The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins. Broadway Books, 2015
This book was *not* what I expected. With ‘library’ in the title, I expected something like ‘The Librarians”, or perhaps books of magic. Something with a professorial main character. I was very, very, wrong.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book! I admit I was very confused at first. A woman covered in blood walking down the road. Then backstory; she was indeed raised in a giant library, complete with ancient handwritten books and a handful of other orphan children. But their “Father” who took them in was cruel and violent beyond all normal versions of cruel. The ‘catalogs’, the divisions of the library, are things like languages (which our main character studies and includes the languages of animals, storm clouds, and volcanos), murder and war, healing, death, and other things that never really get mentioned. Each ‘catalog’- which covers one floor of the library- is studied by one-and only one- of the orphans. And it warps them. Horribly. Human at the start, they become both more and less than human.
The book centers on Carolyn, the language specialist; Steve, a former thief gone straight; and Erwin, a former military man turned government agent who does not follow the book. Carolyn has a mission and she needs Steve for it. She keeps Steve in the dark - the mission has him in prison for killing a cop, rescued by a ‘human’ killing machine, savaged by dogs, teamed up with a lion (who thankfully seems to understand English), and just generally not having a good time. Erwin is trying to figure out what both Steve and Carolyn are up to. What it turns out to be was nothing I could have ever thought up.
While there is near constant action, things are revealed slowly; what the library is, who Father is, what and why Carolyn is doing what she is. It’s more science fiction than fantasy. It took me a while to get into it and figure out who was who, but once I did, I became very engaged in the story. It *is* very violent and very bloody, which I wasn’t wild about. I liked Steve, and eventually Erwin, but couldn’t warm up to Carolyn. There once the entire story is told, though, I was able to see why she was like she was.
Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard. Saga Press, 2016
Sisters Imogen and Marin had horrible childhoods, victims of a narcissistic, controlling, physically and emotionally abusive mother. Both fled home at the first chance, and became very good at what they do: Imogen writing, and Marin dancing. When Marin applies to an elite arts program, she convinces Imogen to do the same, and they are both accepted, and even housed in the same building: a beautiful Victorian, complete with tower room.
As soon as Imogen arrives, things start to seem strange. The campus is huge, with buildings spread far apart. Each building at Melete is different and amazing- there is a castle with a moat as one lodging. The studios are equally unique. A river runs through the property, with unique bridges at intervals. There is even one bridge that stops abruptly halfway across the river. On certain nights, a sort of market is held, and people appear who seem…. different. On All Hallows Eve, all the residents take a ride across the river- over the suddenly whole broken bridge- and Imogen realizes that Melete is run by Faerie. And that there is a prize they give, but with a steep price: a chance at amazing success at their art, but they must live in Faerie for seven years, allowing the Fae to feed on their emotions. Suddenly, Imogen and Marin are in competition against each other.
The characters have to work through their issues; Imogen and Marin have the insecurity their mother beat into them, as well as issues with each other that she instilled with lies. Other residents have parent issues, as well as the decision as to whether they want to succeed on their own terms or vie for the prize. And romantic issues. It’s complicated.
I enjoyed the book, and the concept of the tithe and the Fae needing to feed off human emotions. It’s a modern fairy tale, with one dark sister and one golden. But something seemed lacking. The Fae and their world were never developed at all; except for the King, they are pretty much off stage. We know their world is dark and that is about it. They seemed like a gimmick to power the sibling rivalry and other issues. The characters seemed rather 2 dimensional. The whole book seemed to lack depth. This *is* a first novel, so I hope to see more work from this author, and hope that her work will
The Honeymoon, by Dinitia Smith. Other Press, 2016
Dinitia Smith has done more than written a fictionalized biography of George Eliot; she’s recreated the woman and her world. Eliot- the pen name of Marian Evans, taken because woman authors were not taken seriously back then- lives and breathes in these pages.
The story is framed by what is happening in 1880, when Marian is supposed to be enjoying her honeymoon with John Cross in Venice. She’s not enjoying herself, though; Johnnie- who is twenty years younger than Marian- is behaving oddly, manic and not his usual caring and supportive self. During this time, Marian remembers her life, starting with her girlhood.
Eliot started life in a rural middle class family. Considered not to be marriage material because of her plain looks, she was encouraged in her studies as her father felt she could become a governess. Luck had it that she was given the run of a private library where she could indulge her joy in reading and learning. She falls in with free thinkers and polyamorous couples, and has a couple of relationships. But she want more; she wants a relationship where she is the primary, not an extra. Then she and George Lewes fall in love, and they have a happy, 26 year relationship until he dies. The laws would not allow them to marry, even though his wife had bourn multiple children to her lover. Lewes had allowed the children to bear his name- which meant he was aware of her adultery, considered a horrible thing, unlike his own relationship with Marian.
This relationship provided a goad for Marian to start earning real money. While she had done translating and was an editor of many works, she had not written her own pieces. Now she did, and became a best seller. Lewes was an author as well, but not nearly so popular as Marian, and they had to support not just themselves, and Lewes biological children, but his wife’s children by her lover, who contributed not a penny to their upkeep. Thankfully, Marian is able to do this, and put away enough money for the rest of her life, thanks to the management of John Cross. Cross is asked by Lewes to take care of Marian. Whether Lewes ever considered that it would be by marrying Marian, this is how Cross felt he could best do it. He truly loved Marian, although apparently not in a physical way. Smith presents him as possibly being gay, as well as having a hereditary form of unipolar mania.
I felt like I was living in Marian’s world. Smith truly inhabited Marian as a brilliant but insecure woman who was told from day one she was not marriage material because of her looks. I loved the passages describing how she worked and developed her novels before writing them- I’m always a sucker for descriptions of the artistic process. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read Eliot’s work- something I’ll fix soon- but I was very impressed by her writing procedure and the amount of research that went into her novels.
The author also did a huge amount of research, going into mountains of letters written by and to Eliot and others. Some of her lines are lifted straight from Eliot’s own words. She also examined biographies not just of Eliot but of the people in her life, as well as reading Eliot’s work, some of which, while fiction, is also semi-autobiographical. It’s a solid story as well as an absorbing one.
Marvel and a Wonder, by Joe Meno. Akashic Books, 2015
This is a very brutal story, very different from what I’d normally read. But something in the description kept me coming back to look at it, and finally I couldn’t resist. I’m glad I didn’t; once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down.
Jim Falls, widower and chicken farmer, is fighting a losing battle with the bills. The electricity is about to be shut off. His daughter is a drug addict who steals things from her dad and eventually abandons her 16 year old son as she chases the next high. The son, Quintin, is biracial with no idea who his father is. He is, despite his chaotic upbringing, a sweet youth. Extremely lonely – not much company for a biracial kid in a rural Indiana town that is economically dead- he plays video games and listens to NWA when not helping his grandfather with the chickens. He doesn’t actually have attitude; he cries when chicks die and demands they be given funerals.
Then a mistake by a legal firm executing an estate results in a gorgeous white quarter horse arriving on the farm. Rodrigo, the illegal worker on the farm, is the only one who knows what to do with a horse. The horse is a thing of beauty, and it turns out that the horse runs like the wind- and might be a way out of poverty for the Falls. Things are finally looking up. But of course this is a book where nothing can go right, and the horse is promptly stolen from the Falls, and Jim is shot. But Jim, veteran of the Korean War, is not going to let that stop him from getting that horse back. The main bulk of the book follows the multi-state pursuit, and the point of view switches between Quintin, Jim, the people who stole the horse, the soulless guy who takes the horse from them, and the girl that same guy is forcibly bringing back to her grandfather. The way it’s put together had me breathless to know how it was going to end, because so many forces were coming together. In the end, it’s a story of a growing relationship, a boy coming of age, of right against wrong. I might not have much liked the characters at the beginning, but in the end, I cared deeply about them. It’s brilliant.
Tales of Terror and Mystery, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First Rate Publishers, 2016
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a prolific writer, and his Sherlock Holmes stories, while the best known of his work, were only a fraction of what he wrote. This book gives us six tales of terror- mostly supernatural- and seven tales of mystery- all works of humankind.
Some of the mysteries have the feel of a Holmes story- in fact, he is obliquely referred to in two of them- but most don’t. “Terror of the Heights” made me think of Lovecraft, while “The New Catacomb” and “The Brazilian Cat” are both downright Poe-ish in character.
While none of these stories has the liveliness of the Holmes stories, they are well worth reading. Some people have put them down as being ‘pulp’ stories, but I don’t happen to think that’s an insult.
Why the Grateful Dead Matter, by Michael Benson. ForeEdge, 2016
Author and Dead fan Michael Benson has written a history of the Grateful Dead, using a variety of resources including his own memories. It’s his contention that the Dead matter more than other musicians because they weren’t *just* musicians, but creators of a way of life and a different way of providing music to the public. His focus is less on names and dates than it is on the impact the Dead have had. From being the house band at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in the early ‘60s, where LSD was put into Kool-Aid and distributed, to the remaining members (several members have died through the years) giving a farewell tour in 2015, he intersperses short chapters of band history with essays on how the Dead changed American hippie culture.
As a Dead fan but not a Deadhead (one of my regrets is that I never got to a Dead concert), I found the book very interesting if a bit rambling at times. I enjoyed reading about how they wrote their songs, and the behind the scenes descriptions of what the concerts felt like to the performers who were tripping on LSD while they played. I never realized that Garcia and Mountain Girl didn’t marry until a long time after they had split. I still don’t know how they achieved their ability to play wonderfully together when they changed the songs up constantly- mid song- like folk songs with a jazz sensibility. A true fan probably knows all these things already, but it was really fun for a person who is a casual fan.
The Photographer’s Wife, by Suzanne Joinson. Bloomsbury, 2016
Eleanora Rasul is the photographer’s wife, an English woman who married the Arabian Khaled Rasul. Rasul is involved in trying to expose the bad things the English- who are ruling Jerusalem at the time- are doing; in secret, of course. But the book isn’t really about her; it’s mainly about Prudence Ashton, who, in 1920 when the story starts, is the eleven year old daughter of an architect who has plans to redesign Jerusalem in a more English manner, this area being at that point part of the British Empire. To make more accurate maps of the area, he has hired a pilot to take Eleanor up so she can take aerial photos- a first for the time. What he doesn’t realize is that the pilot, William Harrington, grew up with Eleanora and has always loved her. He hopes he can steal her away from her husband and back to England with him.
The story follows Prue later as an 18 year old bride to an abusive husband, and later still as the mother of a young son she is bringing up alone after fleeing her marriage. Harrington shows up in her life again and threatens to derail the precarious life she has created.
Everybody in the story has secrets, some more closely guarded than others; some are sexual, some are political, some are psychological. Some are revealed right at the beginning while others do not come to light until the very end.
The novel has all the right components to make a great story. Political intrigue, love affairs, a mother in an asylum… it’s endless. But somehow it didn’t come together for me. I disliked many of the characters (like Prue’s lying, cheating, neglectful father); others I didn’t actively dislike but just couldn’t like them or even work up interest in them. These people are (mostly) not horrible, but they are all so wrapped up in themselves that they are the sort of folks that you just want to walk away from. I make an exception for Prue; I didn’t care for her a lot but her whole life is so awful that I give her a pass. The one person I genuinely liked- Prue’s language tutor- may have been partly responsible for some horrors. The political intrigue I was confused by a lot of the time, and while there is one gruesome episode, most of it takes place off screen. I really couldn’t wait to be done with the book, sadly.
The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood. Penguin Press, 2016
The ecliptic is the path the sun *seems* to follow across the sky during the year. I say ‘seem’ because in reality, the sun does not revolve around the earth; it’s an illusion humans have that the sun revolves around them. Humans are good at thinking things like that, whether they are thinking about the universe or their personal situations.
Elspeth Conroy is an artist; she came from a working class Scottish home, rather forced her way into art school, and accidently became a star of the art world while still quite young. But now she is stuck… the art she makes is commercially successful, but, she feels, it is without soul. To make matters worse, the man she loves, her mentor, has disappeared. After a fair amount of time, she is reunited with her mentor, and, she is offered a chance to go to Portmantle, a very private retreat for artists who have lost their inspiration. Hidden away on an island in the Sea of Marmara, the artist goes in utter secrecy, telling no one and communicating with no one, to a place where there are few responsibilities or distractions, where they can strive to complete their next great work. She spends a decade there, before the arrival of a teenaged boy upsets the colony- and especially her.
Elspeth (“Knell” on Portmantle) has been (she feels) a failure in both love and art. What will it take for her to succeed in one or both of them? While I felt that the love issue was minor compared to the art issue, it’s still an important impetus for Elspeth’s actions. The novel examines the artistic process and questions where inspiration comes from. One thing I found interesting- and haven’t figured out the meaning of yet- is that in both of Elspeth’s artistic breakthroughs an almost mystical substance is a part of them. Her first breakthrough comes when her mentor/lover finds a cache of old Ripolin, the first oil enamel made for house painting. Apparently, artists used it for a while; Picasso used a lot of it. The second time, years later, her artistic block yields to bioluminescent fungi, dried, ground, and mixed with oil. I found it humorous that she also ground her anti-depressants up and used them as paint- that one was pretty obvious.
The prose is beautiful and rich; Elspeth, however, sounds like a much older woman than her actual age. I was a good way into the novel before I realized what her real age was. Did she learn to tell her story so elegantly in art school? Is she telling her story from a much later date than it took place? I’m not complaining; the book was a joy to read, with descriptions like jewels. It’s a long book- nearly 500 pages- but I didn’t want to put it down.
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Howard Kunstler. Touchstone, 1993
This very interesting book looks at city planning and architecture, and how they have both failed to produce cities that people actually want to live in, and that are sustainable over the long run. He hates suburbs and shopping malls and big box stores; most of all, he hates privately owned automobiles. He likes small towns. He likes mixed use areas. He likes public transit.
I agree with him on almost all these things. Kids in suburbs are kind of trapped with no place to go unless mom drives them. There is no corner store or movie theater a few blocks away they can walk to. If you need a carton of milk when you live in one of those developments, you have to get in the car and drive to the nearest shopping center, which sits in a sea of parking spots. Because stuff is so spread out, public transportation won’t pay for itself, and no real community is built between people.
Modern zoning doesn’t allow mixed use- there are no apartments over little stores so people can live close to a job. There are no small factories in between eating places and stores. When faced with undeveloped or farm land, planners think to preserve the rural feeling by making building plots of 5 or 10 acre minimum, but this doesn’t work. It’s really hard for a farmer to keep using that 5 or 10 acres when it’s fenced off from other plots, and is bisected by a driveway, and has a house in the middle with a lawn and garden. We face that where I live; owners want their 5 acre lots hayed but farmers find the odd shaped plots that are left after people build too difficult to maneuver cutting and baling equipment in. It’s green space, but it’s not feeding anyone anymore. And it’s not green space that the public can use, either.
Written more than 20 years ago, Kunstler’s observations are still valid. Nothing has changed other than that we’re even closer to running out of fossil fuels and urban slums are getting bigger. Municipal buildings and shopping areas are still ugly. More suburban developments have been built. More big box stores have run small business out. The problem with the book are two things: one, the author presents few solutions although he does show a few; and, two, he’s a bloody snob. He puts down the majority of the population as not having any taste or class; he makes statements about the poor that make me, a poor person all my life, wish I could have a few harsh words with him. But despite these things, I feel his book should be required reading for anyone going into architecture, city planning, or being a small town/county politician. What he points out should be obvious, but people just don’t see it because they are so used to it. There *are* options to the way we live today.
The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998
I admit I picked this book off the shelf because of the beautiful cover. Also, it had a ghost. And memoir 500 years old, that there is a search for. What’s not to love?
Catherine has been told she only has a short time to live. She is sad that her two granddaughters don’t follow the families Sephardic tradition, and, worse, are still single and childless. The ghost of Hannah Mendes visits her, encouraging Catherine to have her granddaughters visit Europe and find her long lost memoir. Suzanne and Francesca are opposites and not apt to work well with each other; Francesca is a workaholic who values only money, while Suzanne has given her life over to good causes. But they agree to take on the task. Once on the way, they encounter flawless men, supernatural events, and, yes, some of the memoir.
A search for literary treasure should have been right up my alley. But detective work is not the point here. This book reads like a sermon- a racy one at points, but a sermon combined with a history lesson none the less. The moral of the entire story is to value family and religious tradition above all else, never marry outside the religion, and that women need to have children to carry the traditions on. I could have – maybe – tolerated this paean to motherhood above career if the book had been better. But it’s not. The characters never come to life. I actually kind of disliked both the granddaughters; they were caricatures. Catherine has more life than them, but is absent for most of the story. The men are too perfect to be real. In fact, the entire adventure is too perfect.
Hannah’s memoir is interspersed with the present day adventure, and it’s more interesting. Born in the Renaissance in a family of conversos, Jews who have converted to Catholicism. They haven’t, really; they continue to celebrate their traditions in private. This put them in terrible danger at this point of history, with the Inquisition going hard. At first Hannah seems to live an enchanted life, but it’s only a few years before things go bad. She rallies, however, and becomes a great heroine. She is a real, historical personage and I did enjoy learning about her, but even her part is told rather flatly.