Monthly Archives: February 2016

Magic Monday ~ Review – Mrs. Houdini

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

This book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

Cover via Goodreads

A captivating debut novel, meticulously researched and beautifully imagined, about the passionate marriage of Harry and Bess Houdini—a love story that defied death itself.

Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife Bess from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. When a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.

In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a thrilling tale that will take you deep into the heart of one of history’s greatest love stories—asking what drives people to believe in something bigger than themselves—even as it reveals the famous magician’s most remarkable feat of all. (via Goodreads)

I had to be careful when reading Mrs. Houdini to let it be the book it was and not the book I wanted it to be. I’d love to read a book from the perspective of a magician’s wife/assistant that emphasizes her part in magic performances. One of the things I’ve realized about David and Fannie Abbott is that Fannie knew *everything* and was generally more complicit in his performances than their guests would have realized. Mrs. Houdini isn’t about Bess Houdini’s involvement in Harry’s tricks. I’d also love to read a book that places Houdini more solidly among his peers. On one hand, Harry Houdini did a lot to consolidate magicians in the early 20th century. He also constantly picked fights and feuded with…nearly everyone. Mrs. Houdini is not a book about those relationships either.

Mrs. Houdini alternates between Bess Houdini after Harry’s untimely death, and their evolving relationship, told in chronological order, before his death. The “past” sections hit some of the major beats in Houdini’s career: starting out at Coney Island and struggling in the vaudeville and circus circuits, the cuff escapes and jail breaks that made Houdini famous in Europe, bridge jumps that extended his fame in the US, Houdini’s forays into movie-making, and of course the Houdini’s relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. I was surprised that the whole investigation of Margery Crandon didn’t get more time, considering that Crandon took a shot at seducing Houdini. But honestly, I felt the best parts of Mrs. Houdini were the chapters that featured Bess after Harry’s death–when the narrative wasn’t burdened by the weight of the magician.

The post-Houdini chapters focus on a woman who has been left behind. Her husband has died, leaving her with a goodly amount of debt and seemingly shackled to his legacy, and she is childless. Bess is an interesting character in a tough situation which provides a lot of room for drama. The book obviously takes a fanciful turn as Bess comes to believe that Harry is leaving her a series of messages in a code that absolutely no one else knew. Not only are there fictional stretches, but also a small slice of absolute fantasy. All in all, the story is not really my thing. It didn’t really elicit in me the poignancy I think it was shooting for.

I have to take umbrage with the blurb’s claim that Mrs. Houdini is meticulously researched. The two books that Kelly mentions in her end note, Harold Kellock’s Houdini: His Life Story and Kalush and Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini, are considered by Houdini scholars to be the most controversial. Doubtless, Kelly read more than two books and, obviously, liberties were taken in the name of fiction, but there are some oddities. Like mention of an escape “hanging upside down, from a giant milk jug filled with water” which seems like a mash-up of two separate tricks. Chapter dates for some events (Young’s Pier, meeting Roosevelt, the Doyle seance) seem to have been shifted by a couple years one way or the other, which I don’t think would have mattered in the narrative. It’s possible that these inaccuracies were due to my ARC and were fixed upon publication.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Atria Books, ARC, pub date: March 1, 2016
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: literary, historical fiction

February Reading Wrap-Up

Even though there’s still a bit of February left…

Challenges

I’m still chugging along through the TBR Triple Dog Dare and #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks.

tbr-final-dare ReadMyOwnDamnBooksbutton

I had two ARCs that needed to be read by the end of February, both of which were acquired last year. So, by the letter of the law, I’ve been doing fine with the Dare. From books that I personally own, I’ve only started Emma Bull’s Territory. If I get a good couple of reading sessions in, I should finish it by the end of the month.

Finished in February

The only short stories I read this month were for Deal Me In. It’s been a really slow reading month…

Additions to my Library

(Not to be read until after April 1st)

  1. “Mystic Brew” by Caren Rich, 2/12/16, Amazon, $0.99
  2. The Guns of Retribution by Icy Sedgwick, 2/20/16, Amazon, Free
  3. To Kill a Dead Man by Icy Sedgwick, 2/20/16, Amazon, $0.99

I only bought a few ebooks from writers I know online. Three is a surprisingly low number for me.

Notes

I really wish Goodreads had a way to search or sort your library by genre, or rather the most tagged genre for a given work. I’d like to be able, when I’m in the mood for a certain genre, to search through the books I own. I’ve been thinking about other systems/apps to manage this, but I haven’t come up with a good solution.

I think I’ve finally kicked the ARC habit. I have two more to review in May, but I haven’t had any desire to comb through NetGalley for new titles. A few reasons for this, I think. 1.) I have so many books on my shelves that I haven’t read. The phrase “embarrassment of riches” comes to mind. I don’t need to acquire more 2.) I don’t feel like I’ve been providing quality reviews lately. I was never much of a reviewer in the first place, but I think the authors and publishers who are providing me with ARCs probably deserve better than my sometimes half-baked impressions. 3.) I’m suffering from a touch of blogger burn-out. I’d rather not feel obligated to review.

Deal Me In, Week 8 ~ “The Happy Children”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Happy Children” by Arthur Machen

Card picked: Eight of Hearts
From: Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye

The story I had originally scheduled for the eight of hearts is 180 pages long. Since I’m in the middle of a novel that I’d like to finish by the end of the month, I didn’t want to take it on too and decided to pick a new story. Stories from Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown are my “fill-in” stories this year, so I figured I’d pick the next in its Table of Contents.

Thoughts: It’s the day after Christmas, 1915. A journalist is sent to “the north-eastern district” (Machen’s quotes, not mine) to investigate the rumor that the Germans have a secret mini-base near Malton Head. He quickly learns that the story is based on some kids playing make-believe, thwarting imaginary German spies as good English youth would want to do. The journalist chalks the whole thing up to fools–the same kind of fools that “got cross with anyone who expressed a doubt as ‘the Angels of Mons.'”

To make something of the day, the journalist then decides to take the train south to Banwick, a lovely village that straddles a river. On one side of the river, the inn and other main dwellings take up the flat part of the valley. On the other, red-roofed houses and a Norman church sit perched among the bluffs. The journalist doesn’t reach Banwick until near sunset. Since this is late December, that isn’t very late. He decides to take a walk, noting that the village is very dark, but there are a great number of children playing in the streets.

When asked about it, the innkeeper replies that many of the children in Banwick have lost their fathers or father figures and the women of the town are being lax with them. The journalist takes another walk after dinner, closer to midnight. Even more children are about, some seem to have strange wounds, and all are making their way to the old Norman church. The journalist then remembers what day it is: the eve of the Holy Innocents’. The children are simply going to a late-night Mass, and the surely pretend wounds are part of some medieval observance. The journalist mentions *this* to the innkeeper and “he drew away from me as though I were a messenger from the dead.”

The intricacies of this story are quite subtle. By the end of the story, Machen subverts the journalist’s skepticism toward phenomena like the Angels of Mons. (As an extra twist, it was Machen himself who had penned the story “The Bowmen” which was a forerunner to the Angels myth.) He turns the notion of children playing pretend on its ear, as well as the thought that it was only adults who were being killed during the War.

About the Author: I knew the name Arthur Machen, but I couldn’t remember from where. The introductory note to the story offered no clue. Finally, one of the first mentioned works on his Wikipedia entry is The Great God Pan, which is on the Obscure Literary Monsters list.

Review ~ Good Girls

This book was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Good Girls by Glen Hirshberg

Cover via Goodreads

Reeling from the violent death of her daughter and a confrontation with the Whistler–the monster who wrecked her life–Jess has fled the South for a tiny college town in New Hampshire.

Rebecca, an orphan undergrad caring for Jess’s grandson, finds in Jess’ house the promise of a family she has never known, but also a terrifying secret.

Meanwhile, unhinged and unmoored, the Whistler watches from the rooftops and awaits his moment.

And deep in the Mississippi Delta, the evil that spawned him stirs…
(via Goodreads)

(That summary is from Goodreads, but edited to leave out a few details that I think are better encountered in the novel.)

Good Girls continues where Motherless Child leaves off. And considering where Motherless Child ends, that is an interesting proposition. The story shifts necessarily from Natalie and Sophie’s story to Jess’s as she picks up the pieces in the wake of the Whistler’s attack. Jess’s narrative intersects with Rebecca’s as she attempts to wend her way into adulthood.

Thus far, the Motherless Children trilogy has a sort of split quality to it. Rebecca’s story line is firmly in the land of realism. She is a broken person with a rough background, and that narrative lacks supernatural elements. In tone, this is very much like Hirshberg’s The Snowman’s Children. In flashback, we are treated to the other half of this reality: Jess on the run from the Whistler and all the horror that follows with him. When these two plots overlap, it isn’t pretty. Hirshberg is good with gore, I have to say. While the violence sometimes feels over the top, it works. The Whistler and his kin are beyond human and over the top is just right.

Tantalizingly, there is a third plot thread in which we meet Aunt Sally, the origin of Whistler’s Mother. I’m definitely looking forward to the third book in this series.

Publishing info, my copy: eARC, Tor, Feb. 23, 2016
Genre: horror

Magic Monday ~ Cigarettes and Book Covers

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature. I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

Much of magic is dependent on the use of ordinary objects to do extraordinary things. Therefore, magic is also somewhat time and place dependent. Top hats aren’t used much for tricks anymore because men no longer wear top hats. Likewise, if I took a pack of ordinary Bicycle playing cards back in time to 1900, they would certainly incite suspicion with their quality card stock and “air-cushion” finish. And so, in a world where smoking is becoming restricted to outdoors*, performances like Tom Mullica’s signature cigarette routine will become more and more scarce.

Tom Mullica passed away last week. No, not due to anything smoking-related or to the myelogenous leukemia he was diagnosed with in 2010, but due to complications following a routine hernia operation. He was 67.

* Personally, I have no problem with this. If smoking is a personal choice, it can’t really be done around people who choose not to.

SmallAce

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Territory Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir

Before Sunday, I’d only read 47 pages last week. Some drama centering around our next door neighbor really wore me out. I’m still working on Territory by Emma Bull and started listening to Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. While there is a TV show based on Huang’s book, the book is definitely not a sit-com. Tomorrow, I’ll have a review of Glen Hirshberg’s new release, Good Girls.

It's Monday! What Are You ReadingIt’s Monday! What Are You Reading, hosted by Book Date!

What Am I Writing?

nuts2smshadowThis week I’ll be doing a final pass on Bounded in a Nutshell. And, the hard part, I still have to write a blurb. But I should have it good to go by the weekend.

And, since authors do these things, cover reveal! The book is a collection of my short works, mostly flash fiction pieces.

If you’re interested in being notified when Bounded in a Nutshell is released, sign up for my totally spam-free update list.

Month-Long #Weirdathon

Weird2 Continue reading

Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “Dance of the Dead”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Dance of the Dead” by Richard Matheson

Card picked: Eight of Diamonds
From: I Am Legend, and other stories

Thoughts:

It’s the year 1997. WWIII has come and gone, leaving behind cities infected with anti-civilian germs and a youth culture whose catchphrase is “Live It!” Four of these young people, Lenny & Barbara and Bud & Peggy, head to St. Louis for an evening of fun. Peggy is the youngest of the bunch, a lonely freshman at the University. Her mother has warned her against people like Lenny, Barbara, and Bud. They drink. They use drugs. They have sex. And tonight, they are all going to go see a loopy dance. Peggy is new to most of these experiences and is reserved and a little frightened to take part in any of these activities. It’s through her eyes, and the occasional definition of slang terms, that we experience the story.

Loopy, we are told about halfway through, is a slang alteration of LUP. LUP, it’s finally revealed near the end of the story, is an acronym for Lifeless Undead Phenomenon. Peggy witnesses the loopy dance and chooses to embrace “Live It.”

The best part of this story is the build up to seeing the loopy and its dance. Matheson conjures up a gruesome enough site that we believe that Peggy could dread it. I think it’s difficult to pull off dread in literature. It’s too easy for a reader to skim or skip; the reading equivalent of covering your eyes. A good horror writer impels you to read every word, and Matheson is often that good.

Is This Your Card?

From naive Peggy to Yale graduate Jen Kramer. Kramer was a “contestant” on the most recent season of Fool Us. Spoiler–she doesn’t fool Penn & Teller, but she still does a great card trick.