Deal Me In, Week 27 ~ “Secret Keeper”

DealMeIn

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

“Secret Keeper” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Card picked: 3
Found at: Nightmare Magazine

The Story

A girl is supposed to be beautiful. A girl is supposed to have rosy red cheeks and a laugh that makes men wilt to think of her bright future. A beautiful girl will have a beautiful life. An ugly girl slips unseen through secret doors.

The ghost girl was born with a birth defect that, after many skin grafts, has left her face pale and featureless. She has managed through grade school and middle school by avoiding attention, by becoming a shadow, a ghost. Now in high school, she lives beneath the theater stage and dreams of singing. Alas, due to her  appearance, the best she can do is mentor Chrissie, the new girl with the beautiful voice. Their singing lessons are held in a remote girl’s bathroom, the stalls keeping ghost girl from being seen. When Chrissie is given a supporting role in the spring musical instead of the lead, ghost girl’s vengeance is visited upon the less talented, but prettier Aimee and Chrissie has to fill in. All goes well, for a while, until the toll of ghost girl’s mentorship—being completely focused and keeping ghost girl’s secret—becomes too high for Chrissie. And Chrissie also has secrets that the ghost girl is keeping for her.

“Secret Keeper” is an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, gender-bent and set in high school, and it works very well. By senior year, the ghost girl is a thing of legend. No one quite remembers the truth about her and every prank and misfortune is blamed on her. By being unnoticed and otherwise forgotten, the ghost girl has access to information and secrets that she uses judiciously to manipulate Chrissie and frame Aimee. But the ending does add a tiny bit of ambiguity to the situation. No one can really hear the ghost girl except Chrissie.

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Deal Me In, Week 24 ~ “Bog Girl”

DealMeIn

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

“Bog Girl” by Karen Russell

Card picked: 4
Found at: The New Yorker

I don’t remember if I recognized Karen Russell when I added this story to my deck. Her novel Swamplandia! has been on the periphery of my TBR-eventually list. In this case, Swamplandia! will probably be bumped up the queue. One of the best reasons to read short stories is to get a taste for a writer you’re not familiar with.

The young turf-cutter fell hard for his first girlfriend while operating heavy machinery in the peatlands.

The girl that Cillian, the turf-cutter, falls for is a bog girl, a preserved corpse thousands of years old.

I’ve read a couple of magical realism novels this year and I was once again thrown into a off-kilter world where Bog Girl retains her slightly blue skin, coppery hair, and enigmatic smile  despite being exposed to the air. Also, Cillian is allowed to take her home. His mother isn’t pleased.  She’s afraid that Cillian will screw up his young life over the love of a girl, though instead of getting her pregnant, what if he decides to do something rash like going to the bog with her to stay?

Everyone else is pretty chill with Cillian’s silent girlfriend. She becomes rather popular at his high school. The in-crowd girls like her because she’s thin and will wear anything they give her. In fact, one of the things that Cillian like most about her is that she will silently, and smilingly, agree with his future plans.

Of course, everything changes one night when Bog Girl wakes up…

The writing is beautiful. While this story is sometimes uncomfortable, it doesn’t reach the level of unease that a Joyce Carol Oates story might.

Review ~ The Hermit

Cover via Goodreads

The Hermit by Monica Friedman

The Sonoran Desert is full of life, but that doesn’t mean it won’t kill you.

Kaija Mathews doesn’t want to talk to anyone, ever, so she’s hiding in a cave in the desert all alone. Or, she would be all alone if fifteen years of deep meditation beside a magic spring hadn’t cursed her with the ability to converse with animals. The other creatures always respected her privacy, until the massacres began. Suddenly, she can’t get rid of the local fauna and their stories of an insatiable monster that kills without ceasing, leaving an unearthly stench in its wake. Only a holy woman, they say, can defeat it. Kaija’s no saint, but if she’s ever to enjoy her solitude again, she’ll have to play along.

Worse, she’ll need to face the challenges of the world she abandoned, obstacles like her nightmare of an ex-husband, and a drifter half her age who feels like a sweet dream. To do battle with a bulletproof monster straight out of North American mythology, Kaija must learn what it means to stare down fear, when to fight, and most of all, how to answer hatred with love. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
K. J. Kabza recommended this book. Dang it, he’s a good writer and he has good taste…

What Worked
First off, content warning: there are spiders in this book. Yes, there are also coyotes, packrats, javelina, and even a creosote bush with personality, but there are also spiders. Many, many spiders. Friedman works many Native American myths and lores into this story and one of them is Spider Grandmother. Despite my problems with spiders, I got through it. In fact, there are a few times when Brown (a brown recluse) adds some deeply funny dark humor to the proceedings.

The pace of this story is rather slow, and that’s okay. It fits. Even in the cities, the desert isn’t a fast place. The stories, Kaija’s, Little Brother’s, the monster’s, all unspool gradually. And stories are very important to this narrative. Kaija, a librarian before she was a hermit, gains knowledge when she learns to listen to stories again. Kaija’s character arch is also long. She resists change for most of the book, believing that she’s living her best life rather than just hiding. Oh, and kudos for the pairing of a middle-aged woman with a younger man. I do love Peter S. Beagle, but his older-men/younger-women plots are getting old.

I love books with a strong sense of setting and, while being transported to somewhere else is often nice, I also enjoy reading about the places I am more familiar with. This book is set in Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert. I’m not a camper or a hiker, but we’ve driven through the desert many times and I find that I do love its beauty and its harshness in my own city-girl kind of way.

What Didn’t Work
There was a level of wrap-up at the end of the book that felt weird to me. The resolution involves magical elements overlapping with dead-serious real elements. I kept expecting the mythological to sort of fade out of the story or not be seen by the “real.” End of the day, the monster, Eagirl, killed people. While her mystery is solved, there are still…dead people. And that gets sort of ignored by the police who are involved at the end. Would I be happier if I was given some “all a dream” type explanation? No, probably not. I don’t know a way around it.

Overall
I enjoyed this book. Often, my continued reading (or even watching, in the case of TV and movies) comes down to the answers to two questions: Is this setting somewhere I want to be? Are these characters people I want to spend time with? When the answer is yes to both, I’m a happy (city-girl) camper.

Random trivia: I didn’t realize until after I finished The Hermit, but Monica Friedman and I have stories in the same issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly!

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Brother Wolf Press, 2016
Acquired: Amazon, 12/16/16
Genre: fantasy, fairy tale, magical realism

hosted by Roof Beam Reader

Deal Me In, Week 18 ~ “Scarlet Stockings”

DealMeIn

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

“Scarlet Stockings” by Lousia May Alcott

Card picked: 10
Found at: AmericanLiterature.com

The Story

“What will you do then?”

“Nothing, thank you.”

And settling himself more luxuriously upon the couch, Lennox closed his eyes, and appeared to slumber tranquilly. Kate shook her head, and stood regarding her brother, despondently, till a sudden idea made her turn toward the window, exclaiming abruptly,

“Scarlet stockings, Harry!”

“Where?” and, as if the words were a spell to break the deepest day-dream, Lennox hurried to the window, with an unusual expression of interest in his listless face.

Harry Lennox is a man of leisure, perfectly happy to while away the hours during his visit to his sister’s sleepy town. The only diversion is Belle Morgan, the lovely and spirited young woman who wears the scarlet stockings.

Belle initially sees Harry as a “peacock,” but after she becomes friends with Kate Lennox, she is willing to see more in him. Belle’s idea of happiness is to do service for others, joyously and uncomplaining. She is a patriotic American. She is appalled that Harry sees himself as half-English and believes he should remain neutral in the conflict between the Northern and Southern states. Eventually, Belle admits to Harry that she and Kate conspired to wake Harry out of his comfortable life, but not until, unknown to Belle, Harry has enlisted. Is he doing it only to win Belle’s heart? Is Belle a hypocrite when it’s Harry’s life and limbs on the line? Will Harry even survive??? I must say, I was a little worried when I came to Part III of the story WHAT BECAME OF THEM.

There is a lack of communication among the characters which I always find to be a frustrating trope in literature (and other forms of storytelling). This might be why I’ve never quite taken to Alcott as an author. But otherwise, this is a deft story told mostly through dialogue.

Spring into Horror Halfway-ish Point

For someone who had no horror on her TBR at the beginning of the month, I’m doing pretty well.

Castle of the Carpathians cover The Castle of the Carpathians by Jules Verne

I’ll be honest, I haven’t really read much/any Verne. I know the basics of many of his more famous Extraordinary Voyage novels (20,000 Leagues Under the SeaThe Mysterious Island), but I haven’t actually read them yet. I ended up quickly reading The Castle of the Carpathians due to a research tangent.

The story is…very slow. 90% of it does not occur in the titular castle. I feel like Verne decided to write a Gothic novel with the intent of explaining all the possible supernatural happening with technology—very pre-Scooby Doo of him. The problem is, Verne’s not a Gothic writer. This book might have influenced the early portion of Dracula. If it did, Bram Stoker massively improved upon it.

The Greatcoat cover The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

I knew going into this book that it was going to be a somewhat romantic slow-burn ghost story. And I like that sort of thing, but I wish there had been a little more menace to the haunting, maybe a little more of a zing to the ending. On the other hand, it wasn’t an entirely predicable ghost story, which was nice.

The Fifty Year Sword cover The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

I’ve sort of been in the mood to reread Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a book I didn’t quite like when I read it the first time, but has weirdly stuck with me. But I couldn’t easily find my copy. When I was at the library I considered  checking out their copy, but then I saw The Fifty Year Sword on the shelf.

It’s an odd size for a hard back. It’s cover it riddled with holes as though made by a big sewing needle (or the miniature sword letter opener I own).  The text in the book is upside down and backwards and written in a free-verse style with many quotation marks (demoting different speakers, it’s explained) and embroidery looking illustrations (our protagonist is a seamstress). The names of most of the characters are strange. While there are shadows of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Drosselmeier in the Story Teller and Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch” in the conceit, I sometimes wish Danielewski would simply tell a story without all the shenanigans. But, I suppose, what else was I expecting…

Deal Me In, Week 15 ~ “A Human Stain”

DealMeIn

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

“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Card picked: 6
Found at: Tor

The Story
Down on her luck, Helen is offered the opportunity to accompany Bärchen, a man she barely knows beyond his propensity for revelry, to his ancestral home to teach his orphaned nephew English for the summer. It shouldn’t be too bad of a job even though Bärchen lives in a remote castle called Meresee, the servants barely do their jobs, and Peter’s beautiful French nursemaid won’t open her mouth except to say oui. After only spending a day at home, Bärchen hastily returns to Munich, leaving Helen to puzzle through the lies and secrets of Meresee.

If you smashed The Turn of the Screw into a H. P. Lovecraft tale, but gave it a female protagonist with agency and wit, you’d have something like “A Human Stain.” It’s a chilling tale, well-told.

The Author
I’m fairly unfamiliar with Kelly Robson, but she’s had a bunch of publications in the last few years. In fact, her first novel just came out!

Review ~ All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked Saints Cover via Goodreads

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Here is a thing everyone wants: a miracle.
Here is a thing everyone fears: what it takes to get one.

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I won this from Midnight Book Girl(s) during Bloggers Dressed in Blood. YA isn’t usually my thing, but I was intrigued by sort of magical realism vibe going on in the blurb.

What Worked
I love a good setting and the place and time of Bicho Raro, Colorado, in the desert in 1962 are intrinsic to the story. Pirate radio stations are a thing of the past and the desert is as much of a character as any person. Both transported me to an arid, harsh, but beautiful land full of darkness and stars, owls and soundwaves.

There is a heightened type of narration in All the Crooked Saints and it took me about two-thirds of book to figure out what it reminded me of: Wes Anderson. In a Wes Anderson film, each character has a place and a default way of acting, sometimes in a slightly absurd manner. Crooked Saints has that with the myth-making of Peter S. Beagle and a dollop of telenovela drama. To be fair, this is something that could have gone poorly for me if I hadn’t been in the right mood.

It’s a lovely bit of fairy tale with characters working their way through the mysteries of tradition and superstition in a world where magic does exist.

What Didn’t Work
There are a lot of characters. Not all of them get a lot of page time—which is fine—but many of them don’t get too much of a different voice either. The world is peopled, but much of the Soria family sounded and felt the same to me.

Overall
I really enjoyed All the Crooked Saints. It was a well-needed injection of gentle fantasy into a fairly dull bunch of March books.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Scholastic Press, 2017
Acquired: 11/15/17
Genre: fantasy, YA