The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

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

Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Even though they didn’t take very long to read, the stories in Mariana Enríquez’ collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, are going to stay in my brain for a while. (In fact, returning to read a few more chapters of War and Peace turned out to be a pleasant mental palate cleanser.) The stories are set in Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and other cities in Argentina between the late 1980s and now. In addition to sharing a feeling of creeping horror, the stories are connected by the way the characters are forced to confront the unhealed wounds of the past that are just waiting to reopen as soon as they are poked.

In the 1970s, Argentina was torn apart by the Dirty War, a bloody conflict in which the state terrorized its citizens in the name of anti-Communism and unity. Thousands of people were “disappeared.” The Dirty War is not directly referenced in Enríquez collection. Instead, Enríquez has transformed this trauma into semi or fully supernatural horrors that her protagonists stumble into when they try to right a wrong or stand up for themselves. In one story, “Under the Black Water,” a severely polluted river that has become a dumping ground for victims of police violence becomes a source of a zombie cult. In others, “Adela’s House” and “An Invocation of the Big-Earred Runt,” past crimes reach out from the past to claim new victims. It’s clear that nothing has healed.

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire is also a close examination of women’s lives in Argentina. In many of the stories, the female characters are threatened by men. The threats are either of potential violence but, more often, of gaslighting. Over and over, the women in these stories are told that what they’ve seen is not real and that they should give up their “delusions.” In the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women begin to destroy themselves before their men can do it. This story is the one that will probably stick with me the longest because it is so appallingly bleak.

Things We Lost in the Fire is not for the faint of heart. Readers who tackle it, however, will be rewarded (if that’s the right word) with horripilating visions of traumatic lives, strange syncretic cults, preemptive revenge, and characters who will not leave things alone.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 February 2017.

Bodies of Water, by V.H. Leslie

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Bodies of Water

V.H. Leslie’s short novella, Bodies of Water, is perfect for feminist reading. In addition to the overt themes of women overcoming damaging relationships with men, there are also repeated metaphors of water, women’s perspectives of reality, and wombs. I enjoyed this ghostly story, but I feel that it is a dissertation waiting to happen. This isn’t a criticism. It’s more a warning that, if you are or have ever been an English major, those close reading skills will activate before too many pages and may get the way of really sinking into the story.

Bodies of Water parallels to lives that intersect at the same place, a century apart. In the 1870s, Evelyn has been sent to Wakewater House for the water cure. She has been diagnosed with hysteria after an incident that is only revealed later. Later, Wakewater has been turned into Wakewater Apartments and Kirsten has just moved in. She bought the place because it overlooks the Thames and just couldn’t resist the draw of the water. It soon becomes clear that Wakewater Apartments is haunted by what happened in Evelyn’s time.

In alternating chapters, we learn more about what sent Evelyn to Wakewater, what the water cure entails (lots of pruniness), and the psychic scars that were left behind. This might make the house seem sinister, but it’s not so much the house. Rather, the haunting is much more severe and strange than I was expecting at the outset of the novel. I’m not entirely sure I buy what Leslie was trying to sell me, but I was very interested in what she did with the idea of female despair and anger and the river.

Bodies of Water is the second novella I’ve read from Salt Publishing. It’s also the second novella I’ve enjoyed. The form is amazing for what the authors are able to pack into a limited number of pages. The stories they tell need a little room…but too much more would probably kill the driving pace the authors’ set. I’m glad there’s a publishing house out there that will take a chance on novellas. I’m also grateful to the readers who pointed me in the direction of these books.

The Witch’s Trinity, by Erika Mailman

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The Witch’s Trinity

The winter of 1507 followed two years of famine for the people of Tierkinddorf. They’re down to eating snow for dinner when a friar from the nearest city appears to help rid the town of the witches that must be causing the famine. The Witch’s Trinity, by Ericka Mailman, plays out over a few tense winter weeks as accusations of witchcraft spread and hunger deepens. As if the general mood of The Witch’s Trinity wasn’t paranoid enough, our protagonist is an elderly woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s (or possibly dementia). Güde forgets things easily and sometimes sees things that didn’t actually happen. In spite of this, her age and her relative isolation from the rest of Tierkinddorf’s inhabitants allows her to see more clearly than people who are hungry, terrified, and angry.

The first woman to be accused is, like many women who were accused of witchcraft during historical witch trials, was old, lived alone, and knew how to use plants to heal. Because she has no protectors, it’s easy for the villagers to give Künne over to the nameless Dominican friar to practice what he’s learned from the Malleus Maleficarum. Of course nothing changes after Künne is killed. But Irmeltrud, Güde’s daughter-in-law sees how easy it is to have a witch trial do the dirty work of getting Güde out of her house. When Güde’s son leaves on a hunting trip with most of the village’s men, Irmeltrud quickly accuses Güde of witchcraft. Unfortunately, Irmeltrud wasn’t the only person to figure out that an accusation and a quick execution might be a good way to get what the accuser wants. An anonymous denunciation lans Irmeltrud in the witch’s tower along with Güde.

Though The Witch’s Trinity is short and occasionally bewildering with Güde’s confusion, it explores the historical injustice of witch trials. (Mailman notes in her afterword that she’s a descendent of a woman who was accused several times during the Salem Witch Trials.) It seems that all it takes for neighbors to turn on each other and do terrible things is for hardship to dissolve the bonds that hold people together. It’s easy to be generous when food is plenty and times are good. When times get tough, people look out for themselves—and try to find someone to blame.

Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Nineveh

I never read Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, but the title has always stuck with me as an excellent way to sum up humans’ relationship to the other species on this planet. Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, is very much about the “some we hate” category. The critters in this category—rodents, insects, reptiles, etc.—have done nothing to earn our enmity. They just gross us out or scare us for being what they are: low level predators, occasional disease vectors, destroyers of the wooden frames of our houses. The protagonist of Nineveh, Katya Grubbs, doesn’t hate any animals. She runs Painless Pest Relocation. Instead of trapping or poisoning pests, she collects them and moves them into the remaining wild areas around Cape Town. She is the Sisyphus of pest removal.

When we meet her, Katya is working with her nephew to remove a swarm of caterpillars from the garden of a rich Cape Towner. She has a method for tricking the caterpillars to swarm into collection boxes. It takes time, much to the annoyance of her client. One of the client’s guests, however, notices the care Katya takes for the fuzzy little guys and offers her a new job, a big one that could put her at the top of the list for pest removal in the city. All she has to do is figure out a way to clear a massive apartment complex, called Nineveh, of an infestation of some kind of biting beetles.

There is an added complication to the job. Katya’s estranged father—a rough, difficult, duplicitous man—previously had the job to get rid of the beetles. Now he’s disappeared. Taking the job would mean walking in his footsteps once again, something Katya has promised herself never to do. Still, she takes the job because her fledgling company needs the money. When she arrives at Nineveh to evaluate the situation, it’s like stepping into another world. Cape Town is a modern city. Nineveh feels like it was built smack in the middle of a wild jungle. It’s isolated. It’s run down. And it’s more than a little haunted by white men who aren’t quite right in the head.

On the face of things, this book sounds straightforward, possibly a little dull. (And gross, if you’re not good with creepy crawlies.) But I found Nineveh to be a meditative book about a daughter coming to terms with her childhood and her father. Life was rough with Grubbs Senior. He wasn’t bad, as such, but he was neglectful and expected his children to be as tough as he was when they broke bones or went hungry between jobs. He was casually cruel to animals and insects, often using them as tools to get jobs by deliberately causing infestations or leaving a few critters behind so that he would have to be called back.

When Katya temporarily occupies a caretaker flat at Nineveh, she finds her father once more up to his old tricks. When she left him before to strike out on her own, it was more a matter of opportunity than choice. In Nineveh, she has to face the choice at last. Who does she want to be? Can she be her best self if she is still somehow attached to her father? So, even though there are a lot of bugs, this book is a fascinating journey of self-discovery set in a place I’ve never read about before.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016 in the United States.

Mr Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

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Mr Splitfoot

Belief is a powerful thing. It can also be a dangerous thing, as we learn in Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. Over the course of the novel, we see cults, seances, toxic love, and more. Hunt crams an awful lot of plot and ideas into this novel, yet it never feels overstuffed. Instead, Mr Splitfoot is an intense ride through upstate New York. It was so gripping, I had to read it in two sittings just so that I could get to the heart of this book’s mysteries.

Mr Splitfoot contains two women’s stories, told in alternating chapters. Ruth’s chapters are set 14 years ago. She and her sister were taken away from their mother after their mother poured bleach on Ruth’s face, scarring her for life. Ruth’s much older sister ages out of foster care and Ruth is left alone at Love of Christ! farm. The only good part of her rough, hungry life there is Nat. (They call themselves sisters, even though Nat never identifies as female.) When the two turn 17, Ruth starts to look for ways to escape Love of Christ! She doesn’t want to deal with the hunger or the Father’s crazy rants about religion and history anymore. She also doesn’t want to find herself penniless and helpless. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Nat develops a knack for talking to the dead and the pair meet conman Mr Bell.

In the present, Cora (Ruth’s niece) has just discovered that she is pregnant and that her married boyfriend is terrible. She drifts through life, unlike her striving mother and aunt. Cora’s life changes when Ruth appears one night and convinces her to take off for…somewhere. Ruth can’t or won’t speak. It’s only her urgency that gets Cora on the road. After the car breaks down, Cora and Ruth walk for months towards Ruth’s unknown goal.

The more time we spend on the road with Cora and in the past with Ruth, the weirder things get. Ruth keeps crossing (through no fault of her own) men who have such strong beliefs that they draw followers or who believe her self-serving lies. Nat and Mr Bell are her only allies—though it’s clear that Mr Bell has his own agenda. The women in Mr Splitfoot are survivors. They adapt to circumstances. They look for opportunities to get out of their bad situations. But the men! The men in Mr Splitfoot want to reshape reality in their own image and they do their best to drag the women into those reality. It’s terrifying.

Mr Splitfoot had me from the beginning. Because of the 14 year gap between Ruth’s chapters and Cora’s chapters, there is a big mystery about what happened to Ruth in the years in between. Why is she not talking? Where is she taking Cora? What happened to Nat and Mr Bell? Not only does the book get weirder, it gets ever more tense as Ruth escapes a psychotic cult leader and a disappointed lover over and over. I just had to get to the conclusion so that I would know what the hell happened. This book is an incredible ride.

 

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

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A Time of Torment

Charlie Parker’s quest to rid the world of villains regular law enforcement can’t capture continues in John Connolly’s A Time of Torment. The book opens with a scene that shows us Parker and his allies, assassin Louis and thief Angel, capturing a kidnapper, murderer, and blackmailer and turning him over to the FBI. This scene serves as a reminder of what bigger game that Parker is playing now that he’s returned from the dead, but it’s not part of the main action in the book. Rather, this book is about Parker, with help from his allies, takes down a small, sinister commune in West Virginia that firmly believes itself to be above the law.

The main action of A Time of Torment begins when ex-con Jerome Brunel approaches Parker in a Portland bar. Brunel insists that he was set up. He doesn’t know who put all that child pornography in his house, but he thinks it has something to do with his stopping a robbery at a gas station shortly before his arrest. Brunel gives Parker most of the money he has left and asks the detective to investigate. Brunel also adds that whoever set him up will be coming back to finish the job. Parker has just enough time to start asking some questions before Brunel’s prediction comes true.

While other books in Connolly’s Parker series stick to the detective as he puzzles out the crime and who bears responsibility for it, A Time of Torment bounces around through the perspectives of secondary characters. Through these peripheral characters we learn about the Cut, a reclusive community in West Virginia that everyone for several counties around is afraid to cross. In fact, we learn more about the Cut and its crimes from the secondary characters than we learn from Parker. On the one hand, this technique reveals the broad scope of the Cut’s activities. On the other, it distances us from Parker—so much so that he descends like an avenging angel than like a righteous detective.

I was interested in the villains Connolly created in A Time of Torment, but I miss the tight focus on Parker that we saw in the earlier novels. Now that Parker is something more than entirely human, I want to spend time in his head as he wrestles with his new role as judge, jury, and executioner of criminals that regular law enforcement either can’t detect or can’t provide satisfying justice if they do manage to pick up on one of these evil peoples’ trails. Series fans will still enjoy A Time of Torment; new readers should start from the beginning to get Parker’s whole journey.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

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The Devil’s Evidence

Thomas Fool has the unenviable job of investigating crimes in hell. One might think that no one would care, given that everyone there supposedly did something to deserve their punishments. Still, hell’s higher ups us Fool and the other Information Men to make sure that nothing horrible happens to people that they didn’t plan. The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth, is the sequel to The Devil’s Detective and continues Fool’s adventures in the afterlife. Fool still investigates crimes but, as the book opens, he is stymied by competition from hell’s bureaucracy and a baffling series of massacres and arsons.

Hell wants results and it wants them now. Unfortunately for Thomas Fool, the clues point to a number of possible culprits and the Evidence Men (a new organization) keep trampling his crime scenes and accusing random sinners. Fool can’t make any kind of headway no matter who he questions or what clues he uncovers. To make things even more complicated, Fool is summoned by heaven to “investigate” some odd “crimes.” (Heaven’s representatives refuse to call them crimes because, by definition, heaven is perfect.) As in every well constructed mystery, the two series of crimes are revealed to have the same perpetrator.

The mystery in The Devil’s Evidence was very interesting to watch, especially as Fool has to deal with the Evidence Men, but I was much more interested in Unsworth’s developing eschatology. Though Fool’s afterlife seems based on the traditional Christian heaven and hell, Christianity doesn’t play a big part. God is absent. Hell is so random that redemption is more of a fluke than anything else. Heaven, in this version, is sinister in its insistence on perfect and refusal to explain itself.

I don’t want to say too much more about this book, for fear of ruining the solution. (I will say that I didn’t see it coming—always a sign of a well-plotted mystery, for me.) The Devil’s Evidence is an intriguing blend of horror, mystery, and fantasy, centered on a character who is driven to uncover the truth in the most dire circumstances.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 July 2016.

Misery, by Stephen King

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Misery

For years, I have only wholly loved one Stephen King work: Carrie. I’ve read some of his other books, but I’ve always though that there was something wrong with them that kept me from truly loving it. Even my next favorite, The Stand, has a goofy ending after hundreds of pages of tense drama. But now I have a second King book that I can recommend to people without having to include a caveat about something: Misery. I was up until 1:00 AM finishing it even though I had work the next day.

I think that, because of the 1990 movie, most people have a fairly good idea of what the story is. Paul Sheldon is an author who hates that he is more famous for a series of pastiche Victorian romances than for his more “serious” books. He gets into a terrible accident on a Colorado highway and is rescued by Annie Wilkes. Wilkes is not a benevolent rescuer. She takes advantage of Paul’s terribly broken legs and growing addiction to pain medication to coerce him into writing a new book in the Misery series (the one he hates), bringing back the main character. It doesn’t take long for Paul (and us) to learn that there is something very, very wrong with Annie. Within a few chapters, I was as freaked out by her as he was.

What resonated most for me was the way that King captured fans who take fiction too seriously. I linked to a New York Times article by Penelope Green in April, in which Green wrote about fans who had injured author Cassandra Clare physically and emotionally for things they didn’t like about Clare’s books. Paul describes Annie as:

the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them. She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader. She did not want to hear about his concordance and indices because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real. (62*)

When Paul mentions craft or the business of writing, Annie shuts him down. All she wants is more story. I can understand wanting more story. I am impatiently waiting for new volumes in a few series. But I am also aware that, like George R.R. Martin, authors are not, as Neil Gaiman once wrote, “my bitch.” Authors are not machines. Authors should not be expected to bow to audience wishes. Annie is clearly mentally disturbed, but some of the things she says are no different than things book fans have posted on tumblr or Twitter.

Perhaps because Misery was based so closely on some of King’s own experiences with fans and addiction, this book has a lot more soul than his other books. Paul thinks about his approach to writing and his goals. We get to see him create a new plot for his Misery character, starting as though it’s a game to think his way out of an impossible situation, before he gets sucked into the joy of writing. (There are excerpts from Paul’s new Misery book and it is objectively dreadful. There’s even racist faux dialect for an African character.) Because we get to see inside the sausage factory that produces a novel in between scenes of terror and gore, I felt like King wrote something that had some truth in it rather than writing something to freak us all out.

The scenes about writing and the scenes in which Paul tried to keep Annie on an even keel kept me up far past my bedtime. It’s a little alarming to realize that I had a little bit of Paul’s tormenter in me because I had to know what happened next before I went to sleep. I’m not about to mutilate an author, but I was perfectly willing to sacrifice some much needed sleep to find out how the book ended.


* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition from Scribner.

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb, by David John Griffin

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb
The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb

David John Griffin’s novel, The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb, is a curiously constructed tale of revenge. For the first several chapters, I wasn’t sure where the story was going to take me. Characters are introduced rapidly, so rapidly it’s hard to tell who the protagonist is at first. Then the plot picks up its pace. The setting is deeply sinister and there’s more than a hint that something supernatural and dangerous is at work. Even though I’ve finished, I’m still not quite sure what I think of this book.

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb is divided into two distinct halves. The first half tells the story of Alastair’s parents, Eleanor and William. William is an unemployed coffin maker. Eleanor has only recently been released from an asylum—and she was only released because she lied about the hallucinations she was still having. Having no other options, the Stubbs live with William’s father, Theodore in his manor house. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that Theodore is far from benevolent. He uses hypnosis to abuse the women in his house. William and Eleanor cobble together a plan to kill Theodore after he rapes and impregnates Eleanor.

The first half of the book concludes on a harrowing day and night. Theodore vanishes after William tries to kill him twice. Eleanor also disappears, after giving birth to Alastair and suffering a terrible mental breakdown. The second half of the novel picks up thirteen years later in an abrupt shift of pace. And, while the events of the first half of the book can all be explained away rationally, the supernatural elements intensify in the latter half. In the second half, something seeks revenge on the people who tried to kill Theodore Stubb. The second half, for me, was much more disturbing than than the first half.

The writing style of The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb is striking—even bewildering at times. It reads like a demented fairy tale. We never really get to know any of the characters. The plot flies by and things just happen to the mostly hapless characters. The omniscient narrator’s perspective shifts between characters without warning, so it can be very hard to keep track of events unless one reads very, very carefully. The effect of it all made me feel as confused as poor, mad Eleanor when I tried to read as quickly as I normally do.

I just can’t make up my mind about whether I like this book or not, mostly because of the strange, shapeshifting writing style.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.