Chris' Fish Place

Thoughts on things, mostly books.

 

 

                             

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Haunted House Square

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting - Brent Monahan

Before I start the review proper, I should note that one really get thing about this audio book was the reader. He was great.

The Bell Witch is a famous American haunting. Monahan claims that this is an account written by Richard Powell who married Betsy Bell, the young woman who was one of the people haunted by the Bell Witch. So this is one of those fact mixed with fiction books that yanks my chain.

The problem with the claim is that the narrative doesn't quite make sense and is put in a vaccum. I think the conclusion is interesting, but Powell's narrative leaves out certain details, like all the time he was crushing on Betsy he was married. While a narrative written to your daughter wouldn't mention that, if this was truly a work of non-fiction shouldn't the editor note that?

And if you don't, why don't you edit out the problematic language?

And those are major problems. And yet, I wonder if this version isn't simply about gender and victimhood. Considering that the teller is a man who married a girl who is younger enough to be his daughter and who he has been in love with since she was 12, he is, in fact, a bit of predator. Considering her parent's history this too is rather interesting. So I wonder if that is the deeper point here - a point about gender and abuse.

80s Horror Square

Ghostly Tales & Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh - Alan J. Wilson, Des Brogan, Frank McGrail

Published 1989

 

This slim volume is a good collection of true stories from Old Edinburgh.  There are murders and ghosts aplenty.  The stories are quite creepy.

Amateur Sleuth Square

The Hindenburg Murders - Max Allan Collins

Collins series about murders during famous disaters is actually quite good.  This one concerns the the Hindenburg and our hero is the writer of the Saint stories.  In part, this allows Collins to use a little bit of the James Bond lust idea, but also it does make for some interesting asides.  

 

The mystery itself is rather interesting, and Collins does make it believable as well as using it to comment on the rise of the Nazis.

Classic Horror Square

Mrs. Zant and the Ghost - Wilkie Collins, Gillian Anderson

Anderson as a reader is rather interesting. At one point, I was like, "I'm not sure how I feel about this voice" and then I was like, "There it is".  

 

So, this is Collins' ghost story about a woman who may be haunted.  It's a good ghost story, and unlike his contemporary, Dickens, Collins does write women rather well and with sympanthy.  The story makes use of some of the tension that makes Uncle Silas by LeFanu work so well.

Vampire Square - Tomb of Dracula

Tomb of Dracula (1972-1979) #1 - Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Neal Adams

This is the first issue of a Marvel series that brings Dracula to the 1970s.  It is very Hammer House of Horror, and somewhat predictable if you have read comics from the 50s or 70s  - those horror comics.  It's not bad and somewhat enjoyable.  I love the credits square at the start of the comic.

 

Its a standard romantic triangle vampire tale.

Out Nov 7 2017

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition (A Merloyd Lawrence Book) - Stephen R. Bown
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


For some reason, I like reading books about white men going into cold places and dying. Except Norwegians, for some reason my brain believes Norwegians should always make it out alive. I’m not sure why, but it does. I blame National Geographic Museum in Washington DC for all this because I saw an exhibit there about Scott and Amundsen. 

This book is about a Russian trek, led by a Dane Vitus Bering (yes, that Bering). Truthfully, when we read about those treks, at least in the Eastern part of American, we tend to focus solely on the British during crazy things. It was refreshing, therefore to read about Russians doing crazy things. It should be noted that I am not an expert on this topic.

Brown does a very good in keeping the reader engaged. First, he sets up the scene, allowing the read to understand the circumstances that the large group of men were dealing with. Unlike the British, the Kamchatka Expedition had to deal with official who had little desire to help the leaders, making food and supplies difficult. The failure of the expedition, it seems, was also that due to politics.

Brown doesn’t hesitate to illustrate the flaws of some of the members of the expedition, but he also shows the good points. In particular, is Stellar who is at once infuriating, yet he is vital to the survival of those who make it. 

Perhaps that is the greatest strength of this history – unlike many such book it doesn’t play favorites but presents humanity struggling in a dangerous situation of its own making.
 
 

 

Horror Square

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy - Daniel Kalder

So this is going to count for the horror square on bingo because that whole bear was freaky.

 

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I have to admit, I almost didn’t request this title from Netgalley. It wasn’t that the topic, a study of works by dictators, didn’t sound interesting. It did, but there also seemed a possibility for dryness, and I really wasn’t in the mood. But I requested it anyway.

I am very happy I did. Mr. Kalder, I am sorry for thinking it would be dry.

Honesty, you know you are in good hands when the book starts, “This is a book about dictator literature – that is to say, it is a book about the canon of works written or attributed to dictators. As such, it is a book about some of the worst books ever written, and so was excruciatingly painful to research.”

Kalder took one for the team, and quite frankly, we should repay him by reading this book.

The book isn’t so much literary criticism; though Kalder does not shy away from calling a bad book a bad book. For instance, on The Green Book, “it is not merely boring, or banal, or repetitive, or nonsensical, although it is certainly all those things. It is quite simply, stupid . . . “.

And he is fair, for Kalder notes of Mussolini’s bodice ripper (which isn’t really one apparently) that it is readable.

His survey of literature starts with the Russian revolution and includes present day dictators. Kalder is also as funny as, well, Monty Python.

What Kalder does is look at not only what the writings reveal about the dictators, but also why people didn’t take the books seriously as warnings of things to come. He points out that some people should have known better. He also connects it to the thinking and control process, showing how the works did reflect the personality of each man (and they are all men). He also addresses the weird beliefs that make their way into the books – Hussain had strange ideas about bears.

The book is an entertaining journey into some really strange minds that produced some really bad literature. Luckily for the reader, Kalder read it for us.

So, what did you all think of the Star Wars trailer?

Question about the word female

What is it about the use of the word female?  Why is it being used more?  What the hell is this all about?  Seriously.  Look, I've seen people, men and women , write "men and females".  For me, using male and female to refer to people is like you are refering to them like animals.  A female dog, for instance, because you don't want to say bitch.  And female gets tossed around far more than male.  What the hell?

Romantic Suspense Square

Lie to Me: A Fast-Paced Psychological Thriller - J.T. Ellison

My Book Box mystery selection.

I want to thank My Book Box because I doubt I would have picked this up on my own. So whoever made the selection, good job.

Ellison's novel ties the story about two relatively unlikable people who struggle though a rough patch in thier marriage. Neither Ethan or Sutton is particularly worthy of the title hero, though anti-hero would be apt. The character you root for is the cop Holly, who is caught up in thier lives simply because it is her job.

It's a brave book because of that. I like the format with the chapters that shift focus.

American Horror Story Square

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI - David Grann

Look, everything you have heard about this book is true. You need to read it. It isn't really about murder and the birth of the FBI, though that is the compelling aspect of the story. It is really about the American government and society have treated Native Americans (or First Peoples). The book is engaging and quite frankly, the history that it covers should be taught in school. Thank you David Grann for writing this book.

Audio book performance is good and makes good use of three voices for the three parts.

Out Now

Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History - Eric Foner, Randall Kennedy

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

                As I am writing this review, CNN is reporting on the recent shooting in Las Vegas as well as the destruction in Puerto Rico.  I live in a country where a president at the very least gives the impression of lacking basic geographic knowledge, human politeness, and empathy.  A large segment of the population seems angry that brown people protest, peacefully protest, during a song but not as mad about the mass shooting of innocent concert attendees.

                It’s hard not to crawl under the bed and read until the next election, isn’t it?

                If you are going to do that, and even more so if you are not going to do so, you should read this collection of Foner’s essays that span is career.

                Foner essays cover much, but at the heart of the work is the question of freedom, the right and need to debate as well as to a degree the need to challenge the status quo.   He discusses the justification behind college admissions systems as well as the need to challenge the standard view on history.  For instance, he discusses a show in the Smithsonian American Museum of Art that challenge the artistic view of the West, pointing out Remington’s view of minorities.  There is also a good essay about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

                But perhaps the most important essays in this collection are those about the Civil War, the South, and Lincoln.  Not only does Foner discuss the use of revisionist history designed to make slavery a secondary issue (as well as the issue of Texas textbooks).  His direct analysis of those statues is also very important, pointing out the true reason for the erection of the statues.

                This is a very timely and important collection.

                Maybe HBO should give him a show.

Murder Most Foul Square

Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness - Lisa Appignanesi

This book details three trials in depth, with a few others in general terms.  The guiding principle is how juries and the media responded to the excuse of passion.  It is an interesting read.

Diverse Square (Spoilers)

The Tiger's Daughter - K. Arsenault Rivera
** spoiler alert **
 
 
Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Tor as part of a Librarything giveaway/first read program. Also, spoilers.

I wanted to love this book. When I first started reading the novel, it was exactly what I needed. A novel where the chosen one or ones is/are female, I so need that, especially with all the movies and shows about men doing great things. The book drew me in right away, and the first night I did not want to put it down. The second day, I still enjoyed it, but I was a little confused by a few things – one of which was the setting and character names. The setting seemed to be a fantastical China. There was a wall that the mother of one of the characters destroyed. There seems to be one society that is de facto Chinese, and another that is de facto Mongol. There are steppes on the map for crying out aloud. The strange thing was that some of the names seemed to be Japanese. But I am not an expert on Japanese or Chinese culture. To be honest, the only reason I noticed that Japanese influence was because I had read Johnson, Dalkey, and the Tale of Heike. I do know, however, that any combination of Chinese and Japanese cultures (or any Asian culture with another for that matter) is problematic for several reasons, including what happened during WW II. 

Then I read Laurelinvanyr’s review where she goes into detail about the problems with the names used in the novel as well as other cultural issues. I strongly suggest any potential reader of the book reads that review. It’s true that a counter to many of the points that Laurelinvanyr makes would be the simple “it is a fantasy setting that has been inspired by various cultures” excuse that is used for more than fantasy novels. It is also true that this is not the only book that has inaccuracies. Hell, you even get them in a book that is set in say America but written by a Brit. At the very least, there is not enough world building to account for the combination. Laurelinvanyr’s more knowledgeable review goes into far more detail about this problem (and there are other reviews that mention the same issues but in less detail. There is hardly only one review that raises the questions of bad research, cultural approbation and fetishism). Additionally, it is possible/very likely that the use of language and cultural comments by some characters was there to show racism between the Empire and Qorin. The problem is that racism is never really direct dealt with, at least on the part of the Qorin and not really very well in the Empire.

In addition to the question about the world building, there are other problems with the book, that are glaring from a structural and storytelling point of view only.

It is impossible to discuss these without spoilers, so this is your last spoiler warning.

The first problem is the conceit – the idea that whole book is one very long letter that one heroine writes to the other. This works in the beginning but makes no sense later on because why would you write such a detailed letter to someone who was there and experiencing most of what are you writing about with you? You wouldn’t. Not in such a detailed way. (There also is a section where it seems to take a character two years to make a bow, seriously). If this was an actual exchange of letters this would be different, but it isn’t.

The second problem is that because you know the letter is being written after the events described, you know the two central characters are going to be okay. This lack of tension might be replaced with the tension regarding whether they are going to get their happy ever after. Normally, it would be, but the question of whether love can overcome the forced separation is dealt with so quickly that there isn’t any. Not really.

To be honest, the second half of the book feels like little more than a set-up for the second volume. Part of the draw of the first part of the book is the idea that both heroines are somehow divine. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it explains the powers that each girl has (though one power is more developed). The second is it explains why despite the young age of both heroines (both are under eighteen for the whole book), they act so much older, for there is a long tradition in epics, regardless of culture, for such divine or semi-divine heroes to be older than their years. This semi-divine status seems forgotten when one of the characters becomes vampire like (something that most say they are frightened of but no one acts like it). It is to seek a cure for this problem that one woman journeys to what seems to be an Underworld. Sounds interesting, no? Happens entirely off page and is most likely a hook for the second novel in the series. But why would you read that when you know she succeeds? It was a total cheat of an ending.

And finally, there were two smaller things that disquieted me. The first is the relationship between an older woman and a young woman. It is unclear whether they are another lesbian couple, it is strongly suggested that they are. I don’t care that they are couple because of their gender. I have a problem with an adult, in this an aunt, sleeping with niece. I just do. Not only does violate the incest taboo that many culture, fantasy and otherwise, have, but quite frankly, there is something off putting by someone who is family member who helped raise you, taking you as a lover. I hate this when it is a man and woman relationship, and I still hate it when it is a woman/woman one. Sorry. Additionally, there is an incident of spousal abuse. One character is possessed/dealing with vampire traits when she attacks her girlfriend. That’s fine. It’s an interesting idea as is the struggle to contain the vampire cravings. Handled well it would have been a good thing to explore. But nope, everyone, even the woman who was almost struggled, seems to get over it in a few pages.

Promising start. Disappointing ending.


 
 

 

Out Nov 1, 2017

A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy - Mary W. Craig

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

 

                Perhaps the first thing one learns about Mara Hari is that she was dancer and a slut.  Then, perhaps one learns she was a slut because she danced naked and slept with a great many men.  Then one hears that she was spy and was shot for it.  But the important thing that one is told is that she was very, very sexy.  In fact, she seems to be the spy that gets remembered not so much because of the doubt of her guilt, but because she was a sexpot.

 

                She also wasn’t a very good spy.  She got caught after all.

 

                Mary W. Craig’s new book tries to present a more nuanced picture of Mata Hari, or at least as much as one can giving the problem of sources.

 

                Margrethe Zell was born in the Netherlands, where she lived until her marriage took her to the Dutch East Indies.  Her early life, Craig points out, was nice until her father suffered a major loss in business.  What then followed as an unclear life plan and, what today, we would consider at the very least statutory rape – an affair with an instructor.   Craig’s details about Hari’s early life -  her struggles after the family bankruptcy and her time spent with relatives are related in a matter of a fact way.  There is pity in Craig’s writing, but Craig isn’t turning the biography into a more sinned against than sinning story.  Hari isn’t portrayed as a victim, but as a woman who took control of her life.

 

                Or if she is, she is doing it by taking a brutally honest about Mata Hari.

 

                Nowhere is this more obviously in the discussion of Zell’s marriage with MacLeod.  It is a marriage that produced two children, possibly infected Zell with an STD, and was abusive.  While not excusing MacLeod’s behavior, Craig also places the man in context, in particular with his treatment of Hari after separation and divorce, noting that MacLeod’s actions had more to do with protecting his daughter than anything else.

 

                Hari was no saint, and in addition to her sexual activities (less shocking today than when Hari lived), Craig does closely examine and places Hari’s dancing in the times.  The discussion of whether Hari was lying or promoting a fantasy with her “Eastern” dancing.  How much of her dancing was imply an illusion that everyone brought into, like the body stocking she wore?  Craig can’t give a definite answer but she does truly address the issue, even reading books about Hari that were published during the height of her popularity.

 

                Craig, in part, is hampered by the self-serving purpose of some her sources (and she is clear about this) as well as a lack of sources.  Yet, despite these drawbacks, Craig does paint an interesting, more revealing portrait of a woman who is usually known simply for sex.

So

So I am kinda thinking I have to start watching American Football as a method of Resistance to the Orange One.  Damnit!