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27th-Nov-2015 12:45 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War, by Ian Buruma. Penguin Press, 2016

Prolific writer of history and sociology Ian Buruma has focused on a very personal history in this book: that of his grandparents, Win and Bun (Winifred and Bernard) Schlesinger. Their love affair started around the same time that WW I did (although at that point it was discouraged by both families because of their youth) and continued right up to Bernard’s death in 1984, and it’s an affair that was closely narrated by their letters. During their separations during both World Wars, they wrote every day and many of those letters were saved, providing a treasure trove for Buruma.

Bun and Win’s parents were all prosperous- both their fathers were stock brokers- Jews who emigrated from Germany to England. They strove to fit into their adoptive country, celebrating Christmas and ignoring the anti-Semitism they ran into. When the First World War came, Win and Bun both desired to serve; Win became a nurse and Bun was a stretcher bearer on the fields, where he saw horrible things. Between the wars they married and started a family- which, during WW 2, increased suddenly by 12 Jewish children rescued from the Nazis.

Buruma’s focus is not just on the loving marriage of his grandparent’s, however. It’s also about cultural assimilation and anti-Semitism. Despite facing prejudice- Bernard’s employment prospects were limited because he was Jewish- the family remained devoted to England and *almost* all it stood for. This is a fascinating look at what is going on all around us now as people leave their home countries and face the same kind of prejudice.
25th-Nov-2015 12:50 pm(no subject)
nEvermore: Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles. Edge, 2015

‘nEvermore’ is a collection of 21 tales inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. Some are updates of Poe stories- ‘The Orange Cat’ is a modern day “The Black Cat’- while another, “Street of the Dead House” is a retelling of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ through the eyes of the ape. Others simply have the aura and atmosphere of Poe. The anthology features some great authors, including Tanith Lee, Michael Jecks, and Margaret Atwood(!).

Most short story collections have many stories that I either don’t like or just don’t do it for me; to my surprise, I appreciated every story in this one. If you are a Poe fan or a horror fan, give it a try.
23rd-Nov-2015 12:09 pm(no subject)
puzzled snooch
The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert. Scribner, 2016

Morgan, acid scarred son of wealth, lives alone in a mansion. He spends his days cataloging the maps and books collected by his wandering grandfather. Morgan has had a troubled life; a mother ill both physically and mentally and an isolated childhood have left him ill-equipped to deal with the outside world he has never seen.

Then children start to arrive at the estate. The youngest are infants; the oldest is five year old David. Where they come from and how they get there is a mystery. They just are. They are preternaturally well behaved, quiet, and smarter than normal for their ages. David is their leader; he talks and acts like a small adult. They provide needed company for Morgan. They simply accept his scarred face as he accepts them. When one of the children becomes ill, the housekeeper calls in a medical man, Dr. Crane, who accepts both Morgan and the children just as they are. He completes their family odd little family.

The children obviously have a purpose, but Morgan cannot figure out what it is. They learn from his books and instruction. They disappear into the many rooms of the house for hours, sometimes finding truly odd and rather macabre items.

Outside the estate, a dystopian world lies. When it intrudes in the form of officials who say he cannot be harboring children, Morgan must face the outside world- and his family’s place in it- for the first time. What he finds is grim and bizarre.

I’m not sure what to call this novel. It’s like a dystopian fairy tale, a fable written by Kafka. After a ways into the story, I would not have been surprised if Morgan had turned into a giant cockroach. The story is uneven; the first part is very good but as it heads into the ending it changes tone completely, and, frankly, I am left thinking “WTH was that about?!?!” If I could, I’d give the first part of the book a 4-star rating and the ending a 2-star rating.
Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization comprehensively demolishes the myth that warfare is a relatively recent phenomenon and that early human societies were peaceful.

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17th-Nov-2015 04:13 pm(no subject)
The Bridge, by John Skipp & Craig Spector. Bantam Books, 1991

This science fiction/horror tale is totally agenda driven. It’s about the day that toxic waste, thrown into the creeks, rivers, and earth, become sentient and rise up against humans. It’s about as subtle as a sledge hammer with its message that we are destroying the earth.

Written in 1991, the novel is sited in the town of Paradise, Pennsylvania, a small to medium sized city. It’s large enough to have some industry, and that industry creates waste. So there is a company that deals with relieving businesses of their waste. Problem is, they are not very particular about disposing of said waste. Their subcontractors- redneck yahoos who consider ‘out of sight, out of mind’ a good working plan- aren’t any more particular. One day as they dump 55 gallon drums into the creek, the creek itself- joined with the waste already there- rises up. Then there is the nuclear power plant in the county that is starting to sing to itself as all hell breaks loose…

It’s a very grim novel, with lots of vivid gore; the descriptions of what happens to the humans is revolting. I didn’t realize until after I read the book that they authors are considered splatter punk kings. There are a lot of characters in the book; sometimes it’s hard to keep track of them. Sadly, none are fleshed out at all. They are just puppets doing their jobs for the story. The plot is also lacking. The book is powerful, but still a letdown because of that.
17th-Nov-2015 01:41 am - The Pity of War
Burne-Jones Katie Lewis
The First World War ended 97 years ago. It has of course always been recognised as a cataclysmic episode in European history but with each passing year it seems more and more obvious that it was an even more significant event than it appeared at the time. The outbreak of war in 1914 was the moment that the long slow suicide of European civilisation began. It was the event that started our civilisation on the path of self-hatred and guilt. It was the moment that we began to lose faith in our own civilisation.

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17th-Nov-2015 01:28 am - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Micah Clarke
Gene Tierney Egyptian
It was the Sherlock Holmes detective stories that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle world famous and it is these stories that have assured his lasting fame. This would have surprised and vexed him since he himself believed that his greatest literary achievements lay in the field of historical fiction. In fact Conan Doyle’s belief was not unreasonable. His mastery of the historical fiction genre may well have exceeded his mastery of the detective story. The first of his historical romances, Micah Clarke, was published in 1889.

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15th-Nov-2015 11:59 am(no subject)
Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, by Susan Meissner. New American Library, 2016

Violet, Audrey, and Bert are three young people with dreams in 1938 Hollywood, all working at Selznick International studio. Violet wants a husband. Audrey wants to be a film star. Bert wants to go back to college and become an ornithologist. Bert also dreams of Audrey; he has such a massive crush on her he can’t see anything but her. And Audrey and Violet have secrets as well as dreams; secrets that could easily destroy those dreams.

Their lives play out as ‘Gone With the Wind’ gets filmed at the studio, starting with the massive burning of Atlanta scenes. After the movie finishes, Audrey and Bert leave Selznick Studio, but the three remain close friends. The story takes us through WW II and after. Audrey and Violet have times when their friendship threatens to implode, but somehow things work out. The story is framed with short chapters set in 2012, when Violet’s family is cleaning out the bungalow where she and Audrey lived, and a vintage hat accidently gets sent to the consignment store. The hat is one anyone would recognize: it’s the green velvet hat Scarlet O’Hara made out of her mother’s drapes. How did this come to be in Violet’s possession?

I was disappointed. I couldn’t manage to like Violet; she came across as sweet and innocent at first but turned out to be very manipulative. Audrey was okay, but kind of flat. Bert is just a prop for the women to use. They just didn’t seem real and the dialogue is stilted. It’s almost like the book was a first draft, and the author needed to go back and flesh out the people. Not unreadable but only 3 out of 5 stars. I did really enjoy the parts about the filming of GWTW.
11th-Nov-2015 02:14 pm(no subject)
Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories, by J. Sheridan LeFanu. Dover Publications, 1993; reissued 2015; originally written in the 1800s

LeFanu is highly thought of by a lot of horror aficionados, so I was exciting to have a chance to read this book. Dover’s edition is not the full volume that was published in the 40s; this book has four stories in it. “Green Tea” is the tale of a man haunted because he’s overstimulated his brain and body with, well, green tea; a demon of sorts follows him everywhere. “Squire Toby’s Will” is the tale of a father and two sons, and what happens when a parent favors one child too much over the other, creating hatred that transcends the grave. “The Fortunes of Robert Ardagh” and “Sir Dominic’s Bargain” are both deals with the devil tales, the second being a superior story. ‘Ardagh’ fails to deliver the creepiness for some reason.

LeFanu’s prose is lovely, if slow, to read. It comes from the era where something being ‘a fast read’ wasn’t a concern. It’s ornamental and lyrical in high Gothic manner. It creates an air of extreme tension in ‘Green Tea’, and dread in the others. If you like old school horror, try these tales.
10th-Nov-2015 04:52 pm(no subject)
The Bell Tower, by Sarah Rayne. Severn House, 2015

Nell West is doubling the size of her Oxford antique shop, and there are some odd lights and sounds at night. Then some plaster removal reveals writing on a wall, and a diary is found under the floor boards.

Meanwhile, in tiny Rede Abbas, they are reviving the Revels that date back to at least Tudor times. They hope to include a song called “Thaisa’s Song”, but cannot find a score for it. Maeve Eynon, owner of Cliff House which lies near the old abbey, which has mostly fallen into the sea, advises them to not even think about using the song if they find it, as bad things happen whenever it is heard. She’s just the local hermit, though, so no one pays any attention to her opinion.

Nell and her partner, Michael, make plans to meet at the Revels, which Nell’s daughter, Beth, is attending with her school class. Things go awry, though, when Nell goes for a walk on her own and meets Maeve by the old bell tower. In the meantime, people are working at translating the book beneath the floor, and some old papers in Rede Abbas have been discovered and brought to the attention of the librarian; these things explain the evil goings on at the abbey, the bell tower- which is submerged most of the way at high tide- and Cliff House.

As all the bits and pieces are finally put together, it turns out to be a sad story of murder, people having sex with folks they weren’t supposed to have sex with, a genetic disorder, and people getting a little bit crazy living alone with the past. There is a small supernatural element, but it’s very minor next to doings of the living. The tale runs from the 16th century to the 21st, and includes agents of Henry VIII on their quest to shut down Catholic religious houses and take any wealth they had, landowners who think they can do what they want with the people who lived on their land (which, in fact, they could back then), attempted murder, and that odd song.

I was disappointed. The story was fractured by jumping around through three points in time without a clear indication of which time period it was in. Much of the story was told through diaries, and it was sometimes hard to tell who and when the writer was. Having Nell and Michael be in both the Oxford building and at Rede Abbas is quite a coincidence. Some things are never explained- like where Thaisa’s song originally came from and why the bell was frightening to people. And I never felt a sense of creepiness or horror; bad things happened, but it was all kind of… cozy? It didn’t do what I feel horror should do.
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