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

A YA (ish) Read-it-if Review: Hyacinth Girls…

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Welcome to a Read-it-if review for a book that has been on my Netgalley shelf for months and months and months that I’ve only just managed to get to.  Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel, like The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, is one that I put off and put off because its publication date was so far off, only to find that I should have picked it up sooner because it is well worth chatting about.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Thirteen year old Callie is accused of bullying at school, but Rebecca knows the gentle girl she’s raised must be innocent. After Callie is exonerated, she begins to receive threatening notes from the girl who accused her, and as these notes become desperate, Rebecca feels compelled to intervene. As she tries to save this unbalanced girl, Rebecca remembers her own intense betrayals and best-friendships as a teenager, when her failure to understand those closest to her led to tragedy. She’ll do anything to make this story end differently. But Rebecca doesn’t understand what’s happening or who is truly a victim, and now Callie is in terrible danger.

This raw and beautiful story about the intensity of adolescent emotions and the complex identity of a teenage girl looks unflinchingly at how cruelty exists in all of us, and how our worst impulses can estrange us from ourselves – or even save us.

hyacinth girls

Read it if:

*you’ve ever been given a demeaning nickname

*you like adult fiction that is cleverly disguised as young adult fiction

*you’ve been clamouring for a book featuring young people and bullying, in which the characters are more than stereotypical, paper-thin, mean girls, and the adults have backstories too

Right off the bat, I have to acknowledge how unexpectedly noteworthy I found this story to be. When I flicked back to the blurb and found out that this was a “teen bullying” story I was preparing myself for the run-of-the-mill, mean girls scenario with cliques and rich bitches and everything we’ve seen before in a thousand movies and books. While the blurb gives the indication that this is a YA book, I think that this is actually properly realised adult fiction that features young characters and bullying, but focuses on deeper explorations of the characters, their motivations and relationships. [Interjection: Yes, I realise YA is “proper fiction” too, so no need to send the hate mail just yet]. I suspect that adult readers will get just as much out of this, if not more, than their teenaged counterparts and that is the mark of a good book all-round.

Hyacinth Girls is told in alternating points of view, beginning with that of Rebecca, who has become the guardian of teenager Callie after her mother, Joyce (Rebecca’s childhood best friend), was killed in an accident and her father committed suicide. The early parts of the story focus on Rebecca’s shock and denial when informed that Callie has been involved in serious bullying of a classmate. The story moves back and forth between the present day, as Rebecca tries her darnedest to clear Callie’s name, and Rebecca’s childhood with Joyce, her older cousin and his girlfriend.

About halfway through the book, the story switches to Callie’s point of view and the reader becomes privy to the “other side of the story” as it were. It isn’t too hard to see that Rebecca suffers from a sort of functional blindness toward Callie’s alleged behaviour and sharp readers will be pleased to note that their suspicions are confirmed in Callie’s telling of the story. Toward the end of the book, the perspectives change again as events come to a head and secrets and lies come back to haunt all the characters.

What I most appreciated about this story is that the characters are all deeply fleshed out. Each character has flaws and a back story and motives that are understandable and familiar, but not stereotypical. The book really explores the concepts of error and redemption through characters who are judged outwardly by their actions and characters for whom the judgement (and damnation) is self-wrought and internal. Hyacinth Girls manages to set itself apart from the crowd of “seen-it-all-before” books on bullying to really explore the people who engage in it, the people who fight against it and the people who unwittingly support it. I particularly appreciated the realistic fallout (or lack thereof) at the very end of the book, when the reader gets to reflect on the tumultuous events of the story and their impact on the lives of the characters in the context of a wider society of those who don’t have a personal stake in the lives of these particular young people.

Overall I think that aside from being a “bullying” book, Hyacinth Girls is just a really absorbing read.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

May I Suggest Giveaway Hop!

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Welcome to my spot on the May I Suggest Giveaway Hop hosted by Stuck in Books and running from May 3rd to May 16th. I have a soft spot for this hop because it runs so close to my birthday, so I can’t resist joining in the fun. The theme of the hop is books that are amazing or fantastic or ones that you would recommend to others.

To that end, I am offering one winner a random book from my Goodreads favourites shelf. The winner can choose the genre/age range that they’d prefer, then I’ll select a book that I think fits and send it on its merry way to be enjoyed by another. The giveaway is open internationally provided the Book Depository ships to your country for free. Other Ts & Cs are in the Rafflecopter form.

I haven’t required a follow for entry this time around, opting for a more giggle-based requirement, but follows and likes across any of our platforms are always welcome!

To enter, click on the rafflecopter link below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This is a hop, so don’t forget to scoot around to the other participating blogs and try your hand at bagging some loot!

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Good luck,

Bruce