{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} 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

{Book} The Long Winter

The Long Winter

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached the roof-tops. And no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I joined the Unread Shelf Project at the beginning of March. The month’s challenge was to read the book that’s been on my shelf the longest. The Long Winter is part of a box-set of Laura Ingalls Wilder books given to me when I was in grade school. So, I figure it pretty much counts.

What Did I Think?
Little House on the Prairie (the TV series, 1974-1983) was staple viewing at my grandparent’s house. My grandpa grew up in northern Minnesota; cabins, farms, and all. I am fairly certain it was one of my aunts and uncles from Minnesota that sent me the set for Christmas. At least the first couple of books were read aloud in grade school as well. I grew up in Nebraska and, even though I’m from Omaha, the prairie and its dangers were never far away. Personally, I didn’t care for the show or the books. I was and ever shall be a city girl and I have never really like kid protagonists, a trait I didn’t really put my finger on until I was an adult. I never quite got into Anne Shirley, or Heidi, or Pippi Longstocking, or even Nancy Drew. I wanted adult adventures, thank you very much. So, I never jived with Laura Ingalls.

Which means that it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I enjoyed The Long Winter as much as I did. I think the key here is that The Long Winter is the start of a slightly more grown-up Laura, a character with more understanding about her place in the world. She is often melancholy, but consciously sets her feeling aside for the good of her family, especially her younger sisters. I’m looking forward to the next few books in the series in order to see Laura grow. I doubt I would have appreciated this as much when I was younger.

There is a repetitive quality to the narrative. A blizzard blows in, the family ekes through, repeat. It is what it says on the tin: a long winter. I have some patience for such things, but Wilder is a deft writer too. A detail like the frost on the heads of the roof nails is beautiful and strange enough that it weathers repetition well.

In context of the world at the moment, I can’t ignore some of the messaging in the book. Hardships pass and joy can be taken in little things. I’m not eating brown bread twice daily because that’s all there is and glad the snow has covered the building because at least now the wind can’t get in. I don’t want to pretend that the “olden days” were better (or that the story isn’t lightened for the young readership Wilder was writing for), but there is something nice about the concept of life being a little less extravagant; about enjoying a surprise of Christmas candies and really looking forward to reading the newspaper. Just something to keep in mind during these days of isolation and uncertainty.

Original Publishing info: Harper & Brothers, 1940
My Copy: Trade Paperback, Harper & Row, 1971

Unread Shelf Project

{Book} Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale by Herman Melville

A sailor called Ishmael narrates the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee. (via Goodreads)

I’ve become one of those people.

I first read Moby-Dick in January of 2017. I knew I would read it again one day, but I didn’t expect it to be so relatively soon. I wasn’t immediately on-board (*cough*) when Brona announced a readalong. But the idea grew on me and I decided, why not?

And I’ve come to realize that Moby-Dick is going to be a book I reread often throughout the rest of my life.

Michael Chabon has a theory about fandom that I will clumsily paraphrase from Maps and Legends: fandom is created in the cracks of fiction. His example is Sherlock Holmes. Those Doyle stories have become an enduring institution, continually adapted and rebooted, because there are so many inconsistencies and alluded to stories within the cannon. Fans want to know, what they can’t know they’ll interpret and fill-in.

And I can see that in Moby-Dick. The people who read this weird novel over and over again (and I’m one of them) want to know more of what’s going on. We want to know more about the character’s intentions, but also Melville’s.

This time around, I really enjoyed some of my fellow reader’s thoughts as well has keeping a Twitter thread of things that stood out to me:

I also read Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick by George Cotkin.

Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick

Cotkin provides some interesting tangents, chapter for chapter. Sometimes these tangents were literary criticism, sometimes historical context, sometimes cultural context. Yes, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is covered. As well as the dubious Emoji Dick.

“What next?” Brona asks.

A book hangover! Actually, I attempted another book-at-sea, but it didn’t work out. Instead, I’m enthralled by the nonfiction book Bad Blood. But then, it’s sort of about an Ahab running a biomedical start-up. But I found my copy of Green Shadows, White Whale, Ray Bradbury’s story of writing the screenplay to John Huston’s Moby-Dick. I’ll reread it in a month or two, I think.

Green Shadows, White Whale

{Book} The Old English Baron

The Old English Baron

The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve

When Sir Philip Harclay returns to England after a long absence, he finds that his childhood friend, Arthur, Lord Lovel, is no longer alive, and that the castle and estates of the Lovel family have twice changed hands. But a mysteriously abandoned set of rooms in the castle of Lovel promises to disclose the secrets of the past. After a series of frantic episodes and surprising revelations, culminating in a trial by combat, the crimes of the usurper and the legitimacy of the true heir are finally discovered. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
This was my first Classics Club Spin book.

What Did I Think?
I gotta say, this book was a slog. I read about half and listened to a LibriVox recording of the rest. (Via YouTube, and for a volunteer reader, quite good!)

In Reeve’s introduction, she calls The Castle of Otranto to task.

For instance; we can conceive, and allow of, the appearance of a ghost; we can even dispense with an enchanted sword and helmet; but then they must keep within certain limits of credibility: A sword so large as to require an hundred men to lift it; a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame; a skeleton ghost in a hermit’s cowl:—When your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter.

This might be the case when the genre of the gothic novel was new. But, after 200 years of the Scooby-Doo-ification of the gothic, it was the over-the-top absurdity of Otranto that I really enjoyed. So, Reeve isn’t wrong, I guess. But also for a modern reader, to dial back the strange to a very minimal level, it’s just not too compelling. I feel like so much of the gothic genre has become cliche; I could see any plot twist a mile away. I’m a little worried about the other gothic novels on my list.

Original Publishing info: 1778
My Copy: Project Gutenberg & LibriVox
Genre: gothic novel