book review

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.

 

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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.

2 3 1 4 5

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

the poisoning angel

During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

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What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mrmercedes

Stephen King’s newest novel departs from his expected universe of supernatural Maine and plops the reader down into the depressed Midwest as unemployed people seeking a reprieve from their current situations line up during the early hours in hopes of finding something better at a huge job fair. As the queue grows with more and more people, the sad calm is broken by a madman — complete in clown mask reminiscent of the evil Pennywise from It — running them down with a stolen Mercedes.

The crime goes unsolved and it appears as if the perpetrator is entirely out of reach. That is, of course, until a recently retired police detective, who spends his days holding a handgun and considering whether he would look better without his cranium intact, receives a long and boisterous letter purporting to be from the insane driver. The novel continues with back and forth sections between the detective and the unhinged killer, who takes a playing card from the Norman Bates deck and then goes way beyond.

Mr. Mercedes is advertised as a game of cat and mouse rolling forward just as fast as that Mercedes at the commencement of the novel. Yet, if I hadn’t been determined to find out the ending and write about the novel as part of my more highly anticipated summer reads, I would have put it down and moved on. The novel felt sloppy and awkward. None of the characters were particularly appealing and the dialogue between them felt so completely forced, it was cringe worthy. There were parts that I liked: the beginning was indeed intriguing as the initial crime is laid out along with the potential for a new maniacal villain and the final chapters sped up as both sides were attempting to get what they wanted, but there was a huge chunk of the middle (and this being a Stephen King novel, a chunk is hundreds of pages) that floundered. I couldn’t help but think that this book would have been much better if an editor went in a cut out about half of it.

I rarely make such bold recommendations as this, but skip it. Skip it if you’re a fan of Stephen King; skip it if you’re just looking for an entertaining summer read. I’m glad I didn’t take it along with me as I travel this summer, because it would have immediately been chucked and a new full price book would’ve been purchased at an airport gift shop.

I don’t often read reviews of books before I read them, so when I went in search of what the critics had to say, I was baffled by the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re reading the same novel. Now that I have finished this 400+ page dud, I can move onto the growing pile of TBR books that I’ve had my eye on for the past weeks.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

bellweather rhapsody

In 1982, a grim incident occurs at the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York: a young bride murders her husband and then goes on to hang herself in her hotel room on their wedding day. The violence leaves witnesses and a heavy scar on the once grand hotel. It’s fifteen years later and high school musicians are descending upon it for the annual Statewide festival…oh, and there is dreadful blizzard looming off-stage ready to snow in all of the pubescent musicians and their chaperons.

The above synopsis may appear heavy and brooding (à la The Shining), which it is, but Kate Racculia also completely turns the premise upside down, running many moments of humor and suspense into each other. Most of the chapters focus on a particular character at a time–delving into their backgrounds and anxieties of hidden secrets and the festival itself.

Jumping fifteen years ahead to the same day in 1997, Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker–a pair of twins–are both invited to the festival for their talents in voice and bassoon, respectively. Alice is assigned to share a hotel room–the hotel room–with fellow participant and daughter of the Statewide’s interim director (herself a wickedly crafted character). When Alice momentarily leaves the room only to return to the other girl hanging from the same type of cord in the same exact room, everything starts to unravel. Alice leaves to retrieve help, only to return to a room where there is no body. No sign of a body. Nada. Was there a murder? A suicide? A cruel joke? Or something else?

This is an ensemble cast and I can’t help but have favorites (I assume this is a similar feeling that regular soap opera viewers have to their choice characters). For me, Rabbit Hatmaker, the seventeen year old twin brother of Alice who is struggling with personal identity and his upcoming future post-high school life, was who I clung to from the beginning. The rest of the cast, however, was robust and filled with difficult personalities that transcend the stereotypes we can think of for participants of a “band camp.” Their chaperon, who at first appears to be a meek shadow of woman, is brimming with secret history; the arrogant Scottish conductor is a former piano virtuoso, but is now sporting a hand with fewer than five fingers; that wicked interim festival director is way more wicked than we’re initially led to believe. The cast goes on, but why ruin it.

This novel is more about the characters. It’s a slight of hand that the author produces. Yes, the hotel’s background and the possible 1997 suicide/murder of Alice’s roommate are indeed intriguing, but the strength of Bellweather Rhapsody lies with Racculia’s approach to the characters. The narrative voice is close to each of them and even during this trying weekend, the voice never falters when producing quick-witted and droll chapters.  I hate to compare the novel to other works, but I couldn’t help but feel delight as the book played with the idea of a snow stranded house with a deadly past all the while producing characters that were akin to those found in Agatha Christie or Clue.

Bellweather Rhapsody was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Summertime Books to Read

summerbooks

It’s been a little quiet over here the past few weeks. I’ve just been a little unfocused, but I do have an ever-growing pile of books to read. I figured it is about that time when everyone is getting antsy about their vacation reads and I’m not ashamed to jump on the list bandwagon. My summer reading list was jump-started by the phenomenal The Fever by Megan Abbott, which I recently reviewed.

So, here are eight selections of galleys that are piling up as I type.* Do you have any summer choices you’re hot to crack open?

1. The Supernatural Enhancements “What begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in…Edgar Cantero’s wholly original, modern-day adventure.”

2. Shirley “A fictional young couple spends a year at Bennington in 1964 with novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband in this captivating psychological thriller.”

3. Bellweather Rhapsody “Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel… Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker…have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival.”

4. Jackaby “Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary.”

5. After the People Lights Have Gone Off “This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday.”

6. Lost for Words “The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year…[a] satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture”

7. The Murder Farm “An unconventional detective story, [it] is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file.”

8. Mr Mercedes “[A] mega-stakes, high-suspense race against time, three of the most unlikely and winning heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands.”

 

*I do not have a copy of The Murder Farm yet, but I am looking forward to it, nonetheless. This book is hugely successful in Germany (original title: Tannöd). The first-time writer was rejected several times and only given a 1,000 euro advance by a small publisher. Now, it’s required reading and was adapted into a film.

**Synopses provided by publishers.

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I first came across Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in 2011 when The Letter Killers Club  was released by NYRB. It had a promising premise, but I think it came up short. But I still wanted to give Krzhizhanovsky’s short story collection a go when it was released this past fall.

autobiography of a corpse

It has taken me quite a while to write about this book, my copy always just right out of my side view. Based on the two books I’ve read of Krzhizhanovsky’s, I’ve concluded that I like his writing 50% of the time. For all of the weird and wonderful he has to offer, there is a whole mass of stodgy pseudo-philosophy and ruminations that exhausts me when trying to penetrate it (let me assure you that I do enjoy philosophical literature–I’m a big fan of Maurice Blanchot, for Pete’s sake). When I could get past this latter 50%, I enjoyed the strange tales that Krzhizhanovsky offers, which include the fingers of a concert pianist making their escape during a performance, a series of lovers who end up living in a young woman’s pupil, to the story I shall detail below about a man who is intent on biting his own elbow.

In the book’s introduction, Adam Thirwell details that there were three different efforts to have Krzhizhanovsky’s work published during his lifetime, which also shared years with the Soviet regime. He was not published until 1989 and now only recently translated into English. The stories that I was drawn to were the more fantastical and were crafted, as Thirwell writes, “based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” In one of the stories, the narration concedes that “these jottings will work like that: sandwich — metaphysics — sandwich — metaphysics.” Krzhizhanovsky seems quite aware that he has a 50/50 split, yet, the metaphysics, as he puts it, doesn’t need to be so thick and unmoving. I’m curious if this is the translation or Krzhizhanovsky original language manifesting in this way.

The story that most stood out was “The Unbitten Elbow.” When the Weekly Review sends out a questionnaire to all of their subscribers, they are perplexed by only one form amongst the thousands. The person, when asked what their Goal in Life is, wrote in “clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow.'”  The form is forwarded to many departments within the Weekly Review before it is finally brought to the public’s attention. The man and his unbitten albow become a cause célèbre as he is recruited by a circus as their closing act where a “professional philosopher” sees the performance and catches “the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat.” What ensues is an article titled, “The Principles of Unbitability” and a philosophy known as elbowism. Elbow biting even becomes so popular that clothing styles have changed to incorporate detachable elbow patches and the like.

The writing is quite funny and vivid, and this story alone puts Krzhizhanovsky right up there with the other Slavic and central European writers who flourish with this sort of writing. The absurdity reminded me so much of how we regard celebrity. If you flip through the television at any part of the day, there are people there yelling at each other and giving insincere “confessions” to cameras (why are these people on TV?!). The snowballing effect of the elbow biter is also so poignant when it comes to how news is delivered to us today and how we react to it. Regardless of all that, however, this story can still be enjoyed for what it is. In this instance, the above-mentioned incorporation of philosophical tendencies served Krzhizhanovsky well; often, as elbowism flourishes, new thinkers are trying to sort the endeavor and have “concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable.” I feel very much the same way about this collection. There was a lot of teeth gnashing on my part, but some of the struggle, although not completely pain-free, led to a few peculiar delights.

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Added to The International Reading List

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

among the thorns

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Veronica Schanoes’ novella, Burning Girls. She has a knack for reinventing folktales, giving them a fresh note while still retaining their centuries’ old roots. She does it again in her new short story, Among the Thorns. The story is a clear rebuttal to the Brothers Grimm’s most overwhelmingly antisemitic story, “The Jew in the Thorn” (Der Jude im Dorn).

As a child, Itte’s father never returns home. The family finds out that he has been murdered in the German village of Dornburg (this name literally means thorn castle in DE).

“They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him. I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that. They made him dance.”

Itte, her family, and the rest of the Jews are persecuted now in their seventeenth century village just as the Jews have been in the past centuries as well. Ten years pass and with her mother dead and her brothers off, Itte decides to take revenge on Herr Geiger, the man who is responsible for her father’s death. Herr Geiger, like his name suggests, is a fiddler, whose instrument when played will make anyone dance, even until they are worn out; he also has the extraordinary ability to make people do what he wants. Itte’s father was made to dance in the thorns until he was bloodied. As Itte sets off on her quest, she is accompanied by the disembodied presence of Matronit to assist her with her travels and, finally, to “watch the fiddler’s last breath.”

Although rooted in sadness, I do love a good revenge tale. Itte is determined and plain-spoken. Her narration is direct, which I think works quite well for Schanoes, who is portraying both a developed character and a reference to an older story. She is reinterpreting the straightforward voice that is often used in old Märchen.* The imagery is strong in this story. An especially vivid moment is when Itte’s braided hair unravels, stretching out into giant thorn vines (see cover image above). It takes her whole body to exact revenge on Herr Geiger, something that Itte imagined would be the case, albeit, not entirely as she expected before she set out on her journey. We can read the Grimms’ tale in its historical context, but Schanoes’ new story is one to be relished in as each spiky thorn grows from Itte’s head.

Like Burning Girls, I found this story to be wholly gripping. Once you start, you better clear your schedule, because you’ll want to finish it in one sitting and then probably read it again for any details missed the first go around. I don’t know what Veronica Schanoes is up to, but I hope her plans include writing a fabulous collection of tales with stellar illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso.

Among the Thorns is available as a .99 cent ebook (with beautiful cover included) and at the publisher’s website. In honor of Burning Girls being nominated for a Nebula Award this year, the publisher has made the ebook available for free.

 

*I always find it hard to reference stories like the ones from the Brothers Grimm as “fairy tales.” They are often quite beastly and not at all whimsical like I imagine fairies to be.

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“Woman Fish” by Dorothy Tse

woman fish

Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse’s stories are always a mixture of the surreal and magical realism. There is something dreamy yet frightening about them. A threat or unbelievable angst is always hiding behind her words, sometimes coming out onto the page and other times, being hidden away again.

“Woman Fish” is the first story in her recent collection Snow and Shadow (translated by Nicky Harman)–a collection I urge you to seek out. This story is only a small example of the strange you will find within the collection. Many stories deal with body parts mysteriously vanishing, a pregnant empress liquefying into the snow after giving birth, and an apartment building where the tenants can’t find their own front doors when they return home.

In “Woman Fish,” a sort of Gregor Samsa metamorphosis is happening,

“One morning he realised his wife’s sleek, pale head was completely without hair. Her mouth was huge, protruding like a ship cleaving the still waters of the sea. Her eyes had slipped to the sides of her face. Her breasts were two melting glaciers, slowly sinking into her body. When she walked naked towards him, all that was left of the woman were her smooth, muscular legs. Apart from that, she had transformed completely into a fish.”

The woman’s husband, whose point of view the story takes, is often in an inky dream state. The events are mostly at night, in dreams, or waking up. When he is awake, his wife is usually working at her computer making collages out of the husband’s “watery dreams.” There is constant mention of water and water that flows giving the story’s imagery an obscured view.

The frightening element of the story comes when they visit a Japanese restaurant and the husband notices the sharp knife the sushi chef uses to cut the fish filets. He can’t help but get anxious over the idea of his wife being sold at auction to a restaurant, an idea that floats around during his sleep. It doesn’t matter if the husband is awake or sleeping, the entire story feels like a waking dream and it would be foolish to try to distinguish the two. Just let the imagery of the story flood over you like the oft-referenced waters.

I highly encourage you to check out the collection where this story is found: Snow and Shadow. More info: amazon |  the book depository. The Guardian newspaper has also printed “Woman Fish” in its entirety with the accompanying fish eye photo above. Because this story is translated, it’s also being added to the International Reading List.

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