Category Archives: Fantasy

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.

description
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.

book cover

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.

book cover

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

Suicide Game by Haidji

book cover Suicide Game, a first novel by the mononymous Haidji, is an oil and water mixture of intriguing concepts, impressive visual sensibilities, and, at least in the English version, a crying need for a professional, native-English-speaking editor.

The core element here is the Suicide Game itself, a privately run enterprise that takes in 8,000 contestants and produces a single winner, in a more or less contemporary setting. It does put one in mind of the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Blake, a bully sent to incentivize the sales staff at a real estate firm, says to them, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” It might read here “First prize, fame and fortune, with treasures beyond your imagining. Second prize, you die.” In The Hunger Games participants were selected by lottery. In Suicide Game, it is voluntary. One might wonder who in their right mind would willingly participate in such a travesty.

Haidji has put together an ensemble cast. There are game participants, with contemporary and back-story people connected to each, the council that runs the whole thing, the arena designer, and a smattering of game employees. No one character occupies enough time to be considered primary. Oh, and add in a terrorist.

One can take this as a straight ahead story about a social abomination, and the individual tales that feed it, or take it as a metaphor for existing sociological madness. Choose the former and you may find yourself leaping into an abyss.

What country would allow such a thing to take place? At least when nations sponsor the suicide game we call war, they attempt to offer at least the pretense of a reason. Not so much here. Why would anyone choose to participate in any contest with such poor odds unless they had nothing left to lose? And while the lure of fame and fortune might lead one to publicly humiliate oneself, as we see every day on reality programming, it is a whole other level to join a death march. And if one is seeking to kill oneself, the usual reason is despair. What possible appeal might there be to enticing participants with glory when they have already given up all hope? While there are some shenanigans involved in the legitimacy of some of the contestants, I found the justification offered for most of the competitors to be thin. Kinda tough to invest much in relating to characters if the reasons for their actions are unpersuasive. Why choose to die? Why not try to solve your problems? And if you are determined to snuff it, there are plenty of quicker ways to go about it. Why drag it out for several days, and do it in front of a global audience? Lost love figures large here. But then found love figures pretty large as well, with love at first sight a very unconvincing motivator. Maybe in this world there are no second acts, let alone third ones. They might take some advice from Ingrid Michaelson. All the broken hearts in the world still beat. Despite the rampant heart disease our culture breeds, people get over heartbreak, find new loves, new outlets, new satisfactions. I got the feeling that the characters jumping into the game could do with a good talking-to, or an intervention. “You schmuck, sit down! What the hell were you thinking?” Taking the USA as an example there are 39,000 suicides here annually, more or less. Cramming 8,000 of them into a four day span is, well, a stretch, suggesting that it must have been a really bad week when applications were being accepted, or a big week for immigration. I imagine the selection process was probably as selective as that used by the National Geographic Society for individuals nominated for membership. (Although George Bailey certainly deserves to belong.)

book cover

Haidji

In addition to an excess of telling over showing, there are elements there that hint at an eagerness to gloss over problematic details. It is as if the entire world existed in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film in which the neighborhood kids decide, “Let’s put on a play,” and magically a stage, set, costumes, script and time for rehearsal all appear as if out of nowhere. Just think it and it is so. For example, the management of the stadium decides to make a radical change in their food service, and it is changed during a break in the game action. Modifications to significant stage elements of the stadium are likewise implemented as if by divine command. A significant computer programming re-working is done in, it seems, nanoseconds. With over twenty years as a programmer, I can say for fracking sure, no bloody way. The romantic relationships also seemed to lack real-world substance.

Ok, if, however one takes this as a piece of social commentary, it becomes possible to look past the story-telling problems and settle in to a consideration of larger issues. One can look at the heartless exploitation of the participants by corporate entities, and not have to look too far to find contemporary equivalents. In the US, how the NFL treats players is pretty close to amoral disinterest in the well-being of the workers who create the value they are selling. I am sure there are plenty of equivalents in other sports. The entertainment industry offers many examples of people willingly putting themselves, their reputations, and maybe their health, if not their lives, at risk in order to gain their fifteen minutes in the media spotlight. The Suicide Game might be seen as an exaggeration of that reality to make a point. I do not think that major sports organizations descended to a level of exploitation where they process, package and sell bits of loser contestants. But would you really put that past the NFL, or our major networks? One element in all this is the dehumanization of the contestants by putting them all in the same uniform and having makeup artists remove remnant individuality from their faces. This surely speaks to the depersonalization inherent in much of mass media. Outside of committed fans, can you really tell who is wearing a particular football uniform on a given Sunday? Just as players are largely a production factor for corporate owners, parts that can be replaced as needed when they wear out, the suicide game takes the notion to an extreme, and succeeds in making a point.

My biggest gripe about the book is that the English is in need of serious repair. Haidji speaks English. We were pals on GR for a while (until this review was posted) and have exchanged our share of messages, so I can attest that her English is pretty good. But I cannot say whether this book was written in another language (she speaks several) and translated or was written directly in English. In either case, it is in great need of an editor whose native tongue is English. There are many instances in which it is possible to ferret out what the author meant, when the words used did not do that job well enough. Turns of phrase are sometimes simply wrong. Readers are expected to read between the lines for thematic or psychological reasons, but should not have to do so in order to simply correct the text. That said, it is a readable book. Just be aware that you may have to do some extra work to figure out what is being said.

If one can get beyond the language shortcomings, there is fair bit of interesting material tucked into the story. Haidji concocts an umbrella made of air alone that is pretty cool. The notion of making diamonds of the unexpected material cited here is a real thing. The stadium design has some elements that are quite fascinating. Her governing Suicide Game council applies a very unusual voting methodology. A court case involving Big Oil is also reality-based. An early scene involving a terrorist and 9/11 was one of the strongest elements in the story. On the other hand, use is made of a drug referred to as “milk of amnesia.” Such a drug does exist. I have been a personal beneficiary on multiple occasions. (Yes, it is legal, wiseass, and is used in medical work) But it does not act in the real world as it is shown to act here.

There are some mysteries in here as well that add texture. Who is actually in charge of the whole thing? How did a baby get loose in the stadium? Will the smitten connect with the actual objects of their…um…smit? Will everyone be blown to bits?

It is also clear that Haidji has a strong sense of the visual. Color and texture offer a strongly defined background against which the characters do their things. The game logo is wonderful. Candidates are in white face, dressed in shiny black, made up to betray no emotion. The logo is painted in orange. That hare krishnas are in attendance enhances the presence of that color. Ushers who clean up the bodies are dressed in gray. Makeup artists at the game wear matte black, and the game Hostess wears a red femme fatale dress. Designer names for clothing and footwear are rampant, which certainly does not speak to me. I had to look up far too many of these. But readers with more fashion knowledge (pretty much everyone) will have a better shot at appreciating the references.

There are problems for sure with Suicide Game. It really, really needs the assistance of a professional, native-English-speaker editor. There are issues with an overly simplified view of how relationships might progress and even how things work in the world. But if you can make a leap of faith to look past these, there are rewards to be had in the many fascinating notions that live in that world with them. You might enjoy Suicide Game, and without having to pay the ultimate price.

Review posted – August 29, 2014

I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

Crooked River by Valerie Geary

book cover Fifteen-year-old Sam McAlister and her ten-year-old sister, Ollie, have had a crap summer. On the Fourth of July their mother died of a heart attack in Eugene, Oregon. They are staying now with their father, whom they call “Bear.” He has been living for some time in a teepee on a piece of rented land outside the thriving metropolis of Terrebonne, OR, doing odd jobs, raising bees, and mostly keeping to himself. Normally they would have spent only August with their dad, but now it is looking like a more permanent arrangement, if, that is, their mother’s parents can be persuaded that he is up to the task. And just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse…

We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where the Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere. Her emerald-green blouse was torn half open and her dark, pleated skirt was bunched around her waist, revealing skin puckered and gray, legs bloated and bruised. Her hair writhed like black snakes in the current.

Bear, the odd outsider, is, of course, suspected, arrested, and it looks like he will be successfully railroaded, but Sam has faith in her father. Her sister has something more.

I see things no one else does.
I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.

Ollie calls the ghosts she sees The Shimmering. It would be too easy if Ollie could simply report what the ghosts only she sees clue her in on. But Ollie has not spoken since her mother passed several weeks ago. And of course there is a full dose of the Cassandra Syndrome at play, as even when Ollie is able to communicate, no one believes her.

The missing father has been a literary trope for quite some time, in adult as well as in YA literature. The one that jumps up for me is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. While Sam’s father did not vanish while working on a tesseract, and is not actually gone here, at least until he is arrested, he had been largely absent from his children’s lives for many years. Now, in the face of the calamitous loss of their mother, the girls must contend with the possible loss of their father too. There is probably a message here about the need for both the urban (mom) and the natural (mountain man father). Sam is called upon to utilize both her city and country skills to try to save Bear, and in fact engages in a very Campbellian quest to find out who he really is. She must find her inner strength and overcome, or fail before, some very real-world perils in attempting to bring back the knowledge gained in her quest, and put it to use, as she comes of age. But if you want to see her as just getting in touch with her inner Nancy Drew, that works too.

book cover

Valerie Geary – from her Twitter page

The cast includes a kindly elderly couple on whose land Bear had been living, suitable grandparent sorts. There is a young man of diverse intentions. Sam feels drawn to him. Ollie sees him more truly than her sister does. A somewhat reasonable sheriff offers a glint of understanding; a somewhat peculiar artist looking to make a comeback is both sad and scary; his wife is not the most welcoming of shop-keepers; and a local cleric may be up to no good. At core this is a mystery. Who killed the floater and why? And why was Bear living in a teepee on rented land? Why had he abandoned his family years earlier? Sam is certain that Bear is innocent and sets out to prove it. Even Ollie take some dodgy risks trying to find out the truths at play here, but this is no children‘s story.

ART DIRECTION
Every novel incorporates a palette, colors, furnishings, places and/or images that help illuminate elements of the characters, set a mood, pull us through the story with externals that cast light on themes and the characters themselves. In Crooked River, trees are a part of the landscape, serving both to remind us that the setting is rural, and marking some significant locations as well. Bees figure large here. Bear is a bee-keeper. We get to see him as a good daddy taking care of the bees and training Sam to do the same. A bit of bee mythology is noted that might inform events. One bee leads to a clue. A hive comes into play.

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians thought bees were messengers sent from the sun god Ra? The Greeks, though, now they believed bees were souls of the dead come back to keep the rest of us company.

When Ollie sees ghosts they appear in a sparkly aspect. This fireworks-like image appears not only with ghosts but in some other places as well.

As far back as I can remember I’ve seen them. In dim light, they seem almost solid. In bright light, barely visible. If I touch them, it’s ice and fire, energy burning. They are glints and specks, here and then gone. Shimmering. Like heat rising off pavement.

GRIPES
Sam is both an engaging sort and bloody infuriating for all the planning-challenged adolescent choices she makes. You may find yourself shrieking “Schmuck” at the character as I did, but hey, teenager. They are expected to make some bad choices. I was not entirely persuaded about Bear’s decision to live where and how he did and thought some of his decisions were a bit adolescent as well, however well-intentioned. So there is a bit of credibility straining going on. But if you are willing to accept a young girl seeing ghosts, I suppose you give up the right to grouse about less obvious stretches.

SUM
Despite the above, Crooked River is not only a fine example of a classical literary approach, it is a serious page-turner. Sam is a good kid, a character we can admire as well as chastise. You will care about her, and her much-beset younger sib, and will keep turning those pages to see where Crooked River will take them, and you, next. There are plenty of bends here and the water is choppy. But it is a journey well worth taking. Straight business.

Review posted – 6/27/14

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

An article on writing Geary wrote for Writer’s Digest, 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

book cover

What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.

Stephen Galloway, the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, takes on a legendary real-life character and tries to make some magic with his lesser known history.

He tells a tale of Houdini, vaudevillian superstar, greatest magician of his time, escape artist extraordinaire and, maybe, an international spy.

Martin Strauss is none of these things. When we meet him, in the present day of the tale, he has just gotten some bad news:

”Yours is a rare condition,” [the doctor] said, seeming almost excited, “in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.”

Strauss is Galloway’s external, invented character, there to help frame the narrative. So, Harry Houdini meets Memento?

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the author

Strauss, a student in Montreal, is fascinated with magic, although he is not a capable practitioner. He is smitten with a young lady who shares his interest, and when they have a chance to see the great Harry Houdini perform, they avail. Strauss is not the most secure beau and when the object of his desire seems more interested in the famed escape artist than is comfortable, things get heated.

On October 31, 1926, the real-life Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. A few days earlier, in Montreal, a student named Whitehead was granted permission to punch Houdini in the stomach, a test of the performer’s claim that it would not hurt him. Under normal circumstances it might not have, but it turned out that Houdini was compromised with a case of appendicitis. He kept traveling and performing, but was brought to a hospital in Detroit, in severe pain, and died there. Ascribing his death to the student’s blows was really a ploy to get his life insurance to pay double.

“Houdini’s death has always really interested me. What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?” from the Globe and Mail interview

There are alternating tale-tellers in The Confabulist. Martin Strauss speaks for himself, and the Houdini chapters are told by an omniscient narrator. The time lines are dual as well, present day alternating with a past that advances from 1897, before Houdini had achieved world-wide renown, to 1927, as Martin recalls and we see for ourselves what transpired. We cover some real estate in The Confabulist, as well, from Canada to New York to sundry locales in Europe.

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Houdini – image from wikimedia

We get to see how the gifted Erik Weisz, a Budapest-born son of a rabbi, became the amazing Houdini, professionally and theatrically. There are explanations for a few of the stage tricks of the age, and that is a particular bit of fun. There is some insight into how the entertainment business of the early 20th century was run, and a look at the latter day Houdini as an exposer of charlatan psychics and spiritualists.

When asked how he landed on Houdini for his new novel, Galloway says he was fascinated by the showman’s iconic status, but also by the fact that Houdini himself was a sort of fiction. “Most magicians are kind of made-up characters, but him more than any. He’s a Hungarian Jew pretending to be Mr. America. Most of what he said about himself biographically was a total, total lie. So I just kind of arrived there and never left.” – from the Globe and Mail interview

Strauss’s history is far less interesting, but in his musings we get at some of the thematic issues of the novel. Some insight into international intelligence goings on of the period is also noteworthy.

What is real and what an illusion is a consistent theme throughout the tale, on stage and off

How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have? In a magic trick, the things you don’t see or think you see have a culmination, because at the end of the trick there’s an effect. Misdirection tampers with reconstruction. But if life works the same way, and I believe it does, then a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined

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a memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress

So does Galloway succeed in making magic? Only somewhat. There are two issues I had with the book. One is the inherent difficulty of having an unreliable narrator. That this is done openly from the opening chapter does not make it any less problematic. How are we to know if what Strauss reports is true or imagined? And if one cannot know if what he reports is real, it makes for difficulty in relating to his experience, and knowing for ourselves that what we are reading is or is not an accurate rendering of events. The dimorphism between the wonderful tale of Houdini’s and the far less gripping tale of Martin Strauss makes one want to slip the knots of Martin’s chapters to make one’s way back to the real action. And, while the story of Houdini does succeed in holding our interest, it seemed to me that there remained a distance between reader and character, even for Houdini, that kept one from the sort of emotional engagement that is needed if we are to feel much for him. Martin is an obvious literary device, so one does not hope for too much there. But one does want to feel more of an investment in Houdini than was possible here.

There are compelling elements at play in The Confabulist. The contemplation of reality versus illusion counts as a strength. On the other hand, the rationale for Strauss’s attack on Houdini seemed forced. One would expect that there is a marvelous story encased in the available elements. Unfortunately, the tale is only able to extract a limb or two and remains locked up. While there is no obvious tell in the author’s literary sleight of hand, there is certainly enough going on to sustain a reader’s interest, this remains an instance when the magic simply does not quite go poof.

Review posted – 6/20/14

It was first posted on Fantasy Book Critic

Publication date – May 6, 2014

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

The condition ascribed to Martin Strauss was discovered by one Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist, who is represented in The Confabulist by a Russian Dr. Korsakoff practicing in the West, presumably New York. Here is some info on the actual condition.

A bit of info on Harry Houdini

Interviews with the author – from The Globe and Mail and The National Post

Houdini’s grave

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