What was to be a vacation turned sad with a death in the family, so things have been a little hectic the last week, and I didn’t have much Internet access. On the plus side, I have gotten a lot read, and a bunch of reviews should slowly come up in the next days. Hope you are all enjoying your summer reading!
The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
“The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.”
– from Afterwood, by Edith Wharton
While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.
Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.
In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.
The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.
The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.
Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.
The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.
The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.
I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.
Five Stars out of Five
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Doubleday via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
NOTE: Ending 28th July, 5 copies of this book are available to win from Doubleday through the Goodread’s Giveaway Program. Go here to sign up for the giveaway or to add this to your To Read list.
Coming up in Reviews in the next days you will see:
– The Supernatural Enhancements,
by Edgar Cantero from Doubleday.
Wow, is this one great fun!
Publisher’s Weekly Picks for the week of 14th July 2014:
One of the titles on this enticing list I’ve reviewed (The Hundred-Year House) and one I have on hand to read and review soon (Last Stories & Other Stories). I have my eye on a few others to get at some point, particularly Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts.
Tachyon Publications announces some titles for 2015:
I noticed news about these upcoming 2015 releases from Tachyon on their
Tumblr. Time to catch up on Peter V. Brett’s novels. Above all, collections by Kate Elliott & Hannu Rajaniemi look really intriguing.
I don’t always notice all news, so if there are new releases or upcoming titles that you are excited about, let us know in comments.
Publishers, if you have any release info/news to share or requests for review, see here.
Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
340 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
“Beyond the Fields You Know”
“What You Couldn’t Leave Behind”
“When We Have Time”
“The Wise Foolish Son”
“The Face of the Waters”
“The Dragon’s Lesson”
“Au coeur des ombres”
“The Coldest War”
“Written by the Winners”
“The Last Islanders”
The cover to this collection popped out to me on NetGalley, and the name Matthew Johnson immediately rang a bell of vague familiarity. I knew I’d read a lot by the author, mostly in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and respected online publications like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine (the latter now merged into Lightspeed).
I recalled his name with fondness, not a sense of trepidation. But I couldn’t really remember any particular story clearly from a title, nor did I have any sense in my head of what kind of story Johnson writes.
Going through this grand debut collection of twenty-two stories spanning over a decade of productivity, I begin to get a sense why. Johnson’s writing doesn’t fit neatly into a single sub-genre mold, nor within the confines of any particular style (to my note). His stories are incredibly varied within the vast SF/Fantasy field and the breadth of markets where he has published is a testament to how well he can move across the spectrum.
While reading the contents didn’t jog specific memories, several of the stories became immediately familiar once starting them anew in this collection. With that special joy of rediscovering something beloved but neglected I savored this group of stories, notably “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”. Though I recalled loving each originally, I had never connected that they were written by the same person, likely because these two stories are very different on the surface – one an alternate history or time travel mashup of sorts and another a post-apocalyptic zombie tale.
Yet both feature a strong emotional resonance that reaches beyond the plot. For Johnson’s stories are full of realistic characters with basic human struggles that readers can relate to. Even when those characters are temporally displaced Romans struggling in present day culture and bureaucracy, or a young woman trying to provide medical aid and hope to the populace of a plague-ravaged wasteland.
Others, including in the introduction to this collection, have discussed the importance of language and communication as a defining characteristic link between Johnson’s stories. This theme is certainly present in several stories here, mostly notably the title piece of the collection, “Irregular Verbs”. New to me, this opening story is profoundly powerful and moving, the type of short story that should be featured in a Best of… literary collection regardless of the fantasy ‘created’ world in which it is set. A perfect tale tot start this collection, because you don’t want to stop reading after it closes.
The plot and culture of Irregular Verbs rests on this theme of linguistic communication, of words. I believe a better (well more accurate) common theme between Johnson’s works, however, involves the setting. It isn’t so much as Johnson’s characters are struggling to find the proper precise words to communicate, it is that they are struggling to exist in a time and a place where they are not really meant to be. His characters are ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers in a strange land’.
For instance in the wonderfully spooky “Beyond the Fields You Know” (the sole story I’d classify as horror in the collection) the child protagonist is enticed into a dark, magical realm of slavery, a place and position he should not be in, and that of course he is trying to find escape from. And sometimes the character learns that the setting they are trying to free themselves from is actually what they need most (“Closing Time”). In others (“The Dragon’s Lesson” or the previously mentioned “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”) the characters struggle to maintain a personal culture or moral outlook that is in direct opposition to the society they find themselves within.
With such a large collection as this with stories varying in every way imaginable, including from humorously light to deeply serious, it is likely that there will be some things in this collection that you might not like as much as others. And that’s okay. There are a few authors out there who I can adore for each thing they produce, but many quality writers like Johnson who will produce something amazing one day and something that just isn’t my cup of tea the next.
The high points of this vast collection, though, make it an easy recommendation for any fan of speculative fiction, particularly if you are someone that normally doesn’t read the shorter published works out there. A handful of exceptional tales that deserve universal note beyond the realms of genre (such as the lead-off “Irregular Verbs”) also should give this collection a certain broader appeal.
Four Stars out of Five
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’m happy to take part in the cover reveal for this upcoming release from Raw Dog Screaming Press. The gothic elements of the plot description and the combination of the sinister and books is right up my ally at least. The cover design by Ryan Rice has me intrigued with the melting wax-like text and the subtle freakishness of the shadows: a reversal, a change in the number of books stacked and the bird’s postures. I’m looking forward to checking this out, and if it sounds like your kind of thing, you should check it out too. You can also sign up for a chance to win a copy through Goodreads.
Cover created by artist Ryan Rice
Debuting 9/16 • PRE-ORDER for $2 off
Mr. Wicker by Maria Alexander
Alicia Baum is missing a deadly childhood memory. Located beyond life, The Library of Lost Childhood Memories holds the answer. The Librarian is Mr. Wicker — a seductive yet sinister creature with an unthinkable past and an agenda just as lethal. After committing suicide, Alicia finds herself before the Librarian, who informs her that her lost memory is not only the reason she took her life, but the cause of every bad thing that has happened to her.
Alicia spurns Mr. Wicker and attempts to enter the hereafter without the Book that would make her spirit whole. But instead of the oblivion she craves, she finds herself in a psychiatric hold at Bayford Hospital, where the staff is more pernicious than its patients.
Child psychiatrist Dr. James Farron is researching an unusual phenomenon: traumatized children whisper to a mysterious figure in their sleep. When they awaken, they forget both the traumatic event and the character that kept them company in their dreams — someone they call “Mr. Wicker.”
During an emergency room shift, Dr. Farron hears an unconscious Alicia talking to Mr. Wicker—the first time he’s heard of an adult speaking to the presence. Drawn to the mystery, and then to each other, they team up to find the memory before it annihilates Alicia for good. To do so they must struggle not only against Mr. Wicker’s passions, but also a powerful attraction that threatens to derail her search, ruin Dr. Farron’s career, and inflame the Librarian’s fury.
After all, Mr. Wicker wants Alicia to himself, and will destroy anyone to get what he wants. Even Alicia herself.
Praise for Mr. Wicker
“Elegant chills, genuine awe, and true tragedy are all ingredients in the spell cast by Maria Alexander’s Mr. Wicker. Anyone who has encountered Maria’s short stories surely expects her first novel to be extraordinary, and she doesn’t disappoint. Mr. Wicker is rich, lovely, and deeply unnerving.” —Lisa Morton, author of Malediction and Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween
Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)
I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.
And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.
Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.
As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.
Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.
Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.
Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.
In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.
By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.
Four and a Half Stars out of Five
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.
The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.
Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.
Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.
Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel. Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.
The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.
The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.
The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.
Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.
Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.
Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.
The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.
The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.
And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.
Two and a Half Stars out of Five
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.