Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Fiction: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

When I read the description for Edgar Cantero's The Supernatural Enhancements, I was excited to add it to my queue as a potential post for Halloween. On the surface it is a haunted house story, but there is so much more to it than that, just as the book jacket suggests. And for me, a haunted house story probably would have been enough, so anything more than that was almost guaranteed to make me happy.

The Situation: It's 1995, and twenty-something year-old A. has just been informed that he has inherited Axton House in Point Bless, Virginia. Apparently he has, or had, a second cousin twice removed who recently passed away. And since A. is the closest living relative to the now deceased Ambrose Wells, he inherits the massive house and everything inside. So along with his companion Niamh, an Irish mute teenager who can't weigh more than 90 pounds, A. leaves Europe for Virginia to check out his inheritance. Not only is his new home more house than he and Niamh could ever manage on their own, but apparently it is haunted. Everyone in the area seems to acknowledge that this is true, both directly and indirectly. And once A. has an encounter of his own, he and Niamh begin rigging the house with video cameras and audio equipment to see what they can find. 

The Problem: The ghost or spirit that inhabits the house is the least of either A. or Niamh's worries. The house is full of so many secrets, the pair almost don't know where to begin. It also appears that Ambrose was a part of some sort of secret society that gathered together once a year during the winter solstice, which is less than two months away. Soon there is a break-in, and then the pair receive a visit from a friend of Ambrose's, who clearly believes that the late Mr. Wells intended to leave something behind for him and is eager to find it. A. and Niamh begin finding clues left by Ambrose, clues which they believe could lead them to the very thing Ambrose's friend is after. But the one person who could assist them in solving the mystery, Ambrose's butler, took off shortly after his master's death. Also, A. begins having awful nightmares, making him believe he is losing his mind. Ambrose died by jumping out of his bedroom window, just like his father before him. And if A. keeps having the troubling visions and nightmares, he may end up following in his distant cousin's literal footsteps.      

Genre, Themes, History: I have chosen to categorize this as a horror novel, although really it could be mystery, thriller, or suspense, or any combination of the above. Axton House is a haunted house, as there is a spirit living there that A. actually encounters. But there are also clues left behind by Ambrose that lead to an even bigger mystery, and possibly an answer to what he and 19 of his friends were involved in that caused them to meet every December during the winter solstice. Plus, it doesn't seem that the ghost or spirit is responsible for the awful nightmares and visions that A. has been having. Many of the nightmares are somewhat tame and not at all alarming, but others are terrifying and cause A. to feel real pain unlike any dream he has had before. The Supernatural Enhancements is a horror story that doesn't only stick with the haunted house idea. There is also a treasure hunt, a secret society, hidden rooms, crystal balls, cryptograms, murder, and a hedge maze on the Axton House property, just in case the creepy serial killer feeling wasn't quite complete. And in the grand tradition of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the entire book is comprised of letters, video footage, audio recordings, and journal entries, which can always make a story like this seem a little more real.

My Verdict: I always maintain that it is hard to find a good modern day horror movie, and horror novels aren't much different. But for me, Cantero manages to pull it off. The Supernatural Enhancements is just the type of haunted house story I love. Basically, it isn't actually about the house being haunted, although that is part of it. And there isn't an Indian burial ground in the basement, and the characters haven't been dead the entire time either. There is a hedge maze, which may seem a bit cliche, but trust me when I say that its presence is worth it. The book is more than just weird stuff jumping out at the characters from the shadows of a massive mansion. There is mystery and adventure, in addition to the prospect of being scared witless. And the secret society that Ambrose appears to have been a part of is just icing on the cake. In fact, I feel like much more time could have been spent just explaining how that works and all of the different aspects of it, as well as its history. Just when the reader is getting real answers as to how everything works, the book ends. I'm not saying I feel cheated or was left unsatisfied, but this was one rare instance in which I believe a book would have been better if it were a little longer.

Favorite Moment: While having dinner with friends of Ambrose's, A. is asked by their hosts to say the prayer before the meal. A, being more or less Atheist, passes the task onto Niamh, who can't speak. Yet somehow, the food is blessed and everyone moves on.

Favorite Character: If I had inherited a haunted house with a dangerous history and a questionable future, I would want someone like Niamh with me. More than once A. refers to her as his protector, although what qualifies her for such a title isn't really made clear. But she does the job well, despite weighing less than 100 pounds and lacking the ability to speak. She's smart, clever, stronger than she looks, and doesn't say much. Not bad as far as traveling companions go.

Recommended Reading: I could go a couple of directions with this. I already mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But there is also Marisha Pessl's Night Film, another modern horror/mystery novel. Also, if you're into books that contain letters and newspaper clippings and handwritten notes, then you may enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.   

Friday, October 24, 2014

Classic Fiction: Dracula by Bram Stoker

As we close in on Halloween I thought I would cover a classic that many people know about but few have actually read, Bram Stoker's Dracula. These days it would seem that there aren't enough books and movies out there about vampires (and zombies) to keep the public adequately entertained. Every story leaves people crying out for more, and there are many authors and movie producers out there who are more than willing to oblige. Even in 1897, when Dracula was published, vampires proved to be quite popular, and have remained so ever since.

The Situation: Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, is meeting up with a Count Dracula in order to provide legal support for a real estate transaction. The meeting is to take place on the Transylvania border in the Count's castle. Despite Dracula's knowledge and charm, Harker eventually realizes things aren't quite right, and finds himself as a prisoner in the castle. The Count himself leaves for a trip to England, but that doesn't mean he has left Harker in the castle by himself. Before Dracula left, Harker had already encountered "the sisters," three women who live with Dracula in Transylvania and are vampires themselves. Now the sisters have Harker all to themselves, and would have begun to feed on him if he hadn't barely escaped with his life. This one ordeal is horrifying enough, and Harker is indeed lucky to be alive, but it is only the beginning of the terror Dracula will inflict on Harker's life.

The Problem: Count Dracula leaves Harker in his castle in Transylvania only to begin tracking his fiance, Mina Murray, along with her lovely but naive friend, Lucy Westenra. Lucy's three suitors, Dr. John Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood, are also drawn into the drama, along with one of Dr. Seward's patients, Renfield. Renfield is helpful in that he is able to sense Dracula's presence and provide help in that way, but he also believes he can consume insects, spiders, birds, and rats in an attempt to absorb their life force, much like Dracula does with human beings. When Lucy falls suspiciously ill and begins to waste away, Dr. Seward calls for a former teacher, Abraham Van Helsing, to help in find out what is going on. Van Helsing knows what has happened, and fears that there is only one way to "cure" Lucy, especially after it appears she has been stalking small children at night. And when Harker returns from his escape, all currently unaffected members of the group must band together to take down the powerful Count Dracula before he claims anymore lives. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a classic horror novel set in late 19th century Europe. Many people are familiar with the idea of vampires, and with the story of Dracula, but what many probably don't realize, unless they have read the book, is that it is written in epistolary format. That's right, the entire story is told through letters, journal entries, ship's log entries, etc. So instead of reading the story from the point of view of a third person omniscient narrator, or even just one person, there end up being many storytellers and many different voices and opinions, with Van Helsing's probably being the most verbose and rambling. Naturally, the one person the reader would probably most likely want to hear from the most is Dracula, but that option is never presented, which adds to his overall mystery. It is clear that the Count has some sort of great power, and uses the life force of other humans to sustain himself. What is also clear is that he is far too powerful for one person to fight on their own and must be stopped. When the story was initially published in 1897, it was incredibly popular, and controversial. Within the same year of its publication the story would be performed onstage. And of course, the story still remains popular today. And while many modern vampire stories have nothing to do with Count Dracula himself, it is clear that the influence is still present. 

My Verdict: Reading a book will never be as easy as watching a movie, especially when that book is over 100 years old and written in a style that many modern readers just aren't used to. But with that being said, lovers of horror should read Dracula at least once in their lives. I think the main challenge would be getting past the epistolary format and switching voices. Once that is accomplished, the character of Dracula is just as uncomfortably charming and horrifying as he is portrayed onscreen. And what is constantly present is the sense of foreboding and dread that comes from knowing some sort of powerful being is close by and potentially watching you at any moment, looking for the right moment to strike you or someone you love, and there is little you can do about it. Even for an old horror story, it is still incredibly scary.

Favorite Moment: When Renfield attempts to warn Mina of Dracula's intentions, despite being under the powerful vampire's control. 

Favorite Character: Although his diary entries can sometimes be a little much, my absolute favorite character in the story is Abraham Van Helsing. He is the one who comes in and knows what must be done in order to be rid of this threat, while acknowledging how difficult and dangerous it will be to do it. He makes very little pretense as to what is truly going on. 

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore more classic novels that are more horror than they they are romantic, I recommend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But be warned, this is one of those books that actually isn't that long, but for some reason takes forever to read. Oh yeah, and it also written through letters. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Day of Atonement by David Liss

Today I will be covering David Liss's most recent historical fiction novel, The Day of Atonement. I have been a fan of Liss's novels ever since I read The Coffee Trader. In fact, I credit that novel for giving me what little interest I do have in historical fiction.

The Situation: Sebastian Foxx has just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal from England to start a career as a young merchant. But before he can even be let off of the boat, a priest from the Inquisition must ask him questions and make sure he is who he claims to be, and hasn't brought with him any secrets or illegal texts/items. It is mid-18th century Portugal, and the Inquisition is in full affect. Sebastian would eventually show the priest that he in fact isn't what he says he was, but a man of the Catholic faith who believes as the priests do. This makes him incredibly valuable and potentially helpful to their cause, even though the last thing a newly arrived merchant would want is to have any association with the Inquisition. Unfortunately for them, not only is Sebastian not what he initially said he was, but he isn't Catholic either. Since his escape from Lisbon as a small child, he has converted to Judaism. And if the Inquisition were to find out, he would be imprisoned and killed for sure. But he has come to Lisbon to avenge the wrongs done to his family and kill the priest responsible. And in order to accomplish his mission and survive, he must lie about who and what he really is.

The Problem: In 18th century Lisbon, the Inquisition has eyes and ears everywhere. Even the man Sebastian is looking for, Pedro Azinheiro, has taken a specific interest in him and seems to know his every move. Also, despite having come to the city with the singular mission of avenging his family, Sebastian finds himself with another mission of helping a family friend and his young daughter escape the city before the Inquisition decides to take the daughter for themselves. This means acquiring enough money, dishonestly, that would allow them to flee the country, and also ruin the people that ruined him. As Sebastian goes about attempting to right these wrong, a trip that was initially only supposed to take a few weeks ends up taking months. And as he makes more allies, he also makes more enemies. But as plans begin to come together, the entire city literally begins to fall apart.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 18th century Lisbon, Portugal. The Inquisition is still rounding up people on the basis that they are the wrong religion, and the city of Lisbon is full of merchants as well as thieves. Someone may be picked up by the Inquisition because someone really does believe that they are Jewish. But a lot of the time, they are picked up simply because they have something someone else wants, such as money, property, connections, or an attractive wife or daughter. And if the Inquisition wasn't enough of a force to deal with, in 1755 Lisbon was pretty much leveled by a massive earthquake. And if you were fortunate enough to survive the tremors and the debris from the crumbling buildings and structures, then there was a good chance you would be destroyed by the resulting tsunami. And even after the final wave had done its damage, there were still looters, thieves, and rapists to contend with. In many of Liss' novels, almost every character is guilty of something, and this one is no exception. Even the motives for revenge against terrible people are questionable. And at some point it becomes incredibly difficult to root for the so-called hero as he insists on obtaining his revenge by almost any means necessary, and makes many errors in judgement along the way.

My Verdict: Historical fiction that explores the seedy past of a well-known city is something that Liss is just incredibly good at. On paper, a book about a Jewish man risking the dangers of the Inquisition to seek revenge for his family while pretending to be a young merchant just would not interest me. But somehow, Liss makes it work. Even the seemingly endless twists and turns that come from betrayal after betrayal are made bearable. Something else Liss makes bearable are the almost amoral characters that somehow still end up being likable. Men and women who have done terrible things in their past end up as heroes as they chase down priests right after taking out would-be rapists. It is always an interesting collection of people in a Liss novel, none of which I would ever care to meet in real life, but whose story I can be fascinated with from afar. Historical fiction lovers would appreciate this story, especially if they have an interest in the Inquisition, or the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon.

Favorite Moment: When Sebastian is ready to have mercy on a thief that has been arrested, only to change his mind when he hears about the horrible crime he was in the middle of committing before he was arrested. Suffice it to say that the crime was heinous enough that I am okay with Sebastian's decision to let the man hang.

Favorite Character: Kingsley Franklin is a large, clumsy fellow who owns the inn Sebastian is staying in. He can be annoying, and isn't the most stealthy person to take on a mission, but he is strong and loyal, and that is enough.

Recommended Reading: I recommend the first book that put David Liss on everyone's radar, A Conspiracy of Paper. The protagonist is actually the powerful and intimidating Benjamin Weaver, the mentor to Sebastian Foxx in The Day of Atonement

Friday, October 10, 2014

Science Fiction: The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I am excited to be writing about the third book in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series, The Long Mars. I am surprised I have been able to keep up with the series thus far, and I plan to keep doing so through all five books. And just like with other series that I write about in the blog, I must put out the usual spoil alert. If you haven't read either The Long Earth or The Long War, and don't want to know any of the details, it is probably best you don't read any further.

The Situation: It the year 2045, five years since the end of The Long War, where the story left off with a massive and catastrophic eruption in Yellowstone Park. Much of Datum Earth, that is the Earth you and I live on in present day 2014, has become uninhabitable due to the ash spewed from the volcano in Yellowstone. Most of the US has evacuated over the Long Earth. And even other countries such as Russia and China have been severely affected, causing them to evacuate as well. Joshua Valiente has become estranged from his family due to an almost innate desire to help with the relief efforts back on the Datum. Commander Maggie Kauffman is once again commanding an expedition to explore the limits of the far Long Earth, taking with her both humans and non humans, as well as a prominent politician. Sally Linsay has been contacted by her long disappeared father and inventor of the stepper box, Willis Linsay. And of course, there is Lobsang, who is still manipulative but well-meaning.

The Problem: It will be years before Datum Earth will be able to recover from the eruption, so people are traveling over the Long Earth in record numbers, filling up already established cities, much to the annoyance of those already there. Joshua is already estranged from his wife and son, and now Lobsang has contacted him in hopes the he can help identify what appears to be a new generation of smarter, wiser human beings. Meanwhile, Sally isn't exactly thrilled to be contacted by her father, knowing he always has an ulterior and self-serving motive for everything he does. And the more questions she asks, the more secrets he seems to keep. And while attempting to maintain peace between those that have join her on her new expedition, Maggie comes across a few of the humans that Lobsang has been wanting to know about. But this new generation isn't the most friendly, and they are different enough that many people are ready to declare that they aren't actually human. But most everyone understands, through the many examples throughout the history of the human race, what events naturally follow when a group of people is demoted out of the human race.

Genre, Themes, History: The Long Mars is the third installment in a science fiction series that explores the possibility of there being many parallel earths, some of which are similar to ours, but many are completely different. This book is the first in the series to explore the idea of there being parallels of other planets in our solar system as well, as is denoted by the title. Much like in The Long War, human beings are still attempting to navigate relationships with other species found on the other earths, and due to some initial transgressions, progress remains slow with many of them. And as if dealing with a new species that looks like nothing we've ever seem before wasn't hard enough, it seems a new type of human being has emerged out of one of the established cities out in the Long Earth. This new human being is not only smarter and wiser, they also know they're smarted and wiser. And the knowledge of being different coupled with the treatment that comes with others recognizing those differences has made many of them hostile and calculating. How these people are treated is really a lesson on how history repeats itself, and how the initial reaction to almost anything or anyone different is usually fear. The book also asks if whether or not a preemptive strike is ever justified. Both sides of the question are heavily debated, and there can be serious consequences to either course of action.

My Verdict: This book is much more interesting and engaging than the second least it was for me. It is always slightly strange for me when there are multiple story lines going on at once and the chapters switch between them, as there are always storylines I want to stay with and know what happens, and others that I prefer weren't even there. And having the Linsay's explore the long worlds of an entirely different planet certainly added an entire new level to the whole story. Naturally, with the possibility of infinite earths there are infinite directions Pratchett and Baxter could take the story. But now there are infinite Mars too. And it stands to reason there could also be infinite Jupiters, Saturns...even infinite versions of our own moon. There are just so many possibilities with this story that predictability is not an issue. If I did have a bone to pick with it, it would be that some details are cleaned up and disposed of a little too easily. Of course, the authors have two more books in which to work everything out, so maybe those details will be dealt with later.

Favorite Moment: When Frank Wood called both Sally and Willis Linsay out as the arrogant loners they are.

Favorite Character: It can be hard a lot of the time to like any of the characters in this series, as they are usually either angsty, arrogant, self-serving, defensive, manipulative, or just stupid and reckless. While Frank Wood isn't less guilty than any of the rest, he does seem to at least have some insight into the Linsays and what is really going on with them. Plus, if I was stuck on some space expedition with the three of them, he is certainly the only one I would trust.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend both The Long Earth and The Long War. Anyone who enjoys either of the author's precious work will most likely enjoy The Long Earth series.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers is actually Emma Straub's third novel, and even though I had originally intended to read Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I just never got around to it, mostly because every time I looked it up on Goodreads the ratings for it had declined until I was convinced I wouldn't much care for it. But the critical reviews for The Vacationers have fared much better, so I decided to give it a shot.

The Situation: The Post family - Franny and Jim, along with their son, Bobby, and their daughter, Sylvia - have decided to leave Manhattan for two weeks and enjoy the sun and sand on the island of Mallorca. This will be Sylvia's last trip before starting her freshman year at Brown University. And Bobby will be bringing his girlfriend Carmen, with whom he lives with in Miami, Florida, where he works in real estate and she works as a personal trainer in a gym. Charles and his husband Lawrence will also be joining the Posts, even though Lawrence is knee deep in work on his latest movie, and the couple is in the middle of adopting a child. Even with everything going on in their private life, they have all decided to take this trip anyway, with all of them staying in the same house on the small island, enjoying whatever Mallorca has to offer.

The Problem: This trip to Mallorca could be viewed as an escape for everyone involved, if only the problems they have at home didn't insist on following them. A change in location doesn't mean that Jim would magically have his job back, or that he didn't sleep with the intern. Being on the island also doesn't mean that Franny will magically forgive him, or stop being an entitled and castrating woman. Both Jim and Lawrence still remain jealous of the friendship that Franny and Charles have always shared, and they all still have a shared dislike of Bobby's girlfriend, Carmen. This of course puts Bobby in a tough spot, but he has other worries of his own, namely a large and seemingly insurmountable debt that he is reluctant to tell his family about. And then there is a Sylvia, the youngest member on the trip, who is desperate to have something great happen on this trip before she goes off to college and attempts to turn herself into someone different from who she has always been. And these seven people are going to attempt to share the same house for two weeks on a Spanish island. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that takes place during a family vacation in Spain. It explores the idea that a change in location doesn't actually change or erase any of the problems a family may have back home. If anything, the trip may shine a spotlight on the issues and force people to deal with them instead of ignore them. Everyone is forced to be in such close proximity to one another with very little hope or chance for escape in a place where none of them knows how to get around or speak the language. Also, jealousies abound on almost every side. Franny is jealous of the intern Jim slept with before losing his job; Jim is jealous of Franny's relationship with Charles; Lawrence is jealous of Charles' relationship with Franny; and no one likes Carmen. Sylvia knows more or less what is going on with her parents, but Bobby is completely in the dark and naive enough to believe that everything is fine, both between his parents and between himself and Carmen. Sylvia is also naive enough to believe that one trip to Mallorca can allow her to change who she is entirely. It's a story that explores the complex relationships between friends and family. Vacations are usually a chance to get away, but the problems at home can sometimes come with you.

My Verdict: The storyline and characters are actually really good, but the writing fails to bring it all together into a cohesive novel. The narrative is often choppy, and the transitions are either non-existent or incredibly rough and jarring. The characters are often incredibly trying and irritating too since most of them are entitled and selfish, but even that is nothing compared to the distracting writing. Even though no one is likeable, it is almost like they aren't expected to be from the very beginning, so it isn't really that big of a disappointment. This could have been an utterly delightful and light beach read if some of the scenes or some of the characters' reactions made more sense or were given better placement within the story. This is the kind of book I can see someone picking up in an airport bookstore on the way to boarding a plane...something to pick up almost by accident, and only something to read as a time filler.

Favorite Moment: When the truth about Bobby's money issues finally comes to light. It isn't so much that it finally happens, but how it happens.

Favorite Character: None of these people are all that likeable. I wouldn't want to spend two weeks with any of them on a Spanish island. But if I had to choose, I would pick Sylvia. I think she is young enough where she could grow up to not be like the rest of her family, although the chance of that happening is incredibly slim. 

Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a light beach read about a troubled vacationing family, I suggest We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. It is a young adult novel, but a good one and well written.