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Scan 17What’s it all about?

Joe Lennox is a young man in his mid-twenties, American but living in Vienna having made enough money when one of his stories was turned into a successful play that he can pursue a living as a writer and put behind him the impact of the death of his brother Ross when he was a teenager.

He meets Paul and India Tate, an American couple who fascinate him, take him under their wing and their lives become so entwined that when Joe and India start an affair it has horrible consequences for them all.

Why did I want to read it?

Voice of our Shadow is one of the Fantasy Masterworks series so is clearly regarded as a classic, and I enjoyed my previous foray into the word of Jonathan Carroll when I read Land of Laughs last year.

What did I think of it?

Wow, this is a weird one. I really couldn’t put it down, reading it in one day during two train journeys (London to Manchester and back again). I love Carroll’s writing style and was really absorbed in Joe’s troubles and in his love affair with India. Then the thing happens (Paul dies of a heart attack, possibly caused by finding out about the affair) and it turns into sort of a ghost story, then it moves into something even darker and ends up with one of those “really? I mean, really?” endings that has you revisiting everything you’ve read to that point. I can see why this would turn people against the novel because it is a bit of a jolt, and up until the aftermath of Paul’s death I wasn’t even sure this was fantasy at all but it gets very very strange very quickly indeed. And although it clearly has elements of horror I didn’t really find it scary.

I’m not entirely sure about the ending, it is so bizarre and abrupt and I’m honestly not entirely sure what the implications of the twist actually are, but it doesn’t diminish in any way the enjoyment I had in reading it, and I certainly want to read more of Carroll’s work.

An odd start to my reading for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge.

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onceup8200It’s that time of year again. The daffodils are out, the sun is (occasionally) shining and Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge is with us again for the eighth (blimey) time, running from 21st March t0 21st June.

This year I’m going to attempt Quest the First, described thusly:

Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

I looked back at my previous attempts at this challenge and am mildly appalled at the number of books on previous lists that I have come nowhere near to starting (let alone finishing) and have come up with a mixed list of new titles and old selections and one re-read:

  • The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu – “a dark and tender fairytale spliced with devilish humour”
  • On Becoming a Fairy Godmother by Sara Maitland – “breathes new life into old legends and brings the magic of myth back into modern women’s lives”
  • Voice of our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll – “blending fairy tale, drama, magic realism and occult horror”
  • Fairest of All by Serena Valentino – a tale of the wicked queen
  • The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson – “Thor has broken the sword Tyrfing so that it cannot strike at the toots of Yggdrasil etc. – elves, trolls, ice-giants, changelings and so on

I also plan to re-read The Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear which I remember as hugely impressive and have always wanted to revisit.

Will be great fun.

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Scan 45What’s it all about?

So, you’re on your way to work in the morning and you have what appears to be a heart-attack on the Tube but your life is saved by an oldish lady who turns out not to be an oldish lady but actually is part of the Feyre and you find out that you are too and nasties are after you and you have to work out an ancient ritual to save like everything.

Why did I want to read it?

Duh! All that stuff up there. Plus the Book God recommended it. Then Silvery Dude read it and said I had to. And it says on the rear of the paperback that this should be filed under Urban Fantasy [hidden war / secret history / deadly duel / ancient rites] division. So duh! once again.

What did I think of it?

Loved it. I liked Niall and Blackbird and the whole world of the Feyre and how it interacted with ours. It has a strong internal logic which helps to make it entirely believable. It has been compared to Neverwhere and I can understand why having read both (and currently listening to the repeated Gaiman dramatisation on Radio 4) but it is very much its own thing. Part of something that’s becoming a genre in itself, the London Fantastical Novel, and I can’t get enough of them.

Conclusion

Sixty-One Nails is the first book in a set of four and I have them all *cue maniacal laughter*

Recommended if you like urban fantasy. And who doesn’t, right?

Scan 44What’s it all about?

The sins of the fathers. The souls of the innocent. The Accursed is a Gothic tale which tells the story of a curse which has apparently fallen on the town of Princeton between 1905 and 1906, featuring a mixture of real and fictitious characters and some quite grotesque events.

Why did I want to read it?

Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favourite authors and this looked to be an unusual addition to her remarkably large body of work.

What did I think of it?

Well. This is without a doubt one of the oddest books I have ever read. I don’t actually have the words to describe it (and I’m not alone in finding writing about the novel difficult because Stephen King reviewed it for  the NYTimes and had a similar issue but handled it significantly better as you would expect).

There is a kidnapping at a wedding, a mysterious stranger with an unnatural influence over the townsfolk, a series of murders (all very unpleasant), cover-ups, political intrigue and a fantasy world of cruelty and despair. And a secret which looms large over one particular family. All about as Gothic as it’s possible to get.

Conclusion

Astonishing. Difficult. Lengthy. Purple. Cover implies vampires but if they’re there they aren’t your usual suspects. Did I mention it’s astonishing? Took many hours of my life. Not entirely successful as a novel but blimey, quite an experience.

Broken HomesIt is no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly (and there must be someone out there, surely?) how much I like Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London series, and how thrilled I was to get my copy of Whispers of Underground signed at an event last year. Sadly I couldn’t make the London event this year but no matter, as soon as my copy of Broken Homes arrived I dived (dove?) right in and devoured the thing in short order.

So much as before we have Peter Grant, PC and wizard, his boss Nightingale and colleague Jenny still on the hunt for the rather nasty Faceless Man, still interacting with the various incarnations of the Thames and its tributaries and still being dragged in to any case with a whiff of the supernatural. This story starts with an odd car crash, some mutilated bodies and *gasp* the need to go south of the river to work out exactly what, if anything the connection is with a particularly unusual housing complex designed by the somewhat eccentric Erik Stromberg.

As you might expect I really loved this and its mixture solid police work and, well, magic. The story really clips along. As always (and its perhaps a bit of a cliché to say this, but hey, this is how things become clichés) London itself is a significant character and also as always I learned quite a bit that I didn’t know about the city that I live and work in. Although I think all the books are strong this seems to me to be the best since Rivers of London itself.

And the end was Oh!

Followed by Ah!

Followed by a rush to the web to find out when the next volume is due because I want to see where this is all going.

Absolutely great stuff.

Scan 2The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos is one of those books that I didn’t know existed until I saw a review of it on someone’s blog (and this is where I kick myself because I didn’t make a note of where I saw it so can’t properly the credit the person concerned) and was just so intrigued by the premise that I had to get a copy.

It is the tale of Ivy who at the age of seven, spending an Easter Sunday with her mother whom she adores if not downright worships along with the elderly Rumbaugh twins Dolph and Ab in their pharmacy where her mother worked as a young woman, finds out something rather astonishing – the twins have apparently “preserved” their deceased mother (stuffed her to be accurate). This is the latest manifestation of the love curse of the Rumbaughs – obsessional mother love beyond the understanding of most people.

Coupled with a talent for taxidermy.

As Ivy tells us at the beginning of the novel (out of concern that we might think she was being unnecessarily Gothic or exaggerating her story for effect):

I am simply going to tell you a plain and true small-town story about a family love curse that is so passionate and so genuinely expressed that it transcends everything commonly accepted about how love reveals itself – or conceals itself.

For it becomes clear as the tale unfolds between Ivy at seven and at sixteen when the identity of her father is more or less confirmed, that she is also a victim of this curse, and she starts experimenting with taxidermy in preparation for the inevitable day when her mother dies.

This is a wonderfully odd, macabre little book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Ivy is a wonderful character, obsessional yes but it’s not entirely her fault after all. The background to the love curse is told with great verve, all the characters are vivid and I read it in a couple of sittings, wondering what was going to happen (though having a pretty good guess).

One of the delights of my copy is the notes at the end, where the author talks about his inspiration for the story and there is some material on  Oedipus, taxidermy and Psycho, all for obvious reasons.

A real gem.

ScanA new Neil Gaiman novel is always something to look forward to, and I pre-ordered my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as soon as I was able, knowing that whatever the tale being told, it would be something special.

The book starts with our narrator in the present day, having come back to his hometown for some unspecified family event, and finds himself turning up at an old farmhouse at the end of the lane where hi house was. We then flashback some forty years to when he was a little boy, a very unhappy child living with his parents and his sister, not at all at ease with the world around him. The family’s lodger steals their car and commits suicide in it, troubled by money and having betrayed his friends. And it’s this event that puts our narrator in real danger, because it unleashes on the world some rather nasty things from beyond our world, and the only people who understand what it means and can help to put it right are a young girl, Lettie Hempstock, her mother and grandmother who all live in the farm with the duckpond that might be something significantly more than it appears.

I thought this was a lovely story, capturing magic and legend and myth, the unpleasantness of adults and the horror of things beyond our ken. There are some astonishingly grotesque characters, particularly the sinister nanny Ursula Monckton who is definitely something else. And at the centre is a little boy who makes a friend and has to find the courage to fight for what he cares about. It’s a difficult book to write about in some ways because it’s the atmosphere that’s so important. The best thing perhaps to repeat the quote by Neil Gaiman on the back cover of my edition:

[it] is a novel of childhood and memory. It is a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside each of us. It’s about fear, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival

I think that really does sum up the themes that he explores, and I was totally bowled over. Gaiman has such a strong, loyal following that there is always a danger that you review the man and his body of work rather than the individual story at hand. And there is a tendency for his stuff to build up such anticipation that there is a danger of being disappointed (like my friend Silvery Dude who thought it was but not up there with his favourite Neverwhere)

I’m not sure its my favourite of Gaiman’s books (for me that’s a tie between American Gods and The Graveyard Book) but it is remarkable and one that I plan to re-read in the future. A sweet tale with something very dark at the centre.

Scan 6The world (including me) mostly knows George RR Martin for the Song of Ice and Fire sequence that is the basis of the Game of Thrones TV series. I will admit to  being a fan of the series but I’ve never read any of the cycle that underpins it, though the Book God and a couple of friends keep on telling me that I should. And I may very well do in the future but for now, and as my last read for Once Upon a Time VII, I decided to pick up an earlier volume that the Book God also recommended.

Fevre Dream is fairly high concept: vampires on riverboats. It tells the story of Abner Marsh, a steamboat captain who has fallen on hard times and is approached my a very distinctive person in the form of Joshua York who funds the building of the boat that will be known as the Fevre Dream, one of the finest of its kind ever to be built. But it becomes clear that Joshua is not only not what he appears but that he has a mission which brings them both face to face with others of Joshua’s kind who do not share his views, and a mighty struggle is inevitable.

I enjoyed this very much, and not just because vampires are my supernatural monster of choice. There is a verve and swagger and romance in the telling of the story which makes this more than vampires on a boat. A love of the ships and the lifestyle and the river really shines through, and the growing respect and friendship between two men who couldn’t be further apart adds a great deal to what could have been, in other hands, a bit of a potboiler. It also has a quite wonderfully aristocratic villain who makes a worthy opponent.

This would have been a brilliant Hammer film.

The conclusion was rather lovely and very satisfying, and I’m glad that my participation in this year’s challenge ended on such a high note.

Scan 4John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is another one of those books that I’ve had for a while but only really paid attention to when Silvery Dude told me that I would enjoy it. I made a start sometime last summer and for some reason couldn’t get on with it; the Silvery One dared to suggest that I might find it difficult to put myself in the mind of the lead character given that I have “never been a 12-year-old boy”, I countered with the fact that I had lost my mother so thought I might have an inkling of what was going on in our hero’s head. Though of course I was much older, but still.

For the lead character is indeed a young boy called David whose mother has died and who has had to watch his father remarry and have a child with his second wife. World War Two is in full flow and David is struggling with what looks like OCD, anger over his loss and feeling left out in his father’s new family (though not because of his stepmother who I rather liked).  Like any sensible child he has a love of books but they begin to speak to him at night and start to affect the way he look sat the world.

And then the Crooked Man comes and David crosses over into a dark and dangerous world populated by the myths, folk and fairy tales with which he has become absorbed. Enticed by what appears to be his mother’s voice, he has to make his way through many perils to reach the King of this land and find his way home.

I thought this was a really dark story, which makes sense when you think about what the fairy tales we all know and love were like before they were sanitised for the safe consumption of youngsters. The Huntress in particular is truly dreadful, but it is the Crooked Man himself, who preys on the fears and jealousies of children to get what he wants; truly evil. And I’m not ashamed to say that I cried at the end, sad and lovely all at once.

My edition of the book has a fabulous section at the end which gives background on the tales referenced in the story for those who find that sort of thing interesting – that would be me – and led to a little follow-up reading list:

David’s story stayed with me for days after I read it. Another potential re-read, and a further read for Once Upon a Time VII.

Scan 3The Night Circus is one of those books that you just know you are going to adore from page one. I bought this when it first came out in hardback and it hung around on my TBR mountain for no real reason other than I just didn’t get to it. That was, of course, until Silvery Dude got the paperback and started harrying me to read it as he had totally fallen in love with it. So of course I had to pick it up because I (mostly) trust his judgement, not because we read competitively, not at all, whatever gave any of you that idea.

So, the Night Circus (or Cirque des Reves to give it its proper title but not its appropriate punctuation) is a  touring sensation in the 1880s, with all the attractions of a normal circus but entirely in black and white and with some very particular elements – tents filled with clouds, an unusual clock and a dedicated group of followers identified by the wearing of red items amongst their black and white clothing. The story is not so much about the circus itself, although it is of course one of the main characters if I can put it that way, but is really about a duel (?) bet (?) wager (?), let’s say contest between two practitioners of magic which is played out through their protégés, Celia (the daughter of one) and Marco (the apprentice of the other). A contest that the participants have no real control over and only slowly come to understand who their opponent is.  Opponents are. You know what I mean.

This is just glorious, I devoured it in a couple of sittings over a Bank Holiday and was totally immersed in the world that Erin Morgenstern creates. A remarkable set of characters, a narrative dipping backwards and forwards in time, with a really wonderful and believable love story slap bang in the middle and a very satisfying ending. One of those books that you just wish would keep going and that you miss as soon as you’ve finished it.

I know that I’m probably one of the last people in the universe to have read this, but on the off-chance that you haven’t and that you are someone who enjoys being beguiled, then please do read this. You won’t be sorry.

Another read for Once Upon a Time VII.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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