Monday, October 30, 2017

World Enough by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Tara Winton is divorced, working in communications for a large corporation, and really just marking time.  Her job doesn’t excite her; she could do most of her tasks in her sleep.  Her days are pretty much routine.  It wasn’t always like this.  Back in the day, she was a music reporter for an independent ‘zine, covering the burgeoning Boston music scene.  Those were heady days, watching the musicians that made it, the ones that didn’t, and the ones who flamed out too soon. It was more than that, though: it was a community.  Relationships were forged then that had repercussions from then until now.  But that seems like another world, another lifetime.

She still hits some of the clubs with long-time friends, listens to the music.  Some of the bands are still around, the ones that were good but not good enough; the ones who had a sound, but whose members, like Tara, work other jobs to pay the rent and only get together to play because they love it.  Then Tara hears that Frank, one of the old gang, has died from a fall. It seems a sad and unlikely ending.

The news prompts Scott, Tara’s old editor from the ‘zine days, to give her a call.  He’s now the editor of City, a glossy publication full of puff pieces, but he wants to make it edgier.  Maybe a story about the old music scene, tying it in with Frank’s death, will attract a wider audience.

Tara is reluctant, but soon discovers this is just what she’s missed: real journalism, digging for a story, and maybe enjoying reliving the old days.  Memories come flooding back, along with some nagging questions about what happened to Chris Crack, the star who was on the verge of superstardom before that accidental overdose . . . 

Since I’ve never been to Boston and my musical tastes run more to folk, bluegrass, and Americana, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get into this book which, as the jacket copy emphasizes, is all about the Boston music scene of a particular era.  I need not have worried; Tara is an easy character to relate to, and the whole feeling of the book was nostalgia for the past, when the world was new and exciting, rather than esoteric music knowledge.  Simon does an excellent job of conveying what it was like in those heady times, when it seemed superstardom was on the horizon for some of the bands, and everyone was chasing dreams.  (Actually, it all reminds me of a country song called “Life Happened.”) I particularly enjoyed the way that layers were peeled back, revealing that rosy memories had more than a bit of amnesia to them.  For example, Tara was always too high on music to be part of the drug scene, but she gradually realizes that there was a sudden upswing in the amount of drugs available, cocaine especially—a fact of which her friends were well aware. She also finds that Frank had been asking some questions about those old days before his convenient fall. 

World Enough has turned out to be one of my favorite books by Simon.  I liked the deft way the author handled Tara’s gradual re-evaluation of her memories about events and even her friends, questioning her perceptions, and even the way she’s currently living.  It’s a book that will stay with me for some time, bolstered by strong characterization and a near-universal tendency to revisit our past at certain points in our lives. You don’t have to be a rock fan to enjoy this book, but it helps if you’re old enough to have attended (or avoided!) a high school reunion or two. There’s enough grit to qualify it as noir, but it’s never overly graphic.  

In short, it’s a most enjoyable book even for those who aren’t mystery readers or rock fan fans but who appreciate good characterization and atmosphere.

Full disclosure:  I was given an advance copy of the book by the author without any stipulations or conditions.The book is due out in the U.S. on November 1.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Halloween Night and Halloween Night II by RL Stine

Reviewed by Christy H.

            There is a podcast called Teen Creeps where two comedians read and discuss “young adult pulp fiction” (lots of thrillers and horror) from their youth – the 1980s and 1990s. It is hilarious and nostalgic and quickly becoming one of my favorite podcasts.

            I read the Halloween Night series specifically for this podcast, although I remember reading the first one many, many years ago. In Halloween Night, Brenda is struggling with the recent addition of her cousin Halley to her household. Halley’s parents are going through a bitter divorce and Brenda’s parents graciously offer to let her stay with them while it blows over. Relegated to a guest room while Halley gets her room, Brenda is seething. To make matters worse, Halley is a flirt. Especially with Brenda’s boyfriend. So Brenda and her friends hatch a plan to kill Halley. Well, in their creative writing assignment anyway. But Brenda keeps getting pushed to the breaking point until she finally snaps. She decides to kill Halley for real.

            This was a really fun read for October. It made me want to get together with my friends and carve pumpkins (which I did!) and throw a Halloween party (Eh. Too lazy). One thing I vividly remember from my RL Stine lovin’ years is the description of clothing. I don’t know why but I always loved that, and reading it now made me want to buy more tights. The book does get a little repetitious with the formula of Something Scary Happens, Brenda Blames Halley, Halley Denies It, Nobody Believes Brenda. With the second book essentially being a rehash of the first, expect lots more of that. And there are plenty of fake out cliffhangers as well which I’m sure can be irritating to some. I really enjoyed reading these though. It was fun to shut off my brain and worries and just be a kid again trying to get spooked.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Jeanne

Let me start off by admitting that I am somewhat intimidated by Mr. Gaiman.  I often have the feeling that I am just too dense to understand some of his work.  Also, most of it has at least a trickle of darkness (if not a flood!) and I have to be in a certain frame of mind to read it.  For me, I find that his shorter fiction appeals to me a bit more.  Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it can’t pack a wallop.

And while there’s always a bit of darkness, that doesn’t mean humorless.  Gaiman has a great deal of wit and sly humor glimmering between the lines.

Smoke and Mirrors, as he explains in the don’t-miss introduction, refers to methods that stage magicians have used to fool viewers into believing impossible things.  Stories do the same thing; they appear to present a truth; but do they? Readers should be prepared to question everything as they fall through the author’s rabbit hole.

Or they can just enjoy the ride.

The collection includes poetry as well as stories, but the poems are just as haunting.  The fiction ranges from very short—just a smidge over a page—but most are around ten pages.  Some knowledge of Lovecraft will enhance appreciation for a couple of stories, but knowing a bit of folklore will almost always help. I find them all to be very visual, a veritable marathon of “Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes. In the introduction itself, Gaiman briefly discusses each entry.  I bookmarked that section and would go back to read what he’d said about a particular work after I had read it.  Then sometimes I would read the story again.  Most of the stories were written for particular themed anthologies (fantasy erotica, retellings of Grimm folktales, computer fiction, etc.) while others came from more general suggestions—cats and angels are popular, so why not write a story about a cat who is an angel? (The resulting story didn’t appear for some years and then in quite a different form.)

There’s really not a clunker in the whole collection, but for me the standouts were:

·         The Wedding Present which appears as part of the introduction is a tale Gaiman intended to write as a wedding gift for friends until he decided that perhaps they’d rather have a toaster. What would happen if, as a wedding gift, you received a book which wrote the story of your marriage—or rather, a story? One that might or might not be true?

·         In Chivalry, Mrs. Whitaker finds the Holy Grail.  It was right there under a coat in the thrift shop and quite pretty it is, too, but this young man keeps coming up and asking for it so he can fulfill his quest….

·         The Price is an unforgettable tale of a black cat and his devotion to his family.  By all means, though, go back and read Gaiman’s comments on the story in the introduction. It made me feel a lot better about the whole thing.

·         Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar is a bit of a cautionary tale in which one can be led astray by relying too much on guidebooks.   The first sentence is a delight, and I thought the story just got better from there. I forced a colleague to listen to me read parts of it aloud because I thought it was so funny.

·         The structure of Murder Mysteries gave me pause because I made the mistake of starting it and then not finishing it the same day.  Our narrator meets a man in the park who tells him a story in return for a cigarette, and his story so dominates the plot that after my break I had forgotten that he was telling the tale to someone else.  He was, he says, an angel—Raguel, to be specific, the Vengeance of the Lord, and it was his job to investigate the death of another angel.  It’s a mesmerizing tale and one indeed to consider long after the last page has been turned.

As I said at the beginning, I find Mr. Gaiman’s work to be a bit of a challenge so I sort of take a deep breath before I plunge in—but it’s definitely worth it.  I shivered, I laughed, and I pondered.  That’s more than I can say about a lot of stories.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker

Reviewed by Jeanne

I first encountered Lily Dale in a novel by Wendy Corsi Staub. The plot has young mother Bella and her son ending up in an eccentric hamlet in New York where people all believe in spirits and the afterlife, and you can’t toss a crystal ball without hitting a medium or psychic. Bella is introduced to such local attractions as Inspiration Stump and the Fairy Trail. (You can read the full review here.)

I assumed, wrongly, that Lily Dale was a fictional location.  It does exist, and so does Inspiration Stump.

Lily Dale, New York was incorporated in 1879 as a meeting place for Spiritualists, one of several such places that sprang up during the mid 19th century when there was an intense wave of interest in the idea of spirits and life after death.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Todd Lincoln were two early proponents.  While similar communities faded away or else lost their otherworldly personas, Lily Dale has managed to survive and even thrive, to a certain extent, hosting seasonal events that attract thousands.

Journalist Christine Wicker was also intrigued by Lily Dale and set out to try to understand why this town continues to draw tourists and seekers.  She is a skeptic, but willing to be convinced.  She begins by interviewing residents and visitors alike, asking them about their experiences. She weaves together a number of stories to give the reader a fuller picture of the community, warts and all.  She doesn’t shy away from detailing incidents where mediums have been unmasked as charlatans but she doesn’t denigrate those who believe.  I found the book to be balanced in its presentation, leaving readers to decide for themselves whether or not there is something supernatural going on in Lily Dale.

The book is well written and I admire Wicker’s even-handed approach.  The only aspect of the book that bothered me was the tendency to tell part of one person’s story, then switch to another topic for several chapters before returning to that person.  At a couple of points, I stopped reading sequentially and searched for the point where the person’s story was picked up again. Then I went back and read the parts I had skipped. At the end, I realized she had appended a “cast of characters” of sorts, which would have helped more if placed at the beginning.

The people she interviews are from all walks of life and assorted backgrounds.  There are professors, business people, laborers, and even a psychologist.  Some are year-round residents, but most are summer visitors:  not only are winters cold, but there are strict regulations on who can own property. Most share a personal loss, usually of a person, but sometimes a loss of personal identity—job failures, divorce, or other life altering events—that causes a person to seek out spiritual direction.

Almost more important than the psychic energies (or not, your mileage may vary) is the strong sense of community that seems to permeate the town.  There’s a great deal of tolerance for people and their beliefs and a strong sense of feminine power—many of the early spiritualists and mediums were women. These communities also embraced a number of progressive ideas: many were suffragettes and abolitionists.

Those looking to either validate or debunk Lily Dale may find this book to be disappointing.  Those who are curious and open minded will find food for thought.  Personally, I think I’d like to take a road trip to visit someday.