Category Archives: Fantasy

Beacon Hell

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover. with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

One Horse Town

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

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

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. – the opening of The Iliad by Homer
I’m not sure I could have made it more obvious, but he hasn’t understood at all. I’m not offering him the story of one woman during the Trojan War, I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. Well, most of them (I haven’t decided about Helen yet. She gets on my nerves.). I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter.

Calliope, Homer’s presumed muse, keeps trying to get him to tell the broader tale, not just the one about the men and their battles and intrigues. But he insists on a singular, male-oriented view of the Troy story (Ilios is Greek for Troy). That is the only one we have gotten, well, from him, anyway. Other classical writers have offered some different perspectives, Euripedes in particular.

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Natalie Haynes – Image from her site – photo credit: Dan Mersh

We have all read it, (you did do the assigned reading in school right?) or certainly at least heard about it. The Iliad, by Homer, is the most widely read epic poem ever. The action centers on the leaders and the combatants, with a healthy dose of less-than-divine gods and goddesses, and adventure aplenty. It is rather light, though, on the stories about the impact of this lengthy war on women. Whudduwe? Chopped livah?

So, Natalie Haynes offers a retelling of the story of Troy from the perspective of its female characters, the story she imagines Calliope might have been pressing on her reluctant client. And the Odyssey as well, as we trail Odysseus through some of his dodgy travails.

The drama of war is not always found on the battlefield. It’s in the build-up, the aftermath, the margins. Where the women are waiting. – Haynes – from The Observer article

Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

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Trojan Horse – image from ThoughtCo.com

Just like today, the lives of regular people in Greek mythology are made miserable by the feckless, selfish, ignorant actions of the people in charge. And those on high are not shy about using others, other gods, lower-level gods, demi-gods, and mere mortals to implement their dark desires. For example, Gaia, mother of Titans (take that, Daenerys) is maybe a bit more like Joan Crawford (Earth-Mommy dearest?) in this telling, or a very unhappy landlady. (banging on the ceiling with a broom handle?)

Mankind was just so impossibly heavy. There were so many of them and they showed no sign of halting their endless reproduction. Stop, she wanted to cry out, please stop. You cannot all fit on the space between the oceans…you must stop, so that I can rest beneath your ever-increasing weight.

Zeusy, Sweetie, can you help me out here? And what better way to take off a bit of excess earthly poundage than a lengthy and particularly bloody war. Sure, Gai, no prob. And thus, with the eager assistance of a cast of the greedy, prideful, bloodthirsty, short-sighted, dumb, and just plain foolish, we get a decade-long war, short on forward movement but long on casualties, and stories.

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Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy – by Evelyn De Morgan – from Wikimedia

We follow a cast of mostly female characters as they endure or succumb to the horrors of war, politics and religion. Hecabe, Priam’s widow is a central core among the captive wives and daughters of the defeated Trojans, holding the group together as they ponder and plan for their fates in the hands of their captors. They cope with their treatment by the Greek victors. Some names will be familiar. Others, less so. You have probably heard of Cassandra. And certainly you know of Hector, but not his widow Andromache. They face moral choices no less than their y-chromosome counterparts. When and how to resist, when and how to go along. Finding ways to seek justice, revenge, or freedom. Banding together. Even the hated Helen is given a turn. Their lives, and deaths are no less heroic, despite a lower body count.

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Penthesilea – image from Total War Saga: Troy

Non-Trojan women get a perspective as well. You may have heard of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, but maybe not of Penthesilea, an amazing Amazonian character, Xena, or Wonder Woman, sans the tech. Leading her force into battle, looking to take on Achilles himself. You go, girl. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, gets some recognition for the atrocities she has endured, not just the one for which she has received a dark reputation.

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Penelope – image from The Arts Desk – painting by John William Waterhouse

Penelope tells Odysseus’s story via letters, having heard of his doings from local bards, who clearly get great reception on their muse-links. So, Ody, the war’s over, dinner is getting cold, your son would like to meet you, what time do you think you’ll be home? There are several Penelope chapters, written as letters to her MIA hubs. Pretty funny stuff, looking at the adventures of Odysseus from the perspective of the ones left behind. Oh, so after you poked out the Polyphemus’s one eye and were sailing off into the distance, you felt it necessary to tell him your real name? Just what the hell is wrong with you? You knew that Poseidon was his father, right? Hope you enjoy that curse he dumped on you. Well, no wonder you got blown off course. How old are you?…Really, you took a side trip to Hades? What were you thinking? Shacked up with Circe for a year and that Orygian home-wrecker Calypso for seven FU@#ING YEARS!!! My patience is running a wee bit thin, husband. Her exasperation really comes through.

You were wedded to fame more than you were ever wedded to me. And certainly, your relationship with your own glory has been unceasing.

The men do not come off well, overall, Achilles is not just the greatest warrior who ever lived, but a feckless murder machine who sees no difference between taking on Trojan warriors on the battlefield and mowing down unarmed old men, women, and children from his horse. His bf, Patroclus, thinks a high body count is all that matters, regardless of type. Agamemnon, nominal leader of the Greek coalition army, is venal, pathetic, entitled and cowardly. Can he be impeached? Really, you are willing to slaughter one of your kids to get a fair wind for your ships just because some priest tells you so? Really? Dude, you deserve what you get.

What kind of man wore a bronze breastplate and a plumed helmet to return home? One who believed that his power was seated in his costume, she supposed. The red leather of his scabbard was very fine, studded with gold flecks. She did not recognize it, and realized this must be part of his share of the fabled wealth of Troy. To have killed her child for a decorated bit of animal skin. She could feel the contempt shaping her mouth into a sneer, and stopped herself. Now was not the time to lose control. That would happen later.

The gods are portrayed as their usual awful selves, which is no surprise. Power corrupts, and, apparently, makes you really stupid, too. While most of the women come to a bad end. This is not a spoiler, because you read the book, right? But some get in a few licks of their own, and a few even escape.

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Detail of painting The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet, in which she holds a copy of the Odyssey – image from Wikimedia

There are many lessons from The Iliad that still pertain thousands of years after its writing. Antenor telling those in charge that the Trojan horse might, just possibly, be a ploy, and Cassandra cursed with knowing what lies ahead but never being acknowledged might, just possibly, remind some of the Trump administration’s response to the Covid crisis. And a Trojan willing to open the gates for an invading horde might certainly resonate with corrupt American legislators offering tours and even directions to a Capitol-invading mob in 2021. The classics are classic for a reason

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Clytemnestra and Agamemnon – Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) – Image from Greek Legends and Myths

To see or hear Haynes speak is to be instantly charmed, and better, educated and entertained. She is a gifted lecturer, bringing to her talks all the effervescence, delight, and enthusiasm she clearly brings to her fiction. She is an amazing writer, bringing the ancients to life for us in the 21st century. And her decade-plus career as a stand-up comedian clearly informs her work. While not LOL-funny here, her portrayal of Penelope’s remarkable forbearance certainly has a sharp comedic edge. Overall, Haynes has given voice to a side of the Trojan War that has been much overlooked. A Thousand Ships deserves to get millions of readers. It’s smart, entertaining take on a classic story is a new classic, all its own.

A war does not ignore the lives of half the people it touches. So why do we?

Review posted – January 22, 2021

Publication dates
———- May 2nd 2019 by Mantle (UK)
———–January 26, 2021 – Harper (USA)

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

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

Interviews
—–NPR – The Trojan Women — And Many More — Speak Up In ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Lulu Garcia-Navarro
—–Books on the Go – Ep 78: Interview with Natalie Haynes, ‘A Thousand Ships’ – with Anna Bailliekaras – audio – 36:43
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand up comedians who talk about why they got out
—–Salon London – In conversation with ‘the Nation’s Great Muse’: Natalie Haynes – video – 1:04:13
—–Harrogate Literature Festival – mostly on Pandora’s Jar rather than A Thousand Ships, but wonderfully entertaining, and some outstanding and surprising information about Helen
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand-up comedians who talk about why they got out

Items of Interest – by the author
—–Natalie Haynes: Troy Story – A. G. Leventis WCN Ancient Worlds Study Day 2019
You must watch this. You will not be sorry
—–Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics – BBC Radio 4 – A lecture series by Haynes – audio
—–The Observer – Helen of Troy: the Greek epics are not just about war – they’re about women
—–Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors
—–Troy Story – Heroes Gods and Amazons!

Items of Interest
—– Where Does the Phrase “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” Come From? By N.S. Gill
—–wiki on Calliope
—–wiki on Clytemnestra
—–Homer (no, wiseguy, not the one from The Simpsons) – The Iliad – full-text from Gutenberg

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

book coverI will be writing, have been writing, or have already written (depending on when you see this. Time is strange here on GR) a review of Welcome to Night Vale. But until/when/after I do (or until you return from whatever time stream you are in to read this, or move ahead into another one) I can offer one definite bit of advice. Listen to a few of the Night Vale podcasts. If they float your boat, or, lacking water, elevate you at least several inches off the ground for a period of about twenty minutes, you will love this book. Proceed directly to the beginning of the actual review.

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====================================NOT ENCHANTED?
If you find the podcasts uninteresting, really, did you touch one of the pink flamingos? Something is wrong. OK, Ok, I know there are some folks who will not be enchanted by the Night Vale podcasts. This book is probably not for you. But if you go to the local library, you are sure to find something more to your liking. Hurry, go now. You might want to stop by and visit the dog park on your way. Be sure to say hi to the friendly figures in the hoods. Y’all take care now, and return directly to the section titled “Not Enchanted?”

=======================================ACTUAL REVIEW

It is a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Whew! I’m so glad we got rid of those people.

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A Cecil Baldwin sandwich with the authors in the role of bread

In July, 2013, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It all began in 2012, a twice-a-month podcast that is Lake Wobegon by way of David Lynch, Lovecraft, told in the form of a community radio newscast.

It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” – from interview in The Arcade

It is read by Cecil Baldwin who shares a first name with his fictional manifestation, Cecil Palmer, the radio broadcaster. The podcast is weird, creepy fun, rich with non-sequiturs and reasons to be afraid, many reasons. Cecil’s steady tones make it seem practically normal.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories. And also, to a lesser extent fascinated by the Southwest desert. Fascinating things probably happen there on a regular basis. So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real. – From Jackie Lyden’s 2013 NPR interview with the authors

And whether it was a result of a desire for expression in a new medium, an action taken in compliance with an order from one of the hooded figures in the dog park, or an angel in old woman Josie’s house, Fink and Craynor have committed their world to print.

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We, as readers, seem to have a soft spot for this genre. I don’t know if there is a name for the type that this fits into, storytelling-wise, but if there is a short term for “A small town where something is…off,” this book would fit in there quite nicely. (I know it is far from wonderful, but I hereby nominate the word “Oddsville” for the genre, capital of the great state of Unease. All in favor?) There is a rich tradition of such writing. Rod Serling was a fan of this trope in his Twilight Zone writing (Where is Everybody? , Monsters are Due on Maple Street, People Are Alike All Over). Stephen King has made a career in them, Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot…ad infinitum. TV has mined this heavy lode as well. In addition to Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-files, and god-knows how many more, there are some more recent shows that indulge, including Wayward Pines, the town of Hope in The Leftovers, Haven, Eureka, Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen. Small towns, it would appear, are in our literary, and certainly in our entertainment DNA. So the something-off-small-town of Night Vale should feel familiar. Of course this one is a bit more unusual than your typical Oddsville offering, being rather flamboyant in its strangeness, to the point of silliness at times.

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As for the story, Jackie Fierro has been 19 for many, many years (like some of us?). She runs the town pawn shop, and will accept pretty much anything. A mysterious man in a tan jacket, gives her a slip of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Every time she tries to get rid of the thing, or even to put it down, it keeps coming back to her, which, as you might imagine, is alarming. So she goes in search of tan-jacket man but no one in town can seem to recall seeing him. Hmmm.

Diane Crayton is a single mom to a shape-shifting fifteen-year-old son (what parent of a teenager cannot relate?). Of late she has been seeing Josh’s long absent Y-chromosome source all over town. Josh has been showing an interest in tracking down his father, despite Diane’s attempts to dissuade him. Diane and Jackie’s quests, and Josh’s too, lead them in a direction that is as obvious as an MC Escher roadmap. Does an endpoint even exist?

Diane and Jackie are certainly likeable sorts, and their tale is intriguing, with plenty of challenges to face and mysteries to solve, but the real deal with Welcome to Night Vale consists of three things, location, location, location. Fink and Cranor are trying to re-create in book form the delightfully weird experience of their podcast world. The story seems secondary. The atmosphere is rich with intense strangeness. I found most of it delightful, a dry delivery masking outrageousness. Sometimes they try too hard, generating eye-rolling that has been made mandatory by the City Council. You really, really do not want to fight city hall here, particularly on days when human sacrifice is on the calendar. But it is good, weird fun most of the time. The authors must have had some bad experiences with librarians in their youth. Literary comeuppance is had.

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The locale includes, among other things, roads that lead nowhere, mysterious lights floating above the town, black helicopters, yes those black helicopters, a faceless old woman who lives, unseen, in someone’s house, a sentient house, a diner waitress who struggles with fruit bearing tree branches growing from her body, car salesmen who offer howlingly good deals, a woman who keeps reliving her life in a perpetual loop, a sentient patch of haze, angels named Erika, people who exist but when you try to recall them, you can’t. Wait, what was I talking about? I just bet that if someone opens a nightclub in NV, they name it Studio 51. The list goes on, plenty to keep your brain engaged and your funny bone tickled.

When you partake of the Night Vale Kool Aid, you will be joining a horde that has sprung up in impressive numbers. There are fan sites galore, with artwork, fan fiction, and a host of ways in which what remains of your consciousness can be further shaved and fed to the glow-cloud. I have included some links to those in the usual place.

You have never read anything like this before. Unless, of course you are in a time loop and are living your life over and over and over. This means you, Sheila. Yes, I know you have read this book many times, all for the first time. OK, happy? But for the rest of us…

Fink and Cranor’s sense of humor is definitely not for everyone. But if you check your kitchen cabinets and find that your supply of weird is running a little low, I suggest heading over to Night Vale. They are running a special and you won’t want to miss out.

PS – more volumes are planned. Be sure to keep up with your local community newscast for further details.

Review Posted – 11/6/15

Published – 10/20/15

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

Links to the author’s, well to Night Vale’s main, Twitter and FB pages

You can download individual podcasts here

Interviews
—–Early Influences – The Arcade
——Stephen Colbert appearance, including a reading of the Community Calendar
—–Jackie Lyden’s NPR interview with the authors – Welcome to Night Vale: Watch out for the tarantulas

Some fan sites
—–The Shape from Grove Park
—–Fuck Yeah Night Vale
—–A Softer Night Vale

A Night Vale Wiki
The actual Wikipedia entry for Night Vale

A fun vid from the Idea Channel that links Night Vale to HP Lovecraft – How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown?

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Filed under Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Noir, Reviews

Departure by A.G. Riddle

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It seems I’m involved in a conspiracy that spans space and time and a conflict whose outcome will determine humanity’s fate in two separate universes.

Oh, is that all? Flight 305 from New York to London runs into a little space-time turbulence and finds itself, or a piece of itself, anyway, in an English lake. Help should be along shortly, right…um, right? The passenger list included five people of interest. Venture capitalist and take charge sort Nick Stone has done nicely in tech and is en route to meet with some folks who are looking for him to invest in their projects. Harper Lane is a ghost-writer of biographies. She is facing a knotty question about her career direction, to take on the bio of a very high profile businessman and philanthropist or attend to her heart’s true writing passion, an original adventure series. Can’t do both. Theirs are the alternating viewpoints we have throughout Departure. The other three are Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire, who seems determined to make everyone loath him with his persistently boorish behavior. How he got that way, as the King of Siam might say, is a puzzlement. Sabrina Schroder is a German genetics researcher, a doctor with a less than warm and fuzzy crypt-side manner, and Yul Tan (or you won’t) is that mysterious Asian guy who not only kept banging away at his laptop through the abbreviated flight, but who is at it still. What’s up with that? There are plenty of LOST-type goings-on in the opening, but we soon get an inkling of the predicament that underlies everything and that is when the story gets going for real. And who are those guys in the latest Haz-mat couture being dropped off by airships and why are they pointing weapons at us?

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A.G. Riddle – from PBS

A.G. Riddle is one of those rarest of the rare, a very successful self-publisher. His trilogy, The Origin Mystery has, according to his site, sold over a million copies and has been optioned for film. Riddle used to be involved with starting internet companies. Not sure what that means, but he was able to quit his day job and devote himself full-time to writing, so I guess it worked out well for him. It is not hard to see Nick as a magnified version of the author. Departure was, likewise, a self-pub. It came out on January 1, 2014 and did well enough that a major publisher made an offer.

Departure is a turbo-charged maze of sci-fi action adventure tale that will keep you flipping the pages, wanting to find out what happens next. There is plenty of high tech, some of which seemed a bit gratuitous. And there is even some substance, with a focus is on the importance of decisions.

I wonder what the world would be like if we could all glimpse our future before every major decision. Maybe that’s what stories are for: so we can learn from people living similar lives, with similar troubles.

Yeah, sounds a bit teenaged to me too, and this is not the only example of such fourth-wall breakage about writing. But it is fleeting. The book is actually very much about decisions, turning points in which the future is determined. Harper may be looking at a tough career choice, but it has implications that might affect the future of the human race. A butterfly effect of Mothra-like dimensions, but without the adorable twins.

There are a few mysteries to be sorted out, for the first half of the book anyway. What was Yul Tan so into on his computer? And if it’s a game where can I get it? Where can Grayson find more alcohol? When will Nick and Harper get a room? Can the future of humanity be saved? And can you please explain quantum entanglement?

Yes, there is eye-rolling over-simplification, and character names that sometimes sound like they came from pulp novels of a bygone age. There are some absurdly large, Akashi Kaikyō Bridge level, (or for us Yanks, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge level) suspensions of disbelief that one must endure in reading this book. I will not specify them here, but am putting them in a spoiler-protected portion of the EXTRA STUFF section. Your eyes will roll, and if they don’t, they really, really should. Skip on by those and try not to let them interfere with the story. These items have nothing to do with time travel, but more with land use and international politics. But there are always complexities and minds to be bent when it comes to explaining movement and communication across timelines. Riddle offers a particularly nifty take on the communication piece. Kudos for that.

It is no stumper figuring out what AG Riddle is up to, keeping you strapped into your seats, breathlessly turning pages. Departure may take leave of its rational senses a fair bit, (not unlike Dan Brown offerings) but, nonetheless, it is a fast-paced, engaging sci-fi thriller that will impair your ability to make your travel connections. And if it prompts you to think a tiny bit more about the decisions you make in your life all the better. Having secured booking with a major publisher, and a film option to boot, Departure is about to take off and I expect you will enjoy the ride.

Published – January 1, 2014 (self) – October 20, 2015 (Harper)
Review Posted – September 11, 2015

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

CHECK OUT THIS ARTICLE!!! – Direct relevance as science plays catch-up with science fiction – from NY Times – 10/21/15

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Pods. Although the sort of system Riddle posits is akin to the pneumatic tube notion being supported by Elon Musk , among others, the look Riddle described for the vehicles seemed to me more like that from this article from AllPics4U.com

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I did wonder up above about Quantum Entanglement – Here are a couple of pieces that try to explain this very real form of weirdness
—–Wiki
—–ScienceDaily.com
—–Livescience.comt

Spoilerish eye-rollers. I am not entirely certain that the items noted here qualify as actual spoilers, but why take the chance? On Goodreads, I can hide this text, but on WordPress, I cannot, so am putting it red so you know you may want to skip it until you read the book.

The Podway first united Europe then Asia and finally the rest of the world, enabling safe, convenient, cost-effective mass transit.

Piece of cake, right? The transportation system that is projected to take over mass transit may or may not be a wonderful thing, but little attention is given to how insanely challenging it is to get rights of way, then to build the infrastructure, and what of the existing mass transit? Did it cease to exist? If it didn’t, then what happened to the real estate it occupied? And for there to be an underground tube connection to some building in the burbs or boonies? Really? And there is a bigger eye-roller. The core organization here has put forth a plan to erect a dam across the Gibraltar straits. That is probably do-able. What is not do-able is for every country with a border on the Mediterranean to go along with a project that will wipe out a vast swath of coastal sea for those nations, creating a new nation in the middle of the former body of water. Really? Not only will Mediterranean nations ok the loss of a fishing industry, they will be ok with the creation of another country on their sort-of borders? And what about nations with military ships? Are their navies to be use to decorate the dam? Are you insane? We are in wishing-will-make-it-so land. And not even a wizard, even if he’s a whiz of a wiz, could persuade me that this is doable on a planet still occupied by a large number of humans, hell, by any number of humans. It is possible to look past these bits of silliness, but it is not easy.

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, Sci-fi, Science Fiction

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

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Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.

I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview

There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz

“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.

Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published – 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

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

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.

—–NPR – with Scott Simon

—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

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Filed under England, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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After a hiatus of several centuries since it was actively practiced, magic is back in early 19th century England. Susanna Clarke has created an alternate, magical history, in which England had once been divided between north and south, and a temporal and a fairy kingdom. Stuffy intellectuals satisfy themselves with studying the writings of the past, forming debating societies. But in 1807 a person emerges who dares to actually practice magic.

Mr Norrell is an arrogant fellow, convinced not only that he is the only decent practical magician in England, but that it would be best if he were the only one allowed to practice at all. He proceeds to play politics to sustain, increase and legitimize his monopoly. The emergence of a second practical magician presents a challenge, solved in the short term by taking on Jonathan Strange as a student.

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Eddie Marsden as Mr Norrell – from AMC networks

Both magicians want to use their talent for the good of their country, and perform amusing and not so amusing spells on the French enemy. Ultimately they are faced with the growing emergence of a real, powerful, underlying magical realm. It intrudes on their lives and forces them to confront darkness while trying to master the unsuspected reality.

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Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange

The book has a wonderful pretext, and the tale is told in a straight style, with more than a few touches of humor. It offers a look at how the new use the machinery of government to create a sinecure, how a need to impress can lead to corruption. It is fun to read, but does take quite a long time, and has sections in which it drags. It should probably have been shorter by a hundred or two hundred pages.

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Marc Warren as “The Gentleman”

Meanderings are many. In short, or long, it was enjoyable, and is recommended, but not to the highest degree. Several award committees disagreed, holding it in significantly higher esteem. JS&MN was not only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it was short-listed for several other awards and won, among others, the World Fantasy award for best novel, the British Book Award for best newcomer of the Year, and the Hugo Award.

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Susanna Clarke – from Minnesota public radio

The TV adaptation was shown beginning (in the USA anyway) in June 2015

Review posted – 10/29/2008

Updated and Reposted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 9/30/2004

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

I found no personal site for Clarke, nor, FB nor Twitter. Bloomsbury has put up a Facebook page for the book

A particularly nifty site organizes people, placesl et al, from the book. If you get heavily into the book, this is a must-have resource

A nice, soft article on the author visiting the production set

A 2004 interview with Clarke on the SF site

A 2005 interview on Bookslut

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Filed under Fantasy, Literary Fiction

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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The monsters in our cupboards and our minds are always there in the darkness, like mold beneath the floorboards and behind the wallpaper, and there is so much darkness, an inexhaustible supply of darkness. The universe is amply supplied with night.

There is a diversity of material in Neil Gaiman’s third and latest collection of short fiction, Trigger Warning. It is a potpourri of twenty four pieces, if we take as a single piece the entry called A Calendar of Tales, which, itself, holds a dozen. They are not all, despite the collection title, dark or frightening. He brings in some familiar names, David Bowie, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Maleficent, Snow White, a traveler from other Gaiman writings, Shadow Moon, twists endings into satisfactory curls for the most part, wanders far afield in setting and content, well, within the UK anyway, tosses in a few poems for good measure, and even offers up a few chuckles. He is fond not only of science fiction as a source, but of Scottish and Irish legends as well. If you are not smitten with the story you are reading at a given moment, not to worry, there is another close behind that is certain to satisfy.

Gaiman is overt in noting the absence of connective tissue among the tales. But there are some themes that pop up a time or three. Living things interred in walls, whether after they had expired or not. A bit of time travelling. Fairy tales are fractured. Favorite writers are admired.

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Neil Gaiman – Photo by Kimberly Butler – on Harper Colllins site

In the introduction, Gaiman tells us a bit about the origins of each of the 24, a nifty item to check back on after one has read them all. Some of the material has been developed for other media. I added a link at bottom to a more-than-text offering re the Calendar of Tales, for one.

Overall I found Trigger Warning is a pretty good survey of Gaiman’s impressive range. He seems able to realize the dreams of the alchemists by transforming what seems every experience he has and every notion that crosses his interior crawl into gold. And some of the stories here are glittery indeed.

I quite enjoyed the collection. The uplift of the best more than made up for the downdraft of the lesser. If you enjoy fantasy, with a good dollop of horror, you could definitely give it a shot.

=======================================THE STORIES

1 – Making a Chair – a poem about the writing process.

2 – A Lunar Labyrinth – a tribute to Gene Wolfe – a traveler who enjoys roadside oddities is brought to a maze that is brought into a form of darkness by the full moon.
Here is a link to a site that will clue you in on roadside oddities in the USA. There is a book on such things for the other side of the pond, but I did not find a comparable link

3 – The Thing about Cassandra – An imaginary connection becomes real, with a delicious twist

4 – Down to a Sunless Sea – an abominable feast, but with some just desserts

5 – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain – A not wholly human dwarf engages a local man to lead him to a cave reputed to be filled with tainted gold – I could not get the image of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister out of my tiny mind while immersed in this one. Sometimes the truth hurts.

6 – My Last Landlady – the rent is definitely too damn high

7 – Adventure Story – a bit of fun guaranteed to make you smile

8 – Orange – A teen who thinks she’s all that may indeed be – another smile-worthy item

9 – A Calendar of Tales – I won’t go into each – the collection was written from ideas received on-line. I found it a mixed bag, with March (Mom has a big secret), August ( a tale of fire and foolishness), September (a magic ring with the quality of a bad penny), October (a sweet tale, involving a Jinni), and December (a hopeful time-travel piece) my favorites

10 – The Case of Death and Honey – a fantastical tale in which a certain Baker Street resident takes on the mystery of death itself

11 – The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury – a tribute to Gaiman’s mentor

12 – Jerusalem – on one of the dangers of visiting the city

13 – Click-clack the Rattlebag – stories can be scary, regardless of the age of the teller

14 – An Invocation of Incuriousity – a time-travel piece – don’t touch the settings

15 – And Weep, Like Alexander – one possible reason why we do not have some of the futuristic inventions we expected long ago – cute, not scary

16 – Nothing O’Clock – a Doctor Who tale with a timely solution

17 – Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale – a fable with a moral

18 – The Return of the Thin White Duke – the completion of a story begun and abandoned while back for a magazine project on Bowie

19 – Feminine Endings – beware of street statue-performers

20 – Observing the Formalities – Maleficent as narrator of a poem about proper forms

21 – The Sleeper and the Spindle – A fairy tale with a nice twist

22 – Witch Work – a poem on the limits of witchy magic

23 – In Relig Odhrain – a poem on a saint who suffered an awful demise

24 – Black Dog – Shadow Moon stops in an ancient pub and is drawn into some serious darkness, scary fun.

Review posted – 3/20/15

Publication date – 2/3/2015

This review has also been posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Here is a link to his separate blog

For a full-on media-rich offering the Calendar of Tales piece in Trigger Warning can be seen here

Harper has an on-line reading guide

Other Gaiman books I have reviewed
The Graveyard Book
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Stardust

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Short Stories

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

book cover

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

Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

book cover

…what were the origins of the many pieces of Heraclix? He was like a puzzle to himself, an unknown being or beings, self-aware, yet unaware of the individuals from whom he had been constructed.

Where do we come from? Of what are we made? Who are we? How did we get to be who we are? Can we change? In the case of Heraclix, of the title, all the above apply. H is a big guy. Think Shrek with a bit less green. Usually the golem is a clay creature, but H is more of a group effort, being comprised of parts, a Frankenstein monster with better (than the film) motor skills, and a makeover. Heraclix is riven, as so many of us are, with a complicated nature. His is more physical in it’s manifestation, though. With one arm in particular eager for action, he reminded me a bit of Doctor Strangelove . In a nifty opening, he breaks out of a womb-like vat of liquid (not the last birth event in the book), and does what any newborn might do. He reads everything he can get his paws on. Doesn’t know where the ability came from, but really, really wants to get a handle on his world, and comes across Daddy his maker’s porn private, and very disturbing, notes.

Mattatheus Mowler is not your garden variety sorcerer. Sure he’s a few hundred years old, and is educated enough to animate dead parts, among other nifty tricks, but the boy has some serious ambition, not to mention an issue with aging, and is not to be messed with. That brimstone aroma that may be wrinkling your nose emanates the Faustian bargain he has made. He has a client list that would be the envy of any K Street operative. Of course, evil, connected genius or not, he is still human, more or less, and makes mistakes enough to allow for an actual contest. Not exactly your ideal re-animator, (or would that be assembler?) as daddy dearest rains blows and other abuse down on Heraclix’s large frame with abandon. But one day MM brings a sweet young thing to the lab, in a jar.

Pomp is a pixie with moxie. She encourages H to stand up for himself, and overcome the self-loathing that accompanies his beatings. Mowler has dark plans for her of the sacrificial sort, but the plan flies to pieces, the premises succumbs to fire (always a risk when dealing with hellspawn), and a dynamic dimorphic duo is made.

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The author – please note the shooter on his sleeve

The motive force here is Heraclix trying to find out who he actually is. With information gleaned from Mowler’s premises, he and Pomp set off on a classic journey of self-discovery. They cover a fair piece of European landscape, beginning in Vienna, with stops in Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, and sundry locales in between. Along the way they pick up pieces of the puzzle, as in a video game, that lead them from place to place. The information is sometimes in the form of clues, in Mowler’s papers, say, or in writing along the side of a coin. More often it is in the form of stories told by Gypsies, Cossacks, wizards, an old man in an obscure town, sundry characters they encounter in their quest. As the pair travel, together and separately, they gain points knowledge.

Heraclix comes across as a likeable hulk. He has a pure heart (whomever it might once have belonged to) and is an honest seeker after truth. In trying to discover his true identity he learns a thing or two

…there was something in the quality of sorrow suffered at the hands of another that was different than the sorrow that one brought on others, whether through one’s own stupidity and neglect or by intentional acts of hatred. The latter carried the sharpest stings of guilt, regret, self-berating…

Pomp, while a very valuable partner, is not so much seeking truth herself as she is eager to help Heraclix. Hey, the big lug saved her, so she owes him. But she finds that she, as well, is challenged to consider her view of herself and the world.

Her life isn’t now about playing pranks all day every day. It isn’t about not caring. All this playing pranks and not caring isn’t fun any more. If she goes on like this, her life stays immortally, eternally…boring. Death is sad, but death makes life more worth living.

In addition to H&P there is a parallel story involving Holy Roman Empire royalty, a young lass, and a fair bit of intrigue.

There are some images and themes that run throughout. Birth is addressed multiple times, in both a biological and baptismal way. Heraclix is very clearly being born by breaking out of a watery enclosure in an early scene. There is what might be seen as a baptism by fire, and later in the book, he has what seems another aqueous bursting through or two. History figures large here. Pomp, when we meet her, has no notion of it, not understanding the concept of memory. Heraclix cannot remember anything and wants to find out who he is. The tale is told in a historical context, offering a look at the feel, if not much of the detail, of tension between the Holy Roman Empire and its foreign enemies. Eternal life is addressed in the wizard’s desire for it and in how Pomp, who has it, copes with and gives a lot of thought to the implications of life without end. Changing one’s life is also addressed on multiple fronts. A killer becomes a healer. Pomp is faced with potentially changing her orientation as well, getting to see in person the questionable wages of all-fun-all –the-time.

I am sure there are many references to folk tales I missed in here, but a visit to hell itself surely must conjure Dante. So be on the lookout for references to The Inferno. And heading to the basement certainly seems in synch with a Campbellian structure.

One of the things that most impressed me was the diversity and creativity of Aguirre’s imagination. Heraclix alone is a marvelous concoction, but there are many more. Phantoms haunting the one who killed them, demonflies from Hell, a Godzilla-like Beelzebub, some carnivorous clover, fairies up to no good, a demonized crow, some magic mirrors, a telescope for seeing magic. The list is considerable and the creations quite fun. While some echo familiar elements of fantasy fiction, there is an added layer of the new that gives it all some real sparkle.

Gripes were few. There are a fair number of characters, and it can be a bit tough at times keeping them straight. The ARC I read did not have a list of characters in it. I do not know if the final version might. I find it useful to make my own list as I read to help keep everyone straight. Also there was one escape I had a problem with. H manages to escape from hell, but it is not entirely clear to me how he got from underground to above..

Aguirre has established himself as a top-drawer, award-winning editor of speculative fiction, and a seasoned writer of sci-fi as well. Heraclix and Pomp demonstrates that he is also a confident, creative and imaginative novelist. The journey on which Heraclix and Pomp set out is a consistently interesting and engaging one, offering not only a look at a fantastical world, but adult consideration of eternal, real-world, existential issues. I am sure they would love for you to tag along.

Heraclix and Pomp was sent along by the author, a GR friend, in return for a fair review

Review posted – 9/12/14

Publication date – 10/14/14

This review has also been posted on Goodreads

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

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Aguirre’s blogspot page, Forrest for the Trees, includes a 24:47 sample of the audio book. Some items in the archives are worth a look, including a three-part sneak peek at the second adventure of H&P, and a piece on his writing process (no necromancy involved).

An interesting interview with Forrest on Shelf Inflicted, in which, among other things, he talks about how H&P came to be.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction