Monday

A Taste For Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby



London, circa 1888.  A would-be nurse disfigured by phosphorus.  A dude with a head so big he would snap his neck by lying down.  An infamous killer and the ghosts of his victims.  Welcome to Matthew Kirby's 19th century.  I was today years old when I realized this is the most aptly-named book I’ve met lately; a person with a taste for monsters of any sort, spectral or alarmingly human or just misunderstood, is the ideal reader here.

Our heroine Evelyn is homeless after losing her job in a match factory.  A match that will strike anywhere was deemed worthy of a few missing jaws, and she is gobsmacked (pun intended) with a rowdy case of phossy-jaw (phosphorus jaw).  The doctor was able to save part of her jawbone and some teeth, so she feels lucky.  The simple fact that *that* is considered lucky should tell you where this is going. Just go with me when I say the condition is horrifying and it’s unlikely she would be able to chew gum or stop scaring small children anytime soon.  I of course Googled the term and promptly lost my appetite for several hours, but if you feel the need, go for it. 

She wears a shawl draped over part of her face and wants to find somewhere to hide away so she can stop feeling like nightmare fuel.  After scraping by on the streets for some time, she’s off to London Hospital to apply for a nursing job.  With no credentials and a face that only a butterknife would love, it’s no surprise she is turned down.  What is surprising is the job she is offered – attendant to a special reclusive patient.  This is generally when people say “uhhhh, no” but the jawless can’t be chewers – I mean choosers, sorry - and Evelyn accepted.  Her patient? Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man. I presumed the matron’s idea was that they will either accept each other as equally disturbing and be cool with the arrangement, or they will feel even worse together and perhaps form a suicide pact.  Either way, he finally has someone willing to come attend to him all day and she has a hiding place.

As you might expect, Evelyn sees this dude in various states of undress and goes off her feed for a while, but eventually the two become good friends.  Just as things are getting about as normal as you can get in this situation, strange apparitions start popping up every night and scaring the living trunk off Joseph.  Given that it’s the late summer and early fall of 1888 in London, it’s not hard to put two and two together in an alley with a uterus and see Jack the Ripper’s handiwork.  But why are the ghosts throwing themselves at a shut-in who can’t even get around town? He recruits Evelyn to help put the spirits to rest.

The reason I liked this book – despite some nauseating descriptive bits – is that it does not just twirl around advising readers “look beyond physical form because scary people are cool” with nothing substantial underneath.  That’s good advice but it’s not exactly protein for a reader who loves historical fiction with ghosts and mysteries.

A note:  I confess I’m a big fan of Ripper-related fiction and I loved that he was part of the story without turning it into a gore-fest.  If you need the whole story to turn around him, give this a pass and try Mike Resnick’s Redchapel.  If you’re cool with him being a large piece of the kidney pie but not the whole pan, A Taste for Monsters should do the trick.




Saturday

The Last Thing I Told You by Emily Arsenault


Full disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.  What I wish I'd also received was a better pay-off for a story with a lot of promise.  Generally, I like novels about therapists and psychologists. The variety of patient stories, the struggle for their own stability, and the chance of great surprise when it turns out they are much scarier than anything you’d hear in their sessions.  Not everybody can be Hannibal, but there’s always that chance that the plaid suit and the kitchen utensils will come out by the tenth session. I got hooked into this particular story with the promise of a mystery and an unraveling patient-doctor relationship.

The book opens in the office of Mark Fabian, therapist for years and corpse for hours.  His head is bashed in, his patient notes are sketchy, and oh, by the way, his closest friends report him as having memory problems recently, so good luck with those notes again. The chapters alternate between narrators Henry, a local cop who gained fame from a retirement home shooting a few years previously, and Nadine, a former patient of Fabian’s.  I’m still getting my head around a shooter in a frigging *retirement home.* Not that it’s too farfetched these days, but what the what?
Betty White would have taken his punk ass out in a second.
Nadine’s story alternates between the present and 1997, when she was in therapy after a violent incident at school – with all this backstory, you expect her underlying psychosis to be something shocking.  She even writes that perversion is in her blood (cue dramatic music).  I don’t know if the author planned something bigger to explain the build-up to the outburst and then gave up or we’re actually supposed to be shocked by something that turns out to be terribly garden-variety.

Henry’s side of things covers his involvement in the shooting (he took down a shooter and is now a local hero who just wants people to stop calling him that) and his attempt to piece together how Fabian (I kept reading that as ‘Fabio’) wound up dead.  Oh, and his kids are getting warped by fairytales with iron shoes and decapitations.  I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a cautionary bit about your kids winding up in therapy or a suggestion for scary stuff hidden in children’s fiction. Either way, now I want to read ‘The Red Shoes.’

Honestly, this book felt like such a tangled mess that I can barely write this review.  It started out so readable and then just seemed to drag into wet noodles. Other crimes in the area are mentioned, but written in an almost throw-away fashion, even though they are suddenly a big deal for the ending.  There’s no startling reveal of some long-buried secret to explain Nadine’s violence.  There’s no startling reveal that Henry is someone interesting.  Fabian’s murder has one of the most beige explanations I’ve ever read.

"Yes, I know, but I'm trying to look Scottish or something."
If a book starts out crap and then ends the same way, that’s bad. This whole bait-and-switch thing seems even worse, because now you’ve had a chance to get excited over where things are going. Surely this will not end in you slapping yourself awake at nine p.m. and throwing the book into the library donation bag.  Just because I was almost asleep doesn’t mean I take the whole bait-and-switch thing lying down. I won’t be looking for anything else by this author.  Now if someone will introduce me to a nice novel involving a suit and fork…

Wednesday

Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass







You know you look great. Great. Painfully stunning. Then the person waiting for you looks up and their face says you are the last thing they want to see and possibly you also have half a biscuit stuck in your teeth.

It sucks to see disappointment, fear (unless you are trying to scare someone) or disgust (maybe you picked that nose on purpose, who knows) on a face, but it's still information to help us process the situation.

We need people's faces - nonverbal communication typically counting for more than half of the information exchanged in our conversations to give us clues.  Now imagine a society where everyone just has a series of learned configurations to represent everything they are feeling or thinking.  It's somewhere between this at birth:


or maybe these guys later, depending on your financial state because learning new expressions actually costs money.


   In A Face Like Glass, we meet Neverfell, a preteen orphan with a past she can't remember, who is growing up in Caverna, a sprawling underground civilisation that was created after horrible things devastated the cities on the surface.  Many generations later, the inhabitants still don't believe it is safe to leave so they party/drudge/court eyesight problems and asthma in their city below.  It's a very hierarchical scene with drudges doing all the dirty work, tradesmen making delicacies just to keep their ruler The Steward from getting bored and nobility playing mind games.

   Of course there's a statement about injustice and entitlement, but the part of the book that just kept fascinating me and creeping me right the hell out was the facial thing. Caverna infants come out "blank as eggs" and are taught a few expressions during their time in massive crèches. Lower-class babies are taught about what you'd expect for a servant (i.e., automaton who can't complain), usually amounting to only 3 or 4 expressions.  No matter if they are sick, dying, furious, joyful or what; they can only make the "I'm eager to serve" or "I understand your need to punish me" or "I'm happy that I sleep on rocks" faces. Upper-class kids are given more and can buy lessons from Facesmiths ("Face 57, the Willow Bows Before the Gale" is an actual thing) as they get older.

   The unique Neverfell has a 'face like glass,' in that it allows you to see through to whatever she is thinking or feeling. No Facesmiths required, lots of suspicions raised. Of course this makes her very special and very upsetting to the status quo.  When she gets caught up in a rich girl's scheme, Neverfell starts seeing things she can't unsee and finding out more about who she is - and why it's so important that nobody rocks The Steward's boat.

   Her story was frustrating at times but that actually worked to make it more believable. Of course someone's going to get busted half a dozen times when they have no Face 372, Dawn Breaking Over Ohio or whatever to cover up their intentions. Hardinge does a good job of building a world that is sprawling and vivid - it startled me all over again when someone's carriage was hoisted from cave to cave or people fed the lamps hanging over everything. I felt like I was right there (and then remembered I was also claustrophobic.  Maybe don't read this in a small, enclosed space.)

   Usually I refuse to recommend post-apocalyptic stories but this was so far post and the scenario was so strange that I just have to tell people to read it. Also there's no teen romance, vampires or boarding schools, so if you're inundated with all three, this is a nice break.  Hope you enjoy the book, try Hardinge's other work or, at the very least, feel relieved that all those cringeworthy selfie faces didn't have to be paid for.






Friday

Burntown: Can't see a clear story or likeable characters for all this smoke

I really wanted to like this book. I didn't even stop to read the summary, just said "ooh, the new Jennifer McMahon!" and marked it 'want to read.' Her books usually have characters I care about, plot twists I don't see coming and clear narrative. This book seems to have been written by someone else, because it has none of those things.

Narration is a jumble of viewpoints including a boy who witnessed his mother's murder, a homeless girl who lost her house and half her family in a flood, a drug-dealing closeted lesbian teen, a morbidly obese lady who pretends to be a fat lady in a circus and a private detective who features in the fat lady's mental circus as the strong man. Got all that? The jumping around was dizzying and the main character - the girl from the flood – seems as flat as the others. I thought I was misunderstanding who the protagonist was. In the end, I think nobody was. Things happened around them and to them, but none of them seemed to really push the story along.

The book begins with a young boy witnessing his mother's murder by a man in a chicken mask.

(Might be frigging terrifying but still makes me think Chik-fil-a got a little too vindictive about bad reviews.)

Murder evidence is found and the killer is caught...until the same chicken-masked man (I hate typing that) reappears several years later in pursuit of the now-grown boy's own children. What follows is the meandering story of the man’s daughter, now four years older and surviving on the streets by sticking flaming cotton balls in her mouth for money and candy.
I really wish I was making that up.
Actually, I wish nobody had made it up. Homeless people get a bad enough rep.

Did I mention there's also a device that lets you speak to the dead using a radio? That particular bit gets tossed in and you'd think that this supernatural aspect would be threaded through the storyline. NOPE. Even the character who's supposed to be dead-set on retrieving the radio's blueprints doesn't really seem to care - it's like the villains who want to take over Gotham but don't notice they need to actually kill Batman instead of hoping he doesn’t foil their plans. Ugh.

The twists were sort of lazy squiggles and for the first time reading this author’s work, I figured out the surprises before the reveals. Characters reacted in totally unrealistic ways to incredibly stressful and dangerous situations. The ending seemed simplified to the point of juvenile and rushed. Burntown was a burn-out.

Thursday

The Witches of Eastwick or How I Learned to Hate John Updike


Movies tend to screw up books.  It happens so often you can say "oh, I saw the movie" to anyone recommending a book and they will automatically go into zombie-groan-eyeball-rolling despair.  However, I saw the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick years ago (it was released back in '87) and it grew into a thing of beauty compared to the tripe from which it sprang.  It still had some scenes that made me turn green and the casting made no sense - with the exception of Jack Nicholson - but the story was far less of a clusterfoque.  *I would like to clarify that this book and movie are in no way connected to the book and tv show The Witches of East End.*


In the book, we meet three witches living in a small town and screwing everybody.  No kidding, those are the two things you are told straight off and then repeatedly about these women.  It was the late 60s and that whole sexual freedom thing was rampant. One of them even boffed the other one's husband but nobody cared. We're also told one of the husbands was transformed into a table mat, another is hanging like dried flowers in a basement and the third turned to powder and is shelved in an urn.  Somehow the women are also involved with this Unitarian church, one of them is nailing the pastor and all of them became extremely powerful sorceresses upon moving to the town, though that's never really explained.  Makes me want to stay the hell out of Rhode Island, because who wants a third nipple? Wait, did I tell you all three women had an extra nipple? yeah, there's that.

Enter a scruffy sleazeball who sets up an unseen lab in a crumbling mansion and installs a teak wood spa room with a retractable roof where he can have orgies and share his greasy loins with women who are inexplicably drawn to him.  All three witches go from scorn to hot-tubbing in a blink.  At one point, one of the witches actually kisses his ass.  There's a visual.

To sum up, we've got some longstanding criterion for your average American witch:  the presence of a third nipple (aka a "witch's teat"), inversion of religious phrases to perform pagan rituals and blind devotion to a devil character to whom she shows allegiance by kissing his backside.  We've got what I'd call serious misogyny with a dash of "look how well I know witchy shit" e.g,  "I made it rain so I could walk my dog on the beach! Watch out for piles!"  What we don't have are characters that make you care about how they turn out, explanations for their sudden mastery of the craft and roles for any strong women who aren't just relying on smooching devil tupkes.  If you think Mad Men just wasn't tough enough on those crybaby girls who shouldn't be in an office anyway, this book might be for you.  For the rest of us, there are plenty of others that won't give you the urge to vacuum in high heels...for example, Alice Hoffman's The Probable Future, those East End chicks I mentioned, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, or Erik Setiawan's Of Bees and Mist.