Reading the Great Graphic Novels 2015 Noms: spooky scary comics

by Tessa

Read about why I’m reviewing these comics here.

I love horror and I love comics. I love it when a book can visually creep me out. There are a good number of horror-y titles on the list this year. This isn’t all of them, but all of these are supernatural in some way.

afterlifewitharchie

Afterlife with Archie: Escape from Riverdale

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, writer

Francesco Francavilla, illustrator

Archie Comics

Expectation/Anticipation Level: Low. Archie comics aren’t really my bag, but I don’t actively dislike them.

My Reality: I loved this! Francavilla does a more realistic take on Archie and the gang and that somehow makes me take them more seriously as characters. Maybe because I don’t find bulbous hair attractive. Everyone is in deep shadow and the palette is strictly goth. It’s one of those zombie comics where it’s Halloween so the truth takes a bit to sink in, and then it becomes a bit of a claustrophobic survival story (with teen drama), so I’m all over it.

Will Teens Like it?: I bet they totally would. I’d bet at least a dollar.

Is it “great” for teens?: This has the qualities of GGNT greatness: great art, fun story, a bit of depth, something that makes it stand out from its genre or typical audience, and teen appeal.

Art Taste:

Afterlife-With-Archie-4

bad-machinery-v2

bad-machinery-v3

Bad Machinery V.2: The Case of the Good Boy

Bad Machinery V.3: The Case of the Simple Soul.

John Allison, writer & illustrator

Oni Press

Expectation/Anticipation Level: Well, I knew what I was getting into because I’m a regular reader of the webcomics, so… neutral? But wait, high, because I am a fan.

My Reality: Reading these comics collected really brings out how funny and charming they are. One of the best things about Allison’s writing and drawing style is is control over whimsy – it’s always a bit weird and tender instead of being too sweet or, god forbid, wacky. Although the strips are written to be enjoyed thrice a week and thus have punchlines at the end, the story reads as a whole and it is clear that Allison has created these new stories with the collection in mind. The stories always involve creatures or some kind of supernatural occurrence, but with a light touch. The focus is much more on the team of young mystery solvers finding more out about themselves and their town via the mystery than about being terrified or haunted.

Will teens like it?: The books are published in biiiig floppy editions so hopefully teens will pick one up and be sucked in.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think so. I think it’s great for you, too.

Art Taste: If you like this, I highly recommend reading the archives and ongoing comics at Scary Go Round.

shaunashousejohnallison

graveyard-book-1

graveyard-book-2

The Graveyard Book, Volume 1

The Graveyard Book, Volume 2

written by Neil Gaiman

adapted by P. Craig Russell

Kevin Nowlan, Scott Hampton, P. Craig Russell, Galen Showman, David LaFuente, Tony Harris, Jill Thompson & Stephen B. Scott, illustrators

HarperCollins

Expectation/Anticipation Level: Medium. I liked the Coraline adaptation. (In fact, I don’t think I’ve read Coraline proper yet).

My Reality: I thought this was really solid. Most of the artists worked in complementary styles, except for changes during parts of the story where the narrative takes a side journey, and the art style changes to reflect that. (And one artist that makes everyone look weirdly Hobbity). The text adaptation retains Gaiman’s narrator and warm tone, and it still feels like a story that’s been told and retold and fished out of the collective unconscious by Gaiman. A storyteller’s story. So that even though it’s about murder and ghosts and goblins, it’s about life and it feels cosy. The only thing I really don’t like is the cover of the second book. Bod looks posed, and that scene doesn’t happen, and also it’s a bit of a spoiler.

Will Teens Like it?: Teens will be into this, especially if they know it’s by the Coraline guy.

Is it “great” for teens?: I think it’s a very successful adaptation and that makes it great for me.

Art Taste: I particularly liked the chapter openers, as seen here:

graveyard-book-chapter-open

cemeterygirl

Cemetery Girl Book One: The Pretenders.

Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden, writers

Don Kramer and ??? Rudoni, illustrators

InkLit

Expectation/Anticipation Level: Low, though I did read all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. I haven’t had much luck finding good comic books that seem to be made just to trade on the name of an author who got famous writing prose books.

My Reality: It was funny to go from one good comic about a boy who lives in a graveyard to a bad comic about a girl who lives in a graveyard. It really brought out the reasons why Cemetery Girl failed so much. Art? Uninspired and unsure about the proportions of its main character. Some of the backgrounds looked like photos with the comic book filter on them. The story moved sloooowly, and was packed with characters who were one note: evil teenagers, folksy cemetery groundskeeper and neighbor, martyred ghost, etc. Calexa is really on top of waking up with no idea who she is and immediately parkouring around the neighborhood performing B & Es in order to get food and clothes, which makes it seem like she’s street smart and practical, but then she witnesses a murder and is handed proof of the murder that she could easily drop off at the police station or give to the groundskeeper or something and she dithers fully half of the book away not doing that because she’s scared that somehow the people who left her in the cemetery will find out. Not fun, not even easy trashy fun.

Will teens like it?: I’m sure there are teens who would like this; I won’t hold it against them.

Is it “great” for teens?: Nope.

Art Taste: I’m going to post 2 images so you can compare how Calexa’s proportions change from page to page.

lying down, looks normal

lying down, looks normal

cemeterygirl2

Standing up, has lost a couple inches on her legs, also her pants are baggy now.

baltimorev3

Baltimore vol 3: A Passing Stranger and Other Stories.

Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, writers

Ben Stenbeck, illustrator Dave Stewart,colorist

Dark Horse

Expectation/Anticipation Levels: I think the first volume of this comic was on a previous GGNT list on one of my volunteer years, and I remember liking it.

My Reality: How weird that Christopher Golden was involved in Cemetery Girl and Baltimore: A Passing Stranger and I liked the latter and not the former. Charlaine Harris, the onus falls on you. Anyway. This is a nice little collection of short stories set in the alternate historical timeline of the Lord Baltimore universe, where vampires have laid waste to Europe in WWII. Baltimore is chasing the big baddie vampire and he meets some weird things along the way. These aren’t life changing stories, but they are nice little moody treats of the fantastical. Some alternate histories feel like they’re always poking you in the ribs, saying “See what I DID there??!!?!?!?” and this one does not. The way things are going feels appropriate and believable.

Will Teens Like it? Yes, especially if they like The Walking Dead/Game of Thrones

Is it “great” for teens?: It wouldn’t be on my top ten, but I think it’s a decent book. It’s not written FOR teens, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not appropriate and enjoyable for them.

Art Taste:

bdlr1p3

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Gone Home: a chat.

In which Evan and Tessa discuss a new video game that they played together and really liked. (So did other people – it is a 2013 Finalist for Excellence in Narrative from the Independent Games Festival as well as getting an Honorable Mention for Excellence in Audio and Seumas McNally Grand Prize!)

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

screenshot from Varewulf.wordpress.com

Tessa: So, Evan. I learned about Gone Home via a Rookie Mag Saturday Links list in March. I think I talked to you about it, or you noticed that I liked its Facebook entity, or something. Did you hear about it somewhere else, or did you hear about it through me?

Evan: I heard about the game through you mentioning it to me. I remember us talking about a video game to play together while I was playing Bioshock: Infinite and you brought up Gone Home. I don’t really follow video game news or play many games these days so I’m pretty blind when it comes to 99% of new releases. After you mentioned it I watched a trailer and the game started to intrigue. I love adventure games and the idea of interactive stories. As somebody that doesn’t really play video games, what made you interested in Gone Home?

Tessa: It was the whole atmosphere of the game – the 90s riot grrrl bands, an empty house, the sound of rain on the roof and windows. Although I grew up during the riot grrrl phase, I never got to be one (instead, I described myself as a riot nrrrd), so I felt like this could be my chance to play one in a video game.
from Jenny Woolworth's Riot Grrrl Diary

from Jenny Woolworth’s Riot Grrrl Diary

As it turns out, you get to play the sister of someone who becomes part of the scene, so I still didn’t get to fulfill my fantasy. Maybe there will be a game based on Blake Nelson’s Girl in the future. One can hope.

Also, we’d been talking about finding a video game to play together and this one looked like it wouldn’t require so many hand-eye coordination skills. I’m not a huge gamer because I kind of suck at using video game controls. Even when I did play NES during my youth, I would get too into the game and hobble myself with a combination of physical enthusiasm (jumping when my character should jump) and mental terror (what if my character does not make it across that chasm?), so the experience was exciting but terminally frustrating.

So I spend my free time doing things at which I can improve.

What I’m saying is I’m glad you’re into board games.

Is this the time that we declare that this discussion might get spoilery? And do you want to describe your first impressions of the game/the basic plot?

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

the last game system Tessa seriously played, a.k.a. the point at which you can stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers

Evan: Definitely. What makes Gone Home special is the story and it’s pretty impossible to discuss the game meaningfully without discussing what happens in it. Despite my desire for blogging fame I’m going to make an impassioned plea that if you are interested in Gone Home that you should navigate away from this page, log in to Steam, download Gone Home and play it. Then come back here and read.

How to know if this is something for you? If you’re interested in interactive storytelling, video games with rich atmosphere and expertly crafted characters, if you’re interested in exploring a creepy house and looking for the clues to a mystery then you’ll probably dig Gone Home. You will not be killing anything or solving complex puzzles, you will be experiencing a story. Go play it.

With that out of the way, in Gone Home you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21 year old woman returning home from a European trip in 1995. While she was away her family moved to a large mansion outside Seattle. She arrives home on a dark, rainy night to find a note on the front door from her younger sister and nobody home. As Kaitlin you’re trying to find out what happened to your family by exploring the mansion.

I fell in love with this game almost instantly. The set-up is really juicy. The game tosses you into this scenario with almost no background and plays on your lack of knowledge rather effectively. Mechanically the game is really simple. All you can really do is walk around, pick up objects, rotate them, and read various notes and letters left behind. There are lots of details to dig into in the house. It was fun to just go slow and search for a little tidbit of information that would reveal more of the story.

What are your feelings about the very beginning of the game? Did you have any expectations for how the game would play or what it was about beyond the basic premise?

Tessa: I was really into the game from the beginning, too. From the menu, actually, which I found out was done by Emily Carroll, an artist whose work I’d previously admired in comics form (especially in a creepy story in the Explorer: The Mystery Boxes collection). It turns out her wife (Kate Craig) is one of the game designers, so Emily illustrated the start page,along with in-game maps, and the font is based on her handwriting (more info here):

How great is that? The dusky sky lit by some illumination – the setting sun? The one light on in the whole rambling house emerging from the trees, with the door left slightly open – it’s not clear whether in neglect or invitation. The image works against the usual connotations of the word “home”, and then “gone” takes a double meaning. So the atmosphere is apparent immediately.

The game itself opens with Kaitlin seeing her family’s new house for the first time. It’s raining. The enclosed front porch is lit by a lonely lamp, and she has to find the key (our first task as players).

I personally find it difficult to imagine that anyone in the world doesn’t like the idea of exploring a big old empty house, so I was already into it. And then when she finds a Christmas themed duck, and a text box proclaims “Good ol’ Christmas Duck”, I was delighted.  There was humor, familiarity, character, history.

As you can see from the screenshot below, the graphics in Gone Home aren’t trying to fool you into thinking that it’s anything but a video game. It isn’t Final Fantasy-level…rendering? I don’t know what the word is.

Not to say that creating a game didn’t take lots of love and work, but they don’t have to, because the strength is in the story. Your brain attaches to the story that you’re building through exploration and smoothes out the edges of what you’re seeing, so it doesn’t end up mattering. It feels real.

I didn’t have any expectations about how the game would play, but I did somehow expect that it would have a creepy angle.  And there are some moments in there that pander to that expectation – but this isn’t a murder mystery or a tragic story.

As much as I want to play a video game where I explore a haunted house, I’m glad that my expectations weren’t met, and impressed that they were fooled with by the game designers – not just the stories of the parents, which I thought could go in a couple different directions, but the back story of the house’s original owner, especially a blown light bulb in particular.

That story I hope requires some further digging. I’d like more than the hints we have now.

What did you think of the game experience compared to your other video gaming experiences? Do you think it lends itself to more than one play?

Evan: The title screen is super impressive. It feels like the cover to a book, which is appropriate because Gone Home feels like an interactive book. I’m glad you mentioned the Christmas Duck and the textbox joke. There were lots of great little moments like that in the game. I especially liked when you find a condom in your parents bedroom and the text description of it is just “Eww.” I loved all the items you could interact with. I liked finding tapes to put in stereos or playing records that you find. All those little things add to the character of the house.

Good point on the “horror” elements of the game. They are definitely there to subvert the expectations of the player. Gone Home is a game that is boldly about ordinary people. I listened to a great extended interview with one of the game’s creators (Steve Gaynor) on the Qt3 Games Podcast, and he explained that those moments are in the game to help ground it in reality. For example if you find a teenage girl’s ghosthunting journal in a video game the expectation is that at some point of the game you’ll be seeing ghosts, but if you found one in somebody’s house in the real world you would just think it was the result of kids having fun and not assume that the house is haunted.

As you begin to piece together more and more information from exploring the house you begin to realize that your younger sister Sam has met Lonnie, a young woman at her new high school. As the two girls bond and become friends they realize they are in love with each other. The moments that build up to this realization are beautifully detailed. When you find a key piece of information you hear Sam’s voice reading her diary. These were some of the most moving portions of the game. The voice actress playing Sam was great. The V.O. diary filled in big pieces of the story, but there’s a ton of details to be found by looking at items, reading notes, and rifling through drawers. You get to see a lot of items that Sam and Lonnie bonded over: riot grrl cassette tapes, a ticket stub to pulp fiction, SNES game cartridges, VHS recorded episodes of the X-Files. I loved finding all those details. It gave me a real sense of who all of the characters were without even interacting with them once.

I really have to applaud how this game features a real, loving lesbian relationship that wasn’t sensationalized or sophomoric or all about sex. Maybe this is my lack of current videogame playing speaking, but I can’t think of another game that approaches love with this level of maturity and believability. You develop a very strong emotional bond with Sam and her struggles to hide her relationship from her parents, or her struggling to find herself and realize who she is.

Sam is the heart of the the story and is the main character of the game, but there are great story arcs for the parents as well and you get to know them to a great level of detail. You get the sense that real people live in the house and they are just away. Ironically Kaitlin (the character you are controlling) is probably the least developed character in the game. I think that’s an asset of the game because it lets you insert yourself emotionally into the story with a greater ease.

I’ve never played a video game like Gone Home before. Genuinely. I think most games emphasize thrills and intensity over quieter story moments. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but Gone Home feels like a gigantic leap forward in what a video game can do with narrative.

The replayability of the game is an interesting discussion to have. It has been one of games aspects that has drawn some criticism. There’s nothing variable about the game other than the order you find items, so once you find everything in the house it won’t change on subsequent plays. So if you want to come back to Gone Home and have a different experience you probably won’t play the game more than once.. But I could certainly envisions people playing the game again to revisit the story. I think the reason replayability has been so hotly contested is because of the video game medium. People don’t criticize books or movies because they don’t inherently offer different experiences when you revisit them. Yet people do read certain books and watch certain movies more than once. That said there is a lot to discover in the game. I’m positive there are still details we haven’t found yet, so there is a reason to come back until you’re sure you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the house.

What are your thoughts about the story? Were there any specific moments of the game that you found especially moving or fascinating?

Tessa: I like your comments about replayability in games vs. in books or movies. If you’re measuring Gone Home by the standards of an adventuring, quest type game, it will fail. Because it doesn’t belong in the genre. It’s definitely a storytelling experience. But while Gone Home has a rich world, I’m not sure it can be judged yet on the level of things like a book, as far as equating replaying and re-reading.

Sam’s and Lonnie’s relationship isn’t played as a huge twist, and I like that. Gone Home is really mining the theme of discovery and self-discovery. You can see it not just with Sam, but also with the parents, and to a superficial extent with Kaitlin, coming back from time abroad.

And I love the way it plays with the idea of home – not just the house space, but the idea of the people that give us the feeling of being home. Home is a deceptively simple idea, but one that carries different experiences for everyone and can be counted on to hit some emotional chord. I can’t praise the game designers/creators enough for the way they created both a home and an unknown space. As Edgar Albert Guest so colloquially says,

“Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;

Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it”

So I do think the game succeeds in atmosphere and thematic elements, and I believe you when you say it is a giant leap forward in depicting  a realistic first love between two teenage girls. But I’m not sure if it has enough meat in the story to draw me back again once I discovered everything in the game. Sam & Lonnie’s story is sweet, and open-ended. I’d probably end up yearning for more instead of re-enjoying it ,although it might be something that I pulled out from time to time to revisit the environment, though, or to play with a new person.

I also hope its success paves the way for more games like this.

 

 

Matter & Antimatter, Before & After, Charm & Strange

A Review of Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

by REBECCA, August 14, 2013

I am in love with Charm & Strange, Stephanie Kuehn’s mysterious and slim debut novel that is both strange and charming.

The blurb: Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself. He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost. He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable. Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present. Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.

Charm & Strange alternates between the present, when Win is at boarding school, and the past, when he and his brother go stay with their cousins one summer. When the book opens, there has been a mysterious death in the woods surrounding school: a body has been found, attacked by a wild animal. This is the setup for the psychological battle that Win is facing: he is convinced that he is a werewolf who hasn’t yet been able to turn. Maybe. Or has he? Is this a werewolf story, an unreliable narrator, a misconception? All of the above? None of the above? Well, obviously, I’m not telling.

Kuehn (who is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology) masterfully uses this animal attack as a way for Win to discuss his conviction about his feral nature, and it’s all done with such subtle menace that I was sold in the first two pages:

“The headmaster is firm. There’s something out there, he tells us while we’re all crammed shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh in the dark shadows of the school’s creaking chapel. A bear. A cougar. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. No one knows. . . .

The platitudes and clichés spill from his mouth in rapid succession like the lame script of some poorly programmed android. I listen but learn nothing new. I do know the cops are in the woods again this morning. I know because I watched them trudge out there, real early, with their cadaver dogs and everything. But today’s forecast calls for rain, and this will wash away the evidence, I guess. That’s too bad. I’d like the truth to be known as much as the next person.

More, really.” (22-3)

Charm & Strange by Stephanie KuehnI will say very little about the plot of Charm & Strange because it would be a damn shame to give anything away. Kuehn’s writing is gorgeous and her presentation of Win’s internal landscape heartbreaking. This is a rich, dark book about childhood, about families, about trauma and the ways we deal with them.

The story of the summer Win and his older brother spend with their cousins—the summer that everything changes—is a well-crafted coming of age story shot through with bolts of menace, sowing the seeds of Win’s conviction that he is a werewolf. As the two stories—past and present—play off one another, they build to a climax that might reinvent Win entirely. And though it’s a circumspect story, the stakes have never been higher.

At just over 200 pages, Charm & Strange packs a major punch without ever losing the edge of mystery that makes it recognizable as dealing with memories dredged from childhood and events colored over with the fog of trauma. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

(Also, both the U.S. and the U.K. covers are competing for ultimate gorgeousness!)

readalike authors

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith. In case you haven’t, just don’t waste another minute of your life before you go and read every goddamned thing he’s written. Fans of The Marbury Lens in particular will enjoy Charm & Strange. My review is HERE.

Last Night I Sang To the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Gorgeous, gorgeous prose and an ability to evoke the psychology of his characters that’s at the absolute top of the heap. Fans of Last Night I Sang To the Monster, in particular, will enjoy Charm & Strange. My review is HERE.

procured from: a secret admirer! (thanks, mom!)

Down but not meowt: Claws by Mike and Rachel Grinti

clawsgrinti

Claws

Mike and Rachel Grinti

Scholastic, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Emma Vu

Helena Vu

Mr. & Mrs. Vu

Jack the Magic-less Cat

Hook

One day Emma’s older sister Helena is around and life is happy. Then Helena goes missing, and her family is quickly losing all its money in trying anything to find her – including associating with crags, or magical creatures, a culturally-shunned segment of the population. It isn’t long before Emma takes advantage of her parents’ distracted and stressed out state to accept the help of cats in order to pursue her own investigations.

UK cover!

UK cover!

Worldview

So, unfortunately I haven’t had time lately to read much middle grade fantasy so I’m not even going to try to couch my comments in relation to the field as a whole. I’m just going to tell you why Claws grabbed me.

It’s set in a world where magic is known but not socially accepted, except by excitable teenagers who watch a show called Gnomebots, read Tiger Beat style magazines about the glamorous (literally) lifestyle of fairies, and read dubious information about the magical world on CragWiki. However, most people avoid crags and, therefore, Emma’s first encounters with them are a little scary and not what she expected. The book opens with Emma and her parents moving into a decrepit house next to the big forest that took over a human city some years ago. Crags live near there, but most humans have relocated. Emma’s parents have had no luck with normal policework in finding Helena, her father has lost his business, and he’s ready to try the magical underground for any information on his missing daughter.

Emma finds that her next door neighbors are a boring snake-man who has a lecture for everything and a hag who has had all of her teeth pulled so she won’t eat any more children – doomed to a life of unfulfilled hunger- but that doesn’t stop her from trying to lure Emma into her house.

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

magic cat photo by flickr user SuziJane

Pretty much immediately, Emma finds that a cat has been living in her family’s new house, and he doesn’t intend to stop doing so. Cats are magical creatures and can talk in this world, and this cat, Jack, has done something to get him kicked out of his pride. But he also has a way to transfer the pride’s power to Emma. He wants her to do this, and in return, he’ll help her find Helena.

I loved reading a good fantasy grounded in reality that didn’t exalt magic but still made it exciting, dangerous, and fun. Each crag that Emma meets has his or her own personality, and the crag world, apart from the class tensions between it and humans, has clear tensions between creature groups and within peer groups. The Grintis pack all of this effortlessly into 250 pages. The reader doesn’t have to work to see it happening, but it’s not explained in expository dialogue, either (thank goodness).  The facts that are presented straightforwardly come in quotes from CragWiki at the beginning of every chapter, and serve to deepen the world.

Does this book fulfill its intentions?

Claws hit a sweet spot for me, readingwise. Emma doesn’t hesitate very long before accepting Jack’s deal. I could easily see the book veering off in a much different alternate-future direction, where it spends the first book with Emma hemming and hawing about her decision, in order to stretch out and become a trilogy.  Instead Emma goes for it. In a sense she has nothing much to lose – her friends at school have turned against her now that she lives in an undesirable area, and she’s lonely all the time – she misses her sister and her parents are fully preoccupied and brokenhearted for the same reason. But I feel like she also decides to accept Jack’s offer of the Pride Heart because it’s exciting. I’d be willing to bet that most 12 year olds have an innate sense of their own impending destiny – who among us wouldn’t have accepted the chance to assume the source of power for a pride of magical cats? (Cat-allergic peeps aside.)

My cat is obviously magic.

My cat is obviously magic.

Once her decision is made, Emma is set up for a crash course in Adventure and Split Second Decisions, and after a few false starts it seems she’s well-suited for it. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, but I will say that the end set-piece, which takes place in a faery-run high rise in the human downtown, is a particularly well-done example of the ways in which the faerie can be simultaneously attractive and deeply, primally scary. It involves something called eye-puppets.

In addition, Claws was refreshing because it provided intrigue and a personal-growth story with real emotion and imagination, and, because of its target market, had none of the love triangle or sexy urban werewolvery that has become so tiresome to me, even secondhand from reading reviews. I could read it and wholeheartedly enjoy it in the moment as a grown lady, and also think about how much I would have loved it as a younger person.

Disclosure/Digressions

– I met Rachel Grinti at a local conference where I was co-presenting something and she gave me a copy of Claws for free cuz she’s nice. I’m so glad that she did.

-Emma’s parents are Vietnamese-American and when she’s feeling tired of her new family life as The Girl With the Missing Sister and worn down by her new cat magic responsibilities she reminisces about the better times when her family would make homecooked meals. I think it’s safe to say that this is the only book I’ve read that could make me want to eat banana pudding.

Readalikes, as far as imaginative worldbuilding goes.

KieselWarTeachersKids

The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids by Stanley Kiesel

The world of this book isn’t strictly magical, it’s just weird and surreal and things matter of factly happen that you as a reader know are totally crazy but you don’t care because it has hooked you with its very weirdness. A girl eats a janitor and it blew my mind that that could even happen in a book.

how-to-ditch-your-fairy

How to Ditch Your Fairy  by Justine Larbalestier

The fairies in this book are very much fairies and not faeirie as in Claws, but Larbalestier brings the reader into her sort of complicated world–where everyone has an invisible fairy that bestows specific luck or powers onto their human, and it’s luck of the draw whether you get a good one or a useless one, or just a really annoying one–with ease.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: Deviant

A Review of Deviant by Helen FitzGerald

Soho Teen, 2013

Deviant by Helen Fitzgerald

by REBECCA, June 10, 2013

Abigail Thom has been living in foster homes and dodging trouble in Glasgow nearly her whole life. When her mother dies, leaving Abigail a mysterious letter, a wad of cash, and a plane ticket to L.A. to go see a father and sister she never knew existed, Abigail thinks that a ticket out of Glasgow may be the only good thing her mother ever did for her. GlasgowWhen she arrives in L.A., though, Abigail quickly realizes that things are more complicated than she could have imagined. In addition to trying to find her place in a new country and a new family, Abigail soon realizes that her new-found sister is has discovered something—something people are willing to kill to keep secret. And now Abigail is right in the middle of it.

L.A.When we first meet Abigail, all she wants is to get the hell out of Glasgow. She’s organized, smart, savvy, and has perfected her “robot mode” over the years—a detached affect that accompanies all stressful or emotional situations. When she gets news that her mother has died, all she really feels is a slight pang of regret for a life she might have led. She’s grateful for the chance to go to America and start over, and excited to meet Becky, the older sister she never knew she had. Becky is rich, privileged, beautiful, and full of life, and from the moment Abigail meets her she realizes how much she’s longed for someone she can feel a connection to.

This first third-or-so of Deviant reads like a gritty contemporary YA. Abigail is a sympathetic character who combines the appeal of a street-smart badass with the vulnerability of someone who has longed for a family and is, therefore, willing to do almost anything to fit in. Her contrast with Becky is particularly poignant, and Helen FitzGerald does a subtle job of showing moments where Abigail sees who she might have been had she lived her sister’s life.

Deviant by Helen FitzGeraldBut then Becky takes Abigail along with a few of her friends as they graffiti the back of a freeway sign, and Abigail realizes that Becky is part of a group that the L.A. media has called vicious vandals. Their stencil is of a group of zombielike teenagers (on the cover), and each time they do it, they tag it with a letter. Abigail is furious, thinking about the trouble she could get in if they were caught, whereas Becky and her friends have powerful parents who can set things right for them. But . . . something seems a bit off about one of Becky’s friends, and Becky is so secretive about what the letters might mean. Abigail is happy to ignore the weirdness around her, though, because she’s so happy to be getting to know her sister. This second third of Deviant starts the mystery percolating.

Finally (no spoilers), things escalate, and Abigail realizes that what Becky and her friends are pointing to with their graffitied letters is larger than she could have imagined, and has the possibility of harming not only her newfound friends but millions of teenagers around the world. Shit gets serious, y’all, and the final third of the book is action-packed and tightly plotted. It also takes on a science fiction shade, but it’s subtle enough that it could be real, which is awesome.

Deviant is a book that’s doing several things simultaneously, and it’s doing them all well! This is a well-plotted mystery that is actually a mystery. Not that I only like books where I can’t figure out the mystery, but many YA mysteries are bit light on the mystery, if you know what I mean. Deviant, by virtue of beginning with a solid, character-driven family story, backs into its mystery, and it’s the better for it. Details from the first part of the book become important to the mystery later, and though the plot is tight, there is a lot of room for things to be filled in later, or for the reader to imagine. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the first in a series, even though it read like it was winding up for one. The ending is wide open in a way that seems to set up a sequel, but it isn’t unsatisfying as a standalone, either.

I really enjoyed Deviant and, more than anything, it read like an extremely confident novel. Helen FitzGerald doesn’t overdo any one element, be it character, explanation, or prose style. And, bonus, it’s a really wicked class critique. It unfolds quickly and with panache, and I was definitely left wanting more—I’ll let you decide if that’s a strength or a weakness.

procured from: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Deviant, by Helen FitzGerald, will be available tomorrow.

Where A-Words Fear To Tread: The Sweet Dead Life Review & Giveaway

A Review of The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble & a GIVEAWAY

SOHO Teen, 2013

The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble

by REBECCA, May 6, 2013

“I found out two things today: One, I think I’m dying. And two, my brother is a perv” (1). 14-year-old Jenna Samuels’ father left years ago, leaving nothing behind but a note and a gift certificate for a Mexican restaurant, she has been stricken by a mysterious illness, and her mother has turned into a zombie—no, not that kind of zombie. The kind that sleeps all day, has no appetite, and can’t even remember what day it is much less go to work in the morning. Her stoner brother, Casey, had to quit football and get two jobs when their mom started going zombie, and because his stoner friend messed up their car, Casey crashes the car when he drives her to the hospital and dies. Kind of. Because now he’s Jenna’s guardian A-word (she can’t bring herself to say angel), and they have to get to the bottom of all of it.

The Sweet Dead Life is the second Soho Teen book I’ve reviewed in a row, and it couldn’t be more different than Strangeletswhich I reviewed last week. Soho publishes mainly mysteries, so Soho Teen is putting out YA mysteries, and it’s really nice to see that they’re publishing a variety of types. I’ve been really excited lately at the surge of new YA imprints, so I’ve been excited to see what Soho Teen would do. In short, The Sweet Dead Life was a totally charming and fun read. Is the mystery mysterious and hard to solve? No. But it doesn’t really matter. Jenna’s voice is the real joy of The Sweet Dead Life. Plus, did I mention it’s set in Texas?

Joy Preble‘s writing is really funny and well-structured. Everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, but that’s part of the genre here, I think:  it’s equal parts absurdism, mystery, and good old-fashioned coming of age story. The Sweet Dead Life is written as Jenna’s diary entries, so it’s all in c62f2715cae38867_Pulp-Fiction-Uma-Thurmanher voice, which is really funny and feels very spot-on for an insightful 14 year old. The first few chapters are snappy and fun, and the tone of the whole thing is great. There are moments that drag, mostly because the reader has already figured out the mystery, but overall it’s well-paced and Jenna is super-likable. Best of all, as far as I’m concerned: it’s a book about angels that’s a comedy instead of a romance, a change that the subgenre needed like Mia Wallace needed a shot of adrenaline to the heart in Pulp Fiction. Cheers.

procured from: I received an ARC from the publisher at BEA. The Sweet Dead Life by Joy Preble will be available on May 13th.

GIVEAWAY!

But you can win a copy right now! Just fill in your info in the form below and, if you like. I’ll select a winner at random in one week and post the result here. Happy reading! 

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Marie, who has won the copy of Joy Preble’s The Sweet Dead Life. Thanks you everyone who entered!

Six Teens From Around the Globe + One Locked Ward = a New SciFi Mystery

A Review of Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

Soho Teen (2013)

Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon

by REBECCA, May 1, 2013

characters

Sophie: California terminal cancer patient who doesn’t mind dying, she tells us, as she dies … or does she?

Declan: charismatic petty thief from Galway who rips off the wrong people and gets shot … or does he?

Anat: the fierce military trainee from Tel Aviv is risking it all for love … including her life

hook

Sophie, Declan, and Anat would have died at the same moment. Instead, they (and several others) wake up in an unfamiliar deserted hospital. Where are they? Or when? And why them? In order to escape the hospital, and figure out how to get home, they have to work together. But some of them know more than they’re letting on. And some of them are not what they seem.

worldview

The Midnight Club by Christopher PikeFrom the blurb and the first, say, ten per cent of the book, I thought this was going to be a kind of supernatural tale about human experiments with death, or teens delving into the afterlife. You know, a kind of The Midnight Club meets Flatliners. And I was into itThe Midnight Club is like totally my fave Christopher Pike and stuff. Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side. The theme of trying to touch the afterlife is particularly poignant with teens since they’re, like, the opposite of death, so I had high hopes here, and loved the idea of death as a universal fear bringing together teens from all over the world. 

Well, anyway, that’s not really what Strangelets is about. But you should all read The Midnight Club in case you haven’t (since sixth grade).

Still, the first quarter of Strangelets is intriguing. We are introduced to Sophie, Declan, and Anat, each in the moments leading up to their almost-deaths. When they wake in the hospital, they meet Zain, the friendly boy from New Delhi, Yosh, the shy and soft-spoken girl from Kyoto, and Nico, the hale blondie from Switzerland. Together, they have to find a way out, determine where the hell they are, and figure out why the parking lot outside looks like the broken-down cars have sat there long enough to grow moss and amass inches of crud on them.  If they want answers, they’ll have to venture outside. But something is out there, and it’s not just the bears (oh my). There is genuine creepiness here (the creepiest of which I won’t spoil) and atmosphere that has some serious promise.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The first half-ish of Strangelets is a taut, well-paced mystery with sci-fi tendencies and I really enjoyed it. Gagnon doesn’t give too much away and her characters have distinct, recognizable personalities. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but it’s confidently done—more locked-room mystery than dystopia. But oh, holy jesus, the second half reads like someone took a wrecking ball to Jurassic ParkThe Island of Dr. Moreauand a few of the wackier Torchwood episodes, and then Mod Podged it all back together. That isn’t to say that Gagnon won’t attract fans of this mashup; it’s certainly not the dystopian fare many publishers have been rolling out lately.

Strangelets by Michelle GagnonAnd here’s the thing: if Strangelets’ only issues had been the grab-bag nature of its genre choices, I wouldn’t have thought much of it except, oh, ok, not really satisfying to me, but sure. It’s that this (unsatisfactory) science-inflected twist on a dystopia doesn’t mean anything. Where the conceit (no spoilers) might have shown true pathos or raised interesting questions about scientific ethics, or even—even!—taken a shot at saying something about how everything is connected, à la The Butterfly Effect, it would have been more interesting than what it did. Which is nothing. I love a good ole sci-fi romp, believe me, but what makes the best sci-fi delightful is how it expands our notions of the possible (or the impossible!), and how it shows us how deeply that which is most familiar to us resonates with that which is most alien, neither of which Strangelets even approaches. And I’m not going to even dignify the “romance” with a comment.

Equally frustrating was that while Strangelets held out a hope of being one of the very few YA novels—and even fewer sci-fi YA novels—to bring us an international cast of characters, it ended up reinscribing some pretty troubling conservative international and racial politics. Thea over at The Book Smugglers says it well: there is a “potentially worrisome, stigmatic portrayal of the characters of color (Anat, Zain, and Yosh) – one of these characters is the first to die, the other a villain, and the other meets a sad, cruel fate. Meanwhile for the white characters (Sophie, Declan, Nico), one holds the key to understanding everything, and two live happily ever after.” This is made worse for me because our happy couple are the least interesting characters. Sophie is totally boring in every way. Even the grace with which she accepts death after being ill for so long, which, ordinarily, I might find refreshing, smacks of  an annoying kind of Little Eva-esque woe-is-me-she’s-too-good-for-this-cruel-worldiness. And Declan is a pretty predictable collection of generic charisma and obligatory Irishisms. It’s Anat who I was most interested in, and who seemed to be the meatiest character in terms of the potential for a dynamic ending to her story. Alas, it isn’t to be.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book by the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon is available now.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Secrets: Sketchy

A Review of Sketchy (Bea Catcher Chronicles #1) by Olivia Samms

Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2013

Sketchy Olivia Samms

by REBECCA, April 3, 2013

characters

Bea: 3 months sober, and with her sobriety has come the rather disturbing ability to draw what people see

Chris: Bea’s bestie at her new school, he’s sweet and accepts Bea, creepy powers and all

Willa: she was recently raped but won’t pursue charges for fear of having her own secrets exposed

hook

Bea is the oddball new girl in school, an outsider because of her reputation, her style choices, her addiction, and—oh, yeah—her power to draw whatever truths people are thinking. Girls in Ann Arbor are being attacked and the one who survived goes to Bea’s new school. Can Bea use her gift to draw the truth out of Willa? Will anyone believe her even if she can? And why is Bea so hell-bent on solving this case, anyway . . . ?

worldview

Ann ArborOk, so I can’t lie—my primary motivation in reading Sketchy was that it’s set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I grew up! And I’m really glad I did, because it was definitely a fun read. Sketchy finds Bea three months sober and dealing with her newfound gift as she starts Packard High School, a big change from the private, all-girls school she’d attended before rehab.

Since I grew up in A2, I couldn’t help but try and figure out where everything was taking place. It’s mentioned that Bea’s house is on the edge of University of Michigan’s campus, so I thought Packard High must be modelled on Pioneer High School; besides, Pioneer is close to Packard Road. The novel opens, however, with some boys finding Willa’s body when they go to smoke pot at the creek near school, which reminds me so much of Huron River Ratswandering across the street from Huron High School to the river . . . so, you know, I could be wrong. Further suggesting it may be modelled on Huron is that students call Packard High Packrat High, and Huron’s mascot is the River Rat, chosen, for anyone who’s interested, by a landslide write-in vote when Huron first opened. It was a reclamation of the term, originally derogatorily flung at those students who lived near the Huron River but were forced to attend Pioneer High because there wasn’t yet a second high school in town. Or, at least, that’s the story I always heard. I went to Huron, in case you were wondering. (Which is it, Olivia Samms; I need to know!)

Anyhoosier, Sketchy is set in a realist world—except for Bea’s power, of course. For anyone from A2, you’ll recognize landmarks like the Arboretum, North Campus, and frat row. But if you’re not from Ann Arbor, you’ll probably enjoy Sketchy anyway. Olivia Samms manages to get in a bit of the grittiness of addiction while still keeping it realistic in a teenage, college town context. We learn how Bea got into drugs in well-paced flashbacks, and we learn what her connection is to the current spate of girls who are taken, raped, and then killed. Well, killed except for one—Willa, who was left for dead—who crosses Bea’s path at Packard High.

Sketchy Olivia SammsBea is a talented artist (even when she’s not drawing the truth out of people), daughter of two artist parents, and seems like a pretty cool person when she’s sober and not extracting your deepest secrets. She sticks up for Chris when he’s bullied for being gay, and she honestly wants to help catch whoever is hurting people (and is willing to go to great lengths to do so). Sketchy is fast-paced, so we don’t get huge insight into Bea, despite her being our narrator, but I anticipate more of that as the series continues. I don’t mean that she isn’t a fleshed-out character—she is. It’s just that her narrative isn’t really about her; she’s the camera we see through.

The background of Bea’s family was particularly interesting—and it seems pretty clear that it’s something that will come into play more as the series continues. Bea is half black and half Italian, and issues of race come up, if superficially (for example, Bea has always been self-conscious about her hair, the texture of which prompted some of her classmates to call her “Chia Pet” and “Beaver-head” in elementary school). I’m always glad when a character’s race is something that an author attends to intentionally, although the stark terms of Sketchy‘s take on ethnic generalizations made me a tidge uncomfortable at times.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

As a mystery, as I mentioned, Sketchy doesn’t really do it for me—that is, it’s pretty obvious who the attacker is and the whole thing is wrapped up quickly and tidily. But that was ok with me; I enjoyed the ambiance, and I was more interested in learning about Bea’s art and her family dynamic (and her outfits—girlfriend is a thrift store queen!) than the mystery itself. Further supporting the central mystery not really being the strength of the book is that Bea suffers from a case of the I-can-catch-the-killer-myself-no-problems!, often an unpleasant turn in YA mysteries.

Still, though, even with the mystery angle not really holding up (and some very stiff dialogue—I move that we stop pretending anyone refers to each other by name more than once a day, even if it seems like it’ll help keep the dialogue tags clear), I still enjoyed reading Sketchy and am curious to see who Bea “catches” as the series continues. I’m hoping we learn more about Chris, Bea’s bestie at school, who is self-conscious about being a bit of a scaredy-cat, but has made contact with a promising hottie by the end of the book, and about her father’s relationship with art. All in all, despite surface-level resemblances to other YA mysteries where the protag is aided by a special power, Sketchy felt like its own take, and it had just enough grit to keep things interesting.

readalikes

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). This is a great YA mystery, and similarly atmospheric. “When one twin mysteriously disappears, the other immediately knows something is wrong—especially when she starts experiencing serious physical traumas, despite the fact that nobody has touched her. As the search commences to find her sister, the twin left behind must rely on their intense bond to uncover the truth” (from Goodreads). My full review is HERE.

Wake Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Fade Dream Catcher Lisa McMann Gone Dream Catcher Lisa McMann

Dream Catcher trilogy by Lisa McMann (Wake, 2008; Fade, 2009; Gone, 2010). Janie can’t help it: she gets sucked into other people’s dreams. When she falls into a different kind of terrifying nightmare, Janie isn’t just an observer—now she has a part to play.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Sketchy, by Olivia Samms will be available on April 30th.

Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free

Hook

The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.

Worldview

In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.

nameofthestar

However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

An Edinburgh Reading List

Edinburgh Castle photo by flickr user CleftClips via Creative Commons

Edinburgh Castle photo by flickr user CleftClips via Creative Commons

by Tessa

If you are reading this the day it is being posted, then know that R & I are, as your eyes scan these words, fulfilling a friendship-long dream of visiting Scotland together, and celebrating her birthday along the way as well! (Happy future birthday, R!!)

In preparation for the trip I made myself a reading list of books set in Edinburgh. Of course, I only managed to read a couple of them, but I do plan to go back and finish the others someday.  Maybe you also have a Scottish-themed reading itch to scratch?  If so, I submit these titles for your perusal.

DISCLAIMER:

My method for finding them was a subject search in my library catalog so this is by no means a be-all, end-all list of Edinburgh fiction.  And it is not YA-specific.

BOOKS I DID READ:

gooseberry

The Gooseberry / Odd Girl Out by Joan Lingard

This is the only YA book on my list, and the only one that doesn’t have to do with romance or murder. Just a solid coming-of-age story. Poor old Gooseberry Ellie is true to herself even though she doesn’t really know what that means just yet, and her mom has to go and marry some boring old guy who sells insurance and lives in a bungalow, taking E. away from her street and her friends and her father figure, an old Czech pianist who is giving her lessons.

knotsandcrosses

Knots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus #1) by Ian Rankin

I felt obligated to read at least one Ian Rankin book before I went to Edinburgh (again). This is the first in his series about a hard-drinking Detective Inspector working in that city.  My Goodreads notes were thus: “I am left wondering what drug has a toffee apple smell. Spell it out for us squares, Rankin!  Also, I want to note that I figured it out on p. 150 and Rebus did on p. 200. But I was struggling with much less emotional baggage than he.”

Instead of reading more of these, I opted to watch the first season of Rebus and it was enjoyable, but I think Prime Suspect may have spoiled most other UK crime shows for me.  I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch more, though.

lamplighter

The Lamplighter by Anthony O’Neill

A serendipitous find for me – I had to weed it from my library’s fiction collection due space and circulation issues 😥 , but ended up reading it, :D.

It’s a delicate story combining historical fiction, detection, metaphysics, the devil, fear, secret societies, gruesome murder, and religious conspiracy. Something for everyone.

By George Willison (1741-1797) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By George Willison (1741-1797) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boswell In Search of a Wife, 1766-69 by James Boswell

If you’re into history and diaries and affable cads, do yourself a favor and visit the diaries of James Boswell. At least read this Smithsonian article about him (but, spoiler alert, not if you want to keep the romantic notions of a happy marriage brought on by this section of diaries intact).

Boswell is quite famous for chronicling his life (and Sam Johnston’s life) through diaries. And here Yale collects his diaries, letters and other correspondence to show his feverish attachments and pursuits of various ladies in an attempt to find a wife / soothe his libido. This is also the period where he’s establishing himself as a lawyer via the Douglas case and being obsessed with the Corsicans. Any time one reads of Boswell one hears of his need for strong father figures, as if to replace his fractious relationship to his own father, and this is borne out in watching him through his letters. He is devoted to General Paoli of Corsica. When he is in London to cure his venereal disease before marrying he repeatedly moves apartments to be closer to various powerful friends as if to soak up their approbation and aura of power.

He’s witty and as truthful as he can be in representing his whims. It’s enchanting to be put into the times and watch him ordering post-chaises to take him around town, worrying about the entailment of the estate of Auchinleck (which can now be rented out for a holiday, true story) and fretting about the hot and cold reactions of an heiress he’s courting while at the same time he is supporting a married mistress who has bore him a daughter, getting drunk and sleeping with whores (and getting infected with who knows what), and fielding letters from his lady-love in Amsterdam (an author herself!).

Boswell never loses hope for the power of true love, even as he realizes he is usually in the throes of fickle lust, and even as he sabotages his own intentions for a strong relationship by getting drunk and sleeping with other women. He has feverish periods of happiness and low periods of melancholy.  Here are just a few examples from his own mouth:

28 APRIL 1766: “I write to you while the delirium is really existing. In short, Sir, the gardener’s daughter who was named for my mother, and has for some time been in the family as a chambermaid is so very pretty that I am entirely captivated by her. Besides my principle of never debauching an innocent girl, my regard for her father, a worthy man of uncommon abilities, retrains me from forming the least licentious thought against her. And, therefore, in plain words, I am mad enough to indulge imaginations of marrying her. …I rave about her. I was never so much in love as I am now. My fancy is quite inflamed. It riots in extravagance.”

17 MAY 1766. “…my love for the handsome chambermaid is already like a dream that is past.”

19 JANUARY 1768: “I was so happy with Jeany Kinnaird that I very philosophically reasoned that there was to me so much virtue mixed with licentious love that perhaps I might be privilege. For it made me humane, polite, generous. But then lawful love with a woman I really like would make me still better.”

“THURSDAY 15 JUNE [1769]. Mrs. Fullarton and her son, Snady Tait, Drs. Gregory and Austin, and Willy Wallace dined with us. I was not well, and in very bad spirits. At such times all the varnish of life is off, and I see it as it really is. Or why not may it be that there is a shade thrown over it which is merely ideal darkness? All my comfort was piety, my friends, and my lady.”

BOOKS I STILL WANT TO READ:

edinburghcityofthedead   townbelowground

Edinburgh: City of the Dead and The Town Below the Ground by Jan-Andrew Henderson

Goodreads sez: “Edinburgh: City of the Dead explores macabre events, paranormal occurrences, haunted locations, occult societies, witchcraft, and even spooky hoaxes to try to discover why Edinburgh is a city that appears to have more than its fair share of supernatural goings-on. Jan-Andrew Henderson brings each tale to life through realistic dramatic reconstructions. By focusing on the scariest incident in each and fleshing out the characters and dialogue, the author adds a terrifying extra dimension to some of the most gory and ghoulish stories imaginable.”

and: “The story of the Town Below the Ground is one of the most disturbing in the annals of Scottish history.” Do tell.

*brrrr*

mrsrobinsonsdisgrace

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

A woman is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her husband finds her diary, misinterprets it, and files for divorce (UNHEARD OF). The diary is read in court! ! !  Possibly sort of based on a true story?? More info at Brain Pickings.

bodypolitic

The Body Politic by Paul Johnston

According to the header on his site, Paul Johnston is a “crime writer AND poet” (emphasis mine) so really how could this series go wrong?  This book is actually the first in a series featuring a guy (presumably detective) named Quint Dalrymple–again, that name is a really good sign for the book–set in 2020 in what is known as Enlightenment Edinburgh.

As Google Books explains: “The Council’s goal of a “perfect” city-where television, private cars, and popular music are banned, and where crime is virtually nonexistent-is shattered when a brutal serial killer is discovered among their ranks. Can the fearsome Ear, Nose and Throat Man be back to his grisly old tricks? The usually complacent Council is forced to turn to the man they demoted years ago-the irreverent, blues-haunted Quintilian Dalrymple-to catch the gruesome killer.”

anatomymurders

The Anatomy Murders, Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes by Lisa Rosner

The title about says it all, but here’s the description from the book’s webpage:

“On Halloween night 1828, in the West Port district of Edinburgh, Scotland, a woman sometimes known as Madgy Docherty was last seen in the company of William Burke and William Hare. Days later, police discovered her remains in the surgery of the prominent anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Docherty was the final victim of the most atrocious murder spree of the century, outflanking even Jack the Ripper’s. Together with their accomplices, Burke and Hare would be accused of killing sixteen people over the course of twelve months in order to sell the corpses as “subjects” for dissection. The ensuing criminal investigation into the “Anatomy Murders” raised troubling questions about the common practices by which medical men obtained cadavers, the lives of the poor in Edinburgh’s back alleys, and the ability of the police to protect the public from cold-blooded murder.”

There are also 2 movies about Burke and Hare.  This is the one I plan to watch, because Simon Pegg:

burkeandhare

onegoodturn

One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie #2) by Kate Atkinson

“Two years after the events of Case Histories left him a retired millionaire, Jackson Brodie has followed Julia, his occasional girlfriend and former client, to Edinburgh for its famous summer arts festival. But when he witnesses a man being brutally attacked in a traffic jam – the apparent victim of an extreme case of road rage – a chain of events is set in motion that will pull the wife of an unscrupulous real estate tycoon, a timid but successful crime novelist, and a hardheaded female police detective into Jackson’s orbit.”Goodreads

wintersea

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

This could be a (great) time travel romance…

“In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write. But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth.” – Author Description

troublewithmagic

The Trouble with Magic (Magic #3) by Patricia Rice

There is no way I could improve on this hook:

“Felicity Malcolm Childe’s gift for experiencing visions through touch has always felt more like a curse than a blessing, so she covers herself from head to toe. Only the maddeningly handsome Ewen Ives provokes tingles of pleasure rather than pain, but he is already betrothed. Her last hope is to go to Scotland to find the ancient book of spells that could free her from the burden of this gift.”

singerofsouls

Singer of Souls by Adam Stemple

SF Reviews dot net says it’s a “short and surprisingly grisly urban fantasy” about a guy who comes to Edinburgh to live with his Grandma, busk, and escape his life of drugs in Minneapolis.  When the Fringe Festival starts he realizes he can see the terrifying fey folk.

Count me in.

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