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Review: The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker August 28, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content, Lovecraft.
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y648So, another Canadian literary novel. Jacqueline Baker has apparently written literary fiction set in western Canada, but this book is something very different, set very vividly in Providence, Rhode Island, home of a certain American writer.

H.P. Lovecraft may be his own most enduring character. He’s become widely known, even to those who’ve never read his work, as a strange, reclusive writer of horror stories. He’s been used as a character in many horror stories by other writers. The problem is, all too often writers present seriously skewed versions of him. Some horror writers who know his work fairly well present him as someone who believed in the kinds of things he wrote about, something Lovecraft himself would have perhaps been amused by, given his devotion to rationalism, materialism, and science.

Lovecraft had no use for ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other old horror tropes. He was intrigued by cosmic horror, with its two main sources of horror: the realization of humanity’s utter insignificance in the cosmos, and the idea that that which breaks down our understanding of reality is horrifying. From that perspective, there should be nothing frightening about a story of, say, demonic possession ended by an exorcism, at least not for a Catholic, because demons and the efficacy of exorcism are already part of their understanding of the world. On the other hand, discovering that there are entities of great cosmic power who are utterly indifferent to humanity and could wipe us out as uncaringly as if we sprayed insecticide to kill some pests — that should disturb both the religious and the rational.

And yet, as a character, Lovecraft has all too often been presented as a mystic or a magician or someone vouchsafed true knowledge of cosmic evil. In at least one novel, he was presented as a cackling evil magician straight out of someone’s pulp fiction — but not his.

It’s a relief, then, that The Broken Hours is not one of those books. In fact, it takes some time to realize exactly what kind of book it is, and judging by many reviews online, some readers never actually do realize it. The ending is subtle but there are clues. At least, I think I interpreted the clues correctly, and the last one is far from subtle. Some other reviewers have come to the same conclusion. If you’re thinking of reading this book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. Really. It’s worth experiencing with some mystery, even if you figure it out early.

Jacqueline Baker’s book is beautifully written and subtle. She tells the story of Arthor Crandle, who, desperate for work, takes a position as an assistant and secretary to a writer he’s never heard of. And then all the strange things begin to happen. The writer, Lovecraft, won’t see him in person, even though they’re in the same building. Crandle has visions of a young girl in the backyard, feelings of some oppressive horror at certain points in the house. He finds things moved around even in his locked room, and is sure he sees his mysterious employer at times, only to realize no one is there.

A young woman moves into the downstairs apartment, and they slowly develop a friendship. But the strange things keep happening. The story ends with some revelations, but doesn’t spell everything out in detail. So here come the spoilers. Lovecraft’s aunt Annie, who’s been away (part of the reason Crandle was hired as an assistant) returns, the downstairs neighbour Flossie disappears along with all the changes she made to the apartment, Annie recognizes Crandle and calls him Howard… well, evidently there never was any Crandle. He was Lovecraft all along, and Flossie was never there. The stories of insanity in the family, people’s strange reactions to Crandle, the fact that other people at times fail to notice Flossie’s presence, the revelation (not surprising to people who’ve read about Lovecraft’s life) that as a child Lovecraft’s mother grew his hair long and dressed him as a girl, the fact that Crandle never sees himself in a mirror, not to mention that he finds himself playing Lovecraft when he’s with Flossie… what seems to be an effectively creepy ghost story turns out to be a psychological tale instead. There is ultimately nothing supernatural happening. Lovecraft, ill, malnourished, poor, and separated from his wife, is having a breakdown.

It’s ironic — what seems to be the kind of horror story Lovecraft himself would never have written, a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story, turns out not to be supernatural or horror at all. It’s a spooky and ultimately emotionally affecting story.

Review: Boring Girls by Sara Taylor August 27, 2016

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9781770410169_1024x1024Boring Girls starts out as the story of a smart teenage girl who doesn’t quite fit in at school and has a hard time connecting with other kids. Her life changes when, having just been hassled by a bully, she hears some strange but powerful noisy music coming from a passing car and makes a mental note of a bumper sticker that may be a band name. She goes to a record store, finds a CD by the band, and death metal takes over her life, especially the band DED.

Rachel has always been a creative girl, writing in a journal and fascinated by a painting based on an apocryphal biblical tale of two women killing an evil king. Meeting Fern, another girl who’s interested in the same style of music and is starting to play guitar, leads them to start their own metal band.

It’s not giving away spoilers to say that things go terribly wrong eventually, leading to murder, because the book’s told from Rachel’s first person perspective and she’s recounting why she and her friend Fern became murderers.

Rachel is, at first, a quiet girl who does well at school but has difficulty making friends or connecting with people, something that continues through the novel. She has a couple of crushes but pulls away from an opportunity to have a real boyfriend; she grows very close to Fern but that never becomes a romantic relationship, either.

It’s a tale of two parts — first, the misfit girl making a world for herself, then a drastic shift into a girl gets raped, girl gets revenge story. (At the beginning of the story, Rachel’s 15, and it’s not clear how much time passes over the course of the book.) Rachel’s perspective is what keeps the novel so readable. She may be something of an unreliable narrator; at times she seems not very self-aware, seeing herself as a victim even in situations where her own actions are cruel. But that’s not to take away from the fact that she and Fern go through a lot of crap as young women trying to find a place in what is not just a very masculine scene but a downright misogynistic one. Rachel and Fern keep having to prove their place as metal fans, then as metal musicians, to everyone around them.

One of the key elements throughout the book is Artemisia Gentileschi’s paiting of Judith beheading Holofernes. Early on the fact that it’s a painting by a woman of two women killing a man gives Rachel inspiration in her artwork. After she and Fern are beaten and raped, it’s the model for their planned revenge, Rachel deciding she will be Judith, Fern her assistant, and the man who raped Rachel her Holofernes. (The fact that there’s another painting of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes is not insignificant.)

And this is where I really begin to question Rachel’s reliability as narrator. She’s been cruel, she’s been violent, though she’s presented those moments in ways that mitigate her responsibility or demonstrate some regret. But her unlikely plan is for her band to get popular enough that she can take revenge on the more famous band who assaulted her and Fern, preferably before an audience, and sure enough, their smalltown band rapidly grows more famous. But as they get closer to their planned revenge, Fern and Rachel seem to trade places, Fern becoming the violent one, taking the lead, becoming Judith. Suddenly Rachel isn’t sure she wants to go through with it, once they reach the point where they could actually achieve their unlikely plan, and it’s Fern who starts it, Rachel who follows. We only ever have Rachel’s perspective on events, so maybe she’s telling the truth, but she may also be spinning (consciously or not) the story to put more of the blame on Fern. One of her regrets about murdering her rapist is that she didn’t say something witty first. The closing chapter shows just how far gone Rachel is.

The only people I really talk to are my psychologist, and the girl I share my cell with — but she’s crazy. We don’t have much in common, but we get along okay, I guess. […]

The point was never to ruin anyone’s life or waste anyone’s time. The point was just revenge.

Side points: it’s not clear exactly when or where this novel is set. Sometimes it feels like the pre-web era, but gradually there’s more mention of the Internet and cellphones. Maybe the story covers a longer span of time than seems to be the case. Rachel’s hometown is Keeleford, two hours away from the much larger city of St. Charles. There is a St. Charles in Ontario… with a population of about a thousand people. I assume St. Charles and Keeleford are stand-ins for Toronto and London, Ontario.

As for music… though Rachel is obsessed with death metal, all the bands mentioned in the book, as far as I can tell, are fictional, and at least one reviewer has complained about the somewhat cliched portrayal of the metal scene. On the other hand, others have agreed with Taylor’s portrayal of the misogynistic crap women in rock, not just metal, often have to put up with, and Taylor herself has been in the goth/synthpop/metal band the Birthday Massacre (originally known as Imagica) since 1999. Their early days starting out in London would have overlapped the rise of all-female London nu-metal band Kittie, whose 2000 debut album was a big hit and may have provided some inspiration here.

To sum up, despite some weaknesses, this is a strong and suspenseful story with a compellingly strange narrator.

Review: Salvage by Stephen Maher August 25, 2016

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cover89220-mediumThis was supposed to be a Netgalley review, and I did post it over there, but I was a bit late in getting to this one. I’m not a fan of pdfs for novels. Great for magazines, comics, and illustrated nonfiction, but for novels, give me epubs. And the publisher gave me a pdf.

However… the description of the book intrigued me more than a little. I ended up buying a very reasonably priced epub through Kobo and raced through the book.

Stephen Maher is better known for his political journalism than his novels — this is his second — but after this one, that may change. His first novel, Deadline, was an Ottawa-based, politically-tinged mystery novel, and it was pretty good. But Maher’s roots are down east; he’s lived and worked in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and Salvage is set in small town Nova Scotia.

Maybe it’s partly because I left Nova Scotia 30 years ago (after university in Halifax) and have been in Ottawa since, but Salvage feels fresher and more vibrant than Deadline. The characters feel bigger and broader in some respects, but then a south shore sailor like Philip Scarnum, who’s smart and educated but often plays the hick, is bound to be a different kind of person from the usual Ottawa media, bureaucracy, and politics types. He’s capable of being cold and amoral in the pursuit of survival, though, so maybe not all that different…

The characters sometimes feel a little larger than life. There’s a definite pulpishness around the edges, but it’s the good kind, not the disposable trash kind. Maher gives the impression of knowing his locale and its kind of people, and he knows more about boats and sailing than I do, so I can’t criticize that. He also manages to build up the suspense as he goes. His prose is clean clear, the dialogue generally realistic. It’s the kind of book you want to keep reading.

This is suspense, not mystery; it becomes clear who the bad guys are fairly quickly, and there aren’t too many twists along the way, but Scarnum is weaving his way through a tangled plot involving different factions. That most of the characters have known each other for many years, living in a small town, makes things more difficult. Loyalties are divided, relationships messy. It all culminates in confrontation and violence and a satisfying payoff.

Somewhere, I hope, someone’s thinking of putting together a financing deal to make a film based on this novel, maybe with Allan Hawco as Scarnum. Most of the Canadian movie makers I can think of lean towards the artsier end of cinema, but there must be someone who’d like to bust loose with an east coast smugglers’n’gangsters movie. I’d certainly go see it. I’m also curious what Maher might be thinking of doing in his next novel, assuming he has plans for one.

Review: Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock August 25, 2016

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congratulations-on-everything.jpg.size.custom.crop.421x650On Canada Day, Kobo had a lot of Canadian novels on sale cheap. I bought half a dozen, and this was one of them.

Nathan Whitlock, apparently, is part of the modern Canadian literary establishment, having published a couple of novels, written for a variety of magazines, and worked at Quill & Quire, the news magazine of the Canadian publishing industry. So this is emphatically not genre fiction. Fortunately, it’s not old school CanLit, either. It’s set in Rob Ford’s Toronto, not some small town. Avoiding one of the usual cliches of literary fiction as genre, the book doesn’t feature a writer or academic as its protagonist, either.

Basically, this is the occasionally funny minor tragedy of a schmo. Jeremy is an unpretentious and not terribly bright guy whose great goal in a life guided by the aphorisms of his favourite self-help writer is to own and run a bar. He’s always worked in the service industry, including a spell in a chain pub, and finally manages to get his own. It should come as no surprise that, eventually, he screws everything up — not least because Whitlock tells you at the end of the first chapter that everything will go to hell for Jeremy.

Whitlock is a good writer, and he creates believably flawed characters. But there’s not really much plot here. It’s the slow motion unraveling of Jeremy’s plans, almost always through his own oblivious cluelessness or drunkenness (or, to be fair, the occasional well-meaning gesture), that gives a little suspense to the book. And even then things really only go to heck, not hell. Jeremy’s still around. Though when everything hits the fan, we don’t really see how it hits him directly. Instead, the story switches perspective to another character for the last few pages. Time’s passed and we get only an outside view of where Jeremy is now.

Still, for the small stakes and scale of the book, I enjoyed it. Some of the supporting characters manage to be surprising once in a while. And while you may wish you could reach into the book and give Jeremy a good shake or a whack upside the head every so often, he’s generally an amiable enough dolt.

If you want to think of this as lit for lads, well, it’s a lot more palatable than a lot of what Nick Hornby’s turned out after High Fidelity. It also reminds me (being more a genre fan than a literary fiction fan, for the most part) of Philip K. Dick’s mainstream novels. He had a series of books no publisher would touch until he died, tales of losers trying to keep their struggling businesses and struggling relationships from going down the tubes. His protagonists were the authors of their own misfortunes as much as Jeremy is here, but they’re frequently less pleasant people. Whitlock’s female characters are a lot more real and likeable, too. The women in the book are capable of making their own share of bad decisions but at least some of them have their heads screwed on tighter than many of the male characters.

Worth the time and money I spent on it, certainly.

Back up to 80% on Netgalley! August 10, 2016

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I’ve had a lot of enjoyable free reads through Netgalley that I’ve blogged and posted about hither and yon, and discovered some good books for my actual work library, too, so I feel guilty if I slip below the 80% reviewed level for the books I request and receive. The last review bumped me back up over the line. So, here are my badges thus far.

80%2016 NetGalley ChallengeFrequently Auto-Approved

Reviews Published2015 Challenge ParticipantProfessional Reader

Netgalley does a good service for writers and publishers, not just reviewers. I know I’ve brought books to the attention of people who might not have come across them otherwise. Probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve occasionally gone and bought other books from the same author or publisher after reviewing something.

Just in case you were wondering why I namecheck Netgalley so often around here…

Edited to add: 100 Book Reviews

Review: The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy by Paula Mejia August 10, 2016

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Yes! Netgalley again! This is a review written in exchange for an advance electronic galley from the publisher via Netgalley.jamcp

So here’s a book from the 33 1/3 series, bringers of wonders and delights and occasional wtf moments, about an album I love.

Which is why I want to love this book: I love Psychocandy. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain on TV in 1985. A month or two later, I bought the 7″ of “Never Understand” and a friend bought the 7″ of “Upside Down.” They were great, but then came Psychocandy and the sharp left turn of “Just Like Honey” and I was even more impressed. I bought all their albums, saw them on the Automatic tour, etc.

So I want to love this book because I love the album. But it feels like I’m the wrong audience for it. Instead of a deep dive into the album, it feels more like a book by and for people half my age discovering a classic album long after it was released. I assume that’s the reason for the Britney Spears stuff. Situating the JAMC’s catchy noise merits a discussion of pop, maybe even bubblegum pop (though the usual touchstones are the Beach Boys and girl groups for that side of their sound), but the pop discussion generally seems a bit historically off and very American. I’m not British but it’s always seemed to me that the UK and the US don’t necessarily mean quite the same thing when they use the word “pop.”

Mejia reads like she had fun writing the book, going off on digressions about candy, falling into hipster or rockcrit-speak occasionally (“punk-surged”?), and clearly expressing her own enthusiasm for what we agree is a great album. But while she did research and interviews, I don’t feel I encountered much that was new to me. There’s no rule that a book in the 33 1/3 series has to talk about recording studios, equipment, production techniques, unreleased tracks, or the like, but I could have used a bit more focus on the record.

Still, considering some of the albums the 33 1/3 people have chosen to cover in recent books, this is a positive sign and a readable, occasionally fun book. If it keeps people under 50 interested in the Jesus and Mary Chain, job well done.

Review: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 7, 2016

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cover87989-mediumAnother Netgalley review, though I’ve had a Tor.com page about this book open in an iPad browser tab for some time to make sure I didn’t miss it. So an honest review for a free preview of something I would gladly have paid for, and in this case, I’d’ve still been glad after reading it. Anyway:

Kij Johnson does something here that Lovecraft readers have needed for some time. Well, a couple of somethings, really.

First, and most importantly, Lovecraft was a product of his time in ways that are, frankly, difficult to accept now. His stories were at times appallingly racist, and he rarely portrayed female characters at all, never mind sympathetically.

Second, and important to Lovecraft readers, Lovecraft has become known as a weird recluse who wrote horror stories. Which, at times, he was, but not all of his work was horror. Some was science fiction, and some was fantasy. For example, one of his longer works, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which was about a human traveler in the Dreamlands, a real place where dreamers go but few remember. It’s connected to a few of his other stories and, though it features monsters and some of the entities from his other stories known as the Cthulhu mythos, the overall tone is very different. They’re tales of wonder and nostalgia, not horror, and owe a debt to Dunsany”s fantasy tales.

In The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson revisits the Dreamlands in a story that’s notable both because it specifically addresses the place of women in Lovecraft’s fiction and because, unlike the majority of the hundreds — or thousands — of Lovecraft-influenced stories, it deals with the Dreamlands, not the Cthulhu Mythos.

Johnson does the former by telling her story from the perspective of a native of the Dreamlands, a woman professor all too conscious of the lack of respect her college and students get from the male majority, Hers is a world where women are a minority, and where gods powerful and less so interfere with human lives. When one of her students goes missing with a man from the waking world, she has to travel the Dreamlands to try to find her before she travels to our world — because the student doesn’t yet realize her true place in her world, and Boe’s adopted home is at risk.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Randolph Carter travels through the Dreamlands seeking a city he remembers, encountering many strange things and places. Vellitt Boe has a similar journey; her story echoes in his in some ways, while commenting on it and subverting some elements of it.

Brian Lumley set several novels in the Dreamlands, but his were uninvolving sword and sorcery tales that happened to be set there. (The first one was, at least; I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t carry on with the rest of the books.) Johnson’s story is much more thoughtful. She’s also much more of a prose stylist,

It should be mentioned that it isn’t at all necessary to be familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy this story. It may simply seem to be an enjoyable weird tale rather than a dialogue with a problematic writer, but don’t let that stop you.