Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine

35569734I’ve only read a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. For some reason, I’ve been more interested in the character’s afterlife in other authors’ hands. In Holmes Entangled, by Gordon McAlpine, we have a fresh take on the immortal detective. The novel begins with a discovery by writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Borges takes a manuscript he found to an unnamed PI that Borges dreamed of but who inexplicably exists. The manuscript appears to be written by Sherlock Holmes and covers what might be his real last case.

The manuscript begins with Holmes’ retirement. Instead of becoming a beekeeper in Sussex, Holmes began disguising himself as academics, studying up on various subjects, and lecturing at Oxford and Cambridge. The game seems to help keep his brain occupied, but it’s clear that it’s not a thrilling existence. Then, out of the blue, Holmes gets a visit from Arthur Conan Doyle, who tells him a very strange story about a séance, a ghostly prime minister who is still alive, and someone taking a shot at the author. Holmes leaps back into action, only to find a case that is weirder than he could have anticipated.

Because Holmes (or, this version of Holmes) is writing his own story, we learn a lot more about his beliefs, insecurities, values, and the like. He reflects on what it was like having John Watson tell his story for him, for creating the great Sherlock Holmes out of his cases. He also laments his fame. I think he likes having to outsmart people but, at 73, he’s getting a bit tired of dodging fans and going around in disguises.

What Holmes turns up in his investigation is truly incredible. I won’t reveal exactly what Holmes finds; that would ruin it. I can say that I love this take on Holmes and on the nature of fiction and authorship. Holmes Entangled is a great book for readers who like to think of characters as having a real life of their own.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

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Ibid, by Mark Dunn

92771Ibid is another delightfully off-kilter work of metafiction by Mark Dunn. This is not a traditional novel by any means. It opens with a handful of letters between “Mark Dunn” and his editor that explain the unusual format of the book. “Mark” accidentally destroyed one copy of the manuscript of a biography of Jonathan Blashette, a three-legged man with an uproariously bizarre life. The editor’s son accidentally destroyed the other. All that’s left are the endnotes. One might think that endnotes aren’t enough to tell a man’s life story. In the case of Ibid, one would be proven wrong.

It’s possible to piece together a more or less complete picture of the life of Jonathan Blashette. He was born in the 1880s in a small Arkansas town. As a child, he worked in a circus as a “freak,” then sued to break his contract. He graduated from college at a school founded by Confederate veterans and had tragically bad luck in love. He served in World War I, then made his fortune with Dandy-de-odor-o before becoming a philanthropist for just about anyone who could string a sentence together in a letter.

This short summary, however, does not do justice to the hilarious weirdness of Blashette’s life as communicated by the endnotes. “Mark Dunn” did far too much homework about his subject and it shows in the loopy tangents that ended up in the notes. There are places where the notes are just one gag after another. (I had to take some screenshots to share because the side stories are so damned funny it would’ve been a crime not to share them.) Blashette meets great people, odd people, bad people, and never shies away from saying what he thinks about any of them.

Throughout his life, Blashette, like many of us, searches for his purpose. He wants to do good in the world. But it isn’t until the end of his life that he finally figures out what he was put on earth to do, in an epiphany that beautifully makes sense of the format of the book. (I don’t want to spoil it. If you’ve read this book and want to talk about the ending, let’s save it for the comments.)

I really, really enjoyed Ibid. It has so many of the things that I like: a cock-eyed view of history, word games, a subtle message, and tons of quirky humor. I would strongly recommend this book to readers who don’t mind working a little bit as they read and who love weird, little books.

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.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

22610350Written and published before his hit His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is being relaunched. Though we never learn much about Adèle, this novel grants us access to the innermost thoughts of the man being investigated for her possible murder and the detective trying to work out what really happened. This surprisingly affecting novel is packed with twisty revelations that had me guessing and second-guessing myself all through.

I hope I can write this review without giving too much away.

Manfred Baumann is the sort of man who gives women the creeps. He’s a creature of habit who spends too much time inside his own head trying to behave normally and not raise anyone’s suspicions. Manfred has been pretending to be himself for twenty years, ever since he lost his parents and went to live with his stiflingly proper grandparents. He might have gone on another twenty years constantly worrying about what people think of him if Adèle, the waitress at his local restaurant, hadn’t gone missing. As soon as Detective Georges Gorski of Saint-Louis, Alsace’s finest shows up to ask questions, Manfred’s life quickly unspools.

Gorski is a competent detective, even if he did learn most of his craft from reading Georges Simenon novels. But he’s not nearly as good as Manfred thinks he is. As Gorski asks questions and pokes into Manfred’s life, Manfred becomes paranoid. He sees conspiracy everywhere. Manfred’s deteriorating mental state even destroys his nascent relationship with a funny, lovely woman in his apartment building.

For most of the book, I had no idea if Manfred was guilty or not. Given his obsession with appearing normal, anyone would think that he’d at least done something criminal. The revelation of what happened to Adèle and Manfred is a work of manipulative genius. I can just picture some readers hurling the book across the room after reading it—which will prove how effective this story is at winding up its main character and its readers. I can honestly say, I’ve never read anything like The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau before. It’s fantastic choice for readers who don’t mind mysteries that are a bit too clever for their own good but will definitely keep them guessing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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.