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…

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Review ~ On the Wrong Track

Cover via Goodreads

On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

It might be 1893 and the modern world may in full-swing, but cowboy Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer is an old-fashioned kind of guy: he prefers a long trail ride even when a train could get him where he’s going in one-tenth the time. His brother Otto (“Big Red”), on the other hand, wouldn’t mind climbing down from his horse and onto a train once in a while if it’ll give his saddle-sore rear end a rest. So when it’s Old Red who insists they sign on to protect the luxurious Pacific Express, despite a generations-old Amlingmeyer family distrust of the farm-stealin’, cattle-killin’, money-grubbin’ railroads, Big Red is flummoxed. But Old Red, tired of the cowpoke life, wants to take a stab at professional ‘detectifying’ just like his hero, Sherlock Holmes and guard jobs for the railroad are the only ones on offer.

So it is that Big Red and Old Red find themselves trapped on a thousand tons of steam-driven steel, summiting the Sierras en route to San Francisco with a crafty gang of outlaws somewhere around the next bend, a baggage car jam-packed with deadly secrets, and a vicious killer hidden somewhere amongst the colorful passengers.

On the Wrong Track, Old Red and Big Red’s much anticipated return, is filled with all of the wit, flavor, humor, and suspense that made Hockensmith’s debut, Holmes on the Range, so beloved by critics and fans alike. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I read Holmes on the Range, the first book in this series, in late 2016. Only a year between the first and the second? I amaze even myself!

What Worked
I really enjoy the set up of Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range books: Gustav Amlingmeyer, a cowhand in the 1890’s American west, knows Doyle’s (or rather Watson’s) tales of Sherlock Holmes. He’s taken with the notion of “deducifying” and wants to be a professional detective. He is also illiterate, having worked labor-intensive jobs to keep his family afloat since he was young. His brother Otto is a big strong guy, but has been given a clerk’s education. Together, the brothers are a complementary team, even if they don’t always get along. They’re brother’s after all. Against the backdrop of the Old West, the brothers encounter and solve mysteries.

On the Wrong Track involves a mystery set aboard a train bound to San Francisco. It’s a good mystery with enough clues and events to keep the brothers and readers busy.

I read this soon after reading “The Huge Hunter: Or, the Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward S. Ellis. The Steam Man, an giant robot man made to pull a wagon, was the subject of a series of dime novels in the latter half of the 19th century. As with a lot of late 19th century fiction, Ellis felt the need to give accents to characters of different backgrounds. The Irishman character, McSquizzle, is nearly incomprehensible. Thank goodness we’ve moved beyond that. While Hockensmith has the brothers (and others) use quite a bit of western slang, it reads easy.

What Didn’t Work
A minor annoyance: sometimes Otto (our POV brother) is a bit repetitive. I can understand wanting to get certain things solid in a reader’s mind, but I think Hockensmith can have a little more faith in his audience. This is a very minor point.

Overall
Honestly, my best reading this year has been “fun” reading. The Holmes on the Range series isn’t high art, but it’s entertainingly written and plotted. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, author published (I believe), 2016 (2007)
Acquired: Amazon, 4/19/17
Genre: mystery, western

This is my first book for the Wild West Reading Challenge!

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

Review ~ Countdown City

Cover via Goodreads

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

There are just 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace – an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

The second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Countdown City presents a fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse – and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you? (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, I won this book from The Geeky Library back in June 2014. Two years later in 2016, I reviewed the first in the series, The Last Policeman. I said at the end of that review I said I’d be reading Countdown City in the near future. Well… I guess that’s what the TBR Challenge is for!

What Worked
As with the first book, the thing I like about this series is the character of Hank Palance. Hank is just a regular guy. He just wants to be a police detective, a job he’s reasonably good at. Sadly, the end of the world is kind of getting in the way. The novel starts July 18th; in 77 days a meteor is going to hit the Earth, a possibly humanity-ending event. Hank is the type of character I like to write: a hard-worker who is being screwed over by circumstances. Despite everything, Hank is still this good, decent guy.

Winters also does a good job of advancing the timeline of societal breakdown as Impact Day approaches.  Things are getting dicey. People are starting to get a little nutty about resources. There are cults and scams and conspiracies. These things are a lot more interesting than the super lawlessness that most apocalyptic stories present.

What Didn’t Work
A bit of a **SPOILER** warning here — Hank has a knack of getting himself into trouble without a plan to get out of that trouble. While he gets the crap beat out of him, the narrative bails him out. There are a couple of swoop-in rescues of Hank in this book. They’re not really unreasonable, but this is a trend that can get old. **END SPOILER**

Overall
I enjoyed Countdown City. I had a couple of problems with the story, but I’m still interested in reading the third book. Maybe I’ll finish the series by 2020?

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Quick Books, 2013
Acquired: Won it from GeekyLibrary, June 2014
Genre: mystery, science fiction

Review ~ The Sorrows of Young Werther

Cover via Goodreads

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, R.D. Boylan (Translator)

This is Goethe’s first novel, published in 1774. Written in diary form, it tells the tale of an unhappy, passionate young man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, the wife of a friend – a man who he alternately admires and detests. Goethe upset the conventional literature of his day by having his hero propose suicide as a method by which anyone might end an intolerable misery. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ became an important part of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement, and greatly influenced later ‘Romanticism’. The work is semi-autobiographical – in 1772, two years before the novel was published, Goethe had passed through a similar tempestuous period, when he lost his heart to Charlotte Buff, who was at that time engaged to his friend Johann Christian Kestner.(via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I read this book as part of the FrankenSlam! challenge, hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. All the details of this challenge can be found there. The Sorrows of Young Werther is worth 275 million volts!

What Worked
I’ll be honest, one of my initial thoughts while reading The Sorrows of Young Werther was, “Wow, Morrissey didn’t invent being emo.” Superficial, but it does say a lot about the relatability  of a 243 year old text.

But of course there is an entire literary movement, Romanticism, that is chock full of natural vistas and characters feeling everything with painful clarity. It’s easy to see the roots of Romanticism in Werther. Mary Shelley chose this to be one of the texts of the monster’s education, so it’s easy to infer that Werther was important to Shelly as well. I don’t mean this in any diminishing way, but it’s very much the sort of thing that would appeal to a 19 year-old. (I was 19 years old once, I remember how important and/or heart-breaking everything was.)

There are some thoughts on fate that I’m still chewing on, and I look forward to seeing the text through the monster’s eyes when I reread Frankenstein later this year.

What Didn’t Work
At about the 2/3rds point, the narrative switches from being Werther’s letters to being a 3rd person POV explaining what happened to Werther. Werther is an intriguing narrator, possibly an unreliable one. Once we go to third person? Well, we see just how much Werther is that guy that should just really *move on*. It’s a bit painful. Goethe wrote Werther when he was 24. It was somewhat auto-biographical.  According to Wikipedia, Goethe felt haunted by it in his later years.

And BTW…
The novel lends its name to social behavior known as the Werther effect, or copycat suicides, due to a rash of young men solving their problems in the manner of Werther after the novel gained popularity. The Werther effect is the reason that a certain YouTube star took a lot of flack (well, among other reasons) for filming in Japan’s Aokigahara forest.

Acquired: Project Gutenberg, 12/29/17
Genre: epistolary novel

Review ~ The Linking Rings

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

Cover via Goodreads

The Linking Rings by John Gaspard

What does Eli Marks have up his sleeve this time? Well, let me tell you, no matter the mystery, his sleight of hand always does the trick.

Eli’s trip to London with his uncle Harry quickly turns homicidal when the older magician finds himself accused of murder. Not Uncle Harry!

A second slaying does little to take the spotlight off Harry. Instead it’s clear someone is knocking off Harry’s elderly peers in bizarrely effective ways. But who?
The odd gets odder when the prime suspect appears to be a bitter performer with a grudge…who committed suicide over thirty years before.

While Eli struggles to prove his uncle’s innocence—and keep them both alive—he finds himself embroiled in a battle of his own: a favorite magic routine of his has been ripped off by another hugely popular magician.

What began as a whirlwind vacation to London with girlfriend Megan turns into a fatal and larcenous trip into the dark heart of magic within the city’s oldest magic society, The Magic Circle. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is the 4th Eli Marks mystery. The first, The Ambitious Card, established Eli as our working magician and amateur sleuth protagonist. I’ve enjoyed the whole series.

What Worked
Gaspard’s details about magic and the social aspects surrounding magicians are always great. Magicians have a strange dynamic of friendship/rivalry which I’m not sure exists in other industries. It’s a lot of fun and adds a certain amount of drama to situations.

The setting of The Linking Rings shifts away from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to London. While the sense of place isn’t as strong, I never doubted Eli and Harry jumping from tube station to tube station as murders happen around them.

What Didn’t Work (as much)
Set in London, this volume of the series doesn’t have one of the relationships that have made the other mysteries work better: Eli’s district attorney ex-wife and her cop fiance.  Without these hooks into the investigation, the clues in The Linking Rings just sort of accumulate around Eli. While he’s instrumental in the climax of the story, solving of the mystery feels abrupt.

Overall
This is a fun, honest mystery. Eli Marks is a great character and I’m hoping that John Gaspard continues to provide magic in future books.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Henery Press, 01/16/18
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Mystery

Review ~ Wuthering Heights

Cover via Goodreads

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, situated on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before; of the intense relationship between the gypsy foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw; and how Catherine, forced to choose between passionate, tortured Heathcliff and gentle, well-bred Edgar Linton, surrendered to the expectations of her class. As Heathcliff’s bitterness and vengeance at his betrayal is visited upon the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Twenty years ago (yes, that much), I finished my college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in English. Yet, I had never read Emily Brontë’s only novel. More shameful still (if you have a degree in English), I had attempted to read Wuthering Heights not once, but twice(!), before I decided to jump on board Roofbeam Reader’s Classic Book of the Month Club.

What Worked
I started the year with Moby Dick and I am near ending it with Wuthering Heights, two of the oddest novels I’ve encountered. In the case of the former, I’m rather glad that I never had to read it for a class. It’s too big and there’s too much. I think the only way to do it justice would be to have a semester long class. In the case of the latter, I wouldn’t mind a little guided context for Wuthering Heights because I feel like I’m missing something.

My initial read is that this is a novel about miserable people being miserable to each other.

…however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty arises from your greater misery.

In that way, and this might be considered sacrilege, but it reminded me of Gone Girl. Just full of terrible, horrible people. Even Mr. Lockwood, our entrance-level character, is snarky, peevish, and jealous. The only character worth her salt is Ellen Dean—nanny, housemaid, sane person.

I *suppose*, prompted by the summary above, I could buy that all this tragedy is set into motion by a woman doing what is expected of her instead of what her heart dictates, but the wheels of dreadful behavior are already set in motion by the time Cathy decides to marry proper Linton instead of mercurial Heathcliff.

What Didn’t Work
Is it just me or is the use of quotation marks a little eccentric? Honestly, this is one of the reasons I’ve had trouble with Wuthering Heights. I’d put it down for a day and lose track of who was doing the narration, even though it was usually Mrs. Dean.  Also, the names just kill me. This genealogy chart helped a lot (linked to avoid spoilers).

What also doesn’t help are relatively good movie versions (adaptation doesn’t seem to be the right word) that leave out all the domestic abuse in favor of telling a romantic tale. With the number of beatings that occur, I’m not sure why this is considered a romantic work. Maybe that’s where my disconnect lies. I expected a great, if tragic, romance. Instead, I got one of the great novels of revenge. As a revenge story, I’m not sure Quentin Tarantino has done better.

Overall
I can’t say I disliked it, but it’s one of those cases where I feel like I’ve read a totally different book than everyone else.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, AmazonClassics
Genre: classics, literary, gothic

The first time I encountered an allusion to Heathcliff:

Review ~ The Prestige

Cover via Goodreads

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other’s ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians’ craft can command–the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations…to descendants who must, for their sanity’s sake, untangle the puzzle left to them. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is a reread for me. Sometimes, I get so caught-up in ARCs and the unread books in my “pile” that I don’t let myself reread intriguing books that I enjoyed the first time around. Boy, am I glad I decided to reread The Prestige.

What Worked
I first read it in 2010, about two years before my earnest interest in magic took hold. From the my standpoint as a slightly-beyond-layman, Priest knows his stuff magic-wise. Previously, I didn’t fully appreciate the differences between Borden and Angier’s performance philosophies. The division between dedication to theory and dedication to end-performance still exists in a world  that contains both Ricky Jay and David Blaine.

The voices of the two magicians (and Andrew and Kate in the modern wrap-around) are clear and distinctive. This is something I didn’t appreciate the first time I read the story. I also didn’t fully appreciate the crossing events in the narrative. Basically, we’re given two separate (and incomplete) narratives; first Borden’s and then Angier’s. And that’s it. Despite having two modern characters working to make sense of the narratives, readers are left to fit pieces together without any extra-narrative interference. It’s a nice puzzle of a novel.

What Didn’t Work
We won’t talk about the science…

Also, Andrew and Kate in modern times are the least interesting portion of the novel, aside from the rather tense last five pages.

Overall
I’ll echo what I said in my first “review” of The Prestige: I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie. The movie is much different (how did I forget that Angier started out as fraudulent medium in the book?), but there are two major plot points —the twists—that are paralleled. But now that I’ve also seen the film probably a dozen more times, I’m further impressed by how well the adaptation works. Stakes needed to be higher in the movie. So, kudos to Jonathan and Christopher Nolan for creating a story that is the prestigious twin  of the book.

Publishing info, my copy: mass market paperback, Tor (tie-in edition with a terrible cover, not the cover above), 2006 (orig. 1995)
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: horror, science fiction