{Books} The Westmark Trilogy

Westmark (Westmark, #1)

Theo, by occupation, was a devil. That is, he worked as apprentice and general servant to Anton, the printer. … Accidentally, he had learned to read, which in some opinion spoiled him for anything sensible.

So begins Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen).

Alexander is more popularly known for the the Chronicles of Prydain series, of which The Black Cauldron is part. Prydain is based on Welsh mythology and has a good helping of oracular pigs, rhyming beast-men, dark lords, and young chosen heroes.

Westmark, while not precisely somewhere in Europe, is set in a non-fantastical world, circa 1800. The crux of the plot involves the gradual abolition of a monarchy and the civil and international struggles of a budding republic. What more can you want in a YA series?

Theo, our main character, is not of secret noble birth or any thing spectacular like that and struggles with the actions he’s taken to become a “hero.” Mickle, our female character, is actually a really great character. She’s smart, competent, and self-sufficient. She and Theo become a couple and just… stay that way. There’s no love triangle, or “how can I be worthy of you,” or any other nonsense. They’re just two young people that would like to live their lives, but there’s this pesky revolution mucking things up.

I harp a little on the romance aspect because I find its lack of complication to be refreshing. By no means are these books romances: they are adventures! There are harrowing rescues, treacherous bad guys, plots and counter-plots. Enemies become allies and the good guys aren’t always right. The characters relationships are complex without being over-dramatic. And, while the first book Westmark won the 1982 National Book Award for Children’s Books, I can see how its lower key has possibly hurt its longevity.

Still, the writing sparkles and Alexander has a good eye for when to add some ridiculousness. They’ve been the perfect books to read a chapter of every morning for the last three months.

Side note: I collected all three of these books over the years in the above hardback editions. All three are discarded library books. From three different libraries. Westmark was purchased first, probably in Lincoln, NE; it had previously been part of the Springfield (NE) Public Library system. I’m pretty sure I came across The Beggar Queen next, at the Tempe (AZ) Public Library book sale. Later, I ordered The Kestrel through Paperback Swap. The sender removed any locational information, but it still has the shelving label on its spine.

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.

{Book} The Changeling

The Changeling

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

Summary via Goodreads

I really enjoyed LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and was looking to read more from him. I believe I put The Changeling on my TBR list when I was looking for successors to Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. As I was reading I thought that The Changeling was like a cross between War for the Oaks and the movie Hereditary, so I guess it scratched that folklore-in-the-mordern-world itch!

I didn’t know where this book was going to take me and I really enjoyed that. I don’t know how much I want to say about the crux of this book because it surprised to me and I really don’t want to spoil it. There was a really great interplay between technology/social media and old world folklore. To me, if you’re going to tell urban fantasy stories, that’s what’s needed to be more than “Hey, look! A werewolf in the streets in the year 2018!” (Note: werewolves are an example here. There are no werewolves in this book.)

But, my other comparison is Hereditary. The Changeling is definitely horror. There are some horrific things, but also a pervasive sense distrust and wrongness throughout the story which makes it tense and discomfiting. The story is slow to get going, but that’s because LaValle carefully lays a base for these characters. Their pasts matter to the story; not just in making the reader care for them, but giving them reason for acting the way they do and what situations they find themselves in.

In general, I haven’t enjoyed a horror novel this much since Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child. Victor LaValle is fast becoming one of my favorite “new” authors.

Publication: Spiegel & Grau, 2017
My Copy: Overdrive/Kindle edition, Tempe Digital Library
Genre: horror

{Book} Meddling Kids

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven’t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Kerri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she’s got Sean, an excitable Weimeraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter’s been dead for years.

The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.

Cover and summary via Goodreads

Meddling Kids has been on my TBR list for a while, but I decided to read it now because it was the June pick for the Occult Detective Book Club.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.

I’m not a huge Scooby-Doo fan, but it was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid and has probably had an out-sized influence on the way I see the world. While I like reading about the supernatural, I don’t actually believe in it. Scooby-Doo is kind of the opposite of occult detectives: the mysteries investigated look supernatural, but aren’t. It sits firmly in a skeptical space. I was a skeptical kid and I’m a skeptical adult.

But as I said, I do like reading about the supernatural, so I was looking forward to the twist of Meddling Kids. The gang, grown up, face a paranormal mystery. Additionally, the story is set in the Lovecraft-verse.

I liked the setting, but I wasn’t very attached to the characters. I liked the majority of the plot. The reversals were nice and I like a good dead-friend’s-ghost advisor character. Unfortunately, the real hurdle for me was the writing.

There are a lot of winks and nudges. Zoinx River? Jinkies. While Arkham is mentioned by name, H. P. Lovecraft is referenced as an author named Howard. According to Wikipedia, Meddling Kids is also inspired by Enid Blyton’s the Famous Five series that began publication in 1942. The Famous Five are Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (nick-named George) and their dog Timmy. I had no idea about this series, but the nods are obvious, especially since Meddling Kids is set in Blyton Hills, Oregon. And it comes off as a little too clever for its own good.

Also in that too-clever category, some of the writing seems stunt-like. Kerri’s hair being sort of cartoon-sentient was…weird. (I have curly red hair. It isn’t that fun.) Some of the adverbs choices were odd. A candleflame silence, a flock of hair. Then there was the page and a half long sentence that was part of an action scene. Kind of the equivalent of a long one-shot in a movie. Speaking of movies, sometimes the dialogue would slip into screenplay-ish format. What is that about? Maybe I’m old and boring, but it was a little too much for me.

I didn’t totally dislike Meddling Kids. I did finish reading it after all, and it was a fast read, but it didn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would be.

Publication: Doubleday, 2017
My copy: Tempe Public Library Overdrive edition

{Book} In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the New Germany, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

I read both Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City in 2010, which means I became a fan of Erik Larson right before In the Garden of Beasts was published. I probably obtained my used copy in 2011 because the book started to show up in earnest on my TBR list in January of 2012.

But while I wanted to read In the Garden of Beast, I was never in the mood to read it. I waited for the right time, but there’s never a good time for Nazis. Even less so in recent years. In the relative political quiet of a pandemic (and I stress the word “relative” here), I figured it would be perfect for the Unread Shelf Project’s May prompt: a backlist title by an author with a newer book out. (Larson just released The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill.)

Without knowing much about history, it’s easy to think that someone like Hitler abruptly took power and “boom” Nazi Germany is in place. The reality is much more insidious, that there is a rise to power and the violence and policies against certain groups came about gradually. When Dodd begins his tenure, there is still some optimism that Germany’s new government would become more moderate. We know know that it doesn’t.

I was also unaware of how much in-fighting there was between the higher ups in the Nazi party. Maybe that’s just what happens when a group of individually ambitious men take control. There is a continual grappling for power and loyalty.

Is there a cautionary aspect to reading In the Garden of Beasts? Knowing history is often helpful in avoiding repeats of situations, although these seem to be lessons hard earned and often over-looked. But mostly, there’s never a good time for Nazis.

Published: Crown Publishers, 2011
My Copy:
paperback, 2011, probably from Paperback Swap

Unread Shelf Project

{Book} The Beetle

{Book} The Beetle by Richard March

‘It changes its shape at will. It compels others to do its bidding. It inspires terror in all who look on it…’

Eminent politician Paul Lessingham is the toast of Westminster, but when ‘the Beetle’ arrives from Egypt to hunt him down, the dark and gruesome secret that haunts him is dragged into the light. Bent on revenge for a crime committed against the disciples of an Egyptian goddess, the Beetle terrorizes its victims and will stop at nothing until it has satisfaction.

(via Goodreads)

Hey, finally a Classics Club book that I (mostly) enjoyed! This is not a comment on the virtue of classics, it’s just how it shakes out when you make up a list of 50 books. Some of them you like, some of them you don’t. I managed to pick three “eh” books in a row from my list of 50.

The Beetle was published in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s novel, The Beetle was first published as a serial, starting in March and lasting through June. (Dracula was published in May.) It’s said that The Beetle initially outsold Dracula. While one book is about a vampire and the other is about a cult of Isis, there are actually quite a few similarities.

The Beetle is split into four parts, each part a narration by a different character. We start with Robert Holt, the Renfield of this piece. For creepiness, the second chapter of this book blows away pretty much anything in Dracula. Holt is mesmerized/possessed and ordered to break into the house of a politician, Paul Lessingham, and stealing some letters. The second section is narrated by Sydney Atherton, a scientist and fickle romantic. His scientific specialty is chemical warefare. This isn’t entirely science fiction in 1897, but the use of such a horrible weapon was a societal worry. Atherton seems enamored with the idea of killing many people at once… He’s (currently) in love with Marjorie Lindon, who is engaged to Paul.

Marjorie is the Mina/Lucy here; she’s a good woman and everyone is in love with her. The third section of the book is from her point of view and Marjorie is just great. She’s smart, she’s snarky, and she has no time for men driveling all over her. Unfortunately, there has to be damsel in distress and Marjorie is the only damsel around. (She would hate being called a damsel.)

The last section is narrated by Augustus Champnell, a character who hasn’t really been part of the story, but is a friend of Atherton’s. We finally get some information from Lessingham about his past. When he was travelling in his youth, he was seduced by a strange woman who is the high priestess of a cult of Isis. (Queue Victorian Orientalism, not that the book wasn’t chock full before this…) After months of sex and human sacrifices, Lessingham overcame the priestess and escaped. (Similar to Jonathan Harker in Dracula.) There is a surprising amount of nudity mentioned in The Beetle, so maybe it isn’t surprising that it outsold Dracula in its time. It’s now three years later. The priestess has hunted down Lessingham for revenge, and kidnapped Marjorie.

It seems like Marsh wasn’t sure how to end this novel because this last section is padded out with Champnel, Atherton, and Lessingham chasing around and being tripped up by people of lower class. Eventually Marjorie is rescued by deus ex machina.

The Beetle is perhaps most notable these days for its interesting look at gender identity. The priestess of Isis is a shape-changer, able to take the form of a beetle, but also being able to present as both/either male and female. Of course, since she’s a white-lady-sacrificing, Englishman-corrupting monster, this is not progressive. When Marjorie is mesmerized into going along with the priestess (or “Arab” in her male form(?)), she is disguised at a young man—her hair is cut off and she’s made to (gasp) wear pants. When word gets back to our trio of pursuing men that the Arab is now accompanied by a young man (and they’ve already found Marjorie’s dress and her cut off hair), it takes them way too long to even consider the disguise.

For scares, honestly, The Beetle does better than Dracula, but the latter is a much more well-crafted novel. I’m glad I read it though. A shape-shifting Egyptian priestess is a nice change-up.

  • Genre: horror
  • Publishing info: serialization as The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man in Answers, 1897
  • My copy: ebook via Project Gutenberg

{Book} Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
Lovecraft Country has been on my TBR list for quite a while. There has been a plethora of literature riffing on Lovecraft’s mythoi that is a reaction to Lovecraft-the-author. I don’t know if this has occurred with any other problematic author. Maybe it’s time and distance that has allowed it to happen (thanks to the public domain*) or the acknowledgement that the worlds Lovecraft created have been undeniably important to fantastic fiction and shouldn’t be abandoned due to the dubious philosophies of their author.

HBO is producing a Lovecraft Country series that premiers in August and their trailer reminded me of the book, which was available from the Tempe Digital Library. I read the first couple pages and pretty much ditched everything else I have been reading to go on a ride through Lovecraft country.

*Well, Lovecraft’s works are probably in the public domain. There are issues

Characters
Every once in while, I open a book and it is the characters that immediately hook me. I think the last time it happened was with the Last Policeman series. Hank Palace and Atticus Turner are similar characters in some ways. Both are competent men who remain stolid despite the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. These are the kind of characters I love.

Plot
In an interview, Matt Ruff said he originally conceived of Lovecraft Country as a sort of anthology series with each character getting their own story, but all the stories interconnect. As a result, each chapter of the book focuses on a separate character, advancing the plot along from the first chapter which is entitled Lovecraft Country. And this works! I hope the HBO series preserves that.

Setting
Ruff does a good job with the setting: the real world of 1954 with a twist. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Block, Ray Bradbury, and other authors are all authors in this world. When Atticus goes to “Lovecraft” country, he’s going to the New England he’s read about in Lovecraft’s stories. But of course, there are differences. Cabals of wizards for one. The Safe Negro Travel Guide is also a fiction also, though based on the real Negro Motorist Green Book. For the most part, the real and the fictional work together rather well.

Overall
The most common criticism I’ve seen of Lovecraft Country is that it isn’t very Lovecraftian. Indeed, this is not a Lovecraft pastiche. It only tangentially hints at cosmic horror, and then takes more of a science fiction approach to it, while still having ghosts and cults and “natural sciences.” It is exactly the bits I like about Lovecraft, divorced from the pulps and given to good characters inhabiting a more realistic world.

Original Publishing info: HarperCollins, February 16, 2016
My Copy: OverDrive Read, Tempe Public Library
Genre: horror