#RIPXIII and #SomethingWickedFall Update 3

Here are a couple of perilous goodies of which I’ve partaken:

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

A Long Fatal Love Chase

“I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom,” cries Rosamond Vivian to her callous grandfather. A brooding stranger seduces her from the remote island onto his yacht. Trapped in a web of intrigue, cruelty, and deceit, she flees to Italy, France, Germany, from Paris garret to mental asylum, from convent to chateau – stalked by obsessed Phillip Tempest. (via Goodreads)

This was a “lost” novel from Louisa May Alcott. After an eventful European tour, Alcott returned home and began writing a serial in order to help provide for her family. (This was before the publication of Little Women.) A Long Fatal Love Chase is sensational, melodramatic, and sometimes over-wrought. There is a bit of swooning, but also a heroine who escapes via balconies, disguises, intricate plans. I enjoyed this books quite a bit.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017)

I have a confession: Aside from the very tame haunted “ride” at Peony Park, I’ve never been to a haunted house. Honestly, I have no desire to, but I am curious about how these attractions are created, who runs them, and who works at them. I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror, but I’ve always loved make-up and practical special effects. This is a really interesting documentary about all of those things. Haunters also addresses extreme haunted/torture houses, a relatively new phenomenon which I really don’t understand.

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Review ~ The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel

This book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for review consideration.

Cover via Goodreads

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo

When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
As a kid, very few things frightened me more than the thought of the Headless Horseman galloping down the hill in my neighborhood (blocks from one of the busier intersections in Omaha) while I was on my way to my grandparent’s house. As an adult, I have read Washington Irving’s story and have heartily enjoyed various adaptations of the story beyond the Disney short. And since I’m not completely heartless, I thought the story with a romantic twist might be fun for the upcoming season of spookiness.

What Didn’t Work (for me)
Erin Bow has written one of my favorite posts ever about book reviews. She wrote it from the perspective of a writer reading reviews, but I like to keep her thoughts in mind when I’m a reader reviewing books too. And I thought a lot about the concepts of cilantro and werewolves while I was reading The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel.

In Bow’s parlance, a person’s reaction to cilantro is a matter of taste. Some people just don’t like cilantro. The same goes for book genres. Generally, I’m not a big fan of YA romance, supernatural or not, but there are exceptions. In fact, the biggest surprise of the year for me was how much I enjoyed Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints. It was a book I probably wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t won it in a contest. So I knew going in that The Spellbook of Katrina Van Vassel wasn’t in my ideal choice of genres and I was ready to make allowances for that.

But still… Ichabod and Katrina were just *so* perfect together. Everyone (other than Brom and Katrina’s father) loves them both together. Isn’t a protagonist allowed to have flaws? And for a being social outcasts (due to Brom’s insensitivity), Charlotte and her mother seem to do pretty well…aside from being shunned at parties. Also, everyone has a ton of free time and older adults are miraculously absent from goings-on. It was many of the things that I (perhaps unfairly) pin on the YA genre.

To return to Bow’s thoughts on reviews, the concept of werewolves is this: a reader brings their own agenda to a book. “This biography of Teddy Roosevelt was pretty good, but it didn’t have nearly enough werewolves in it for me.” Obviously, werewolves in a nonfiction biography of Roosevelt is an unfair expectation. I don’t think I am being unfair when I expect a book called The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, set in Sleepy Hollow, released in October to have some strong supernatural aspects. And this story really doesn’t. There are some dreams and visions and a bit of off-scene action that we are meant to take as supernatural. Mostly, this book is a star-crossed romance that is eventually complicated by a missing person mystery (that no one bothers to really investigate until two years later).

The actual spellbook of the title is the book of regional lore that Katrina begins to write as she is Ichabod-less and trying to find some joy in the second half of the book. It’s a very nice metaphor, but not what I was expecting.

I feel like there were many opportunities when Palombo might have taken the story in a direction that might have resulted in more tension in the plot, but those are werewolves that I shouldn’t bring into this book.

Overall
If you’re looking for a romance between two young people in sort-of 1790s New England with a little paranormal pumpkin spice seasoning, The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel might be the book for you. If you’re looking for a story that veers closer to the more recent movie or television adaptations of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleep Hollow,” gallop past.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, St. Martin’s Press, Oct. 2, 2018
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: historical romance

Deal Me In, Week 39 ~ “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” by Catherynne M. Valente

Card picked: 4
Found at: Beneath Ceaseless Skies

And thus was I left, Perpetua alone and loudly complaining, in the quiet dark of my father’s glassworks, with no one willing to buy from my delicate and feminine hand, no matter how fine the goblet on the end of that long iron punty.

The solution seemed to me obvious. Henceforward, quite simply, I should never be a girl again.

I went into this story thinking that Perpetua hiding her gender would be the linchpin secret of this story. Not so. Perpetua, left with her father’s glassblowing tools after her two older brother’s snatch up the riches and land that their father left them, becomes a very successful businessman in London. But it isn’t until after her brother sends a young woman in need of glass eyes to her that Perpetua’s, or rather Cornelius Peek’s, true abilities flourish. Her glass eyes become world-known. When she keeps the match to an jeweled eye she creates for a Dogaressa, she finds that she can see what the Dogaressa sees. Thus, Master Peek becomes a libertine and spy, among other things.

I’ve never read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but for some reason I can’t shake thinking of  Catherynne M. Valente as a YA writer. Therefore, I’m taken aback every time I read one of her stories which is very solidly “adult.” Actually, this story reminded me somewhat of E. E. Kellett’s anthology A Corner in Sleep (1900), which is very concerned with the business possibilities of fantasy situations.

Review ~ The Moving Blade

This book was provided to me by the author (and NetGalley) for review consideration.

Cover via Goodreads

The Moving Blade by Michael Pronko

When the top American diplomat in Tokyo, Bernard Mattson, is killed, he leaves more than a lifetime of successful Japan-American negotiations. He leaves a missing manuscript, boxes of research, a lost keynote speech and a tangled web of relations.

When his alluring daughter, Jamie, returns from America wanting answers, finding only threats, Detective Hiroshi Shimizu is dragged from the safe confines of his office into the street-level realities of Pacific Rim politics.

With help from ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi, Hiroshi searches for the killer from back alley bars to government offices, through anti-nuke protests to military conspiracies. When two more bodies turn up, Hiroshi must choose between desire and duty, violence or procedure, before the killer silences his next victim. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is the second book in the Detective Hiroshi series.  I read the first book The Last Train in May of 2017 and enjoyed it. The Moving Blade picks up in the aftermath of the first, but a new reader wouldn’t be lost picking up this book.

A moving blade is unseen, hidden in the blur of motion, felt but not perceived.

What Worked
While Pronko’s Tokyo is still very vivid, I enjoyed the characters more than the setting this time around. I really like that Hiroshi’s forte is sorting through data. It’s office-bound work that doesn’t get a lot of play in detective novels for maybe obvious reasons. Here, though, it works narratively. Hiroshi is always trying to balance his preferred work with the necessity of leaving the office. My two favorite supporting characters from the first book—ex-sumo Sakaguchi and assistant Akiko—are both given expanded roles because one man can’t do everything. The slightly beyond-the-law Takamatsu, who annoyed me a little in The Last Train, has been suspended from the police force, and given a lesser role which probably works better for the character.

Something that is possibly endearing to only me: the characters eat often. Characters meet and talk at bars and restaurants, which people do. To recuse myself, I probably have an affinity for this because it’s something characters do in my writings.

The plot held together really well. While The Moving Blade goes bigger in terms of socio-politics, it’s still at heart a murder mystery. The story never loses sight of that. I enjoyed the bigger scope without this becoming an out-and-out thriller.

What Didn’t Work
I had a couple minor quibbles (like a porter on a train not smelling and being suspicious of a man who had been pepper sprayed), but one major one. At a couple times during the story, characters turn off cellphones or do not return messages…for reasons. These instances aren’t entirely used to drive plot (thank goodness), but they are obstacles that could easily be avoided and therefore kind of chafe. The reasons given later for the behaviors are okay, but we’re in the middle of a murder investigation—return your calls!

Overall
Despite the above, I really enjoyed The Moving Blade. Pronko again brought Tokyo (at least a version of it) to life for me and peopled it with good characters doing interesting things. That’s pretty much a trifecta for me.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Raked Gravel Press, on sale Sept. 30, 2018
Acquired: copy provided by the author, 8/17/18
Genre: mystery, thriller

 

Review ~ Houdini and Conan Doyle

Cover via Goodreads

Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

In the early twentieth century, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most famous men alive, and their relationship was extraordinary:

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, nonetheless believed in the supernatural. After eleven family members, including his son and brother, were killed in the First World War, he searched tirelessly for word from the dead.

Harry Houdini, the great magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle’s but a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. As a master of illusion, he used his knowledge to expose psychics who he believed exploited people’s insecurity and grief.

Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, this sensational story of two popular geniuses conjures up the early twentieth century and the fame, personalities and beliefs that would eventually pull them apart.

(via back of the book)

Usually, I copy-paste book summaries from Goodreads, but none where very good. So I used the text from the back of the book and still… Well, Doyle had been interested in spiritualism before WWI. And technically, he didn’t lose his son in the war, but the horrible outbreak of Spanish flu near the end of the war. So, this one was at least 97% accurate…

I’ve had this book on my want-to-read list for 5-ish years under the title Masters of Mystery, before finding this edition at Half Price Books. Going in, I knew the basics of this story. If you’ve read a biographical sketch of either man, this contentious relationship comes up. Further, I read David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street a few years back, which focuses on Houdini’s (sort of) dedunking of Margery Crandon, who Doyle strongly supported. But I hadn’t read anything in-depth about Houdini and Doyle’s friendship and falling out.

Sanford gives each man a decent biography before their encounters with each other, though the story feels more weighted toward  Doyle. There are a few possible reasons for that. Doyle was in his 60s when they met; Houdini was 15 years his junior. Therefore, Sanford simply had more of Doyle’s life to tell. But the imbalance might also be due to my personal bias. I simply didn’t know as much about Doyle. I’ve read (more than enough) Houdini biographies, but never a good one about  Doyle. Something that surprised me was just how prolific he was. I never really imagined Doyle writing thousands of word per day on multiple projects. It puts his dissatisfaction with Holmes’ popularity in a different light.

One thing I didn’t like about the pre-meeting biographical sections was Sanford’s attempts to make Houdini and Doyle’s lives parallel. It felt like he was trying too hard to make their families and careers match up, as well as, sometimes, their proposed psychological states.

Personally, though, I found this book a little depressing. As a skeptic myself, it was hard to read about Doyle being so wrong about things and, as a non-fan of the magician, Houdini being so annoyingly right. I’m also not sure I actually buy their “friendship.” It feels more like a publicity story that took on a life of its own. Yes, they hung out a bit. Houdini liked knowing other famous people, especially ones with some intellectual weight. Doyle would have considered it a major coup if he’d been able to “turn” Houdini to spiritualism. That’s not really friendship. As much as I’d like for them to be the Mulder and Scully of the 20s (or even the Houdini & Doyle of the 00s), they weren’t.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Duckworth Overlook, 2012
Acquired: 11/15/17, Half Price Books
Genre: history


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Deal Me In, Week 38 ~ “The Day of an American Journalist in 2889”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Day of an American Journalist in 2889” by Jules Verne (or maybe Michel Verne)

Card picked: 10
Found at: East of the Web

Little though they seem to think of it, the people of this twenty-ninth century live continually in fairyland. Surfeited as they are with marvels, they are indifferent in presence of each new marvel. To them all seems natural. Could they but duly appreciate the refinements of civilization in our day; could they but compare the present with the past, and so better comprehend the advance we have made!

The Story
Less a story and more of a flight of fancy, Jules Verne (or maybe his son Michel) walks us through a day in the life of “newspaper” magnate, Fritz Napoleon Smith. More than a simple journalist. Verne (whichever one) posits some semi-accurate things about a focused, on-demand form of news delivery service that a cross between 24-hour TV news channels and online news aggregation.

Other things, though… It’s hard to read about technology when it’s so far off from reality. For every impressive leap, there’s a lapse. And of course there’s the issue of our current technology, in mere 2018, being in most ways quite beyond Verne’s 2889. I think Verne would be impressed at how far we’ve gotten in 120 years.

And, yes, as our narrator observes in the opening, how often do we forget how much of a wonderland we live in?

Review ~ Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician

Cover via Goodreads

Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician by Donald Brandon & Joyce Brandon

Want to know how magicians make a jet airplane disappear???

Want to know how magicians make a human being float and fly around the stage???

Want to know how magicians make it actually snow inside a theater???

All of these questions and many more are answered in this book plus the often hilarious exploits of two if the great premiere magicians who have a total of over 100 years of performing for millions of people. One is credited with being a forerunner of today’s Rock Concerts who attracted huge audiences of teenagers, numbering in the thousands, nightly for his midnight ghost shows. Informative, intriguing and compelling reading. You will love it! (via back cover)

Why was I interested in this book?
75% of my reading about magic and magicians is centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s an era with a lot of literature connected with it. Magicians of the period often wrote their own memoirs and modern day academics revel in that golden age. But I also like hearing about the day to day nitty-gritty of modern working magicians. …Memoirs and Confessions of a Stage Magician falls into this category.

What Worked
Don Brandon had a fifty year career as Brandon the Magician. He began under the tutelage of Willard the Wizard in San Antonio. South Texas was its own interesting magic community in the mid-20th century with several acts, Willard and Brandon among them, headquartered there in order to travel in the southeastern and southwestern states. Memoirs and Confessions is an apt title. This book is half about Donald Brandon’s memories of Willard and half about his own career.

One of Brandon’s highlights are his very popular spook shows. Spook shows were piggy-backed onto monster movies when many of the old vaudeville theaters were converted into movie houses. The spook shows were an innovative use of magic principles to provide an immersive “spooky” experience after the movies. The book cover blurb engages in a little mythologizing, but what else does one expect from a magician?

What Didn’t Work
Not enough dates. I understand that perhaps remembering isn’t really conducive to putting dates on events, but it’s really helpful for readers. This is also a bit of a “dip-in” book. The chapters are short and, while not entirely repetitive, they don’t vary in tone and jump around a bit. Reading straight through is tiring.

Overall
Memoirs and Confessions does offer a nice slice of magic history: Texas in the 30s and 40s. Yes, there are magical secrets revealed, but mostly this book is stories and gossip and personal histories.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Tag Publications, 1995
Acquired: Jackson Street Booksellers, July 2015
Genre: memoir

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