Books

Distractions: Roald Dahl and Jet-Lag Recovery

gloop

Mrs. Gloop: Don’t just stand there, do something!
Willy Wonka: [unenthusiastically] Help. Police, Murder.

I’m a wee bit tired after just returning from a week in Berlin. I have some interesting books up my sleeve, but with my eyelids wanting to droop over at any given minute, they will have to wait. Instead, here is a Sunday distraction: How Much Do You Actually Know About Roald Dahl’s Books? I only answered about 50% correctly. It’s been ages since I’ve read a Roald Dahl book, but I’ve always been a fan (I’m sure many of you are, too!). Did you do any better?

This distraction is inspired by the–admittedly, nice–seatmate I had on one flight, but because she was rather large (and German) and intruded on my small space, I couldn’t help but be entirely mean and think of Augustus Gloop.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

This summer has seen a light sampling of haunting reads. Ghost stories are no longer dedicated to autumn/October release dates and this is something I’m entirely happy about. With that said, however, I was a smidge disappointed by the prolific Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

electric suit

The novel is being promoted as one that taps into a more supernatural motivation, but taking the back burner would be a whopping understatement. Though, the writing itself is quite strong and clean, any notion of a “ghost” or an “electric blue suit” is wholly reduced in favor of more mundane plot points.

The book begins engaging enough and gets the story going quickly. David Barwise is a young college student who goes to work at a shabby seaside resort during his summer break. He’s drawn to the town because it is the same place that his father disappeared from fifteen years prior when David was only three years old. His mother and step-father are mighty worried and question him on his decision to go there. When David arrives he sees a man and a young boy on the shore. This, of course, brings up memories off his lost father.

David is much different than the rest of the employees who are entertainers–ventriloquists, stage performers, dancing girls–and the rest who make sure the holiday resort runs smoothly.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit has all the pieces that should make it a stand-out work. Joyce positions the mysterious intrigue right at the beginning, but some how it gets lost. I think of this book has being in quarters: the first quarter whets our whistle; we must know about this man and boy on the shore.

“The man’s suit is blue and it darts with watery phosphorescence. The suit is beautiful, alive, quivering like the scales of fish.”

The man appears to him in his waking life and even in his dreams and nightmares. Joyce further goes on to set the novel in 1976, the hottest summer in recent memory, and makes the setting even more bizarre by having swarms of ladybugs engulf the town like a plague.

The second and third quarters are where we have a problem. There is too much concern with the minutiae of running a seaside holiday resort; the characters, as well, are little more than lightly stenciled versions of people. They seem fuzzy in my imagination and are never truly realized even though there is a sense that the author wants them to stand out.

The final portion is slightly more interesting. Questions are inevitably answered and mysteries are flattened out leaving them resolved. It all seemed as if it suffered from too little, too late syndrome.

Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on this novel, but I had such high hopes. It might be more suited for a casual reader sitting poolside who’s one or two mojitos in already. I haven’t read any other novels by Graham Joyce, but I’m under the impression that he’s highly regarded by fantasy enthusiasts and he’s won the O. Henry Award. Has anyone read his other books?

Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby by William Ritter

The year is 1892 and Abigail Rook, a young English woman struck by wanderlust sets sail to the New England town of New Fiddleham. Abigail is bored by what is expected of a young lady in the nineteenth century and would rather be digging up a dinosaur than moping around an English garden. When she arrives stateside, Abigail is in search of a job and lodgings when she sees a notice inquiring after an investigative assistant (“strong stomach preferred”). The placer of the ad is none other than Mr. R.F. Jackaby, a strange man who is part Sherlock Holmes, part Doctor Who, and part himself. He is an independent investigator who sees the extraordinary around every corner. When a series of murders begin to take place, Jackaby and Abigail are quick to start an independent investigation that differs greatly from the police’s own.

Debut novelist, William Ritter, has created an exquisite first novel that never becomes dull. It’s less about the killings and more about the peculiar personality of Jackaby. The solutions to problems can’t be what we expect. No, it must be a banshee or some other folklore creature. Abigail stumbles through her first case and is warned of the impending doom that might befall her by joining the odd detective (a former assistant has supposedly been changed into a duck, who still resides in Jackaby’s house).

Abigail is a droll narrator who finds the immense humor in the queer detective and her passion for a good adventure was entirely enjoyable. She makes the reader want to dash off with the strange man as they search for supernatural critters and serial killers.

Although, targeted for young readers, I was happy that I toed the line for this title. With the over-saturation of books targeting young readers (young adult, middle grade, what have you), it’s hard for one to stand out and Jackaby certainly does. The sentences are light and fly by. Ritter has respect for his readers and there is a refreshing literary quality about the book. The best books for children are ones that are also enjoyed by adults.

I couldn’t help but be stunned by the color blue that washes over this cover. I am a huge fan of cover art and I think this one is top-notch. Though, generally not a reader of books targeted for young readers, the synopsis and subsequently, the author’s excellent writing were enough to make me rave here about it. So go read it!

Jackaby will be released by Algonquin Books on September 16th.

 

Harry Houdini!

This past December, I reviewed Harry Houdini’s The Right Way To Do Wrong, which I highly recommend. Like many people, I’m fascinated by escape artists and illusionists of varying kinds with special note to talents of past days (I’m completely keen on the film The Prestige, too).

So, I am super excited for the History Channel’s two part series titled Houdini starring Adrien Brody. The trailer was just released. Have a look-see before the Labor Day release and also, read his book, too. You can find out Houdini’s feelings on “frog swallowing.”

Vapor by Amanda Filipacchi

I have a strong hunch that Amanda Filipacchi and I were separated at birth. Granted, we were born in different decades and on different continents, but I’m about 97% certain that this is the case. Why I have not read her till just now is really a shame. She is quick, funny, absurd, and daring. Often readers (especially those who declare themselves “exclusive readers of literary fiction”) have a hard time opening their reader’s mind to bold narratives that are out of the ordinary, that keenly twiddle the knife of humor and the bizarre.

vapor book

Vapor is a strange interpretation of Pygmalion (think George Bernard Shaw). Filipacchi has taken the premise of the play and turned it upside down, inside out, and chopped it up to make a cutting novel that will appeal to lovers of books like Catch-22 and the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Anna Graham is an acting student in New York City, who is told by her instructor that she will never be much of an actor and perhaps, she should consider letting another more excellent student use her name as the other’s stage name. She takes it hard, but Anna considers what she should do about, because she will not quit acting,

“For months I had been trying to be less myself. This effort extended to every aspect of my life, including my personal tastes and opinions. I wanted to be pliable like warm wax. I began to admire vague people.”

Out late one night, Anna is down in the subway dressed in a garish fairy queen costume when a lone man is being attacked down on the tracks. She takes her industrial strength pepper spray and saves the man from his attackers. Anna becomes oddly entranced by Damon and hopes he calls her to thank her for coming to his aid. Filipacchi draws Anna as a strange, unreal person. Her reactions are odd and can’t possibly live off the page, but that doesn’t matter. Her oddities and perceptions are what make her such an engaging character.

Even with all of her eccentricities, Anna doesn’t compare to Damon. He wears only see-through clothing, giving up on opaque clothes ages ago, he’s very particular about the pH balance of his bottled water, and he’s a cloud scientist who fabricates small clouds that fit in rooms. Also, he decides to kidnap Anna and keep her in a cage. His rationale is to whip her into shape to become an excellent actress. She is obstinate, of course, as one would be if they were being held in a cage and forced to act out scenes with their captor.

There are so many layers to this novel. Filippachi is entirely successful in presenting such off characters engaging in unexpected and fantastic behavior. The prose is so effortless as you read each chapter wondering what could possibly happen next. I’m hesitant to give any more of the plot away as there are far more twists that are taken and excellent characters squeezing their way out onto the page.

This comic novel takes a strange look at the Pygmalion myth that has so permeated our culture and literature. It can be read for it’s unique look at the female form and what is expected of women in entertainment. Bluntly, Vapor is hilarious even during the most absurd moments. I found myself laughing at many of Filipacchi’s sentences and for her whip smart narrative, which should be enough for any reader.

Vapor was recently re-released by Open Road Media (who has also re-released the rest of her previous novels). I was a bit bummed to read that a film adaptation by the playwright Neil LaBute was cancelled some years ago. Has anyone else read Amanda Filipacchi before or are you late to the party like me?

Distractions: Which Classic Novel Describes Your Life?

After watching about 37 minutes of last night’s news, my brain could no longer take the massive global overload of despair, doom, and destruction. I heard the serpent calling me to click over to Playbuzz. Blerg. Weakness. At first, I was surprised (what? A trivial internet multiple choice didn’t pin me down?!), but then I read the final few sentences, which I found to be strangely familiar. Which novel did you get?

lord of the rings

The Fallen by Dale Bailey

Back in May, I reviewed an excellent novella by writer Dale Bailey titled, “The End of the End of Everything.” Until now, it had been the only work I had read by the author, but I was delighted to hear that his novels were being republished. The Fallen is Bailey’s debut novel from 2002.

the fallen

Saul’s Run, West Virginia is a small town that is an eerily perfect place to live except every few years when a slew of unlikely deaths and violent crimes flare up like a bout of flu and then ultimately recede again for another number of years. Otherwise, people live till old ages and the security of the residents is completely at ease. Henry Sleep returns to the Run, as it is known to the locals, after a decade’s long absence after hearing news of the apparent suicide death of his father, the local holy man. Henry is skeptical of the death and as he has further run-ins with the other locals and a new face, his apprehension grows tremendously.

The Fallen is classic horror that I couldn’t help but associate with Stephen King. Although, this novel felt tremendously different from his recent novella, Bailey still focused on a place with an unnatural presence growing around it, ready to suffocate the characters till the final pages.

The idea of evil lurking in unexpected places was prime in The Fallen, giving it that earlier King feeling. Recurring shared dreams of being caught in a labyrinth are highlighted throughout leaving the reader ever-curious about how this all ties together.

Bailey structures the novel with sections and chapters that jump between present and past years when the Run’s tranquil life is upended by dastardly crimes and unexpected deaths, which gives a feeling of unknown dread. When weaved together, this plot construct can be both confusing and intriguing with the former purposefully disorienting to leave the reader feeling off-kilter as Henry further investigates his father’s odd death and the evil forces of the town.

Admittedly, the novel did feel a little uneven. The beginning was incredibly engaging as past years’ portions were looped with Henry’s present return. The middle slightly stagnated in a way that it might not have if Bailey was writing this today with several novels already in his oeuvre. The ending’s action is full tilt as Henry and his friends learn what is causing the intermittent horrors of Saul’s Run.

The Fallen and Dale Bailey’s other novels are being republished by Open Road Media. Check ‘em out and take special note of his novella that I previously mentioned, which is available from Tor.com.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

The PBS Online Film Festival is going on right now and they have 25 short films available on YouTube (only a few days left for viewers to vote for their favorites). One of the contenders is a 3 minute long short experimental animation based on Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (you can it read it for free in the public domain). I’m particularly fond of the way the animators put the opaque wallpaper onto the woman’s body.

From PBS: Vote for this film at http://www.pbs.org/filmfestival/video…
The Yellow Wallpaper is an experimental animated adaptation of the eponymous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is about a depressed woman who descends into insanity as she struggles against the patriarchal institution that confines her. Through expressive movements and visual symbols, the animation captures the intersection between gender and mental health.

The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

the quick

What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.