The Stopping Place, by Helen Slavin

3390801Helen Slavin’s The Stopping Place is a horror novel, at least for women readers. It isn’t terrifying at first. The first part of the novel is unsettling, sure, especially as protagonist Ruby starts to become a vigilante for women who have problems with men who don’t listen to the word “no.” But when the second part, in which Ruby reveals where she came from and why she is so profoundly afraid of men, that The Stopping Place turns into a story so chilling that I had a hard time getting through it. Thankfully, the ending (not to say too much) delivers justice for Ruby and other women victimized by men.

When we meet Ruby, she is a library assistant in an unknown British city. (I only know this book is somewhere in the UK because of the vocabulary. Ruby is awfully fond of the word “claggy.”) She lives alone. She does not cultivate friendships. Instead, she watches people. In her role as voyeur, Ruby watches her coworker Martha’s relationship begin to turn violent. It’s clear she doesn’t want to engage, but Ruby masters her fear to fight back on the behalf of other women in her circumscribed world. Her successes, however, mean that her ex-husband tracks her down.

In the second part of the book, Ruby finally reveals her story. This part, I’ll say again, is very hard to read. Imagine trigger warning stickers all over the place for domestic violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse. The second part probably goes on too long, if I’m honest. And yet, some of it is very necessary showing the emotional life of women involved with controlling, violent men. These abusive men are reasonable at first. They’re sexy, too. But, the longer the relationship goes, the reasonableness turns into a pot of emotional boiling water: little things are dismissed, larger things are explained away, and the biggest things must be coped with because the abused person has no way out.

The best part of The Stopping Place is the ending. During the first part, when Ruby-as-librarian digitizes and catalogs the papers of a Victorian photographer and searches for a missing laundress from the photographer’s estate, I didn’t see how any of it added to Ruby’s story. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until the end that I finally twigged to this subplot’s purpose. When it hit me, I saw how The Stopping Place is, over and over, a story of women pushed into uncomfortable or dangerous positions by powerful men (physically or otherwise) and hit their breaking point.

In spite of the difficulty in reading about physical and emotional abuse, I liked this book. I’m a big fan of a book about extrajudicial justice anyway, especially when the vigilante is a woman. I also enjoyed Ruby’s strange, new life and the way she gets little revenges on people who wrong her. The Stopping Place is a challenge, but I found it very much worthwhile.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 November 2017.


This week on the bookish internet

After the End of the World, by Jonathan L. Howard

33574101After the universe was “unfolded” at the end of Lovecraft & Carter, Emily Lovecraft and Dan Carter found themselves in a world that was deeply wrong. The prologue of After the End of the World clues us into how wrong the world is as well. The novel opens shortly before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is signed in Moscow, in 1939. Instead of signing, in this reality, a German pilot detonates what appears to be an atomic bomb over the city. Everyone is killed and the Nazis sweep east to conquer the Soviet Union. The prologue sets up a sense of deep unease, one that never really lets up as Lovecraft and Carter try to put the universe back to rights.

Lovecraft is still a book seller and the descendant of H.P. Lovecraft. Carter is still a detective, former policeman, and descendant of Randolph Carter. However, in this new universe, not only did the Nazis win and World War II never happen, but Arkham, Rhode Island, Miskatonic University, and the Necronomicon exist. The intrepid pair don’t have a lot of time to work out just how different their new universe is. Instead, a mysterious and unsettling lawyer gives Carter a job: working for a Gestapo agent on what appears to be a case of scientific malfeasance. The job first pulls Carter deeper into weirdness, then grabs Lovecraft, too.

The plot of After the End of the World begins to pick up speed at the halfway point. Most of what happens before serves to encourage feelings of Lovecraftian weirdness and set the stage for what happens in the second half, when the action relocates to Attu Island, Alaska. It’s rather amazing how Howard manages to pull in so much Nazi occultism while sidestepping some of the worst implications of a successful Third Reich and introducing some new, deeply unpleasant effects.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started it. The first half, the stage-setting bit moves a bit too slowly. Like Lovecraft, I was itching for some serious Nazi ass-kicking action. That itch was very satisfyingly scratched in the second half. I was glued to the pages for the entire second half. I still don’t care overmuch for the first half, but I did like the spectacular finish and all the clandestine shenanigans that preceded it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

Strangers in Budapest, by Jessica Keener

33590212Will and Annie might be at loose ends in Budapest, but the elderly man they check on during a heatwave has no questions about what he is in the city to do in Jessica Keener’s Strangers in BudapestWill and Annie are in the city to try and get Will’s cell phone business up and running. Unfortunately, Will keeps hitting dead ends. Meanwhile, Annie only has her jogging and intermittent parenting to occupy her. But Edward Weiss, the elderly man they meet one hot day, is in the city for vengeance. I’ll be blunt. This little summary makes the book sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. I was frequently frustrated with the way the plot fails to progress in any meaningful way for most of the book.

We spend most of the time shadowing Annie as she stagnates in Budapest. In the States, she worked with homeless alcoholics. Since becoming an adopted parent, Annie has given up her work to tend to Leo. But, bafflingly, she and Will hire a babysitter to take care of the boy for hours at a time. Between the babysitter and Will taking meetings with anyone who will agree, she really doesn’t have a lot to do. It’s little wonder that she latches on to Edward after mutual friends as the couple to check up on him. Annie pushes through Edward’s rudeness and crotchety ways because she seems to need to help people, even if they don’t particularly want her help.

Over the course of Strangers in Budapest, we learn what drives Edward and Annie and what has gone wrong in their lives. Both are burdened by guilt and have suffered family tragedies. Where Annie’s tragedies have lead her to be a social worker, Edward’s have reinforced his need to protect only himself and his family. Edward doesn’t understand helping people he considered “losers”—alcoholics, addicts, the homeless, etc. He frequently asks Annie why she helps people he thinks can’t be helped. Annie, however, can’t explain other than to say it makes her feel good to at least try. She is not the most eloquent character, so I got a little annoyed at watching her flail with words when Edward puts her on the spot.

There is a lot of praise for this novel, but I found Strangers in Budapest very flawed. It’s not so bad that I gave up on it, but I’m not sure if I can recommend it. The dialog is boring. There’s hardly any plot. I didn’t understand Annie at all. The characters keep talking about how depressed the Hungarians are in sweeping generalizations. There’s little sense of place and this book could have been set anywhere outside of the United States. Edward brings up the Holocaust so many times, even though it has no bearing on the story, that it felt like a cheap emotional ploy. There were so many little things I didn’t like that this book was a chore for me to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

But What Does It All Mean?

I always begin my workshops for upper division English students with an exercise to help them see how many things they might write about and generate keywords. Using whatever text they’ve just finished in class, I ask them what it was about. And there is always an embarrassing pause and the professor gets hilariously annoyed with their students. After the pause, the students rally and come up with a good list of topics and keywords. I worked with a Shakespeare class yesterday and, as I was scribbling words up on the whiteboard, I got to thinking about how hard it can be to sum up something like Richard IIIThe Handmaid’s Tale, etc. in short phrases and single words.

Géza Vörös

Summing up books in short phrases and words is something I do all the time, and something that I see book reviewers write about all the time. It’s the mirror of what I imagine authors have to do when they pitch their ideas to agents and publishers. We take a long piece of prose that the author has created and boil it all back down to the idea that might have sparked the story in the first place. Well, at least, we boil it back do to the idea we think was the spark. There might be some disagreement with the author. (I’m looking at you, Ray Bradbury.) English majors and literary critics do this because they want to get at the heart of what a story is about. Book reviewers and recommenders do it because it seems to be the best way to hook a potential reader.

The problem (if you can really call it a problem) is that, just as my students discover while we fill up a white board with ideas, themes, and issues, texts are never about just one thing. For a really great book, it’s probably not fair to even try. There might be a major theme, but a quick look below the surface of a story will find all sorts of interesting things to think about. At least, it will in a good book.

I can understand why those English majors pause when I ask them what a text is about. They’re learning how to summarize thousands of words down to something they can type into a database. Not only do they need to do this to find research on whatever interests them about literature, but I think they also need this skill in order to share the meaning of stories with others. Summarizing is shorthand for talking about books. Without summarizing, the only way to talk about what Richard III and The Handmaid’s Tale have to tell us is to read them (which one should do anyway) and there are so many books out there and so little time!

The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027It’s never easy to suddenly find oneself in the middle of a centuries’ old tangle of warfare, rebellion, and politics. Worse still, there’s magic in the mix. Nahri, at the beginning of S.A. Chakraborty’s astonishingly beautiful and thrilling The City of Brass, thinks she has a pretty good handle on life as a con artist in eighteenth century Cairo. But when she accidentally summons a djinn, Nahri is swept up into a strange world straight out of Arab and Persian myth and a lot of political wrangling. She is, quite simply, in over her head.

Nahri doesn’t know who her people are. She managed to bring herself up on the streets of Cairo by running scams. She’s always been able to do strange things like healing people and understanding every language spoken to her like a native. But when she attempts an exorcism (for the money, not because she believes in what she’s doing), Nahri manages to summon up a djinn from years of slavery and violence. The next thing Nahri knows, she’s on the run from ifrits, ghouls, and other mythical creatures. While she might have wandered into a fairy tale, this one is deadly serious. Not only that but her only guide, Dara, is irritated by her questions and his duty to shepherd her to the presumed safety of Daevabad.

Nahri is a scrappy survivor and I loved getting to know her. (Watching her needle the men around her is always a delight.) But I felt for her as she is forced to navigate her new world. There are the great expectations forced on her once Nahri’s heritage becomes clear. It’s as if Nahri has walked into a play in progress and no one handed her her lines. Everyone around her knows the city’s history, the properties of all the magical inhabitants, and what the all the factions are after. The former con artist is suddenly a pawn in a lot of different games.

It’s not all politics and magical training montages, however. There are several utterly thrilling action scenes in The City of Brass. I actually read through a few of them so fast that I had to go back and reread them; I raced ahead because I just had to know if my favorite characters survived. No one pulls their punches in this book and, even though this is a trilogy, it seems like no one is guaranteed to make it through to the next volumes apart from Nahri herself.

The City of Brass completely swept me away. (I loved it so much that I’m a little angry that I have to wait a little longer than everyone else to read the second book in the trilogy.) On top of the amazing, action-packed plot is a fully realized world full of magic and creatures from a tradition that hasn’t been thoroughly mined in English-language fiction. This review barely scrapes the surface of what I found in The City of Brass, but I will say that I was so hooked by this book that I read it in one sitting this evening after work. Dinner was whatever I could grab and eat with one hand. I am going to be singing this book’s praises for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

Wonders Will Never Cease, by Robert Irwin

34145298Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, by Robert Irwin’s Wonders Will Never Cease repeatedly demonstrates that fiction will always win a competition for imaginative bizarreness. This metafictional novel follows the life of Anthony Woodville, an actual historical figure, as he is bounced around by the vagaries of War of the Roses-era politics and by the fictional wrangling of the king’s alchemist and Sir Thomas Malory. This is not a biographical novel so much as it is a bibliographic one. By the end, I think I had contemplated dozens of the purposes and consequences of storytelling along with the characters. Be warned, however. This is not an easy book to read because it is mostly people telling stories to each other. The action happens quickly and mostly off the page.

Anthony Woodville fought for the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton before suffering a terrible wound. Everyone believes he was dead for three days before waking up. Unfortunately for Woodville, the Yorkists won and Edward IV is now king. Also unfortunately for Woodville, the days he spent “dead” draws attention from George Ripley the Alchemist. Ripley—who, even though he was an actual historical figure, constantly made me think of the later Ripley’s Believe It or Not—almost immediately begins spreading stories about Woodville’s supernatural adventures. (People keep asking Woodville if he really does wear a hair shirt. He does not.)

For the rest of Wonders Will Never Cease, we see a blend of actual history and myth, Arthurian legends, hints of Chaucer and François Villon, wonders and theological “science,” tall tales, and much more. I confess I had to read several articles about the actual Anthony Woodville and his contemporaries just to keep track of what was real and what wasn’t. In retrospect, this was probably cheating. I suspect that this book is mean to be read with little knowledge of history so that, like many of the characters, it’s impossible to tell between fact and fiction.

Wonders Will Never Cease is definitely not meant to be read as historical fiction. Rather, it’s fodder to ponder the many reasons we tell stories. In this book, stories are told to instruct, to make people marvel, to relate history, and to build up reputations. We are also given many opportunities to reflect on the unintended consequences of story-telling (hair shirts). The best audience for this book may be other English majors, who think about these things anyway. Readers who love medieval literature and the Arthurian legends may also like this book as Irwin cleverly created what sounds like period-accurate dialog and story-telling practices.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Deadly Cure, by Lawrence Goldstone

34445246Lawrence Goldstone’s Deadly Cure begins with one of the worst things that can happen to a doctor. Up-and-coming doctor Noah Whitestone is summoned to the home of a wealthy New York couple because the family’s youngest son is very ill. Whitestone thinks this is his chance to become the doctor to the city’s upper crust until the boy dies that night. As far as Whitestone (and the experts he consults) knows, the boy should have been alright. His guilt spurs him to investigate the boy’s death, an investigation that almost immediately turns into a crusade against unethical medical experimentation.

Noah is foursquare against patent medicines. At the time, before the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, he has a good point. Most of the “medicines” on the market were full of opium, alcohol, and toxic materials. But the opium and alcohol make people feel better for a while, so they are so popular Noah can’t do much more than admonish people. When he visits the rich family’s boy, he immediately recognizes the symptoms of opium withdrawal. The boy’s mother adamantly argues that her son hasn’t been taking any patent medicines. Noah treats the boy for his withdrawal symptoms anyway and leaves for a few hours to attend other patients. When he comes back, the boy is clearly suffering an overdose of some kind of opiate.

Bayer started selling heroin in 1895 as a “non-addictive” opiate.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The death of a rich child could end his career, but Noah is more worried about how the boy actually died. He knows it wasn’t his fault. He did what he was supposed to do. Still, he starts to ask questions and learns that some of his rival doctors are handing out mysterious green and blue pills to poor children. They’re clearly testing a new drug and keeping everything under wraps. Then Noah is approached by a journalist for a radical newspaper who tells Noah he has evidence that there is a conspiracy to conduct unethical pharmaceutical tests and keep the patent medicine money wheel spinning. With the help of a group of some anarcho-communists and a curious medical examiner, Noah digs even more deeply into the conspiracy.

Deadly Cure races along, with some pointed comments about the wealth gap, social justice, etc. that read like digs at current events and few research drops, to a conclusion that I found disappointing and confusing because of the choices Noah makes. I enjoyed the characters, especially the women in the book. They are wonderfully take charge and capable. What I liked best about Deadly Cure was the opportunity to dive into a fictional account of the real pharmaceutical race to bring aspirin*, buffered aspirin, and heroin to market. So while Deadly Cure is flawed, readers who like medical mysteries will enjoy it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

* Sawbones produced a recent episode about aspirin that is utterly fascinating.

This week on the bookish internet

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

89717I’m not sure if The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, is a horror story that has lots of explanations for what happens—or if it’s meant to remain inexplicable. Either way, I found the story utterly gripping. Not only did I want to know what was happening, but I was intrigued by the way the the house comes to malevolent life in this novel and drives at least one of its visitors mad.

The opening paragraph sets a tone of dread and inevitable violence. It’s so forthright that it reads like a warning, one that the protagonists should’ve had before they decided to follow paranormal investigator Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House. The good(ish) doctor wants people who’ve had possibly supernatural experiences to stay in the house to see if he can document real paranormal activity. His invitations don’t get many takers, but he does convince two women who already wanted to leave their current homes to try something different. Theodora and Eleanor agree to spend time at the house, along with Montague and Luke, a relative of the current owner.

It’s not long before things go bump in the night, literally. Over the course of the book, details about the house’s and the character’s history. There are tantalizing clues about what might be going on—repeated phrases and events, possible psychological interpretations, etc.—but none of my hypotheses really fit what happens in the few days that Eleanor et al. spent at the house. There are pieces that refused be forced into a complete picture. I’m rather glad that this book is a book club pick because it means I can hash out some of my ideas with fellow readers.

In spite of all the psychological terror, I found The Haunting of Hill House to be unexpectedly funny. The characters banter during the day, partly to cope with what happens at night, but also because these four weirdos click and enjoy riffing on each other’s statements. Without these moments of levity, I think I might have found this novel unbearable dreadful, in the full sense of inducing dread. Dr. Montague’s methodically nutty wife even had me laughing out loud.

The Haunting of Hill House is a strange, disturbing tale. Because the perspective moves in and out of Eleanor’s head, it’s hard to keep track of what might be real and what isn’t. It’s genius in the way it keeps readers off-balance for its full length; it kept me constantly guessing and reassessing what I thought I knew. Even if there isn’t an explanation for what happened to Eleanor and the gang at Hill House, I’m not disappointed in this book. Solutions aren’t everything. The reading experience is and I had a great time reading The Haunting of Hill House.