Friday, September 17, 2021

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. | Goodreads


Vonnegut concludes. Dark humor, satire, he tries to kill us with too much to think about. Glorious.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Black Sun or a Novel wherein the plot, characters, setting and action is fully eclipsed.

Black Sun

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Longest short story I've ever read. 

Some notes;
Brutal, off putting 1st chapter. 

The time jumping is pointless. If this had been told in a linear fashion, maybe it would have felt like the characters actually did something in the story.

Characters; Serapio. His role is to be a kick the dog character (kick the god character). Goal: become a god. Obstacles: none. Mission Accomplished, more or less?

Xiala. Female Jack Sparrow. The only character I enjoyed. She's also a water-bender and mermaid. She is written as incompetent and fails at her 1 job. Too bad, because she was the only one having any fun. Goal: Captain a ship. Mission failed.

Naranpa. Sun Priest. Written as incompetent and fails at her 1 job. Goal: none. 

Okoa. Some guy. Goal: unknown. Has a big bird. 

The pace of this story is extremely slow. It is almost entirely exposition (repeatedly repeated). The setting is a very thin veneer of Aztec/Mayan fantasy over a standard backdrop (Dice games, whore houses, slimy merchants, temple intrigue, plagues, peasants, pirates)
And finally, I have no idea who I am rooting for in this story. Xiala, I suppose, but she doesn't have any goals of her own, so that makes it hard. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Lisa Taddeo's Three Women

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Published by: Avid Reader Press / Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: July 9th, 2019
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Maggie thought she was in love. She thought he loved her too. But it was an unequal relationship. He was her teacher. He slowly worked his way into her life so that he was all she had and then one day she texted him and his wife saw. That ended everything. In fact it felt like her life ended. A few years later she sees his face smiling on the news. He has been named teacher of the year in North Dakota. She realizes it is time to go public, because as her therapist has told her, she couldn't have been the first. Yet Maggie's past calls everything she says into question and the love of her life will get away with the damage he's inflicted. Linna just wants her husband to touch her. A kiss, a caress, anything. She's decided that if this continues for three months she will leave him. Of course he doesn't know that she has a dream, that she will get back together with her high school sweetheart whom she's been having an affair with. Aidan and her broke up in high school because she was raped by three classmates one night and forever branded a whore. Her entire life she has felt the void left by Aidan leaving. And here he is, back in her life, or at least her car, whenever his needs need to be met. She knows it's a one way relationship, but to be touched, to be cared for, even in this small way, was more than she ever got from her husband. Sloane looks to have the perfect life. A husband with whom she runs a successful restaurant, beautiful children, and looks that don't betray her age. She and her husband love each other completely, only he takes sexual satisfaction from watching his wife sleep with other men and women, occasionally participating. All these women would do anything for love. They would degrade themselves, they would hurt themselves, they would even, perhaps, kill themselves.

Three Women is a puerile and prurient book, like a small child that can not yet form full sentences but randomly yells out "fuck" for the reaction they get from adults. This is not in the least a book about female desire but a book about women molested and controlled by men. One can only assume that all the glorious reviews were written by men who long to dominate women and hope that this debasement is truly the secret desire of all women. I have shocking news for them; it's not. I keep coming back to the fact that Taddeo supposedly worked on this book for eight years and in this time she gained no depth on her subjects. These women could have been handled tactfully, their body image issues and abuse dealt with in a thoughtful manner, instead it's just who they are on the surface, not who they were made to become, and the abuse, while there, also fuels their desire. But why? WHY!?! These women are nothing more than paper dolls. They are one dimensional cliches that I strongly suspect don't even really exist with their love of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact Sloane might very well be nothing more than an amalgam of Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. And the fact that Gossip Girl handled bulimia better than this book and that even Twilight is better written should give you a hint as to how bad this book is. As you read about Lina massaging the fondant from a Cadbury Creme Egg into Aidan's scrotum you will feel your brain cells dying.

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.