The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a delight for lovers of classic science fiction and fantasy. Goss has spun a story around the assorted daughters of men who dared to create life only to see their experiments turn into nightmares. Here, we see Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Beatrice Rappaccini—with the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—as they attempt to solve a series of murders that make it look like someone is carrying on their fathers’ work.

When the novel opens, Mary Jekyll is dismissing her servants and wondering what else she can sell (her father left she and her mother without any other income other than Mrs. Jekyll’s annuity). Then she receives a letter that lets her know of one other source of money: once hundred pounds that has been set aside for the care of Hyde. Mary, being a take charge sort, not only decides to recoup whatever was left of the money, but inquire of Mr. Holmes if the reward offered for information about Mr. Hyde is still available. From there, the book takes off with an ever deepening mystery involving a series of Ripper-like murders, a very old secret society, and a lot of classic stories colliding.

There are pauses in the mystery as Mary meets (and sometimes rescues) the daughters of ethically challenged scientists. Catherine Moreau, our scribe, introduces the pauses so that each daughter can explain her origin. She also includes many asides from the daughters, who cannot resist commenting on how Catherine is telling their story. The asides are hilarious—especially the ones by the hellion Diana Hyde.

There is a long denouement in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter that makes it clear that there are more adventures in store. In fact, it dragged on so long that I wondered if the big climactic scene with the villains was a false ending. The more I read, however, the more it became clear that these stories are not just about having fun in the margins of famous stories. The first paragraph of the author’s note at the end clinched it. Goss wondered about the unnaturalness of men who dared to create life, then destroyed their creations. What if, this novel asks, these daughters had lived? Not only that—what if they lived long enough to pick up the pieces of those disastrous experiments?

I’m very much looking forward to the ladies’ next adventure.

The Refrigerator Monologues, by Catherynne M. Valente

The Refrigerator Monologues

In 1999, comics writer and critic Gail Simone started a website called Women in Refrigerators to call attention to a troubling trope. In comics (and TV shows, movies, books, and other story media), hundreds of female characters get killed only to add pathos to the main character’s (almost always male) story. In The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente lets these characters tell their stories from their own perspectives. The stories in this short novella are poignant, fascinating, and profoundly angry. I plan to push this book into the hands of every reader I come across for the next several months. This book is absolutely brilliant.

Valente created a universe that closely mirrors our superhero universes. There are analogs for Aquaman, Batman, the Joker, Harley Quinn, and the X-Men. Part of the fun is figuring out the references. The purpose of this universe is the opposite of those universes, however. In The Refrigerator Monologues, we spend our time in Deadtown, listening to a series of women tell their origin stories, talk about their deaths, and let us know how they feel about being killed off to motivate their boyfriends and husbands to take on the Big Bad in their stories. As Daisy Green says during her story, “It always stings when there’s this whole story going on and you’re really just a B-plot walk-on who only got a look at three pages of the script” (102*)

All of the stories are sharp and interesting, but three stood out to me. Julia Ash (an analog to Jean Gray, I think) has a very confusing story because she’s been retconned so many times by a villain actually named Retcon. Julia is a super-powered mockingbird (mutant), so powerful that even her partners fear her and want to keep her on a leash. She keeps changing her appearance and popping in and out of the afterlife because Retcon keeps rewriting her story. Then there’s Pretty Polly (a Harley Quinn) who is still in love with her Mr. Punch (Joker) even though he killed her. She is a chilling portrait of the disturbing psychology of the love-obsessed female villain who is never allowed to really develop self-awareness.

The character most talked about (rightfully) is Samantha, who becomes a literal woman in the refrigerator at the end of her chapter in her boyfriend’s story. While her boyfriend, Chiaroscuro, messes about with his super pals and fights crime, Samantha pays rent, keeps up the apartment, and tries to have a normal life. But then the plot swoops in and she dies because the Big Bad wanted to hurt her boyfriend. The other monologues in this book capture the range of wronged womanhood in comics, etc., but Samantha’s story really captures the sting Daisy mentioned and the sadness of being a bystander in someone else’s story.

The Refrigerator Monologues was the book I needed to read after Rebellion. In Rebellion, I felt like the women never really got to speak for themselves. In The Refrigerator Monologues, you’re given a front row seat while the characters tell you exactly what they thought and felt. This book turns the trope inside out to ask, “Why can’t the woman ever be the hero in her own story?** Why is the girlfriend always cannon fodder?”

* Quote is from the 2017 kindle edition by Simon & Schuster.
** Yes, I know about Wonder Woman. But how many refrigerated women are there compared to female heroes who have leading roles?

Crossing the Lines, by Sulari Gentill

Crossing the Lines

Thousands of years ago, a Chinese philosopher wrote about waking from a dream in which he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he wasn’t sure if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. This puzzle is a good introduction to Sulari Gentill’s Crossing the Lines, in which two writers get tangled up each others’ stories, each believing that they are the real author and that the other is just the main character of their next novel. After a few chapters, it’s hard to know which of the authors is real and which is just a figment of imagination.

There are two interleaved plots in Crossing the Lines. In one, Edward McGinnity is a writer of sad literary novels who pines for a woman who married another man. For his new novel, he invents a crime writer, Madeleine d’Leon, who is having trouble with her marriage. Like his other novels, this new one will explore the small events of a life and how those events can grow so large they become psychologically devastating.

In the other plot thread, Madeleine d’Leon is taking a break from her popular historical mysteries to write something a bit more challenging. She invents an author, Edward McGinnity, who becomes involved in a criminal investigation when an art critic is killed at an exhibition of the object of his affection’s art. Big, dangerous events keep intruding on his previously quiet, introspective life until he has no choice but to turn detective to keep himself out of jail.

Each chapter of Crossing the Lines will start with either Madeleine or Edward, then morph into the other’s story as each author gets to work on the next part of their novels. I was hugely entertained by the way they share a literary agent or little in-jokes they put into their tales. Both of them regret the need to introduce unpleasant plot elements to move their novels along. Madeleine, for example, feels bad about the thugs she sends to beat up Edward. Edward prods Madeleine to confront her marriage and her miscarriages. After a while, though, the two plots bleed so far into each other that both authors begin a reality-bending relationship with each other.

Crossing the Lines is a new entry in a small sub-genre of metafiction in which we not only see writers at their craft but also see lines between reality and fiction blend so far that the fourth wall is just a distant speck in the rearview mirror. I love novels that break that wall, like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, and Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil. Some readers might not like it when that barrier gets demolished because it ruins the illusion. Personally, I feel that novels like this—where characters step out of their stories—let me imagine that characters have lives outside of their tales and that the stories continue after I finish the last page. I adored Crossing the Lines.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

The Princess Bride

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front.

To summarize for those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, The Princess Bride is Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world (once she learned to use soap). After her true love dies, she agrees to marry the prince of Florin—but he wants to use her to start a war with the country over the water. A few months before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by hired criminals, then re-kidnapped by a mysterious man in black. The man in black is Buttercup’s true love, returned from the sea, and the rest of the book is them trying to escape from the evil prince. Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda because it never gets too deep. There’s just enough plausibility to keep the plot afloat and offer plenty of opportunities for fighting and derring-do.

Because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I had the actors’ voices in my head as I read the familiar dialogue. (This isn’t a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, and Andre the Giant were the perfect people to play their characters.) Most of The Princess Bride (the book) made it into the movie; some bits of dialogue were taken verbatim. What the book provided was a bit more background about Florin and some of the characters, as well as a lot more of the frame narrative. I read the thirtieth anniversary edition, which has an extended introduction and a chapter of a planned-but-abandoned sequel. In it, Goldman (as a character) talks about the making of the book and the movie (which is biographical, as far as I can tell), but also about the origins of The Princess Bride as written by S. Morgenstern, a Florinese author, and how Goldman came to “translate” and “abridge” it. I think some readers will find Goldman (the character) a little tedious and whiny, but I kind of enjoyed his metafictional playing around.

I highly recommend this book for readers who need to disappear into a story for a few hours.

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

Lovett continues his theme of literary mysteries in The Lost Book of the Grail. Previous books have dealt with lost Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This time, Lovett explores new metafictional heights in the most literary grail quest I’ve ever encountered. The Lost Book of the Grail tells the story of Arthur Prescott’s meticulous progress through the library of Barchester Cathedral’s library to find any clues that would prove his grandfather correct: that the holy grail is somewhere in Barchester. Along the way, he has help from a talkative American digitizer and his fellow bibliophiles.

The Lost Book of the Grail opens with a surprising bit of action. One night in 1941, German bombers—lost on the way to London—dropped bombs on Barchester Cathedral. (Fellow readers might recognize the name Barchester from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire novels.) A young choir boy is pressed into service to help rescue books from the cathedral library before they’re destroyed. After rescuing the books, he spots a mysterious man stealing one of them. We then jump ahead to 2016, where Arthur Prescott is working on a guidebook to the cathedral. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on. In reality he’s seeking any information about St. Ewolda, the local Saxon saint, and trying to find more evidence that the holy grail might have made it to Barchester in the early middle ages. His grandfather earnestly believed that the grail had somehow come to their out of the way county before disappearing from the historical record.

This introduction might make the book sound like another The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a lot slower and a lot funnier than Dan Brown’s novel. Arthur is the consummate luddite. He loathes the modern era and prefers to spend this time in the cathedral library, reading medieval Latin. He, at first, considers the presence of Bethany an intrusion of the worst kind. She’s there to digitize the manuscripts and books in the library at the behest of an American billionaire. She’s very talkative and loves taking tangents—but she can also argue Arthur to a standstill, which he enjoys in spite of himself. Just reading their dialog is delightful.

While Arthur and Bethany work their way through the historical clues, we get brief scenes from previous centuries that let us know that we’re on the right track. Centuries ago, a monk from Glastonbury asked the monks at St. Ewolda’s to hide a treasure. Since that time, one guardian has kept the secret safe from vikings, Henry VIII’s monastery breakers, and Roundheads. Now the big danger is lack of funds for restoring a cathedral that’s starting to fall apart. The race to find something to save the cathedral before the library is sold off provides a bit of tension among all the page turning.

If you’re the sort of person who gets excited about research, The Lost Book of the Grail will be absolute catnip. If you’re the sort of person who loves characters who bicker before and after they realize they love each other, you’ll have a good time with this book. If you’re a little squeamish about religion, well, this book will still be pretty enjoyable.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss and NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood


One of the joys of reading the Hogarth Shakespeare series is seeing how different authors respond to the original plays. Some retell the stories in a modern context (The Gap of Time and Vinegar Girl) or respond to the problems of the play (Shylock is My Name). In Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood takes on The Tempest and achieves a remarkably multi-layered approach to a play that is, to put it mildly, a little batshit. In this version of the tale, a theater director whose life mirrors Prospero’s decides to use a staging of the play inside a prison to get revenge on the people who displaced him. Of course, this bare summary does no justice to Atwood’s writerly skill.

After a brief glimpse the climactic staging of The Tempest, we see how our protagonist was abruptly kicked out of his job as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. Felix Phillips, at that point, had just lost his daughter to meningitis (three years after he lost his wife in childbirth) and his planned production of The Tempest was going off the rails. Felix’s Shakespeare productions were always over the top, but there are worries that this one will be beyond demented. While he was putting all this energy into the play, his assistant Tony is plotting to replace him. Tony completely blindsides Felix when he gives the director the news that he’s out of the festival and that his production is canceled.

Felix heads off into rural Canada to lick his wounds and plot desultory revenge. Over time, realizing that he’s doing nothing by turning himself into an eccentric hermit, he wrangles a job as a theater director for Fletcher Correctional Institute. Considering that he is teaching Shakespeare to inmates, Felix is shockingly successful. He is so successful in fact that Tony, now a government minister, and his cronies make plans to see the latest production. It’s the opportunity Felix has been waiting for.

It was tempting to try and map The Tempest onto Hag-Seed. One can, but there are enough differences to give this version an important degree of originality. And, though we know that Felix is going to use the prisoner’s production to somehow get revenge, the details are hidden from us and we don’t know if he’ll succeed or not. There’s also the added complication that Felix may not be entirely compos mentis after his years in his remote cabin, ruminating on his revenge.

Until the narrative brought us up to the climax, I was strongly reminded of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows. Both the show and Hag-Seed contain an unpredictable artistic director with a deep love of Shakespeare and scenes in which that director strives to help the actors make sense of the bewildering words and motivations of Shakespeare’s characters. Hag-Seed, however, is not a comedy. It has a darkness that I didn’t pick up on when reading The Tempest as an undergraduate. The scenes in which Felix helps the inmates understand The Tempest helped illuminate that play brilliantly and revealed the irony between Felix’s quest for revenge through a play about a man seeking revenge only to forgive his former enemies.

Along with Vinegar Girl, I think Hag-Seed is one of my favorites from the Hogarth series so far. I’m very excited to see how the other authors tackle their chosen targets.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 October 2016.

The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar

The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.

Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.

Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.

To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.

Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier

Mr. Eternity

Being a literature major and librarian has given me a more-than-healthy skepticism about what I read and hear. It also means that I read a lot, from nearly every time period and as many places on earth as I can find good books for. Both of these circumstances stood me in good stead as I read Aaron Thier’s Mr. EternityThis novel is one of the most demented accounts of American history and climate fiction that I’ve ever read. At the heart of this story is Daniel Defoe (not that one), a man who claims to have lived for 1,000 years, accompanied a Spanish expedition to El Dorado, survived 29 shipwrecks, stolen and lost countless fortunes, poisoned people back to health, and more.

Daniel—known variously as old Dan, Daniel de Fo, or the ancient mariner—does not tell his story to us directly. Instead, we learn about him via a slave turned prostitute turned translator who lived in a city she claims as El Dorado in 1560, a biracial “bookkeeper” in 1750, a documentary maker in 2016, a hapless sailor in 2200, and the daughter of a president in 2500. The narrators try to make sense of Daniel’s tales through what they know of history. A few, the slave, the sailor, and the president’s daughter, roll with Daniel’s preposterous stories. The bookkeeper recognizes Daniel as a fellow con artist and the documentary maker and his partner just think he’s a crazy old man.

Daniel’s stories are packed with historical figures and half-remembered details. I knew just enough to know how much of it was wrong. But I could also see where Daniel arrived at his version of events. Facts are just a little bit off or mispronounced or incomplete. Daniel’s tales are thrown even further off-kilter when he adds medical or biological trivia. He includes things like the headless man mentioned in Herodotus or lambs that grow from flowers. Before long, I recognized Daniel’s ramblings as a blend of everything he’d done, everything he’d read, and everything he claimed to have done. The president’s daughter, Yasmine, is perhaps the most forgiving of Daniel’s version of events:

I also understood that an equivalent logic extended to his accounts of history. I had the revelation that history was only the rabblehouse of facts and details from which human beings confabulated a sentimental truth. At the best-case scenario, at its truest and most illustrative, history was an effort of imagination, mostly fictive, mostly allegorical, like a story of unrecanted love. (n.p.*)

When Yasmine said this, at almost the halfway point of the book, I stopped fighting with Daniel. I stopped trying to remember what really happened and just went with it, even though I think Daniel is the most frustrating immortal I’ve ever encountered in fiction. His memory is shite.

Summarizing this book is almost impossible because so much happens and doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. There are similarities between the five narrators’ plot arcs. They all include quests into inhospitable hot, humid places. Most include searching for treasure. All feature disillusionment with governments and institutions. Many of the narrators know secondary characters who go mad to a certain extent from heat, isolation, and/or drugs. Everything is always a bit hazy.

Mr. Eternity is a book to float through. Imposing order will only lead to frustration and, possibly, insanity. Readers who don’t enjoy being lied to and working out what the lies conceal should stay away. Readers who love a puzzle may enjoy the many enigmas littered throughout this story. Just be prepared for an Imperial load of weirdness.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 August 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend this book to readers who are too sure of their own opinions.

* Quote is from the publisher’s advanced reader copy. It was not paginated.

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl

The Taming of the Shrew used to be one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare. I loved watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spar in the 1967 film version; I would watch it over and over, memorizing the best insults. Then I got older and I realized what was really happening at the end of the play. I haven’t been able to enjoy the original since, though I did enjoy the retelling in 10 Things I Hate About You*. I can now add Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl to versions that I enjoy.

Like The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the Shrew is problematic these days. Its portrayal of women doesn’t work in a feminist era. Katharina’s speech at the end of the play, in which she castigates her sister and another woman for ignoring their husbands’ wishes and lists all the things that men do for their wives, sets my teeth on edge because of the words she employs to describe a husband’s role and expectations:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt. (Act V, Scene II)

And also, like The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the Shrew requires significant rewriting to make amends for antiquated prejudices and values. This is what Tyler delivers in Vinegar Girl without sacrificing the essentials of the original plot and characters.

In this retelling, Kate Battista lives at home with her father, Louis, and younger sister, Bunny. She’s a college dropout (she told her botany professor that his explanation of photosynthesis was half-assed) and now works as an assistant at a private elementary school and daycare. She also takes care of her father and sister, as her mother passed away years ago. Kate is not quite the fury that the original Katharina was. This Kate simply lacks tact, not seeing the point of sugar-coating her words.

The first hint that someone is planning marriage for her comes when Louis Battista cons Kate into bringing his forgotten lunch to his lab, where he is studying autoimmune disorders with his lone assistant, Pyotr. Louis ineptly hints that Kate might be a good wife to that assistant. Kate is bewildered at the hinting, though we know what’s really going on when Louis mentions that Pyotr’s visa will expire in a few months. It takes a few days for Kate to figure out her father’s wild plan because she’s just not good at picking up on social cues.

Vinegar Girl is a brief book and the plot whirls along as Kate deals with her father’s blundering machinations and the fact that Pyotr actually seems attracted to her. There are frequent nods to plot points from the play that I enjoyed when I recognized them. That said, I was reserving judgment on this book until I figured out how Tyler was going to deal with Katharina’s speech at the “taming of the shrew.” Would Tyler overturn the original ending? Would she turn this into a romance? To say more would ruin the ending, but I can say that Vinegar Girl is my favorite of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I’ve read so far, after The Gap of Time and Shylock is My Name.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 June 2016.

* But not Kiss Me, Kate, because musicals are unnatural.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
The Eyre Affair

I have been recommending Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair ever since I first read it in 2004. Nothing compares to its anarchic take on literature and the jokes still have me chortling. Every time I read it, I catch more references. (This time I finally understood the Vorpal’s Special gag at the Cheshire Cat bar.) But when I mention those gags and the fact that The Eyre Affair takes place partially inside Jane Eyre, some readers demur and say they don’t know enough to understand. This is a mistake. Five minutes with Wikipedia and anyone will know enough to understand the plot. I also know from personal experience that this book and the rest of the series have inspired me to dive into classic literature so that I get the rest of the references. Oddly enough, this hilarious book and the rest of the Thursday Next series are great entry points into nineteenth century literature, Shakespeare, and the glories of literary imagination. Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, it’s only because I love these books so very much.

Thursday Next is working as a LiteraTec (a cop who specializes in literary crimes) in an alternate version of the 1980s. The Crimean War is still going on. Her father is a rogue time traveler. And her uncle, unbeknownst to Thursday, has just invented a device that allows people to travel into works of literature. This discovery is not unknown to the Goliath Corporation, the monolithic company the rules England, or Acheron Hades, a criminal mastermind who plans to steal great works of literature and shock the world.

After the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by Hades, Thursday is put on the case. She is one of the few people who’s actually seen the man. The first encounter is disasterous and Thursday heads home to Swindon for a new job to lay low for a while. Her past follows her, however, and it isn’t long before Hades kidnaps and kills a character from Chuzzlewit. Things go from bad to worse with Hades steals the original copy of Jane Eyre and kidnaps the protagonist. It’s up to Thursday to rescue her.

This summary omits a lot. The plot is not the main attraction in a Thursday Next novel. The best parts of the book are scenes like the audience playing along with a production of Richard III like audiences do in our world for The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Thursday’s father showing up to quiz her about history and wonder if French revisionists are trying to win Waterloo and Trafalgar; or when surrealists respond to rioters with giant, floppy watches. When I read for plot, I tend to race. If you race through The Eyre Affair you’ll miss the best stuff.

I highly recommend The Eyre Affair and its sequels to all readers.