Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Reading Roundup

April was a truly banner month for reading,  because a)I was away from home for some time this month with lots of reading time, b) I  had a really bad bout of insomnia on and off during the month, and used the many sleepless nights for catching up on my reading instead of stressing about how I can't sleep. 

So here goes:


Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane

Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus 
The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier
Blood Always Tells, by Hilary Davidson
The Son, by Jo Nesbo

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Hastur Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price
The Mysteries of the Worm, by Robert Bloch (ed. Robert M. Price)
The Dracula Papers: Book I: The Scholar's Tale, by Reggie Oliver (not reviewed, but one heck of a good book)

Now the rest

1)  Added to the  wishlist this month:
 crime fiction:
surprisingly, not a thing!

  general fiction/literature: 
My Beautiful Enemy, by Cory Taylor
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright
the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
The Strange Dark One, by W.H. Pugmire
Rehearsals for Oblivion, by Peter Worthy
Blood Will Have its Season, by Joseph S. Pulver
Sin and Ashes, by Joseph S. Pulver
Fearful Symmetries, ed. Ellen Datlow
The Lady Who Came to Stay/The Elixir of Life (Lovecraft's Library), by R. E. Spencer and R.E.Ransome
The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest
The Time Traveler's Almanac, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
The Dark Boatman: Tales of Horror and the Cthulhu Mythos, by John Glasby
The Complete Tales of Doctor Satan, by Paul Ernst and John Pelan
The Complete Adventures of Hazard and Partridge, by Robert J. Pearsall, Nathan Vernon Madison
The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2014 Edition, ed. Paula Guran


again, not a thing

2) Books bought this month:

Cemetery of Swallows, by Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol/aka Mallock  (crime)
The Hand of Kornelius Voyt, by Oliver Onions (weird)
Revenants, by Daniel Mills (weird)
From the Fatherland With Love, by Ryu Murikami (sci-fi)
The Panda Theory, by Pascal Garnier (French fiction)
The A26, by Pascal Garnier (French fiction)
How's the Pain? by Pascal Garnier (French fiction)
The Cage, by Kenzo Kitikata (Japanese fiction)
The Case of the Sharaku Murders, by Katsuhiko Takahashi (crime)
The Last Pirate: A Father, a Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana (nonfiction)
The Day of the Owl, by Leonardo Sciascia (Crime)
The Black Coats: The Parisian Jungle, by Paul Feval/Brian Stableford (crime)
Authority (Southern Reach Trilogy #2), by Jeff VanderMeer (weird)
The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six, ed. Ellen Datlow (weird/horror)
Snow White Must Die, by Nele Neuhaus (crime)
The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar's Tale, by Reggie Oliver (fantasy/weird)
The Investigation, by Lee-Jung Myung (crime)


preorder: The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
preorder: The Narrowest Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
preorder: Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
preorder: Revival, by Stephen King
preorder: The Rhesus Chart (The Laundry Files), by Charles Stross

3) Indiespensable and Book Passage Signed First Edition books for this month (in that order):
Indiespensable: The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt
Every Day is for the Thief, by  Teju Cole

4The book group read: Due to popular demand, we moved from the end of March to the first of April to discuss Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which we all seemed to enjoy. We spent two hours on this book.  Then in our regular meeting just yesterday, the book under discussion was How it All Began, by Penelope Lively, and I got thank yous for recommending it.  It's one of my personal favorites, and I really wanted to share. Up next  is Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook.
5) Currently reading:
weird fiction: The Complete John Thunstone by Manly Wade Wellman (so far, absolutely in love with it)
regular fiction: Chronicle of a  Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry (so far, so good)
nonfiction: (just starting) Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, by Gabrielle Carey

this month I gave away 14 books! Thanks to all who gave them new homes.

that's it -- next month I have two lovely vacation weeks in Hawaii so I foresee a LOT of reading! 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

ah ... I've been waiting for this one!

I'm a huge fan of Christopher Moore and his new book, Serpent of Venice, has just come out. I bought one for my daughter, also a fan, and one for me.  Mine has an added bonus:

My favorite of his books is Lamb, followed by Sacre Bleu. I hope this one measures up.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane - definitely yes. Go read it now.

Faber and Faber, 2013
241 pp


"If one person walks on the beach in the next ten minutes, there's a tiger in my house at night; if there are two, the tiger won't hurt me; if there are three, the tiger will finish me off."

I don't know the last time I've ever been this unsettled by a novel.  I started it, was intrigued, picked it up again the next day and read until just after 3 a.m. when I finished it. Then I couldn't sleep for another hour and a half, mulling over what I'd just read and trying to calm the anxiety this most excellent book had caused me.  The Night Guest is author Fiona McFarlane's first novel and if this is her first outing, I will probably buy every book this woman writes.

Harry and Ruth Field bought a lovely beachside home up the coast from Sydney after Harry's retirement. Sadly, it isn't too long afterwards that Harry dies, leaving Ruth alone. She's 75, with two sons, one in Hong Kong who is always busy and one in New Zealand. Ruth gets through her day through "symmetry," for example, always beginning her journey up a flight of stairs on her left foot, ending it on her right, or believing that if dinner was ready by the six o'clock news, her sons would be there for Christmas.  As the novel begins, Ruth awakens at four in the morning after hearing noises in the house. She'd heard these noises before, at a German zoo: "loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps, as if it might roar at any moment ... like a tiger eating some large bloody thing..." A phone call to her son Jeffrey in New Zealand puts her mind at rest and reminds her that the tiger was likely nothing more than a dream, but she realizes that "something important" was happening.  The next day, looking out at the sea, Ruth tells herself that "If one person walks on the beach in the next ten minutes, there's a tiger in my house at night; if there are two, the tiger won't hurt me; if there are three, the tiger will finish me off."

It is then that Frida arrives, sent by the government to be Ruth's carer. A quick conversation with Ruth's son Jeffrey establishes how Frida came to be there:
"A state programme. Her name was on file, and a spot opened up...An hour a day to start with. It's more of an assessment, just to see what's needed, and we'll take things from there."
Jeffrey is delighted at the "good use of taxpayers' money," but Ruth is "not sure about this," thinking she's "not doing badly." But then again, Ruth is somewhat assured because Frida is "Fijian," since Ruth spent part of her childhood in Fiji with her missionary medical parents. And, Ruth tells herself, she's only 75, and her mother had been over 80 "before things really began to unravel." 

 Things seem to be going well for Ruth with the addition of Frida into her home. Frida extends her hours, and Ruth seems happy when Frida takes on the shopping, bill paying, cleaning, meal preparation and banking. Soon enough the two settle into a comfortable routine. Ruth tells Frida about her life in Fiji, Frida tells her about her brother and her family, and Ruth comes to depend on Frida's help.  Up against Frida's boisterous personality, Ruth's own fragile state starts to become obvious, and the reader senses that for Ruth it is somewhat of a blessing to be in Frida's boisterous company. But a  visit from a friend from Ruth's past starts a long series of waking nightmares that quickly jolt the reader into realizing that all is indeed not well, and events occur  that bring Ruth's dreams of being stalked by a predator into a waking reality.

 The Night Guest is not an easy book to read on an emotional level.  While I won't give away much, first, a lot of what happens is viewed through the lens of Ruth's mind. It's obvious early on that there's something not quite right with her -- she forgets to wash her hair for weeks, she's let her lovely garden become overgrown to the point where the sand is overtaking it, and chores that used to be done dutifully are also neglected.  As things begin to take a turn for the worse,  it is difficult to pinpoint whether or not Ruth's version of things are anywhere close to lucid and coherent, especially since there is an alternate point of view that gives the reader an impression that maybe Ruth's deteriorating and disoriented mind is imagining things, just as she imagined the tiger in her lounge room.  This constant tug between  versions of reality (and one of the best uses of reader manipulation I've experienced in a long time) is one of the best features of this novel -- the reader is always trying to decide what's really going on here, and in my case, the tension and sheer aura of menace produced by this story continued to grow up until the very end.  Second, this book is incredibly sad and depressing -- there is not one iota of happiness in this book when all is said and done. However, unless the reader's heart is made of stone, the story ultimately should inspire  a deep, beyond--gut-level empathy, and make you want to call one of your aging relatives more often. And even though I'm far far away from Ruth's age,   I also came away feeling like "Oh my god, I hope I NEVER find myself in this position."

The only niggling thing is that explanations at the end come tumbling in a rather rushed manner, but by that time they don't really matter.  As with so many books, in this one, it's more about the journey.  The fact that this writer was able, with only words, to produce so much unease inside of me speaks to how well written I found this book to be. There are relatively few books I've read that move me like this one, that keep me up at night, and that still resonate days after reading them.  I seriously cannot recommend this one highly enough. I loved this book.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Random House, 2014
163 pp


"All people who are far from home have something they hold on to."

Every Day is for the Thief is a story related by a young Nigerian man currently living in New York who has returned to Lagos after an absence of fifteen years.  As this unnamed narrator  notes,  “It feels longer still because I left under a cloud.”  The story behind that cryptic remark  is left nearly until the end. In the meantime,  as he's being driven,  rides on a bus, or walks throughout the city, he notices things at  particular moments that capture his attention and weaves it into his own narrative about the issues he finds facing people there and how the people have just sort of let things happen.  He also considers whether or not he could seriously live here again, especially considering that now he's gazing at his "home" (an ambiguous concept in this book) through the eyes of someone who's been away for so long. The book is structured in a series of vignettes, linked together partially through the discoveries he makes,  partially by the narrator's "inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home, " and by his search in this city for hope for its people's future.  I couldn't put this book down -- I was so wrapped up in the city of Lagos that I read this book in one sitting.

His tale begins even before he leaves New York City, where he runs up against corruption and bribery in the Nigerian consulate office while trying to get a new Nigerian passport.  Then once he's in the city and on the way home from the airport, the sight of two policemen arguing over bribe territory on a roundabout sparks a discussion about " 'the informal economy' of Lagos" found everywhere, a thread that reappears throughout the novel.  The view into the gorge from the back porch of his aunt's house takes him back to his past when the gorge was "pristine;" now it's set for housing developments where "white satellite television dishes" cling to the houses "like barnacles."  Internet cafes are everywhere, as are young men who sit and write those emails that turn up in my spam folder from time to time, the 419 scams which are against the law but still flourish.  A chance glance on a bus at a woman reading a novel by Michael Ondaatje brings up discussion about the low Nigerian literacy rate, and the fact that "literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate."   And there's much more.  There are also some wonderful but often--perplexing photographs which record some of these moments -- and set them down for all to see and to remember.  

One of the main themes  seems to be the idea that people in this country tend have little connection to their national/cultural/historical past. History goes "uncontested" these days in this city where "one has to forget about yesterday," and focus on the needs of the now.    A visit to the CSS Bookshop, a childhood destination, where in the only part of the store there is more than one customer, yields "reiterations of a few themes" including quick money making, discovering God's plan for life, or "how to live a healthy, wealthy, and victorious life" according to the Pentecostal Church.    There is no section for the works of Nigeria-based writers, no "international literary fiction," and an "absence" of poets.   Then, when the narrator visits the National Museum, a "memorial touchstone" for him, he is appalled by a "pitiful" archaeological collection,  "gaps" in the artifact collections, mildewed  plaques that provide texts that are "sycophantic, inaccurate,uncritical,"  leaving him with the idea that "History, which elsewhere is a bone of contention, has yet to enter the Nigerian public consciousness, at least judging by institutions like the museum.”  All is not darkness though:  he does find a couple of places from which hope might spring, places where creativity abounds.

Before I bought it, I saw that there was some sort of controversy as to whether or not this book should be considered to be a novel. It does read like a month-long travel experience, and  there is not really a plot or character development, but if the author says it's fiction,  what's all the fuss?  This was a non-issue for me (since I'm just a casual reader and not a critic)  -- I read it as a fictional novel with a whole lot of truths  to be told, as the narrator's disillusioned "love affair" with the city.

  There are a number of reasons I like Every Day is for the Thief besides the fact that it offers a look at a place I'm never going to be and a place I've been interested in reading about for years because of  how the oil companies have changed this country  and because of the environmental issues.  The main one is that I'm walking away from this book with the idea that there is a lot of life and excitement to be found in Lagos despite  the negatives, which are generally what the media covers.   The narrator notes that the city is a place of "a million untold stories," where "There is no end of fascinations."   But I also believe that the author is  angered or dismayed by the attitudes that have helped  the city (and the country) to become what it is now, and that this book is a vehicle through which he can express both views.

I'd recommend it to people who are interested in Nigeria (like myself); to people who are interested in urban culture, and to people who want something very different in terms of fiction writing.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

One of my favorite authors has just passed away -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been one of my favorite authors forever, and now he's gone. I just read this article in the Washington Post telling of his passing.   I'm sure that everyone who has ever enjoyed his work, both fiction and nonfiction, will mourn the death this great writer. 

resquiat in pace
Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Monday, April 14, 2014

another book comes off the TBR pile: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

Viking, 2013
404 pp


"They weren't just nine guys in a boat; they were a crew."

 Considering that I'm not at all a sports person, it seems odd that I would even be reading a book about the University of Washington crew team.  I didn't know what to expect, but after reading the first chapter I was totally hooked.  It only got better from there.  I don't often seek out inspiring reads, and I had no intention at all of buying/reading this book until one of my online reading friends (thank you, Trish!) wrote a review that made me want to run to the store to pick this one up. And I'm happy I did.

It's probably a given that almost everyone is familiar with the fact that at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Jesse Owens walked away with four gold medals, throwing the Nazi ideal of the Aryan supremacy right back in Hitler's face. Another thing about that year's Olympic games that most people are familiar with is the call for a boycott of the games, as rumors were circulating about what was really going on in Germany and the repressive measures of the Nazis. But it's very unlikely that anyone other than sports historians or people who are really into the history of the Olympic games know about the crew team from the University of Washington who literally battled the odds and not only made it to the games, but went on to win won the gold medal.  The Boys in the Boat not only takes the readers through the crew's efforts in getting there, but also goes into great depth about the crew members, especially the central figure in this book, Joe Rantz.  His story lies at the heart of this book, but the author also includes stories about the other members of the team, a look at the Depression in the US, and what was going on in Germany at the time. He also examines the sport of crewing itself -- especially the prominence of the teams from elite Ivy League universities.  As he notes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis."  Joe's story is the best part of this book.

I've written more about this book on the nonfiction page of this reading journal blog, but the bottom line is that it's one I can recommend very highly, and a book that absolutely should not be missed.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown 2014
403 pp


"Fish or cut bait, but don't gripe." 

Frog Music is a novel of historical fiction set in the streets of  San Francisco in 1876. It is a city, as the author notes, hit by "twin plagues" of smallpox and a terrible heat wave.  At its southern boundary is San Miguel Station, where as the novel opens,  two women are sharing a room. One of them, Blanche, bends down to untangle a knot on the gaiter clinging to her calf; the other, Jenny, has her head down on the pillow half asleep.  At that moment, someone decides to fire a gun into the room from outside and Jenny is dead.  This very real crime was never officially solved, but in Frog Music, Emma Donoghue offers her readers a possible and plausible solution, one that has it roots in the moment Blanche and Jenny met for the first time.  However, the who-may-have-done-it isn't the biggest mystery in this book by a long shot; in fact, for me, the crime aspect of this book just wasn't that  big  of a deal.  The central focus for me was on how Jenny's chance meeting and resulting friendship with Blanche had a major impact on both of their lives.

The main character in this book is definitely Blanche. Formerly a circus acrobat in France, now, a year and half later,  she's a dancer -- an  "expert tease, an allumeuse who lights the flame and snuffs it, lights and snuffs it," --  and "every dip, sway, pout wiggle, grind she converts into greenbacks in her head..." She's also a high-class prostitute. When Blanche and Jenny meet during a chance accident, Blanche is taken by this strange, secretive woman who sings little ditties, likes stories, dresses in men's clothing and catches frogs for her livelihood.  As she notes, she hasn't had as much fun with "a stranger" since before leaving France.  Jenny also has a "talent for putting her nose in other people's business. And her finger on sore points," one of which is Blanche's baby  P'tit Arthur, named after Blanche's lover. P'tit, now about a year old,  was sent out to a "farm, for his health," and Blanche's visits with him have become fewer and fewer. She's bored, the visits are routine, and she's waiting for a time "till  he's got some spark in him, till he could be said to be thriving."  Jenny's questions, however, prompt her to visit her baby at the farm, and what Blanche witnesses there causes her to take her baby with her, a decision that will lead Blanche to some pretty harsh realizations about herself, her trade and the people who supposedly care about her.  The story starts with Jenny's murder and part of it follows Blanche after that event; the other part focuses on what is happening in the characters' lives up to the moment of Jenny's death, most especially the major impact of  Blanche's friendship with Jenny. 

I loved all of the rich historical descriptions, even those relating the harsh realities facing women and children in those days, and I appreciated all of the research that went into this novel.  Throughout the book,  the author vividly immerses the reader in the historical setting -- beyond the blazing heat, she also includes the sordidness of life in parts of the city where the virginity of young girls is auctioned off, where baby farming (read warehousing)  is a perfect solution for unwanted babies and a great business for brothel owners, and where smallpox can run rampant due to unsanitary and crowded conditions. And, of course, there's the music of the time -- entertaining songs  which are given in small bursts throughout the book, then discussed  in an appendix at the back of the novel.  I love historical fiction that is well written, and Frog Music definitely falls into that category.   Having said all of that,  for me the novel succeeds less as a mystery/crime novel (which in retrospect seems kind of gimmicky now) and more as a look at  how a woman with  very little in the way of maternal instinct and very little understanding about the needs of others discovers exactly what she's capable of in the worst of circumstances -- and just what her discovery has cost her.  Blanche's quest to find both the killer and some amount of justice for Jenny seemed a little forced and frankly, I just wasn't that interested, although as I noted earlier that the author's solution is entirely plausible.  

 Some caveats for other casual readers: lots of graphic detail in terms of sex and smallpox,  the baby farm scene is just downright gutwrenching, and the callousness of people in this novel was just infuriating at times.  Overall, while I found the crime component to be a big "meh," there is a lot I  liked about this book.  I won't say I loved it because I didn't, but it was one I didn't want to put down.  I recommend it, maybe not so much to crime fiction fans or historical mystery fans, but as a work of historical fiction in general; I also predict that Frog Music, like Room, (which I wasn't gaga over either) will be a huge  bestseller.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

from the weird fiction page: The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price

Chaosium (Call of Cthulhu Fiction #1), 1993
303 pp


"Close contact with the utterly bizarre is often more terrifying than inspiring..." --- HP Lovecraft in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (193) 

Some time ago, long before HBO's True Detective was even in the works, I read  S.T. Joshi's Chaosium collection of Robert W. Chambers'  The Yellow Sign and Other StoriesIt  was my  introduction to  King in Yellow, and I was so entranced that I had to have more. After doing a little research, I came up with a list of titles to satisfy my King In Yellow itch, and The Hastur Cycle was one of them.  To be honest, there are only a few stories that deal with Carcosa, Hali, and The King of Yellow, but they're all quite good. The rest of the book is a Lovecraft story, along with tales from writers who came after Lovecraft and were inspired by him in their own writing.   I've outlined the stories without spoilers here along with my thoughts on this book, which I recommend highly to readers of weird fiction or Lovecraft in general.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April: á la carte

This is a somewhat blurry picture of my little rollie cart that sits next to my desk. It has three tiers, all big enough to hold books. This month I've stacked all of the possible tbr books on the top shelf for easy access.  I know there's no way I'll get through them all but here are my self-imposed choices:

Everyday is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
Painted Devils, by Robert Aickman
1940, by Jay Neugeboren 
Made to Break, by D. Foy
Hotel Brasil, by Frei Betto
On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee
Malena, by Edgardo David Holzman
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout
Silence Once Begun,by Jesse Ball
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Mapuche, by Caryl Ferey
Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is also on there -- that one I'll save for Friday's long airplane ride across the country, along with Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto.  

I may not wholly stick by the plan, but it makes for a good outline of possibilities.