TBR Thursday 87…

Episode 87…

Oh dear! The TBR dropped over the weekend and I was so thrilled. But then it all went horribly wrong again. End result – no change! Stuck on 169. Still, at least it didn’t go up, eh? And I’m sure it’s going to start going down any time now…

Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…

Factual

hospital sketchesI downloaded this to my Kindle in June 2011, so I’m thinking it might be time I should actually read it…

The Blurb says: Writing under a pseudonym, Alcott recounted the vicissitudes of her two-day journey from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C. A fiery baptism in the practice of nursing awaited her at Washington Hospital, were she arrived immediately after the slaughter of the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Fredericksburg. Alcott’s rapidly paced prose graphically depicts the facts of hospital life, deftly balancing pathos with gentle humor. A vivid and truthful portrait of an often overlooked aspect of the Civil War, this book remains among the most illuminating reports of the era’s medical practices as well as a moving testimonial to the war’s human cost.

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Fiction

zero kCourtesy of NetGalley. This will be my introduction to Don DeLillo. I’m a little apprehensive since early reviews have been… well, let’s just say mixed…

The Blurb says: Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body.

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.”

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Fantasy Crime

vigilNetGalley again. I fell in love with Angela Slatter’s writing when I came across her in the anthology Fearie Stories. I then went on to read her own excellent collection Sourdough and Other Stories. And she also wrote one of my favourite stories from the anthology Horrorology. This is her first full length novel – waaaaaay outside my comfort zone, but she’s so good… fingers crossed!

The Blurb says: Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane. And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

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Crime

blackoutCourtesy of the publisher, Orenda Books. The third book to be translated in my new favourite series, though who knows where it fits chronologically since the books are being translated out of order. The dream team of Ragnar Jónasson writing, Quentin Bates translating and Ari Thór Arason detecting… a summer highlight!

The Blurb says: On the shores of a tranquil fjord in Northern Iceland, a man is brutally beaten to death on a bright summer’s night. As the 24-hour light of the arctic summer is transformed into darkness by an ash cloud from a recent volcanic eruption, a young reporter leaves Reykajvik to investigate on her own, unaware that an innocent person’s life hangs in the balance. Ari Thór Arason and his colleagues on the tiny police force in Siglufjörður struggle with an increasingly perplexing case, while their own serious personal problems push them to the limit. What secrets does the dead man harbour, and what is the young reporter hiding? As silent, unspoken horrors from the past threaten them all, and the darkness deepens, it’s a race against time to find the killer before someone else dies…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. The first three are all from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Tuesday Terror! Horrorology edited by Stephen Jones

horrorology coverA patchy collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

This collection of short horror stories has contributions from some of the best-known names in contemporary horror writing, many of whom also showed up in a previous Stephen Jones anthology, Fearie Tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed with this one. A few of the stories are good, but most are middling and one or two are frankly poor.

The blurb is a rehash of Stephen Jones’ introduction, which is written in the form of a Lovecraft pastiche, telling of how the stories to come were stolen from a book called The Lexicon of Fear in the Library of the Damned. This led me to think that the stories were going to be weird tales in the Lovecraftian tradition, but in fact they’re not. There’s no over-arching theme to the collection – each one is straight horror and unconnected to the rest. That’s not a problem – in fact, personally I prefer horror to weird – but I feel the blurb could be misleading.

Tuesday Terror

The stories range from a few pages to near novella length. Some contain huge amounts of foul language – the lazy author’s friend – and one, by Clive Barker, is little more than an excuse to be so sexually explicit it comes close to being porn. And there are a couple of gore-fests, although oddly these are two of the better stories despite the blood and guts elements. Many of the stories have good, imaginative premises, though some are followed through better than others.

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Here’s an idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Guignol by Kim Newman – Set in Paris at the tail-end of the 19th century, this is one of the major gore-fests. A series of gruesome murders have been committed in the Pigalle area, but because the victims seem to be poor and are often unidentified the police are making little effort to solve the case. So an unlikely group of three women, working for a mysterious man as a kind of dark version of Charlie’s Angels, are hired by an unknown client to investigate. It seems there may be a link to the Théâtre des Horreurs, where nightly performances set out to shock the audiences with displays of graphic blood-soaked horror. But are these performances, or could some of the actors be appearing for one night only? And are there powerful people protecting the show from investigation in the murder case? Graphic and gruesome, but also well written and gives a good feel for the period and the whole Grand Guignol atmosphere.

Horrorology Banner

Nightmare by Ramsay Campbell – a retired couple are on a trip to revisit some of the places the man remembers from his youth. They turn off the road in search of a great viewpoint he has fond memories of, but find that a village has been built there in the meantime. The villagers are unwelcoming, in a Wicker Man kind of way, but the man is determined to find his viewpoint…whatever the cost. The writing of this builds up a great atmosphere of tension leading to a satisfyingly scary climax. I must say this was pretty much the only story in the book that I found truly spine-tingling – a very traditional horror story but written with enough skill to stop it from feeling stale.

Ripper by Angela Slatter – The story of the Jack the Ripper investigation but with a couple of twists. The protagonist is Kit, a young police constable, but unknown to anyone she is actually a woman in disguise, who has taken the job to earn extra money to look after her mother and invalid brother. And the Ripper has a reason for taking trophies from his victims – he believes that they will give him access to supernatural powers. I always enjoy Slatter’s writing, and in this one she has created an interesting character in Kit. Women and witchery is a theme she returns to often and this is no exception. Plenty of gore again here, but it would be hard to do a Ripper story without it!

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So some good stuff here, but overall the quality is too patchy for me to give a wholehearted recommendation to the collection as a whole. My 3-star rating is an average of the ratings I gave to each individual story, which included a couple of 5s, a couple of 1s, and the bulk of the rest coming in as 3s.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Shadow Tree by Angela Slatter

sourdoughThe teller of tales…

 

I first came across Angela Slatter as one of the contributors to Stephen Jones’ great anthology Fearie Tales and was highly impressed both by her use of language and her story-telling skills. So I acquired her own short story collection Sourdough and Other Stories. The stories in the book are all in the style of traditional fairy tales – in fact some of them refer explicitly to well-known tales, such as Rapunzel. Whether writing an original story or deriving an original angle on a traditional one, there’s a consistency of approach and location that means that these stories work as individual tales but also gradually build together to create a linked world with recurring themes. I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so far but will review the full collection once I finish it. Meantime I have selected the first one as this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Baldur is fourteen and equals his sister in unpleasantness, occasionally surpassing her. Platinum blonde hair and violet-blue eyes, they are shining, flawed metal, the worst that a royal house can offer: cruel, spiteful, selfish, beautiful, utterly confident of their position in life.

The Shadow Tree tells the tale of Ella, servant to the King and Queen and entrusted with the care of their two deeply unpleasant and cruel children. The story is told to us by Ella herself, so we are immediately aware that Ella is much more than a simple servant – she has a mysterious past and is living as an exile from her home. She is a skilled maker of potions and uses these to manipulate the family so that she has become almost indispensable to each of them in different ways. To the Queen she is someone to confide in; to the King she is a bedmate when the Queen is indisposed. And to the children she is a storyteller, and tonight she will tell them the story of the shadow tree…

‘Where is your milk? Have you had your milk?’ They shake their heads and I take the jug of lukewarm liquid from the bedside stand and pour each a cup, dripping in mandrake juice from the vial in my pocket. Not enough to kill, but enough to make them sleepy and suggestible. They drink it down as I settle back in my spot.

As with all of Slatter’s stories (at least the few I’ve read so far), this is a dark tale. The use of the first-person, the moral ambiguity of the narrator and the deliberate obscuring of the lines between ‘woman’ and ‘witch’ seem to be common themes throughout the collection. In this tale, we come to know that Ella has visited other realms and will do so again in the future. She has a task that she must fulfil if she wishes to be allowed to return to her father’s land. And that task is to judge the characters of the children of the Kings of the realms and then to decide their fate. Ella is cold, chillingly single-minded and dedicated to her task. And she has good reason to have judged these cruel children harshly.

I tell him it is best found in moonlight, when it will gleam like an angel’s wings and, lo and behold, tonight is a full moon. I will not take them there, I tell them, and in this I am adamant. They will, I know, go without me. I tuck them into their beds, make them swear they will not go into the woods tonight and look for the tree. They promise me with lying lips. They will stray, like so many before them, and find the shadow tree…

Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter

The thing I love about Slatter, apart from just the sheer quality and imagination of the stories, is the way she puts in a little phrase or twist almost in passing that can darken the whole story or give insight into a character. In this one, as Ella sends the children to the shadow tree, we suddenly discover that their mother has seen the fateful moment…and chosen not to intervene. A sentence or two and the story is plunged into something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Whether original or derived, each story has that same quality of almost casual cruelty that pervades the original fairy tales. And yet the stories are emotional – the women, the witches, may not always be good but they are real people who love, hate, and feel anger and hurt. And this story is a fine start to what’s shaping up to be an excellent collection.

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
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Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome ed. Stephen Jones

Not just for horror fans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

fearie talesStephen Jones is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of horror stories and anthologies. For this one, he has asked some of the best of today’s horror writers to come up with a modern spin on some old folk and fairy tales – most but not all are taken from the Grimms’ collections. These are not in the main re-writings of the old stories but instead are imaginatively inspired by some aspect of them. Some are in traditional fairy tale settings and some in the modern day. The stories range from only a few pages up to almost novella-length, and a short author bio is given at the end of each.

Each new story is preceded by a version of the original story that inspired it and, although I can’t find anything in the book to confirm this, I assume these original stories have been re-written or at least re-edited specially for this book, probably by Jones himself, since no-one else is credited for it. And very well re-written they are too, in standard modern language but without the intrusion of anachronistic modern slang. Although they’re really only there as a taster and prompt for the new stories, I found these versions of the originals a pleasure to read in themselves.

The meat of the book however is in the new stories. As with any anthology, both approach and standard varies a little from story to story, but overall I found all of the stories to be above average for the genre and some are really excellent. Regular visitors will know that I have already raved about Neil Gaiman’s entry, Down to a Sunless Sea – not a supernatural story as such, but spun very imaginatively from the old tale of The Singing Bone. But there were several other stories that I enjoyed just as much. Here’s a brief flavour of just a few of them…

Look Inside by Michael Marshall Smith is a modern-day take on the story of The Three Little Men in the Wood. Marshall Smith has also appeared before in “Tuesday Terror!” and this story shows all the same humour that made that one so enjoyable. Told by our first-person female narrator, Marshall Smith has a lot of fun being cheekily rude about feminism in a way that wouldn’t have worked at all with a male narrator, and while this story is pretty unscary it’s clever and amusing.

*******

Brian Lumley’s The Changeling is a very well written story of an aeons-old alien encountered by our unsuspecting narrator on a deserted beach. This is so in the style of HP Lovecraft that even I noticed it, and the blurb at the end confirms that Lumley has indeed specialised in that particular sub-genre. But – and Lovecraft fans will hate me for this – this is so much better written than HPL’s stories! It has a beginning, a middle and an end and does not involve pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of tunnels, ruins etc. He brings out all the imagination of the world Lovecraft created without sending the reader (OK, this reader) off to sleep in quite the same way.

*******

Angela Slatter’s story By the Weeping Gate is based on The Robber Bridegroom. It tells the tale of a brothel-keeper and her daughters, all but one of whom are forced into the life of the brothel. However Madame Dalita is keeping her fairest daughter pure – she is destined for better things. But girls in the town are turning up murdered…and no-one knows why. I thought this was a fantastic story – Slatter built up a brilliantly scary atmosphere with some great language and really effective story-telling, and again showed huge imagination in how she spun this story from the original. And introduced me to a lovely new word – ensorcelled – meaning enchanted or fascinated.

Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones

I’ve only highlighted these three, but could easily have picked another half-dozen or so that I also greatly enjoyed. And amongst the names that might only be familiar to horror fans, there are some that are known much more widely – Gaiman, of course, Christopher Fowler of Bryant and May fame, and Joanne Harris, best known perhaps for Chocolat.

Yes, there are a few less good stories in the book, or at least that appealed less to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the collection as a whole. Some are scary, but there’s no gore-fest or chainsaw massacre in here – the horror is in the atmosphere created by some fine writing and a lot of inventiveness. A word of caution – Jones makes it clear that this book is aimed at adults, not children, and I would endorse that. But I certainly don’t think they’re only for dedicated horror fans either – this quality of writing and imagination deserves a wider audience than that. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link