Dark Knowledge, by Clifford Browder. Anaphora Literary Press, 2018
In New York in the late 1860s, Chris Harmony uncovers some pre-Civil War papers that hint that his grandfather could have been involved in the slave trade. He feels a need to find out what the truth is, but other family members don’t feel the same way- and even attempt to steal the papers. As he asks around, he finds clues that link other society people to the slave trade, too. And, fearing exposure now that trading in humans is illegal and looked down on in New York, those people set out to stop him.
Chris, his sister, their mother, and their cousin are all for getting to bringing it to daylight, even if it means their own family name will be besmirched. Their other relatives, and others in the shipping industry, are very much against it. They have their money, they have made their way into society, and they want the status quo held.
The story takes Chris from the docks to society balls. It’s a historical mystery, with a lot of family dynamics happening, and with a bit of a love story, too. It looks like Browder has done a lot of research into what trade and shipping was like back then. It’s pretty well written, but I found the ending very abrupt and unsatisfying – not so much of an ending so much as a “see you next week, same time, same channel”. I don’t know if this will be a series, and we’ll see the story given a better ending or not. I would have liked to have seen Chris’s sister take a more active role, too. Chris’s character is fairly well filled out, but the others not so much so. The author has promise, but this one gets four stars out of five.
Don’t Doubt the Magic! –the Story of Bernice O’Hanlon, Part Two By Cathie Devitt. Roundfire Books, 2017
Bernice O’Hanlon has returned to the island she grew up on. She is looking for answers- and two of the people who could provide those answers are now dead: her grandparents. The farm she feels should be hers by inheritance is lived on by a pair of brothers, who have been working the farm for her grandparents for years- and they have moved into the house. Bernice is a witch, and in this story she works with the Tarot to figure out how to proceed. The action alternates between the island and Glasgow.
This is the middle novelette of a trilogy, and while it’s said to be readable as a standalone, I had trouble figuring out who all the characters were and how their relationships worked- and there are a lot of characters. The action switches between them rapidly. I felt like I was watching a sped-up film; unable to catch up with what was going on. I enjoyed the premise that there were a group of witches on the island, and that the skills had been passed on to Bernice. I could understand her need to find out what happened to her parents and to her infant son. But with so much going on, I couldn’t form a connection to her or any other character. There was not enough time spent with anyone to care about them. I can only give it three out of five stars.
The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury, 2017
In 1859, Merrick Tremayne is living in the ancestral home in Cornwall, doing the best he can with a ruined leg. The leg was ruined working for the East India Company, for whom he had done such varied services as run a tea plantation and smuggle opium. No longer of use to them, he lives with his brother, to whom the house and lands belong entirely, who wants him out and gone as soon as possible. The two solutions the brother puts forward are either Merrick take on a rural parsonage, or he’ll be sent to a mental asylum. Why the asylum? Merrick swears that the statue in the garden moves, and that someone is messing about in his greenhouse.
Merrick is a plantsman (who just so happens to have had a grandfather and father who went to Peru), so when the East India Company (who desperately need more quinine for the rampant malaria in their areas of operation) needs someone to locate high-yield quinine trees in Peru, take and smuggle out cuttings, and get them started in an area the EIC operates in, they come calling in the form of Merrick’s old friend from the Navy, Clem Markham. Never mind that there have been no successful ventures into the Peruvian jungles, or that Merrick can’t walk without crutches. It’s better than the asylum or the parsonage.
The first part of the novel moves very, very slowly. Training Clem to take cuttings. The sea voyage. The mule journey to the Peruvian interior, at high altitude. The fact that the man who provides them with a guide to lead them to “frost resistant coffee trees” will kill them if he finds out they are after quinine. Thankfully, when they reach the village of New Bethlehem (“Bedlam”), the white gunmen leave them with the native guide, and things get weird. The village is on volcanic glass, with hot springs warming the river. There are trees that burst into flame from even a tiny spark, golden luminescent pollen in the air, clockwork statues that move when approached, and the forest is bordered by a line of salt that only the priest (who is also their guide, Raphael) may pass.
This story is adventure both supernatural and natural, historical fantasy, a touch of steampunk, an indictment of how Europeans treated the people of other continents, and a love story. The plot speeds up after they reach Bedlam, thankfully, but it is never a high speed story. The descriptions are beautiful. The characters are built up, layer upon thin layer, as are the relationships. I fell in love with this place and with this book. I totally forgive it for moving slowly. Five stars.
The Hanging Tree, by Ben Aaronovitch. DAW Books, 2016
In this most recent of the Rivers of London series, Constable Peter Grant is back in London, but still in a territory he’s unfamiliar with. This time it’s the realm of the very rich.
A rich girl ends up dead of an overdose at a party- in a place where they shouldn’t have been partying. Lady Tyburn calls Peter with a request (that’s putting it gently): her daughter was at the scene of the crime, and she wants her name kept out of it. Not just proven innocent of the drug thing, but completely not there.
Of course it turns out that there is a supernatural element to the situation, so Peter is on the case legitimately. The long story arc that started six books ago is advanced here: the Faceless Man is involved. And that means Lesley makes an appearance. Peter spends time having a fire fight in Harrods, having a super expensive flat blow up, building new tech things to use around magic, and narrating the story as the world’s best educated and most snarky POV ever.
Of course it’s a five star book. I hope this series goes on forever. It’s funny, it’s supernatural, and it’s the most diverse urban fantasy I’ve read. For that matter, it’s probably the most diverse stuff I’ve read, period.
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. Scribner, 2009
Julia and Valentina are identical twins. They are the daughters of Edie, who was the twin sister of Elspeth, who has just died and left J & V her flat in London, along with a great deal of money. The catch is, they must spend a year living in the flat, and their parents must not be allowed into the flat. This sounds all right to J & V, who although technically adults, show no signs of maturity. They have dropped out of three colleges and do nothing more than exist. Actually, that’s not quite true; Valentina is interested in fashion design and enjoys sewing and upcycling used clothing. Julia, the bolder of the two, has no interest in anything, and as she’s the dominant one, nothing is largely what they do.
The building they come to live in has other tenants; on the top floor lives Martin, a victim of severe OCD and agoraphobia, whose wife has just left him, unable to deal with his rituals and towers of trash any longer. On the ground floor lives Robert, who was Elspeth’s lover. The building backs up to Highgate Cemetery, with the graves of many famous people as well as the crypt that contains Elspeth herself, and her family. This will be important later. The flat is also inhabited by Elspeth’s ghost- something she makes known after a while.
This is one creepy book- and some of the creepiness isn’t supernatural. The way Julia dominates Valentina, the reason for the rift between Edie and Elspeth, the relationship between Valentina and Robert and between Valentina and Elspeth- there is wrongness everywhere. And that created a problem for me: I couldn’t manage to really like any of the characters. Even ones who I felt sorry for at first turned out monstrous. As another reviewer said, Martin is the most human and likable person in the book- and his relationship with Julia is actually a good one.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what would happen after a certain point, but reading how it played out was still a creep fest. The author’s prose is lovely; even when I was disgusted with the people, the writing beckoned me on. Because of my dislike for the characters I can’t give it five stars, but it’s a very strong four, because very little horror really gives me the shivers.
The Other Side of the Wall, by Andrea Mara. Crimson, 2017
Sylvia has two young children and has just returned to work from maternity leave, only to find a large sum of money missing from one of the accounts she manages. Short on sleep and tired to the bone trying to deal with it all, one night she looks out only to see what seems to be the body of a small child in the neighbor’s pond. But after she gets downstairs and tries unsuccessfully to rouse the neighbor, she finds nothing in the pond. Then she hears the sounds of a man crying through the walls, and things start changing in her house at night. Is she sleep walking, hallucinating, is it real, or is she being gas lighted?
Sam has just moved in next door. His wife and kids are staying in their former home while he does improvements on the new house after work, while he visits them on the weekends. Sam has done well, but not hugely well, as a money manager.
Kate is Sam’s wife; she is a bored housewife with young children. She is tired of having to be a full time mother, especially with Sam not around during the week. She wants to have some adult conversation and fun. Her brother, Miller, doesn’t have boundaries, and shows up at random times despite being told not to.
The story alternates between these people. At first I got a bit confused when the POV shifted and then figured out that the shift took us back in time to when the first POV had started. There is a huge amount of tension in this psychological thriller, although it comes in swells and troughs- not all the narrative threads are as intense as the others.
I found it compelling reading, although I can only give it four stars out of five. It just doesn’t have the smoothness that a more practiced writer could have (this is Mara’s first novel). I admit I was disappointed that it was not supernatural horror, but that was my fault for not reading blurbs finely enough, and not something I’m taking a star off for!
Marlene Dietrich: The Life, by Maria Riva. Pegasus Books, first published 1993; reprint 2017
This is an absorbing biography of Dietrich by her daughter, Maria Riva. We are given the star’s life in detail, from her birth until her death. Riva’s life was closely twined with her mother’s from the day she was born- her mother used her as constant companion (who needs school when you can be your mother’s dresser?) and servant- so she was there to see and hear what Dietrich did and said for decades. From an early age, Riva was aware of her mother’s constant sexual escapades- sex and performances are the main themes of the book, along with Riva’s attempts to escape her mother’s life and have a life of her own. Dietrich had no concept of boundaries, and said and did the most atrocious things in front of her daughter, and then her son-in-law (when Dietrich returned from having sex with John Kennedy, she pulled her used panties out of her purse and thrust them to her son-in-law’s nose, encouraging him to smell the scent of the president!) and then even her grandchildren. She lied about her age, which meant she had to lie about her daughter’s age, too. When Riva was in her teens, she was still being dressed as a little girl, to enforce the illusion that Dietrich had only given birth to her a few years before. Dietrich drank heavily (especially late in life) and was her own pharmacist, in the years when amphetamines and downers were easily gotten. As far as I could tell, she never gave a thought to anyone else unless they could do something for her.
But she was beautiful, and could enthrall audiences. She was smart- she learned from wardrobe, lighting people, directors and anyone else and applied what she learned to her art. Josef von Sternberg, the man who made her a star in ‘Blue Angel’ and with whom she had an on again, off again affair for years, taught her the most- mainly, how to light herself for the effects she wanted. Thankfully, most of the people she worked with were willing to take her orders. She was a hard worker; she spent money like it was water- supporting herself, her daughter, her husband with whom she did not live (most of the time), her husband’s mistress, and giving extravagant gifts to her lovers- so she had to work almost all the time. She was strict with herself when working, and had bulimia, which allowed her to eat the rich foods she loved and still lose weight. Sadly, in her old age, she developed some dementia and that, along with her alcoholism and drug use, made her last years sad indeed.
Of course this is the biography of Riva, too. As long as her mother was alive, their lives were entwined. Riva did carve out her own life, though, becoming a television star for many years and raising a family. I was entranced by this biography- I couldn’t stop reading because every time I figured Dietrich couldn’t do anything worse, of course she would!
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch. Daw Books, 2014
This is the fifth book in the Rivers of London series starring Peter Grant, London police constable and wizard in training. This time, he’s sent to the countryside to see if a case has any magical component to it. Two young girls have vanished, and the local PD hasn’t turned anything up yet. At first it doesn’t seem like there is any magic involved, but as Peter investigates he turns up things that the local PD have missed, and he starts getting suspicious. Soon he discovers that there is a lot about the magical world that his mentor has not told him about, including invisible carnivorous unicorns. He gets the girls back, but that’s far from the end of the story.
Peter grows a lot in this story. He takes charge of the investigation, something he’s not done in London. He mixes technology with magic. He uses magic on the fly. And he hasn’t lost his deadpan delivery of snark.
I love this series; the author has given our hero a wonderful voice with a great way of describing things that make me giggle a lot. Taking him out of London was refreshing, as was his relationship with Beverly Brook. Even though the larger story arc that’s been building over the first four books is not advanced, I didn’t miss it at all. Long may this series live! Five stars out of five.
Sparks of Light, by Janet B. Taylor. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
I can’t make my mind up about this book. On one hand, some parts- like the part in the mental hospital- are very good, intense, and frightening. You can feel what kind of despair that the women in asylums back then would have felt- they may not have had evil time traveling doctors, but the treatments were just as bad. Other parts, like the amount of time spent dealing with clothing, are kind of given too much time and break the mood. Of course, the girls *are* teenagers, so being excited over clothes would be normal. But it really kills the tense mood.
I didn’t realize that this book was the second of a series when I got it, so I was a little lost about the situation. It got filled in pretty well through the book, though, so I wasn’t completely lost, but it took me a while to get my bearings.
Hope, brought up in isolation, now has a family. They are teenaged time travelers living in Scotland. Her mother has been rescued from the Middle Ages, where she was stranded, and is now suffering from PTSD. Hope has a boyfriend for the first time in her life- well, it’s the first time she has friends of any kind. She’s still getting the hang of this family and friends thing, so she has bouts of jealousy that show her immature side, but she’s doing her best.
The group’s mission is to go back to Gilded Age New York, and steal or destroy a device that, if it fell into the hands of a rival group of time travelers, could allow them to change the time line- something that Hope’s group strives to avoid. This involves the mental hospital event, a grand ball at the Vanderbilt’s, and meetings with Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and the unhappy Consuelo Vanderbilt among others. There are lots of frantic carriage rides, intense reunions, and one extremely sad event. It’s a good book, I think, but it really needed an editor. Four stars out of five.
Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar. Cemetery Dance Publications, 2017
This novella- 164 pages, I read it in an hour- is not what I expected from Stephen King. It’s not horror at all; it’s more of a parable or even just a profile of a character.
In the summer of 1974, 12 year old Gwendy runs up the Suicide Stairs every day. She is bullied at school for being overweight, and is determined to lose weight before starting middle school. One day when she comes to the top, there is a man sitting on a bench, who wants to talk to her. Despite knowing not to talk to strangers, she is lured into conversation, and he gives her a box with buttons on it (not a box of shirt buttons, as I had assumed). Some of the buttons stand for the continents (Asia, Africa, etc) and will cause a destructive incident. The red one takes out whatever she is thinking about, while the black one will cause world annihilation. Then there are two levers on the ends; one causes the box to decant a small chocolate candy that makes a person feel wonderful, want to eat only healthy food, and causes them to become thin, an ace at sports, and a straight A student. The other decants an antique silver dollar worth several hundred dollars. This is a test; Gwendy is to be the box’s caretaker and see how she deals with its power.
Despite being the queen bee at school, Gwendy never bullies, although she does slowly dump her best friend. Her life is not completely perfect; the school bully hates her because she is no longer someone he can make fun of (he used to call her ‘Goodyear’ as in ‘blimp’).
The story takes us from that incident when she is 12 until she is 22. You would think that a story of a teenager with a doomsday box would have a lot of tension and possibly horror to it, but you’d be wrong. Frankly, when I got to the end my reaction was “What??” because there was just so little drama and no real horror. Three stars.