Monthly Archives: January 2015

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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All great shows, she told me when I was little (and still learning to flex the tiny muscles in my esophagus), depend on the most ordinary objects. We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by. A kitchen knife. A bulb of glass. A human body. That something so common should be so surprising—why, we forget it. We take it for granted. We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be. This, she said is the tiger in the grass. It’s the wonder that hides in plain sight, the secret life that flourishes just beyond the screen. For you are not showing them a hoax or trick, just a new way of seeing what’s already in front of them.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. The show is about to begin. See the four-legged dancer, the half-man-half-woman. See the wheel of death, where knives fly toward a spinning lass. See the sword swallower (no, not that sort, puh-leez) and watch as one of our performers eats actual glass. But you had better be quick. This Coney Island sideshow, the Church of Marvels is about to burn to the ground.

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1996.164.5-10 bw SL1” by H.S. Lewis – Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons – Remnants of a 1903 fire at Coney Island.

Sylvan Threadgill is 19 years old and living on his own in the bowels of end-of-the-19th century New York City. He earns a meager living as a night-soiler, cleaning up the remains of the day, and picks up some extra cash as a boxer. It is while at the former job that he comes across an unusual discard. Sylvan is a (mostly) good-hearted sort, and he takes the baby in, intending to find it’s mother.

Odile Church, the spinning girl on the Wheel of Death, having lost so much, including her mother, worries about what became of her twin, Isabelle, the star of the Church of Marvels. Belle had vanished before the fire. Odile sets off to the never-seen far away land of Manhattan on a quest to find Belle, following a single clue.

Alphie, a “Penny Rembrandt,” and sometime sex-worker, is in love, having been swept off her feet by an undertaker. His old-world Italian mother does not approve, but he marries Alphie anyway, making for a very tense household. Alphie suddenly finds herself a virtual prisoner in Blackwell’s asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island. It is a lovely place, specializing in order over humanity, with generous doses of cruelty tossed in. Charles Dickens actually visited the real Blackwell’s in the 1840s and did not have anything good to say about it. Alphie encounters another prisoner (who never speaks) with unique skills and they plot their escape. Sylvan pursues the truth about the found infant, as Odile tries her best to track down her sister. Truths are discovered, both wonderful and horrifying and all converge to a thrilling climax.

Leslie Parry has written some wonderful characters, people you will most definitely care about, and she has placed them in a marvelous setting.

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Leslie Parry – from Missouri Review

The New York City of 1899 must have been a particularly bleak place for those at the lower end of things. But it is a marvelous place to read about. Parry has painted a colorful portrait of the time, offering chilling images of the era. She has a Dickensian penchant for naming her characters. A noseless street urchin is Sniff. A servant girl is Mouse. A nightsoil foreman is Mr. Everjohn. Another night-soiler is No Bones. A “widow” working in a bordello is Pigeon. There is much here about seeing what is in plain sight, but it is also clear that the author has done considerable digging to bring to light things that were hidden, or at least only slightly known. Opium dens among other things. The treatment of asylum inmates is as appalling as one might expect. The profession of night-soiler was news to me, as was the presence of a civil-war era floating ship hospital. You will enjoy learning of the professions of penny Rembrandt and JennySweeter, and of the significance of a north star symbol on the facades of local businesses.

There are sundry images that permeate the story. Tigers figure large for the girls, from the quilt their mother made for them as kids, to carnival tigers grooming Odile, to a literal take on Blake, to a notion of the secret in plain sight being a “tiger in the grass.” Church references extend beyond the family and family business name. A floating “church” serves as a venue for boxing matches, complete with a preacher and prayer cards. A sense of divinity is summoned on occasion as well. You might keep an eye out for crescents. Parry offers some passages on passages that certainly remind one of birthing and a sort of Campbellian descent.

…for a moment Sylvan had the dreamy sensation that he was swimming through the vein of a body, toward a lush, warming heart. Ahead of him the man was lumbering and stout, so large he had to duck beneath the doorframes, but he moved quickly, almost gracefully. The passage seemed to turn and fold back on itself, and then it came to an end. The man pulled aside a blue curtain and beckoned Sylvan inside.

One consistent concern is being seen for who one is, being appreciated, or at least, being accepted.

To be seen but not known was perhaps the loneliest feeling of all.

While I adore this book, I do have some gripes. There are enough orphans here to cast a production of Pirates of Penzance. While lost or missing parents may have been a much more common thing in 1899 than it is today, it seemed to me that the rope being used to lower the bucket to this well was getting a bit frayed. Mickey Finn is put to considerable use as well. There are two concerns that are heavily spoilerish, so I urge you to pass these by if you have not already read the book. RED means spoiler. Ok, you have been issued fair warning. We are to believe that Isabelle was de-tongued by one person. But how might that have been possible? Did Belle’s assailant grow extra arms? One set for holding Belle down, another for wielding both tongs and knife, and a third set for holding Belle’s mouth open? Nope. Did not buy that one. Also, we are to believe that Siamese twins, joined at the head, were successfully separated by a non-doctor in the 19th century? I doan theen so.

Church of Marvels offers a richly colorful landscape, although the hues tend to the dark end of the spectrum. The story is riveting and moving. The main characters are very interesting and mostly sympathetic. And there are enough twists to keep a contortionist bent out of shape. The image that Parry conjures of the time is richly detailed enough without being overwhelming, and the whole is presented with a warmth and charm that reminded me of The Golem and the Jinni. No, there is not the literal magical element of that other book, but both look at a historical New York and their characters with warmth and charm. In this case, presenting early New York as a kind of sideshow in and of itself.

I am not a regular attendee at any church, but I can heartily recommend Leslie Parry’s debut novel. This church is both unforgettable and marvelous.

Publication date – May 5, 2015
Review posted – 1/30/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Facebook and Twitter pages

A 5 minute sample of the audio version, read by Denice Stradling

Flashback: When Roosevelt Island Was Blackwell’s Island

Ten Days in a Madhouse, by Bill De Main – about Nellie Bly’s 1887 undercover commitment to Blackwell’s

Some of Bly’s report is available here

Some of Bly’s report is available here

An intro to Nelly Bly on PBS

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

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He pointed out that “a strong lack of conscience” is one of the hallmarks for these individuals. “Their game is self-gratification at the other person’s experience,” Hare said. “Psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. The acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilly inability to treat others as thinking, feeling humans.” – the author quoting Robert Hare, author of a book on Psychopathy

Call me Will. Some years ago, a lot, don’t ask, I thought I would see a bit of that northern rival city. It was wintry, snow on the ground. Accommodations were meager. No, I was not there alone, and the journey was not without portents. But I was spared a room-mate of the cannibalistic inclination. I still feel the pull, on occasions. Maybe stop by to see relics of Revolution, fields of dreams crushed and fulfilled, walk spaces where giants once strode. So I was drawn to Roseanne Montillo’s latest. In her previous book, The Lady and Her Monsters, she followed the trail of creation blazed by Mary Shelley as she put together her masterpiece, Frankenstein. In The Wilderness of Ruin, Montillo is back looking at monsters and creators. This time the two are not so closely linked. The monster is this tale is all too real, the youngest serial killer in US history. The artist in this volume is Herman Melville (and, of course, his monster as well, but the killer is the primary monster here) . Montillo treats us to a look at his life, or at least parts of it, and offers some details on the elements that went into the construction of his masterpiece, Moby Dick. A consideration of madness, in his work and in his life, and public discourse on the subject of madness links the two. A third character here is Boston of the late 19th century, as Montillo offers us a look at the place, most particularly in the 1870s. I am sure there are parts of the city remaining, in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, for one, where a form of madness is regularly experienced.

Before the infamous serial killers whose names we know too well, before BTK and Dahmer, before Bundy and Gacy, long before the Boston Strangler, Bean Town was afflicted by a particularly bloody small-fry with particularly large problems. Jesse Pomeroy was a sociopathic little beast who, as a pre-teen, preyed on small children, kidnapping, assaulting and cutting them. He was even known to have taken a bite. As a teen, after a spell in juvie, he graduated to murder. The book calls him America’s youngest serial killer. A drunken, abusive lout of a father played a part, but was Jesse born a monster or was he made? Of course, he would probably not fit as an actual serial killer, as currently defined, but he was definitely a multiple murderer, generated considerable terror in the area, and was certainly sociopathic.

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The young Jess Pomeroy and Herman Mellville

Montillo offers us a look at the mean streets of Boston in the 1870s. Her descriptions are filled with illuminating, and sometimes wonderful details. It was a very Dickensian scene with poverty widespread and in full view. Child labor was usual, housing was cramped and susceptible to conflagration. Class lines were sometimes demarcated quite clearly. Montillo tells of one in particular, Mount Vernon Street, that marked where well-to-do South Slope ended and working class North Slope began. It was also known as Mount Whoredom Street for its concentration of bordellos. My favorite period detail concerns a World Peace Jubilee that took place in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian war. (The mayor was trying to spruce up the city’s image.) Johann Strauss played Blue Danube, and one hundred fifty firemen took the stage of the newly constructed Coliseum to perform a piece of music by pounding on 150 anvils, which probably makes Boston the birthplace of heavy metal (sorry).

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The Coliseum in the World Peace Jubilee

Montillo also tells of the sort of political shortsightedness which has plagued governments everywhere. The Fire Chief had taken note of the unpleasantness endured by Chicago in 1871 and urged the city government to do some infrastructure investment to prevent a similar outcome. Think the city did it? Of course, after the conflagration, the media, indulging in their usual investigative acuity, somehow focused blame on the one guy who was trying to prevent catastrophe. Same ole media.

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Baked Beantown – from Library of Congress

Melville had to endure some troubles of his own. We in the 21st century may regard Moby Dick as one of the masterpieces of American literature, but it sold like three-day old fish. Melville earned less than $600 for his effort, which labors took a considerable toll on his health and maybe on his sanity. Imagine you are Herman Melville and are working on your Opus Magnus, in a place (Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MA) that is heavy with family, visitors, screaming children, constant distraction, and your family is trying to get you to stop writing, because, of course, it is the writing that is making you nuts. It is amazing to me that Melville did not take a page from Pomeroy’s book and reduce his distractions a notch. It will come as no surprise that he was quite interested in the notion of madness. It was a widely discussed issue of the day. There was direct applicability of the madness discussion to matters like sentencing. If a prisoner is considered insane, would it be ok to execute him? Montillo goes into some of the thought at the time and the thinkers making their cases. Melville’s interest in madness was certainly manifest in his book. Ahab has…issues.

Another treat in the book is some more back story on where and how Melville got some of his material. I had thought it was the tale of the Essex that had been the sole white whale inspiration. Turns out there was an earlier one. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the whaler…. I am not aware of the name of the aged whale that took out the Essex, but the earlier one was named Mocha Dick, Mocha for the island near where it was sighted, and Dick as a generic appellation, like the Joe part of GI Joe. It does, however, sound like an unspeakable beverage not on sale at Starbuck’s, so far as I am aware.

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Cover of J. N. Reynolds story Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific

Due to the joining together of a city and a multiple murderer, The Wilderness of Ruin does bear a base similarity to Erik Larson’s outstanding book, The Devil in the White City. Both tell of an awful killer, and depict a major American city at a time of great change. However Wilderness… does not deliver quite the punch of the earlier book.

First, the link between the killer and Melville lies not in their having anything to do with each other. It is in the fact that madness is associated with both of them. And that is a fairly thin tether with which to connect the two. There are added links having to do with perception of relative skull size and skin color, but I thought those were a stretch. Given how magnificently Montillo had delved into the underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s great work, I believe she would have been well served to have offered up another on Melville. It is possible, of course, that she did not have enough new material with which to populate an entire volume. And there is no shortage of material on Melville out there already. (a Google search of “Melville biography” yielded 9,460 results) Of course, I expect the same might have been said for Mary Shelley. Don’t know, but the linkage felt forced.

Second, there is not really much of a hunt for Pomeroy. He spends most of his time in the book well contained behind bars, attempting to escape his come-uppance legally, and with digging tools, unlike the devil in Chicago, who remained at his dark task for most of that tale.

Third, the title may suggest something to the author, (terminology used to describe the aftermath of the Chicago fire, perhaps) I did not really get a clear image of the stories being told from the title. I suppose Pomeroy creates his fair share of ruin, and Melville endures far too much, and, of course, the city goes all to blazes, but the title just felt off to me.

However, there is still plenty to like in The Wilderness…. That one can come away from this book with a Zapruder-like mantra, “There was a second white whale,“ is almost worth the price of admission on its own. For those who have not already availed of material on Herman, there is enough here to whet one’s appetite, without going overboard. Some of the details of 19th century Boston (Yes, the parts may not have been legally part of the Boston of the era, but they are part of it today) are fascinating. There is a nugget on the origin of a famous Poe story, from when he was stationed in Boston. The discussion on madness is certainly worth listening in on. As is an exchange of ideas about the benefits of solitary confinement. Finally, there is cross-centuries relevance to how government and media function. It will certainly come as no surprise to anyone living in 21st century America that lily-livered politicians would rather take a chance on their districts burning to the ground sooner than spend public money to protect them. And were you aware that Boston had suffered a catastrophic conflagration only a year after Chicago? (excluding you folks from the Boston area. You know about this, right?) And it will come as no surprise to anyone with a radio, television or computer that substantial portions of the media are dedicated to dimming the light by increasing the temperature. The book may not be equal to the sum of the parts, the linkages are a bit frayed, the hunt for and serial designation of the killer may have been exaggerated, but the parts are still pretty interesting. It is always a good thing to visit Boston.

Posted – 1/9/15

Publication date – 3/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author on Twitter

Moby Dick for free on Gutenberg

Billy Budd for free on Gutenberg Australia

Here is a wiki on Mocha Dick , and here the text of the Knickerbocker article in which that tale is told.

A wiki piece on the World Peace Jubilee

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Psychology and the Brain

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

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Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.

Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.

Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.

As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.

Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.

Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.

King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.

King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubby family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.

Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.

So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.

You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.

Posted – 1/3/15

Published June 3, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is SK’s site and FB page

Otto Penzler has nifty description of what constitutes hard-boiled fiction

A few other King Family items I have reviewed
by Stephen King
The Shining
Doctor Sleep
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story
Revival

by Joe Hill
NOS4A2
20th Century Ghosts
Heart-Shaped Box

A Gif of the UK cover is cute, but I thought it too distracting to include above

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Noir