Friday, December 15, 2017

Disappointingly Dull: Disappearance at Devil's Rock

I am very choosy with my suspense/thriller novels, and came to Paul Tremblay's Disappearance at Devil's Rock with great excitement. Finally, I thought, the disappearance of a child that is somehow related to darker, more horror-based themes. If only.

The devilish aspects of the story set up some interesting premises: the legend of Devil's rock, where supposedly the devil, being tricked, has been trapped inside the rock, and the use of masonic/occult symbols in the hobo pennies created by Arnold, a twenty-something self-professed "seer" who is involved with three young teenagers when one of them goes missing.

The spectral, ghost-like elements were interesting as well. The doppelganger of Tommy, the missing boy, was well described, but all these things amounted to nothing really-almost just flavor text. These more interesting elements take up very little room in the book, and don't affect the plot in any meaningful way. Which was very sad, because the ideas were relatively new and had a lot of potential.

Instead, I was inundated with a mundane story about the fruitless search for Tommy following his disappearance, which focused on his mother and her household, sans her son. We are also privy to extensive flashbacks via Tommy's journal pages, which mysteriously appear at intervals, to explain how Arnold came to be part of his little group. Because of the framing of that story, it was robbed of narrative tension or urgency. In addition, an enormous amount of time is relegated to recounting every useless detail of conversation between young teens and an obsession with zombies that could have had meaning and gone somewhere, but didn't.

The main thrust of the story was attempting to display an authentic window into young life, and predominantly the force of deceit for young children, the almost second nature of lying at that age. While that might be true, it doesn't make for compelling storytelling, and I felt that so much time was spent on useless characterization that the things that might have made this story interesting were arbitrarily inserted, and didn't really do anything to help the very dull and dreary plot of a naive, malleable kid being led astray by an older boy. And the devil should be anything but dull.

K Rating: 1/5
**New Author Goal: 23 out of 30**

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fresh & Whimsical : The Paper Magician

I usually don't care for whimsy in my reading material, but The Paper Magician toed the line so closely, I enjoyed the story for all its parts. I was drawn in by the premise of a new magical novice being forced to bond to a material, paper, when all she ever wanted to be was a metal magician. Being the first in her class has deprived her of her choice, but when she meets Paper Magician Emery Thane, her mind quickly sees the wonder of her new future. The use of paper for magic started with some predictable forms of origami-interesting, but predictable- and then moved on to things I wouldn't have thought of which had much more power and potential. That we learned more about the possibilities with paper as the story developed was immensely satisfying.

I found both Emery Thane and Ceony Twill intriguing, endearing, and complex as characters, and how their relationship as teacher and apprentice grows kept my interest. The main action of the plot, while definitely compelling, took an unexpected detour through Emery Thane's heart - literally. While this was certainly a unique way to answer some of the beginning's mysteries-why Emery Thane lives alone, how his ex-wife became an Excisioner, or Blood Magician, and why Thane gave her a secret scholarship that allowed her to attend magic school in the first place, the journey through Thane's heart was very drawn out, taking up about two-thirds of the book.

I expected to see more of the aftermath in this book before moving on to the next volume. Ceony makes it out of his fourth chamber, forced to admit her attraction to a shadowy version of Thane, and coming out of it not knowing how much he truly understands of what she saw and what she did while there.

The conclusion after Ceony's escape from Thane's heart feels rushed, but is also enticing. Ceony discovers a great power to defeat the blood-thirsty ex-wife, and she receives a vision of a fortune, a happy future for her and Emery. But when will that come to pass? Only the rest of the series will tell, and I am eager for the next volume.

Rating: 4/5
**New Author Goal:22 out of 30**

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Who knew such things could hold such power?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Better than the Blob! Caltiki, the Immortal Monster!!

I'm a sucker for stories that riff off H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," a story about a monstrous force from the heavens. The Blob certainly fits the bill, but many aspects of that film are  rather neat and tidy.

Not Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959). Caltiki is a cross between The Blob and Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Made just one year after The Blob, Caltiki is a dangerous substance buried among Mayan ruins, which grows insatiable every time a comet passes close to earth, giving it the power to grow to enormous proportions, and swallow up everything and everyone in its path. The fact that you actually see Caltiki eating people, dissolving their flesh in seconds and leaving nothing but bones, is totally freakin' awesome!

The use of miniatures - tanks included! really helped to convey the sheer size and serious danger of this immortal force, thought to have destroyed the Mayans, and due to return with a vengeance as the comet inevitably passes Earth.

In short, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster is tremendous fun, and should not be missed by fans of monster movies, classics, and blobs alike!

K Rating: 5/5

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Friday, December 1, 2017

All Terribly True - Mr. Mercedes

Mr. Mercedes is the first thriller I've read of Stephen King's, and it was solid. It was as down-to-earth authentic as all of his works are, but, if not for the darker strains in his writing, I might not have finished the book.

The Mercedes Killer is just your average Joe, with an effed up family dynamic, and decides to steal a Mercedes and plow it into a crowd of unemployed citizens. When the cop who couldn't catch him retires, Mr. Mercedes starts pulling his strings. Big mistake.

The plot is interesting because you're getting a detailed, inside look at both the retired detective Hodges's attempts to ferret out the killer before he does something even more heinous, and the killer Brady Hartsfield, who takes the bait but can take as much as he can dish. The suspense came not from not knowing the killer, but from not knowing when these two are going to have their confrontation, and whether it will be horribly too late.

Having read Pet Sematary many years ago, I know that no level of chaos or destruction is beyond King, so every sick suggestion that popped into Brady's head put me on the edge of the page. How some of his ideas turned back on him was equally disturbing, but funny all the same. And while the book was loaded with very timely observations and references that made me roll my eyes, some of them made me genuinely laugh out loud. King is nothing if not an astute observer of his world, and of human nature.

The supporting characters were well developed, and I especially appreciated the varying levels of mental dysfunction among them. All those ticks and assumptions and personalities kept the investigative aspect of the novel tight.

I may not pick up the rest of the Hodge's trilogy, but that's a function of my reading to escape my world, rather than drown in its everyday horrors. And while this is not The Shining, I don't regret reading it, either. I only wish it were further from the truth.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Ambiguously Feminist: The Miniaturist

My latest historical fiction read, The Miniaturist, started out strong. A young girl Nella can't stand that her new husband remains a stranger, in every sense of the word, that her spinster sister-in-law is intolerable, and all she has to get her from one day to the next is her hideous wedding present, a miniature doll house. That dollhouse is slowly filled with figures contrived in such a way to shine an ominous light on the inner workings of her household, from the mysterious miniaturist. At least, that's what Nella thinks.

All that sounded great, and I certainly able to imagine myself in imperial Amsterdam. But once the story started to unfold, the magic of its premise fizzled and faded away. The reason for Mr. Brandt's distance is written dramatically, but everything that follows after is equal parts confusing and frustrating. The secrets that Nella learns of her new husband are ones that give her, a girl of noble birth, enormous power within the household. But she remains mousy, and never wields that power. Even if her family had financial problems, she was born into entitlement, and her reactions-basically letting the Brandt family run roughshod over her- doesn't feel historically authentic. It feels more like poor characterization.

At the same time, Mr. Brandt is villainized, not because of the nature of his secret, but because of the misery he imposes on his entire family for ensnaring them in his secret, and his own neglect of his obligations-to his wife, his sister, and his business. But it's painfully obvious that the author did not want to demonize him for being gay. Which is all well and good except, again, it's not historically authentic..

Another major anachronism ran through the heart of Nella's characterization. That she's invisible in society, and in her household, because of her age. A child bride of only eighteen tender years. She is constantly referred to as a child but her new family, and feels that way herself at least some of the time. The miniature house itself is the largest indicator of that. It's a toy, a plaything for young girls to learn the running of a household. EXCEPT: She's not a child bride, not in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Girls younger than her were married and mothers. Not a soul would have thought her in such terms.

The thing that interested me so much in this book was the suggestion of darker, potentially supernatural fiction. Or even simply weird fiction would have been satisfying. This was none of those things. The answer to just who the miniaturist is is very bland at disappointing. There were so many other viable possibilities. What Burton went with is the most banal choice. She tried, maybe, but the effort was so slight you might miss it. You'll be too busy fending off heavy blows from the naked misandrist message. Which is convoluted, because even the guy pulling everyone else's strings dies in the end. It's clear Burton is trying to make some sort of statement about the misery of seventeenth-century women, but it's extremely unclear as to what that is. Also, it felt unnecessary. We could have had a much better plot that had that deeper under the surface to give it meaning, but without that plot, whatever it is Burton thinks she's saying looks like a trumped-up soapbox.

Rating: 2/5
**New Author Goal: 24** Only a half dozen more to go!!

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Emo Politics - Burning Glass

I can never get enough royal intrigues, and despite its (many) flaws, Burning Glass kept me anxiously turning pages.

Auraseers, people who can sense the secret emotions of those around them, are an invaluable asset to the King. But when the King's brother Anton comes to fetch her, Sonya isn't ready. She has no control over the emotions that invade her mind, and hasn't learned to differentiate the feelings of others from her own. To top it off, her lack of discipline caused her orphanage/convent to burn to the ground, when the will of the angry mob at its gates overtook her.

Sonya isn't at all prepared to combat the powerful will of King Valko. It becomes clear quite soon that her physical attraction to him is simply a mirror of his desire. It is most interesting when we see the tumultuous nature of his emotions and thoughts, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the King is mentally unstable.

Harder still are the people in the King's court who have learned to hide their emotions. That served as a crutch to the plot, given the main job of the Auraseer is to understand people's emotions. Of course people try to hide their emotions-especially politicians. So why can't she see past their barriers? Is it because she wasn't fully trained? Maybe. But it seems more of a plot device to keep us guessing about Duke Anton's feelings for Sonya, and which of the brothers she has real feelings for.

I appreciated very much that the setting was more Russian-inspired, though the world-building wasn't taken far enough. There were plenty of breadcrumbs there that are the start of good fantasy- the question of a changeling prince, a poisoned monarch, an ambitious and well-meaning brother, and a lot of potential poisoners among the courtiers. But the development of these in any real sense was forgotten for the sake of the romantic tension, which is the basis of the story. I won't say that I minded that, because that part was good, but there were plenty of detractors. One of the worst offenders were the people from the neighboring fantasy land, who walked, looked, and spoke French. Major fantasy faux-pas. Also, Anton's vision for the future of his kingdom seemed naive and far-fetched. Revolution is never a clean, simple thing, and the deposition of one king is not enough. Perhaps if her research for world-building had gone beyond national window dressings, the author might have recognized this, making a revolution more gritty, and you know, authentic, but I digress.

Another issue for me was the complete uselessness of Sonya herself. I would have expected and preferred to see her grow into her role, and use her power effectively. We get almost the exact opposite, where she gets sucked further and further into Valko's influence, until the last minute where she basically pulls off a miracle-it's an inorganic, unconvincing conclusion to the plot. But who cares, when Sonya actually manages to figure out how she feels? Flawed as it admittedly is, I can still say  yes, this story could have been much much better, but, at $2, I will read the sequel anyways.

Rating: 3/5

*New Author Goal: 21**

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#22: Kepler's Witch - Wouldn't you know, the first time in ages I pick up a nonfiction book, and I'm deceived by the back copy into thinking it will be worthwhile.

#23: Anno Dracula - Again, the back copy kills me. Alternative history where Dracula wins? Great! No plot or characterization, only name dropping? Not so much.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Solid Spiritualist Fiction: Things Half in Shadow

Being an expert in Spiritualism attracts me quite naturally to works of fiction that focus on that practice, or use it as a backdrop to set a mood. But it's a double-edged sword. Many works cannot fully satisfy because  I know too much. My standards for authenticity are abnormally high.

Things Half in Shadow by [Finn, Alan]Which is why Things Half in Shadow was such a pleasant, enticing surprise. In this part mystery, part supernatural thriller, Philadelphia reporter Edward Clark begrudgingly accepts an assignment to expose the city's mediums as frauds, and support the strong strain of opposition to Spiritualism running rampant in the city, alongside devout, if gullible, followers in the wake of the Civil War.

Clark calls upon his childhood training as a stage performer to suss out the tricks of Lucy Collins, a third-rate medium at best, and cruel selfish huckster at worst. But before he can expose her, she learns his secret-his real name is Columbus Holmes, the supposed dead son of Magellan the Great, the world-renowned magician locked away for murdering his wife.

He reluctantly agrees to help her only expose her competition, but there's a snag or two. For one, Clark can't see any deception in the seance held by Leonora Grimes. Second, Grimes is dead by the end of the seance. Clark, Collins, and the other seance members were the only ones present. They become suspects in a locked room mystery. Fun!

Except, both Clark and Collins have secrets they don't need the police digging up. In the turmoil, Clark loses his job in the paper, his fiancee Violet breaks off their engagement, and the Police Inspector, his friend, is not helping as much as he hoped. The world Clark has carefully built for himself is crumbling around him, all because of his association with the strong-willed Lucy Collins. Well, you know what they say about opposites. Their interactions were delicious.

To save themselves, the take up the torch of the investigation, and get much more than they bargain for-including a secret society targeting mediums and insight into what really happened on the fateful day Clark lost his mother.

Everything about late nineteenth-century Philadelphia felt authentic: the fervor and opposition for Spiritualism, the sprawling impact of the Civil War, the rules of social decorum that break down once all hell breaks loose.

I might not have agreed with Clark's choice in the end, when it came down to the feisty Collins who knows the true him, and the fiancee who sees the error of her ways, but the book ended with the potential for a sequel. I will wait impatiently to see if one arrives. In the meantime, this was one of the best books I've read this year by a new author, and about a favorite subject of mine.

Rating: 5/5

**New Author Goal: 20**

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