book reviews

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In his 2013 novel, The Circle, Dave Eggers leaves the specifics of how The Circle’s technology works to the reader’s imagination, a gambit that can be generative in the hands of certain writers. However, Eggers wrote a 500 page book about an Internet company but seems to understand neither the Internet nor companies. That’s a whole other ballgame, particularly when he embeds his imaginary techno-nightmare in reality by name-checking Steve Jobs, Facebook, Google, and the like. Furthermore, Eggers has written a female protagonist, Mae Holland, but doesn’t seem to understand women very well.

That said, if I were teaching my college course on cyberculture again any time soon, I would almost certainly put it on a supplementary reading list because I believe it raises some interesting question, even if accidentally. (privatization of government, voter protections, and the right to opt out among them). Nevertheless, I wavered over whether to give it 1 or 2 stars.

I can accept that the idealistic young tech workers of The Circle truly believe in what they’re doing. I can believe that they have no concerns about the economics, access to private land, the digital divide, literacy, or any of the other factors that would in reality hopefully prevent the whole world from buying in to the kind of technology being developed. I have met these people and they are legion. I think that Eggers does capture that sense of excitement, exhaustion, and optimism that fuels ambitious workers at young companies, especially young people with expensive educational debt, and limited job prospects. Additionally, and without spoilers, I think that Eggers captures the desperation of the chronically ill in the current American healthcare and insurance system. When the Circle puts Mae’s father, whose MS is not being managed or treated due to lack of insurance, onto her health plan, Mae has strong motivation to hold on to her job no matter what is asked of her. That premise gets stretched increasingly thin as the book progresses, and eventually the way Mae treats her family increases my alienation from her rather than garnering sympathy.

The plotholes and authorial pratfalls undermine elements which are the stuff of good satire, but are too spoilery to outline here. Even these fall short, however, because the plot is predicated on the idea that most of the world will buy into The Circle’s technology because the Internet magically became a civil place when the Circle rolled out TruYou, an authentication system that removes the possibility of anonymity or privacy from online comments, commerce, or social interactions. Seriously? What? No.

Now I know why I read the first half of this book the week it was released and then banished it to a distant corner of my office. When the trailer for the feature film adaptation starring Emma Watson/Tom Hanks was released, I decided to finish the book. If the movie is even slightly as naive as the book, it must be a trainwreck and, when I wrote this original review in 2017 I fully intended to catch a cheap matinee, but then apparently came to my senses. It has a 15% tomatometer rating! That’s actually a lot higher than I expected.

View all of my reviews at Goodreads or read the full versions with embedded links here. This review was originally posted on Goodreads January 02, 2018 and has been updated with links and additional information for this post.

book reviews horror & scifi

Review: Bernard Taylor’s The Reaping

The Reaping

The Reaping by Bernard Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 2017, Grady Hendrix published Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. The lovelies at Valancourt Books launched a Paperbacks from Hell series in the Spring of 2019 and, of course, I jumped on the subscription offer for the first 6 editions.

Bernard Taylor’s 1980 novel The Reaping arrived in June and I’m pretty sure I read it cover-to-cover late one night out on the front porch, as one does in the summertime. The Paperbacks from Hell edition includes an introduction by Will Errickson.

This clever but uneven work leads the reader to assume they’re plunging in to a retro-modern Gothic tale about an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of a frail young heiress in a mysterious mansion. But once all of the squares are covered on the Gothic bingo card, the author begins flinging twists at the reader with gleeful abandon. Although it serves the story well not to waste momentum on any occult theories or ponderous monologues, the change in tone and pace are jarring and the ending is rather abrupt.

To be fair, the twists are fun and the ending works well enough. I found Thomas, the painter, realistically self-absorbed and enjoyed that the reader can never be sure whether he’s a great painter or not (avoiding spoilers), but his self-absorption also wears a bit thin at times. Nevertheless, an excellent inclusion in the Paperbacks from Hell series, which kicked off with the eco-horror of The Nest and was followed by When Darkness Loves You, which has an astronomically high level of what-the-fuckitude. It’s the Paperbacks from Hell context and Errickson’s fine introduction which nudge The Reaping from 3 to 4 stars.

View all my reviews at Goodreads or read the full versions with embedded links here. This review was originally posted on Goodreads June 03, 2019 and has been updated with links and additional information for this post.

book reviews horror & scifi music

Review: Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015)

Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the land before time, I taught Audio Engineering with a focus on film sound. Consequently, I have a particular fondness for fiction in the “manager locks up band in a secluded location to record an album & mayhem ensues” genre, which intersects in interesting ways with the “ghost hunters bite off more than they can chew in a secluded house” and the related “student filmmakers set up shop in a haunted house and mayhem ensues” genres. Much like the actual entertainment industry, in horror fiction it’s all fun and games in the haunted house, until its not. Then it’s still fun and games for the reader, and doubly so for those of us who feel like we’ve lived some of these scenes in real-life, albeit with less bloodshed and more substance abuse.

But I digress.

Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) is a novella structured in a sort of behind-the-music-esque epistolary form. It’s got band drama, a creepy house, a mystery, and enough similarity to actual events to create a frisson of reality for readers who know a bit of English folk music history. Plus, it has a potentially colorful cast of characters wistfully trying to recount events from a time when they were all young, beautiful, and wasted. Hand weaves this all together in an intriguing manner and this is a fast, fun, eerie read.

Forty years after the mysterious disappearance of their lead guitarist, the surviving members of the fictional acid-folk band Windhollow Faire, their manager, and one band member’s ex-girlfriend (now a professional psychic) sit for individual interviews with a documentarian. The narrative unfolds as we jump from interview snippet to interview snippet. Although I feel that Hand did a brilliant job of creating and maintaining mystery and suspense using this technique, and each character is well-realized, their voices are too similar and I often found myself skipping back a page to remind myself who is supposed to be speaking. In less-skillful hands, this would sink the book, but the story is intriguing enough to put up with this minor annoyance.

So, the plot, without spoilers: After (fictional) acid-folk band Windhollow Faire releases their first album, their lead singer dies at the apartment of lead guitarist, Julian Drake. A new lead lead singer is recruited to replace dearly departed but not especially talented Annabelle. Their manager rents a medieval country house in Hampshire and stashes them away for 3 months to write, rehearse, and recover from the tragedy.

Hand was inspired by the true story of the British folk band Fairport Convention, whose manager rented a country house in Hampshire called Farley Chamberlayne so they could regroup after the tragic deaths of their drummer and their lead guitarist’s girlfriend, and record a new album.

I don’t know if Fairport Convention invoked any otherworldly forces during their time in Hampshire. but Windhollow Faire get more than they bargained for when clues emerge that Julian’s brilliant songwriting may be more than metaphorically magical.

In a lengthy interview with Locus, excerpted online on the magazine’s website, Hand talks about her folk-horror vision for Wylding Hall:

‘‘Just because you’re young and really stoned and in a weird creepy place, that doesn’t mean something really weird and creepy isn’t actually happening. I like the notion, too, that you don’t know you’ve seen a ghost until afterward. There’s an Edith Wharton story called ‘Afterward’. Somebody saw something, or they didn’t see something, and then later on they put it together and realized they had seen a ghost. I wanted to play with that, the idea of sunlit horror. Most of Wylding Hall takes place during the day.”

In a recent review of another book by Hand (Waking the Moon), I grumbled a lot about the lengthy insertions of lyrics and incantations. These inclusions are much more effective in Wylding Hall, and they also make more narrative sense as we’re meant to be watching musicians participating in the age-old process of adapting and contemporizing traditional ballads. That process is not only a vital way to keep the art form alive, but also a vital way to conjure dark forces which will allow mayhem to ensue. And at the end of the day, you can’t ask for much more than that from a lively horror story about a group of musicians in a creepy house!

Indiebound lists a full-cast audiobook of Wylding Hall that looks rather tempting, particularly since it might solve the “wait, who’s talking in this part?” problem.

View all my reviews at Goodreads or read the full versions with embedded links here.

book reviews Pop Culture Archaeology

Review: The Crossing Places

The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway, #1)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up a copy of the 7th novel in the Ruth Galloway series (The Ghost Fields) at a library book sale and enjoyed it enough to start at the beginning. The Crossing Places is the first in this series by Elly Griffiths and it won the Mary Higgins Clark Award when it debuted in 2011.

The story unfolds at a good clip and Griffiths does doles out the clues deliberately and offers enough doubt and misdirection to keep things interesting to the very end. Because I read the 7th book first, I knew quite a bit about who was going to survive, who couldn’t possibly be the killer, and who was going to end up friends in the future. Although this had the disadvantage of informing me early on that at least one the prime suspects in the twisting case was innocent, it also intrigued me as I wondered how Griffiths will develop these characters over the next 5 books to get them to the place in their lives in which I first encountered them.

Protagonist Dr. Ruth Galloway is a well-written, wholly believable forensic archaeologist who teaches at a University in Norfolk, England and lives by the sea with her cats and a host of relatable quirks. Ruth has lived in her cottage for some years, having been drawn to the place after working on a dig at a henge site in the nearby saltmarsh 10 years ago. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson brings Ruth into a case after the bones of a child are found near the site and she’s drawn into a cold case that has bedeviled Harry for 10 years.

The complications of doing archaeological work in a salt marsh, the absurdities of academia, and the challenges of working with self-declared descendant communities such as modern-day Druids are all concisely but vividly described and these details are woven into the plot to give the story a sense of realism without pulling you out of the main mystery.

Although this series began in 2011, all of the books in it have interminable waits at my public library, which I’m (mostly, sort of) delighted about because everyone should read about the travails of relatable archaeologists who neither look nor behave like Lara Croft. (No offense, Lara. But seriously, we need to talk about those white tank tops and also the looting). I have plenty to keep me busy in the meantime, but I still rather wish my neighbors would learn to read faster.

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book reviews horror & scifi

Review: Cherie Priest’s The Toll

The Toll

The Toll by Cherie Priest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cherie Priest‘s The Toll (2019) is set in the fictional town of Staywater, Georgia, which she locates adjacent to the real-life Okefenokee Swamp Park. Once a thriving logging town, Staywater is now little more than a courthouse, bar, motel, pizza parlor, gas station, a lot of derelict businesses, and a life-sized dollhouse called Miss Kiser’s Uncanny House of Replicas and Playful Imitations.

Residents are accustomed to hopping on SR 177, which bisects town and Swamp Park, to travel to nearby towns for pretty much anything they need. Outdoor enthusiasts who stop off before or after a visit to the Park keep the town’s anemic economy alive. Every 13 years, something pays Staywater’s swamp a visit and takes a few things. And the things it takes, it means to keep.

Unlikeable newlyweds Titus and Melanie Bell are en route to their ill-chosen honeymoon in the Swamp Park. The Park’s cabins may boast modern amenities, but these two belong in a swamp about as much as they belong together. The spare description of their roadtrip establishes that they’re out of their depth, even before they reach the creepy stone bridge. The blurb on the back of the book sums up their predicament succinctly: “Drive that route from east to west, and you’ll cross six bridges. Take it from west to east and you might find seven. But you’d better hope not.” The Bells know nothing about the area and cell service for their GPS craps out. Attempting to cross the bridge doesn’t work out terribly well, and Titus awakens to find himself lying in the middle of the road, Melanie missing, and the bridge nowhere to be found.

The contemporary story takes place over the 48 hours after Melanie goes missing. Titus bides his time while the police search for his wife; the residents of Staywater try to go about their business and pretend that something terrible isn’t happening. Again.

17 year old Cameron Spratford lives with his godmothers, cousins Daisy and Claire Spratford, who found the boy when he was a toddler. Someone, presumably his unknown parents, left him tethered to the front door of their crumbling farmhouse, which bears the the appropriately Southern Gothic name of Hazelhurst. The octogenarians garden, knit, and practice witchcraft, but they also have cellphones and they even know how to use them. Daisy and Claire’s dialogue is realistic and hilarious, and I can easily imagine them weaving spells using little more than their formidable power, colorful profanity, and perhaps some buckshot for good measure.

Cameron is mooning over Jess, a woman nearly twice his age who runs the local bar with her boyfriend Dave. Everyone in town calls Jess’s eccentric Aunt Netta crazy. Priest walks a fine line with this characterization, edging towards problematic stereotypes of madness as otherworldly wisdom before revealing how Netta acquired her reputation and how the rumors both mask the truth and put the town in increasing peril.

When Netta tells Cam “You know, everything’s a ghost story, eventually” (88), Priest isn’t just having fun with Southern Gothic literary trends. In Staywater, ghosts have an important role to play and Priest twists traditional haunting conventions smartly.

Local law enforcement searches the swamp, but they don’t hide their abiding belief Melanie is a runaway bride. Honestly, I didn’t read this book when it was first released because I thought it was just another entry in the “wife disappears and husband goes to jail because no one believes him that some creepy shit went down” genre. Fortunately, a copy arrived in a subscription box and I decided to give it a chance for the logical reasons that it was in my hand and also that Priest lived in the same weird small town as my mom for a long time. Perfectly logical. I’m glad I cracked it open, it’s great fun.

Although the police treat Melanie’s disappearance as a possible crime and install Titus in the town motel while they investigate, it’s obvious the people of Staywater know Titus is innocent and Melanie is gone forever, but no one plans to share that with him. They’d just like to ride out this window of unnamed danger and then move on with their lives, as they always have in the past. In the modern era, vague stories in local papers about floods or passing killers no longer obscure these cyclical disappearances, and the story of a missing bride quickly draws outside attention. The atmosphere in the town, and the story, grows thicker by the hour. The story really kicks into gear when Dave reveals his secret to Titus: he believes him about the spooky stone bridge.

From the start, Priest unspools ample evidence that Staywater residents are weird and Staywater is weirder, but it’s a flavor of weird so well-written that the unexplained oddities of the town don’t detract from the sense of horror in whatever cyclically terrorizes the swamp, they instead heighten the horror by contrast. There are so many delightful examples I’m itching to share that would clarify what I mean, but I don’t want to spoil any part of the intricately crafted narrative or the pleasures of this fun, short novel.

There are a number of tantalizing elements in the story that aren’t addressed, but, again, I don’t want to spoil anything so these are just a few examples. How long ago was Cam abandoned at Hazelhurst? Could it have been…13 years? Do the cousins know more about Cam than they’ve ever let on? And what’s up with the town’s aversion to/fear of the local auto-body shop? Priest emphatically establishes that there’s something seriously wrong there, but whether this is intended as a misdirect or was just a dropped plot point is maddeningly unclear. The reader does learn what happened to Melanie in the end and the lives of numerous characters are irrevocably changed, but it also feels as though Priest is leaving the door open for future visits to Hazelhurst, Staywater, and the Okefenokee Swamp. I hope so!

The Toll was included in the August Night Worms monthly book club box, Summer Vacation.

Image: Night Worms teaser image for the August 2019 box, Summer Vacation. The image looks like a 1970s polaroid of a foggy 2 lane highway through the woods. “Wish you were here” is written on the top margin and “Summer Vacation August 2019” is on the bottom along with artful blood spatter in the left corner and the nightworms logo on the right.

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