The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538154
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“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.

Cover reveal: MR. WICKER by Maria Alexander

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 Cover

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

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

The Quick, by Lauren Owen
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00H4EM4WW
528 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Lauren Owen’s debut novel is a difficult one to assign a rating. Overall it is an above-average book and will be of interest to many readers. However, the enjoyment of it I think will vary quite substantially from reader to reader, in a not-too-easy to predict fashion. If the plot (including the ‘twist’) is something you find intriguing, you should definitely check this out. It is extremely well-written and Gothic-moody, but its execution and the ultimate direction of its plot may cause some frustrations.

Some have considered discussion of what this book is about to be a spoiler. Given the implications of the title, I don’t take this to be the case. Though not mentioned in the novel’s summary ‘blurb’, I think it unfair to try and rope people into reading a story they may have no interest in. Knowing what the story ultimately about doesn’t spoil much, in fact it probably makes the surprise transition from the first third of the book to the remainder far easier to go along with. So without further ado, if you REALLY REALLY don’t want to know anything more about the novel, you’ll have to stop reading.

Potential Spoilers Follow

“The Quick” starts off as a fabulously engrossing Gothic story about a secret society, and of a sister and brother living in a large empty home in the absence of their parents, under the care of a servant as their father is away. The first third of the novel focuses upon the brother, grown up and at university, as he makes roommates, friends, and eventually romantic ties with a gentleman he meets there. Throughout this portion of the book the story is filled with a literary richness, excellent characterization, continued foreboding Gothic tensions, and drives forward certain expectations on how one suspects the plot may unfold.

These expectations are then shattered when tragedy strikes and the focus of the novel shifts to bring in the identity of this secret society brought up back in the prologue. Vampires. The remainder of the novel is a story about vampires, what the society is about, why they have done what they’ve done, and what the ramifications will be for both the brother and the sister. After a portion of the novel written in the form of diary by a man associated with the vampire society (to explain their characteristics and background history to the reader) the novel continues the ‘action’ of the plot by shifting back to the sister, who now arrives in search of her brother.

The dual focus, split in the book, between the brother and the sister is not a major problem. With the sudden plot twist of bringing in vampires, this split focus is perfectly valid. The shattering of reader expectations based on the first third of the book isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s great to have cliched expectations shattered. The problem becomes when one potential expected plotline is simply replaced with another completely different one that begins to feel even more cliched and predictable. Sadly, I feel this is largely what happens with “The Quick”.

Vampire novels have been done to death. Here it is made somewhat unique by giving it a strong classic literary and Gothic style as opposed to the more recent takes on the subject. The addition of these vampires in an organized society led by one particularly visionary individual gives the vampire plotline even greater potential to take on something new in this novel. This individual does not merely look on the normal “Quick” humanity with ambivalence or disdain. Rather he views them with a sort of pity, claiming a desire to use the society’s powers and influence to not simply survive and feed, but to try and find ways to improve and better humankind. This is a very interesting concept.

Unfortunately, the concept is never developed. Instead the novel becomes a rather standard (though consisting of great prose) novel of fighting against the vampire society’s plans. The supposed ‘well-meaning’ intentions of the vampire leader turn out to be disingenuous, mainly a victim of power corrupting, turning him into a typical vampire monster and thereby negating any potential exploration of a vampire doing great things while also having to rely on predation.

Those who simply adore well written Gothic novels, fans of vampire fiction, and the like will enjoy this book greatly, even if they don’t love it. Those unsuspecting and disinterested in the vampire plot may feel misled, and those that fell in love with the literary beauty of the first third of the novel may become disappointed by its turn into rather predictable genre fiction, albeit with a continued ‘literary’ style of prose.

Three Stars out of Five

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story,
by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
ASIN: B00BSBR382
337 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Though I finished it a few days before writing this, it was hard to determine what to say exactly about this sophomore novel from Setterfield. On the one hand, it is written well, almost lyrically in spots, but on the other hand the story never captivated me. Part of my ambivalence while reading and upon completing this novel stemmed from its description. It is not a ghost story. I don’t think there is any way to really interpret it as a ghost story other than aspects of it are haunting and that the protagonist is indeed ‘haunted’. I may have been more receptive if I hadn’t started this expecting something quite different.

Though titled Bellman & Black, this only concerns the second half of the book, really. The novel is really about Bellman, the protagonist, from a young age until his death. There is the eagerness and vitality of his youth, sexually and professionally, that is perhaps driven by the absence of his father. This youthful drive compels others to pay attention to Bellman, and soon his hard work and vision leads him to industrial success and the start of a family. Upon reaching these heights, Bellman’s world is shattered by the deaths of almost all he holds dear, driving him further into his work, which in the second half involves starting a funeral business that Bellman is inspired to form after a mysterious encounter (perhaps imagined) with a Mr. Black. Bellman’s world becomes completely occupied with his industrious spirit and desire for profit. Forsaking friends and family he uses the business of death to amass funds that drive him into further fears of losing all he has, now to his mysterious and absent ‘partner’ Black.

The reality of Bellman’s life (and the intersection of the fantastic in the form of Mr. Black, who is perhaps conjured in Bellman’s mind alone) is symbolized by the dominance throughout the novel of rooks (related to crows). In childhood, Bellman once threw a rock at a rook, which killed it. This event seems to haunt Bellman, and in the fantastic element of the story, it is implied that Mr. Black is an embodiment of the rook, seeking amusement and revenge for what was done to their kind. As the rock traced an arc in the sky leaving a dead bird, so too does Bellman’s life arc to a height only to then drop to inevitable death.

These ideas are actually quite good, and Setterfield’s descriptions of rooks are the highlights of the novel. However, the fantasy and the reality never intersect enough to work effectively. The majority of the novel is taken up with the reality of Bellman’s business dealings, and to a lesser extent relationships. The novel thus becomes a historical fiction detailing a man whose life becomes an obsession over business and profit, a combination between “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Dressler”. This type of novel has been done frequently, and Setterfield doesn’t add anything particularly new to this aspect. Instead she adds the fantastic slant with the crows and their symbolism, never really settling on whether they are in Bellman’s head alone, or an actual paranormal manifestation in the form of Black.

“Bellman & Black” therefore has a lot of promise, and given the popularity of her first novel (which I haven’t read) I’m sure many will adore this book. I think I would have, had it not been marketed the way it was, and if the Black storyline had been introduced much earlier rather than so much space spent on detailing Bellman’s prowess at industry.

Two Stars out of Five

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393088723
327 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In British usage, rustication refers to a suspension from university; in the case of this historical mystery novel the rusticated is Richard, the opium-addicted, seventeen year old protagonist, fraught with the sexual urges of youth and the disappointment of his family. Richard’s banishment from school forces him to return to his recently widowed mother and hostile sister, in their newly acquired isolated home in the country.

Mysteries and uncertainties abound for Richard upon his arrival, the mysterious behavior of his mother and sister, the state of the home, the uncertain circumstances of his father’s death. Keeping his own secrets of what transpired at his school to precipitate the rustication, Richard struggles to deal with separation from the poppy and the hostility of his family and their neighbors. Coupled with the strife of family and social relations, the community soon finds evidence of a deranged mind or minds – mutilated animals, and vulgar, cruel letters sent to women. Richard’s troubles and his prying into the oddities of his family and the community eventually throw him into suspicion.

Written as a ‘found’ diary by Richard, one of the aspects of “Rustication” I did appreciate was his voice and character. He is a finely and subtly rendered seventeen year old of the era – or any era for that matter – in that he is extremely inconsistent. At moments he is vulgar, at moments he is a gallant gentleman, at times he is striving to do his best and help his family, at other moments he gives into the euphoria of the opium. And above all he is inconsistent in the objects of his desires, full of hormones, yearning and imagining sexual liaisons with near every eligible female who crosses his path, turning from infatuation to disappointment and disgust, and back to infatuation. Given the remainder of the characters are only seen through Richard’s eyes, they remain rather flat, and unreliably represented throughout. This is unavoidable with the construction of the novel, and I didn’t mind too much, given Richard himself was fascinating to me.

The book is also written with a lovely period Gothic tone that I enjoyed. However, these weren’t enough to bring me anything more than a mild entertainment through reading it. The plot is slow to start, focusing on family conflicts and the social games between various Houses (families) until half way through when the crimes begin to occur. The letters are vulgar indeed, but after one, you get tired of reading their depravity, obviously intentional bad spelling, and you say enough, get on with it. The story ties together the family issues, Richard’s history causing the rustication, and the crimes into one overarching series of scandals, cover-ups, and machinations. It ends up feeling like too much, and yet too little. The perpetrators of the crime don’t come particularly surprisingly and the lack of any other resolution leaves things feeling empty in what is already even a short novel.

Three  Stars out of Five

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow

Witch Hunt, by Tabitha Morrow
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DY5KS0A
183 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

There were some good aspects to this young adult book, but ultimately I found it disappointing and lacking.The overall plot is an interesting take on witch trials and, (I’m being vague so as not to give spoilers) is actually a mix of several genres, not simply a rehash of history with an exaggerated magical spin.

As a young adult genre book it has a certain amount of thematic predictability: a focus on strong young characters that must step up to take on responsibilities of the impotent adults; a focus on action, protagonists getting out of stick situations; forbidden romance and erotic yearning. Yet each of these elements are handled well from a plot perspective. The plot is kept lively, it is not predictable in the details of its outcomes, and it features both strong female and male characters without that mistake of making the females beholden to their attraction to the male and reliant on his presence to save them from trouble. The action scenes are well composed and the more horrific supernatural moments are perfectly described.

However, the downside of the book is foremost its character development. The protagonist begins the book clueless of her reality, both personal and universal. She does not yet know she has magical powers. Her powers appear, and her knowledge increases in bursts from chapter to chapter with little explanation on how they have developed or how they truly affect her. No particular rules for the magic are established, so its ultimate use in the conclusion of the novel feels like a fantastic deus ex machina – there is no reason to suspect anything isn’t possible for the witches, so there is no resonance with or empathy from the reader when the climax arrives. This lack of character development is not limited to magic. Many actions or decisions by characters seem to just happen. At times explanations for actions are given by characters, but with nothing more than a statement that makes it appear nothing more than the author covering their bases of ‘explanation’. In other words, it often felt as though the author was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Other actions or key elements of the setting that are eventually revealed are not explained at all, perhaps setting up a sequel, but leaving this novel unfulfilling.

Despite my not liking the book much due to the above, it would likely be of interest to a young person wanting to read a quick entertaining fantasy tale with characters they can relate to. The themes are obviously overt and not subtle, but they are all good themes and moral dilemmas for a young person to consider. With a little more work establishing this world and its characters it could have been phenomenal, so I would read something else by the author in the hopes of that aspect improving.

Two Stars out of Five

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BE255W6
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

For Clark’s writing and its impeccably rendered Gothic atmosphere the book easily deserves four stars, perhaps even garnering five. This is the second book in a row I’ve read that focuses on the sea, the last beside it, and this largely on it, recounting the last surviving members of a once thriving dynasty of New England whalers and one teenage girl’s discovery of that family history. Descriptions of the ocean, the life within it and around it, and the workings of sailing vessels are beautifully conveyed, allowing Clark to truly immerse the reader into this bizarre world of the Rathbone clan.

It surely is a bizarre world. Clark’s rich descriptions of settings and action are rooted in a mixture of Gothic mystique and mythological otherness. Magic fills the pages and envelopes the characters, sometimes merely imagined, sometimes quite real, and sometimes, well the reader can’t be too certain. Everything appears somewhat off-kilter in the novel, where you realize you are reading about a realistic time period, a realistic occupation, yet still filled with that otherworldliness of fable, of fairy tales. Things aren’t necessarily as they first appear, and only with the full revelation of the Rathbone past to the protagonist does the reader also fully grasp some answers behind the many mysteries.

I would expect these aspects to lead me to adore this book. Gothic, dark, mysterious, magical, top-shelf writing… this should have been an adult high-brow dose of John Bellairs. Edward Gorey could have done the little illustrations. This should have blown me away. Yet, it didn’t.

The weaknesses of the novel and the source of my disappointment came from the fact that it is simply dry. Lovely writing is admirable, and in a short story it can pack a punch, but to maintain that intensity over a novel and still keep things moving, still engage the reader in the story – not just the skill of the writing – that takes a lot. There is no humor here, no let up in the seriousness, in the Gothic bleak monotones. Poetic descriptions that dazzle give way to rapid actions that advance the plot amidst shadows of uncertainty. One rereads a passage wondering, ‘wait, did what I think just happen really happen, or did I miss something?’ The mysteries are so grandiose and murky, and the answers are given (at first) so subtly, that one has to pay strict attention, let a small detail fly by. With little let up, this can be exhausting.

This on its own isn’t that big of an issue for me, but it does go hand-in-hand with the weakness I found most hard to move past…the characters are all so lifeless. You do get some thoughts of the protagonist, a good idea of what drives her, and yet many of her actions are just inexplicable, as mysterious as her family’s past. By rendering everything with this atmosphere of magic and mystery, Clark takes away a great deal of humanity in her characters. Some behave like characters from myth, some are not remotely as they appear at first, but for most all of them you never get much sense of their thoughts and motivations. Even as the protagonist learns about her Rathbone ancestors, their story is recounted in a dry historical fashion, learning where they start, where they end up, but little of who they really were. Large numbers of Rathbone offspring in each generation are cast into gender-specific groups with names such as “The Worn Wives” giving them some simple characteristic all in common, but no individuality, no humanity.

To be fair, this characterization makes sense to fit within the mythological or fablistic foundations of the novel. But, unfortunately it also seriously detracts from enjoyment of the story, the plot, and from the reader’s desire to empathize with the characters. Finding a balance between their otherworldliness and their realism is difficult to achieve, and for some readers I’m not sure if Clark has done so here. I imagine that many readers will be blown away by the beautiful prose and atmosphere found in this novel, and others for whom that just won’t be enough to keep their interest. Or you’ll be like me and go for stretches in absolute love and awe with what you read interspersed with stretches of indifference.

Three Stars out of Five