Sunday, December 31, 2017

Noble Intrigues - Louise de la Valliere

The beginning of a new year inevitably invites us to reflect on those that have passed, near and far. In 2017, I achieved my goal of reading 30 new authors. Some were misses, some were hits. All will be reviewed here in due course. But as the year draws to a close, my mind harkens back to continued reading of a tried and true author, about one of my favorite topics. It's a sign that no matter the genre, or the age, good writing never goes out of style.

Louise de la Vallière is the second volume of Alexandre Dumas' series, The Man in the Iron Mask, which is actually three parts: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask. It's an extension of the tale of the Three Musketeers, which is also separated into multiple parts (originally published serially). I read The Vicomte years ago, so it was hard to remember all the pertinent plot points of this tale filled with adventure, danger, and intrigue, set in France's history just as Louis XIV solidifies himself as the Sun King. While Dumas is one of my absolute favorite authors, and this story kept quick pace, it did have a different focus from the rest of his Musketeer history.

The first volume spent very little time with the young king Louis himself, focusing instead on the divergent agendas of the four musketeers as they advance in age and career. It mapped out (as clear as possible when following the intrigue) who they support and who supports them. This second volume focuses almost entirely on Louis and his court.

Courtiers of both sexes play active roles in a variety of intrigues-some political, some romantic, most a mixture of both. Louis' ministers struggle to find his favor by taking skillful, covert digs at each other, and D'Artagnan, as head of the royal guards, becomes the right hand of the king in all his desires-which first land squarely on Madame la Duchess de Orléans (his brother's wife, and sister to Charles, the King of England), then most passionately on her handmaiden Louise de la Vallière. You can probably guess how much Madame liked that.

The plotting of the Queens and Princess of the court (the Queen-Mother, Louis's wife, and his sister-in-law) would have been quite enough to hold my interest, but nothing is ever so simple. Louise de la Vallière is already engaged to Raoul, (the Vicomte de Bragelonne and the son of Athos, the Comte de la Fère), the other handmaiden Montalais is teaming up with men from the Duc de Orléan's household (the king's brother Philip), but seem eager to help the king secure his mistress and foil the Duchess. The story ends in this volume with the Duchess bringing Raoul back from an aimless trip to England, just in time to confirm the rumors that his fiancée is not above the king's temptation. The Minister of Finance Fouquet and his underling Colbert continue their bitter feud. Fouquet (who seems at times to be plotting against the king, as we saw in the previous volume), is moved in all things by Aramis, who is the Bishop of Vannes and, now, the secret General of the Order of Jesuits. Porthos is also influenced by Aramis, but is intercepted by D'Artagnan, who sees all that his friends do and the motivations behind them with such cavalier charm that he frightens the three musketeers (and thrills the reader). I can only hope there will be much more of him in the final installment, The Man in the Iron Mask, as his adventurous spirit is the heart of this well-loved saga. And if I didn't sympathize enough already with the Sun King, a young man trapped in a gilded cage, I do now.

I'd love to recommend this to anyone who loves historical fiction and political intrigues (GOT has nothing on this), but this is quite deep into an established series. You might be able to stay afloat if you picked up just this volume, but you will have missed much.  Also, not all film renditions are faithful. The Man in the Iron Mask starring Leo DiCaprio is very far from the book's truth. So if this sounds up your alley, don't be put off by the age of the work. Go out there and get started on The Three Musketeers. I'll see you at the finish line.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Alias Grace - Brooding, Suspenseful, & Provocative

Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale, and its Hulu adaptation, have been getting a lot of hype, but futuristic Puritans are just not my thing. My interest was piqued, however, by the description of Alias Grace, the Netflix adaptation of another work of hers. I was drawn in by the trial of an infamous murderess, and questions about her sanity, her memory, and her doctor's unseemly attraction to her.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show - it had great pacing and suspense as Grace tells her story to Dr. Jordan, who has been hired by a local philanthropic group seeking Grace's release from prison and an impending hanging. In the first episode, Grace's over- narration (which I assume is derived from Atwood's original text) makes it clear that she understands the power that her words wield, first at her trial, and now, in a new and intriguing way, through talk therapy.

Alias Grace

Grace's life story was fairly typical for the nineteenth-century immigrants, but that didn't make it any less heartbreaking. The production values and storytelling combined to make Grace's tale a compelling one, and was enhanced by the insight into Grace's mind in addition to what she tells Dr. Jordan. Another nice layer was Grace's mindset herself: life has taught her hard lessons. Her freedom is certainly limited, but she is not helpless, and the idea of blessings, curses, retribution, and ghosts gave everything a brooding gloss that, combined with some clever camera-work and scene-setting, gave this period piece something extra special. The dream sequence with the angels in the tree, for example, was so cleverly done, it was visually striking and powerful. It was probably one of the smartest and most disturbing T.V. moments I've seen in some time. The hypnotic session is a close second. Bravo. I didn't expect anything less from director Mary Harron (of American Psycho acclaim).

My only regret was the final episode, which felt rushed, and left me unsatisfied with the direction of each character's life at the end of the tale. It didn't feel fulfilling, almost like the premise that we were presented with at the beginning never received its denouement, which was a bummer after zipping through the whole season in a handful of nights. And, being a historian, I would have loved more of the context to be drawn out. The nineteenth century is an eventful, fascinating period for hypnotism, mesmerism, mental disease, female criminality, and all sorts of useful things. I could have done with more of that.

Shows like this, and the praise it is receiving, make me hopeful that more excellent TV programming that addresses these darker strains of storytelling are just on the horizon.

Rating: 5/5

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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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Chilling Vivisection - The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The only thing I knew about The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) going in was that in involved an autopsy (obviously), and that it was directed by André Ørvedal, the director of Troll Hunter (2010), which is one of the few found-footage films that actually blew me away.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe was a tight, nearly perfect horror, and the best scare I've had in a while. It features a father and son team of medical examiners pressured to complete an autopsy before the night is out, after an already long day.  The problem is, that the body is pristine-no bullet wounds, no stab marks, no physical aberrations of any kind. But she was found half-buried at the scene of a quadruple family murder. So how did she die?

The things the Tilden boys reveal about the girl, peeling away layer after layer of her body, are simply impossible. From a production standpoint, the pacing and the props are just brilliant. The very visceral horror of the autopsy was dramatic and well-shot, and complemented perfectly the sinister, psychological horror lurking just beneath the surface. And all the close-ups of the actress's face were beautifully creepy. I never got tired of it, because I never knew exactly what to expect.

My one critique is that, towards the end of the film, we're given an theory of the body's origins, and the meaning behind all the unimaginable things they've found. The explanation was too complete for my taste, too neat and tidy. I didn't need all that-some, maybe, fine. But I prefer more mystery in my mysteries. This only detracted from the plot for a very small fraction of time, so it did not affect the overall experience.

I love Brian Cox - he's so versatile!

And then, all hell breaks loose. And the chaos that happens after is a wonderful blend of outright carnage and terrifying atmosphere. To execute both horror and terror simultaneously is not an easy task, but the film uses a deft hand to deliver both in hefty doses. The result was a supremely satisfying experience, which lit up more than one of my brain's horror-loving zones.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Heartbreakingly Perfect: The High Lord

Damn you, Trudi Canvan. Can't you let your characters be happy?

The conclusion to The Black Magician Trilogy, The High Lord, is everything I hoped it would be, and more. We learn the true intentions behind the High Lord Akkarin's use of black magic, a secret magic that will get him executed if it is discovered.

The slum girl Sonea has risen a bit since her flight from the Magician's Guild in the first book, (my review here) earning her place at the guild as a student and as the High Lord's favorite in The Novice, (review here!) even if she came to that position through blackmail for knowing the High Lord's secret.

In this final installment, Sonea learns all the honorable reasons behind Akkarin's practice of black magic, and joins him in the impending war against the Ichani, an ancient enemy that strengthens itself though black magic, drawing power from their slaves as well as the people they kill. Once the Magician's Guild discovers Akkarin's secret, Sonea stands with him, and the guild very stupidly and very publicly denounces and exiles them into the lands of their enemies, leaving themselves wide open to an attack too powerful for them to withstand. Meanwhile, in the Sachakan wastes, everything Sonea and Akkarin have been through together in the past few days, and the past few years, and all she now knows about him, comes to a head. In the most pleasant of ways.

The old arrogance of the Guild is turned on its head as they completely fail to defend the city from the threat, only surviving through the return of Akkarin and Sonea from exile, and their alliance with the Thieves and their secret nexus of tunnels through the city that allow them to pick off their enemies.  Then, of course, there's the final confrontation, just in case the guerilla-style warfare didn't satisfy, which it did, since it showcases just how strong Sonea has become.

I admire the tight, cohesive way in which the geography of Imardin, as well as its distinct, class-based neighborhoods played an integral role in the Ichani invasion. I have to admire the amount of thoughtfulness it took to have all these pieces come together in such an exciting and authentic way at the end. With most of Imardin destroyed by the battle, the Guild is entirely shaken up, both in numbers and their approach to black magic. It will be interesting to see how those lines get redrawn.

Can't say I'm happy about the ending though. It's powerful, authentic, and heartbreaking. I can't stand that Canavan seems allergic to a happy ending. But, for all that, it's a million times better than lots of stories that do give me a happy ending. Her books linger, so I just have to learn to suck it up.

I'll let this one simmer a bit before diving into The Ambassador's Mission, the first book in Canavan's Traitor Spy trilogy, which takes place in Imardin some time after the conclusion of The High Lord.

Rating: 5/5

The Ambassador's Mission (The Traitor Spy Trilogy Book 1) by [Canavan, Trudi]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Demonic Giallo: Beyond the Door

Image result for beyond the door movieBeyond the Door (1974) came into my orbit when I read about it on Fantasy Literature. It called the film a mash-up of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, not giving it much more credit than that. The things it said it didn't like about this film, in relation to the well-known works, raised an eyebrow, as did the relegation of the film to being only for hardcore completist horror fans.

I beg to disagree. Beyond the Door has much to offer horror fans of all stripes, being a masterful mingling of a variety of horror themes and tropes popular to its time. It is a fine example of the charm that 70's horror exudes. One small indicator of the film's thoughtfulness are the children of Jessica, the pregnant woman who becomes possessed by the devil. They swear unflinchingly throughout the film. I found this both entertaining and intriguing - it was a clever twist on the idea put forth in The Exorcist that obscenities alone, from the mouths of children, are shocking enough to be labeled "demonic activity." Here, it is used to demonstrate the autonomy these young children have without substantial adult supervision, and sets the general tone for the family dynamic.

The trippy, non-linear storytelling is an essential component of this film which, no offense, seems to have gone above the head of the person whose review caught my attention in the first place. The Lynchian style "Is is future, or is it past?" sort of narrative makes the film more interesting and compelling, in my view, than the films which influenced it. It also allows for a stronger, more cohesive concept of the demonic here. The over-narration at the beginning of the film makes it very clear that you're dealing with the devil: not some random demon, not just one of his many faces. Such things are unclear in The Exorcist over the course of the franchise, and go from unclear to downright confusing the more Exorcist movies you watch.

The non-linear telling also served as a major plot point with the antagonist in the film, the character who at first lures Jessica into a satanic ritual, then allows her to escape. He exists on borrowed time for the purpose of retrieving her, but his existence brings to the story a stronger metaphysical character that is ultimately rewarding, and feels extremely authentic and organic to the alternative, metaphysical spiritualities that experienced a heyday in the 60's and 70's.

It also allowed for the more unique moments of possession in this film, with layered and split photography providing the backbone for the special effects. The best, scariest moments of the film were the ones that didn't look transparently like Linda Blair. There are some excellent moments (my favorite was the children being terrorized), and with the length of the film, the scenes that were too derivative could have been cut without detriment to the movie.

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Lastly, this style of filmmaking is something I have seen before - it falls very neatly into the category of gialli, Italian horror from this period that is known, through names like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, precisely for its nonlinear narrative and explicit scares. That Beyond the Door is very firmly a part of this context seemed entirely lost on the writers at Fantasy Literature, and is most likely the reason why the film could not be appreciated for its depth or complexity, and instead decried the filmmaking as confusing and chaotic. The proof of this is in the pudding: it's an Italian production, the male lead (Gabriele Lavia) played a prominent role in Deep Red, Dario Argento's masterpiece, and in the sequel to this film, Daria Nicolodi (Argento's wife) plays the female lead. All of this suggests that a film like this one ran in those circles.

For all those in favor of demonic possessions, satanic rituals, David Lynch, vintage horror, international films, weird/speculative storytelling, and high art in films, Beyond the Door is for you.

K Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Invisible Gods: City of Stairs

My usual critique of fantasy fiction that just doesn't hit the spot is that the characters are good, but the world-building leaves something to be desired. For City of Stairs by Robert Bennett, the opposite is true. The world-building was great. It felt fresh and original, and I really loved the concept of a city filled with stairs that lead to nowhere--or rather, that the places they led to no longer exist. At least for mortal eyes. Also, the non-Western influences that are all the rage these days were noticeable, without being used like copy-paper. Well done.

City of Stairs is set at an interesting, clever point in Bulikov's history. It has fallen as the sacred city, conquered by the very people they had conquered for centuries. Their gods, the architects of the city and much much more, are killed by the Kaj, and any records or history of the gods are kept from their would-be devotees.

Not that I believe you can actually do that (cultural memory is stored in individuals as well as on paper), BUT, after the murder of an ambassador, the granddaughter of the Kaj is sent to Bulikov to solve the case. The deeper she digs, the clearer it becomes that not all the gods were destroyed, as the new empire was led to believe.

All that was great. And the gods and their sub-deities are all very distinct, robust, and intriguing. What didn't work for me were the main characters: Shara, the Kaj's descendant, now working as some kind of field agent, her partner Sigrud, and Vohannes, one of the leaders of Bulikov's elite and a person of increasing interest. Shara is mousy but intelligent: interesting on its own, but not suited to "field-agent" work. Sigrud does all that. He's interesting, but the platonic chemistry between them doesn't really work because it's not offered in enough depth. There's plenty of backstory on the non-platonic chemistry between Shara and Vohannes, but what Bennett ends up doing is villainizing Vohannes by his behavior, even though it is clear he's not meant to be. I'm all for people needing to figure out who they are, but not at the expense of other people, and certainly not without remorse. Which is essentially how Vohannes is described. So when Shara falls back into a familiarity with him, it seems entirely misplaced.

Unlike my usual gripe, where the characters pull me through a bare-bones world, I kept anticipating the turns in the plot, and had to actively ignore the inauthentic behaviors of the story's heroes. And the sequel just sounds like a repeat of this story, focusing on one of the secondary characters I didn't care a whit for in the first place. The plot was wrapped up so tidily, I have no imperative to read any further in the series. Bummer.

K Rating: 3.5/5
**New Author Goal: 19**

Saturday, September 30, 2017

More Dumas, Please! Traitor's Blade

Alexandre Dumas is one of my favorite authors of all time. His three (actually, four) musketeers are a treasure to me, so I was pleased to find a new action-packed series inspired by Dumas' fearless characters, with a bit of fantasy thrown into the mix.

I read Traitor's Blade as quickly as Falcio (the D'Artagnan of the story) runs headlong into trouble, and then away from it again to save the life of a young orphaned girl, fighting to keep the entitlements of her noble birth.

The story of Falcio and his two friends is recounted in a nonlinear way, as current circumstances are paralleled with the recent past. We get just enough of the world's history to understand that the King's Men (the Greatcoats), have been disgraced by the death of their king, and that the world belongs to cruel Dukes who rule like tyrants. I came to understand perfectly the dream of justice and valor at the birth of the Greatcoats, and how that dream lives on in Falcio's heart despite the fallen state of his office and that of his fellow Greatcoats. The coats, by the way, the actual coats? What a nice touch, imbuing them with intelligent design and suggestively magical properties.

The introduction of magic into this kind of swashbuckling felt really fresh and I thoroughly enjoyed it; my only complaint is that I could have used more of it. In some places, the use and purpose of such magics was kept secret from the characters, and thus the readers, and I think maybe that was too much. I would have liked more insight into this side of the world. And the religion, too. We get lots of saints' names, which I found a very interesting use of the French Christian history, but grounding that kind of a system would have made it feel more complex and compelling, rather than just a unique way of swearing.

This was a terrifically fun read, but I did notice that it was unbalanced. It was clear without being stated in the bio that the author is a fight choreographer (among other things), because each encounter is marked out with precision. I appreciated that, but it took up so much space in the book, that in many ways the plot could be boiled down to running from one fight to the next. The best parts of the book where the instances of insight into the political machinations of the world, but, remember, I am an avid Dumas fan, and nobody outdoes the master in political intrigue. Nobody. The villains in Traitor's Blade were vile, to be sure, but almost stereotypically so. I craved for more depth on this front, more conniving, more deceptions, alliances, twists and turns. I felt a little bit of Lady de Winter, but not quite enough of her here. And no Richelieu-that is to say, no serious mastermind. Just transparently cruel Dukes doing transparently cruel things. That transparency, bred out of their entitlement and their laziness, robbed the story of an intriguing impulse, and sense of suspense.

I will definitely seek out the next book in the series, but with the sincere hope that de Castell will take away more than just the violence and fun from Dumas; that he will aspire to reach an almost unattainable layer of depth.

K Rating: 4/5
**New Author Goal: 18**

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Some of the funniest frickin' cinema I've ever seen- if you haven't seen this 1973 version, you must.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Tepid Beauty - The Last Unicorn

Though I grew up loving unicorns, I'd never read Peter Beagle's classic The Last Unicorn before. Having returned to fantasy featuring a beloved creature after so long, I was disappointed.

Don't get me wrong-the language was beautiful, and many times, even more than that: it was magical. There were other times, however, more than I care to mention, where the attempt at lyrical writing got in the way of the story. Not every single thing in the plot needs to be described in some poetic, mythical, or allegorical fashion. At times, when what was happening to the characters was unclear, the language was a frustrating obstacle to the plot.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Perhaps, in its day, The Last Unicorn was supremely influential, and became the inspirational bedrock for all the unicorn stories yet to tell. But the book didn't strike me as timeless. By that, I mean that I didn't appreciate it as a groundbreaking work because the plot was just so simple and straightforward, sometimes downright plodding, where the unicorn seeks out other unicorns, suspecting she is the last, and teams up with a magician and an old woman young at heart. The unicorn then transforms into a human and falls in love while saving the unicorn population from a wicked curse and a sinister king.

All that might sound very exciting, but the narrative moved along with no sense of urgency, and no real sense of danger. It's a very short book, and took me quite a while to read for its slimness. I've read 300+ pages a day with books that sucked me in. This was slightly less that 200, and it took me over a week.

Ah, well. They can't all be Into the Land of the Unicorns, now can they?

K Rating: 2/5
**New Author Goal: 17**

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Solid Stephen - It

Image result for red balloon transparent backgroundThough It was never my favorite Stephen King movie (that's reserved for Pet Sematary), and I didn't read the book (liked The Shining best), I do love my Tim Curry, and loved his Pennywise. Thinking, "who could possibly top that?" I almost passed over this new iteration of It. I never cared much for clown tropes anyways. But then I found out who was playing the new Pennywise-one of my new favorite actors, Bill Skarsgaard. I've been watching his amazing performance in Netflix's Hemlock Grove, and just knew I had to see what he could do to scare a bunch of kids into floating.

He did not disappoint. His Pennywise is his own, and it's quite scary. What I liked so much about this movie was that, as full as it was with "jump scares," they all served a very real purpose. Most of the time, those kinds of cheap thrills are for the audience's benefit only. That's not how the most horrific scenes in this movie are framed. It's the way that Pennywise scares the kids, isolating them and taunting them before spiriting them away-so you feel a connection to those characters. They felt entirely authentic and organic to the storytelling. It was so good that, even when I was scared, I was grinning like an idiot at how awesome Skarsgaard was.

I enjoyed the darker places that this version of the movie went to, pulling more from King's original text, which I appreciated. The history of the town's curse was really exciting as well. The woodcut-style colonial sketch with Pennywise peering out was especially good, and I won't be at all surprised to see some form of that on my walls one day soon. I'd love to see that story element developed further in the sequel to this film, where a very grown-up group of kids must rehash this nightmare.

K Rating: 5/5

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Lesson in Time Management - Twin Peaks

Image result for twin peaks 2017I've waited for the frenzy to die down a bit, allowing myself to digest Showtime's revival of David Lynch's cult show Twin Peaks. I've come to the conclusion that it was very much like the original show, in that there were certain things I couldn't get enough of, and other things I could have done without. Furthermore, that this sort of imbalance, which is frustrating because of how strongly the "good" segments resonate, is part of Lynch's style.

The great parts of this show were really great-I clung to every word during the FBI segments, and waited with baited breath for Dougie Jones to wake up, and realize himself as Agent Dale Cooper, the poor bloke who's been trapped in the red room for twenty-five years.  The segments taking place inside Twin Peaks were great as well-I especially loved Hawk's conversations with the log lady, and the seriousness of those scenes, despite their bizarre content. It made their dialogue feel immediate and urgent, despite its cryptic nature.  The same was true of the Garland Briggs narrative. You were never 100% sure what was going on, but you got more and more clues along the way. The special effects in alternative universes, swirling sky vortexes, and the lost time at Jack Rabbit's Palace were so out there, and yet so menacing and disturbing at the same time.Those scenes are the ones that satisfied the most.

On the lighter, humorous side, I loved the Horne brothers. They were endearingly hilarious, as were the Mitchum brothers.

Bringing everything we saw this time back around to Laura Palmer was a master stroke. But the problem was we didn't get any sort of revelation or closure as to the nature of Laura and the larger significance of her murder, or Cooper's quest to rescue her.  Not even a Lynchian conclusion.

For me, that comes down to a genius who has too many ideas in his head to see them all to fruition. There was an inordinate amount of time spent on things that ultimately didn't matter. Audrey Horne, for example. And her and (evil Cooper's?) son. And Norma's diner. The worst offender was Jacoby's "shovel out of the shit" radio program. While I fully appreciate that these things populate the world Lynch has built and give it some of its flavor, there were many episodes that felt slow as sin because too much time was being spent with them, to the detriment of the things that keep me absolutely riveted. The end result was a big fat question mark for Laura Palmer and Dale Cooper, and an only marginally satisfying reunion of Cooper with the Twin Peaks Sheriff Station.

Lynch's "take it or leave it" approach to his art is his prerogative as an artist, true. But, Lynch does not exist in a bubble. He has editors, producers, distributors, and an audience that have allowed his creation to come into being at all. So I don't think it's unreasonable for a show that's so unconventionally good to be somewhat conventional in leaving its viewers satisfied. I'm not saying I need a happy ending, but I need to be satisfied by what I watch, not frustrated by it. So as much as I loved Twin Peaks, there were lots of misses within its greatness, and I feel that Lynch made a major misstep by ending on the note that he did. There is only one solution: more Twin Peaks.

Rating: 4/5

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Seriously, Lynch? Come on!!!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I'm so pleased to announce the schedule for the blog tour of my historical nonfiction book, hosted by Pump Up Your Book!

Author: Kathryn Troy
Publisher: SUNY Press - Summary from their website HERE


Monday, September 4

Tuesday, September 5

Wednesday, September 6


Monday, September 11

Tuesday, September 12

Wednesday, September 13


Monday, September 18

Tuesday, September 19

Wednesday, September 20


Monday, September 25

Wednesday, September 27

Thursday, September 28

Friday, September 29

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dark Fantasy Lite - Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows (Age of Legends Trilogy Book 1) by [Armstrong, Kelley]There's plenty to like in Kelley Armstrong's new Age of Legends Trilogy, starting with Sea of Shadows. A ritual meant to keep vengeful spirits at bay takes place annually in the Forest of the Dead . Twin girls are just old enough to conduct the ritual themselves, but things don't go smoothly-their entire village is wiped out by shadow monsters, and it's up to them to travel to the Imperial City to warn the emperor.

Armstrong did a lot of things right in this fantasy. I'm a sucker for rituals and legends coming to the foreground, and the legendary creatures that represent the main peril of this story were described in great detail. The narrative had darker strains, with great mood in the way the Forest of the Dead was depicted, as well as the devastation wrought on Edgewood, the village that lies just beyond. Characterization was spot on, both for the twins Ashyn and Moria and for the two other survivors, Ronan and Gavril, and the surprise twist at the end will absolutely keep me reading the rest of the series.

The main drawback of this series was the world building itself. The concept is a fine one, and I really appreciated that it had a more Eastern flavor in its underpinnings, but the depth and breadth of the world building were insufficient to match the concept. As I was reading, I could feel the potential for world building to have happened on an epic scale. Its beginnings were there, but in the end the language wasn't hefty enough to bring the world to life as much as it promised. Part of that was the action-oriented pacing of the plot, which focused on fighting monsters. There was nothing wrong with these segments, but they did stop us from feeling the world in all its fullness, and the book in truth could have been twice as long in its description to really draw me in to the universe.

Another thing that detracted was the sometimes too transparent use of culturally specific details. The worst offender was the ritual suicide as a form of defeat. The self-stab and then beheading for honor's sake is just too specific to Japan, and it pulled me out of the world. You want to use that concept? Fine, but make it your own in some way, don't just cut and paste. It was world building at its laziest.

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And lastly, the author seems to have been confused about just what kind of threat she wanted to write about. The things that come out of the forest: are they shadow vapors? vengeful ghosts? shadow-stalkers, which is sort of like the walking dead? That concept was not cohesive. Discovering the source of the disruption is framed with a sense of urgency-figure it out, fix the problem, contain the spirits. But the political intrigue that becomes apparent in the last quarter of the book, while interesting, does not jibe with what we'd been presented with thus far, and does raise questions about the direction of the rest of the series. My vote is for something more spiritual and mysterious, rather than man-manipulated sorcery.

Overall I liked Sea of Shadows, but felt it was playing it a little safe. And for dark fantasy, you never want that. Hopefully the second installment will pick up the slack.

K Rating: 3.5/5
(No more 10s: too many numbers to keep track of)
**New Author Goal: 16 out of 30**

#15 was another I put down after about 75 pages: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. I really wanted to like that book, but the writing was just atrocious, and little stupidities kept me from being engaged. Medieval Carcassone had suburbs? Really????

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Extreme Gothic: The Cure for Wellness

Very few films can claim to have it all. This one does. The Cure for Wellness (2016) has heady doses of Gothicism, body horror, psychological terror, and a disturbingly believable modern aesthetic.

New York financial analyst Lockhart is sent by his employers to fetch the boss, who's seemingly gone off the deep end while taking in the waters at a shi-shi  spa/clinic/resort/asylum set in the Swiss Alps. Then there's the old, "I'm not a patient" routine, and things devolve from there.

This movie has a lot of things going on, but they all work together in a surprisingly deft way that is simultaneously horrifying and refreshing. To summarize:

This is a solidly gothic film. The entire beginning of the plot is structured like Dracula-a young man at a firm sent to get the senior exec who's lost his marbles. He's staying up at the mountain, where the old castle has been converted to a luxe retreat for high-powered magnates suffering from society's ills. There is a sharp divide between the castle staff and the dwellers below-a legend of an incestuous, sadistic baron destroyed by fire, and rumors of crazy experiments keeping people away in the past and the present. There's the mysterious grounds keeper, who is not carrying water, as he claims, down to the subterranean bowels of the castle. There are secrets: hidden identities, relationships, motivations.

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I'd be totally relaxed by this, wouldn't you?
It's also the best asylum-based horror scenario I've ever seen. I'm normally intrigued by such settings, but end up rolling my eyes at trite, tropish storytelling. Not here. The hydrotherapies offered at the castle were well-developed and thought out, and the water theme gave everything a sense of robust detail and cohesion. Nevermind that there's something in the water, and the clientele are slowly withering away like Egyptian mummies. Aside from the gothic layers, there are layers of mad science that, combined with the other elements of the film, turn the plot into more of a labyrinth. There are layers and sublayers, and then there are sublayers. Then's there's the sideways surrealism of such scenes where Lockhart gets lost in the steam rooms, made all the more special by the kinds of truly bizarre touches that earned the director, Gore Verbinski, kudos for his version of The Ring.

Jason Isaacs (the head doctor) wears an excellent mask of serenity as Lockhart's horror deepens, and the layers of deceit, exertions of power, and questions of sanity are just thin enough to be perfect. Normally, when one goes the way of cerebral terror, they refrain from body horror: the visceral, "oh my god I'm gonna be sick this is so cool" element. I've never seen the two work together so well, and this is mainly a praise of the careful plotting. Wrap both of those in a simultaneously gothic and modern sensibility, and this is the result: it borders on genius. This is a near perfect film, and my only regret is not seeing it sooner. The trailer did it absolutely no justice. But don't be fooled. This film is incredible, and should not be missed.

K Rating: 10/10

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Vision in Crimson only 99C! Get it Now on Amazon!

As I work towards completing Book 3 of my Frostbite Series, there's no time like the present to fall in love with new worlds filled with dark magic, sizzling passion, and vampires. Pick up your copy of A Vision in Crimson from Amazon today!

Katelyn knows her magic is risky, but Icaryan light is fading fast and she is desperate. Returning to Earth, she crosses paths with Luca, a vampire hybrid living on the outskirts of humanity. Passion sparks their weary hearts. The rogue hunter follows Kately into a world teeming with wonder and danger, forsaking his own quest to root out his father.

But his father has not forgotten him.

A Vision in Crimson is the first installment of a new epic fantasy blistering with romance and Gothicism.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Dry Telling- The Unquiet Bones

I'm trying to bone up on my historical fiction. I was never much of a fan when reading history day-in and day-out was a necessity, but now that I am free of those fetters I can enjoy the creativity that can flow from such beginnings. I wouldn't have become a historian in the first place if I wasn't interested by the past.

But only certain bits of history intrigue me: the weird, strange, dark, or unnatural. Unidentified bones and multiple murders in Medieval England certainly qualifies. The story of The Unquiet Bones was clearly presented, perhaps too clearly most of the time. That might be the Law and Order enthusiast talking, but I was usually a few steps ahead of the plot, and wished for more complexity. At times. Most of the time, the mystery and its investigation were finely done.

What this story really lacked was a sense of flavor. It was very straight-forward and matter-of-fact in its telling, focusing on the same kinds of details-what is eaten, how cold Master Hugh's feet are- as he travels back and forth to seek out the killers. I wanted more ambience, more local, cultural robustness to round out this story and give it mood. Looking back now, I think I may have given too short shrift to Oliver Potzch's The Hangman's Daughter (see my review here). The plot may have been slow in some places, but wasn't always, and it had local character in spades, with fully developed characters that you were drawn to love and/or hate.

In contrast, Lord Gilbert seems very empty. His dialogue was usually just a mimicking of what Master Hugh had already said, which undermined both of them as distinct or unique in character and voice. It is hard to say whether I will pick up the next in the series, especially when there are so many other things to read. It's a shame that the cover art is so fascinating.

K Rating: 6/10
**New Author Goal: 14 out of 30**

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oh. My. God. Castlevania!!

Rarely have I seen a more fulfilling adaptation of a thing I have loved so much for so long. Netlix's new anime of the Castlevania  series was a fantastic four episodes. My only complaint is that the first season was short. So short, in fact, that you barely get to see the inside of Dracula's castle, which is a huge deal. But that really is the only bad thing I can think to say, that I wanted more, and wished Netflix had had the guts to test the waters with a full season. They learned pretty quick though, and renewed the show almost immediately. Smart.

Here's my take on the highlights of Castlevania:

Dracula: Maybe this should go without saying, but still. They made him sympathetic, providing the burning of his wife as the motivation for the curse he lays upon Targoviste. At the same time, he is every bit as bad-ass as the punishingly difficult final boss that every player expects from Castlevania. My personal favorite was the pillar of fire.

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Additionally, I liked that, in lieu of Dracula being irreparably, inexcusably evil, we have a very sinister view of the religious authority in the town, the one responsible for burning Mrs. Dracula. When he gets his comeuppance, it's both well-deserved and well-scripted. *MWAH!*

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"I'm Trevor fucking Belmont."

The humor
: Despite the awesomely despicable gore (loved that whipped-out eyeball), there was a thread of grim humor throughout, which really added something to the dialogue, and the overall feel of the show. The material is definitely being taken seriously, but the dark humor feels authentic and genuine to the kind of apocalyptic scenario that Trevor Belmont and the people of Targoviste have thrust upon them.

The catacombs: Though we only got to see a small portion of Dracula's castle, the setup for it was really well executed. A small visual moment lets you know exactly when it's happened (the light bulbs indicative of Dracula's technology). But it was presented as a subterranean sector of the town itself, which in reality was a demonstration of just how far Dracula's reach over the town extends. Clever.

Can't wait for more. Gimme more. I need more!

K Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Straight-up Creepy: The Resident

I never hesitate to watch anything produced by Hammer Studios. The Resident (2011) was no different, and my interest was piqued by the presence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TWD's Negan) and the Hammer idol Christopher Lee himself.

The Resident is about a recently separated doctor (Hillary Swank, my least favorite person) who moves into a new apartment, and is never quite alone there. Creepiness ensues, and interest turns into obsession, turns into violent mania. That's about all I can say without giving away more.

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The film was fine, but it certainly wasn't Hammer's finest. The depravity of the voyeurism and the brutality accompanied by it were spot on, and the production values were spot on (especial kudos go out to the lighting department), but the plot was so straightforward it was disappointing. I really hoped for more psychological bends and twists, and wished the identity of the perpetrator had been kept from me. At least a little misdirection was wanted, and with it this film would have earned its place.

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The man needed more to do you
underuse a talent like his????
There were plenty of choices as to who could be harassing the unsuspecting doctor-the new landlord, (we all know Negan is very capable of being a creepy mother-fucker), his old grandfather (he's been the scariest man/monster who's ever lived), or the philandering boyfriend who she stupidly lets back into her life. But I wasn't left guessing, not even for a little bit, about who the villain of the film was. And that really took away from it, for no discernible reason. They even pulled a weird directorial stunt of rewinding scenes not even of a quarter of the way through the movie to hit me over the head with the resolution of what I thought was the plot. Then everything was laid bare, and there was nothing left for me to do but sit back and watch the grossness unfurl. I would have much preferred being kept in the dark, finding out along with the dear doctor just what the hell is wrong with her apartment, and why she can't seem to wake up in the morning.

K Rating: 6/10

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mixed Signals: Standard Gothic Meets Paranoiac in The Widow's House

In my quest for new authors, it seems more common than not that the writers, and their stories, have great potential, but lack something in execution. The same is true of my recent read, The Widow's House. The back cover touted a terrifying gothic story set in the perpetually haunted Hudson Valley.

The "gothic" segments of the book were the hardest to swallow. For one, the protagonist Clare doesn't take her haunted situation very seriously. She states rather plainly what she saw, dismissing those supernatural instances out of hand before there's time to create any kind of atmosphere, mood, or sense of terror within the character. Automatically then, I can't be made to care much about these things either.

Second, the characters of the book (all old-school traditional (read really pretentious) writers seem to be bashing the very genre their author is writing in. That certainly didn't endear me to the book or its characters, but aside from that, it was contradictory to the plot. If Clare's husband, Jess, the "famous" (actually one moderate book ten years ago) writer balks at dilapidated houses and the stories bred by them, why is he so eager to move in to one, claiming inspiration? The only one writing a decent story in that house is Clare, based on a local Apple Blossom Queen. That was an interesting quirk, but unraveling the who's who of the story was convoluted, and not in an "AHA!" kind of way.

The plot didn't build in tension, mainly because every possible chance at a real gothic story was brushed aside, and was largely tropish. The concepts were good, but tropish. And I didn't really care about the growing distance between Clare and Jess. It wasn't exciting, or unpredictable, and again, it didn't endear me to Clare, who puts up with someone painted as lazy, self-centered, abusive, and potentially philanderous.

The last quarter of the book is the best part, but mainly because it is almost an entire shift in the book itself. Not just in the plot, but also in the kind of book you're reading. We went from a semi-haunted I don't-care-about-this story to a psychological thriller, which was exciting for the last few pages, but wasn't fully developed. The breadcrumbs that should have been there throughout really weren't. When Clare starts to question her reality, or when you start to question her reliability as a narrator, that is the author's best accomplishment in this book. But again, to see that kind of consistency in tension and telling throughout the book, rather than a sleepy novel that had a great ending, would have been immensely preferable.

This is what comes of dabbling: trying to write in a genre that you only half-heartedly, at best, seem to respect or even understand. When you look down your nose at the thing you're hoping to draw readers with, the result is usually half-assed. It's a mathematical certainty. GARBAGE IN= GARBAGE OUT.

I've said this many times before, but it is usually true. If you think this story is for you, watch Paranoiac instead. Or  Strait-Jacket.

K Rating: 5/10
**New Author Goal: 13 out of 30**

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Lesson in Character: A Darker Shade of Magic

Four Londons: all distinct, with some parallels, bound by magic. One closed off from the others, whose horrors begin to creep back into the rest.

It's a great premise, which is of course why I picked up A Darker Shade of Magic. The plot itself: the invasion of hungry, murderous, black magic into the remaining realms: one on the brink of destruction, one prosperous, and our plain ol' regular London, felt fresh and new. The concept of how the worlds interacted with each other (which is to say very little), the description of different magical systems, (especially Black London's magic), all that was very good. But overall, the book was only "meh." For one glaring reason: the characterization sucked.

The two main characters, Kell and Delilah, are painfully shallow and contradictory. Kell is one of two remaining blood magicians, capable of traveling between worlds. For someone who wields unspeakable power, over blood and the elements, Kell is constantly on the run in this book. He was weak at every turn, waiting to be rescued by the female, presumably just for the sake of having the stronger character be female. Which in this universe, made not a lick of sense, since she's been living in Grey London (our London, where magic is forgotten). You wanna have her discover some powers she couldn't possibly have? Fine by me, but her snarkiness rubbed me entirely the wrong way. She came off as pig-headed rather than brave, which I didn't appreciate. Her biggest contradiction is that she thinks of herself as a pirate. She seems to have no seafaring background whatsoever, and of course no realistic conception of pirate as privateer - something the author would do well to demonstrate she understands. Additionally, her desire to do that, in addition to cross-dressing, and the use of a top hat are anachronistic. Tri-cornered hat is more like it, if she dreams of being a pirate.

It peeved me, these little details about how the worlds are built-essentially, that there wasn't a great attention paid to details. The concept of how the worlds interact is not enough-each one of those worlds felt empty, and I had to do a lot of the work in terms of imagining the places where the characters traveled, filling in gaps that the text didn't provide. And the secondary characters are worse-off than the mains: they get so little page-time, that they're barely established, let alone made complex and capable of growth. Which is a problem, because those are the people whom the mains care about. But I can't empathize with them about stock figures.

Then again, I'd like to see something substantial happen in this universe: not just plotwise, because that this book semi-accomplished, if in a somewhat rushed way, but the first book in this series left off suggesting that their escapades would be episodic, rather than part of a larger arc of depth and growth. Which is frustrating. I want to like this series. If I can just get some characters I can care about, I'll be fine.

K Rating: 5/10

**New Author Goal: 12 out of 30**