Books

Not full book reviews, but recommendations, impressions and random thoughts.

Herbert in Italy

Herbert West is about to manifest in an Italian-made web and TV series, and eventually a feature film. Yet another incarnation of this fascinating character, in addition to H.P. Lovecraft’s original, the “Re-Animator” movies directed by Stuart Gordon and featuring Jeffrey Combs, and, of course, the series of novels by one Audrey Driscoll.

Everyone knows and loves the masterful 1985 horror comedy Re-Animator. Directed by Stuart Gordon and produced by Brian Yuzna and Charles Band, the proudly unrated sex and splatter shocker based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, won the hearts of horror fans and mainstream critics and put Gordon on the map. And now, 32 years later, an intrepid band of Italians are reviving the source story for a web and TV series.
Read more at http://www.comingsoon.net/horror/news/858595-re-animator-is-now-an-italian-series#8oLxm0Y15ivjPC9i.99

Death… is just the beginning.

A Noteworthy New Garden Book

 

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury.

Next to gardening, reading about gardening is a unique pleasure. But finding truly readable garden books is not always easy. Reference-type books, with how-to-do-it instructions, or descriptions of plants and their preferred growing conditions, may be useful, but are not entertaining to read. These are books I consult standing up, with garden gloves stuffed in my pocket and a project of some sort half-done outside.

Readable garden books are to be savoured in winter, or when it’s too dark to do real gardening. They are written by dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners who are also good writers. Like the best fiction books, they become reliable friends.

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury lives up to its subtitle: “the natural and cultural history of the plants in your garden.” It presents a lot of information in its 368 pages. It is arranged by genus, in alphabetical order, but each section is an essay, covering genetics, evolution, distribution, botanical characteristics, and history in cultivation. This last includes discovery, medicinal and religious uses, breeding, cultivars and fashions. Kingsbury’s informal writing style delivers facts in a congenial, readable manner. It was a revelation to me that the genus name Alchemilla derives from Arabic for “alchemy,” because of the way water droplets cupped in the leaves shine like mercury. Apparently, medieval alchemists believed this water to be especially pure and gathered it for their procedures.

The book’s extensive introduction includes valuable information about plant classification, evolution, ecology, habits and habitats, as well as a history of plant cultivation from ancient and early historical times (dubbed “before glass”) to the modern era (“after glass”). Another surprise for me was how many varieties created by plant breeders have vanished from cultivation over the years, after falling out of fashion, or because growing them became too troublesome or costly. Perhaps we are in a sort of “post glass” era?

Illustrations are drawn largely from botanical art and historical nursery catalogues, which are interesting and/or charming, but the pictures I appreciated most are those of plants in their natural habitats — hostas and daylilies growing wild in Japan, delphiniums in Kyrgyzstan, colchicums in Turkey, lupins in Washington State.

This is a fairly large volume, almost a coffee-table book, and quite heavy. It doesn’t pass the bath-bed-bus-beach test, but the depth and richness of its contents make it a book I will be content to sit down at a table and read, now and for years to come.

Local Author Book Review #13: Deception Bay by Lea Tassie

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Greater Victoria Public Library (in Victoria, British Columbia) launched its third Emerging Local Authors Collection on May 4th. I have already finished reading a book from it!

Here is the description from the back cover:

To a tourist, the sleepy village of Deception Bay appears to be an idyllic, peaceful retreat, anything but deceptive. But Larry, a bartender in the old, quaint, ivy-covered inn, and Brenda, his realtor buddy, know better. They discover the secrets lurking below the surface, such as who attends the occult meetings and who committed the unreported rape. They can guess who lit the mysterious fire, though there’s no proof, and they discover the motives of the man who is definitely not what he seems to be. And they are not above starting a few rumors of their own to make the local news more interesting!

I picked up this book expecting to read a cozy mystery. Small town, secrets, crimes and rumors — cozy mystery, right? Wrong. Although it shares some elements with that genre, this book is about relationships — between parents and children, spouses and ex-spouses, friends, and people and their community.

The story is told in first person by the two main characters, Larry the bartender and Brenda the realtor, in alternating chapters. Each of them faces a series of problems which they share with one another, usually over drinks. There’s a lot of drinking in this book — endless gin and tonics (with lemon slices) for Brenda, beer, spirits and wine for others. Alcohol, in fact, is a major plot lubricant. The reader may wish to avoid vicarious driving after reading it.

The plot, like life in this village on Vancouver Island’s east coast, progresses at a leisurely pace. Nothing resembling a true crisis appears until the halfway point, but I was happy to wander through the spring and summer days with Larry and Brenda to discover how matters are resolved as autumn begins.

Author Lea Tassie lives in the region in which this book is set, and she knows whereof she speaks.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

 

A Big Read

I bought a copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead (the translation by E.A. Wallis Budge) a couple of years ago, when I was thinking about writing a novel set in Egypt. It sat around gathering dust until last week, when I started reading it in the hope that it would pump up some enthusiasm for that work in progress, which so far consists of a measly 10,000 words.

This book was first published more than a century ago, so easing into it via a 2008 introduction by archaeologist John Romer was helpful. The intro warned me that Budge had rendered the Egyptian texts into the English of the Bible — King James version — full of  “thees” and “thous” and verbs ending in “eth.” This reminded me of my intention, some years ago, to read the Bible, which never really got off the ground. Not too promising.

But I was surprised and intrigued to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien “described the inhabitants of Middle Earth as ‘best pictured in Egyptian terms’,” with helmets apparently modeled on some pictured in vignettes from Budge’s Book of the Dead. Hard to believe, but fascinating. Another surprise was that the structure of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake follows that of the Book of the Dead. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner also found something worthwhile in it; then there’s Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. All in all, it seems that quite a few writers have found inspiration in this tome.

I’ve already noted quite a few pages with exciting stuff that has made me rethink some of the fundamental premises of my barely-started WIP. I’m excited about realizing these ideas in words; to do that, of course, I’ll have to write my way to that point.

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Notes for the work in progress and the Book of the Dead

And I haven’t even started reading the actual texts. The various introductions and prefaces and table of contents total ccxliv pages. (That’s 244 for those out of practice with Roman numerals). I’m only on page cxlviii (148). When I finally get to page 1 there will be 697 more. I’ll be immersed in this antique milieu for some time.

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Parts of Chapters 26 and 27

The printing even looks old-fashioned, somehow, full of parenthetical and bracketed stuff and bristling with footnotes. I actually need glasses to read it. In his introduction, Romer advises the reader “to slide through its texts as one might read Finnegan’s Wake, marvelling all the while at the expansive scholarship, and at the lilt and span of its exotic prose.”

Indeed. I’ve never tackled Finnegan’s Wake. I hope to slide, rather than struggle.

Comfort Reading

You know how sometimes you just want “comfort food?” No fancy stuff, no fretting about nutritional balance, just something simple, starchy and familiar.

It’s the same with books. When I’m dealing with something difficult, or am just fed up with the complications and nastiness of the world, I want to read something low-key and predictable. No tension, no conflict, no edginess or dark themes. It’s more than escapism; when even fictional adventures in an imaginary world with its own history and rules are too stressful, I want to send my battered mind into a safe, quiet space where I know exactly what’s going to happen. Spoilers are definitely not an issue.

The degree of tension and turmoil — present and anticipated — in the world these days makes ordinary life challenges, such as interpersonal rubs, illnesses and the losses inflicted by time, harder to bear. Books may be applied like compresses to these psychic sores.

Books for comfort reading are found in all genres, with the possible exception of those requiring violence and gore, although if such a book is dear and familiar, it might just do the trick. That’s the thing about books — the choice is an intensely personal one.

Cozy mysteries are often just the thing. Sure, there are dead bodies, but they are presented in contexts that are, well, cozy, and often furnished with characters ranging from charming to quirky. In the past couple of months, I found myself re-reading the Needed Killing Series by indie author Bill Fitts. The five books are described as “cozy mysteries with a Southern flair.” The pace is slow, the mysteries are just puzzling enough, and they all include animals (cats and dog) as significant characters. The plots always involve a lot of food, so you can vicariously enjoy good cooking (and drinks) while you read. Gentle distractions for a troubled mind.

You’ll notice I mentioned re-reading. That’s the key to comfort reading. When even fictional troubles seem like too much, it’s time to visit the bookshelf of rubbed and tattered books that are like old slippers, or old friends.

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Local Author Book Review #12: Hunter’s Daughter by Nowick Gray

This book is part of the 2016 Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

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From the back cover:

Northern Quebec, 1964: Mountie Jack McLain, baffled by a series of unsolved murders, knows the latest case will make or break his career. Eighteen-year-old Nilliq, chafing under the sullen power of her father in a remote hunting camp, risks flight with a headstrong shaman bent on a mission of his own. Their paths intersect in this tense mystery charting a journey of personal and cultural transformation.

Despite the reference to murder and a Mountie, and the word “mystery” above, this book is not a conventional “murder mystery.” Instead, it’s a character-driven, in-depth examination of cultural and personal change in Canada’s arctic. While the murders propel the plot, the substance of this book is a complicated dance of the principal characters, examining relationships and events from different points of view.

Sections narrated in first person by Jack McLain alternate with third-person chapters related from the point of view of Nilliq. This is entirely appropriate, since the author is a white man whose experience of the North was several years of teaching in Quebec Inuit villages. He does not presume to speak with the voice of an Inuit woman, but makes a great effort to represent her culture accurately. All other characters are seen through the eyes of these two; in some cases the same events and people. Rather than repetitious, I found these reiterations helpful in solidifying my understanding of events and relationships.

McLain and Nilliq are people in transition. He knows his term of service is coming to an end, due to imminent bureaucratic changes. Disillusioned with trying to administer justice in a rapidly changing and idiosyncratic cultural situation, but without any solid prospects elsewhere, McLain is a somewhat sad figure, an intelligent and well-meaning individual who too easily sees the dark side of things, but with a fundamental love for the northern way of life. Nilliq teeters on the edge of womanhood, increasingly aware of the exploitation of women by the men around them, and longing for wider horizons. Opposing them and one another are the enigmatic hunter and shaman who calls himself Wallin, although he also has other names, and the menacing figure of Nilliq’s father Sandlak.

The prose is spare and direct, tracing the narrative in a linear way, but permitting the characters to show background complexities in their interactions and conversations, finally taking the reader to a point where the issue of the murders is largely resolved, allowing the main characters to move on to new situations.

Hunter’s Daughter is a tale well told, with special relevance and interest at this time when many Canadians are trying to learn more about their country’s native peoples.

My rating: 9/10 stars.

An Almost Local Author Book Review: Adventure on Whalebone Island by M. A. Wilson

A while ago I decided to write reviews of some of the books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at my public library. There were strict geographical criteria as to what constituted “local.” Michael Wilson, the author of Adventure on Whalebone Island, lives outside of the defined area, but I think I can bend the rule (this is my blog, after all), to include a resident of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where the book is set.

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The book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Here is a brief description:

Ryan and Kendra have come to Maple Harbour on the BC coast to spend their summer holidays with their aunt and uncle. They’re expecting a leisurely holiday swimming and playing on the beach with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Claire, however, has other ideas – exploring islands in her sailboat and searching for sunken treasure. But what’s hidden on mysterious Whalebone Island? Have the four of them come across a secret that others don’t want discovered? Join these four intrepid adventurers and their fearless dog Meg in the summer escapade of a lifetime!

The story is simple and straightforward, with the main focus being a series of adventures. The children get re-acquainted, go swimming, sailing and enjoying the natural world. In the course of these activities, each of them has to deal with challenges involving self-confidence, getting along with others and learning new things. The action intensifies when they start looking for a sunken boat and survive a storm at sea, seeking shelter on Whalebone Island. While camping on the island, they encounter unexpected hazards presented by a group of criminals. Each child must call upon their inner resources to extract themselves and each other from dangerous situations.

The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another to give most readers someone to identify with. The situations are realistic and plausible, but the world in which these kids live is essentially a safe and secure one. There is no family dysfunction, corrosive personal anxiety or urban grittiness. This is a sunny adventure, perfect for entertaining its intended audience, who may also vicariously enjoy a lot of good food while reading about the meals and treats partaken of by the four adventurers.

The elements of this book — pre-teen children on a summer holiday, small sailboats, camping on an island, a quest for treasure, unexpected hazards — necessarily reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s books. Adventure on Whalebone Island may be favourably compared with those classics, incorporating the key elements in a present-day setting on the coast of British Columbia. One difference is these children inhabit the same world as the adult characters. There is no attempt on their part to create an alternate reality like the kids in the “Swallows and Amazons” stories. This is not a fault, but having made the comparison, I thought it worth mentioning.

The illustrations, by Vadym Prokhorenko, are notable for their elegant simplicity.

Further information, including purchase links, may be found at the website of Rainy Bay Press.

This review is based on a review copy of the ebook version.