Friday, March 25, 2011

American Vampire, Volume One

American Vampire Vol. 1
Scott Snyder and Stephen King, authors
Rafael Albuquereque, illustrator
Hardcover: 200 pages
Publisher: Vertigo (October 5, 2010)
Mature Audience
5/5 stars

I wish there was some way to convince those who raise their eyebrows and wrinkle their nose in distaste over graphic novels to just give them a try. I was one of those, and am so thankful I was a big enough fan of Neil Gaiman's novels to give his Sandman series a try. I've read some really good ones--few, if any, better than Britten and Brülightly--and some pretty poor quality ones as well.  I'm happy to say that American Vampire is creme de la graphic novel creme.

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There are two stories, told simultaneously in American Vampire.  The first, Snyder's part of the novel, is the story of Pearl trying to make her way in Hollywood during the 1920's.  Pearl falls victim to a vampire attack and a strange man vampire, Skinner Sweet, helps her out.  Sort of.  Pearl seeks revenge, thanks to Sweet's gift, and the reader watches her go from lovely, gentle flapper one moment to disgustingly grotesque and violent the next--and cheers for her the whole way. 

The story that begins with the second chapter is written by Stephen King, and is Skinner Sweet's back story, taking place some forty years early in the Wild West.  Through it, the reader finds out how and why Sweet became a vampire, and what is motivating him--and what makes an American Vampire different from the European vampires. As is to be expected, a hard new country like the United States creates a hard new kind of vampire.  In addition, he writes an excellent introduction, validating the graphic novel as a medium.  A very good read for those not convinced that it is a legitimate literary medium.

The stories are told alternating, first a chapter about Pearl, then a chapter about Sweet, so that they finish up together in the last two chapters.  It may sound awkward, but the back-and-forth flow was actually excellent, with a certain amount of parallels between the two stories.  Both Snyder and King write a good story, with solid characters, riveting plot lines and some terrifying instances.

Albuquereque brings it all to life with his drawings, full of bold lines and brilliant colors and lots of scary bits and gore.  His vampires are frightening and horrible and they do unspeakable (but not undrawable) things to their victims.  As the reader takes in the background, and sees the horror of the scenes, at times it's enough to turn the stomach.  On the other hand, his ladies are very lovely, he drew some strong heroes and used some very effective, unusual angles and compositions.  As for Skinner Sweet. . . well, darn it, despite King's introduction all about how American Vampire reclaims the evil vampire from the sexy mold it's been placed in of late, Albuquereque draws Sweet as rather desirable. Even seeing Sweet at his worst, I could turn the page and see him turn on the charm and forget just how evil he really was--and then be whammed again by his horrible actions.  I think that was the artist's intent: another way to show just how dangerous these American vampires are.

The collaboration between these three was wonderful and produced a story both haunting and satisfying.  American Vampire does reclaim the vampire from it's present fictional state, and successfully gives it new blood with this new American breed. I look forward to following Sweet's further adventures in American history, with pleasant trepidation because I expect the story will be creepy and icky but sensational, just like this volume.  (I already have Volume Two on pre-order!)

~~Read for the Graphics Novel Challenge.~~

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Juniper Berry

Juniper Berry
M. P. Kozlowsky
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (April 26, 2011)
Amazon Vine ARC reviewed.
4/5 stars

Subtitled "a tale of terror and temptation", Juniper Berry is a modern day fairy tale.  Our heroine is the brave preteen, Juniper Berry.  Juniper is the daughter of film actors, who have become very famous over the course of the past few years.  The more famous they have become, the more odd they have acted and the more they have distanced themselves from her.  She is sad and lonely and would willingly give up everything to have her old life back.

One day she spots a boy about her age, trespassing in her woods.  Over the course of conversation with her new friend, she discovers that his parents, too, are famous and distant.  Even worse: Giles has seen them doing something very odd in Juniper's woods.

Piecing together the unthinkable, Juniper and Giles set out to save their parents from whatever influence is causing this behavior.  What they discover changes them both, and Juniper faces tough choices, terrible temptation, but comes through a true fairy tale heroine.

Juniper Berry  is told from an omniscient narrator and occasionally uses words that I feel are probably not in the vocabulary of a 9-12 year old.  This happens early in the book, though, and the narration evens out as the story builds.  It has a good pace, and the story unfolds smoothly.  The characters of Juniper and Giles are particularly appealing, making their weaknesses seem all the more vulnerable and believable.   Juniper's parents are truly horrible, and the reader is able to feel Juniper's mix of hurt and confusion, making the redemption of said parents even sweeter.

Like most fairy tales, Juniper Berry has a moral, and it is spelled out very plainly at the end by the wood chopper (yes, there IS a wood chopper, told you this is a fairy tale!), Dmitri:
"There will always be temptation, wherever we go in life, with whatever we do.  There will always be an easier way out.  But there's nothing to gain from that.  We have to overcome such urges; we have to be stronger.  I fought hard and won."
While the moral of this story is a good one, it came across a bit preachy to me.  I felt like this moral of resisting temptation and winning as a result was obvious from Juniper's actions and didn't need to be spelled out.  However, I am not one of the targeted age-group; I am an adult reader.

This was Kozlowsky's first novel, and overall he did well.  There are a few things (namely vocabulary and blatant moralizing) that I think could be improved, and I expect will be improved with his next publication.  I hope he is published again soon, and would look forward to reading another of his fairy tales.

~~Read for the "fairy tale" category of the Once Upon a Time Challenge~~
I felt that Juniper Berry was a solid choice for the fairy tale category, as it contained many of the traditional elements of a fairy tale.  There is an unusually brave and selfless heroine, elements of the supernatural, an animal that can communicate with people and an unspeakably evil villain.  The ending is a happy one, with a universal moral.

It does differ from many of standard fairy tales, as it is set in modern day, and there is no magic for our heroine to use, not everyone involved does live happily ever after, and there is no under privileged person gaining what s/he deserves as a result. 

In addition, Juniper Berry feels like a fairy tale.  It's not obvious at first, but once the action starts happening, one realizes that this is a layered fairy tale, that there will be a moral, that it's not just a fantasy.  I think it's the temptation element that does it.  It seems to me that many fairy tale heroes have to resist a temptation that seems really great on the outside, but will ruin them if they take it.

Yes, on the whole, Juniper Berry follows the fairy tale template more so than not, and quite successfully so, to my mind.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge V: Finished

I'm excited to participate in this challenge again.  I did so a few years ago, when I was book blogging on another blog, and found it a lot of fun.  Carl gives many choices of participation level, from no specific reading requirement to watching movie versions.  It makes it a challenge that everyone who loves fantasy, fables, and myths can participate in and have fun.

I'm choosing "Quest the Second" as my participation level:
Read at least one book from each of the four categories. In this quest you will be reading 4 books total: one fantasy, one folklore, one fairy tale, and one mythology. This proves to be one of the more difficult quests each year merely because of the need to classify each read and determine which books fit into which category. I am not a stickler, fear not, but I am endlessly fascinated watching how folks work to find books for each category.

I might read or watch the requirement for "Quest the Third", if I feel so inclined come June:
Fulfill the requirements for Quest the First or Quest the Second AND top it off with a June reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream OR a viewing of one of the many theatrical versions of the play. Love the story, love the films, love the idea of that magical night of the year and so this is my chance to promote the enjoyment of this farcical love story.

 Even if you have no desire to participate in a challenge, you really should go by Stainless Steel Droppings and see the fantastic artwork being used for this challenge, and check out his reviews.  I've gotten many a good book suggestion from this blog!

Challenge Progress: Completed
  • Fairy Tale: Juniper Berry by M. P. Kozlowsky; read 22 March 2011.  (review)
  • Fantasy: Lover Unleashed by J. R. Ward; read 31 March 2011
  • Folk Lore: American Vampire: Volume One, Scott Snyder and Stephen King, authors; Rafael Albuquereque, illustrator; read 25 March 2011. (review)
  • Mythology: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood; read 25 June 2011. (review)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekly Geeks: Ten Things About Books and Me

This week's Weekly Geeks:
The idea is simple. Tell us ten things about you with regard to books and reading. Let your imagination run wild!
1. I taught myself to read at age 3.  Mom wasn't sure at first if I was reading or just had the book memorized but was relived to have a moment to read by herself instead of having to read to me.

2. When other kids were outside playing, I was holed up in my room reading.  When Mom forced me to go outside, I took a book with me and climbed a tree and read til I got stiff, hungry or fell out of the tree.

3. My first job (volunteer, then paying) was in our local library.  It was, and still is, my dream job.  It took me a bit longer than it should have to shelve the books, though, as I tended to flip through them as I was putting them up, just in case I might want to read it too.

4. In high school, when kids were experimenting with all kinds of illicit practices, I was carrying around a volume of the Complete Shakespeare for pleasure reading.

5. I'm still learning that when people see me reading and say, "hey, whatcha reading?" they don't really want to know if it requires a twenty minute dissertation on Victorian authors or various genres.   

6.  I never go anywhere without a book or my Kindle.  If I find myself stuck, I'll pull up an eBook on the eReader on my cell phone.

7.  Yes, I have a Kindle and am not ashamed.  I also buy regularly from the used bookstore, never pass any bookstore without a purchase, am an Amazon regular customer and weekly library patron.

8.  I generally have two, if not three, books going at the same time.  Always one fiction and one nonfiction and often another fiction on the Kindle.  At this time, I am reading one nonfiction ARC, one fiction from the library, one graphic novel, one fiction on the Kindle and two nonfiction on my Kindle for PC.  No, I never get them mixed up.

9.  My favorite genre is Victorian Sensationalism, followed by urban fantasy, which I've been reading since before it was called "urban fantasy".

10.  While I won't finish a book that doesn't hold my interest (life is way too short to waste on a mediocre book), I will reread a favorite book time and again (life is way too short not to read for pleasure).

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
Chris Crutcher
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (March 18, 2003)
5/5 stars

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by high school senior, Eric Calhoune.  Back in grade school, he and Sarah Byrnes became best friends because they were both outcasts: she had suffered disfiguring burns on her face and hands, and he was the fattest kid in school.  They banded together and, thanks mainly to the caustic wit of Sarah Byrnes, were able to survive all the bullying.  (Yes, she is always called Sarah Byrnes, at her own demand; she became tired of all those who thought they were so witty making jokes about her appearance and her name and to cut it off before they had a chance, demanded everyone call her by both names at all times.)

The summer before they started high school, the swim coach discovered Eric and drafted him for the swim team.  Eric promised his best friend that nothing would come between them, not even if he lost weight swimming.  He was so terrified that Sarah Byrnes would think he was leaving her behind, that their partnership of uglies would be over, that his first year of swimming, he ate twice as much as ever so he could stay fat for her, even while swimming.  Finally Sarah Byrnes called him on it and as a result, by his senior year he's no longer fat.

Then comes the day that Sarah Byrnes doesn't get out of her desk when the bell rings.  Finally, men have to come and carry her to an ambulance and take her to the children's mental ward and that is really when Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes begins.  Eric feels like his life is in limbo without Sarah Byrnes, but as he begins to get to the bottom of her problem, he finds so much more than he bargained for.

Though it may not sound like it from this synopses, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a riveting, moving novel.  These characters are living and breathing people and their decisions and emotions become all absorbing during reading.  The plot takes various twists and turns, but nearly always in a realistic way, with believable consequences.  Though it is often funny, this is is no light read.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes brings up such issues as bullying, abuse, abortion, teen sex, religion, the ethics in a friendship, and teen suicide.  Were I a parent, I would want to read it first, to be sure if my young teen could handle the seriousness of parts of this book.

For an older "young adult", though, or for an adult, I recommend this book unhesitatingly.  It is the kind of thought provoking book that will consume you while reading, and for days afterward, and I walked away from it glad I had read it.  No, more than that, I walked away BETTER for having read it.

~~Read for "size" category of the What's in a Name Challenge.~~

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Pat McGreal: author
Stephen John Phillips; Rebecca Guay; Jose Villarrubia: artists
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Vertigo (October 1, 1999)
4/5 stars

On the most basic level, Veils is a story of a Victorian British gentlewoman coming to the Orient with her husband.  Once there, she is invited to meet the ladies of the local Sultan's harem.  Through this experience, she learns new truths about herself, her husband, even her basic beliefs.

There is also a story-within-a-story in Veils.  While Vivian is visiting the harem, she is told the story of another European lady, and her adventure in a harem.  This tale is told in a style quite different from Vivian's story, and gives an added dimension to the novel as a whole.

On a deeper level, this is a story about veils, both literal and figurative, and the positive and negative impact of the various veils that are worn throughout life.  It is very thought provoking to look back at the story, after reading, and find the many instances of veils, and to think about veils in one's own life.

Veils is a novel told in both traditional graphic art style (drawn) and with photographs and computer graphics.  The traditional art is simply stunning, done in a dreamy style with soft colors, with frames shaped into designs that fit the harem style so beautifully.

Vivian's story is told in actual photographs, with CG backgrounds.  While original (and for 1998, most certainly so), this is the weak link of the novel.  The composition of the photos is fantastic, the models do a wonderful job of showing emotions, and the use of shading and effects is well done.  But the photos are so new and crisp, that they fail to convey the feeling of the Victorian age.  They feel fake and therefore appear what they are--photo ops of models in Victorian era clothing--rather than looking like scenes from a Victorian adventure.  Each frame is jarring, reminding the reader that this is not really happening, and absolute immersion in the story is impossible.

Except for that flaw, Veils is an interesting story with strong social and gender issues, and the reader is left with much food for thought.

Note: this novel does contain images of marital and consensual sex and discussion of same sex relationships.

~~Read for the Graphic Novel Challenge.~~

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert, author
Lydia Davis, translator
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (September 23, 2010)
Originally published, in French, in 1857
5/5 stars

I read Madame Bovary twenty years ago and was thoroughly unimpressed.  I passed it off as one of those "classics" that everyone reads, for some reason, but no one really enjoys.  Then, in October I heard a review of Davis' newly published translation, and how she endeavored to keep to Flaubert's deliberate and precise style.  I was fascinated.  I had never considered that the reason I didn't like the novel, was due to the translation.

I read Davis' translation with a copy of a previous translation at hand, making comparisons.  I was amazed at what a difference just a word could make, how it could change the whole feeling of the sentence.  Thanks to Davis, I was able to immerse myself in Flaubert's painstaking, detailed writing and come away in awe of his ability to turn a phrase.

The plot of Madame Bovary is familiar to many: Emma is a spoiled, vain young woman who spends too much time with her head in novels and, as a result, expects--no demands!--that life, romance especially, be like it is in her books.  After her marriage, she becomes depressed that there is no "grand passion", and this leads to restlessness and eventually to affairs.  Her husband, Charles, is blind to Emma's dissatisfaction, flaws and infidelity; he worships her very belongings.  Emma takes advantage of Charles' love-blindness in a variety of ways, including running up a debt so severe that it bankrupts him.

In the midst of all this drama, Flaubert has the reader stand back, just slightly emotionally detached.  One can't feel fully compassionate for Charles, because Flaubert shows him as a buffoon and sometimes as an idiot.  One can't sympathize with Emma, because Flaubert delights in holding her vices up to the light.  He also interjects bits of every day life from the townspeople, as another way to keep the reader from being overly focused on the crises of the Bovarys, and he paints all the working class with a brush laden with boorishness, and the upper class as heavy handed snobs.  It's hard not to feel superior to many of these characters, and I believe that was Flaubert's intention--to keep the reader from forming an attachment to any character and thereby keeping the book from being a "moral tale".  There is no moral here, it simply is.

It's rare to say that a book with a disagreeable plot is fantastic, but if the writer is good enough no matter what the subject (think Nabokov and his Lolita), the reader will be swept away by the sheer force of the words.  This is the case with Flaubert and Madame Bovary--thanks to Davis' excellent translation.

If you've ever tried to read it and failed, or wanted to read it and just haven't, now is the time.  Other translators did an injustice to Flaubert. Lydia Davis has redeemed this masterpiece for the English language.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard
Alan Bradley
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (February 8, 2011)
4/5 stars

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third in Bradley's series about the precocious Flavia de Luce, a pre-teen chemistry savant growing up in a small English village in the 1950's.  Flavia is an engaging character, and she charmed me immediately when I read her first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The novels are told from Flavia's point of view, and her voice is at once amusing and real.  Her appeal has not diminished in this third novel, and it is pure reading pleasure to see what mischief she will create.

In A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia finds yet another dead body and sets off to solve the mystery before her frenemies from the police can.  As is usual with Flavia, she withholds evidence, generally gets in the way and succeeds in a spectacular manner.

The tension between Flavia and her sisters heats up considerably in this novel.  Not having siblings myself, I don't know if it's typical to be quite as brutal in pranks and revenge as the de Luce sisters are.  It is funny at times, but also very sad as these girls react in various ways to growing older without their mother.  Flavia's relationship with her father begins to subtly change, a very welcome development, and makes for some beautiful moments.

I did have two qualms about A Red Herring Without Mustard.  First, was the location of a certain bit of the theft.  (I think I can safely say that without spoiling any of the plot.)  It was difficult for me to believe that anyone would choose a location with such a high chance of being seen, where one so obviously did not belong.  For me, this weakened the plot a bit, but there was enough strengths that I could overlook it relatively easily.

My second concern is the number of dead bodies that Flavia keeps finding.  If she finds one a book, it won't be long before the entire village is dead.  And if, as has been the case, Bradley keeps bringing in characters from out of town to kill, the series will quickly loose both it's appeal and it's validity.  The similarity between A Red Herring Without Mustard and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, for instance, is rather great (Flavia befriends a stranger from out of town and solves a new character's murder) on the surface. One wonders if perhaps Flavia might not need to take a vacation from corpses and turn to general crime instead?

Overall, A Red Herring Without Mustard is a charming, "cozy" mystery that invokes the feeling of different time and place in such a way as to make me want to visit.  Flavia is an endearing heroine and, despite my mild complaints, I look forward to reading her adventures and following her as she grows up and matures.

Note: This is the third in the series and to get full enjoyment from it, the series should be read in order.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Three by Ella D'arcy

Ella D'Arcy
Ella D'Arcy (1856?-1939) is little known today, which is a shame as her prose is well-penned and thought provoking.  Unlike the more popular writers of the Victorian era, D'Arcy wrote with an abundance of realism and very little melodrama.  Her descriptions are beautiful as well as realistic, her characters flawed and believable, and her plots fluid and interesting.  There is little or no sensationalism, spiritualism or  mystery in her stories, just human drama or character studies that rarely conclude with a "happy" ending.  That D'Arcy produced only three volumes of fiction is a shame; she was a highly talented writer.

originally published 1895
4/5 stars

Monochromes is a set of six stories, too lengthy to be called short but not quite long enough to be novellas (novellettes?), and is D'Arcy's first published volume.  It also contains her only two "happy ending" stories.  On the whole, this set is well written and excellent, but not quite as good as her second volume of short fiction (Modern Instances), as some of the stories are more emotional and typically Victorian than her style is when it matures.

1. "The Elegie"  4/5 stars
This is well told story, though a bit dramatic, and creates a very vivid image of a young, spoiled man intent on getting his own way regardless of the consequences.  His pride and vanity is both repugnant and yet so believable as to make the reader slightly sorry for him--for after all, it could be anyone slipping into such a mess.  "The Elegie" is a well done character study with a conclusion that is sad and unforeseen.

2. Irremediable 5/5 stars
I first read this one in the story collection, Victorian Short Stories of Troubled Marriages and it was this story that caused me to want to read more by D'Arcy.

"Every affront or grievance, real or imaginary, since the day she and Willoughby had first met, she poured forth with a fluency due to frequent repetition, for, with the exception of today's added injuries, Willoughby had heard the whole litany many times before."

This is a well written story from beginning to end. D'Arcy describes her characters and their emotions effortlessly and intimately. The plot is gripping and emotional. The reader watches as Willoughby makes the mistake that will cost him his happiness, an inappropriate marriage, but D'Arcy's writing keeps the reader still hopeful til the last heart wrenching sentence.

3. Poor Cousin Louis 5/5 stars
This story is nearly a horror story, not because of any gore, violence or supernatural drama, but because the uncertainty of the outcome creates such tension.  D'Arcy creates such sympathy for the title character, Louis, and then leaves to it to the reader to imagine what will happen to him after the last sentence.  It was a truly terrible story, all the more so because it was so well written as to be a truly magnificent one.

4. The Pleasure Pilgrim 4/5 stars
This story might owe it's conception to James' novella Daisy Miller.  The plots are similar in that they both contain a flirtatious American girl on foreign soil, who finds that her attitude backfires for her.  With D'Arcy, the story is not so much a focus on social attitudes and manners (though it does contain that element) as it is about truth and deception and how does one know the truth.  D'Arcy writes a rather shocking tale (especially for the time) that ends tragically and with the reader, and the hero, still uncertain as to what was true and what was not.

5. White Magic 3/5 stars 
This short story is an odd tail about an Island girl (D'Arcy lived on the Channel Islands for some time) and how the English pharmacist was able to repair her romance through "magic".  At times D'Arcy seems to be deploring the modern girl with no superstitions and at other times she seems to be mocking those females who do have superstitions.  It was hard to see what point she was making in the story, but, as usual, the narrative and descriptions were wonderful.

6. The Expiation of David Scott 5/5 stars
This is a long story, told in several short chapters.  It deals with love, friendship and betrayal in some very unique (for the time) ways.  D'Arcy creates fantastically believable, flawed characters and a wonderfully tangled moral dilemma that keeps the reader worried and guessing until the very last sentence.

The Bishop's Dilemma
originally published 1898
5/5 stars

The Bishop's Dilemma   is D'Arcy's only full-length novel.  I do not know for a fact that she was a Roman Catholic, but can assume so from the sympathetic way she treats the religion in this novel.  As with many Victorian novels, religion is a matter of a fact in this novel, not something to add in or to be apologetic for, and readers should have that in mind when beginning this one. 

The Bishop in question is Bishop Wise, and he is not the main character of this novel, rather he is the initiator of the drama.  He is present in the first and last scenes, starting events that affect the physcial and mental well-being of our protagonist, Father Fayne.

Fayne is a young man born to middle class, but with the grace, looks and attitude of a nobleman.  This has made him unpopular in his two previous posting and the Bishop believes he has found just the perfect placement for him in the small town of Hattering, where Fayne would essentially be the private priest to Lady Welford and her household, and the two other Catholic families in the town.  Fayne's manners and ability make him popular and revered and the choice appears to have been a good one.

Sadly, no one can account for human nature, and painting the weaknesses of human nature is D'Arcy's strength.  It is not long before Fayne's private Paradise becomes Hell on earth and the reader must watch him spiral into depression and misery.  As is usual with D'Arcy, there is no happy ending, just one all too real.  While the conclusion is disappointing for the characters, it, and all of the Bishop's Dilema is an immensely satisfying experience for the reader.

Modern Instances
originally published 1898
5/5 stars

Sadly, as it is D'Arcy finest work, Modern Instances is no longer print and not even available in Public Domain eBooks.  I was able to order it through inter-library loan and borrow a copy from our local university.  This is a magnificent collection of seven novellettes (for lack of a better term) in which D'Arcy's considerable talent is visible in each story, each page, each paragraph.

1. At Twickenham 5/5 stars
This story tells of a man who is unknowingly controlled by his wife and sister-in-law, of the friendship he nearly looses as a result of their schemes.  The characterizations, emotions and reactions are fantastic, very real and believable.  The plot is solid and keeps the reader engaged and curious to the end.

2. A Marriage 5/5 stars
This is a though provoking and heart breaking story of a young man, Catterson, in a very difficult predicament, as seen through the eyes of his casual friend, West.  The story is in three parts, having West narrate three instances over the course of many years in which he saw Catterson and his wife.  D'Arcy tends to paint a glum view of marriage in general, and wives in particular, and this story is the apex of that view.  As depressing as it is, the story is incredibly well written and well worth reading.

3. An Engagement 5/5 stars
This story takes place on "the Islands", and D'Arcy describes the people and landscape excellently.  In contrast to the previous story, "An Engagement" shows the male half of a relationship in poor light.  Dr. Owen is not only vain, he is mercenary in his desire to make a name for himself in the Island society.  He becomes engaged to a young woman, who truly cares about him, thinking she will help his social climbing.  When he discovers she will not, he finds a way to have the engagement broken by her guardian.  The reader has little sympathy for Owen, as it is shown early on that he is having an affair with an Islander of the serving class even while toying with the young lady's affections.  This story has D'Arcy's signature unhappy ending, but despite it all, it is a story that one is glad to have read, because of her considerable writing talent.

4. The Web of Maya  5/5 stars
"The Web of Maya" is another of D'Arcy's Island tales, and in my opinion her finest story.  The emotions of the protagonist, Le Mesurier, his actions and reactions, and his final "intolerable regret" are so well penned.  The shock to Le Mesurier comes as  a shock to the reader as well, and the story is finished with a thought provoking mix of emotions.

5. The Death Mask 3/5 stars
This story is shows the difference that a perception can make, but is a bit lurid and not as well written as her other stories.

6. The Villa Lucienne 5/5 stars
This story is as close to "sensationalism" as D'Arcy got, a ghost story with no real paranormal elements, just human reactions to elements and fears.  It is, as usual, well written and interesting.

7. Sir Julian Garve 5/5 stars
Another study of human nature, how a person thinks and how an unscrupulous person can manipulate another.  It features a gentleman who is not a gentleman in his actions and has a rather shocking ending and quite caught me off guard.

As you can see, I have found Ella D'Arcy to be an excellent writer and highly recommend her short stories, or the novel, if they can be found.  My only disappointment is that she wrote so little.

~~Read for the Victorian Literature Challenge~~

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Ziska; the problem of a wicked soul
Marie Corelli
Marie Corelli
Paperback: 372 pages
Publisher: Nabu Press (September 4, 2010)
originally published 1897
3/5 stars

Marie Corelli was a highly popular writer of sensational novels in the Victorian era.  She combined high melodrama with an attempt to reconcile Christianity with reincarnation, astral project and other spiritual aspects not generally associated with Christianity.  With Ziska, Corelli uses the medium of novel writing as a vehicle for just that crusade.

The plot of Ziska takes place in the British society's "Season" in Cairo.  According to Corelli, t is just the same as the London Season, only with slightly looser morals, giving the greater opportunity to find husbands for daughters past their prime on the marriage market.  The Princess Ziska has appeared on the scene, and taken this tight community by storm.  Nothing is known about her, except that she is unusually beautiful and has stolen the hearts of all the young men, the Scottish laird Denzil Murray in particular.  When Murray's best friend, the famous French painter Armand Gervase, arrives in Cairo, complications arise.  Gervase immediately falls for Ziska, makes no pretense that he (unlike Murray) does not have pure intentions, and feels that he knows her from somewhere.

Murray's mentor and friend, Dr. Maxwell Dean acts as the mouthpiece for Corelli's unconvetional spiritual beliefs, and through him the reader begins to see that there is something not quite human and Ziska and that she and Gervase are somehow destined to be together.

A good portion of this novel is given over to soliloquy in which Corelli expresses her opinion about various things.  The first 21 pages, for example, are a roast of the British tourist in Egypt, and of how said tourist wants to make all foreign lands into another version of England.  It made for amusing reading, but I did begin to wonder if I had stumbled onto a book of essays instead of a novel.

The rest of the book is much taken up with much discussion of reincarnation and of a slightly different take on Christianity. It was interesting the first time, but Corelli has her characters discuss this time and again, and for paragraphs and pages, and by the end, I was skimming large parts of conversations.

The actual storyline was rather thrilling, in the way of a Victorian sensational novel, despite the fact that Dr. Dean spells it out for the reader several times.  Had it not been for his "spoilers" and for the recurring, yawn-inducing philosophizing, this would have been a rather good read.  There was drama and humor and emotion, as well as interesting characters, but there was just way too much laborious, stilted conversations about spiritualism that kept interrupting the flow and made Ziska a struggle to finish.

~~Read for the Victorian Literature Challenge.~~

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brains: A Zombie Memoir

Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker

Since I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead at a drive-in back in the Seventies, I've been fascinated with zombies. I was preparing for The Zombpocalypse when most survivalists were waiting for the Soviets to invade. I have taken in every scrap of shuffler lore that time and finances would permit, and can say with all modesty that I am one of the South's leading experts on dealing with the undead menace.

But even a serious, life-and-death issue can have light moments, and Robin Becker gives us a break with Brains: a Zombie Memoir.

When Professor Jack Barnes is bitten and turned, he is surprised to discover he can still think. His body is rotting to pieces, but the mind continues to tick. In a mirror image of living survivors, he gathers a few other cognitive zeds and sets off to find safety.

Brains isn't particularly funny, but it's fun - fun to see things from the other end of the shotgun. Ms Becker certainly knows Zombies, and most every cliche is dusted off to make a twisted but welcome appearance. This is the kind of novelty that can only be done once, and lightly - Becker resists the obvious temptation to make a lengthy, serious statement-about-something-or-other. She treats her subject with all the respect it deserves.

Get it. Read it. Enjoy it... but don't let the fear that there might be something thinking in there let you hesitate when it's time to whack a zed. The only good zombie is a dead zombie!

Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games

Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games 
Joe Hill, author
Gabriel Rodriguez, illustrator
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: IDW Publishing (September 29, 2009)
5/5 stars

The story of Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games follows the Locke children from volume one (Welcome to Lovecraft) and picks up right where that volume ended. The youngest, Bode, has found another strange key. The discovery of what the key opens is stranger still. Ty and a reluctant Kinsey include their new friend Zach in on this discovery, never realizing that doing so is creating more danger for them, their family, and the residents of Lovecraft. The volume ends with some questions answered and more questions posed--and with the reader eager to read the next installment.

Hill's storytelling remains fantastic. He continues to tell back story and currently story simultaneously with no glitches. The Locke children are well rounded characters with believable reactions and emotions. Supporting characters, such as Ellie and Rufus, are fleshed out well and become important to the reader. The fiendish enemy is so full of personality that he puzzles and charms the reader, just as he does to the Locke family. Head Games is a much less gruesome tale, more fantasy than horror, than the previous one, and reads just as quickly and smoothly.

Rodriguez contributes immensely to the flow of the narrative, as well as telling much of the story with the art. The placement of panels, the focus of certain elements in the panels, and the color and style of the art in general is often original and always perfect for the story. His ability to display human emotions so effectively is amazing; there is never any question as to what the characters are thinking or feeling.

With Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games , Hill and Rodriguez present another five star collaboration.

~~Read for the Graphic Novels Challenge~~

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

How Shakespeare Changed Everything
Stephen Marche
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Harper (May 10, 2011)
ARC reviewed courtesy of Amazon Vine program.
1/5 stars

I expectedHow Shakespeare Changed Everythingto be a lighthearted look at various ways that Shakespeare's influence can be found in the world today. What I did not expect was a near fanatical, quite serious, series of essays about, well, how Shakespeare changed everything.

The first line of Marche's introduction sets his tone: "William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived."

Well, all right. . .

In his first essay, "the Fortunes of the Moor", Marche gives Shakespeare credit for the election of the first African American President. According to Marche, because Shakespeare wrote Othello, and because Paul Robeson acted the part in the 1940's, the United States has it's first African American President. I am not simplifying his argument. I suppose, for Marche, the entire Civil Rights Movement was unimportant?

In another essay, "Words, Words, Words", he credits Shakespeare with creating more words than any other author--any word not previously recorded prior to Shakespeare's writing it down is, according to Marche, a Shakespeare invention.  Marche seems to forget that Shakespeare was a man of the streets, and what he was writing down was slang.  Did the first journalist (or script writer) to use the word "noob" invent it?  No.  Did Shakespeare invent the words he wrote?  No.  Shakespeare was a writer of popular, low brow entrainment, the equivalent of a sitcom or soap opera writer today.  He was writing for his audience, using their words.  Bravo for Shakespeare for recording so many, but only a history-ignorant hero-worshiper could think that he invented them all.

In "Not Marbles, nor the Gilded Monuments", Marche states "the greater the artist, the more he or she was influenced by Shakespeare".  For blind fanaticism, this is a great line.  For truth about literary greatness, it doesn't even deserve a response.

One of Marche's arguments is that the introduction of Starlings to NYC came from Eugene Schieffelin's attempt to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the United States.  I was fascinated by this, actually giving Marche his due for a way that Shakespeare really did change the world, until I looked it up myself.  While it may be true, there is no factual evidence to prove that the given reason is more than the equivalent of an urban legend.

Marche, with the zeal of a school boy writing his first opinion essay, finds Shakespeare as the source for everything from the sexual revolution to the assassination of Lincoln, to the idea of teenagers to the use of skulls as decoration.  He often proved himself wrong with the few contrary facts he allows into his essays. An easy bit of research will show contrary views and facts for those that don't find his obsessive devotion easy to swallow.

Marche's mediocre writing does nothing to help his case.  Despite being a novelist and regular magazine contributor, his prose in How Shakespeare Changed Everything is juvenile, dull and overtly slanted.

I was unconvinced and thoroughly disappointed.  I had expected a lively, entertaining book and instead found a series of essays that might have been written for a high school English class.

Note: This is my opinion.  It does have a 3.6/5 star rating on Amazon.