The last time I started to write about books to read at Halloween, I ended up having to cut myself off. It certainly wasn't for lack of passion; give me a chance and I can talk about books until the cows come home. I stopped because I didn't want to bore the pants off of the casual reader with an endless tour of my obsessions. In this second installment I was going to try and cover the twentieth century up until the present time, but when I realized that my essay was going to clock in a little shorter than War and Peace I decided to give you a little tour of the modern world of horror fiction, according to me and me alone.
Review by: Mark Palm
The first time I laid eyes on Bitter Like An Orange Peel I was afraid that it was going to be the first in a long line of “the next” Gone Girls. I was wrong. Jessica Bell has something else entirely in mind. This slim novel is certainly not a work of suspense, though it did keep me on the edge of my seat for most of its length. Bitter is the slice-of-life story of three mothers Ailish, Eleanor, and Beth along with three daughters, Ivy, Kit, and Eydie. Most of the novel revolves around Ailish, Ivy and Kit with the others playing secondary roles. Ms. Bell follows their lives as the young women slowly decide to meet their absent father, Roger.
I not sure if this absentee father is to blame but the first two daughters seem to share a common trait of indecision. Kit falls desultorily into an affair with her neighbor and decides her career by playing “eenie-meenie miney-moe.” Ivy however is the pinnacle of indecision, from archeology student to drummer and barista to a museum employee. She starts out the novel defiantly single, but then reluctantly goes on a date with her admirer, Brian. They have a sexual encounter then move in together, separate, and she then meets and decides to re-marry her ex, Amir whom she meets on the plane ride back to re-unite with her half-sister as they go to meet their father.
Now the writing is solid and observant, but the present tense narration struggles at times in finding the right tone as it jumps from character to character. One of the minor characters, Gabriel, is such a cliché of a girl's gay best friend that I wasn't sure of it was a parody or not. In a story like this, where the ebb and flow of life is the subject, I didn't mind that the characters were inconsistent. People are inconsistent, and events do not go as planned. Now and again, though, I wished for a bit more authorial control and structure. Ms. Bell is a fine line-by-line writer, but the stories in Bitter more or less start, go on for a while, and then stop. The classic structure of beginning, middle and end is kind of there, but you have to search for it. Now when a work like this hits the jackpot the payoff is huge, but here I am afraid that I found it a bit hit and miss. I have to say that some people will really like this book and some won't. I must be feeling kind of indecisive as well.
Review by: Stacy Palm
I happen to love Barilla products, so I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of this wonderful recipe book. When I think of Barilla I think of quality Italian products, great value for my money, and family meals. These are the concepts I had in place in my mind when I first opened this book, and true to their image that is exactly the type of recipe book I discovered.
The recipes are plentiful and vary from Italian favorites to the more obscure. Recipes for Seafood, Beef, and Vegetarian meals abound. The format is easy to read with easy to follow recipes. The book is loaded with full color photos of many of the recipes.
This is a working, functioning cookbook that will fit nicely into any home cook's kitchen. If you crave Italian food at it's best for your family you can not go wrong purchasing this book.
Review by: Mark Palm
A Study in Silks was a book that I truly wanted to review. First off, I am a certified Sherlockian. I may not be a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, (I could never join a club that would have someone like me as a member), but I once owned Barring-Gould's The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. (I lost the former. If anyone knows the whereabouts of an inexpensive copy let me know.) So, having read innumerable pastiches and homage I looked forward to this latest addition, a novel by Emma Jane Holloway about Evelina Cooper, who happens to be the niece of Sherlock Holmes. Still I promised myself that I would be as rigorous and fair-minded as possible. If anything I felt that I may have approached the book with a chip on my shoulder.
A Study in Silks takes place in an alternate England, semi-steam punkish, where magic though against the law, works and steam-powered inventions abound. Evelina is a young woman, embarking on her first season and staying with her feisty but frail school friend, Imogene, daughter of Lord Bancroft. As the story opens murder most foul occurs and Evelina finds herself right in the middle of the investigation using the methods of her famous Uncle. Soon enough she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous labyrinth of clues and motives.
Early on I was a bit worried because Ms. Holloways's palette seemed full of all the conventions needed for a romantic potboiler, including duel romantic leads; Nick, a gypsy circus performer and Imogene's older brother, Tobias, a dissolute troublemaker who is a steam-punk wonk on the inside. Evelina also starts out with a ton of strikes against her, including a penchant for magic, mechanical invention, and a childhood spent as a circus performer. All things rather frowned upon. This seemed a bit much at first, but the narrative was strong and compelling and the plot started to get to me. Ms. Holloway is a subtle writer, not much for fireworks, but her prose is deft and assured especially at giving the characters life and depth. Big or small, the characters felt well-rounded and complex full of feeling and motive. The unfairness and hypocrisy of the class system during Victorian England is not a new subject but Ms Holloway handles it beautifully, showing its cause and effect on Evelina and the rest of her characters.
The plot! It’s a handful weaving in Lord Bancroft's intrigue, the shaming of Jasper Keating, one of a cabal of Steam Lords who monopolize the supply of power, archeological digs, mythological and magical inventions, Tobias's gad-fly friends, a plotting sorcerer, and a few appearances by Sherlock himself. Even LeStrade shows his face. To my surprise, not only did Ms. Holloway pull this all off, but she does it not at a walk but a sprint, as the story hurdles along at breakneck speed. The twists and turns are not only surprising, but assured and didn't feel forced as allegiances shift and partnerships form and crumble. Oddly enough, one of the few complaints I have with this book is the use of Sherlock, as he steps in at the end of the story and steals a little of the limelight from Evelina, who deserves all she can get. Another caveat is that this is the first of a trilogy, and although self-contained I felt that a few more loose ends could have been resolved. Still I enjoyed this book a great deal and look forward to the next installment. The game is afoot!
Review by: Stacy Palm
There is something magical about a good romance novel. When I come to the end I always feel so damn happy and I'm smiling like a school girl. I can't help it, I love the "...and they lived happily ever after moments." I know this book will not be for everyone, but I was truly impressed with Kele Moon's talent as a writer! She executed a well thought out novel in a complicated world. I say this book will not be for everyone because there are some taboo subjects in this book because of the vast difference in culture of this fictional world. I love that she took a very complicated family structure and weaved it into a tale that I came to adore.
The characters in this book are stellar! They are talented and complex. The struggle in relationships between the two main characters and their extended family is some of the best writing I've seen in this genre. Now don't get me wrong, I understand the Pulitzer is not going to be going to Paranormal Romance book, however, this book was head and heels over what I expected.
I give mad props to Ms. Moon for making me laugh so hard (tent camping) I cried, and for also gifting me with that wonderful, "Oh I feel so good after reading this book" feeling. There are graphic scenes, taboo subject matters, and excessive drug use which is why I would only recommend this book to adults.
There was a time long ago, enough that Stephen King had only about half a dozen published works to his name, when most of the Literary community thought that the novel of horror was about as welcome as a fart in church. Things have changed since then. The success of the aforementioned Mr. King may have had a bit to do with that. The oddest thing, for those of us who have taken classes in nineteenth century fiction, or in Gothic fiction, was how many books on the syllabus were, in fact, pretty much works of horror. So, in honor of the only season that changes my reading habits, here is my take on horror novels and stories for Halloween.
Review by: Mark Palm
It's been seven years since the "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield was published. I fervently hope that I don't have to wait that long for her next work, because "Bellman & Black " is very good indeed.
I will start with one nit I feel that I have to pick. The novel is subtitled "A Ghost Story." And while this book deals with the concept of being haunted, and loss and memory, I feel that the subtitle may set up expectations of graveyards and moon-lit towers that go unfulfilled. That point aside, this is a book that deals with death and loss, and reminds me of an apt description once used for " The Red Badge of Courage" it feels like a ghost story that is waiting for the ghost.
"Bellman & Black" is the story of the life of William Bellman, from his youth until the end of his days. Ms. Setterfield conjures up the ambiance of a fairy tale through much of this book by her use of detail and a sort of deliberate vagueness as to time and place. Unless my notes are wrong there is never a mention of a definitive time and place, though Victorian England is the best bet.
With rich but balanced prose Ms. Setterfield lets Will's life unfold, from adolescence to manhood. There is an idyllic quality to this part of the book, as one often sees about tales of the countryside, but Ms Setterfiled also shows us the harsh edges beneath. Bellman finds his niche working for a mill and he becomes it's jack- of- all- trades, then its manager. He finally becomes quite smitten with his work, and the mill becomes his life. During this section I learned more about mills than I thought I would ever want to know know, but the details are so interesting, and Ms. Setterfield weaves them seamlessly into the story. Later Will finds love, and a wife Rose. The mill flourishes under his stewardship, as he introduces one innovation after the next. His wife bears four children, and together they become pillars of the community.
I am not going to spoil the plot, but needless to say this is when tragedy strikes. Now before this event, (which I will not reveal) there was strife and death in Will and Rose's life, but it seemed like the grip and slog of regular life. When Ms. Setterfield takes her gloves off, the power of her writing is striking, and we wonder how fate could be so cruel to William. It is in this section that the brief glimpses of the ghostly finally slip into clear sight, and the themes of loss and memory begin to come to the fore. Bellman finds himself taking on a mysterious silent partner and starting a new enterprise: Bellman & Black; a kind of Macy's for funeral supplies, that becomes the biggest shop of its kind. Here Ms. Setterfield does a wonderful job as Bellman, once a man of business, now loses his time, and perhaps his entire self in the endless details of running a massive enterprise .
I have not yet addressed one of the most important parts of this book. Every few chapters Ms Setterfield adds a small section dealing with the history, both natural and supernatural, and the myths and mysteries of rooks. These evocative prose pieces are entertaining, and often quite beguiling; eventually they tie together some of the subtle but crucial themes and motifs of the book. Particularly notable is the section on Huginn and Muninn, the legendary ravens of Norse mythology. Horrific Pun intended, these sections dovetail beautifully in the last pages of the novel, where the long game played by Ms. Setterfield finally pays off, with an ending that is both touching and most important of all, right.
In case you can't tell I highly recommend this book. It's not another "The Thirteenth Tale", but I admire that Ms. Setterfield didn't rest on her laurels, and tried something different. As I said earlier, I just hope the wait isn't as long next time.
by: Cynthia Luhrs
Review by: Stacy Palm
This is the book that has something for everyone in it and manages to pull it all into a well written romance novel! Literally, there are demons, pirates, highlanders, and dragons to name just a few! Let me begin by saying that reading a series out of order is something I simply do not do, however, when I received this book from Netgalley I was intrigued enough by the premise and the cover to set aside my aversion to reading out of sequence. Thankfully, I made the right choice because this is a book I would not have wanted to miss. It reads easily enough without having read the first book in the series. There are characters in this novel that I can sense must have been in the first book where we learned their story, but it does not interfere with the story going on around our main characters, who happen to be the fiery yet semi-broken Maggie and the fearsome pirate Black Bart!
This book is a complete fantastical romance novel. It is over the top at times, but isn't that what us women love so much about escapism romance? Yes, we all want pirates as lovers, dragons for pets, and a castle to live in. By the end of the book I was smiling and delighted with the story I had just read. It is quite graphic in it's romantic details and therefore should be read by adults only. If you enjoy romance novels this is certainly one of the better ones I've read this year and I would encourage you to check it out. I will be going back to read book one in the series as I can never resist a highlander.
by: Julie Berry
Review by: Stacy L. Palm
Sometimes you have to dig a little to find a precious gem. That is what my experience was like reading this book which has quickly become one of the best reads for this year! Starting this book was a bit difficult. The narrative is presented in short clips jumping back and forth in the main characters life time that causes the reader to have a bit of a struggle trying to grasp what is occurring. I do believe this is intentional as it adds an unexpected layer to this novel. By the time I was 10% in the events started to pull together and I was gaining an understanding of the main characters very complicated life. By the time I was 50% into this book I was so emotionally vested in each of the characters that I was crying with them, frightened for them, and cheering out loud at times.
This is an impressive novel, it very much reminds me of classic Nathaniel Hawthorne stories. The plot is engaging with a completely unforeseen twist at the end, the characters are easily related to by the reader, and the writing is captivating all the way through the end. This is the type of book readers long for, a book that moves you so completely that you very much feel to be part of the these characters lives. I was so enthralled with the book that when I reached the end I was stunned that this experience was over. When I was in college, my literary friends and I use to have many conversations that started with, "If I was an English Professor I would make my class read ~fill in the blank with the novel we were discussing." I have to say that If I were an English Professor All The Truth That's In Me would be the book that my class would be reading this year. There are so many little things the author does while writing this story to draw you in and give you a greater depth of understanding behind character actions. I cannot give this book enough praise for the experience it gave me.
I urge you to do yourself the favor of picking up this book to read. Don't give up at the very beginning, and you will be pleasantly rewarded for your effort. I will not tell you how this book ends, but I will say that I loved the fact that while reading it I could not tell if it would be A:) A happily ever after ending, or B:) A dire ending because of the characters' failure to recognize the truth. I have to say I would have been very happy with either ending because it just added yet another layer to this wonderfully written novel.
by: Matthew J. Kirby
Review by: Mark Palm
While I am an eager reader of YA fiction I feel like I must take a moment here to ask you to bear with me. When I first started reading "The Lost Kingdom" by Michael J. Kirby I was finding it to be some rough sledding. Then I discover that it was written for eight to twelve year olds. Well after that, I went back to the beginning, with a changed perspective, and read it anew. I believe that a good book is a good book, regardless of target audience or genre; but some expectations have to be adjusted. And in case you are wondering, "The Lost Kingdom" is a pretty good book. I certainly wouldn't give it a sweeping endorsement to all readers, but for readers in its targeted age group, and some other readers who may want a fast, breezy adventure. I’d say give it a shot.
“The Lost Kingdom" is an adventure tale, set in an alternate fantasy version of Colonial America right before the start of the French and Indian War. The main characters are Billy Bartram and his father John, both real-life American naturalists. John is going on an expedition, at the behest of the American Philosophical Society, (also real.) To find the lost Welsh king, Modoc, so they can secure an alliance with him against the French in the war they believe will happen soon. Now believed to be a political tall tale created by the English to strengthen their claim on the colonies, the legend of a lost band of Welsh, led by King Modoc was a real phenomenon, and Thomas Jefferson told Lewis Clark to look for them on their way West.
This search is a varied lot of scientists and natural philosophers who are flying, (yes flying), in a wooden boat held aloft by rather specious methods. On their way they encounter bearwolves, Incognitum, Mastadons, the Fountain of Youth, and manage to create a version of Archimedes fire beam, and use a Leyden jar to shock hundreds of French soldiers. This mixture of facts and the fantastical abound as George Washington and Ben Franklin have cameos, and is one of the more amusing parts of the book, although the science often seems to be used as a kind of Deus ex machina.
The adventures are well written but lack that feel of real danger that would give them some more power, but I think that is because of the target audience. I feel that Mr. Kirby pulled his punches a bit too much, but it's really a judgment call. The sub-plots of deception and spying amid the Society are fine, but lack depth and danger.
The best part of the book for me is in watching how Billy grows up as the adventure progresses, finding friendship with a stowaway girl, Jane, and their half-Indian guide, Andrew. Also, he finds himself butting heads with his father over their views of nature, conservationism, and Native Americans. In these parts, Mr. Kirby does his best work, showing us how John changes in Billy's eyes, from a patriarch to a two-dimensional flesh and blood man; flawed, but still worthy of admiration, much like this book.