Monday, October 28, 2013

October Reading Roundup

While the month isn't quite over yet, the next few days will be some of the busiest ever for me, so I'll go ahead and get this end-of-the-month recap done now.  I'm in Seattle (my second home),  have been now for a while, visiting family and having a great time, but I go back to FL tomorrow, reading Jo Nesbo's The Police on the plane, and if I finish that, well, I have Dave Eggers' The Circle as backup.  Those books will go into November, but for now, I'll stick to what I accomplished in October.

October was my month for reading all things supernatural and spooky, and I did get in a few before having to stop and deal with a complete upstairs remodel.  Four newly-done bedrooms and a hallway later, most of my books are still in boxes waiting for me to come home to, but I managed to keep a few out to read. Here's how things look for this month:

This House is Haunted by John Boyne started things off in the realm of the supernatural, followed by
The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce,
The Shining and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King,
The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, and
To Charles Fort With Love, by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which I haven't yet discussed (moving into November)  but may most likely be the most literary book of horror I've ever read.

The not at all supernatural is also represented in this month, with
Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason (crime), and
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret War (nonfiction), about which I also haven't had time to get a discussion written, also coming in November.

That makes for a total of eight, very slow month, but it's understandable with all of the upheaval and a trip planned in the middle of the upheaval .

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    --  This is going to have to wait until I get home and see what's available since everything, including my giveaway books, are still in boxes or in towering stacks in rooms they don't belong in

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month: 

 crime fiction:
All of the books in the Havana Quartet, by Leonardo Padura 

 general fiction/literature:
The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
The Investigation, by Phillipe Claudel
Back Street, by Fannie Hurst (Vintage Movie Classics edition, 2014)

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow


A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia, by Edmund Levin

 3) Books bought this month:
  • Doctor No, by Ian Fleming (spy fiction)
  • Uncanny Stories,  by May Sinclair (weird/supernatural)
  • The Whisperer and Other Voices, by Brian Lumley (weird/supernatural)
  • Hild, by Nicola Griffith (historical fiction)
  •  The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane (fiction/literature)
  • Murder in the Dark, by Dan Turrell (crime fiction)
  • Shantytown, by Cesar Aira (fiction/literature)
  • La Vida Doble, by Arturo Fontaine (fiction/literature
  • The Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon (fiction/literature)
  • The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth, by Terry Lenzner (nonfiction)
  • The Master of the Macabre, by Russell Thorndike (weird/supernatural)

4The book group is reading  The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan on November 5; they were kind enough to wait until I get back from Seattle to have the meeting. 

and I have an ARC from Simon and Schuster of Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield waiting for me when I get home, so I'm uber excited!

That's it for October. happy halloween !

The Abominable, by Dan Simmons -- an old-fashioned, rollicking good yarn

Little, Brown and Company, 2013
663 pp

ARC - thanks!

The Abominable ends my month of spooky Halloween reads, but this one fooled me.  I'm not quite sure where I got the idea that  The Abominable was going to be a horror novel, because as it turns out, it's much more of an old-fashioned adventure tale. The basic story is pretty good when all is said and done in that escape-fiction sort of way, complete with a group of climbers who find their way to Mt. Everest, a missing man last seen on the mountain, a beautiful young heroine, and a secret that someone is willing to kill to keep buried.  My only real issue with this book is that there is so much detail here that I felt like I had to put on my slogging boots to wade through it,  but more on this a little later.

The Abominable begins as Dan Simmons, in a nice metafictional twist,  finds himself in 1991 having to come up with a "new package" of novels for his publisher.  He really wants to do something on Antarctica, and as it happens, a friend of his wife's knows someone who went there with Byrd in the 1930s.  Simmons journeys to an assisted-living home to talk to the man, Jacob Perry, who is dying of cancer.  While he interviews him, Perry tells Simmons that there's a story he's always wanted to write -- not necessarily for publication -- just so someone will read it.  Leaving Perry with a Moleskin notebook, in 1992, Simmons gets word that 90 year-old Perry is dead, and is surprised to hear that Perry left nothing for him.  Flash forward to 2011, and Simmons receives a box of notebooks in the mail;  after having gone through them, he decides to publish Perry's manuscript, a "strange and oddly beautiful testament."

The story moves from 1924, where we meet the three main male characters on top of the Matterhorn, through 1925 where our erstwhile heroes find themselves climbing Mount Everest. It is while they are atop the Matterhorn in 1924 when the three, Jacob (Jake) Perry, Richard Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux, learn about Mallory's death on Everest.  As they are making their descent, Deacon asks them if they would like to accompany him on a "fully-funded expedition" to climb Everest in 1925, an expedition consisting of only the three of them.  They agree to go, then realize that the funding will be coming from Lady Elizabeth Marion Bromley, whose sons, Charles and Lord Percival (Percy) were once playmates of Deacon's when they were children.  It seems that Lord Percival had himself disappeared on Everest in 1924, although he was not a member of the Mallory expedition, and he had made no attempt to climb or camp with them.    A witness had reported that Bromley and an Austrian man, Karl Meyer,  were swept up in an avalanche, but Lady Bromley is just not certain that Percy is really dead.  Although she knows that it's highly unlikely he's still alive, she will  give them the funds and logistical help they need to find out why he was in Tibet to begin with, why he was on Everest, and why was he with Meyer when he died.  There's only one condition: she wants a family member, Cousin Reggie, to go along, and to keep track of all of the money.   If Percy's dead, she wants proof; if he's alive she wants him home.   Perry, Deacon and Clairoux eventually find themselves in Darjeeling, home of Cousin Reggie, where they begin what will be the climb of their lives.  But needless to say, there are a few twists along the way that none of them had bargained on.

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking what a cool movie this book would be based totally on plot and characters.  It's very much reminiscent of old-fashioned adventure stories รก la Indiana Jones (not the same plotlines but in that same vein), the kind where you just have to let that suspension of belief slip into play.  The characters may come off a bit stereotypical and even larger than life, but you know, this book is just a lot of fun, and should really be read not in comparison to the author's other works, but as a stand alone kind of rollicking good yarn.  Truth be told, I had trouble putting it down when I had to, that's how much I enjoyed it. But sometimes my fun was interrupted by the constant descriptions of ice climbing, mountain climbing, and the equipment necessary for both, as well as the numerous and lengthy passages describing the ice-covered cwms in Wales, the Tibetan landscape and pretty much each camp-to-camp ascent on Mt. Everest itself.  I think it could have benefited from some more judicious editing, but if I stack the sheer reading fun against the bog and slog, the fun comes out on top, even though I kind of figured out part of the plot way ahead of time.  I do think the Amazon reviewers who gave this book one star because it wasn't at all like  Mr. Simmons' past works aren't being quite fair, and while everyone's entitled to his/her opinion, they're being extremely harsh in this case.

If you're ever in the mood for an old-fashioned adventure yarn, you'll definitely find it here.  I try really hard not to judge one work of an author's on the rest, and to take each one individually on its own merits, and in this case, I found myself really liking the core story in  this one despite its flaws.  It's not a great work of literature, just fun, a story for a rainy day or two.   It won't be for everyone, but then again, which book is?

a special thanks to Em.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

if a green huntsman offers to help you, take a pass: *The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

NYRB Classics, 2013
original title: Die Schwarz Spinne, 1842
translated by Susan Bernofsky 
108 pp


I opened the pages of this little novella not knowing what to expect, and right away found myself embedded in a beautiful arcadian setting in the Emmental region of Switzerland.  Under the sun, shining in "limpid majesty," in a "dell filled with fertile, sheltered farmland," lies a splendid farmhouse near an orchard. Churchbells can be heard in the distance on this "blessed day of celebration," colts are frolicking in the fields, and an entire family has gathered to celebrate a christening.  A huge feast has been laid, the godmother spares no effort in her "intricate preparations" to make herself lovely, and the baby is taken to church for the ceremony.  The scene is one of pastoral perfection, abundance, and peace,

so naturally, I started to get really curious about the book's cover art and why a blurb on the back notes that "The Black Spider was a horror story of its day."  Then the "gotcha": as the post-christening festivities commence, a question about a "rough black window post" built into the newly-built home leads the grandfather to tell a story about events that had occurred  in the area hundreds of years ago, one passed on through the generations.  And oh, what a story it is.

A religious order of Teuton knights has returned from Poland and Prussia, having been sent there to "fight the heathen."  While there, they got caught up in the lifestyle, and on their return, continued to live, each "according to his own nature and pleasure." The worst of these was Hans van Stoffeln of Swabia, and he took a lot of pleasure in persecuting the peasants.  First, he took them away from their land for two years by ordering a huge castle on a hill.  When that was finished, and just as the peasants were rejoicing that they could get back to feeding their starving families and tending their livestock, von Stoffeln makes another demand -- they must now build a shaded walkway. He wants particular trees from a location that is hours away, and he wants everything done within a month or disastrous consequences will follow for the peasants and their families.  Thoroughly in despair, because this is an impossible task, the peasant men wonder how they're going to tell their loved ones.  At that moment a huntsman, dressed in all in green (hitherto referred to as the "green man" or the "green huntsman" ) appears, and offers them help -- and for payment, all he wants is an unbaptized child.  When the women are told what's going on, they believe they can help their men, but it becomes obvious that this is not working out.  One of the wives, Christine of Lindau,  takes up the green huntsman's offer, thinking that when a new baby is born, the people will find a way to deceive him, and they do manage to stave off the devil for a while. However, they hadn't reckoned on the black spider, a reminder that the huntsman "would not suffer himself to be duped without recompense."

So -- what to make of this little book?  Seriously, for such a small volume there's a stream of ideas put into play here, even aside from the obvious Christian message about not turning away from the Lord.   First and foremost,  I read it like this: once evil has made itself known, it can be controlled only if  a community agrees to act together  to keep it at bay. Then the author reveals exactly what sorts of temptations can lead people astray from the collective good. Briefly:

a)  women who, like Christine of Lindau, are "not the sort of woman ...  content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children;" women who are "frightfully clever," "daring," and bold, who don't quite understand their place in the home and in society. There are also women who hold sway over the men in their lives, who become  true masters of their houses, leading sons and husbands to neglect their responsibilities,
b) the lack of  collective and individual responsibility, as in (a) above and other examples throughout the book, especially when actions by a one or a few lead to disregard for the lives of others,
c) people who are not happy enough with what they already  have -- as the people became jealous of the riches and high living of others, their desire for wealth and their "vainglorious grandeur" led them to be as hardhearted and ruthless toward their own servants as the knights once were toward the peasants,
d) and last but not least, when children do not  "follow their parents in their paths and thoughts,"  and disregard wisdom passed down through the ages. 

And what about the spider? Well, I'm not very well versed in Germanic mythologies or Swiss folklore regarding the symbolism of the spider, but I did look up "green huntsman" to see if there was something significant I could use relating to  this book and came across this photo of a green huntsman spider.

Coincidence? Maybe, but in Christian mythology, the spider is, of course,  associated with the Devil, and you've got the Green Huntsman of the story in that role as the source of  the spider, so it should be easy to figure out.  However, according to Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times, the spider also becomes a symbol of plague, and there are scenes in this book that support this idea as well.

Even if you're not so inclined toward the Christian messages (as in my case), you can still enjoy The Black Spider.  There are a number of scenes that are bound to produce that wonderful frisson of chills crawling up your spine, making it a perfect pre-Halloween read; it's also a peek into a specific society at a specific time and place making it a good story for historical fiction readers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two Kings and I'm the winner! *The Shining and *Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

also posted at my oddly weird fiction page

The Shining, by Stephen King
Doubleday, 1977
447 pp

hardcover (first doubleday book club edition)

Continuing on in my month of spooky reads in honor of Halloween, I now come to two books written by the same author. The Shining is a classic horror read, while the latest book by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep,  hones in on the kid from The Shining, Danny Torrance, picking up his story again as a young man. I hadn't planned on reading The Shining again (it made for some freakishly-great entertainment years ago), but because Doctor Sleep builds on Danny's (now Dan) experiences at the Overlook,  I decided to reread The Shining before I started the new one.  To be frank, I liked both books; to be even more truthful, I fell in love with The Shining all over again and found Doctor Sleep to be fun and often suspenseful but not nearly as intense as its predecessor.  More on that later.

Before I try to offer up a synopsis here, let me say this: if you're considering reading Doctor Sleep, the references back to events in The Shining come from the original book -- which is not at all the same as the movie made by Stanley Kubrick.  So if your understanding of things comes from that film, you might be a little lost.

 Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and their son Danny used to have a good life. He taught at a prep school, he made money from publishing some of his stories, and Wendy did typing part time -- all good enough to where the couple could put money away each month.  Jack is an alcoholic, but had managed to get himself together and keep it under control, but he has temper issues: an assault on one of his students put Jack out of a job and drove Jack and Wendy into financial crisis.  Luckily, one of his former drinking buddies has found him a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains of Colorado.  Jack sees the job as a good opportunity to finish writing a play he's been working on, since the Torrance family will be the only inhabitants there.  The truth is, Jack and Wendy have no choice but to take the job due to extreme financial necessity -- as Jack notes sarcastically some time later in the novel, "A man with his sterling record of alcoholism, student-beating and ghost-chasing would undoubtedly be able to write his own ticket," ending up with a job "swamping out Greyhound buses," or "washing cars in a rubber suit," or even "washing dishes in a diner."  Danny, however, is not so sure -- his "imaginary" friend Tony has been showing him visions of the Overlook in his dreams, and what he sees frightens him. Meeting the hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann, gives Danny the chance to understand why he sees things or knows things that others don't: he has "the shine," an ability shared by the chef.  They both realize it in the other, but as Hallorann explains, Danny has the biggest shine he's ever encountered.   Danny levels with Hallorann that he's frightened, but Hallorann assures him that if he needs him, he only needs to send a mental message to him and he'll come back from his other job in Florida  to help him.  He also warns Danny that places can shine, and as the Torrance family is about to discover, the Overlook is one of those very places.   The hotel is a place where "all the hotel's eras" are together at once, an "inhuman place" that "makes human monsters."


The Shining has long been one of my all-time favorite horror novels, meriting the switch some time back from mass market paperback to 1st Doubleday hardcover book club edition.  It may not be filled with the kind of horrors seen in the Kubrick film (which I actually loved as well, but in a way not connected to King but to Kubrick's vision and genius here), but it is one of the most intensely cerebral novels of horror I've ever read.  The symbolism of the wasps, for example, is incredibly potent, a thread that runs completely throughout the story and absolutely necessary for understanding what's going on here.  Another point: in Kubrick's film Jack's character comes across as a raving lunatic, while here, it's much easier to see Jack as more of a victim of the hotel itself, allowing the reader to view his character more on the edge of sadness and empathy rather than as a person bent on self destruction and insanity.  If I had to make a top ten list of horror novels, this book would definitely be on it, although considering the horror novels being published today, it may seem relatively tame to modern  readers.  For me though, it is and always will be a classic.


Moving on to Doctor Sleep, 

Scribner, 2013
544 pp


Where The Shining is brimming over with horrific intensity, Dr. Sleep is in part a coming-of-age novel as well as a novel about demons, both internal and external, a bit more relaxed in the telling and well, for me, not nearly as frightening, cerebral or haunting as its predecessor.  That is most definitely NOT to say it's not good; it's just very different.

 The story catches up with Danny (now Dan) Torrance years after events at the Overlook.  He still has "the shine," although after years of alcohol abuse, it's been "tamped down" somewhat.  Dan has been unable to keep a job because of his drinking; at the same time the alcohol helps blot out the visions that continue to haunt him, for example, the "ghostie people" like the woman in room 217 at the Overlook.  He's also learned how to put these visions and his ethereal tormentors away in a mental lockbox, but at some point Dan just hits bottom.  Afterwards, he just wants to get away and make a new start -- after a bus ride into Frazier, New Hampshire, something inside of him realizes that this is where he needs to be.  He takes a job, and his boss ultimately gets him into AA, after which he starts work in a hospice center where he's nicknamed "Doctor Sleep" because of his ability to help the dying pass on while holding their hand.

As Dan is going through his bottoming out and taking steps to become human again, a girl named Abra is born, and as it turns out, she is also gifted with the shine.  With abilities much more powerful that Dan's ever were, she makes contact with him through her mind, and can even switch places via Spock-like mind melding.  But trouble is looming: a group of ancient beings known collectively as "the True Knot" also have powerful psychic abilities, and they actively seek out young people and children who like both Dan and Abra have "the shining," capture and torture them, and then use their psychic essence (which they call "steam")  to sustain themselves and keep themselves young -- psychic vampires, if you will.  The steam of one of their young victims, however, left some of the True Knot's members with a huge problem.  The group has also come across Abra and her potent abilities, which may be stronger than those of the True Knot's leader, Rose, who sends some of her "people" to pick her up, hoping that her "steam" will provide a much-needed solution to the group's problem as well as much-needed sustenance.  Abra reaches out to Dan for help, but he will need to revisit dark parts of his past in order to save her.

There's so much to like about this book which not only has a suspenseful horror story at its center, but also focuses in great detail about addiction. Personally, I enjoyed this facet of the book because it not only keeps in line with The Shining, but given Stephen King's own addiction background, he knows what he's talking about and it makes Dan's character much more credible.  But even if the addiction aspect fails to grab you,  the author has this incredible talent for incorporating the mundane into this story, disguising his dying-breed psychic vampire creatures as denizens of the world of  retired RV ramblers.  As he shifts to the story of the True Knot, he begins his chapter with how very annoying the traveling grannies and grandpas are on the roads in their big Winnebagos or other big vehicles,
"the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what.  They're the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones." 
Seriously, you know exactly who he's talking about because they're everywhere, and I have to admit that these few pages made me laugh out loud in recognition.  Try going down Highway 1 at Big Sur in California  behind a huge RV going 10 miles an hour listening to your otherwise calm husband bitch and moan,  and you'll know that he's described these people to a tee.  Mr. King also manages to toss in a nod to his son's NOS4A2, both in terms of a character mention and a bumper sticker on (where else?) the back of an RV.  Basically the only thing I really did NOT like about how he wrote this novel was that he throws in a major coincidence in the novel that I thought was a cop out (you'll know it when you see it) and made the whole set up kind of cheesy.  

One more thing.  In my very humble opinion, readers shouldn't judge this book as a true "sequel" to The Shining.  There are several reviewers who are saying they've been "let down" or have made other negative remarks while trying to compare the two.  My guess is that a) they haven't read The Shining in a while or are going off the Kubrick film as their source or that b) they're so fixated on the idea of this novel as a sequel that they're trying to draw parallels that aren't there.  There are large parts of the The Shining worked into this one, so it works that way, but Doctor Sleep is also a fun read on its own, though less intense and definitely less cerebral than the other.  My advice is to just sit back and read it, and enjoy it for what it is rather than complain about what it isn't.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Booker news, book news

The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize is Eleanor Catton, for her work The Luminaries.  I've read only the dustjacket so far, but I knew when I first got my copy earlier this summer that it was going to be good just from the blurb.  Now I must find time for 800+ pages of reading time, but it will definitely get read before Christmas.


In other book news, I got my Indiespensable package today which contained a signed copy of  J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus:

And while this probably isn't any big deal to most people, it's my second favorite signed edition since Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son.   Not that I'd ever sell it, but I love J.M. Coetzee's work so this is meaningful.

that's it for now ... I am just finishing Stephen King's The Shining and I've already finished his Dr. Sleep in the spirit of reading scary stuff this month; since the two are connected, I'll be writing about them together.  

Anyway, congratulations to Eleanor Catton for her win.  She's only 28!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

the perfect iphone case for book lovers

I apologize for the blur, but the photo is from my old iphone.  The photo quality sucks, which is one reason I got the new iphone, but of course, my old case did not fit.  So when I went looking for a new one, I wanted something that screamed "me" all over it -- and found this one.  It's two stacks of books laying on their sides with spines out.

Maybe something to keep in mind for your book reader friends or relatives at holiday time?

* The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce

Gollancz/Orion, 2013
265 pp

hardcover (UK)

The Year of the Ladybird surprisingly has much the same feel as Stephen King's recent Joyland, both set in kitschy kind of amusement places that used to be everywhere but which now are found largely in memories.    They're also both coming-of-age-stories, both have a slight infusion of the supernatural, and both capture a snapshot of  a certain place at a certain time.  Both main heroes start out young and naive; by the end of the story they've learned something not only about themselves, but about the way the world really works.  Ghosts and fortunetellers play a role in both; King's excursion into the ethereal has much more to do with the plot of the story, while Joyce's foray into the phantasmal is much more limited to the psyche of the main character. To be really honest, while I enjoyed Mr. Joyce's writing here, the ghost story neither grabbed nor thrilled me; nor did it give me even the slightest outbreak of goosebumps.  I'm also not a huge fan of coming-of-age stories either, but what's really well done here is the time-capsule element.  He describes this small piece of yesteryear so nicely that it's almost like being there, and the wide variety of people around the main character really enliven what could have otherwise been a been there, read-that-dozens-of-times kind of book.

 It's 1976.  England is sweltering, the political right is in turmoil as fears of immigrant job takeovers loom large and people are starting to not only notice but to get angry.  A heat wave has enveloped large parts of the country, water usage has been restricted, and and large clouds of lady bugs (ladybirds) are everywhere. In that milieu, David, a young college student, has decided that rather than take up his stepdad's offer of employment in his construction business, he'll be working at a holiday camp in the seaside town of Skegness.  The story is told from his own first-person perspective, and as he notes, in 1976, the "heyday of the British holiday camps had slipped," because cheaper flights were allowing more people to take their vacations in exotic locations.  David had  gone there largely out of curiosity: earlier in his childhood,  he'd found a photo showing his real father and himself at age three with the word "Skegness" written on the back.  He doesn't remember it, of course, and his mom and stepdad are unhappy with his choice to work there, but he takes the job anyway.  He works as a "Greencoat," someone who does pretty much anything, helping with the entertainments for all ages -- calling bingo, supervising sand-castle building among the younger kids, doing show lighting etc., etc.  While he's there, he meets all manner of people who also work in the holiday camp, falls for the wrong woman before finding the right one,  is introduced to an ultra right-wing group called  "The Way Forward," and learns how things really work in the world. David is bothered throughout the story with a sense of dread as if something terrible's about to happen, and he also encounters two strange figures along the seaside whom no one else but he can see.  

Butlin's Skegness Holiday Camp, from

If you've read Water for Elephants, you're familiar with how well the author described day-to-day life and the behind-the-scenes rivalries and relationships in the the depression-era circus; Mr. Joyce does the same here for the holiday camp. There's a great variety of characters that he brings to life so nicely: the tough-guy abusive husband who pays David to look after his wife and report back to him, the magician, the Italian singer, the fortuneteller, David's constantly intoxicated roommate, the dancer, as well as the people in charge and who work behind the scenes.  The tourists, of course, are a large part of the story, as well as the daily activities -- sandcastle building, dance contests, donkey rides for the overweight women, beauty contests, bingo -- all of which are rewarded with gala ceremonies and rock candy.  I'm not sure if there's an equivalent here in America since in summer it's mainly kids who go to camp, but it doesn't matter -- the camp is described so well that a clear picture will form in your mind as you read.  And all through the novel runs the metaphor of the ladybirds in flight. 

As I noted, the ghost story isn't frightening, and I think it's just here to illustrate a point and aid in David's arrival at self awareness.  Considering that I read this book hoping for even a mild frisson of fright, I was a bit disappointed; considering the entire book is about the progression of the main character as he comes into his own awareness of the world around him, the ghost story definitely plays second fiddle here.  What kept me reading were the holiday camp scenes, the descriptions of  growing political unrest and turmoil of the time, and the people in this book.  The ending may seem a little ambiguous, but as I always say, if authors always wrap things up nice and tidy without leaving any questions behind, what's to think about? 

If you're looking for an eerie, unearthly sort of read, this isn't the one.  If you're into the bildungsroman genre, then this one may interest you as well.  Even better, if  the appeal lies in picking up a book with a wide range of characters, or getting sucked into novel where the author paints a portrait of a particular place at a particular time, then definitely add this one to your tbr pile.   

Thursday, October 3, 2013

*This House is Haunted, by John Boyne

Other Press, 2013
304 pp

arc, thank you, Other Press!

[reposted at my oddly weird fiction page of this blog]

"... any story which concerns itself with the afterlife and with forces that the human mind cannot truly understand risks disquiet for the reader."

In the spirit of great timing, being released in the US this month is This House is Haunted,  a perfect Halloween read, especially for people who appreciate and enjoy a good ghostly yarn or for those who find happiness in spending a few hours immersed in the supernatural.  It incorporates a number of my favorite components, including a Victorian setting, a governess, an English country home, and of course, a ghost that has the run of the house and goes around scaring people half to death or worse.  As in many well-written ghostly tales, there's also a mystery underlying the source of the haunting.   Done before --  yes, for sure, but definitely not like John Boyne does it here, where he's put together an entertaining  ghost story by incorporating elements of various writers of the Victorian era, paying tribute to their works in his own.  And it all starts with Dickens.

In fact, Eliza Caine, 21,  the illustrious heroine of this novel, actually blames Charles Dickens for her father's death, and following that logic, he's probably also responsible for everything that happens afterward.   It's 1867, London, and Eliza has accompanied her sickly father, "an impassioned reader" to a reading by the author against her better judgment. They had an enjoyable time, but within a day or so her father is dead.  Eliza works as a teacher, but when her father's death leaves her unable the pay the rent on their house, she decides to apply to an advertisement for a governess she's seen in the paper. She is accepted right away and leaves London for the first time in her life, taking the train to Norfolk and Gaudlin Hall, her new home, only to find that there are no parents around, only two young children, Isabella and Eustace Westerley.  It isn't long until she realizes that there is something wrong there, and that she is the victim of a vengeful spirit who frequents the place and makes Eliza's life a living hell. When she appeals for information from the locals, she's met with a wall of silence, but her curiosity on one score leads to information that all of her predecessors have been frightened away or have met terrible ends.  Eliza knows she absolutely must get to the heart of the mystery before she becomes the spirit's next victim and the children are left alone once more.

Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
My guess is that the author had a great time while writing this book. It's a really good one -- a  tale probably best enjoyed on a stormy evening under a blanket with a hot cup of tea.   There are a number of  nods to Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Henry James in this novel as well as  a hint of the gothic.  While some parts come across as a bit tongue-in-cheek, making me think "parody",  the literary elements are very recognizable in terms of tropes, names, and style. Where this book shines  is in its characters, especially that of  Eliza, who is well beyond her timeframe in her thinking.  While she tends to be naive in the face of the supernatural at first, she is no hands-fluttering  standard Gothic or Victorian heroine who needs rescuing. She is extremely rational, independent, and courageous, but at the same time genuinely nurturing and caring toward her young charges. Taking no for an answer or being brushed off by the male characters (one Mr. Raisin comes to mind, oh! How Dickensian can you get!) who attempt to sweep her under the rug just isn't in her nature, although she is prone to the odd romantic reverie here and there in terms of the men she admires.

Perhaps the ghost story is not as frightening as others I've read, although the ending is downright chilling, but for me what makes a tale of the supernatural work best  is the aura of atmosphere that an author can produce and sustain throughout  his/her story. That's definitely part and parcel of this novel, as the author sets the level of "disquiet" on high with the villagers' silence,  the servants who appear and disappear quietly, the house and the untended children, creepy happenings and the procession of governesses to name only a few things. To his credit, he doesn't let the backstory out all at once either, allowing his readers to pick up a little bit at a time until the whole mystery behind the haunting is revealed. This House is Haunted is perfect for people who enjoy a good ghost story once in a while.  If you're thinking that you're going to get gore and splatter here, move along.  It's not that kind of book.  My advice -- go grab a copy, curl up in a blanket and prepare to have fun.  If there happens to be a thunderstorm brewing while you're reading it, even better!!

fiction from Ireland

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's October, bring on the ghosties and other creepy things!

photo from
October brings with it Halloween, and as far as reading goes, Halloween means a huge stack of creepy, dread-inducing, and scary tomes. I hope the ones I've chosen for this month are going to be good.  I love reading a good ghost story, supernatural tale, weird fiction, or horror novel but I prefer not to go down the roads of splatter, torture, or anything gross.  Nor do I care at all for zombies.  I'm probably the only person on the planet that isn't crazy about zombies -- I just don't see their point. Okay, so they're dead, they come back, they eat people and it gets all gross so I won't read about them anyway.  And zombie romance? Vampire romance? Ewww. Forget that. I like my horror cerebral -- I like imagining it all in my head, although sometimes that can backfire on me, and in one instance, caused me not to sleep for a couple of days. The story that kept me up with lights on is a story called  "Beach Head," by Daniel Le Moal. I originally read it in Volume One of Ellen Datlow's series The Best Horror of the Year ; when I wrote about it I noted that there is a line at which horror becomes no  longer fun for me -- and this story crossed it.  In the strictest sense of the word, I was indeed horrified, but this one went well beyond my comfort zone.   I give much credit to the writer: the images his writing conjured were extremely vivid, but downright depressing and I hope to god I never see another story like this one again.  I won't deny that the story was very well written, but there are just some things I don't want to see in my head.  On the other hand, I love reading supernatural stories because they are, imho, a lot like crime fiction.  Well-written ghost stories set up a situation that leads to a number of questions that you want answered; a good writer keeps the tension going just long enough until you have a solution of some sort.  The best horror stories are the ones where the author slowly builds and intensifies a certain feeling of dread before things get resolved one way or another.  

So, on the horror/supernatural stack this month so far (but this can change at any time):

John Boyne, This House is Haunted (which I've already read but I'll give it a reread and I'll be discussing it shortly)
Graham Joyce, The Year of the Ladybird: A Ghost Story
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
Dan Simmons, The Abominable

There are also a couple of literary novels I want to get through this month -- The House of Journalists, by Tim Finch and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri -- as well as new crime: Arnaldur Indridason's latest (which I'm reading now) called Strange Shores,  and two nonfiction books, The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer and Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.   That's the plan anyway. We'll see what actually happens!