Mr. Splitfoot by: Samantha Hunt
*** 3 out 5 Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
I was a teenager when I first “discovered” South American Magic Realism. Now Magic Realism has been with us for a long, long time, from Laurence Sterne to Franz Kafka, but the South Americans were trending, and I read Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar, etc, but The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa was the one that warped my mind the most. It was so trippy that I had to resort to a notebook to keep it all straight, and even then most of the time I was reading it I felt like I had a serious fever.
All of which brings me to Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, which is probably the most hallucinatory book I have read since then. It’s a shame that I read this as an arc, because I can’t quote from it, and Ms. Hunt is a superb line-by-line writer, and her prose absolutely sings. Like The Green House however, I can’t quite grasp exactly what happened.
Ruth grows up in the Love of Christ! foster home run by an abusive religious fanatic who mistreats his charges. After her older sister Eleanor ages out of foster care Ruth teams up with a boy named Nat, who can channel the dead. As teens the two meet Mr. Bell, who is a con artist. Ruth marries him, but they are stalked by Zeke, a dangerous psycho who wants Ruth for himself.
This narrative is entwined with one fourteen years later, with Ruth’s niece, Cora, who is pregnant and unmarried and generally bored with her life. Ruth shows up, and silently convinces Cora to follow her. The two spend the next several months walking around New York state, even as Cora’s pregnancy makes it harder and more dangerous for her. Of course Cora has a Destiny, but by the time it came around I was pretty perplexed. There are cults and religious fanatics and raving lunatics, and I was just waiting for someone that felt like they were from this planet.
Now as I said, Ms. Hunt is a wonderful writer of prose, but the biggest problem I had with this book was the characters. Almost everyone felt like they had dropped in from another plane of existence, and while there is nothing wrong with weirdness, I felt that the weirdness was sometimes forced. It didn’t help that almost no one was sympathetic either. I feel that this was purposeful, and I don’t believe that characters need to be likeable; but the level of inexplicably was a bit to high for me.
The Children's Home By: Charles Lambert
*** 3 out of 5 Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
I couldn’t resist the pun.
It’s not just cute, but it’s apt as well. The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert is one of those books that elude categorization and sits uneasily yet properly somewhere between Fantasy, Allegory and Fairy Tale. Just remember that Fairy tales can be quite dark at times, and you should be prepared for this spare and dream-like novel.
Morgan Fletcher is severely disfigured, is the heir to a mysterious fortune and lives is a massive estate, and has been a willing recluse for years, since his mother died. He spends his days in his quiet study, avoiding his reflection and reading, with only his housekeeper Engel for company.
Then one day two children, Moira and David suddenly appear, and Morgan takes them in, with few questions. Suddenly more and more children begin to show up, some in ways that seem to defy reality, only the details of the world of this novel are so sparse that it might not be the case. Morgan enjoys the children because they are not bothered by his appearance. When one of the children gets sick Engel brings the nearest physician, Doctor Crane, who is so kind and decent that Morgan overcomes his shyness and the two become friends. Eventually the Doctor gets his own room and begins to spend a great deal of time at the house. The children, however, are getting stranger and stranger. They seem to know a great deal about Morgan’s past, and when some sinister emissaries from a vaguely threatening State agency appear, it seems like the children literally disappear into thin air, making Morgan question his sanity.
Some of the children's actions and the discoveries that they make in the house are wonderfully creepy, and somewhat disturbing, but also quite obscure. One of the things I enjoyed the most about this novel was also one of its problems; it’s dream-like quality. There were times when reading The Children’s Home when I felt like I was hallucinating while watching a surrealist play on a blank stage.
Now it turns out that the children are at Morgan’s home for a reason, and he helps them near the end of the book, when he leads the children in an eerie trip to the Factory that his sister runs that has been the family business for years. I can tell you little without dropping spoilers, but also because the whole thing is so hard to pin down with any certainty, and while that ambiguity gives the book it’s unique quality it also can be frustrating, particularly for those of us who are not overly fond of allegory. I usually don’t like to have to search for”meanings” in my stories, but I found that I enjoyed this book more for the invention and the creepiness and not so much for the search for symbolism.
One day Scott notices something: the lights in the empty house next door go off at exactly eleven each night. Although it’s almost certainly a timer Scott becomes obsessed, and eventually breaks in. This small transgression invigorates him, and soon he talks his unhappy wife into joining him in his new-found passion. The pair gets drunk and go over to the house together, and in a moment of passion, make a disturbing discovery that sets off a chain reaction of horrific discoveries about Victor, Elise, and Carmelita, the “Winter Girl”of the title. There is not much more I can say about the book without dropping a ton of spoilers, but I can tell you that if the first part the story of this couple's life was bad the second half is a disturbing and compelling train wreck.
As unlikeable as they are at first, each and every character become worse and worse, until you feel like you are caught up in a nest of vipers. Mr. Marinovich’s skill is that in spite of this, or just maybe because of it, the story becomes more and more riveting. As the revelations come faster and faster, and get progressively worse you know that there is no way that this story can end well, but by then you are caught up in the narrative flow, very much like the characters themselves, and I was looking to see just how bad things were going to get. And trust me, they get real, real bad. There are a lot of coincidences that fall just the right, (or wrong), way near the end, and it was a bit distressing to read a book in which just about every single person is despicable, but I just kept turning the pages, which earns Mr. Marinovich a serious tip of my cap.
This story starts before the infamous encounter at the Reichenbach Falls, when a an Italian scholar visits 221 Baker Street and tells the detective a tale about an ancient parchment, written by Marco Polo, taken from a rubbing from an even older artifact found in the libraries of Kublai Khan. This parchment is half of a document that Polo, and another traveler, the famed Moroccan Ibn Batuta, both took dramatic steps to hide. Now a secret organization, The Brotherhood of the Letter, who may have ties with Moriarty, are searching for the document as well. The chase is on.
The set-up for this story works well, but the execution falls a bit flat. The details and the background of the story are top-notch, and delivered smoothly, and Mr. Murthy manages a few subtle digs at the racial and cultural tropes of the era, but the plot drags a bit and lacks in urgency. Mr. Murthy clearly knows his history, and his Canon, but the novel seems more like an old-fashioned adventure of the type that H. Rider Haggard did so well, with Holmes, Watson and Moriarty plugged in. There are a large and various amount of viewpoints used in the book, and they add a bit to the multi-cultural flavor of the book, but they are somewhat muddled, and I had to backtrack more than once to make sure who was narrating.
The tone of The Paradox is a bit darker and more elegiac than the first book, but it should, because the fate of the world is teetering on the brink. Like it’s predecessor one of the main strengths of this novel is its mix of gritty reality and imaginative fantasy, next to each other cheek-by jowl, each enforcing and playing off of the other. A perfect example of this is in the Mirror world, where space and time seem to have lost meaning, but the physical realities of Mr. Sharp and Sara’s trials are almost punishingly visceral.
You can read this book as a stand-alone, but I think that you should not. It’s rare to find two such splendid novels that fit together seamlessly, and tell such a powerful story. If I had to nitpick a bit I could say that The Paradox is a bit too much of a “second” novel in that even though the end is satisfying it’s still obvious that there is a lot of the story left to tell, but that would be nitpicking, and these two novels deserve all of the praise and attention that I can give, so do yourself a favor, and start reading; you won’t be disappointed.