A Man With A Spooky Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.

 

I write something about every book I read, but only publish reviews close to the release date of the book. If you see something on my shelves and there's no review, feel free to ask me about it!

Crooked Tree by Robert C. Wilson

Crooked Tree - Robert C. Wilson

 

In the Dark, Dark Woods Square: The Crooked Tree State Forest has suddenly become plagued with black bear attacks with a sinister origin.

 

Axel Michaelson is working on an injunction to prevent development of part of the Crooked Tree State Forest in the lower peninsula of Michigan. The housing development would provide jobs to the area, but, he believes, would irreparably harm the forest and negatively impact the Ottawa Native Americans who still live in the county in great numbers.

 

His wife Janis is descended from an Ottawa chieftain and begins acting strangely. The dogs in her kennel begin barking at her and she has memory loss and mood-swings.

 

A series of people make plans to enter the forest and their characters are developed well enough that their grisly - almost a pun! - fate is all the more shocking. Wilson writes extensively about the natural habits of black bears so the reader gets a sense of how unusual the violent behavior is. The novel is influenced enough by 'Jaws' that Wilson felt readers should understand what actual animal behavior is like. The supernatural origin of the bear attacks may dull the scares for some.

 

I'm unfamiliar with Native American history in Michigan so there were some interesting information here. My favorite bit is when Axel goes researching a particular Ottawa ritual and engages in some serious reference-library porn. From a citation in a dusty treatise he seeks out the source material at the University of Michigan library and, with the help of a library assistant, tracks down an obscure archive with the use of many reference manuals and card-catalogs. It goes on for a couple pages, it's totally dated, and totally thrilling. Research used to be so very, very hard. People should remember that.

 

That bit of reference-porn makes up for some very silly dramatics involving ghostly possession and naked woods-wandering. The book almost made it as a serious horror novel, but it was still a lot of fun when it went off the rails. The cover on the mass market was diecut so the bloody-mouthed bear of the cover is revealed to have the body of a sexy, hairy woman humping the body of a man while she pulls his heart out of his chest. So I was pleasantly shocked at how good much of the writing was.

While the Clock Ticked, Hardy Boys #11 by Franklin W. Dixon

While the Clock Ticked - J. Clemens Gretta, Franklin W. Dixon

 

Baker Street Irregulars Square: The Hardy Boys, regressed to high school age, investigate a mystery while their parents are on vacation.

 

With their parents away on a long-overdue vacation, the boys are under the strict rule of Aunt Gertrude. While she approves of their skills and resourcefulness, she would never tell them she was proud of them to their faces. That would fill their heads up with air. So at every turn she is critical, demanding, and obstructionist, and I love her for it.

 

Aunt Gertrude turns a man away at the door when he comes asking to see Fenton Hardy. She doesn't tell him Fenton Hardy is away, because one doesn't let a man know you're alone in the house, however well dressed. I'd like to see Aunt Gertrude in a 'Fear Street' novel, she would straighten those kids out in a heartbeat.

 

In any case, the man comes back and theboys let him in - they wouldn't last a day on Fear Street - and tell him they'll try to wire their father, but they'd be happy to look into any mysteries. The man laughs, but gives them a hint and ultimately hires them. The man, Raymond Dalrymple, is a wealthy banker who bought the furnished Purdy Mansion along the Shore Road as an investment. The house had been built by a paranoid miser and contained a secret room with a time-locked vault door. Dalrymple is so harried by business he decides to use this room as a private office and uses it occasionally without exploring the rest of the house.

 

The mystery, he tells the boys, is that he's been receiving threatening notes that he discovers inside this locked room. There is no way in but through the vault door, even the chimney is too small for entry and barred besides, and the room itself is a closely guarded secrets. The immigrant laborers who even built the room were sent far away after construction was completed. Nice.

 

There is another appearance by Hurd Applegate, from 'The Tower Treasure', who has devolved into a man whose only passion left is stamps. Valuable, valuable stamps. The disappearance of some of Hurd's stamps gets him involved. The disappearance of his sister is of no consequence apparently. The police are also investigating 'River Thieves' who have been stealing goods for months. 

 

This was a pretty lackluster mystery with some bizarre elements including a doppelgangers, screams in the night, mad inventors, time bombs, and even a crook named 'Indian Tom' who was likely expunged in the 1960s rewrite, but who can say? There's some serious bumbling police tropes that are more likely to have been cut, and perhaps, maybe, the boys should have a break from rescuing valuable stamps. I was disappointed that the forward momentum of the boys' lives - namely their high school graduation in 'The Great Airport Mystery' - was so abruptly cut short. I looked back and 'What Happened at Midnight' merely describes the boys as still being in high school as they head out to Morton Farm for a party. There must have been some reader backlash, or the editors realized by themselves - after printing - that it was a mistake to let the boys grow up.

 

It also seems that Chet and Biff are aware of my scrutiny, as neither of them obliged me with a scene for my slash fic of them, but those chums and the rest of the gang did make a fuss about the Hardy Boys not including them in this latest caper. For that realism, and Aunt Gertrude's curling papers, I give this an extra star.

 

Hardy Boys

 

Next: 'Footprints Under the Window'

 

Previous: 'What Happened at Midnight'

Goodnight Kiss, Fear Street Super Chiller #3 by R.L. Stine

Goodnight Kiss - R.L. Stine

 

Fear Street Square: Teens roam at their own risk in Sandy Hollow, a beach community beset with vampires.

 

The book begins with Jessica, a townie in the beach community, shopping for her blind date with Gabri. She's excited its summer again and there will be so many people around. The date with Gabri is enchanting, but there's a problem. It turns out they're both Eternals. Vampires, and so both of them wasted a night going for that sweet vein nectar. They refer to blood as nectar. Gabri and Jessica are both pushy jerks and they decide that the better vampire will be able to 'turn' a teen before the other. This requires three feedings spaced out, otherwise the teen would die and the bet would be off.

 

The next day April is helping her parents and twin sisters move in to the summer cabin. It's so much better in Sandy Hollow than in Shadyside! She's happy that her boyfriend Matt's family is coming to the beach again this year, as well as their friend Todd. Todd appears to be ok, even though he lives in one of those dumps on Fear Street.

 

The vampires make their bets, the unsuspecting teens go about visiting arcades, going to pizza shops and visiting the carnival. Will they make it through the summer alive?

 

This was OK. There wasn't much to jeer or cheer. The plot was instantly supernatural, but the vampires are still like bratty kids (take that Stephanie Meyer!). April makes a really strong case for liking her boyfriend, but then proceeds to complain about every one of his interests. Girl, get your priorities straight.

 

I'll keep saying it: these super chillers are only 15 pages longer than regular 'Fear Street' novels, I'm not sure why they didn't just cut some of the banter and descriptions of baggy swim trunks and publish them as part of the main series. In reality, it probably had to do with the publishing schedule of the others, but if publishing more than one a month floods the market how is the different packaging preventing the flood? I don't know.

 

Oh well. I have the sequel on hand, but since this is a 'Fear Street' novel they may not share any characters. We'll see....

 

Fear Street Super Chiller

 

Next: 'Broken Hearts'

 

Previous: 'Silent Night'

Dead Voices, Small Spaces #2 by Katherine Arden

Dead Voices - Katherine Arden

 

Supernatural Square: Three friends find themselves snowed-in at a haunted ski lodge armed only with a Ouija board and a book of matches.

 

Ollie, Coco and Brian have tried to put what happened in the land beyond the mists behind them. When a free trip for five is won to a soon-to-be-open ski mountain it seems like a great opportunity to have fun and get away from reminders of the past.

 

A blizzard is hitting the Vermont mountains especially hard and the expected 8" overnight, heavy enough, becomes a big enough storm to prevent the other guests from arriving at Mount Hemlock, and traps them in the building without no power and only a single fireplace.

 

No one but Coco sees the man in the road warning them away from the lodge. When the car is stopped, he's disappeared. The taxidermy collection in the lobby seems to keep shifting positions on their wall-mounts and pedestals. The lodge itself has a dark past as an orphanage run by the stern 'Mother Hemlock' and not all the girls made it through the cold winters.

 

Snowbound, the trio, two parents, the lodge owners and a paranormal journalist, have to confront the ghosts in the dark halls armed only with a Ouija board, a book of matches, and a talent for chess. Ollie's wristwatch, through which her dead mother communicates to her, tells her to beware....

 

This was another good middle grade horror by Katherine Arden. In many ways this is Coco's book, as it showcases her talent for chess and logic, her mediating role and provides some outside perspective on Ollie's relationship with her dad.

 

The story skates on the edge of being too simple, but the puzzle was a good one, and the internal logic of the story and the world of 'Small Spaces' is respected. The characters are continuing to grow and with some unanswered questions, I see a lot of room for more sequels down the line.

 

Small Spaces

 

Previous: 'Small Spaces'

Into the Pit by Warner Lee

Into the Pit - Warner Lee

 

Psych Square: Jason's first wife Glenda's psychosis drives her to terrorize him and his new family from beyond the grave.

 

This is not a sensitive portrait of mental illness. It is in many ways a guide of what NOT to do if a loved one begins showing signs of mental instability. The novel has two timelines, present-day (1988) Appleton Falls, NJ and the other in various locations in the 1970s, ending in Philadelphia.

 

It begins with a young psychic, Jennifer, who makes her living drawing up astrological charts and reading tarot cards agreeing to do a seance for a client against her better judgement. The seance is a success, but it opens a scary door. After, Jennifer is plagued with green mist and visions of fire and she keeps blacking out and finding she's recorded herself asking for Jason McGuire.

 

Jason McGuire is a landscape architect. He and his wife have finally established their business to the point where they're getting high-profile clients and can enjoy their new family. Nyssa is taking time off until their son is ready for nursery school and everything is perfect. Until he starts having nightmares about his first wife Glenda. Who he loved so much until she "denied him" children, went mad and was a pain in the ass. The book says a torment, but mostly she seemed inconvenient, until the Satanism. She died in a house-fire years ago.

 

The book shifts viewpoints to a group of misfit boys obsessed with their shameful virginity. One, Christopher, offers to show them the body of a hot woman as soon as one shows up in his father's funeral home. The boys think that will be delightful. Glenda, off in the green mists of hell or whatever, finds a way to sneak into the world through the funeral home, too, and starts making mischief.

 

There are some genuinely scary scenes, some possession, some kidnapping, but the pace seemed a little off and there was a brief plot fake-out that wasn't believable for a second. Mostly, I was distracted by how Jason lived for years with his wife in an obviously unhealthy state, not even telling her parents. Years pass even after she gets involved with a cult and Jason witnesses their weird sex rituals.

 

My experience with mental illness is slight, but if someone is behaving as erratically and violently as Glenda does, I wouldn't wait eight years to think about just talking to a doctor against her wishes and I don't think anyone else would either.

The Ghosts of Austwick Manor by Reby Edmond MacDonald

The Ghosts of Austwick Manor - Reby Edmond MacDonald

 

Ghost Stories Square: A family inherits a haunted dollhouse that warns of a curse and allows the children to travel back in time

 

(Transfigured from 'Locked Room Mystery')

 

Hillary and Heather MacDonald are a little put out when an English 'barrister' visits their home in Vancouver to inform their brother Donald that he is the heir of the MacDonald family treasures. There isn't much left, the house and wealth were consumed by taxes long ago, but along with old account books dating back to 1540 and an ancestor portrait, there is a 16th century doll house complete with dolls and furniture. It is a model of the central wing of the family estate. A letter warns the MacDonalds (and stepfather) to leave the dolls alone, but the family puts them in the rooms - including a shabbily dressed man who appears to belong in the dungeon.

 

The girls, sitting beside the doll house late one night with a snack, discover that the house can transport them through time and they learn many things about the past and about a curse that afflicts their family. Every second generation the MacDonald heir and his firstborn son die tragically. The girls' father died in a car accident a few years before - does that mean their brother is next?

 

Nerd alert: A doll house such as the one described here - and pictured on the cover - didn't exist in 1540. The earliest doll houses were rooms set into cabinets and the earliest of those were decades later. I would love to play with one, though. I saw a few early ones at the V&A Childhood Museum and couldn't get enough.

 

When I was young I briefly had a fantasy about being the heir to some cool knickknacks, but I realized I was the second son of a third son of a second son and primogeniture wouldn't let me have anything without some kind of bloodbath. So, wish retracted.

 

This was a decent time-travel fantasy. It doesn't adhere to many rules of the genre, but it was fun to have the children run amok in time in their pajamas. The children come to be viewed as ghosts by the family because of their abrupt appearances and departures over 200 years. The deadly curse seemed bad enough on the surface, but there was some other grim stuff packed in here - especially at the end. The author also really stressed the unromantic side of the past. Except for serving a cockatrice at a feast (made of a rabbit stuffed into a chicken ornamented with a gilded head and with wings stuck in). That is all kinds of delightful. This is a nice addition to the haunted doll house genre.

Carnival by William W. Johnstone

Carnival - William W. Johnstone

 

Creepy Carnivals Square: Well, duh, but OK: a carnival returns to a town over 30 years after it was torched by a mob, ready for revenge.

 

In the town of Holland, Nebraska the Carnival is back in town. Some thirty-odd years before there had been an ugly incident where an angry mob, incensed by the rape of two young girls, burns a carnival - and all those who worked in it - to the ground. Something like over a hundred people died, but it was quickly swept under the rug by the authorities at the behest of some mighty rich ranchers. In reality it was the sons of two ranchers who were the rapists, and nearly everyone in the town apparently helped murder all the carnies and animals. As a community, they decided to not talk of that unpleasantness and moved on, except for the occasional hand in helping a rapist get away with it again.

 

So, that's fucked up.

 

Martin Holland IV is mayor of Holland, like his father and grandfather before him. This isn't a problem. The town and surrounding ranch land is isolated in one of the most depopulated counties in the country. Martin is an every-man millionaire and ass-kicking machine with a trunk full of medals from Vietnam. He prefers to not talk about all that and lets other townspeople remind us of that. Frequently. Something weird is going on in town. He has disturbing visions when he sees the carnival trucks driving in, he doesn't recall signing the permit allowing the carnival into town in the first place, hundreds are drawn to staring blankly at the fairgrounds, oblivious to anything else, and some other folks are winding up dead. Cooked from the inside. It's quickly apparent that some evil shit is going down.

 

So Martin does what any rational rich guy would do, he makes a protective huddle with his rich friends and their kids and passes judgement on everyone else.

 

The undead revenge-carnival activates the latent evil in about 10% of the population and brainwashes the majority of the ~5,000 people of the town. They are cut off from the outside world, and even though they have a week to prepare ANY OTHER contingency plan the small group of spared souls/Christians elect to GO TO THE EVIL CARNIVAL AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

 

I'm sorry for shouting, but at no point do these people make a good decision. They bring the 8 year old. I mean, come on.

 

An important part of the "mythos" of this book, and perhaps of the nebulous dozen or so horror novels in the 'Devil' series, is that the devil has people planted all over Earth, soulless (maybe) demons, who go through life perhaps not knowing what they are until they die and go back to hell or something. As townsfolk, close friends, and family members are revealed to be demons, or otherwise coerced into evil - even when they are clearly impaired by some kind of mind control - they become fair game for murder by the dozen Christians trapped in the carnival. They made their choice, you know. They didn't live by the Word. Only rich white people and chosen servants do that.

 

The final chunk of the novel is devoted to the evil carny king trying, not that hard to be honest, to win over these Christians because they are much more valuable to Satan than the thousands of other people brainwashed to be evil. He mostly just threatens them and laughs.

 

I don't know what to make of this book. I expect heavy misogyny from these books, so the criticism of whorish girls not worth trying to save and long conversations interrupted by women offering to make sandwiches amused me more than anything. It was the more heavy-handed scenes such as when our hero slaps a man, and spends half of a precious day bringing that man back to good, while the underage naked girl the man, worth saving, was having sex with is told to get out. Even loved ones, when revealed to be demons, are dispassionately cut down. Some of our intrepid band of Christians get cut down as well, but it was hard to tell characters apart, so, it didn't hurt too much.

 

The ending adds to the stupidity. I don't know what you should do when you know that 10% of people are evil in the flesh, but I wouldn't spank them and make them go to church.

 

Spoiler?

 

This was demented and funny, but I can't recommend this to anyone.

The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser

The Mirror - Marlys Millhiser

 

Classic Horror Square: Published in Hardcover in 1978

 

This turned out far, far better than I thought it would be. I had to stay up until almost 3am to finish it! Millhiser has crafted a great story with plenty of family drama, humor, romance (with the character's own grandfather no less - somehow, not gross), historical detail, and, of course, one cursed mirror. The object has its own mysterious history that bookends the novel with good atmosphere.

 

It's 1978 and the night before Shay Garrett's wedding. Her parents disapprove of the marriage thinking at 20 she is too young and they suspect she doesn't love Marek. Even with these misgivings her mother, Rachel, gives her one of the family treasures: an antique mirror with wavy glass and a frame made of interlocking bronze hands. It had come to the family by way of a marriage and hidden in the attic for years. Shay's grandmother Bran, at 98, has been mute and distant since a stroke twenty years earlier, but has a strong reaction to mention of the mirror.

 

Shay Garrett doesn't share her mother's interest in family history and has only vaguely paid attention to the stories behind many heirlooms in the family home. For that alone she deserves what's coming to her.

 

The mirror has been set up in her bedroom, redone in a fussy Victorian style, and standing on the thick carpet, Shay tries on the antique bridal veil. A thunderstorm begins, and she catches sight of her grandmother behind her in the glass.

 

She is awakened on the bare floor by a woman who vaguely looks like her mother, but has hair piled on top of her head. The mirror looms large in the corner and Shay notices that the carpeting is gone, the woodwork is varnished, not painted, and the body she's in is not her own. She is told that no matter what fits she throws she will be married in the morning.

 

Shay begins to understand she has switched places with her grandmother in the past and she has no hope, except through the mirror, of returning to her time.

 

'The Mirror' follows three generations of Shay's family. Herself, Bran (trapped in Shay's body in the future), and, interestingly, Rachel, whose disconnect from her 'seer' mother makes her cling to the physical artifacts of her family's history. Poor Rachel has the worst time of anybody, unfortunately.

The book commits to the period, and a lot of research was done about Boulder at the turn of the century through the 1970s. The different reactions Bran and Shay have to the mores of the day were often delightful. Shay challenging her husband on his attitudes about sex and what's proper for a woman, and Bran's realization that Shay's fiancé, when dancing with her at a disco, is obviously a demon. Amazing. Highly recommended.

Silent Scream, Nightmare Hall #1 by Diane Hoh

The Silent Scream (Nightmare Hall) - Diane Hoh

 

Dark Academia Square: The fictional Salem University only has the one accursed dorm, but it inspired 29 books of chills in the mid '90s.

 

The first of a teen thriller/horror series that completely missed my radar back in the day, but is a perfect fit for the season.

 

Jesse is excited to begin college and, as a freshman, was eligible to be a 'monitor' (RA?) of Nightingale Hall, the off-campus house where she and five other freshman will spend the year. Little does she know that it was a tragedy last spring, the suspicious death of a bright young coed, that meant only freshman who didn't know any better applied to live there.

 

The house is described as a three story brick house, with spacious formal rooms and a kitchen downstairs and bedrooms on the second floor. The third floor presumably housed the chaperone, who falls down the stairs early in the book and leaves our youngsters alone in the house for most of the semester.

 

It is not as diverse a group of students as I would have expected, but this was the '90s and only white kids were allowed into Salem University at the time apparently. Of the seven students we have our heroine Jesse who is pretty, but can't afford day-glo clothes like some people, the rich playboy with a beemer, the beautiful overachiever, the loner poet, the girl with the athletic scholarship who loves him, the almost-too-handsome Ian (no other character traits so I had to give him his name) and the nominal adult handyman who lives over the garage and takes night courses.

 

There are supernatural elements that defy explanation - shredded swimsuits and shattered glass, etc. - but this is mostly a straight-forward teen thriller about abusive boyfriends (they're ALL about abusive boyfriends) and whether or not Ian will invite Jesse to the Fall Ball.

 

This had some fun nostalgic elements that reminded me a bit about college - the textbook bill though, urgh - and would have appealed to the young readers who could fantasize about their own "grown-up" college days to come.

 

As a bonus, 'Nightmare Hall', like early V.C. Andrews books, had die-cut covers that hinted at a cool frontispiece. Poor blonde Giselle lies face-down in her lavender bedroom, that day-glo yellow halter top couldn't save her.

 

Nighmare Hall


Next: 'The Roommate'

Sea of Death, Blade of the Flame #3 by Tim Waggoner

Sea of Death: Blade of the Flame, Book 3 (The Blade of the Flame) - Tim Waggoner

 

Fear the Drowning Deep Square: A lich summons a plague of were-sharks to bring down civilization.

 

At the end of 'Forge' the party has befriended a war-forged with psionic powers, so you think that their missions would be getting easier. However, the dragon wand that was snatched from them and the loss of Makala to darkness means the party has a lot of work to do.

 

An ancient demonic curse, an island plagued with undead, unholy pacts, and just the existence of were-sharks makes for a compelling adventure on the sea. Waggoner fit a lot into these stories and provided satisfying conclusions to character's individual story-arcs, two romantic plots (and a bromance), and makes a case for returning to these characters.

 

I'm not sure they did. Waggoner wrote one more novel for Eberron, 'Lady Ruin', which doesn't name-check any of the characters from the 'Blade' trilogy. With these tie-in novels to D&D, Wizards of the Coast tries to be crafty and instead catches itself in a trap. 'Dragonlance' and 'Forgotten Realms' were dominated by characters created by one or two authors - this created internal consistency and reader loyalty, but also meant that the campaign setting was beholden to creative that may not want to write the stories they're told to write. To avoid this Wizards pushed out a LOT of novels in a short period by many different authors. This mixed bag probably created some short-term cash-flow, but the market was saturated and the books quickly went out of print.

 

I for one would have been happy to see a core story-line produced. It would only increase sales of the core product (the pricey D&D manuals) and keep the brand alive. There is a new Eberron Adventure coming out for 5th edition this fall, we'll see if there's any novel tie-ins.

 

Anyway, this is the strongest group of Eberron novels so far. Obviously recommended to D&D and Eberron fans, but also fans of fantasy-horror.

 

The Blade of the Flame

 

Previous: 'Forge of the Mindslayers'

Forge of the Mindslayers, Blade of the Flame #2 by Tim Waggoner

Forge of the Mind Slayers - Tim Waggoner

Some months after the events of 'Thieves of Blood' the remaining party members led by Diran take are on an aggressive campaign against evil. Their travels have led them across the Principalities into an obscure corner where two small baronies locked in a trade stalemate, an old curse prevents cooperation.

 

In the mountains they cross paths with the lich Lathifa in her lair, and she is fascinated by the dragonwand the artificer Tressler carries. It was apparently fashioned from a powerful and lost magical artifact. The lich sends her barghest servant after the party to get the wand at any cost. In those same mountains an orc rival of Ghaji is working for a mad assassin from Diran's past and a Kalashtar. The terrible trio are working to rebuild an abandoned experimental Cannith forge.

 

There are a lot of coincidences going on, but a lot of it can be explained as the manipulations of Vol, who, admittedly, has had 3,000 years or so to line things up. In the shadow of her plans the struggle for the psi-forged facility pales. Waggoner continues to dig deep into the character's pasts with well-timed flashbacks and broadens the character's relationships with each other. The villains are hardly bungling, but there was something funny about how these five scheming villains could hardly stop plotting and backstabbing and rubbing their hands together to get REVENGE and be the BEST at being EVIL!

 

This was really enjoyable - I had to dive right in to the next one. 

 

The Blade of the Flame

 

Next: 'Sea of Death'

 

Previous: 'Thieves of Blood'

Psychic Fair by George M. O'Har

Psychic Fair - George O'Har

Halloween Square: The boys confront the supernatural at a seance in an abandoned house on Halloween.

 

1965. In a religious boarding school Adrian Sparks plays with the old Ouija board he purchased at a yard sale. He works out a plan to convince his roommate Boylan, and their friend Welcome to try it out....

 

1962. A lonely teacher almost regrets the purchase of his fine, large house. His mother and longtime companion had died before they moved in. There is a mystery surrounding the family that built the house but he's become curious about the occult and his mind wanders towards a female student of his with those interests....

 

The Civil War. A Confederate colonel deserts from the army, noting the death of his comrades, but not before he secures something from a remote cabin. He makes his way to Canada, and then to Massachusetts where he entrances a widow and builds a fine, large house....

 

I should find a gif of SNL's Stefan, because this book has everything: a confederate ghost, a cursed family, buried treasure, abandoned houses, heads in jars, night-time hunts with flashlights after curfew.... The boys make contact, of course, with a vengeful spirit through the board and are asked to help it by scouting out an abandoned Victorian pile on Halloween. There is a corrupt little person hunting about for gold, numerous flashbacks detail the history of the spirit's family - the spirit is the colonel - and how the spirit had been just awful in life.

 

The switching of timelines was poorly done. They were clearly marked, but they came at awkward times. There is misdirection to make the reader think that there is only 1 Ouija board being used, when if fact there are 2. For what purpose? The 1962 plot-line makes zero sense and should have been cut entirely. It exists to line up the fact that the dwarf is creepy and how the teacher and his platonic girl pal get the idea for a Psychic Fair.

 

Speaking of, the Psychic Fair is a carnival and nothing else. The boys have a tolerably good time and Adrian has his fortune told. The vendors sell scarves and there is a palmist, but otherwise there are the expected set of games and attractions. I believe O'Har wanted to give the book a 'Stand by Me' vibe, but the friendship of the boys never gelled.

 

The author kept adding elements, stacking them on top of each other, but we didn't get an effectively scary horror novel, a compelling family drama, young friendship, or a period piece. In the end, the Ouija board itself and the goofy conversations the kids have with it are the best takeaway from the book. While reading it I was entertained, but a lackluster resolution left me cold.

Thieves of Blood, Blade of the Flame #1 by Tim Waggoner

Thieves of Blood - Tim Waggoner

Diran Bastiaan is a priest of the Silver Flame with a dark past and is travelling in the Lhazaar Principalities with his friend the half-orc Ghaji on a general quest to root out evil wherever they find it. In the city of Port Verge Diran runs into an old colleague and former lover, Makala.

 

Shortly therafter the city is raided by the Black Fleet - black ships that come in the night and take nothing but people - and after a fight with a vampire Makala is taken.

 

Teaming up with an elf woman, Yvka, with an agenda of her own (and a fast ship) Diran and Ghaji set out across the cold Lhazaar sea to find out the truth of the Black Fleet and to rescue Makala.

 

Despite the never-ending quest to save my girlfriend plot, 'Thieves of Blood' is an excellent adventure with elements of real horror. Eberron often touches on elements of the genre - but when you have rabid ghouls tearing people apart and vast quantities of blood magic, I'm going to look at the book differently. The Blood of Vol always have potential, but Waggoner nails it.

 

Diran and Makala's complicated back history as former assassins, Ghaji's reflections on prejudice, and great use of the settings own character without suborning the plot makes this a winner. Along with Yvka the addition of an elderly artificier and a Ravenloft-level traumatized halfing to the party make things more interesting. Makala, even as a captive, is allowed heroism, but I could have used more time with her and some more thought-out motivation for the female antagonist. This stands on its own well, but there's real potential for development as the trilogy moves forward.

 

The Blade of the Flame

 

Next: 'Forge of the Mind Slayers'

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

It was a delight to come back to this after so many years. It remains a favorite of mine and when my husband and I started a long trip this mammoth leaped out of the library's audio section. We only got a third of the way through it on the trip, but we stayed with it - finishing in about a month. Simon Prebble's reading was very good and helped carry the book - my one criticism is that the female voices are same-y. This could be Prebble's limitation, or it could be Clarke's fault for failing to have a wide range of female characters. 

 

Clarke's writing captures the essence of the social comedy of Austen and her Victorian successors and delivers a beautifully conceived world of magic in Regency England. The plot revolves around the first two practical magicians England has seen in almost three centuries, a magical resurrection with horrible consequences for the lady involved, and the progress of a black butler as he navigates a complicated and abusive relationship with England and a Fairy. It's about so much more than that, of course. Clarke heavily foot-noted the book with citations to magical books, legends, historic accounts and definitions that make the world all the more real. The addition of atmospheric illustrations that are fresh and yet evoke era are a real bonus. I had to bring down my print edition so my husband didn't miss out.

 

It has been 15 years since publication, but I am willing to wait another 15 years if that's what it takes to read more about this world. I hope Ms. Clarke will do it! I must note, too, that the physical edition of Clarke's book of short stories 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories' is out of print.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin

How Long 'Til Black Future Month? - N.K. Jemisin

This was a stunning collection of short fiction. I've never read Jemisin before, so I was astonished at the ideas and the characters here. My usual complaint with story collections is how they can be inconsistent and if one story is bad enough it can take down the whole collection.

 

There is nothing like that here. There are two or three that felt flat to me or felt like an under-developed idea, Jemisin in her introduction explains that she has used many of these stories as areas to test idea for longer fiction, but they never affected the many, many great stories here.

 

I really should go into these individually, but I'm lazy and I won't. I'll just say I was engaged by every story and easily, happily, went straight into the one following.

 

This is the best story collection I've read since 'Lot' and before that, I have to go to Ted Chiang. Those are smaller collections, however. The best comparison I can make as far as amount of stories and consistency is Flannery O'Connor.

 

I'll make a point to seek out her novels.

 

 

Reading progress update: I've read 276 out of 324 pages.

Psychic Fair - George O'Har

This will be my headstart for bingo - I've forced myself to stop at the last section so it'll still qualify lol. It's all kinds of good.

 

Being a 1980s book about three New England prep school boys playing with a Ouija Board, solving a mystery, the psychic fair, animal familiars, possession, the vengeful spirit of a Confederate colonel, Halloween shenanigans, etc. This would qualify for several of my squares - 11?, but I'm leaning towards deadlands.

 

To be honest though, the psychic fair was the least interesting part of the book. I don't know why that's the name. There was dart-throwing and a quilt display though, so there's that.

Currently reading

The Mark on the Door (Hardy Boys, #13)
Franklin W. Dixon
Progress: 50/228 pages
The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Progress: 35/389 pages
The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
A Modern Comedy
John Galsworthy
Progress: 553/862 pages