as experiments, some failing and some succeeding. As a whole they are overly written with obscure words meant to be studied for hidden and double meanings. This style of writing doesn't really flow. It has meaning but that doesn't mean it's fun to read. Of the ten short stories the titular story is the strongest. Based on "Bluebeard" this overly sexual story plays with the underpinnings of the original tale of a beastly marriage and allows it to become somehow modern with the introduction of technology and also feminist with the bride being saved by her mother instead of her brothers. Yet what I was forcibly struck by is how this story has effected other storytellers. You can see how it influenced Susan Hill's writing of The Woman in Black. But more importantly, I defy you to think of any world in which Guillermo del Toro could have made Crimson Peak without The Bloody Chamber having existed first.

Despite how groundbreaking a collection this is there is a repetitive quality that just grinds on you. Carter is in several instances taking the same source material and trying to spin it into a different interpretation. Of the ten stories two are based on "Beauty and the Beast" while three, almost a third of the book, are based on "Little Red Riding Hood," though one of them, in a way I can not fathom, supposedly incorporates Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Was it the mirror? Please someone explain this to me! So when you get to the end of the book and you have three stories all coming out of the same source, you might like the first, by the second you feel as if you've already read it, and by the third you are just sick of the story. It doesn't help that she literally uses the same turn of phrase again and again. Observations, words, structure, they add to the repetitive feeling. Yet if we were to take a bigger view, using the same theme, the same story, the same language over and over is like an artist creating a series of paintings. There's a unifying theme. There's a similarity. There's something undefinable that the artist is bringing to the work that makes them all a unit. So while the stories in The Bloody Chamber might repeat, might make clunky transitions from one story to the next, I find it fascinating how you are looking at her process. You are seeing her develop a series of ideas. Like the visual artist, she is working through shit, and as I've said previously, that is why this collection is interesting. You can studying it, you can break it down, and you can see how she's working through it.

Carter isn't just working through concepts, she's also working through ways in which to tell a story. So yes, occasionally the stories can end up feeling like writing exercises watching how she plays with narrating the story, but never once did it slip into that smugness that defined the "codas" in John Scalzi's Redshirts. There it felt like pretension, here it feels like experimentation, and that is the saving grace. The two stories that play with this the most are "Puss-in-Boots" and "The Erl-King." The later story is almost incomprehensibly dense and there's a weird disconnect with the narration slipping between second and third person, and yes, I will always have issues with second person narration, there's something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Yet "Puss-in-Boots" works in switching between first and third person. The slipping between the two from personal to detached just becomes the personality of a cat. Through this little narrative slip she is able to make her whole story imbued with the personality of her protagonist. So while I may criticize this roughness to the stories, this literary exercise feel, sometimes it works so well that I can not fault her for trying something again and again until she got it right. I guess what I just find most interesting about this book is that it's an author willing to show their flaws. Their process is on display and once again I come back to the importance of this work, not as a book you sit down and read for fun, but one you sit down and study. You embrace the lessons you learn. Though not this time through fairy tale morality, but through the tricks of the storyteller.

All the tricks and twists and literary play mean that while some stories are long others are brutally short and brutally violent. While "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" could fall under the brutally short descriptor, a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" at top speed, only one story falls under both categories, "The Snow Child," which even Wikipedia deems nothing more than a vignette. After I read this story my only thoughts were "WTF did I just read!?!" The story is literally only two pages long and involves a Count wishing a child, a "young woman" into being who dies and he then rapes her corpse and she turns into snow! What the hell is this story supposed to be about? What is the moral? Most versions of "The Snow-child" are about infidelity and desire, so sure, we've got that here what with the Count raping a young girl in front of his wife... but I just don't know how to handle this. Fairy Tales have always been about subjugation, teaching lessons so children and wives will behave, yet Carter has made her stories more about empowerment and belonging, finding you place in the world even if it's amongst the beasts. What does the rape of anyone, let alone a snow corpse, have to do with any of the messages and themes she's been toying with? Why didn't anyone go, you know, your stories, they can be a bit brutal, but this one, well this one is a step too far, so let's just nix it and move onto the moody vampire? OK? Seriously, MOODY VAMPIRE no more rape! I'd even take a fourth retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood" than to EVER have to think of Carter's version of "The Snow Child" ever again.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall

 
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Published by: Open Road Media Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Kindle, 148 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Julian Blake was a temperamental genius. His manager knew that if Julian stayed in his bedsit in London all summer he'd get no work done and mourn the death of his girlfriend Arianna who committed suicide. So Wylding Hall was let. Julian's British acid-folk band Windhollow Faire would secret themselves in the country for the month of August to work and reconnect. It was a summer that would produce an album named after the grand estate they stayed at that would be under everybody's Christmas Tree that December but would also lead to the disappearance of Julian Blake. A disappearance linked to a white haired girl who mysteriously appeared on the cover of the album whom no one remembered seeing. But then a lot of mysterious things happened that summer. Weird hallways and chambers that went on forever. A library that only two people ever found. A room with hundreds and hundreds of dead birds. A tune in the air that Julian couldn't help humming. And the walks in the woods that the locals warned them never to take. Yet the band and the other people who came in and out of their lives back in that summer in the seventies never compared notes, until now. Now there's a documentary being done about the album, inspired by construction that has unearthed discoveries at the house, and secrets are being revealed. The shape of things is starting to come into focus, but it doesn't seem possible. In the end it comes down to a photo in the local pub, a song Julian unearthed, and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet.

Sometimes there's a confluence of events that come together just right that elevates an experience to another level. This occurrence started at a joint birthday party where fate decided the next book club selection would be Wylding Hall and ended in an extremely rare consensus that we all liked the book while we dunked fruit into delectable chocolate. But we all agreed, it wasn't just the book, it was something in the air. It's almost as if we were haunted and the book manifested itself for our entertainment. The waning days of summer had set in, mirroring the time frame of the events that happened to the members of Windhollow Faire as August drew to a close and their lease on the hall was up. Despite reality versus fiction and the present versus the past there was this connection that made the book almost real. It's such a short read, a mere 148 pages, and yet I just wanted their summer to be endless and for me to be able to live in this spooky yet somehow homey world. What aided the book so well was the suspension of disbelief was possible through Elizabeth Hand grounding the book in the real world. If she hadn't got the music scene of the time just right nothing else could have fallen into place, and yet she did it. Making this story of the real world yet somehow not quite of it, like the characters had walked through a fairy ring and everything was just slightly distorted. Like when Sergeant Howie ventures to Summerisle in The Wicker Man, the townspeople seem a little off, a little unwilling to talk, and pictures that might illuminate events are quickly hidden away. The balance between believability and the unknown is perfectly struck here.

Yet the way Elizabeth Hand chose to tell the story was an interesting one, yet it did present problems. She goes the route of many a documentary with each of the characters telling their part of the story, therefore capturing that feeling of reality, we've all seen this before. We could be watching a VH1 Behind the Music special about Windhollow Faire after all. Yet given the brevity of the book I had issues with the dramatis personae, it took awhile for their character traits to come through and in the interim I was lost. They were written too similarly and what was odd in my mind, there wasn't a hint of unreliability and their stories all synced up. Maybe I'm just too used to unreliable narrators and Agatha Christie trying to pull one over on me. There was just a sameness to them as Elizabeth Hand quickly cut from one POV to another. It took me quite awhile to realize that Lesley was a female, and seriously, can authors NOT use two too similarly named characters, like Jonathan and Julian? I'm not proud of this but I totally stereotyped the characters to remember who they were, the folklorist, the girlfriend, the dead guy, you get my drift... and not all of them were flattering monikers, just something so I could quickly tell who was who. A really good writer is able to distinguish the different characters enough with their voices that this shortcut of mine wouldn't be a necessity. I felt like it lowered the book. But you could argue that Elizabeth Hand wanted to sew confusion from the start. That she wanted her readers to not get a firm grip on anything. If that was the case? Good on her! See, I'm totally willing to see the other side of things because books are fluid, what the writer intended and what the reader gets could be different, but that doesn't mean both aren't true at the same time.

Though what enchanted me most was the era. Ghost stories just seem to work better when set in a time before technology ran rampant. But I've come to realize that for a ghost story or supernatural spookfest to really catch me there has to be something I connect to. More and more this isn't character driven Victorian stories but more modern pieces set in the not-too-distant past. Like the 70s and 80s. There's a reason why The Conjuring series is doing so well and has so many spinoffs and why so many people have embraced Stranger Things. These are eras that have a distinct look and feel, a time when to get a hold of your friends you had to hope they got your message left with a family member on the one phone in their house or you'd just show up and pray their parents knew where they were. A time when plans couldn't be easily changed. A time when I was innocent and to see that innocence turn malevolent, there's something supercharged about that. Here it's the 70s, and it's perfect. Not just for the distant haze that memory has given me about the decade in which I was born, but because of this insidious supernatural phenomena creeping around the familiar. We have the isolated house, one lone phone, and this kind of golden haze and heat hanging over the events. Therefore when there are clouds or cold, you know something is going to go wrong. There's strange things happening in the house, it's rambling and easy to get lost in. A library that almost no one has found. Yet all of it could be explained away. Everything could be just too much indulgence, until there's proof that this isn't the case. Proof that comes almost at the very end.

Yet that ending is really abrupt. The whole book is kind of a summer idyll interspersed with supernatural phenomena. There's a laziness to it, not in that it's badly written, but in the luxurious pacing. You just want to inhabit the story but then they leave the house, put out the album, and then this interview happens years later... and as for Julian's fate... well, we aren't given anything concrete, we aren't given anything really. That throwaway line about one of the band members maybe seeing him years later doesn't count in my mind. I became invested in these characters lives and I didn't just want the story about THAT summer and their one "hit" album, I wanted to know what came after. How did Lesley become a star? How did Nancy, the girlfriend, end up a professional psychic in Florida? But more importantly, these interviews are all happening not just because of some anniversary for an album that achieved cult status but because there is work being done at the house. Work that uncovers artifacts of archaeological as well as personal interest to our characters. There seems to be a momentum throughout the book that they will all reunite and return to Wylding Hall and yet that never happens. It felt as though right when Elizabeth Hand was about to bring all the different threads together she decided instead she'd finished and just cut the work off prematurely. This is a three-quarters finished story. There is no final act. And THIS was the only bone of contention me and my fellow book clubbers had. Where is the resolution? Where is the final chord?

Because if we are to compare this to a song, they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All stories do too. But this one apparently won't. Yes, I have to accept this. I have to concentrate on that which worked so well. What I'm talking about is the purpose of fables and myths and epic songs, all that which goes into folk music. All these tales were told not because they were used as entertainment, but to impart warnings. "These are songs that have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They existed for centuries before any kind of recording was possible, even before people could write, for god's sake! So the only way those songs lived and got passed on was by singers." These songs were things that needed to be remembered. Things that needed to be known so that danger wasn't stumbled into blindly. While the Brothers Grimm might have gone a little too far with the moralizing, all tales that are passed down are done so with intent. There's a reason the locals get their backs up when these musicians come in asking about what shouldn't be talked of. Though logically IF the locals wanted them to behave perhaps some truth about the village and it's local legends could have warned them off. But that's not the purpose of villagers in these stories, their purpose is to see the strangers blithely walking into danger and keep their mouths shut. The danger that lies in the woods and lures Julian away with the fairies. It's this root of what folk music and folklore is that grounds the entire book in the human experience of tradition. So while it may falter, it still resonates.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book Review - H.P. Lovecraft's Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

 
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft
Published by: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1935
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

The world is stranger than it seems. No one knows this better than those who have been to Miskatonic University. But then, if you've been to this Ivy League school you've probably been there to catch a glimpse of their extensive collection of occult books and are therefore used to the strange. Perhaps you are even hoping to see the famous Necronomicon, capable of summoning the Old Ones. If that is the case, stories of ancient creatures plaguing the dreams of artists and poets are probably your bread and butter. Meteorite's bringing luminosity and madness to a small valley might seem plebeian. But at least you are forewarned. At least you know of the dangers that can be had on a street that can never be found again where you listened to the most haunting of music played on a viol. You know that sounds within the walls might bring a sleepless night or they might bring death to those you care for. You know that there are aliens and creatures beyond man's knowing and that sometimes this knowledge brings madness. Perhaps you yourself are mad. Maybe you were a professor at Miskatonic University who was called to a strange happening and your eyes were opened to the depravities that are possible when man and beast unite. Or maybe you went on an expedition, nothing more simple or academic than that. Then something went wrong. Someone went missing. Your worldview was forever changed and you were left with one purpose, to conceal the discovery of this horror from the rest of the world forever. Here's hoping you succeed and don't get in league with evil. But evil is so persuasive...

While most readers would probably place Lovecraft in the horror or fantasy sections of their bookshelves, he was distinctly influenced by the Gothic and in my mind that is where he belongs. Such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert W. Chambers helped lay the groundwork for Lovecraft and all three of these men straddled genres. If you keeping going backwards in classification you'll see that Gothic is the only way to encapsulate all of them, because horror eventually arose out of the Gothic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet Lovecraft has almost defied classification, he has become a byword for cosmic horror and knowledge beyond the ken of man, knowledge that often leads to insanity. His greatest creation, Cthulhu, is known by those who don't even know who Lovecraft or Arkham or Miskatonic University is. His imagery has become a part of popular culture and his influence is still felt. For me his influence is felt even closer to home in that my family owns Stanton and Lee Publishers which started as an imprint of Arkham House, which was founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish Lovecraft's work in beautiful hardcover editions. Therefore it's kind of embarrassing to admit that while familiar with Lovecraft's work I had actually never read it until now. What struck me most about this collection of his short stories is you can instantly see why his writing is classic. It's not just looking beyond his work and seeing how much influence he has had on other writers from August Derleth to Terry Pratchett to Bruce Campbell to the Duffer Brothers, but it's how his work was so original. His work feels so modern, so fresh, so out of it's time. His legacy might be great, but it's endured because he was a gifted writer who saw the world differently, much like the afflicted artists who people his stories.

As for this collection hand-picked by Joyce Carol Oates after all the copyright issues were settled... without having read any of Lovecraft's stories not included here, I'd say it's a very solid collection that should have left "At the Mountains of Madness" out. Now I know those who are fans of Lovecraft are wondering why I would omit his most famous work. Well it's because a novella has no business being included in a collection of short stories, it creates an imbalance in the book's flow. Also, his writing style works better on a smaller scale. I'm not talking worldbuilding, I'm talking length. He has a way of packing such a punch with his shorter stories that having the time to search miles and miles of Antarctica AND see giant penguins who actually have nothing to do with the plot makes the punch lose it's impact. It's true, shorter is sweeter. As a reader I'm not a fan of short story collections. One really badly picked or placed piece can throw off my entire opinion of the book, IE "At the Mountains of Madness." Though in fairness to this collection I didn't hold the novella inclusion against it, that's Joyce Carol Oates's fault. But I did have issues with Lovecraft's writing, and not just with the occasional out-of-touch reference that is the product of his time that he expressed through his continued use of inbreeding as a plot point, but through his repetitive use of certain words, phrases, stylistic elements, and plot twists. That's the problem with a writer who has certain ticks when stories that weren't meant to be presented together are, you see where he repeats. You think perhaps you should start a drinking game for every time he uses the word "cyclopean" but then worry that you will die of blood alcohol poisoning. But I think that if you were to just space out the reading of his work you wouldn't find this as annoying as someone who reads right through.

Yet this repetition isn't all bad. Yes, it can be irksome, but it also helps his stories to have an inter-connectivity. It's interesting to me, reading these stories almost a hundred years after they were written that he is obviously setting all these stories within the same universe of his creation. He's worldbuilding on a level that, as time goes on, is becoming more and more popular. How many tie-ins, prequels, sequels, what-have-yous are now out there in the world? Characters from Miskatonic University reappear or are referenced in other stories. Events that have happened in an earlier story with say a University expedition have consequences in a story that was written later about a different expedition. This more than anything else is why people have latched onto his work. He has created his own universe and while his longest story is nowhere near a sizable book if you put them all together you have one heck of a story. I think this is why so many authors are drawn to writing stories within his world. It's not just that it's iconic, it's that it's so specific, so well built that to write within these confines gives you a freedom and the hope that a little of his genius will rub off on you. While I'm not going to debate the difference between true literature and fanfic here, because that is too thorny an issue, there has to be something said to the freedom of writing in someone else's voice. Even Neil Gaiman has gone all out fanboy with his Sherlock Holmes pastiche set in Lovecraft's universe, "A Study in Emerald" which should be noted isn't the only time Sherlock has fought with Cthulhu in various other authors work. But it is very interesting to muse on the fact that Conan Doyle and Lovecraft are contemporaries... makes you think, doesn't it?

Though, for me there were two stories that really struck home, "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Shunned House." Both stories deal with houses that have weird effects on the residents. Needless to say these homes have death within their walls yet hint at "the other." Be it cannibalism, paganism, werewolves, these stories work because not only are they suspenseful, but they are also left open ended enough that you have to draw your own conclusions. With the mysterious, sometimes having everything tied up neatly in a bow is dissatisfying. The hints, the surmises you reach, they can scare you more then knowing exactly what was going on. These two stories need to be read in one sitting, the pages turned as fast as your eyes can take in the words. These stories go for the tropes of traditional Gothic stories, and yet, Lovecraft knows how to tweak the narrative just enough to make the genre all his own. That is why I think so many people shy from calling him a Gothic writer, he has made the genre his bitch. While "The Shunned House" is slightly predictable, following genre conventions, I defy anyone to see that ending coming in "The Rats in the Walls!" A story about a man restoring his ancestral home, you expect a bit of ghosts and ghouls, you don't expect him to become a cannibal and eat his son's best friend after dreaming that he was a pig now do you? Right there is the essence of Lovecraft. Serving up the unexpected in a very macabre way. He's fused his own weird notions of aliens and outer space with what people expect from the Gothic and created what is and will always be Lovecraftian.