Sunday, 22 February 2015

Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

Anyone who knows my reading tastes knows that I am a sucker for anything to do with mediums and séances or ghosts and mysticism from around the turn of the century. I have always loved a good ghost story, although they terrify me, which is weird, since I don’t believe in ghosts in the slightest, so I am not completely sure where the terror or the obsession comes from. Honestly, I would love for ghosts and spirits to be real, just like I would love for magic and the supernatural to be real. How cool would that be! But I just don’t. That doesn’t stop me, however, from loving stories about it, and there is something about the darkness of the mid-1800s to early 1900s, revolutionary scientific and technological advances were being made and society was starting to modernise, while at the same time there was a trend towards dark and sensational tales. Mediums and spiritualists were all the rage – from high society to the dirt poor, everyone wanted to hear their future or talk to the dead.  The mediums themselves were celebrities and the techniques they employed to trick the masses; or help those suffering with their losses (How charitable the mediums were as they stole all of your money) were incredibly ingenious.  So when I saw the description for Things Half in Shadow on Net Galley, I knew that I wanted to read it.   

So far, I am thoroughly enjoying this novel. Edward Clark works as a reporter in Philadelphia in 1869 and has just been assigned with defrauding all of the mediums in the city. It’s not a job that he is the least bit interested in, he doesn’t believe in spirits or ghosts, and has no interest in becoming involved. However, his soon-to-be father in law, Thornton Willoughby of Willoughby Hats, thinks that it is a brilliant idea and since Edward very much wants to please his prospective family he agrees to take on the case. His first defrauding is a resounding success, except that he has underestimated his mark. See, Edward Clark is a man with secrets, secrets that he has done a very good job of hiding from everyone, until he gets on the wrong side of Lucy Collins. Threatening him with the demise of his carefully constructed new life, Edward unwillingly agrees to take Lucy on as his partner in defrauding the other mediums in the city. On their first night out Lucy and Edward see some things they can’t explain and they talk to spirits from their past, spirits that their medium could know nothing about. The action doesn’t end there though and the next day they both find themselves murder suspects.

Like I said, I am thoroughly enjoying the story. Alan Finn, the pen name for mystery writer Todd Ritter, has done a great job of re-creating  postbellum Philadelphia – with emotionally and physically wounded soldiers back from war, unsure how to live in peace and unsure of their roles in the world anymore; women who are starting to demand more for themselves; and class distinctions and barriers that were slowly starting to be broken down, although everyone is still painfully aware of the divisions. My only complaint so far would be with Edwards’s character. I really enjoyed him at the beginning, but I am finding that his character is just a little too weak; he gets a little too surprised whenever he encounters a woman with a backbone.  Although that’s not completely right – he is happy when his finance, Violet, shows strength in supporting him, but annoyed when Lucy shows strength in disagreeing with him, or acts too forward and independent.  I am pretty sure that Finn is attempting to show us Edward growing as a man and learning the value of women – but I’d rather like it if he had had a little more respect to start with. It’s not just with women though; in general he backs down pretty quickly and gets walked over a fair bit. He is afraid of anyone thinking anything negative about him and will avoid confrontations at any cost (except with his valet – which slightly annoys me, since I see this happening only because Edward belongs to a high class of citizen. Although, to be fair, his valet deserves it). His aversion to taking a stand creates some rather messy situations that could have been easily avoided, but also don’t really further the plot, so I am not sure why it’s necessary for him to be such a simpering man. My assumption (and I could be totally wrong) is that Finn is trying to show us a man caught up in an adventure that he wants no part of, but is being forced by circumstances beyond his control – however this could have been accomplished without turning Edward into a bit of a man-child. I am definitely biased though; I have a natural aversion to weak willed heroes.

Luckily my problems with Edward are not really affecting my enjoyment of the story itself. There is enough spookiness and unanswered questions to keep me going. I am curious about the role that the bees seem to be taking (they keep appearing in visions of those who have passed) and I truly have no idea who the actual murder is. I am not sure at all what direction the story is going to take – will the ghosts and spirits be real? Or a conjuror’s trick? And what really happened to Edward’s mother when he was a child? These are questions that I really want answers too – so back to the kobo for me!

I've been thinking about the perfect tea to compliment this story and I think I have come up with a good one. The Spice is Right is a sweet, spicy tea from David's. Its one of my favourites - there is just enough spice to make things fun, but not enough to overwhelm. I think that maybe if Edward had a little more spice in his morning tea maybe he'd find it a little easier to have a little more fun?

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Let me start off with a bit of a warning. Animals
HarperCollins 2014,
9781443433037, 256 pages,
(by Emma Jane Unsworth) is not for everyone, and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. (Mom – you’re not going to like this book…..) Honestly, I am not even sure how much I like it. I mean I do like it, I really like it actually… but it’s kind of terrifying.  It’s like someone took my early 20s and put them on crack and ecstasy and then flipped it all around til all I want to do is vomit. And that’s literally what is happening in this book – with all of the drugs and all of the vomiting. A lot. Like over and over again. But still. I do like it.

Tyler and Laura are both girls in their late 20s/early 30s living together in Manchester, who haven’t really gotten it all figured out just yet. Instead of trying, they get drunk a lot (like every day) do a ton of drugs and then just lay about hungover the rest of the time. I think that occasionally they may go to their dead-end jobs. But everything is not as cheery as it seems on the surface. Laura is engaged to be married and her fiancé, Jim, has recently quit alcohol and she is also trying to write a novel, Bacon, about a priest falling in love with a talking pig. Tyler is having some separation anxiety and is trying to get Laura in to some crazier and crazier situations. Laura describes her friendship with Tyler as “kinship, or une affinité profonde; that doppelganger effect that can go either way: to mutual understanding or mutual destruction. Someone sees right to your backbone and simultaneously feels their backbone acknowledged” It sounds beautiful, right? Too bad Tyler is the queen bee of hot messes. She is constantly drunk or high or hungover, she is loud and crass and has no problem yelling at anyone to get what she wants, or just for the fun of it; oh and then there is the vomiting in public. Laura is almost as bad. Now to be fair we are being told the story from Laura’s point of view, but she seems to be a little more aware that maybe things have gotten out of control.  The problem is, when Tyler says jump Laura says how high (heh… see what I did there…) and so all of Laura’s good intentions go running out the door.

The thing is, as dirty and raunchy as this book is, it is really good. It is really well written, it’s poignant and relevant and Unsworth does a brilliant job of showing the complexities of relationships and the pain of feeling like you are losing your best friend. She also has done a brilliant job with Laura’s character. While I am pretty sure Laura is a reliable narrator, she’s not necessarily a reliable person. She talks a lot about being a kid and trying to fit in, even if it meant pretending to be a different religion depending on that of her current friends. She talks about how she felt so much internal pressure that she would throw up and had to go see a therapist. I don’t really care for Tyler that much, but I can see how Laura would be totally taken in with her. Tyler is beautiful and charismatic, and doesn’t really give you the opportunity to say no. She’s one of those girls, who even though you aren’t sure that you really like them, you really want to be in their orbit. That’s kind of the situation here; when the story first started Tyler and Laura were soulmates, but as Laura continues the narrative we can start to see the chinks in the armour. Laura is caught between two worlds – the sensational Tyler and calm and collected Jim. Jim is stable and responsible and he really wants to settle down but his job keeps him overseas a lot, out of sight out of mind. Luckily, and most importantly Laura is head over heels for him but the distance is hard on her.  “Jim. I missed him in a physical way, like a thirst. Missed his mouth and his composure and his steady loving eyes. I didn’t buy the whole ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ spiel. I was with Rochester on the matter: a cord was tied to my ribcage on one end and tied at the other end to Jim’s, and the further away he got, the thinner the cord stretched”  I totally relate to Laura, besides the extreme drinking and drugs of course. When you don’t have a lot of confidence in yourself it’s so easy to get swept up with someone who makes you feel like you are part of something huge.  Laura is starting to get pressure from Jim to tone things down a little though, and the stress of living in two worlds is starting to wear on her. Besides dealing with all of this, her father is dying from cancer and Laura has no idea how to deal. She’s starting to come apart at the seams, and I don’t think that it’s going to end very well. Jim is the only one who keeps her even semi stable “What was it he said to me the other day? We are not defined by how we are but by how we try to be. What if you try too hard to be everything? I countered. Lie down, he said. Lie still”. But Jim is gone a lot and things just keep escalating and I am slightly worried that Laura is going to end up dead or in jail.

Unsworth has definitely taken the traditional perceptions and roles of females and thrown them out the window. Women in their early 30s are supposed to be ready to settle down, get married, have babies and live in single family homes in the suburbs; and of course, if that’s what they want than all the power to them. But being pigeon holed like that doesn’t work for everyone, some woman are not ready to settle down, some women will never want babies or husbands or houses; being a woman in my early 30s without these things I can commiserate. I am constantly being asked when my boyfriend and I are going to get married and have babies. It’s incredibly refreshing to read a story where women are going through the same things and are pushing back.  I’m not sure that it’s necessary to go as far as she does with it, but it’s interesting seeing girls behave in ways that we traditionally assign to boys. And since I am only half way through, although I’m worried about Laura, I really don’t know where this story will go. I guess it’s also the way to get your point across – go big or go home, right?

I think the most appropriate tea for this book is just a traditional green tea - like Dragonwell from David's. Something to sooth the stomach perhaps, after a long night of whisky and cocaine?

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter - Rod Duncan

I have been a pretty huge fan of Steampunk for a few years now, although I cannot remember how I originally found out about it. I guess maybe I can’t say pretty huge... since I have never actually gone to a convention or dressed up or anything, but I enjoy it quite a bit and get a little bit giddy whenever I see a new movie, or now, a book series. I didn’t even think that Steampunk Literature existed until my book club buddy mentioned it (which is really dumb… of course there are books about steampunk… there are books about everything!) Anyway, poor Nicole; as soon as she mentioned it, I took off with it, stole all of her thunder and have been happily collecting Steampunk books ever since. A call for recommendations here, if anyone knows any great Steampunk books, let me know. I cannot get enough.

I guess I should put a bit of an explanation here, for people who may not know what Steampunk is. Basically (and this is really basic, so no one be offended) its 19th century Victorian era re-imagined with steam powered technology. It could also be the American Wild West, set in the future, post-apocalyptic, etc… There are a lot of incarnations. Think people dressed in Victorian garb, with aviator goggles and guns and funky steam powered gadgets and flying airships and homunculus’ and time machines and you get the picture. (For a more coherent, defined description, click here)

As I was saying, I am pretty into the Steampunk books now. My first attempt was the first book in the Newbury and Hobbes series by George Mann, The Affinity Bridge; and I loved it; and then devoured the entire series and all the add-ons. Ever since then I have been looking for anything I can get my hands on; KW Jeter, Tim Powers, China Mieville, which has led me so many different genres and variations – urban fantasy, cyberpunk, new weird, magical realism, Gaslamp fantasy. This is one of the things that I love most about genre fiction – there are so many different genres out there, they all overlap in different ways and different places,  and it’s so easy to find more, more, more! One of the other things that has fascinated me is how much of our literary history has been a pre-cursor for steampunk (and the other similar genres). Anything by HG Wells, Jules Verne, Author Conon-Doyle, they’re all forefathers of steampunk. It’s also HUGELY prevalent in our modern culture and you probably haven’t even noticed – the modern Sherlock movies, the Hellboy movies, World of Warcraft, The Disney movies Treasure Island and Atlantis, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Rush has a steampunk album, The Wild Wild West (yes, the Will Smith movie), Warehouse 13, a couple of the Final Fantasy games, Doctor Who. Steampunk is there, everywhere you look!

I guess at some point I should probably get to the reason for this particular burst of Steampunk love – The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan. I came across this book on Good Reads when I had done a general search of steampunk books. I was actually really happy to find it; since most of the books I found were young adult or new adult (which are not really my thing). This is what I read “Elizabeth Barnabus lives a double life—as herself and as her brother, the private detective. She is trying to solve the mystery of a disappearing aristocrat and a hoard of arcane machines. In her way stand the rogues, freaks and self-proclaimed alchemists of a travelling circus. But when she comes up against an agent of the all-powerful Patent Office, her life and the course of history will begin to change. And not necessarily for the better…” Does that not sound like a great read? It has everything I love in a good story; cross dressing, private eyes, arcane machines, alchemy, circus’… and the Patent Office as the big bad guy? Brilliant! So I picked it up, and let me tell you, I am certainly glad that I did. The synopsis is very accurate (side note: who writes synopses? Does the author do it, or are there professional synopsis writers out there? I am terrible at it, so I would love to know). Elizabeth is indeed living as herself and her twin brother, and not just to do his PI work either; she’s been acting as both of them since she was a child.

Elizabeth / Edwin has been hired by a wealthy aristocrat to track down her brother (the aristocrats brother) which has turned out to be a little more complicated and dangerous than expected. Elizabeth is being pursued by the evil agents of the patent office and after getting a lead, ends up joining a travelling circus of arcane wonders.

So far I am really enjoying this story. Duncan has really captured the Gaslamp lit, steam machine, foggy London atmosphere. The story is set in an alternative London where England and Whales have separated from the rest of the UK and Duncan is doing a great job of explaining it as the story goes along, rather than just providing an info dump at the beginning. It means that I was a little confused at the beginning, but I am figuring things out as I go along and I definitely prefer that to the usual info dump. There are a couple of plot holes, but only one that is bothering me at all – Elizabeth joins the circus (which was done in a weird way that I didn’t totally love) but then is barred from going to see the circus acts. She tricks her way in, and it seems like a big deal… but I can’t help thinking that all she needed to do was go see the circus before she joined… This is one of the problems with the midpoint review; maybe there is a reason for it happening this way and I just haven’t gotten to that part yet. But it’s all good, I am still super enjoying this book, I can’t wait to finish it and look forward to reading the next book in the series.

One of my absolute favourite teas is David's Glitter & Gold. It is a vanilla and cinnamon black tea with little gold shimmer balls and sugar crystals. The gold sugar balls dissolve and shimmer as you drink - oddly making this tea incredibly appropriate for the Bullet Catchers Daughter, since alchemy is all about creating gold, isn't it?

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Girl with the Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

The first thing that I want to say about The Girl with the Glass Feet is that it is beautiful. The story is beautiful, the writing is beautiful; but it is also incredibly melancholy. The entire book (well the first half) feels like it is under a veil, and while all these beautiful things are occurring and all of these beautiful people are living, it is so terribly sad that it feels like there is a rock tied to your heart and you are fighting so hard to be happy and stay uplifted but there is nothing you can do about it because no matter how much you want things to be ok, they never will be and its confusing because it’s still the most beautiful thing that you have ever seen.

I must say, I wasn’t expecting this. ‘ “Are you sure you’re okay? Have you lost something?” “Light” He turned back to her, wondering if she might have seen it. It was on the rock beside her, beamed through a hole in the clouds.’ It seems that every character in this book is looking for a little bit of light. The story is about Ida, a visitor to the strange archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land who had, months before, come away with a strange ailment. She is slowly turning to glass. It started with a shard in her foot one day and has moved up her toes and started to overtake her heels. She goes back to the island hoping to find a cure, but really has nothing to go on other than something small she overheard a man say on her first trip there ‘Would you believe there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?’

On her search for the mysterious man Ida stumbles across Midas, a local who lives and sees the world through his camera. Midas is a little socially awkward but he feels drawn to Ida, just as she feels drawn to him. He knows about the man that Ida is looking for, but is not sure that he trusts her enough, or is quite ready to open the wounds that telling her would involve. Midas’ only real connection to the world before this has been his friend George and his daughter Denver. George’s wife, and Denver’s mother, died a few years ago in a tragic accident and Midas does what he can to help them cope, although Midas has his own demons to deal with ‘she nodded. “It’s all a shame Midas, nothing good ever came from my marriage to your father.” And I think that Midas is gaining more from Denver than she is from him. Her advice? “I don’t think there is being brave, anyway. I used to not tread in puddles in case I fell in them and died like Mummy did. But then in the autumn when it flooded I got stuck and had to splash through one. It didn’t feel safer or worser. I just had to splash through it or wait until the sun came up and it all dried out”.

Before I started this book I assumed that it was going to be another fairy tale story, even though it’s not actually based on a fairy tale, as far as I am aware of. And it is, a girl is turning into glass and it’s happened before, there are flying dragonflies that are actually cows, and a mysterious creature that turns you albino if you look in its eyes. But, the more I read the more I realize that that’s not really the point of this story. This story is about loss and coping with loss when you don’t want to and you have no idea how to keep living, but you don’t have a choice. My only real complaint about the book is that it seems that Shaw is trying too hard. The language is a little hard to get used to, it is overly descriptive at the beginning although it seems to have toned down, either that or I am just more used to it now. And I am really looking forward to finishing it, but I don’t think that it’s going to be a very happy ending so I am trying to not get my hopes up – beautiful and melancholy don’t very often lend themselves to happy endings.

I wanted to choose a melancholy tea with which to accompany this book, but since tea makes me so happy, it was hard to find one. Instead I chose David's Midsummers Night Dream - a tea named for a story that is also beautiful and melancholy.