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Posted by: Fivetide at Feb 5th, 2019, 12:33 pm in


TITLE: Musashi
AUTHOR: Eiji Yoshikawa
GENRE: Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
PUBLISHED: 1935, English translation 1981
RATING: ★★★★★
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Posted by: sleepwalkingdreamer at Dec 24th, 2018, 6:23 am in


TITLE: The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)
AUTHOR: S.A. Chakraborty
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical
PUBLISHED: November 14, 2017
RATING: ★★★★


There has been much ink (actual and digital) spilled in recent years about just how white fantasy is. Almost every orphan boy (and it’s usually an orphan boy) who rises to become the hero of the realm has been white, and the realm he becomes a hero of is usually some version of Western Europe, but with dragons - and magic, elves, and whatever other fantasy trope/s the author chooses to employ. If non-white people do appear, they are cast as the villains; barbarian hordes, perhaps, or evil warlords intent on enslaving the otherwise peaceful lands the protagonist calls home. Occasionally, an inscrutable “Oriental” wise man or wizard will put in a brief appearance, or perhaps the protagonist will befriend some wandering tribal people whose customs and traditions are suspiciously like an amalgamation of every single Native American stereotype the author had ever heard of.

Fortunately, that has been changing recently. Protagonists are no longer just white boys or white men, but increasingly they are people of colour: men, women, girls, boys, and sometimes (hopefully more frequently eventually) trans, gender-fluid, or non-binary.

This shift in protagonists also applies to the settings. No longer limited to just the mythological and folkloric landscapes of Western and Northern Europe, more and more fantasy novels are set in fantasy equivalents of places like East Asia (R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series), the Indian subcontinent (Tasha Suri’s The Books of Ambha series), Africa (Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch series) and the Middle East (Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon). As a result, it is becoming increasingly easier to avoid the tedium of carbon-copy worlds and protagonists; there is such a variety of new worlds to explore, new people to imagine oneself into.

S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is one of this new class of fantasy novels. Book 01 in The Daevabad Trilogy, it starts out in 18th-century Cairo, where the protagonist, Nahri, is a talented con artist who scams wealthy Ottoman nobles for a living. Her cons consist mostly of what she thinks is mystical claptrap: palm readings, traditional healing, and ritual dances called zars, which are supposed to exorcise those who have been possessed by the djinn. It’s not an easy life, but Nahri lives it anyway, moving from grift to grift and con to con, trying to scrounge together enough money so she can finally do what she’s always wanted: buy her way into a medical school so she can learn proper medicine and be a real healer.

But all her plans are thrown aside when, during a zar she conducts as part of one of her cons, she summons a group of evil djinn called ifrit, who are determined to end her life right where she stands. Fortunately, the zar also summons another djinni named Dara, who protects her from the ifrit, but also tells her that she is more than she seems. According to Dara, Nahri is not just human, but half-djinn - and that for her safety, they must both flee to the magical city of Daevabad, the City of Brass. There, Nahri must not only cope with a whole new magical world and the truth of her heritage, but also the brewing political turmoil that simmers in the courts and bazaars of Daevabad - a turmoil centuries in the making, and one that Nahri’s presence may cause to explode into a full-blown conflagration.

I first became interested in this novel because of its setting. I think most people of my generation were first introduced to the idea of genies through Disney’s Aladdin animated movie, but I eventually learned that Robin Willams’ happy-go-lucky Genie was nothing like the original djinn: dangerous, volatile entities whose ability to grant wishes is but a small part of their powers. In Islamic mythology, the term “djinn” applies to a race of entities God created from fire, and who roamed the world before humans. In many ways, these djinn are actually like humans in that they have the same strengths and failings of character, as well as mortality, but are faster, stronger, and live longer.

The author draws upon this mythology, but builds upon it by incorporating another angle: the fact that in Islam, the term “djinn” can be used to refer to other, similar entities from other religions and mythologies outside of Islam. Therefore, an angel (especially of the Christian and Jewish variety) would be considered a djinn; so would a Zoroastrian daeva. In the novel this has given rise to the six races of djinn who live in Daevabad and who populate the djinn world: a reflection of the multi-cultural reality of the Islamic world. It is an excellent reminder (or introduction, as the case might be) to the reader that Islam and the peoples who subscribe to it are not just limited to the Middle East; that the Islamic community in fact encompasses peoples and cultures from around the world. Consider the following excerpt:
But Ali’s parents’ marriage had been…a political match meant to strengthen the alliance between the Geziri and the Ayaanle tribes. It was a strange, often strained, alliance. The Ayaanle were a wealthy people who prized scholarship and trade, rarely leaving the fine coral palaces and sophisticated salons of Ta Ntry, their homeland on the East African coast. In contrast, Am Gezira, with its heart in the most desolate deserts of southern Arabia, must have seemed a wasteland, its forbidding sands filled with wandering poets and illiterate warriors.

… Ali resembled his mother’s people so strikingly that it would have provoked gossip had his father not been king. He shared their lanky height and black skin, his stern mouth and sharp cheeks near replicas of his mother’s. All he’d inherited from his father was his dark steel eyes. …

This is a small illustration of the diversity of djinn society in the novel, and can be considered a mirror of the diversity of the real world’s Muslim community. It might not immediately occur to a reader to think of a djinni with black features, but there have been Muslim communities in Africa almost since the religion came into existence. Aside from the well-known Muslim countries of North Africa like Egypt and Morocco, there were and are many Muslim communities throughout the African continent. So to have a djinni with black features should be no less surprising than a djinni with Middle Eastern features, or a djinni with South Asian or even East Asian features. Any region of the world with a historical and/or significant Muslim community is likely represented in the novel by a djinn tribe, even if a member of that tribe has yet to make an appearance as a character.

This diversity extends to the practice of religion as well. Many non-Muslims (especially those who live in largely mono-ethnic communities) have little to no idea of the kind of diversity of practice that occurs in the Muslim world. Aside from the differences between Shia, Sunni, and a whole host of smaller movements, there are also regional, cultural, and individual differences. Often, a group or populace’s pre-existing beliefs would syncretise with Islamic practice when they converted to the religion, thus turning what would otherwise be a strange, foreign faith into something they were more familiar and comfortable with; this would then help the new religion gain more adherents and, therefore, more power and cultural acceptability in a new community. Over the hundreds of years that Islam has existed as a religion, this has created immense variety in terms of the rituals, conventions, and practices that Muslims perform and participate in the world over.

This diversity of practice is shown in several instances throughout the novel -- and not just among the djinn, either. Take a look at the following excerpt:
… The neighborhood was crowded; the French invasion had done little to stop the waves of people coming to Cairo from the countryside. The new migrants arrived with little more than the clothing on their backs and the traditions of their ancestors, traditions often denounced as perversions by some of the city’s more irritated imams.

The zars were certainly denounced as such. Like belief in magic, belief in possession was widespread in Cairo, blamed for everything from a young bride’s miscarriage to an old woman’s lifelong dementia. Zar ceremonies were held to placate the spirit and heal the afflicted woman. And while Nahri didn’t believe in possession, the basketful of coins and the free meal earned by the kodia, the woman who led the ceremony, were too tempting to pass up. And so, after spying on a number of them, she started hosting her own—albeit extremely abbreviated—version.

The zar (properly: zār) ritual has an uncertain history, but scholars generally agree that the practice is likely African, specifically Ethiopian, in origin, though the name itself is Persian, and that it was spread via the harems maintained by officials and wealthy individuals in Ottoman Egypt. It is, therefore, not a part of what might be considered “standard” Islamic practice, being limited largely to Egypt and neighbouring countries. While Islam has its own exorcism ritual, it should come as no surprise that other communities and cultures might have their own rituals already in place, and continue to use those rituals syncretically with Islam.

The excerpt also illustrates that for many Muslims, belief and the practice of belief is a very individual thing. Some Muslims are very pious and therefore strict about their adherence to the tenets of their faith, but there are also people like Nahri for whom the belief and practice of Islam is nothing more than a means to an end. This book reminds the reader that it is wrong to assume that all Muslims are like the rabid fanatics conservative media so often likes to put front-and-centre as representatives of what is, in fact, a nuanced and varied faith.

This rich world-building makes an excellent backdrop for some fascinating characters. Nahri is a woman after my own heart: clever and tough, with a keen instinct for survival and an eye to the main chance, but with a protective streak for those she cares about. She also has a clear sense of justice that shows itself in some rather amusing ways, as the following excerpt shows:
… She didn’t have many Turkish clients; they were too snobbish. Indeed, when the Franks and Turks weren’t fighting over Egypt, the only thing they seemed to agree on was that the Egyptians couldn’t govern themselves. God forbid. It’s not as though the Egyptians were the inheritors of a great civilization whose mighty monuments still littered the land. Oh, no. They were peasants, superstitious fools who ate too many beans.

Well, this superstitious fool is about to swindle you for all you’re worth, so insult away. Nahri smiled as the men approached.

The above excerpt (which comes from the novel’s first chapter) made me giggle pleasantly while reading it, and ensured that I would really like Nahri as a character. I find it difficult not to be charmed by a character whose idea of revenge is scamming the people who look down on her and her culture. It’s something I would do, if I had to, to be honest.

Another fascinating character is Ali. He is, in many ways, Nahri’s opposite: born the privileged second son of the King of the Djinn, he has the kind of power and influence that Nahri could only dream of acquiring. He is also very pious, sincerely believing in the Prophet’s words and living according to its strictest tenets. He also believes that the rather harsh brand of justice espoused by Islam’s more fundamentalist philosophies ought to apply to everyone, no matter their place in society or their bloodline:
“Who will serve as Qaid while he’s gone?”

“Alizayd. …”

Kaveh went pale. “My king, Prince Alizayd is a child. He’s not even close to his first quarter century. You cannot possibly entrust the city’s security to a sixteen—”

Eighteen,” Muntadhir corrected with a wicked grin. “Come now, Grand Wazir, there’s an enormous difference.”

… “Eighteen-year-old boy. A boy who—might I remind you—once had a Daeva nobleman whipped in the street like a common shafit thief!”

“He was a thief,” Ali defended. … “God’s law applies equally to all.”

The grand wazir took a breath. “Trust me, Prince Alizayd, it is my deep disappointment that you are not in Paradise where we all follow God’s law…” … “But under Daevabad’s law, the shafit are not equal to purebloods.” He looked imploringly to the king. “Did you not just have someone executed for saying much the same thing?”

“I did,” Ghassan agreed. “A lesson you would do well to remember, Alizayd. The Qaid enforces my law, not his own beliefs.”

Given these inclinations it is easy for the reader to dislike Ali on a purely instinctual level; I find zealots deeply unlikeable, and I am certain many readers will agree with me on that point. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that underneath Ali’s zealotry is a heart of purest gold; he truly thinks that strict adherence to the words of the Prophet will bring about a world where everyone can live good lives free of pain and injustice. He sees Islam as a levelling force, one that brings down the prideful and corrupt while uplifting the humble and the virtuous. His black-and-white world-view might chafe the reader at first, and it will continue to chafe as the reader progresses through the story, but it is difficult to continue disliking Ali when it becomes clear that he really, sincerely wants to be a good person and help as many people as he can - it’s just that the world is not so clear-cut as he thinks it is. I find that reading about characters like him - characters whose world-view I don’t generally agree with but who turn out to be surprisingly sympathetic - is a rather enjoyable experience, and I am certain other readers will agree.

It is through Ali’s storyline and the tail end of Nahri’s that the core themes of this novel come into play. Ali has always believed that what he was taught as a child is true, but over the course of the story it becomes clear that what he has always believed is truth, is actually littered with lies. There is a moment in the middle portion of the novel, when Ali learns of a particularly brutal secret connected to his clan’s rise to power in the djinn world:
“Then why do all this?”

… “You think it was Abba’s decision? Look at how old some of these bodies are. … You must know the things people used to say about [them], that they could change their faces, swap forms, resurrect each other from ash…”

“Rumors,” … “Propaganda. Any scholar could—”

“It doesn’t matter,” … “They kept records, they verified the bodies. We might have won the war, but at least some of our ancestors were so frightened of [them], they literally kept their bodies to reassure themselves that they were truly dead.”

I am not sure if the way this echoes with the numbering and careful recording of Holocaust victims was intentional, but those are the echoes I heard when I read the scene this excerpt comes from. But it says a lot about how much the victors can alter history, how much they can twist the narrative so that outright lies can become truth. The Nazis were never able to get that far, but if they had, it is easy to imagine the lengths they might have gone to in order to manipulate the way history remembers them.

There is another scene that echoes this one, but it is towards the end of the novel and so I cannot quote it here for fear of spoilers. But suffice to say that in that scene certain characters learn that one of the surest paths to victory is controlling how information is perceived; whether history, news, or rumour, those who control what is accepted as truth and what is rejected as false are capable of shaping not just the present, but the future as well. Given today’s political and media climate, when fake news runs rampant and what ought to be considered incontrovertible facts are suddenly up for debate, this reminder about the power of information is very timely indeed.

However, despite all of the above, this book still has a rather disappointing flaw: its romance. As I have said elsewhere I do not take any issue with stories that incorporate a romantic thread into their plots, but those romances have to be executed well for me to enjoy them. Unfortunately, the romance in this novel has not been executed well at all. It was initially entertaining, even plausible (though I admit I was stretching a bit), but as the novel progressed it became irritating. The romance happens too quickly, built as it is on very shaky ground consisting mostly of mutual attraction and unresolved sexual tension. That is not very good ground for a romance, and it does an immense disservice to the other key relationship of this novel: a wonderful friendship built on altered perspectives and shared understanding. It does not matter how hot (pun unintended) one half of a couple is; if the connection between two people in a romantic relationship does not move beyond misinterpretations of the “but you said!” variety and wanting to vigorously bone each other, and on to building a true connection based on important things like mutual trust and compassion, then that romance is sadly shallow.

Overall, The City of Brass is a mostly enjoyable read. The setting is fantastic and backed up by excellent world-building, and it is populated by intriguing characters and tells an excellent (if occasionally unevenly-paced) story, all of which surround themes about the nature of truth and how the powerful can rewrite not just history, but what is accepted as fact. Unfortunately, all of those wonderful aspects are marred by a poorly-handled romance, one that some more forgiving readers might find interesting at first, but which soon devolves into something akin to the un-nuanced “romances” portrayed in the more abysmal examples of young adult fiction that have cropped up in the past several years. If the reader is willing to overlook that potential deal breaker - and I will admit, it is a big one - then perhaps they will find joy in all the other, positive aspects of this novel. I hope the flaws of the romantic plot line are resolved in the subsequent books of this series, because it would be an immense pity to have what is otherwise a cracking good fantasy series be so badly marred.
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Posted by: WordDiva at Dec 13th, 2018, 7:10 pm in


TITLE: Ottolenghi SIMPLE
AUTHOR: Yotam Ottolenghi
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Cookbooks, Food & Wine > Regional & International > European > Mediterranean > Quick & Easy
PUBLISHED: October 16, 2018
RATING: ★★★★☆
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Posted by: sleepwalkingdreamer at Dec 3rd, 2018, 12:40 am in


TITLE: The Fisherman
AUTHOR: John Langan
GENRE: Horror
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2016
RATING: ★★★★★


Grief is a complicated and utterly crippling emotion. It is like a natural disaster on the scale of a tsunami or super-typhoon: all-consuming and devastating in the instance it happens and leaving the soul’s landscape completely altered in its wake. Time does not heal grief, not really; a person merely learns to cope with its ebbs and flows, learns to live with the way its tides rise and fall. Most of the time, it is easy to keep afloat, to ride the waves and move from day-to-day with a semblance of normalcy. Other times, however, something or someone will cause a riptide to come from out of nowhere, pulling a person down into the dark depths he or she thought he or she had left behind, forcing them to begin the struggle anew. Most of the time, a person succeeds in resurfacing from their grief; but sometimes, some people give up, and succumb to the depths, never to come back up again.

Grief, and what it makes of the people caught up in and then spat out of its wake, is the central theme of John Langan’s The Fisherman. It tells the story of a man who prefers to be called Abe, and how, in the wake of his wife’s death, he finds solace in fishing, and later on friendship, in the form of a fellow widower named Dan. One day, they decide to follow up on some old tales about a place called Dutchman’s Creek, where, so the tales have it, something miraculous lurks in the waters. Curious (and maybe more than a little hungry for miracles), Abe and Dan make their way to Dutchman’s Creek - but soon learn that perhaps the miracle they seek is no miracle at all but something else, something darker. For Dutchman’s Creek has been hiding a secret, a secret linked to a dark tale that haunts the Ashokan Reservoir about a mysterious entity called Der Fischer.

One of the first things the reader will likely appreciate about this novel is the narrator’s voice. Take a look at the following excerpt, which is the first paragraph in the novel:
Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe. Though it’s what my ma named me, I’ve never liked Abraham. It’s a name that sounds so full of itself, so Biblical, so…I believe patriarchal is the word I’m after. One thing I am not, nor do I want to be, is a patriarch. There was a time when I’d like at least one child, but these days, the sight of them makes me skin crawl.

There is something familiar, comforting even about Abe’s narrative voice; readers may hear echoes of a favourite elderly relative telling a rambling story about his or her life. It is this narrative voice that draws the reader in, that holds his or her attention even when Abe goes off on a tangent about a particular subject. Crucial, too, is how the author is able to keep a tight hold on the narrative reins, so that even if Abe goes off on a topical ramble at various points throughout the story, he still manages to keep the story moving forward, with only a minimal loss of momentum. It is the sort of narrative that works wonderfully for oral storytelling, which means it likely translates very well as an audiobook. However, the style might also be a deal-breaker for some readers who look for a more straightforward narrative. I personally don’t mind it at all, and indeed enjoy the narrative style the author has adopted for this novel, but I can easily see how some readers might not like it very much at all.

Aside from the tone of the excerpt, equally interesting is the first line itself. If it reminds the reader of “Call me Ishmael” from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, then he or she would do well to keep that in mind because the reference is deliberate. The Fisherman contains many nods and throwbacks to Melville's novel, which makes sense given that both novels share certain tropes and themes - fishing being the most obvious, of course. But they also share a connection via The Fisherman’s primary themes: obsession, and grief.

Moby-Dick is a classic, analysed and studied from all potential angles by scholars and students alike. The themes of the novel have already been clearly identified, and obsession is perhaps the most obvious one, especially if the reader has decided that it is Ahab, not Ishmael, who is the novel’s protagonist. Ahab’s drive to kill the White Whale at the cost of everything and everyone else is a familiar concept even to those who have not read Melville’s novel. But that obsession has a root in grief: grief over the losses and misfortune he has had over the course of his life.

But grief is a crucible, and it alters the people who undergo it. Some come out melted and destroyed; others are tempered and soldier on with their lives. A few, however, come out hard and brittle, their grief crystallised around something so unyielding they will no longer bend for anything or anyone. In Moby-Dick, the crucible of grief turned Ahab into a monomaniac determined to kill the White Whale. In The Fisherman, something similar happens to one of the characters:
… To this day, I’m not sure exactly what triggered it, but his grief, kept at bay so long, found a way to tunnel under [his] defenses, and, while he was otherwise distracted, seized the moment and fell on him, burying its dirty teeth deep in his gut and refusing to let go. … His stare, that look that I had felt wanted to pierce through you, worsened to the point that it was next to impossible to hold any kind of conversation with him. He didn’t appear to be listening to anything you were saying, just boring into you with those eyes that had been turned all the way up, blowtorch bright. …

… His grief had taken him far into a country whose borders are all most folks ever see, and from where he was, caught up in that dark land’s customs and concerns, what I was worrying over sounded so foreign I might as well have been speaking another language.

It is this character’s grief, and the obsession that springs from that grief, that leads to the other, more horrific events that happen in this novel; events that position this novel squarely in the “horror” genre, regardless of what sort of impression the first third of the story might give.

Most people do not think of Moby-Dick as a horror novel; its status as one of the great classics of American literature likely insulates it from any connections to genre fiction. But it is possible to view it as a horror novel, if the reader chooses to do so. Consider, for the example, the steadily-increasing tension as Ahab’s monomania is gradually revealed, and where that monomania takes not just Ahab, but also the crew of the Pequod. There is the spectre of the White Whale lurking underneath the waves, spoken of only in whispers, but never seen until too late - much like the monstrosities that lurk in the shadows of the best horror stories. And then there is the sea: mysterious, implacable, its dark depths hiding more secrets and more monsters than just the White Whale. All of those elements, taken together or separately, would make an excellent foundation for a horror story - especially a Lovecraftian one.

That is definitely the direction the author has taken with The Fisherman. The novel nods to Lovecraft’s oeuvre without adopting anything from it wholesale; it seems to share most similarities with the short story “Dagon”, with a smattering of nods to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Call of Cthulhu”. The influence is strongest in the novel’s middle third, where a gentleman named Howard (a nod to Lovecraft himself) tells Dan and Abe the true story of Dutchman’s Creek and Der Fischer. This story, nested within the greater overall structure of the novel, indicates the point where the novel goes from a meditation on the nature of living with grief to a full-blown Lovecraftian horror novel - without Lovecraft’s notoriously over-elaborate prose, fortunately enough, since Abe’s voice still dominates the narrative even when he is retelling Howard’s story for the reader. I will not give further details to avoid spoilers but suffice to say that fans of Lovecraftian horror will very definitely be pleased with the twists and turns that the plot takes on its way to the incredibly creepy ending.

Overall, The Fisherman is a delightfully creepy tale, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first. Abe’s narrative voice is a joy to read, snaring the reader in a seemingly harmless, rambling tale before plunging him or her into the best sort of Lovecraftian horror story woven around themes of love, grief, obsession, and how each fuels the other. The narrative style might be off-putting for some readers, while others might not like the plot’s nesting-doll, story-within-a-story structure, but aside from those issues (which are likely non-issues for a great many readers), this is an excellent story that encourages me to pick up more of the author’s work.
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Posted by: sleepwalkingdreamer at Nov 26th, 2018, 1:15 am in


TITLE: The Hunger
AUTHOR: Alma Katsu
GENRE: Horror, Historical
PUBLISHED: March 6, 2018
RATING: ★★★★


Cannibalism is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing, mostly because it is something humanity seems to almost instinctually revile. Yet, despite this truth, there are certain circumstances under which that revulsion can be overcome - such as when people have to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. There are many reports throughout history of people eating their fellows during famines or war, as well as when they are stranded somewhere isolated and cannot find food to keep them going. That was the case in 1972 when Uruguayan Flight 571 crashed in a remote part of the Andes. In the end, sixteen people were eventually rescued, and the incident is remembered in Latin America as El Milagro de los Andes, “The Miracle of the Andes,” despite the cannibalism that occurred.

In direct contrast to the above is the story of the Donner Party, the name given to the wagon train of pioneers who left Independence, Missouri in late-1846 intent on making it to the Oregon Territory in hopes of building new lives for themselves. But a series of mishaps, bad decisions, and disagreements led to the party first splitting into two groups, and then both groups getting stranded in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter with minimal supplies. When the survivors were rescued from the mountains and brought into California in the first months of 1847, tales of cannibalism came along with them, since many of the survivors had to resort to it to ensure their survival. Unlike the survivors of El Milagro de los Andes, however, the survivors of the Donner Party’s expedition were not viewed with awe and wonder; instead, many were viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, because they ate human flesh.

Alma Katsu’s novel The Hunger is a retelling of the Donner Party’s story. Told from the perspective of a host of different characters, the novel follows the wagon train as they make their fateful journey westward. But as things begin to fall apart at the seams and people begin to actually disappear, the members of the Party begin to wonder: Who or what is the cause of their misfortune? Is it Tamsen Donner, whom some group members believe to be a witch? Is it because of political maneuvering by the menfolk on who gets to lead the party? Or is it something else - something more sinister than politics or witchcraft, an evil that lurks in their midst, unseen and undetected, until far, far too late?

When I first decided to read this book, I knew next to nothing about the Donner Party save that The Oregon Trail video game was inspired by what happened to the group. Still, it was easy enough to look up online the main events of the Party’s history before diving headlong into the novel, and while I cannot say for certain just how accurate the author’s depiction of events is, it appears that she has done a lot of in-depth research, as the excerpt below suggests:
… “Two days ago, when we came across that abandoned trapper’s cabin…”

“Ash Hollow?’ Mary asked. She could still picture the tiny makeshift shack, boards bleached bone-white by the relentless prairie sun. A sad, lonely place, like the abandoned farmhouse she used to pass every Sunday on her way to service. Stripped nearly bare by the elements, dark empty windows like the hollow eye sockets of a skull, a stark reminder of another family’s failure. …

Elitha squeezed her eyes shut. “Yes. Ash Hollow. Did you go inside?”

Mary shook her head.

“It was filled with letters. Hundreds of them. Stacked on a table, held down with rocks. Mr. Bryant told me that pioneers leave them so that the next traveler heading east can take them to the first post office he sees.” …

Ash Hollow is a real place. Located in Nebraska, it was a popular pitstop for the wagon trains heading west, since the abundance of vital resources like wood and water made it an excellent place to refit and repair before continuing on the rest of the journey. The trapper’s cabin mentioned above also is real, though it took me a bit of looking around online to find any website that even mentions it outright. Based on this and other, sundry details, I think I can say that the author has done her due diligence in terms of research and that the historical details used for the setting and the plot are as accurate as they should be.

But this is a novel, not a straightforward non-fiction account of the Donner Party’s misfortune, and the author does an excellent job mingling the fictional aspects of this novel with the non-fictional parts through the characters and the plot.

I will start with the characters. Much of the story revolves around them, since the author fills in the gaps of the historical account by giving most of the characters, but most especially the female characters, intriguing and nuanced interior lives. Take the following excerpt, for example, which comes from the novel’s second chapter:
Tamsen liked to walk. It gave her time to look for herbs and plants she needed for her remedies; yarrow for fever, willow bark for headache. She was keeping track of flora she found in a journal, tucking in snippets of unfamiliar ones for study or experimentation.

Besides, walking gave the men an opportunity to admire her figure. What was the point of looking the way she did and having it to go waste?

And there was something else, too. When she was confined in a wagon all day she began to feel that clawing, discontented restlessness rise up inside her like a trapped animal, the way it used to back home. At least outside, the beast—the unhappiness—could roam and give her space to breathe and think.

… They’d been on the trail for a month and a half and Tamsen was agitated. She’d imagined the farther they moved west, the freer she would feel—she hadn’t anticipated the trapped sensation. … It had started out as an adventure, but now all she could think about was how tiresome it had become, and how much they’d left behind.

How much she’d left behind.

How the dark nag of want only grew with distance, instead of subsiding.

The above excerpt paints an interesting picture of Tamsen Donner, one that is neither simple nor straightforward - and it is a pattern that applies to a majority of the female characters who are also narrators, but to Tamsen Donner and Mary Graves, in particular. Through them, the reader understands what it was like to be a woman during that particular period in history (thus filling in some of the historical background for the reader), but also gives them concerns and troubles of their own - concerns and troubles that might echo with female readers in the real world. Tamsen’s “restlessness” is a good example of that; I am not certain as to the nature of her problem, but I can guess that it is some kind of psychological issue that she has simply coped with throughout her life the best she can.

Mary Graves’ concerns are just as interesting:
… When her father announced that they would be moving to California, she’d secretly been elated. She was tired of the small town she’d lived in since birth, where everyone knew about her family’s humble beginnings… People would always expect her to be exactly as they thought she was and would never let her be anything more. it was like trying to walk forward and finding that your head had been yoked in place.

When her fiancé was killed, her greatest sense was of relief. She knew her father had pinned everything on her planned marriage and the better circumstances it would have allowed all of them.

Her sister’s marriage had been practical, but it had also been one of love. For Mary, Franklin Graves had always had other plans, she knew. He’d always imagined she’d be the one to make the kind of advantageous match that would save them all. She could hardly count the many times he’d told her she was his only hope.

She could hardly count, either, the many times she’d wished Sarah had been born the prettier one and not her, the one on whose shoulders the others’ happiness rested.

Like Tamsen - and perhaps, like all those who migrated to the west - Mary is looking for an escape, though her reasons for wanting to escape are different from Tamsen’s. This is only as it should be; she is, after all, an entirely different person from Tamsen, with her own story (which is fleshed out, just as Tamsen’s is, in the novel via flashbacks) and her own issues with herself and those around her.

Though Tamsen and Mary are the ones who stood out for me while reading this novel, the author really takes the time to flesh out most of the characters. Getting to know them takes a while, but it is time well-spent as the reader gets to really know the characters and appreciate them for everything they are - and everything they are not. Some, like Charles Stanton and Edwin Bryant, immediately strike the reader as endearing, but quickly prove to be entirely flawed human beings. Others, like James Reed, come across initially as less likable but grow a bit more sympathetic over the course of the story. No one is a saint in this story, and part of the fun of reading the novel is uncovering all the dark secrets they are trying to leave behind by going West.

While developing the characters as much as the author does in this novel certainly has its benefits, it has some downsides as well - most notably, in terms of plot pace. This novel reads a lot longer than I’m used to for a horror novel; I did not mind that overmuch because most of the tension comes from the way characters interact with their fellows in light of the many challenges and pitfalls they encounter during the journey. Some readers, however, might consider this a deal-breaker, especially if they come into this novel expecting something more plot-oriented.

Incidentally, the true horror of this novel comes from those character interactions. The tension between the characters is already clear from the first chapter, but the author pulls that tension tighter in slow degrees, often during quiet moments when no one else is looking. The themes, too, become clearer as the tensions ratchet higher; threads connected to misogyny, racism, and classism are all in play in the story. Secrets build upon secrets as the wagon train continues on its journey, eroding the already-tenuous connections between the characters until it is utterly destroyed. In the meantime, flashbacks explain why certain characters joined the wagon train, while also providing hints as to the motivations guiding their actions in the novel’s present.

Clearly, this is a lot of story to control, and the author manages to do a fine job of it, even if sometimes it feels like the story has gotten bogged down in the minutia. It also means that the supernatural angle that might have drawn some readers to this book gets lost as well. Since the novel is driven by its characters and not the plot, the supernatural aspect is used very sparingly, mentioned only from time to time to create tension. I usually do not mind such an approach; I believe horror is most effective when the monster is kept out sight as much as possible so as to let the reader’s own imagination fill in the blanks for maximum terror. I suspect that is what the author was going for, but since it’s not really the monster that’s the source of the horror, the supernatural angle feels a little superfluous for this story.

This, in turn, affects the novel’s latter fourth, and not in a good way. The slower pace of the first three-fourths of the novel is left in the dust as the remainder of the story seems to careen its way through a host of revelations to reach the denouement. While the revelations are interesting, and say some interesting things about how the greatest evils of all are the ones that walk hidden in our midst, it all feels far too rushed - not least because the horror in the first three-fourths of the novel does not really come from the monster at all (though it is a contributing factor), but from the way the characters deal with each other in the midst of various crises. While it was good to finally know the real identity of the monster, the revelation did not feel quite as momentous as I think it could have been had the story been focused differently.

Overall, The Hunger is quite a good horror novel, but only if the reader knows what to expect when he or she goes into it, as the blurb can be rather misleading. If the reader is looking for a character-driven, historically-based, suspenseful story that uses some of the tropes of supernatural horror but does not lean on them full-bore, then he or she might enjoy this novel. Such readers may find the pace a bit too slow, but they will be rewarded with a richly-drawn setting and well-developed characters. But if the reader comes in expecting a full-blown supernatural horror novel, then he or she might be rather disappointed, especially since the plot moves far more slowly than most horror novels do. Still, if the reader is willing to take a chance, then perhaps he or she may find that he or she enjoys the novel a lot more than expected.
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Posted by: sleepwalkingdreamer at Oct 23rd, 2018, 11:50 pm in


TITLE: The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea
AUTHOR: Ellen Datlow (editor)
GENRE: Horror, Short Stories
PUBLISHED: March 20, 2018
RATING: ★★★★


Humanity simultaneously loves and fears the ocean. For every story that presents the ocean as a tropical idyll or a means to adventure, there are others that present its dangers. The movie Jaws is a powerful, visceral reminder of the threats that inhabit the ocean, and though Titanic is more known for its love story, it is also an excellent reminder of how thoroughly human hubris collapses in the face of the threats the ocean presents. Even being near shore does not guarantee safety, since people can and often do die of things like riptides and jellyfish stings. And this does not even take into consideration the things that lurk deep in the ocean’s depths, in the places where humans have yet to explore.

The Devil and the Deep is an anthology of fifteen short stories that play on the darker side of both the human psyche and the ocean itself. In the Introduction, editor Ellen Datlow states that the stories in the anthology “cover a range of aspects of the sea and the shores around it,” but that ultimately all these tales are about “people, and how they deal with the mysterious entity surrounding us.” And as might be expected from a short story anthology, some of the stories manage to achieve that goal with aplomb, while others don’t do so quite so handily. What follows are my reviews of each individual story, for better or for worse.

Deadwater - Simon Bestwick
It’s the absences that get you, with any death. The gaps, the depths, the holes people leave behind: they’re what we mean by ghosts.

Generally speaking it helps to open a short story anthology with a bang, but this story is more akin to a whimper than the grand opening an anthology ought to have. More a murder mystery than a horror story, the potential of this story lies in the protagonist’s identity: whether she is, or is not, some kind of supernatural entity. The overall flatness of her suggests something of the alien: as if she is holding the world at arm’s length because she doesn’t quite belong in it. That would have made her an interesting protagonist – or it may be a sign that she is simply not as well-developed as she ought to be. That is a possibility, too, though whether or not that is some fault of the author or the result of the constraint of the short story format is not something I can say for certain since I have never read any of the author’s other work prior to this. I hope it is the latter, rather than the former.

Either way, the protagonist/narrator’s lack of development means that this story is only mildly interesting for reasons that have no bearing on the story at all, such as its atmosphere and the resolution of the murder mystery plot. As I have said, this is more a whimper than the grand opening a short story anthology ought to have – although, as perhaps the weakest story in the anthology, it might have been a good idea to put it at the beginning, so that the reader can get it out of the way before it spoils the rest of the anthology.

Fodder’s Jig - Lee Thomas
He eyed me with a blatant fabrication of concern and stepped closer to the fireplace. I allowed him a moment to enjoy his petty jab, seeing the remarks for what they were. A tormenter’s lies. A fiction he hoped would infect and linger and sting. It was the shitty move of a bested bully.

When he turned to face me, he was smirking. Perhaps he was attempting a sympathetic smile. Perhaps not. Wolves often looked as if they were grinning as they circled their prey.

“Thank you for your concern,” I said. “But your father and I fucked a lot, Barry. I didn’t catch anything.”

This story was certainly more interesting than the preceding story – partly because it revolves around a gay couple and partly because of the monster at the heart of the story. There are moments that remind me of the rhetoric surrounding the early years of the AIDS epidemic: how people talked about the disease despite knowing so little about it, as well as the way gay people (HIV-positive or otherwise) were treated both within and without the gay community.

The connection to the ocean is somewhat tenuous, but I am willing to forgive that because the whole point of this story isn’t the horrors of the deep so much as it is the horrors of discrimination during times of crisis. It also helps that the horror, when it is revealed, is sufficiently creepy (and gross) to make up for how loosely it is linked into the rest of the story. All in all, this isn’t quite the story I was expecting it to be, but it was nevertheless a treat to read – especially coming off the first story in this series.

The Curious Allure of the Sea - Christopher Golden
A Coastie put a hand on Jenny’s shoulder, trying to prevent her from boarding the Rose, but a cop intervened and the hand vanished. Her heart broke with the force of her gratitude. She had to see for herself. her father had always known the sea would take his life, but he’d always said it gave him life, too, so that would only be fair.

It didn’t feel fair.

This was another treat to read, though it’s not so much creepy as eerie. It plays with the idea of people falling in love with the sea – and the thin line between love and obsession. In line with that, it also tackles what happens when obsession becomes so overpowering as to become inescapable, and what happens to those who are the focus of those obsessions.

But for all of that, this is a story that is more notable for the way it has been crafted than for anything to do with character development or themes. That does not in any way make it any less lovely to read, but it is an illustration of how a writer’s craft can work great wonders for a tale – especially in the short story format. I wish this had been the first story in this anthology; it is precisely the kind of tale that can hook a reader and encourage them to keep on reading.

The Tryal Attract – Terry Dowling
The skull sat on a thin, dark blue cushion atop a waist-high mahogany stand. True to Will’s word about it being “out of view,” it was now set in the north-west corner between the tall, all-points windows, facing me as I entered the modest tower room.

“So no impressionable school kids can see,” Will said good-naturedly.

Given the nature of the sea and the stories told around it, I was not expecting to get a straightforward ghost story, and yet here it is – and told quite well, at that. It’s not a very complicated one, to be sure, but the author has done some rather wonderful things to create tension and suspense so that the urge to keep on reading is almost irresistible. This story, like “The Curious Allure of the Sea”, is more notable for the way it is crafted than for character development, or its inherent themes. Again, that does not make this any less pleasant to read, but it is really more interesting for the way it tells a tale than for the tale itself.

The Whalers Song – Ray Cluley

Osvald had his head turned to a sound he’s caught. The men are quiet with him, trying to hear it themselves. Sebjørn hears only the sea, sweeping down the shore. Raking over rocks.

Osvald shakes his head. “It’s gone,” he says. “The wind,” he says.

But to Sebjørn he does not sound certain.

This was the first truly entertaining story I read in the anthology. It tackles the history of whaling, both past and present, and tangles that up with the concept of whale songs as siren songs to make an immensely intriguing tale that is haunting and evocative. There were decades when humanity all but wiped out several whale species from existence – decades humanity spent murdering a potentially sentient species. What could be the possible consequences of those events? What would happen should that sentient species learn to strike back against its aggressors? It is those questions, along with the evocative beauty of this story’s prose, that I find most enjoyable about this tale. I recommend reading this while listening to recordings of whale songs (sperm whales, specifically), for that added extra layer of otherworldly eeriness.

A Ship of the South Wind – Bradley Denton
“Maybe we’ll be lucky,” Uncle JoJim said. He turned back to squint at the approaching riders again. “Maybe these men won’t be crazy.”

Charley thought that was a strange thing to say, and he was about to ask Uncle JoJim what he meant. But then he too looked back at the riders, and saw that their horses had started to gallop.

“Speak only if they speak to you first,” Uncle JoJim said. “And be polite.”

I am not quite sure where this story was trying to go, except perhaps to tackle the deeply-embedded racism against Native Americans that has plagued the United States since the first white person landed on its shores hundreds of years ago. Read from that perspective it makes for a sufficiently entertaining story, but it does not feel like a good fit for this anthology.

What My Mother Left Me – Alyssa Wong
… I’m monstrous, beautiful.

For the first time in my life, I feel whole.

This is one of the anthology's truly standout stories. I am familiar with the stories of selkies: women who shed their skins to walk about on land, and who are forced to remain on land by fishermen who find their skins and hide them away, forcing the selkie to live with him as his wife. A selkie is a creature of the sea but rendered tame and harmless.

This story reverses that. The selkie in this story does not quietly submit to the men that try to control her; instead, she rebels, she fights back – and finds her way back home, having rediscovered her inner wildness, her inner monster. She leaves the land behind, along with all its familiar comforts, but it is a sacrifice she is willing to pay in exchange for her self-discovery. The selkie refuses to be the victim – even if it means becoming a monster.

Broken Record – Stephen Graham Jones
Maybe a century ago you could get marooned for months or years or ever, but not in the modern world, right? Not with satellites watching, not with ships crossing back and forth every hour. Not with there not being any more undiscovered islands. Not with Margo looking for him.

Surely she would be.

I was expecting a castaway story in this anthology, and this is almost exactly what I expected – but with no fresh twist to it. To be sure, there is something terrifying about the madness that sets in, about the coils the human mind can spin itself into when a person is alone, how the endless days seem to melt one into the other until it can be hard to tell them apart, but it doesn’t do anything new with the idea of the castaway. The only thing notable about this story is the craft of it: how it describes and portrays the descent into and the repetitive nature of madness, as well as the nature of despair, and how it is the gasoline that keeps the engine of madness running.

Saudade – Steve Rasnic Tem
“… But you may never have even possessed the thing, or the someone, before. The one you yearn for may be a complete fabrication. We Brazilians are passionate, and we are in love with—how do you say?—tragic frames of mind. Saudade is part of our national character. Saudade, I suspect, is why many of these people are here. They hunger for something, someone .What is it that you long for, Lee?”

Trigger warning: suicide

This is more a sad story than a scary one, though I suppose it might be considered scary for someone who fears being alone in his or her old age. Because that’s what this story is about: going through life even though there’s really nothing left to live for, surviving day to day because that’s what one is supposed to do, even if the reasons for doing so are long gone. There is also a reason for that trigger warning because as someone who has struggled with semi-regular bouts of suicidal ideation, this story encouraged some rather black and soothing thoughts while I was reading it – not a combination I recommend for anyone trying to pull himself or herself from the brink.

Still, for those who are not susceptible to such thoughts or are able to curb them, then this is quite a lovely tale, lonely with a darker underbelly.

A Moment Before Breaking – A.C. Wise
A memory, like a blade driven through her skull. Underwater, she lived underwater, and there were things like the thing in the tank, things with needle teeth, hissing at her, hurting her. There are too many people inside her skin. A sob, bigger than a tidal wave, threatens to overwhelm her. Her entire body shakes—a cage, rattled from within.

In troubled times, it is always children who suffer. It doesn’t matter what kind of trouble is in the air; inevitably, it is the children who pay the highest price. And in our current reality of Presidentially-sanctioned “drug wars” and detention centres for “illegals”, children continue to pay a high price for a reality they had no part in creating and most assuredly do not deserve.

That is what this story is about: the price children pay when they are used by adults for their own ends – and the kind of anger that can produce, what kind of havoc that can lead to. It is also a sad, heartbreaking story, about two children who undergo immense suffering but somehow, someway, find comfort and solace in each other. This is another of the standout stories in this anthology, and very much a gem of a tale.

Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show You to the Sea – Seanan McGuire
I am not unlovable. No one is unlovable. Many people say that I’m a good and valuable human being, the sort of person they’d like to have on their team when they need to get something done. I’m not unlovable, I’m not.

Sibling relationships are complicated and intense – mostly because it is almost impossible to escape one’s siblings. Sometimes they can turn out for the better, but sometimes they can turn out terrible.

This story shows just how badly sibling relationships can sour. The horror aspect is interesting of course (unsurprising, given that Seanan McGuire is also Mira Grant), but what is most intriguing about this story is the unreliable nature of the narrator. She protests quite strongly that she is a good person, that she acknowledges she has done her sister wrong and that she has tried to make amends – but since the reader does not hear from the wronged sibling, he or she cannot be sure if what the narrator is saying is actually true. It is up to the reader to decide if the narrator’s actions are appropriate – but even then, there is always that lingering question of doubt, about whether or not the reader’s approval is justified or not, and that can be just as terrifying as what the narrator does to her sister. This is another gem of the anthology and one that I read with relish.

The Deep Sea Swell – John Langan
“Will you stop?” Alan said, rapping the armrest again.

“You and your superstitions.”

“The middle of the ocean is not the place to test them.”

She supposed he had a point.

I have never been on a cruise ship before, but I have been on a yacht a few times in my life, and the cramped quarters below-decks can be quite eerie at night. I can easily imagine multiplying that tenfold for a cruise ship or ferry – and the kinds of nightmares that environment can breed in anyone with a healthy imagination.

It is that eeriness and the claustrophobic environs of the lower decks that the author uses to excellent effect in this story, enhancing it with tales of strange tides and lost civilisations: a delicious Lovecraftian thread that I am surprised did not appear in more stories in this anthology, given the nature of many of the Elder Gods in the Cthulhu mythos, to say nothing of Cthulhu himself. As a fan of Lovecraftian fiction, this story has whetted my appetite for more of this author’s work, and I really have to see about acquiring some more of his stories to read at another time.

He Sings of Salt and Wormwood – Brian Hodge
The deeper he sank, the more the pressure became like the slow tightening of a fist that would never relax. It had taken some reframing of the changes it made, seeing them as comforting rather than distressing. This is what happens down here. This is normal, another version of normal. No big deal, just the mammalian dive reflex: shifts of physiology so distinct, so foreign out of the water, so automatic in it, they could recalibrate a lifetime of thinking after a dive or two. Maybe we really do belong here.

Speaking of “Lovecraftian”, this is the other story in the anthology that has a distinct feel of that particular subgenre of horror. It has more or less the same nods to it as “The Deep Sea Swell” – hints of a lost civilisation, strange behaviour, and artefacts connected to the sea – but plays with them in an entirely different manner.

This story is also a meditation on whether or not humans belong in the sea at all, whether we ought to keep pushing into it or whether we ought to just stay on land where we belong. Even better, the main character is Hawaiian and a surfer-turned-free diver: a person, therefore, with a deep and intimate relationship with and connection to the sea. This combination of elements makes for an entertaining story – and the reveal in the climax will probably have readers looking askance at driftwood for a good long while.

Shit Happens – Michael Marshall Smith
There was a sudden and very loud growling sound, evidently from the guy’s guts. Then a splashing noise.

And then—wow.

I mean, holy cow. One of the worst stenches I’d ever experienced. Maybe the worst. There’s that saying about how your own farts never smell as bad as other people’s, but seriously. This was bad.

I think everyone is susceptible to a little prurient humour every now and then, and this story certainly fits that bill if the reader is in the mood for such tales. I don’t think there is anything deeper to this story than pure entertainment, especially since it’s not all that scary and appears to have been written to poke fun at the trouble (gastrointestinal or otherwise) people can get into when they are on a cruise ship or at a conference. As pure entertainment, though, it functions exceptionally well, and readers who have had similar experiences to the narrator will likely find themselves smirking and nodding along – if bad and/or embarrassing memories don’t catch up to them first.

Haunt – Siobhan Carroll
The wind died. The sun stood overhead, vertical and bloody. Still the Minerva did not sink.

Swift’s throat was beginning to ache with thirst. He fumbled for a still-damp corner of his whiter. Tilting it to his mouth, he succeeded in squeezing free a drop or two.

“This is how it starts,” the Gunner said, watching him. … “When we are driven to drink salt water, that’s when the destruction comes.”

The oceans of the world are a mass grave – and many of those who died there, especially in the Atlantic, did so because they were forced to cross the sea against their will, enslaved to masters who cared nothing for their well-being except where it would turn a profit. While this is a ghost story, and can be scary because of that supernatural element, what is even more terrifying is what lies at the heart of it all: the atrocities committed during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The events portrayed in this story are largely historically accurate – and that, I think, is the true horror: that humans were able to perpetrate these atrocities on other humans. This story is an excellent way to close out the anthology, and more than makes up for the first one in the anthology with its depth and richness.

Overall, The Devil and The Deep is an eminently readable anthology of short stories, even though not all the stories are as interesting or enjoyable as they could be. Still, the gems that are in here, like “What My Mother Left Me”, “A Moment Before Breaking”, “Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show You to the Sea”, “The Deep Sea Swell”, “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood”, and “Haunt” balance out the other stories that do not quite shine as brightly as I or other readers might like them to. Many of the authors in this anthology have also been published previously, and quite a few have written longer works like novellas and novels, so if the reader finds he or she enjoys the work of a particular author in this anthology, then he or she will likely have luck finding longer works by said author to enjoy.
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Posted by: WordDiva at Sep 30th, 2018, 11:44 am in


TITLE: Jamie Cooks Italy
AUTHOR: Jamie Oliver
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Festive & Seasonal Dishes, Cookbooks
PUBLISHED: August 9, 2018
RATING: ★★★★★
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Posted by: sleepwalkingdreamer at Sep 3rd, 2018, 5:31 am in


TITLE: Raven Stratagem (Machineries of Empire #2)
AUTHOR: Yoon Ha Lee
GENRE: Fiction, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2017
RATING: ★★★★★
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