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.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Dave Eggers's The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers
Published by: Vintage Books
Publication Date: October 8th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 497 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Mae Holland had dreams that took her east of the Rockies to an elite liberal arts college yet here she is, back in her home town, working nine to five at a utility company of all places. Whereas her college roommate Annie Allerton doesn't just work for the most important tech company on the planet, she's one of the Group of 40, one of the forty most influential people in the most influential company in the world. Thanks to Annie pulling some strings she gets Mae in the door for an interview at The Circle. As Mae walks through the campus she realizes that she is in heaven and she doesn't care if the job she's interviewing for is only in Customer Experience, answering questions and obsessively keeping track of her satisfaction rating, it's where everyone started, even Annie. Yet her transition into The Circle isn't that smooth, she makes more than a few mistakes in not fully engaging in the culture that the company wants its employees to embrace. She also upsets a few of her coworkers by her lack of participation.

But leeway is given as she's a friend of Annie and there are extenuating circumstances with her family. Her father is suffering from MS and her mother is struggling to cope. With Mae now further away they are relying heavily on Mae's ex, Mercer. The pressure to help, to be better, makes Mae reckless and one night she breaks into a kayak rental store she frequents after-hours and what happens next changes everything. It's not just that Mae is caught by technology that The Circle created, it's her blind ignorance that she was cheating others of a once in a lifetime experience that now only exists in her memories. Because sharing is caring. This experience is the beginning of her full integration into The Circle. Through a talk with The Circle's co-founders, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, Mae becomes "transparent," broadcasting her life 24/7 to the world. Soon she has eclipsed Annie and becomes the face of The Circle. Mae has everything she could possibly dream of, what could possibly go wrong?

The Circle is an interesting book to read because I think I can say that it's easily the most uneven book I've ever read with an ill-defined endgame. Because of my blog and how many books I review in a year I kind of get a sense while reading about what star rating a book will end up with but here I was flummoxed. The narrative is continually waffling between searing satire and heavy-handed often clumsy world commentary. If The Circle hadn't ended on just the right note that it did, with that perfect level of cynicism pushing it towards darkness, it would have been a fail. With literally one witch-hunt worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West and a two and a half page conclusion everything comes together and all the faults can be overlooked when you finally see the bigger picture. That ill defined bigger picture is so badly articulated until those final moments when you learn what the end goal of "closing the circle" is that The Circle is almost a book without a plot relying on vaguely interconnecting scenes and too much kayaking. While a book can be redeemed by it's ending, it's far more satisfying to have enough clues that give you a hint of what's to come without actually being able to put all the pieces together. Structure is important to all things in life, not just architecture!

What struck me most forcibly reading The Circle is how it resonates at the moment. This transparency of life is exactly the opposite to how we are currently living. The trolls of the Internet are everywhere, even in the highest office of the land, and they hide behind fake news and fake identities. Truth isn't actually something you hear very often anymore. Yet The Circle created TruYou, where your identity isn't just synced across all platforms, but that it's verified as actually being you, like Twitter verification to the umpteenth degree that has access to your credit cards. Everyone can be held accountable for everything they do. This is just such a weird polarity to living in a world where the president doesn't even want to be on camera for plausible deniability. And all this got me thinking, could what is happening now spawn a future like Dave Eggers has created? Will all these lies lead the coming younger generation, who are the early adapters of all tech, to force a TruYou situation? Which I personally think would be the other extreme. Just because it looks perfect doesn't mean it is, that's the whole point of dystopian literature, it's someones utopia.

And as we all know, utopia is heaven, and heaven is found through religion and the church, and oh yes, there are religious metaphors aplenty here. While the most obvious would be to see this as very much of the school of Scientology, I think it's more the school of Apple, or Google, or even, to go a little homegrown, Epic. All secretive organizations, all have vast sprawling campuses that encourage a community formed of your work colleagues, and all kind of indoctrinate you. Years ago a study was done on true Apple acolytes and under scientific observation they had the same reaction to seeing the Apple logo as true believers when show the cross. Eggers is on fire when he leans towards the dark humor. The book soars when comparing the three founders to the father, the son, and the holy ghost, or, as the case is here, an octopus, a shark, and a seahorse. Their inability to see who is the most dangerous of the three founders. The dark intents that "the son" has for the future. I just want to yell it from the rooftops that this is what works, this is what makes the book such an amazing read. But then Eggers comes along every once in awhile and goes all earnest and I want to smack him. Being earnest has no place in a dark satire, and those scenes when Mae is smiling or frowning at 50 million different "tweets" or posts while using so many screens it's almost incomprehensible I want to highlight them and ask Eggers to make the rest of the book like this.

Because whenever Mae has to deal with anything outside The Circle it's like a damp towel has been thrown over the book. Her off-campus life is painful to read. It's not just that there's no spark, no subversive humor, it's that it's too earnest. Mae dealing with her family and Mercer is painful. Yes, I know that this kind of needs to be the case. There needs to be a disconnect between her old world and her new world, but that doesn't mean it has to be so bleak. Her parents dealing with MS was almost too painful for me to read, and not just because I've spent this year suffering from caregivers syndrome, but because it didn't read true. It read as plot contrivances. We need Mae's parents to push her further into The Circle and Mercer to be the sacrifice that is the nail in Mae's coffin. But could they at least have been written better? This needed the polish that the rapid fire dialogues Mae has with her co-workers received. It just needed to be a piece with the rest of the book. THIS is what makes the book uneven. This disconnect between her two worlds, like trying to shove a FireWire cable into a USB port, and it needed to be addressed. As did Mae's love life, because Eggers sure doesn't know how to handle sex in a way that isn't clunky and unbelievable. But I'm willing to tackle one subject at a time.

For my final subject I will tackle tech. Technology is rapidly changing and each year that passes it speeds up more and more. By the time you buy a new phone or computer it's already obsolete. Just think about this, in my lifetime computers have gone from the size of large rooms to being able to be held in the palm of your hand and I'm not yet forty. And that computer in your hand is FAR more powerful than the one that took up a large room or perhaps even several buildings. Phones are now in our pockets instead of only in houses and on street corners. Therefore in the five years that have passed since The Circle was first released the leaps and bounds in tech have lead the amazing and revolutionary tech that Eamon Bailey introduces in his big presentation that Mae goes to laughably out of date. SeeChange, the streaming camera service that causes Mae so much grief but then makes her a celebrity is common now. When Bailey is talking about how crystal clear images can be I was thinking, yeah, just look at Netflix, or Hulu, or even Skype. This "revolutionary" tech is no longer so. Which makes me wonder about the longevity of The Circle. Will it somehow become a dystopian classic that looks back on a certain time with it's quaint tech or will it be forgotten? Personally, I think it will be forgotten. If you look at the classics of this genre there's a timelessness to them. While they may have been written in the 70s or the 80s they don't quite feel of that time but of all times. The Circle feels very much of one time and I fear it's time has already passed.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E.Schwab
Published by: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 24th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Through a linguistic quirk no one can understand there are four parallel Londons. All in their own worlds, separated from each other like the pages of a book, but all in the same location along the curve of the same river. Though the rivers do not have the same linguistic oddity that London does, instead London is on the banks of the Thames, the Isle, and the Sijlt depending on which London. Once there were doors connecting all the Londons together and perhaps that magical transference is why they share the same name. But the doors had to be closed. One of the worlds became infected by magic and Black London fell. Or at least that's the name Kell has given that world. Kell is an Antari. His one black eye marks him out as being one of only two people in all the Londons able to travel between the worlds. Kell comes from Red London, Arnes, the only London still magically thriving. White London, being closest to the fallen city is now dying too, a vicious and dangerous place with power hungry people and maniacal leaders. Farthest from Black London is Grey London, the London of England and a mad king locked away in a palace while his son waits to rule. Grey London will soon become a refuge for Kell when his illegal habit of collecting artifacts from other Londons gets him into trouble when he is give a powerful relict from Black London. This magical artifact could destroy his world and he needs help. That help comes in the form of Delilah Bard, a Grey London thief who has been waiting her entire life for an adventure. Helping Kell save his world sounds like an adventure worthy of her. Because if you don't risk your life, did you really live?

Much like Murder, Magic and What We Wore this is another book that takes the Regency Magic building blocks and goes in an entirely unexpected direction. We start out in the London we know so well, there's a mad king on the throne and his power hungry son. But here OUR London is just a starting off point. The aptly named "Grey" London, if just for the rain and soot and not it's lack of magic, is utilized, but just to familiarize ourselves with what to expect going forward with the magical worldbuilding. Like Grey London's Lila we need to get a grasp on what we are about to delve into with Red and White London. Lila is our avatar, our touchstone in A Darker Shade of Magic. Red London is, in my mind, a more Renaissance Faire Game of Thrones world. There's more pageantry and partying, in fact the Prince Regent from Grey London would probably love to rule over Arnes! This world that Schwab has built is more in keeping with books considered traditional fantasy fare. This really intrigues me because so much of Regency Magic is about trying to infuse the fantasy into our world, shoehorn it in if you will, whereas here there are no pretensions, it's an all out fantasia and that's what makes this book so unique. As for White London? That world is like some dark Scandinavian shit y'all. The closest I can think of is Vikings meet Fortitude... and that's dark. But again, something you wouldn't expect in the dainty drawing rooms of Regency England and that's perhaps why I'm most drawn to the White city.

The fact that I can find something to love in each and every one of the different Londons just shows how Schwab 100% nailed the worldbuilding. But I don't want to talk about the worlds here as a whole I want to talk about how she was able to ground the magic in reality and describe it in a logical way that fit into the narrative so that it didn't feel like necessary but clunky exposition. Magic here is based on the elements, the building blocks of the world around us; fire, water, air, earth, metal, and bone. This is all explained to us by a magic set that Kell has brought from Red to Grey London for a collector of magical ephemera. While waiting for the buyer to appear he meets Edward Archibald Tuttle III, Ned. Ned isn't a collector, he's an enthusiast, which are people Kell tends to avoid. But on this one day he's feeling generous and shows the learning tool to Ned. This small box contains a little of the basic five elements, it's not considered good manners or good in general to talk about being able to control bone. There's water, sand for air, earth, oil for fire, and metal. This is how you learn what your elemental affinity is. Because magic is fickle. Not everyone has talent and most only have a connection to one element, sometimes two, but three is really rare. Because Kell is Antari and can use blood magic he can also control all elements. But to me I just like the simplicity of the system. Now I'm not using simplicity as an insult, because this is a complex world that Schwab has built, I'm using it as a compliment, in the it's easy to understand and grasp and therefore the magic is more real because you can understand it. See, that's a compliment.

But I wouldn't be me if I loved everything about a book now would I? I have now read A Darker Shade of Magic twice and it's not quite as good the second time around. Scwab has given us such a fast-paced read that the first time you're almost stumbling over the words just trying to get to the next page, not picking up on each and every detail in the need to know what happens to Kell and Lila. So reading it a second time I wasn't racing because I knew the outcome and therefore I started to catch little inconsistencies. This all boils down to the way Schwab writes. You'll be reading a paragraph and she'll mention someone standing and you will be convinced that they were sitting just a second ago. So you'll go back and only about 50% of the time does she say they've moved and it's usually buried deep in the text and is just brushed aside in passing. You know the saying, don't bury your lead? You should also not bury important things like a characters physical location. Because while she does say they've moved 50% of the time the other 50% of the time she doesn't. They're sitting, they're standing, they're here, they're there, it drove me slightly batty. I like to know what the characters look like and where they are, and most of the time I just didn't know where they were! I don't know if you're like me, but when I read I visually picture everything and when a new piece of information arrives I readjust the scene, like quickly panning the camera to another location. But here it was like I was playing some of my old MMORPGs where my character would jump from one location to another because of lag. I didn't like that when I played games, and I sure don't like it when reading a book.

Though this writing quirk is something that can be lovingly beaten out of Schwab given good enough editors. Come on Tor, I believe in you! What can't be fixed, at least in this installment of the trilogy, is that I just don't get the Kell/Rhy dynamic. Rhy is the royal prince whose family "adopted" Kell. So it's brotherly to an extent, but Kell willing to give up/bind his life to Rhy doesn't sit right with me. Rhy comes across as Red London's answer to Captain Jack Harkness but without the whole bothering to save the world. He's insecure and annoying. There has to be SOME reason other than this brotherly love for Kell to risk so much. Kell recounts a story of when Rhy was younger and got kidnapped and Kell saved Rhy's life almost at the cost of his own. It's a touching story, but for me I only felt Kell's need, not any justification for the act. It's more like Kell is so used to saving Rhy that he views it as his job. This has the effect of making Rhy more dependent on Kell and therefore more jealous of his "brother" which leads to the whole, oh shit I need Kell to magically save my life yet again. Rhy's rebellion at this need makes him a selfish ass. Sometimes you do need help, sometimes you aren't the best or the brightest, but doing something stupid just makes you stupid. Now you're saying I'm missing the point, that this shows that everyone is vulnerable and that love conquers all... that's not how I read it. To me it came across that a spoiled prince was an imposition to his "brother," who is treated more as a magical orphan slave than a sibling, yet again and it would have been just to have Rhy's actions have consequences that affected him and not others. Hence I don't get Kell/Rhy... just let the prince die.