Monday, August 28, 2023

Holy Ghosts - Fiona Snailham

Regardless of the actual date and the occasional properly hot moment in the sun it already feels like autumn around here - there's a chill to the mornings and a quality to the light that says summer is done with. It's suddenly properly dark before I'm ready for it as well - and all of that means a renewed interest in Weird tales, though it would be a stretch to say my interest in these ever really diminishes even through the hottest days - and the British Library collection is killing it with the current selection of titles, along with some nice looking things coming up from Handheld Press as well. 

How I love it when Summer loses its grip. First up is Holy Ghosts - Classic Tales of the Ecclesiastical Weird edited by Fiona Snailham. There's lots of good stuff in here, including E. Nesbit's Man Size in Marble which must surely be in the running for most anthologized weird story ever - doesn't matter, it's a cracker and gets me every time (a collection of E Nesbit's Ghost Stories is coming from Handheld next year, it doesn't look to include Man Size in Marble this time, but - and I'm excited about this - it does a have a couple of things I haven't yet read in it).

It's almost surprising that it's taken so long for the weird series to focus on matters Ecclesiastical; what could lend itself better to the uncanny? That's not an entirely rhetorical question - if this series does anything it's show just how widely our collective insecurities can spread. It's interesting to note that the majority of this collection (7 of 11 stories) are by women.

Churches, like the home, should represent sanctuary. Turning that on its head is an effective device for giving the reader an agreeable chill, and then however peaceful a church may feel in the middle of the day, with probably kindly clergy around it's a different matter when the shadows begin to lengthen and the doors are shut. It's a world at once familiar and full of mysterious ritual; I have never visited a building that disturbed me more than Rosslyn Chapel with its countless green men leering from every corner. Something I feel sure M.R. James would have appreciated.

Edith Wharton goes for outright horror in 'The Duchess at Prayer', the inevitability of the ending making it no less terrible when it comes. Elizabeth Gaskell's almost novella-length 'The Poor Clare' is similarly easy to predict, but whatever faults it may have are mitigated by the specifics of the curse its heroine suffers.

Altogether an excellent collection and the perfect way to mark the changing season. 

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Skeleton key - Erin Kelly

The mention of Kit Williams Masquerade was enough to get my interest in this book and I was intrigued by the gothic look of it - not another of the blue and yellow covers which are apparently uniform for a lot of contemporary crime fiction. The Skeleton Key didn't disappoint and didn't make me squeamish which is my other issue with a lot of contemporary crime. 

It opens in the late 1960's with a trio of young artists, Frank, Lal, and Cora getting drunk. Between a liberal amount of booze, infatuation, and folk music the idea for a book that is part folk story, part work of art, and an actual treasure hunt that will take you around the UK is born. Illustrated by Frank with Cora as his muse - they bury a gold and bejeweled skeleton of their heroine, and folklore inspiration, Elinore separated into 9 pieces on their honeymoon.

From there the action bounces across the years - to the early 1990s. Frank and Cora are rich on the back of The Golden Bones, but it's become a millstone as well. Fans are obsessive and there's a theory that the final piece of Elinore is hidden inside the body of their daughter Nell, who's almost killed when someone tries to cut it out of her, Frank hasn't been able to come up with anything else, and Lal his best friend is stuck in a spiral of alcoholism.

More years pass, Lal and his wife Bridget are living next to Frank and Cora, the families unhealthily close, Lal has found success illustrating his wife's books and Frank is on the verge of a comeback when Nell is attacked again...

In the more or less current day (2021) The Golden Bones has reached its 50th birthday, there's an anniversary edition in the works, a new app, and a lot of interest in Lal and Frank, now two grand old men of the art world. Nell's life has continued to be haunted by obsessive bone collectors and the families have grown. But the celebrations and renewed interest in putting Elinor back together are about to unearth a whole lot of long-buried secrets - will the lady rise? Or will something else surface instead?

There's a good chance anyone in their late 40s and over will remember Masquerade with affection, it was a phenomenon back in the late 1970s - a beautiful book with a puzzle and a prize of a golden hare which took 3 years and a lot of vandalism to find. Kelly has obviously got an eye on a few of the big artists of the time for Frank and Lal too - there are shades of Ted Hughes, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas - all sorts in there which are a fun puzzle of their own to pursue if you're inclined. The speculation on how something like this would take off in the internet age feels spot on too - the stakes become higher and when information can be around the world in seconds. 

I really enjoy a narrative that flits back and forth, here over 50 years told from multiple points of view - each chapter is dated so it's easy enough to follow. It's a great page-turner as you slowly come to understand the full extent of what everybody has been hiding. I didn't realise until after I'd finished the book that Erin Kelly worked on Broadchurch, but it makes a lot of sense - there's the same slow burn and attention to detail, the same interest in seeing how different people react to a specific event.

When a real human pelvis turns up where a miniture gold jeweled one is expected it's suddenly obvious that there has been a murder - but it's not clear who's, or even when it might have happened, much less who might have done it or why. Various motives are revealed along the way along with obsessive fans, collectors, private detectives, and a police force possibly less than happy at having to unravel it all.

It's a clever, twisty, gothic-tinged, hard-to-put-down book that I found utterly compelling. All the characters are complicated, few of them entirely sympathetic, but all convincingly human. Kelly is really good at demonstrating how morals and language change over generations and the long-term effects of abusive and co-dependent relationships. It's the perfect crime/thriller for me - a throwback to the puzzle being the main thing, and done here with wit and elegance. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Charming - Jade Linwood

I took a chance on his one which well and truly paid off. It's another cosy sort of fantasy, this time with the starting point that Prince Charming is a conman; rescuing the Princess is his way in but well before the wedding is planned he's made away with the kingdom's worldly wealth. He's been getting away with it for years when three of his victims meet at a wedding, start talking, and then start plotting.

It works because Jade Linwood knows her source material, doesn't mess around with romance, and gives her characters some nuance. It's a fair assumption that a set of lady's who have respectively been blessed by any number of good fairies (a relative term) along with one bad one, can charm the birds from the trees and speak their language, and lived their lives with a formidable witch they had the wit to escape from will have an impressive revenge seeking skill set. And so it is. 

The magic of Fairy tales is that they evolve with every telling, Linwood references everything from the Grimm's, Perrault, and Gabrrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve through to Disney and plenty of versions in between with her own particular twist on top. Do these Princesses need a bit of rescuing, yes - they do. Does the Prince need to promise to marry them - well, the story demands it and stories are powerful things, especially where actual fae are involved, but nobody enjoys being made a fool of or being cheated out of the better part of their wealth.

It's a funny book that jogs along at a decent pace - it could have been slightly more tightly edited but the world-building and storytelling are so much fun and so much part of the point of the book that it's a moot point. The heroines are enjoyably imperfect, their growing friendship is heartwarming, Prince Charming has enough charm to carry off being a cad (he has reasons or something) and it's what I think of as a perfect holiday book* - one that I could share with a whole lot of people of all sorts of ages and tastes and safely assume that they'd all get something out of it. 

Like Travis Baldree's books, this has enough heart to it as well as humour to make me feel like it's a keeper rather than a throwaway one-time read. I read it when I was feeling particularly low and it cheered me up, I'll keep it on my rainy-day shelf for the next time I need a good-quality pick-me-up. 

*I know that on the one hand this os old fashioned - there's no real need to pack physical books anymore or consider sharing them, but I see plenty of families shopping for books that 2 or more generations will read and I'll always think it's a nice thing to do. 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stone Blind - Natalie Haynes

It seems as if there’s an almost bottomless appetite for retellings of Greek myths at the moment. I interrupted reading Stone Blind for 'Girl, Goddess, Queen' and they sat well together although intended for broadly different audiences and probably because they're looking at entirely different themes. Here Medusa getting a feminist reimagining with Perseus very much the villain of the story - or at least chief amongst many villains here - anyone not a Gorgon comes out of this looking bad.

To fully appreciate Medusa’s story we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Olympian gods to understand the forces at play - helpfully there’s a fairly comprehensive list of characters at the beginning of the book, and for longer standing fans of Natalie Haynes her earlier non fiction title, ‘Pandora’s Jar, Women in the Greek Myths’ is also useful. I'm also reading a review copy of her new one 'Divine Might' which I'd strongly recommend looking out for in September. Other (many other) authors working in this area also exist as does the internet of course which makes further research and cross referencing not just easy, but almost addictive.

Medusa is a great choice as a central character. The mortal sister of two immortal Gorgons, raped by Poseidon in Athene’s temple, then punished by that Goddess because she cannot punish her uncle as she’d wish to. Killed by Perseus for what does not, on Haynes assessment, seem like a very good reason at all, and then stuck in a sort of after life as a disembodied head that still has the power to petrifying the unwary, and in this version at least retains a consciousness as the Gorgoneion. There's a lot to play with there and Haynes doesn't hold back.

All of the Gods as she shows them are spiteful, grasping, selfish, deities interested mostly in staving off the boredom of eternity, maintaining prestige, and playing out their grudges against one another and however powerful a divinity you might be nothing trumps gender. Hera’s failure to overthrow her husband means she can’t take any meaningful revenge against Zeus, only the women he assaults and their children. Gaia can’t punish the gods for killing her giant offspring, but she can embarrass Athene by giving this virgin goddess an unwanted child, Athene can’t directly challenge Poseidon for desecrating her temple, but she can place a terrible curse on Medusa. The only real sisterly solidarity is that between the three Gorgon sisters and their genuine love for one another despite the unchanging immortality of the eldest two and Medusa's ever changing mortality.

The classics have been such a building block of the western canon that even though very few of us will have grown up learning them in Latin or Greek at school anymore they're still deeply embedded in our culture and imagination. I read versions of these stories almost as soon as I learnt to read at all, uncritically absorbing ideas about heroism and who the main character should be. Haynes turns all of that upside down, and not just in making the point that Perseus regards anything unlike him to be monstrous, obviously including the Graiai - three sisters sharing a single eye and a single tooth, and the Gorgons with their claws and tusks and teeth. In her telling they remain in their own remote places, the Graiai in an inaccessible cave, the Gorgons on their beach far enough from humans to be no threat to them - they are imagined monsters, no threat compared to a boy with an unthinkably powerful weapon.

And what of Medusa? Here she doesn't have much use for the power behind her curse. She's rightly afraid that she might hurt her sisters, and has no contact with anybody else before Perseus comes for her head at the behest of another man who wants a woman who has no interest in him.

Stone Blind is also a book by a writer at the top of her game. She Knows her subject, and keeps all the balls of a multi stranded narrative in the air until the moment she's ready to resolve each element into a conclusion. The chapters are short with each story fragmented throughout the book - it made it easy to pick up and put down whilst keeping everything straight. It was just as effective as keeping me reading in a race with myself to see how each plot would work out.

The thing that Haynes and Bea Fitzgerald have in common is that both make me laugh in-between feeling a deep anger for the endless unfairness and stacked odds their women face. Medusa's fate can't be spun into a happy ever after as Persephone's might be in any of the current romantasies that feature her, but Haynes has no trouble in turning her into a heroine and she does get the last word. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Girl, Goddess, Queen - Bea Fitzgerald

I first came across Bea Fitzgerald through her @chaosonolympus account (greek myth based comedy) maybe a year or two ago, and when I saw she had a book coming out I was interested despite it being Young Adult and based on the Hades and Persephone myth. My track record with YA is mixed - there are a lot of great books out there that deal with a time in life I'm not that interested in at this point in my own life.

There are also a lot of frankly rubbish versions of Hades and Persephone as a love story - or vehicle for unimaginative smut and I've been caught out by this before. I had high hopes for this one though, the Tik-Toks are funny so I jumped at the chance of a review copy when it came up. 

I wasn't disappointed. 'Girl, Goddess, Queen' is definitely written with a younger audience in mind - there's nothing in here I'd think twice about giving to a 12 or 13-year-old, but the jokes are funny, and the room for female rage kept me happily reading through just over 470 pages. 

The length of the thing would be my major quibble - I think this could be 50 - 70 pages shorter. The plot gets a little bit overwhelmed by banter in places, and there's some repetition or overstressing of points that could be cut. But then I also think the banter is what the intended audience is going to most love about this Hades and Persephone and longer books demonstrably don't put off younger readers. 

In this version of the story, Persephone isn't kidnapped - she goes to Hades seeking refuge. She's been kept sequestered on Sicily her whole life, protected from men by a mother all too aware of the dangers they pose. She's also been protecting Persephone from a father who will not tolrate any opposition or perceived threat to his power. Persephone tells Zeus she wants the world when she's 8 years old, and he does not like it. Now though Zeus and Demeter are arranging a marriage for her based on a sort of auction amongst their peers and she's having none of it. 

Hades is the one god who doesn't come with a string of rape allegations so he's the obvious person (and place) to turn to. Initially, he's not too happy to have his peace disrupted by an unwanted visitor, but Persephone forces his hand by invoking the laws of hospitality, and slowly they overcome mutual distrust and hostility to become friends. In the process, there's lots of found family and purpose whilst the pair realise how well they complement each other - and then they decide to marry to avoid the wrath of Zeus about to hit both of them and to better allow Persophone to bring her own brand of chaos into the family.

In this book the couple are much of an age - Hades was the first child Kronos swallowed, so the last to be released from his stomach, here he stays in a sort of stasis until there isn't a disturbing age difference - but this and a few other details also suggest that the time of immortal gods runs differently to human time. Persephone is both 18 and eternal, craft projects that should take weeks or months are achieved in days, but the war between the Titans and the gods has been over for both a long time and no time at all. 

Her determination to upend the patriarchy definitely feels like it was more than 18 years in the making, and here the love story that underpins the plot becomes incidental. She's angry at the lack of agency she's allowed, confused by the depth of power she finds within herself, and worried about how to hide it sufficiently to keep herself safe from her father. She's angry with her mother for the way her efforts to protect have stifled her and this is done particularly well. Persephone is allowed to be a complex and occasionally morally grey character. She's a goddess and a queen - she doesn't always need to be nice, or even be liked - she's more than happy to be feared and she's entirely open about wanting power.

Before I give too many spoilers there's also a lot of information about Greek philosophy, concepts of love (another thing I really liked about this book), and mythology. There are discussions about consent which always make me happy in any romance book. Demeter is as complex as Persephone, neither a heroine nor a villain, but a mother making questionable decisions to protect a daughter she's not ready to let go of. Zeus is a villain, as well he should be. 

This is very obviously a book that's expected to do well and is being promoted accordingly. In this case it lives up to the hype.