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book reviews by Althea


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Chapelwood – Cherie Priest ***

(Borden Dispatches #2)

Chapelwood
Chapelwood by Cherie Priest
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In response to the first in this series, ‘Maplecroft,’ my friend wrote: “I assume, however, there’s a sequel because the big “Lizzie Borden vs. Cthulhu” build-up was not really satisfied. … I’m definitely looking forward to the next one.”
(https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…)

I have to reveal that this book might not really satisfy those looking for the Borden vs. Cthulhu Boss Fight, either.

Thirty years after the events of ‘Maplecroft,’ Lizzie Borden is living a life of quiet isolation, having outlived her sister and ‘lost’ her lover. [Again, Priest diverges from history: Emma Borden actually outlived her sister by about a week, although by that time, they had not spoken in twenty-two years. Nance O’Neil, rather than mysteriously disappearing, actually married, had a long career, and lived to the ripe old age of 90.]

Although things may be quiet in Fall River, something’s brewing down in Birmingham, Alabama, where a Reverend has founded a creepy holy roller church that, although ostensibly fundamentalist, may actually be contacting the Great Old Ones of the Lovecraftian mythos. Simultaneously, and possibly connected in some way to this church, a serial killer is applying weird equations to determine his kills.

The enigmatic Inspector Wolf, who was involved in the Borden affair thirty years earlier, gets involved when a friend of his, a Catholic priest, is murdered. Odd details bring Lizzie Borden to mind, and although he hasn’t spoken to her in all that time, he requests that she come down South as a consultant in this matter.

As a spooky serial killer murder mystery with a Lovecraftian edge, this book is perfectly good. I would say that the raison d’être for the story’s existence is to subversively put Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors on the same side as racists and the Klan, since Lovecraft himself was such a racist. (And that’s a really fun idea – I wholeheartedly approve.) However – there’s really no earthly (or unearthly) reason for Lizzie Borden to be in this story. She’s not even a main character. I mean, she’s portrayed as a helpful and competent character, but there’s no reason for it to be Lizzie Borden.

My main complaint with the first book was the lack of accurate details regarding historic Fall River. In this one, Priest moves the action out of Fall River, but some of the problems still persist. Some are small, as when Lizzie makes an a comment about the words “supper” and “dinner,” (“supper” is used in the south, but ALSO in the northeast – my grandmother, who lived in Fall River around the time period of this book, served “Sunday dinner” at noon, and ate “supper” as an evening meal) but some are more significant. One of the main themes of this book is the Klan’s (and their associates’) anti-Catholic sentiment. The Borden family were Congregationalists, but Fall River is and was a Catholic-majority community. Having lived there her whole life, one would think that Lizzie would find the bigoted religious attitudes odd, or notable, at least, as big change from what she was used to… especially given her fictional interest in comparative religions in this book… but she makes not one mention of any of that.

The main character of this story is, as I said, not Lizzie. It’s really Ruth Gussman, a young woman whose abusive father joins the worship community of Chapelwood – and who suspects that her father and the church have some kind of nefarious plans for her (and, of course, she is right.) In order to escape her father’s, and the Reverend’s clutches, she runs away and marries Pedro, an older, Catholic, Puerto Rican laborer who has previously done work for her family. Of course, he father is furious – and his anger launches the action.

That’s all good – but here is also one of the main flaws of this book. I don’t think Pedro even gets a speaking line in this book. Puerto Ricans in Birmingham? I don’t know anything about that! It’s interesting! Is there an immigrant community? What’s Pedro’s story? How’d he end up there? What’s his motivation and rationale behind agreeing to marry Ruth? We don’t know, at all. For a story with racism as a major theme, it’d be really nice to get to hear from the non-white character.

Still, there are plenty of murders, investigating, clues, and spooky occurrences. I loved Storage Room Six. And I can’t hate on Ax Action!

Many thanks to Roc and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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The Zombie Stories of H. P. Lovecraft: Featuring Herbert West–Reanimator and More!

The Zombie Stories of H. P. Lovecraft: Featuring Herbert West--Reanimator and More!
The Zombie Stories of H. P. Lovecraft: Featuring Herbert West–Reanimator and More! by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***** The Outsider
A re-read.
It doesn’t get any more gothic than this!
Alone in a dreary dark castle, a young man has no memories of every being anywhere else, of ever seeing another human soul. He learns of the outside world from the castle’s extensive libraries, and develops the desire to see the light. Thus, he embarks on a dangerous excursion to try to reach the exterior.
This story is a classic example of the paradox at the heart of Lovecraft’s art and life: He was xenophobic well past what was considered average at the time, but yet he writes of horrors – “outsiders” – from an inside perspective, with remarkable sympathy.

*** Herbert West – Reanimator
Although presented here as one story, this is actually a series of six linked stories about the mad scientist, Dr. Herbert West. More than anything else by Lovecraft, these feel like true pulp fiction, written for pure shocking entertainment, with a dashed-off, distinctly “non-literary” feel. Originally published as a serial, the magazine that they were written for apparently (and unfortunately) demanded that Lovecraft ‘re-cap’ previous events in each installment, which makes for repetitive, tedious reading when you’re not waiting a month between segments.
Once the re-cap bits are dealt with, though, the story itself is great fun. It can be viewed as a parody of or an homage to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ – but where Dr. Frankenstein was an earnest experimenter, Dr. West is a straight-up psychopath. Each segment tries to outdo the one before with gross and disturbing gory details. [One ‘alert’ – the third segment clearly reflects what can be most generously interpreted as the narrator’s racism, in a way that’s a different sort of unpleasant.]
I haven’t seen the movie that was based on these stories. Someone told me, back when it was a recent release, that its cheesy schlockiness didn’t do Lovecraft justice. But after reading the stories, I actually feel that a schlocky, campy adaptation is appropriate to the source material.

**** In The Vault:
A re-read (I’ve read this one more than once before).
An undertaker accidentally locks himself inside a tomb full of coffins awaiting burial. Although he’s an unimaginative, workman-like sort – not one to be bothered by the proximity of corpses – after what transpires that night, he’ll never be the same.
Objectively, this is an exceedingly well-crafted piece, but the ‘big reveal’ just doesn’t bother me as much as it’s clearly supposed to. It’s predicated on an assumption of a religious belief in (view spoiler)

**** Cool Air:
Forced by circumstances to take lodging in a cheap rooming house, the narrator is delighted to discover that one of his neighbors is a well-educated doctor – a man of ‘quality,’ even if he’s a bit eccentric. The most obvious oddity is that he’s a recluse, never leaving his rented rooms – and he keeps those rooms air-conditioned to a shockingly low temperature. However, it will eventually be revealed that there was a reason for his ‘madness.’

**** Pickman’s Model:
A re-read.
When someone speaks of an artist’s model, the first thing that probably leaps to mind is an attractive woman. But when an artist specializes in painting the weird, the grotesque and the macabre, the feminine form is likely not what he’s seeking out. When the artist in this story invites a fan to see his secret studio, in the depths of Boston’s North end slums, what is revealed has implications for the whole city.

**** Thing on the Doorstep:
A re-read.
“It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.” Is that a great first line, or what?
A frightening tale of stolen identity and ancient, immortal horrors.
The narrator, Dan, was friends with Edward Derby since childhood. However, he saw Edward grow up into an unassertive, weak-willed man, who eventually merely transferred his dependence on his parents onto his new wife, Asenath… an Innsmouth woman with strangely protuberant eyes.
Of course we know that anyone from Innsmouth is bound to be bad news, but in this case, the horror runs even deeper than one might guess.
This story is full of all of the favorite Lovecraftian motifs… and would be nearly perfect, except for the fact that the narrative depends on the aggravating plot point that (view spoiler) And that concept is more than a bit unacceptable to me. It’s a shame, because this story is near-perfect in ever other respect. (Full disclosure: there are New England Asenaths in my family tree – don’t dis them!) 😉

Although Lovecraft’s work is all available in many locations, it’s nice to have a small collection come out to revisit some stories and encourage me to read a few that I’ve previously overlooked.

Many thanks to Dover and NetGalley for this copy of the book. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Maplecroft – Cherie Priest ****

(The Borden Dispatches, #1)

Maplecroft
Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Up front: I’m adding a star for personal reasons. I was born in Fall River, and as an older child, moved to Providence, so a Lovecraftian Lizzie Borden tale feels like it was created just for me!

‘Maplecroft’ begins after Lizzie has been legally exonerated for the axe murders of her parents, although suspicion in town still rides high against her. She lived a somewhat isolated life, caring for her frail and sickly sister, Emma. Their main “social” contact is with Emma’s doctor. Aside from her quotidian tasks, Lizzie spends her time dispatching semi-aquatic inhuman monsters that keep nosing around the house – and spending time in her basement laboratory investigating what these malefic mysteries might be.
Meanwhile, her sister Emma busies herself with correspondence and investigations under her secret alter-ego identity: the renowned but reclusive marine biologist E.A. Jackson.

Now, Priest plays loose in this book not only with reality and history, but with geography. An awful lot is switched around to fit her tale, to the point where using the historical characters seems almost besides-the-point. I was OK with doing away with the servants who lived in the Borden mansion in order to accentuate the sisters’ isolation, but I did wish that the time period and sense of place had been more carefully crafted.

At the time that this novel is set, Fall River was a bustling mill town. It was in the middle of a major boom – within Lizzie’s lifetime, the population had increased five-fold. It was the textile center of the USA, known as ‘Spindle City.’ The character of the community had quickly changed as well, with a major influx of French-speaking immigrants from Canada. Not one iota of any of that is referenced in the book. Instead, the town feels sleepy and quiet, with a relentlessly British feel (with the exception of Lizzie’s Irish ‘friend’ who comes to visit from New York.)

In addition, a major theme of the book centers around the ocean. There are multiple descriptions of crashing waves, walking along the shore picking up ‘sea glass’ and other sea life, etc. Too bad Fall River is not actually on the ocean. It has waterfront, yes, but if you run down to the water from the Borden mansion at 306 French St, you’re on the Taunton River, not even Mount Hope Bay. It’s near Battleship Cove, a location chosen for its calm waters and lack of crashing waves.

These things made me go “hmmph.”
Regardless, I still very much enjoyed the tale, and will be promptly moving on to the just-released sequel.

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights – Salman Rushdie ****

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dizzying, imaginative, philosophical mosaic of a novel. Of course, the title is a reference to “1,001 Nights” and, like that work, a major element featured here is stories – the stories that come down to us from history, and the stories that we tell ourselves.

Although the content is quite different, the ‘feel’ of this book reminded me quite a bit of Umberto Eco’s ‘Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.’

Narrated from an opaque utopia, 1000 years in the future, we are told of the great war that changed the course of human history, when jinn invaded from Peristan, and the incursion of Faerie into our world caused all sorts of strange occurrences and disasters.

This short story, published in the New Yorker, is an early part of the book:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201…

(Speaking of ‘New Yorker,’ I also really enjoyed all the insiders’ references in the book to life in New York City. Sometimes the little details are what makes something fun.)

It’s a good introduction to the book, where we meet the jinnia Dunia, who falls in love with a human philosopher. Much later, in our time period, it is the descendants of their union who may shore up all of humanity’s defenses against the capricious malice of the jinn Zummurrud and Zabardast. Prime among these defenders will be a humble gardener known as Mr. Geronimo, and an unsuccessful comic-book artist Jimmy Kapoor – among an eclectic cast of characters. Of course, the immortal Dunia herself will also face off against her nemeses.

The set-up sounds like a standard fantasy plot, but the way it’s written is far from standard. It jumps around a lot, shoving ideas into the cracks wherever they might possibly fit. Many of the bits on their own are sparkling, amusing and witty, but at times the book feels like it loses focus. (Of course, ‘coherence vs. incoherence’ is one of the main themes of the book.) But the central idea? Of course, it’s an allegory: “… what was evil and monstrous about the jinn was a mirror of the monstrous and evil part of human beings, that human nature too contained the same irrationality, wanton, willful, malevolent and cruel, and that the battle against the jinn was a portrait of the battle withing the human heart…[which] served to show that world what had to be eradicated within itself, which was unreason itself.”

Of course, this being Rushdie, religious extremism, terrorist acts and hatred, are frequently mentioned explicitly. And somehow, it doesn’t feel too saccharine when he says, “In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”
I also love the hopeful prediction: “Fear did not, finally, drive people into the arms of God. Instead, fear was overcome, and with its defeat men and women were able to set God aside.”

For most of my way through this, I felt it was a 3-star selection, but the end brought it up to 4 stars for me. It got a lot more philosophical (yes, even more!) suddenly, and I think that some people will find it overly didactic, but it worked for me. I also appreciated at the end, that after working up to making several points, very strongly, there’s the admission that even in the so-called perfect world of the future, every utopia must, by necessity, be missing something of value. I know, the idea that our negative qualities as a race may be inextricably tied to our more admirable ones is hardly new, but it’s done quite well here.

It’s left to the reader to ponder whether the price we might have to pay for “peace, prosperity and tolerance” is one we want to give.

Many thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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The Gargoyle in the Dump – John Bellairs ****

The Gargoyle in the Dump
The Gargoyle in the Dump by John Bellairs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many other children, I was always entertained by Bellairs’ many books, which always struck a delightful balance between lighthearted and spooky. When I heard that this ‘lost’ manuscript has just been published, I jumped at the chance to read it.

The story is truly vintage Bellairs. It is just a short story, however, not a full novel. Still, it’s well worth the couple of bucks it’s selling for.

Three boys find a magical gargoyle in the local dump. Dragging it home, they’re entertained by its ability to show them scenes from its storied history, to become involved in their play at being pirates, and most of all, to give the boring neighbors a bit of come-uppance.

The feel is a bit like ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – but with children who are just a little naughtier.

Admittedly, there were points at which I wished for more development of the characters, and I also felt that the story could’ve been expanded; with more gargoyle adventures. Perhaps if Bellairs had been with us longer, he would’ve come back to this piece and done more with the idea. It’s still thoroughly enjoyable.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Ghost Summer – Tananarive Due

Ghost Summer
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Contents

i.GRACETOWN

**** The Lake (2011)
Gracetown is a rural Florida location, just over the Georgia border; the setting for the first three stories in this collection. It’s a hot and sticky, sleepy town – with a chilling dark undercurrent of supernatural influences – which boil to the surface in the summer.
In ‘The Lake’ we meet a schoolteacher who’s decided to take a job in the town, sight unseen. We’re not told exactly why she left her last position, but it’s hinted right from the beginning that she might have some rather unprofessional plans concerning some of the teenage boys in her class. But things don’t culminate in the way the reader might expect. The teacher is strongly drawn to the lake in back of her house, and although she’s always been a bit timid of the water, finds herself spending more and more time swimming in the murk…
A very strong horror story – it would’ve been a full 5 stars from me if not for (view spoiler) I also felt that I had quite a bit more sympathy for the main character than the author did.

**** Summer (2007)
A young mother’s military husband is away for the summer, leaving her and the baby alone in their house in Gracetown. In the last story, ‘The Lake,’ we learned that swimming during the summer in Gracetown is a bad idea, and it’s too bad that no one ever got around to telling the main character yet. In ‘Summer’ there’s another failure of communication – no one tells this mother to take special care with her baby during the summer, until it’s too late.
But when your bratty, temper-tantrum-throwing baby is ‘possessed’ by a ‘visitor’ that makes your child well-behaved and adorable, is it such a bad thing?
In the author’s note, she describes this story as being about an “unconscionable choice,” but personally, I saw it as a very logical and reasonable choice. But then, there’s a reason I’m not a parent…

**** Ghost Summer (2008)
A novella-length classic ghost story. In the town of Graceland, it’s well-known that children can see ghosts. One young boy is eager to visit his grandparents in Florida for the summer, hoping to catch a glimpse of an apparition. But what he discovers exceeds his expectations, as a haunting leads to an unraveling of long-lost secrets. It reveals the truth of what happened one night, back in the town’s history, when fear and suspicion were escalated by hatred into an infamous race riot.

ii. THE KNOWING

**** Free Jim’s Mine (2014)
A couple, seeking to meet up with the Underground Railroad and get to the North, and freedom, seek out Free Jim. This emancipated black man, now a wealthy mine owner, had always promised to help his niece seek her freedom, but no help was ever forthcoming. Now, though, she’s desperate. She and her partner agree to spend the night in the mine to avoid pursuit… and this is one scary hole in the ground.

***** The Knowing (2002)
Is knowledge power – or a curse? A boy’s mother has one ‘gift’ – she knows the date on which everyone she sees will die. You’d think that perhaps one could leverage such knowledge, but that’s not what happens here. Absolutely heartbreaking.

**** Like Daughter (2000)
One day, a woman gets an unexpected call from a distraught old friend, asking her to come take custody of her goddaughter. At first, the piece seems like it might just be retreading the tired ground of the traumas of child abuse – but there’s an unexpected and powerful turn to the story.

*** Aftermoon (2004)
This might well be the most uneventful werewolf story I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is still excellent, and it’s not without a few wry smiles… but the audience is more those who are concerned about body image and self-esteem issues in modern society than those interested in horror.

**** Trial Day (2003)
Powerful story, based in the author’s own family history, about how fear can stop a person from doing the right thing. And a touch of dark voodoo…

iii. CARRIERS

***** Patient Zero (2000)
Post-apocalyptic/’outbreak’ genre in the classic mode. Superb storytelling, but again, I have to find myself disagreeing with the author herself. In the notes she says she finds the main character’s “loneliness and innocence” heartbreaking – but I would say I found his ignorance and self-centered perspective appalling (although understandable, given the circumstances.) I felt that was where the main horror of the tale lay.

***** Danger Word (with Steven Barnes) (2004)
Kick-ass zombie story! A young boy is staying with his grandfather, in a cabin out in the woods. But it soon becomes clear that this is no summer vacation trip… all is not right with the world. This was later modified and expanded into the novel ‘Devil’s Wake’ – which I’m going to have to read.

*** Removal Order (2014)
Previously read in John Joseph Adams’ ‘The End is Nigh’ anthology.
What this story made me think about is how very peculiar it is that our society values keeping people alive when they have no hope of recovery from illness, and they are in horrible pain. This story has that situation: a young woman has stayed in an evacuation zone to care for her dying grandmother. The situation is believable, and is dealt with in a sensible manner, but I don’t think I had the empathy with the main character that the author intended.

**** Herd Immunity (2014)
Here, we meet the same character we were introduced to in ‘Removal Order,’ nine months later. Nayima has become harder, tougher – she’s had to do things to survive. However, she still has her dangerously stupid sentimental streak. That character trait, combined with her newfound, self-interested toughness, is a combination that’s a recipe for disaster. The reader knows all’s not going to end well when Nayima speaks about Typhoid Mary with sympathy.
At this point, I really hope the author isn’t still intending to have her readers sympathize with Nayima. I’m not quite sure.

**** Carriers (2015)
The third ‘Nayima’ story. Nayima is now old – or what passes for elderly in this now-post-apocalyptic world. She’s had a hard life, constantly experimented on and abused due to her immunity. She’s become suspicious (understandably so) and eccentric. She can’t believe that a promise could be anything more than yet another lie – but she still has her sentimental streak.

iv. VANISHINGS

**** Señora Suerte (2006)
Starting from the prompt: “What if the unluckiest man in the world met Lady Luck?” this tale emerged. Left alone without family, all his loved ones dead, suffering from the effects of a stroke, an elderly man in a nursing home insists on attending every single Bingo game in the rec room, even though he hates the game and its false cheer… but he has a reason.

****Vanishings (2015)
This last story doesn’t have any supernatural or horror elements in it, but it is a sad yet heartwarming and ultimately affirming look into a family’s struggles. A single mother is wrestling with raising two daughters, one of them direly ill, while trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband disappeared a year ago.

I’m coming out of reading this collection massively impressed with Due’s skill and strength as a writer. I don’t agree with her perspective 100% of the time – but I think that a good thing; it makes me as a reader feel that my preconceptions are challenged. There are lots of thorny and ambiguous issues here – and insights into the depths of the human heart. Beautifully done.

Many thanks to Prime Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Girl Waits with Gun – Amy Stewart ***

Girl Waits with Gun
Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While en route from their farm to town in their horse-drawn carriage, three sisters are crashed into by a group of men in a motorcar. The men look like a bunch of disreputable toughs, but that doesn’t dissuade Constance Kopp from asserting her rights and demanding to be paid damages. Little does she know that the reckless driver is Henry Kaufman, a wealthy but somewhat deranged mill owner, and that his friends are in the Mafia. But even when she finds out, she refuses to back down from demanding what she is rightfully owed. The situation escalates into blackmail and violent threats, as Constance stands firm and seeks to protect herself and her sisters, while remaining independent.

The book is based on a true story – Kopp and Kaufman really did have their legal battle; Kopp really was the victim of threats and harassment, and she really did become one of the first American female police deputies. Amy Stewart has provided a fascinating archive of photos and newspaper articles about these characters on her website: http://www.amystewart.com/characters/

However, I felt that the book draws out a small story a bit too much. If it had been about half the length, I would’ve loved it. But the repeated incidents of confrontation and harassment began to feel a bit repetitive, and the fictional subplot involving a kidnapped illegitimate child felt like filler material. It’s still a fascinating glimpse into life in 1914 New Jersey.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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