Niagara’s Ghosts II by Kyle Upton

Another one from the huge pile of unread local folklore books my parents sourced on their travels.  Another one that wasn’t too bad – the author is a tour guide at Fort George near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario who has led the fort’s ghost tours for many years, so it’s a collection of every spooky story associated with the place.  Unfortunately he added a chapter at the end about general spooky stuff in the area so it lost focus.

Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I read this shortly after it came out – someone lent it to me because I read Sandman.

I impulse bought the 25th anniversary edition in a comic shop a couple years ago because I thought I should revisit it.

I wasn’t really aware of who Dave McKean was the first time around; I have a much better appreciation of his artwork now, and it absolutely stands the test of time.

The rest, not so much.  I keep trying to like Batman-themed stuff, but it always falls flat.  This comes closer because of the haunted-house element, but, well, I didn’t even get all the way through reading the original script with commentary at the back, because I just didn’t care.

Also, note for older visually-impaired folks – Even wearing the right glasses I struggled to read the Joker’s dialogue.

I will be keeping this because of the very pretty pictures, but it was a trip down memory lane I didn’t need.

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

I *love* Margaret Atwood’s writing, pre-ordered this one and received it on publication day, but the reviews were such that I only got around to reading it last month.

It’s a collection of nine short stories.  The first three are linked, about ageing writers/artists thinking about how they ended up where they are and examining bad behaviour from back in the 60s and 70s.  It’s low-key stuff, but really funny.  The third, Dark Lady, features a pair of characters with the fewest redeeming features ever committed to paper.

Lusus Naturae is a good old-fashioned gothic creature feature.  I liked it a lot.

In the Freeze-Dried Groom a shady antiques dealer meets his match when he bids on one storage locker too many.  Also fab.

I Dream of  Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from my favourite Atwood novel, The Robber Bride.  Enjoyable, yes, but I’m not sure how necessary it is to the canon.

The Dead Hand Loves you is also about ageing writers and a pact they made back in the 60s finally coming unravelled.  It’s worth noting that the successful writer from this, as well as the one from the first three stories, are writers of genre (horror here and fantasy earlier) that the rest of their circle look down on.  It’s clear that Atwood thinks they’re the chumps, not the successful genre authors.  I liked it, but mostly got excited because of the reference to the goth girls who idolise the horror writer.  “Hey, Margaret Atwood knows about goths”.  And then I realised she lives in the Annex so, duh.

Stone Mattress is about revenge served up cold, in every sense of the word.  This is the story that I loved.

Torching the Dusties is a near-future number where a radical group of young people have decided that old people have taken too many of the world’s resources for too long and got really militant about it.  Scary and hilarious all at once.

This collection starts out less than grippingly, but overall is absolutely worth your time.

 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was absolutely unavoidable when it came out. It sounded like something I’d like but I never did prioritise it until it came up as my book club’s choice.

Unfortunately I’ve had to return it to the library and I didn’t take notes (“I’ll remember that” – you’d think I’d have learned by now that will never happen).  I suspect there are many plot synopses all over the net.

I liked it a lot, but I didn’t love it.  One of the reviews quoted on the cover says it’s what would happen if Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker wrote a novel.

a) it’s not that convincing a Victorian novel – I can name two off the top of my head – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber.

b) it’s really not that gothic.  I’ve seen more than one review that references its gothicness, all by people who need to get out more.

It’s well written.  There’s nothing in it that is so out of time it jars (note: my areas of expertise are somewhat earlier but like any avid reader I know a bit about the Victorian era).  The characters are believable and engaging.  There was just nothing in it that really spoke to me.

(It is worth noting that at this point I realised that nearly all the books that have really rocked my world in recent years or months have been written by authors from and about different cultures.  Maybe I’m just done with the familiar.)

It wasn’t until approximately a week after I finished it that I realised that the big reveal of the actual Essex Serpent at the end was stunningly well done.

Despite the foregoing, I do recommend it.  Just because it was not necessarily the right book for me does not make it a bad book by any criteria.

Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues by Ruth Wright Millar

This one’s been sitting around for years.  Obviously, it was a gift from someone in my family.

12 short portraits of people from Saskatchewan(1) who have done Cool Stuff ranging from being a cowboy to being a nurse in the Chinese civil war.  Five women.  One Jewish person.  No First Nations.  So could do better for representation.  Reasonably well written for this kind of thing, though, and kind of fun.

(1) Sometimes the affiliation with Saskatchewan is pretty tenuous, and with one exception all the Cool Stuff they did was outside of Saskatchewan.

The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E McKenna

I’ve seen Juliet E McKenna speak at cons and various events around Bristol since 2006 or thereabouts.  Every time I am more impressed by her than the last, and I think “I really have to start reading her books”.  Her output is mainly epic fantasy which isn’t really my thing, but when I heard that she had written an urban fantasy/folk horror number, I decided the universe had sent me a message and grabbed a copy straight away.

Daniel Mackmain is a carpenter who doesn’t like to stay in one place for more than a few months.  He is also the son of a dryad mother and human father.  One day he is gathering wood for carving in the Peak District and meets a dryad (he’s never met one besides his mum).  Shortly after a young woman is killed in the same place. Having been in the area at the time, the police are looking at Daniel’s movements very closely.  It soon becomes apparent to him that the murder has something to do with the supernatural world that he comes from, and that only he can solve it.  He just needs to find some other folkloric entities to help him expunge an ancient evil from the land, while avoiding the attention of the police.

The very existence of this book ticks most of my boxes, but this isn’t just another supernatural detective story.  It’s really well written, excellently plotted and paced.  McKenna fuses the amateur detective format with the myths and folklore of Britain beautifully.  There aren’t any elements here one hasn’t seen before, but the way they are put together is a real treat.

Also, this book very much makes one glad that boggarts aren’t a real thing.  Thoroughly nasty little creatures.

Very much recommended, and you should absolutely make space for the paper edition – the cover art is gorgeous.

Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh

This was my book club’s selection for last month.  I’d never read any Waugh so it couldn’t fail to be at least an educational experience.  (That wasn’t sarcasm.  I’m always looking to fill the gaps in my cultural knowledge).

Beautiful prose, shame about everything else.  Even allowing for it being a product of a less socially enlightened time, it’s full of unnecessary vitriol, particularly directed at people who don’t know their place.  (Book club conclusion, with which I concur: Waugh had an extraordinary amount of self loathing going on).

Beautiful prose aside, two things redeem it:  First, early in the second part of the book, a bunch of top brass become aware of the useless group of “commandos” the novel is about and essentially have a meeting putting their heads in their hands and figuring out how to do the least harm.  It was really funny.  The second is the portrayal of the British withdrawal from Crete, which felt like a very real description of the chaos of retreat, where nobody knows what is going on.

But otherwise, just no.  Unless you really want to know, in spades, how upper-middle-class men of the 1950s men felt about everyone that wasn’t them.  Which we all know, really, and we don’t need reminding.