Fiction in 50 Challenge Reminder for May!

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fiction in 50

It’s that time again – get out your pencil, keyboard or tablet-poking finger and get writing – Fiction in 50 is nearly upon us for May!

This month our prompt will be….

may fi50 challenge

To participate, all you need do is create a piece of fiction or poetry in less than 51 words.  Then post it.  Then come back here on Monday and add your post link to the comments of my Fi50 post.  For more information and for upcoming prompts, just click on the attractive button at the top of this post.  New players are always welcome!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Scaling Mount TBR: The Whitby Witches…

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Thank you for joining me as I claw my way up the teetering goliath that is my current TBR pile. Today’s book is one I picked up second-hand after having placed it on my wish-list very soon after Mad Martha returned from a memorable sojourn to the seaside town of Whitby in the UK, declaring that we should now search out and read every book ever written with Whitby as a setting. And there have been a lot. Although we still haven’t read the most famous by far.

Here’s a picture of Mad Martha enjoying the B&B in which she stayed. If you squint, you can just see a bit of the Abbey in the distance out the window:

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And here she is enjoying a long-awaited wash in the Whitby Laundromat washing machine:

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And just for fun, here’s one of the Abbey that looks like it’s screeeeeeeaaaaammmming!

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But I digress. Today’s book is The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis, a rollicking and surprisingly dark (in places) tale that was first published in 1991, although it has the ring of a book published much earlier. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At first glance, the small seaside town of Whitby seems quiet and charming, but eight year-old Ben and his older sister Jennet soon learn that things are not always as they seem. Moved about from foster home to foster home, Ben and Jennet hope to make a fresh start in Whitby. But Ben sees things and people others cannot. There’s something unusual about Alice Boston, their new guardian. And what is that horrible howling Jennet hears late at night? Something wicked’s brewing in Whitby. Can Ben and Jennet put it to rest?

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This was an unexpected reading experience for me because there was just so much story packed into the pages. There are the witches and witchiness of the title of course, but then there are fantastical creatures, an ongoing (and progressively more deadly) murder investigation, a strange nun that might not be what she seems, an ancient curse, pregnant cats, as well as an astoundingly action-packed climax that features time-travel along with everything else.

And does anyone else think that Alice Boston bears a striking resemblance to one of the TV versions of Miss Marple??

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Extraordinary!

So I didn’t expect there to be quite so much going on in this book, but I really appreciated how the author gives the young reader enough credit to put in some pretty creepy content. For a start, there’s the terrifying hound on the cover of this edition. Then there’s quite a lot of violence directed towards old ladies. I was genuinely surprised at a few points that Jarvis was brave enough to pen the deaths of the aforementioned old ladies in such vivid, atmospheric detail.  Actually, now that I think about it, there are a number of scenes that had me thinking, “Oh, that’s a bit shocking!” and this disposed me fondly toward the author for having the gumption to trust that younger readers can handle some grisly, scary stuff and come out the other side unscathed. I suspect this is why the book felt like one that was published before the 90s, because there doesn’t seem to be any coddling through the difficult bits.

Overall, this is one of those stories that has all the classic elements – abandoned siblings, a setting oozing with its own character and history, mysterious magic and just plain, unadulterated adventure! As this is part of a series, I will now add the others in the set to my ever-growing TBR pile and hopefully get to them in the not-too-distant future.

I recommend The Whitby Witches to anyone (especially mini-fleshlings of the upper middle-grade persuasion) looking for good old-fashioned feats of danger and derring-do.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Morgue Drawer Four…

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Thank you for joining me for another edition of Mondays are for Murder. Today I have a book that I’ve been stalking for a while, waiting for it to come on special somewhere so I could pounce on it. Obviously that happy day came so I added it to my Kindle with great haste and efficiency. I speak of the first book in Jutta Profijt’s Morgue Drawer series, Morgue Drawer Four. I should also mention that the particular version I read was a translation from the original German, so I feel it is only fair to mention that the translator is Erik J. Macki, because he has done a wonderful job here.

Anyway, on to more murderous things. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Coroner is the perfect job for Dr. Martin Gänsewein, who spends his days in peace and quiet autopsying dead bodies for the city of Cologne. Shy, but scrupulous, Martin appreciates his taciturn clients–until the day one of them starts talking to him. It seems the ghost of a recently deceased (and surprisingly chatty) small-time car thief named Pascha is lingering near his lifeless body in drawer number four of Martin’s morgue. He remains for one reason: his “accidental” death was, in fact, murder. Pascha is furious his case will go unsolved–to say nothing of his body’s dissection upon Martin’s autopsy table. But since Martin is the only person Pascha can communicate with, the ghost settles in with the good pathologist, determined to bring the truth of his death to light. Now Martin’s staid life is rudely upended as he finds himself navigating Cologne’s red-light district and the dark world of German car smuggling. Unless Pascha can come up with a plan–and fast–Martin will soon be joining him in the spirit world. Witty and unexpected, Morgue Drawer Four introduces a memorable (and reluctant) detective unlike any other in fiction today.

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The Usual Suspects:

Given that Pascha (who also goes by Sascha, for reasons that were fairly obscure to me) was a bit of a shady wheeler-dealer when alive, it doesn’t take much foresight to predict that the usual suspects in this case are likely to be similarly shade-loving. There are sex-workers, car smugglers, petty criminals, and bar owners all thrown into the mix as poor, put-upon Martin risks life, limb and sanity to bring Pascha’s possible murderer to justice. And prove that there was in fact a murder in the first place.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The investigation is pretty much a comedy of errors as Martin – law-abiding, waistcoat-wearing, three-wheel-car-driving Martin – attempts to question a parade of unsavoury characters without having his face bashed in. In the early part of the book there are very few clues to go on, and the pace dragged a bit, but by the halfway point there are some definite leads – and some extra, unexpected corpses – and the lads begin to unravel the tangled motivations of those involved.

Overall Rating

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Three poison bottles for a series opener that has great potential for guts, glory and German comedy

After having anticipated reading this for quite a while, I found myself both gratified and mildly disappointed in this tale. The story didn’t have quite the murder-mystery punch I was hoping for in the actual investigation side of the plot, but it certainly made up for that in the hilarious banter and distinctive, vivid voice of Pascha. The translator really needs credit for bringing across both the meaning and the comedy behind the meaning, because he has brought Pascha from German into English in living, bawdy colour. The relationship building between Martin and Pascha was really at the forefront of this book, rather than the murder, but now that the relationship is established, I am very interested to see how this series will pan out. If you are looking for a murder-mystery series that balances death with a strong, funny character pairing then I’d definitely add this one to your list.

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*Bruce just ticked another book off Mount TBR*

Until next time,

Bruce

Oddly Unmoved: A Review of Unseemly Science…

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Today I have another submission for my personal Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge. I received this book from the publisher, Angry Robot, via Netgalley after pondering whether or not I should request it. You see, today’s book is the second in a series and I haven’t read the opening book. I speak of Unseemly Science: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2 by Rod Duncan. I um-ed and ah-ed a bit over whether I should attempt a sequel without having read its predecessor, but decided in the end that the blurb looked intriguing enough to override my worries.

I am submitting this book into the Challenge under the categories of Odd Setting, given that the book features a strange version of the United Kingdom (I think – my mild confusion over this will become apparent) which is split into a monarchy and a republic. I’m also submitting under the Odd Character category because the main character is a lady who is also her own brother.

Let’s crack on into the unknown then, shall we? Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life – as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy! There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…

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Intriguing blurb, no?  I concur.

So what’s the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook? No idea.  Why was Alice Carter hanged? Couldn’t tell you.  What’s haunting about Elizabeth Barnabus’ past? Not an inkling.

It turns out that in this particular series, all the world building happens in the first book and if you haven’t read it, you will be mired in slight confusion for at least the first third of the story.  This is fair enough, I suspect.  If you go into a second book with an obviously obtuse blurb, as I chose to, you probably shouldn’t expect to be coddled by the author with all the information you missed by not bothering to read the first book.  And while it was obvious that the world of this story had been built while I wasn’t paying attention, the actual thrust of the story was perfectly simple to follow, albeit without the nuances that knowing Elizabeth’s past would have added.  Suffice to say, she’s an ex-monarchy-dweller on the run from a powerful Duke to whom she was sold.

It turns out that she also moonlights as some kind of detective, and sometimes impersonates her fictitious brother.  This is where we dip into the part of the story that drew me in – the mystery of the charitable organisation and the body-snatching and unseemly experimentation promised in the blurb.  It takes literally half the book to get to the real meat of any investigatory business, as the first half is devoted to Elizabeth’s attempts to escape from the Republican officials’ new law to repatriate monarchists to their place of birth.  Once we get to the investigation part, the action explodes and the pace of the plot quadruples as we charge toward a twisty, dangerous ending.

Surprisingly (for me, anyway…maybe not for you), the action and autopsies of the second half of the book didn’t make up for the slow start and extended running and hiding of the first half.  I really enjoyed the ladies’ foray into the territory of the ice farmers and Julia’s code-breaking attempts were a bit of fun riddle-solving, but otherwise I felt this to be a reasonably slow burn, with an ending that didn’t quite provide the thrill I was looking for.  Plus, of course, there was the general sense that I was missing something important pretty much the whole way through.

To my surprise, at the end of the book I discovered a glossary of sorts that spelled out all the nuances of the Gas-Lit Empire and much of the stuff I had missed.  As I came upon this after having ploughed through the whole book, I decided that I couldn’t be bothered filling myself in on the vital information that would probably have made the reading experience a bit more enriching.  I feel I have discharged my duty by having told you about it though, so if you wish to attempt this book without having read the first one, you’ll know to start with this elusive glossary first.

Discounting the fact that I didn’t have a full working knowledge of the world in which the story is set (given that this was entirely of my own choosing), I would have to say that overall this was an interesting diversion into an original imagining of England.  While the pace was slower than I expected, there was enough mystery and intrigue to keep me turning the pages.  If you’re a fan of alternative history, steampunk and strong female protagonists with mad evasion skills, then this will probably tickle your fancy, although I would strongly recommend starting with book one and saving yourself some brainache.

Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge Goal: 9/16

Until next time,

Bruce

A Non-Fiction Read-it-if Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and other lessons from the Crematory)

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It’s time for another foray into the world of non-fiction and today I have an absolute cracker that will go on my (so far, very selective) “top books I read in 2015” list. Obviously, I will be submitting this title toward my total in the Non-fiction Reading Challenge being hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the armchair.

Without further ado then, let me introduce today’s contender: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Doughty learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Doughty soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures. Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like? Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Doughty’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Doughty argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

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Read it if:

*you’ve ever wondered what really goes on behind the curtain at the crematorium

*you enjoy a memoir that jumps from light-hearted, pithy, humorous comment on everyday topics to the “Oh my Glob!”-worthy, stomach-churning imagery of post-mortem mishap.

*you are looking for a no-holds-barred, unvarnished account of what might happen to your lonely corpse if you end up as an unclaimed body in San Francisco

*you wish to discover exactly which fashionable fabrics are impervious to leaking corpse fat

*you honestly think that your use of “anti-ageing” paraphernalia will keep you looking youthful and pristine against the ravages of time

Regular readers of this blog will know that, like the author of today’s book, I have more than a passing interest in death and its workings and again, like Ms Doughty, one of my fleshlings has seriously considered exploring a job in the funeral industry. Obviously, this book was always going to be my kind of memoir.

Right from the start I enjoyed Doughty’s self-deprecating humour and the way in which she understood that her death-fascination may well seem odd and more than a bit creepy to the great majority of the population who seem hell-bent on avoiding death and its implications at any cost. I would recommend not reading this book while you’re eating, as it does jump (sometimes within the space of a sentence) from a chuckleworthy observation about the peculiarities of taking possession of a box of heads, for instance, to an eye-wateringly detailed description of some disgusting incident usually related to the body’s unsightly decomposition processes. More than once I could be heard to utter, “Hahahaha..eurggh!” If the thought of such graphic corpse chat doesn’t turn you off, you will find that this book is replete with fascinating, concerning and just plain unexpected information about the sorts of things that could happen to you once you pop your proverbial clogs.

Doughty’s focus in writing the book is undoubtedly on the bizarre and absolute detachment that many Western societies are determined to achieve from death, both in actuality and concept. She raises some valid and thought-provoking points about how in a relatively short historical period, people have gone from washing, preparing and sitting with a loved one’s corpse at home, to getting the dead thing out of the house as quickly and with as little acknowledgement as possible. While I was supremely interested in the processes of the death industry itself, I also found a lot to ponder in the latter half of the book, in which Doughty points to alternative voices that are piping up to say “Hey! Death is actually a pretty natural thing! It doesn’t have to be all spiky mouth and eyeball retainers and lead-lined, diamond studded caskets!”

Overall, I found a lot to be surprised about and plenty to keep my little grey cells ticking over in this book. It probably won’t be the kind of book that everyone will take to….but it probably should be, in all honesty. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt by observing you fleshlings, it’s that death is coming for you, sooner or later – so why not make it a good one?

Progression toward Non-Fiction Reading Challenge goal: 6/10

Until next time,

Bruce

A Bit of Odd Horror: The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave…

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It’s time for another submission in my personal Oddity Odyssey Challenge and today’s book is an absolute doozy, qualifying for submission in THREE categories – odd title (as you’ll see), odd character (murderous teddy bear) and odd subject matter (is this weak adult horror or vulgarity-laden middle-grade?). If you don’t know anything about the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge for 2015, I invite you to click here and find out more. And then join in.

I received a copy of today’s book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for review. I say I “received” it, but as soon as I saw the cover, combined with the spectacularly understated title, I decided I must read it as soon as possible. But let’s crack on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads for The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave by J. H. Moncrieff.

Sometimes evil looks like a fuzzy teddy bear.Still grieving the untimely death of his dad, ten-year-old Josh Leary is reluctant to accept a well-worn stuffed teddy bear from his new stepfather. He soon learns he was right to be wary. Edgar is no ordinary toy…and he doesn’t like being rejected. When Josh banishes him to the closet, terrible things begin to happen.Desperate to be rid of the bear, Josh engages the help of a friend. As the boys’ efforts rebound on them with horrifying results, Josh is forced to accept the truth—Edgar will always get even.

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Check that cover. Isn’t it just brilliant? And the title: absolute gold. While this book isn’t going to be winning any awards for the quality of the writing or, indeed, the scariness of the horror, it is a fun, light read that will scratch an itch if you’re in need of a bit of quirky creepiness.

I had a bit of a problem situating this story in my mind though. It’s listed as “adult horror” but features a ten-year-old main character and reads (despite some ear-blistering swear words and a few extreme disciplinary measures) EXACTLY like a middle-grade book. There’s the lovable Josh, who’s dad has died and is just trying to get by with his mum and evil stepfather – and the step-father really is evil in this story; in fact, he’s the most horrifying element of the book by far. There’s the mother who wants to believe her son, but is clouded by a controlling spouse. There’s Josh’s mate Sean who is drawn in to the unbelievable stalkiness of Edgar the murderous panda.

And in the end…well, it’s all a bit predictable really. It’s like the author set out to write a really pedestrian story and then jazzed it up (which I fully appreciate) with an awesome-sauce cover and the title of least resistance.

Once again, I don’t suspect that this is going to satisfy adult readers of horror in any way, but for a fun diversion featuring a fluffy despot who just wants to be loved, you really can’t go past *cue deep movie trailer voiceover * The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave!

Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Challenge Goal:   8 (I think…I’m starting to lose track)/16

Until next time:

Bruce

The Gracekeepers: A Haiku Review…

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Welcome to another haiku review. It’s Mad Martha with you today with a book that was received from the publisher via Netgalley and features a beautifully described world (of the future? Possibly) in which water has changed the shape of the earth. It is The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, sending the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

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Buried in the depths

Like the wreckage of worlds past

Lies the way back home

Although this book is set in a speculative future world (maybe), I want to describe it as literary fiction. The Gracekeepers is character-driven and relationship-heavy and when you get to the end, you may be left wondering what on earth just happened – or rather, what didn’t. This is one of those books where action is secondary to the exploration of the characters, their back stories and hopes for the future. While some may find this to be not their cup of tea, I was quite engaged throughout the whole story, mostly, I think, due to the excellent world-building that Logan has done here.

The basic set-up of the world is pretty simple – water has subsumed most of the land and left humans with the choice of living as farmers and gatherers in settlements or spending their life on the high seas. There is a certain animosity, or at best, distrust between the landlockers and the damplings, with damplings facing mild discrimination when on or near the land. Damplings must wear bells on their shoes, for instance, when on the land to denote their dampling status. Similarly, with land at a premium, damplings are not allowed to bury their dead on the land, but must take their deceased to a graceyard to be tended to by a Gracekeeper.

The rituals around death described in the graceyards were fascinating and imaginative and one of my favourite parts of the story was our introduction to Callanish and her solitary life, surrounded by dead, dying, or soon-to-be dying birds. The story is told in alternating points of view between Callanish and North and I appreciated the regular change of pace between the quiet reverie of Callanish and the busier experience of North and the circus.

I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, because I did have a very strong sense of “Well that was nice – now what’s next?” on finishing. I really did feel engaged while I was reading the story but afterwards I wasn’t sure what I could take from it. If you enjoy books that are character-driven and feature strong, original world-building then I would encourage you to pick up The Gracekeepers, but be aware that it’s not a book with a pat message or typical plot piece.

Until we meet again, may all your birds be free from mourning responsibilities,

Mad Martha