Author: Christine (page 1 of 30)

Final decision about Bookish Pursuits

After discussing the blog with my co-blogger, Obsidian Blue, I’m going to be shutting down Bookish Pursuits sometime after the new year, but before my domain renews in March. Continuing to pay the hosting fees on a blog in which I’ve lost interest doesn’t make sense.

I will continue to be active on Booklikes, and you can find me there as Moonlight Reader. Obsidian Blue will also continue to be active on Booklikes, and you can find her reviews, comments, and other posts on her blog at Obsidian Blue.

I’ve also decided that I need a fresh blogging start to document my two main reading loves: classic crime and vintage women authors. I’m going to be blogging about classic crime at Peril at Whitehaven Mansions and about vintage women authors at All The Vintage Ladies. If you’re interested in either of those topics, follow me there!

This blog will remain up for the next three to four months as I slowly migrate my content to other places – some of it will be posted on the new blogs, where it fits, and some of it will just be saved into document for posterity!

Happy reading!

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt

The Secret Woman by Victoria HoltThe Secret Woman by Victoria Holt
Published by Sourcebooks on January 1st 1970
Genres: Classic Mystery/Suspense, Gothic romance
Pages: 379
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
one-half-stars

Will she find love at sea, or is she getting herself into deep water?

Anna Brett is a governess to a wealthy English family, a role she's convinced she'll be doomed to live the rest of her life. But when she meets Redvers Stretton, the dashing captain of a ship named The Secret Woman, and she's whisked from the bleak British coast to the sunny South Seas, she quickly realizes that things will never be the same. But with a murder dogging her steps and the mystery of a missing treasure haunting her dreams, Anna is forced to confront the clever captain-a man who may have just as many secrets as his ship.

First published in 1970, The Secret Woman was written by the prolific Eleanor Hibbert under her Victoria Holt pen name. While this book was published in “Holt’s” early period, it was actually published in the middle period for Hibbert. There were a total of 32 books published under the “Holt” name, and of those 32, approximately 23 of them were published after The Secret Woman.

Victoria Holt tends to be very hit and miss. This one is a miss.

I think that, perhaps, Holt was going for an homage to Jane Eyre with this one, with Redvers as the Rochester character, the conveniently orphaned Anna as Jane, and Redver’s wife, Monique, as the ill-fated Bertha. Like Bertha, the mildly mentally ill, consumptive Monique comes from an apparently fictional island named Coralle. Bertha, of course, is from Jamaica, and is the daughter of a wealthy family.

The issues with this book start with the pacing. The plot summary is misleading in that most of the elements referenced in the summary do not appear until the 50% mark of the book. The first 50% of the book felt relatively superfluous, focusing on Anna’s childhood and young adulthood, being first sent to England without her parents, later being orphaned, and then being raised by her unpleasant, unloving, bitter Aunt Charlotte. This, again, may be an ill-advised attempt to copy Jane Eyre. Few writers have the skill to write a Jane Eyre character, and Holt fails completely.

The “meet cute” between our hero and heroine also fails. Redvers and Anna meet when she is 12 and he is 19. I can understand her romanticizing him, since he is a dashing young man. I cannot understand, and am entirely grossed out, by his apparent romanticizing of her. She was twelve. There is nothing at twelve to attract a young man of nineteen.

It isn’t until around the 55% mark that Red & Anna end up in one another’s company consistently. From there, the book devolves into a shipboard travelogue. Way too much of the narration is delivered through the diary of the third-wheel Chantel, which ground the story to a halt. The suspense/gothic elements don’t appear until around 75%, and by that time, I am done. That section could’ve actually been pretty interesting, if it had been expanded to be more of the book, and if Holt hadn’t decided that the best way to deliver the reveal was through a letter.

Note to authors: telling us why and how something happened through a letter written by the perpetrator is generally not an emotionally resonant method of storytelling. Again, the tension, the suspense, the drama grinds to a freaking halt while I read a three page letter written by the villain/ess (no spoilers here) as he/she is in his/her death throes.

As an Eyre retelling: fail. As a gothic/romantic suspense: fail. As a period drama: fail. If you aren’t a Holt completist, don’t bother with this one. First you’ll be bored, then you’ll be irritated.

one-half-stars

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Murder of a Lady by Anthony WynneMurder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
Published by British Library Crime Classics on 1931
Pages: 288
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads
four-stars

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom - but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish's scale, left on the floor next to Mary's body.Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick - perhaps too quick - to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

I found this book to be delightful and the ending made me laugh out loud with glee. The solution to the “impossible crime” was absurd and contrived – as these impossible crime solutions often are – but not such that I was annoyed.

I didn’t guess whodunnit. I was pretty sure throughout the entire thing whodidntdunit, and I was right about that, but I focused on the wrong character! Since there is no way to do spoiler tags on wordpress, I won’t say more on that subject here.

The victim, Mary Gregor, was an odious woman. She reminded me a lot of Mrs. Boynton, from Appointment With Death, which remains one of my favorite Christie mysteries. Some people go unmourned for good reason, and it is unwise to press people beyond their breaking point. The solution was reminiscent of another Christie mystery, but, again, I will refrain to avoid spoiling. I will say that Mrs. Christie’s version was published a few years later than this one, so no one can accuse Mr. Wynne of stealing her idea!

The second inspector sent to investigate, Barley, was a blooming idiot with a bad case of confirmation bias – he decided who did it, and then tried to squash the evidence into agreeing with him. And there were altogether too many characters who were willing to commit suicide to protect someone else.

The book did drag a bit – this I cannot deny, and the talky-mc-talkerson grew tiresome. I was totally astonished by the THIRD murder, and by the fourth, I was dying to get to the end! Overall, this ended up being one of my favorite of the BLCC reissues.

four-stars

Book Haul for Friday, October 6

I usually do my book buying on Friday, both because Friday’s are payday, and because I’m always looking for new reading for the weekend. Today’s book haul is:

The Clue by Carolyn Wells: Initially published in 1909, this one has been picked up and republished by Open Road Media Mysterious Press, which is doing great work in republishing older mysteries. The Clue is the first book in Wells’s long running Fleming Stone series, and is (allegedly) a locked room mystery.

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt: This book was originally published in 1970, which puts in the early third of Victoria Holt’s career. It’s been my experience that her earlier books are better, so I have high(ish) hopes for this one. This is a planned buddy read with my co-blogger, Obsidian Blue.

The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr: I’ve heard a lot about John Dickson Carr, but this is my first book by him. He is known for his locked room/impossible crime style mysteries. This one was published in 1938, and is the 8th in the Sir Henry Merrivale series.

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham: This is the 14th Albert Campion mystery, and was published in 1952. I’ve only read one other Campion, The Crime at the Black Dudley, which was a bit disappointing, prior to this one. J.K. Rowling is a fan of this specific book. The Tiger in the Smoke is mentioned in Chapter 8 of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (TSCC), the section on “Capital Crimes.”

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Linnelius: Another locked room mystery identified in TSCC, this one was published in 1929.

Capital Crimes (anthology) edited by Martin Edwards: I really enjoyed Miraculous Murders: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, also edited by Martin Edwards. This anthology collects stories set in London, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not the hugest short story fan, but I love mysteries set in London.

The zombie rises!

I’m not sure how successful I will be in reanimating the corpse of this poor blog, but I’m going to give it a try!

Rather than try to review every book I read – a goal that is doomed to failure because I just read far too many books to ever accomplish this, and I don’t actually find writing reviews to be all that interesting – I am going to make an effort to track my two current main reading projects on this blog:

1. Mansions, Moonlight and Menace: this project has been going for a couple of years and is focused on gothic literature, both classic and more modern, which would include the category of new gothic or gothic romance that is represented by Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Barbara Michaels, Dorothy Eden and Madeleine Brent. Some of these authors have had their backlists published as kindle books, including Phyllis Whitney, who has been picked up by Open Road Media, and Mary Stewart, whose catalog became available to US readers in September, 2017. These are increasinly easy to obtain, and the ones that aren’t yet available digitally are often available used through various websites.

2. The Detection Club: This is my main reading love right now! So much vintage crime is being reissued for the kindle for just a few dollars, providing an opportunity to read authors who are long out of print. This would’ve been impossible five years ago, so the opportunity is really just truly incredible. I did a Poirot project not long ago, and read them all. I posted about some of them, but most of them got by me without a write up and I am ready for a reread in any case. This category also includes Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham, as well as the British Library Crime Classics. I am in love with the BLCC editions and am really interested in getting to know some of these authors that have been neglected for many years.

I may be adding a project related to vintage spy fiction at some point – I read a ton of cold war spy fiction in my youth and would love to revisit some of it.

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie BrennanIn the Labyrinth of Drakes (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4
Published by Tor Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 352
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

The thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

I am caught up to the final book, which won’t be released until the 25th.

I adored this book. As far as my enjoyment goes, the pacing of this series has been remarkably effective. Although the tale is being told as a memoir, Marie Brennan has done an outstanding job letting the intellectual development of Isabella unfold. We get some of the most frankly feminist moments in this book. Lady Trent, at this point, is a woman with no fucks left to give about propriety. She has learned, in the hardest way possible, that it does not matter how amazing she is, how accomplished she is, how much BETTER she is than the man. Her womanhood forever excludes her from being part of the old boy’s club.

I highly recommend reading Brennan’s free short story, available on Tor, before jumping into this one. It is a slender thing of a tale, told in letters, between Isabella and a man who is so clearly her inferior in all things important, but who is just so smug about his superiority.

The tagline for this book could be: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white male.”

I’m going to share a few quotes here, because they are so awesome.

“Shall we get to the point? You are afraid that I will disgrace Scirland by carrying on with an unmarried man.”

“I would never suggest that.”

No, he would only imply it. I ground my teeth, then said “Colonel, do you make a habit of querying your men about their involvement with every woman they meet? I assure you that many if not most of them have done far more to merit censure than I have. I know it may be difficult to believe, but dragons truly are my concern here. I have not undertaken their study in the hope of attracting a new husband; indeed, such a thing would be an inconvenience rather than a benefit, as there are few husbands who would accept my life as I have become accustomed to living it. As for scandal outside the bounds of marriage…that would be even more inconvenient, as people question my professional integrity quite enough without such justification to encourage them. So you may lay your mind at ease, sir: I have no intention of disgracing our nation. Not when there are dragons to be studied.”

This is a conversation between Isabella and the Colonel Pensyth, who is basically in charge of her new research project, which is an effort to breed dragons in captivity for use in military combat.

In this book, Brennan has laid bare the struggle of women to be taken seriously in their chosen field, both in the past, but as well, in the present. In a conversation with Isabella’s older brother, Andrew, they are discussing her undeniable attraction to Suhail, who reappears in this book. Andrew is commenting that Isabella need not choose between her attraction to Suhail and her work as a dragonologist. Isabella corrects him:

I felt weary, as if I were ten years older than my brother, instead of a year his junior. “Yes, it doe. You and I are not held to the same standards, Andrew. People will forgive a slip, a weakness, a minor personal folly — when it comes from a man. They may click their tongues at you, even gossip about your behavior…but at worst, it will only reflect on you.

“If I misstep, it goes far beyond me. Errors on my part are proof that women are unsuited to professional work.”

And, when Andrew goes on to point out that Isabella is “not like other women,” she pointedly states:

“Ah, yes,” I said ironically, “I have made myself exceptional. It is a wonderful game, is it not? Because I am exceptional, anything I achieve does not reflect on my sex, for of course, I am not like them. Strange, though, how that division seems to vanish when we are speaking instead of my shortcomings. Then I am a woman, like any other.”

One of the things that I’ve really loved about this series is Isabella’s platonic relationship with Tom Wilker. As fellow scientists, they both carry a stigma. Tom is low-born, not one of the peers who are encouraged to take up science as a hobby, and who are given opportunity after opportunity on the strength of their ancestry, as opposed to their talent or work ethic. Isabella, of course, is a woman. Tom’s lot is, actually, not so difficult as Isabella’s, although he certainly doesn’t have it easy. But even though he has to scrap and struggle, he considers Isabella to be his colleague, and there is never a suggestion by him, although Isabella does suggest it once or twice, that he take credit for her work in order to get it published. He is intent on pulling the two of them up together, and if she can’t go too, he isn’t interested.

So, when they make the scientific discovery of a generation, Isabella, Tom and Suhail (another character who defies the path laid for him by birth and sex), I literally cheered. I almost wept. Never has this book and these characters felt more real to me than in the section where they discover the “Watcher’s Heart,” as the site became known, a monumental archeological treasure of the Draconean civilization.

Near the end of the book, Tom bursts out, angrily:

“We have to achieve twice as much, in order to get half as much reward.”

There was no answer I could make to that. It was true…but neither of us could do a thing about it. Except, of course, to achieve four times as much. To be so exceptional, they could no longer shut us out, and having done that, to hope that those who came after might be judged on equal terms with those who should be their peers.

It is not a dream easily attained. We have no truly attained it in my lifetime. But I was more determined than ever to do my part.”

In The Labyrinth of Drakes is an exceptional book, which I loved. Brennan has built this series into something amazing, each book frankly becoming better than the last, which is a rare thing in series, in my experience. I am waiting for the end of the series with delight.

five-stars

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie BrennanVoyage of the Basilisk (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #3) by Marie Brennan
Published by Tor Books on March 31st 2015
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons

I had been awaiting this one with enthusiasm because Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle has always enthralled me. I’m not particularly a ship/boat person, but the idea of a scientist travelling ’round the world studying the natural world is extremely appealing to me. So, this book would be, I hoped, the opportunity to read of such a fictional voyage.

A cross-section view of the hold of The Beagle

It was quite a satisfying tale, although there wasn’t quite as much travelling as I had hoped. Natalie doesn’t join her on this trip, although her son, now nine-years-old, does, and becomes entirely obsessed with ships.

Lady Trent has the opportunity to swim with the dragon turtles!

But I did not need to be a champion swimmer to see the dragon turtles, for they are both huge and relatively fearless of human company. In shape they are more like enormous turtles than anything else. Their shell alone is often two meters or more in length, and when they extend their flippers, a swimmer feels positively tiny in comparison. The name “dragon turtle,” however, derives from the shape of the head, which is indeed like that of a Dajin dragon: a thrusting, squarish muzzle; flaps of skin depending from the jaw; long whiskers which dance in the current as the turtle swims.

And she visits an island where she ends up becoming embroiled in a political scandal, after scaring the natives who are convinced that she is “dragon-spirited” because her refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine manner. There’s a rather amusing part of the book where she ends up “married” to a local woman because that’s the only way to satisfy the native population that she’s safe to keep around.

“Do you believe you are neither male nor female?”

I almost gave a malapert answer, but caught myself in time. We had an established habit of intellectual debate, and I valued it; I would not discard it now. “So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things,” I said, “then one could indeed say that I stand between.”

Finally, Lady Trent rides a dragon. Well, a sea serpent who is a dragon, but still.

Whereupon I realized that we were, indeed, riding a dragon. I cannot honestly recommend the practice to my readers. Apart from the number of Keongans who have been killed attempting this very feat, it is not very comfortable. The ragged cuts on my knees and elbows stung unmercifully. Every time the serpent dove, I was buffeted by the water until it realized the error of its ways and surfaced once more. Again and again it drew in water and expelled it in a blast, for that was its defense against what troubled it, and the beast’s mind could not encompass the fact that this annoyance could not be disposed of in such fashion; but it came near to working regardless, for the shuddering of the serpent’s body whenever this happened threatened to dislodge us. There was no moment of the entire experience that was not a precarious struggle to stay aboard. And yet for all of that, it was one of the grandest experiences of my life.

At this point in the book, she becomes embroiled – once again – in a royal Scirling government scandal, and is basically sent home subject to the official secrets act after saving the life of a grateful Princess. I should probably also mention Suhail, a foreign archaeologist from a vaguely middle eastern country, with whom Isabella is quite taken, and from whom she is abruptly separated at the end of this book when his father, the Sheikh, dies unexpectedly and he is called home. All in all, this was an incredibly satisfying outing in the series, and I’m looking forward to the fourth book, In The Labyrinth of Drakes.

five-stars

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Series: Glamourist Histories #1
Published by Tor Books on August 3rd 2010
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 208
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
two-half-stars

The fantasy novel you’ve always wished Jane Austen had written
Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

Overall, I found this book to be a disappointment.

I started out listening to the audiobook, and kept getting distracted because it moved so slowly that I decided to read it instead. I did finish it last night, rather quickly, so this is one of those rare occasions where my initial chosen format didn’t work for the story.

When I decided to read the book, I expected to like it a lot, because Jane Austen + magic sounds like the bomb. The problem that I had with the book was that the magic seemed incredibly weak and pointless to me. All anyone seems to be able to do with it is make their drawing rooms look extra pretty.

I also hated, hated, hated Jane’s sister Melody. She’s all of the worst parts of Lydia Bennett with none of the madcap charm. She was a total snot to Jane and I wanted someone to slap her into next Tuesday. I did not buy her whiny explanation that she was just jealous of all of Jane’s accomplishments for one minute. She was an unredeemably shallow, self-centered bitch, and it totally marred my enjoyment of the story. And Jane’s constant woe-is-meeeeeeing about her plainness was also pretty annoying. I kept wanting to tell her to buck the fuck up.

I also found all of the love interests to be unconvincing. We’ve got an obvious Mr. Wickham/Mr. Willoughby/Mr. Churchill stand-in who was even more obviously rotten than the other three. There’s also the romance between Jane and her suitor(s), which I again found pretty difficult to buy. The wrap-up of the romance was so quick that I couldn’t figure out how the two of them (and I’m not going to say who the ultimate winner of Jane’s hand was, since that’s a primary plot point that shouldn’t be divulged) actually ended up together. It was emphatically not as convincing as the Darcy/Lizzie pairing or the Emma/Mr. Knightly pairing. I couldn’t see it.

A lot of my bookish friends read and enjoyed this book much more than I did, and they saw depths to the book that I frankly missed, so I wouldn’t take my review as the final word on the subject. I also found the writing to be quite lovely. In addition, I’ve read that the series improves significantly after the first book, but they remain pretty expensive, so unless I can grab one on sale, I doubt I will be continuing. I may give the series one more chance with Glamour and Glass, but I’ve not decided yet.

two-half-stars

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil GaimanAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow on June 21st 2011
Pages: 565
Goodreads

First published in 2001, American Gods became an instant classic—an intellectual and artistic benchmark from the multiple-award-winning master of innovative fiction, Neil Gaiman. Now discover the mystery and magic of American Gods in this tenth anniversary edition. Newly updated and expanded with the author’s preferred text, this commemorative volume is a true celebration of a modern masterpiece by the one, the only, Neil Gaiman.
A storm is coming...

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. A man no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, all he wanted was to be with Laura, the wife he deeply loved, and start a new life.

But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

I decided that the time had come to read this in preparation for the Starz series, which looks amazing. I’ll start by saying that I really liked this book, although I don’t think that it has tipped The Graveyard Book out of it’s Numero Uno spot as my favorite Gaiman. One of the most noteworthy things about Neil Gaiman is that each of his books is so unique. American Gods is very much an adult novel, and not simply because of the sexual content. The themes are grittier, and it lacks that undercurrent of sweetness that runs throughout The Graveyard Book.

American Gods is ambitious, setting out to do nothing less than put gods in the context of America. The book begins with an epigraph:

One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykólakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.

At the end of the book, Gaiman mentions that the question he’s never been asked, that he thought he would be asked, was “How dare you.” But the “how dare you” isn’t the one that I personally expected, in the sense of “how dare you be such a heretic, talking about small g gods in the old U.S. of A, the most Christian nation in the world,” but the question was “how dare you – as someone who is not an American – write a book about America.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of Gaiman – someone who very much stands outside of America – writing a road trip novel set in America. I think he did a terrific job of getting at some of what makes America inexplicably different:

“No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

I’m not sure, are we the only place with roadside attractions? The corn palace, the Wall Drug, the bizarre shrines that pop up in the middle of nowhere, where people towing travel trailers stop in enormous parking lots to buy tiny commemorative spoons, paperweights and elephant ears? Maybe. I thought that aspect of the book was simply wonderful.

And, I loved the old gods. This was a whirlwind tour of folklore and myth, with Whiskey Jack, Czernobog and Mr. Nancy. Reading the book on kindle was tremendously helpful to me – I could highlight a name and wikipedia would whip out an entry that gave me an origin and a basic outline of the myth. Gaiman’s creative use of non-standard mythology was inspired. I also enjoyed the roadtrip with Shadow – this book unfolds in layers, peeling back one at a time.

There were, however, two areas that I felt like the book struggled. First, while the old guys were drawn with depth and drama and pathos and humor, the new gods were . . . not.

“Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.

Perhaps that was Gaiman’s point: what we worship now, in 21st century America, is all flashing lights and emptiness. But, I have to say, there was nothing about the new gods that convinced me that they were actually being worshipped. If the gods come into being and power from belief and sacrifice, then the new gods should have had power. They should’ve been electric with it. And yet, they were bland and boring and ultimately sterile beings of nothingness. A dead woman dispatched them with ease, and they were outsmarted by the diminishing old gods. The most minor kobold operating in Lakeside had more power than the most powerful new god. And then, what happens when the new gods die? I’d like to know. Did the lights blink out? Did the television go black? Did the credit card machines stop functioning? Or are all of the gods, ultimately, sound and fury signifying nothing? Illusions, brought to life?

And, the other problem that I have with the book – and it’s a biggie – is the utter absence of Christianity. Gaiman has him as just a guy walking down a road in Afghanistan. If Americans can conjure a god out of their credit cards simply by believing in them, then it is inconceivable that American Jesus wouldn’t have a presence among the American Gods. We are a consumerist society, it is true, and Gaiman nailed that part of us, but we are also a deeply religious society. Much more so than his native England.

For better or for worse, for truth or for lie, for sacred or for profane, for sincerity or hypocrisy, American Jesus was absent from this book and that did not make sense to me. If this book were possible, I would expect there to be a hundred slightly different versions of Jesus presiding over parts of America, like the images in a funhouse mirror receding into mirrored infinity. You’d have your Lutheran Jesus, who eats jello salad with shredded carrots in church basements all around the midwest, and you’d have your angry abortion-clinic-picketing Jesus wandering randomly around the south with a gun, ready to shed blood for the babies, and your capitalist Jesus, dressed in an Armani suit, preaching the virtues of selfishness, a la Ayn Rand, surrounded by acolytes who all resemble Paul Ryan and who can’t wait to shove the impoverished Americans out of the lifeboat. Without the many versions of Jesus Christ who are ubiquitous in American religion, the book feels incomplete.

What I’m trying to say is that America is like that. It’s not good growing country for gods. They don’t grow well here. They’re like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country.”

Gods may not grow well here, but old time religion certainly does, and that was absent from this book. I feel like it should’ve been in there, although that would’ve been a dangerous narrative choice for sure. Although anyone who would read this book would have to be willing to tolerate heresy, so I’m not sure that it would’ve made the book more likely to be controversial.

So, overall, I really liked this book, but I feel like it left some money on the table. It could’ve been better and didn’t fully realize its promise. But it was damned good anyway!

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer by Elizabeth MayThe Falconer (The Falconer, #1) by Elizabeth May
Series: The Falconer #1
Published by Chronicle Books on May 6th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, YA, YA - Fantasy
Pages: 378
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

One girl's nightmare is this girl's faery tale

She's a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title—and drop-dead beauty.

She's a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. she's leading a double life: She has a rare ability to sense the sìthíchean—the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans—and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She's a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons—from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols—ruthless Aileana has one goal: Destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She's a Falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother's murder—but she'll have to save the world first.

The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy, this electrifying thriller combines romance and action, steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read.

I received a free e-copy of this book from netgalley.

I requested this book because I’ve been seeing the series by Elizabeth May popping up everywhere. Overall, I liked the book – it was sort of an 18th century Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with fae instead of vampires. I do have a few issues with the book, however.

First, it is awfully similar to the Karen Marie Moning Fever series, which makes it feel a bit derivative. In addition, one of the strengths of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was her relationship with her posse – Xander, Willow and Giles. It would’ve been nice to see some development of the supporting characters so that they could’ve been more active participants as opposed to being essentially window-dressing. I also like the Scottish themes.

Finally, I do have an issue with the title of the book – it’s a bit strange to call a book “The Falconer” when it doesn’t even remotely involve falcons, no matter the historical context. I suppose calling it Aileana the Fae Slayer would’ve been too obvious, however! I’m curious about book 2, and will likely continue the series. This one was enjoyable, but slight, and I doubt it will leave a lasting impression

three-stars
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