AURARIA by Tim Westover

Fantasy.  Fabulism.  Mythic fantasy.  Magical realism.  I so miss the old simple genre categories: mystery, romance, adventure, thriller.  You know what I mean?  Because where the heck do I slot this book, where water spirits take over the river and springs,, moon maidens swim at night, haunted pianos play on their own, headless revenants haunt the highways and byways, and there is an invincible terrapin that lives under the mountains and tells stories and sings songs.

Actually, Auraria is a real place, (a ghost town, now) which has been turned upsidedown in this piece of fiction.   The story is based on much of the local folklore and superstitions. Auraria, Georgia had a very brief gold rush in the early to mid-1800s; then most of the people left again.

In the novel, after the gold rush,  some stayed, running pharmacies and bars and hotels. They farmed and were turkey drovers and, no matter what their regular work was, most of them sought gold.

A land speculator sends his assistant to the town to buy up all the land.  He plans to build a dam, thereby flooding the town, and resell the land above the water line of the newly formed lake.  He also wishes to build a luxury resort hotel, and inveigles  a couple of railroad speculators into building a railroad to the town, which formerly only had a semi passable road as access.

The story is all about greed, gold lust, broken dreams, secrets, lies and what happens when you plan for the future.   Like I said, it is littered with ghosts, spirits, and lots of strange creatures.

I liked it well enough, although fabulism/mythic fantasy/magical realism are not really my thing.

HERO FOR HIRE by C. B. Pratt

hero-for-hireYou know, sometimes ya just gotta read a book about a Thracian dude in ancient Greece because, well,  Greek mythology!  That’s why.

Eno is a big guy.  No, really, a B.I.G. guy, rough, tough, and his services are available for a fee to get rid of mythical beasts (well, mythical to us, but to those guys back in the day, they were pretty non-mythical and in your face), spells, goddesses both minor and major, and all kinds of annoyances.  So when he wasn’t busy heroing, he was busy…. well, actually he was always heroing, you know, one of those A-type personalities.

It was a really fun read, witty, and just chock full of Greek mythology lite, and really, you just have to love the way people turn into beasts, and vice versa, and goddesses are just the way they are today, bossy and provincial.

It ends with a lengthy episode in the underworld, which seems to be de rigueur for anything remotely having to do with mythology, or even as I recall, witchy people, etc. , but really, you can’t say it was formulaic.  hahaha

I think there are a couple of further volumes, but maybe they were only in the planning stages.

Great writing, fun characters, interesting setting.  What’s not to like?

FAT VAMPIRE by Johnny B. Truant

fat-vampireI know I shouted from the rooftops that I would never read another vampire book, that the genre was played out, yada yada yada.  But….. a FAT vampire?   How can you resist?  Well, you can’t, and neither could I.

Reginald, and please don’t call him Reggie, he hates that,  is tipping the scales at about 350 pounds.  No friends, no lovers, no nada, just an IT job with coworkers who tease and bully him.   But there is one coworker who doesn’t do these things.  His name is Maurice, he wears a black hoodie all the time, and a cape, for pete’s sake, and a sword.  He works the night shift, but he and Reginald pass in the break room from time to time, say hello, and eventually decide to like hang out together one night before Maurice has to go to work.  They agree to meet at the local bowling alley.

While there, three strange characters walk in looking for Maurice, and they and Maurice have a confrontational conversation, and all end up out back, where the two very strange woman attack Reginald.  There is blood everywhere and just as he is about to die,  Maurice saves him by turning him into a vampire.  Yes.  In case you haven’t guessed it, Maurice is a many thousand year old vampire.

Vampire life is very different these days.  It is total bureaucracy,  there are rules, and not just anyone can be a vampire.  The days of randomly turning mortals is over.  They have to apply, take tests, study, prepare, and go through a physical boot camp, because as a vampire, you spend eternity in the age and shape you were when you were turned.  And now here we have this unauthorized obese person as a new vampire, out of shape, and clueless as to what to do.  Thank goodness for Maurice, who is working to overthrow the current head of the vampires.

It is all very funny, and even if there is a torture scene near the end, we readers don’t take it all that seriously, because there are something like six more books in the series, and how could the story go on if they all die right in the first volume?   And anyway, this is a vampire tale that doesn’t take itself all that seriously, either.  It is fun, clever, and makes you think….. as you are about to bite into your second chocolate covered doughnut of the morning…. about having to spend eternity in clothes that don’t fit and being out of breath all the time.

You will love the other titles in the series: Value Meal; Tastes Like Chicken; All You Can Eat; Harder Better Fatter Stronger,

THE ALCHEMIST by Paolo Bacigalupi

the-alchemistInteresting premise of this fantasy/fable.   It is a world where magical actions on the part of the populace affect the ummmmm ether, I guess, and create vicious fast growing thorn bushes.   And since everyone likes magic, (I mean, really, why do the dishes yourself when you can magic them clean, and of course then there is the whole destruction of the health industry what with all the DIY cures being done), the thorn bushes are just taking over the world.  Think Kudzu without the sweet tea.

Magic is now of course, strictly forbidden, but still….. there are always that selfish handful who believe that the rules don’t apply to them, right?, doing the little magical odd job, so the thorn bushes are continuing to encroach on the city, in spite of its best attempts to constantly cut them back.  Think legions of guys in the jungle with machetes constantly hacking and thwacking.

The alchemist thinks he can develop a machine which will actually kill the encroaching buses, not just reduce the above ground  creep, but actually kill the roots, etc.   But meanwhile, his daughter is dying of something involving coughing…. TB?  Maybe.  So, you know I don’t have to tell you this…. he does a few teeny weeny little magics to keep the daughter alive.  But now you can see the prob …. one guy here with his teeny weeny magic, one gal there with her teeny weeny magics, and it all adds up to more encroaching thorn bushes.

But just as all seems lost, and the city is about to be engulfed, he succeeds!   He takes his machine to the king and demonstrates.  He is immediately imprisoned and forced to create more and better machines.  And you will be surprised why.   His new version of his machine reveals a blue glow around people who have been using magic.  So the king uses the machines to ferret out the magic makers and destroy them.  Whoa, diddly!

This is an allegory about unintended consequences.  The alchemist thought he was creating a machine to destroy the bushes.  But the king understood that by killing the bushes, pushing back the encroachment,  it would simply enable more and more people to do magic, thus making more and more bushes to be pushed back.   His strategy was to get rid of the magic makers, and instill a great fear in all, thereby finally eradicating the need to deal with the bushes, because there would be no more bushes eventually to deal with.

The alchemists was horrified by the use the king put his machine to…. it wasn’t what he had in mind at all.

This little novella is about the damage we unthinking citizens of the earth do to our planet in our selfish endeavors.  It was an interesting read, if a bit heavy handed with the symbolism.  I tend to prefer my fables to hide their main premise a bit deeper, but it was good nonetheless.

Paolo Bacigalupi is probably best known for his dark cyberpunk sci fi book, The Windup Girl.

MR. HANCOCK’S SIGNATURE by Brian S. Wheeler

Mr. Hancock's SignatureGhost alert!  Ghost alert!

I figured that would get your attention.  I know some of you really like a good ghost story, and this one is a doozy.

You know how so many ghost stories are about evil spirits, and malevolent creatures.  Not really my cup of tea.  I keep asking myself, why does everyone always envision evil in the afterlife?   But this story has just the best collection of ghostly stuff.  You will totally love it.  There is a golem,  and a dead body, and water spirits, and almost best of all, a ghost train!

Allow me to explain.  It begins with the Hancocks, a farming family in the rural environs of a small town in the plains, the flatland, of Illinois.  I’ve been out there.  Boy, is it flat.   Miles of that flatness.  Well, the Hancocks, the last of them, is selling out, lock, stock and barrel, at auction.  Mr. Dunning, a hard-nosed businessman of a farmer,  has spent his time and money gobbling up failed farms and their equipment.  At the Hancock auction, Mr. Dunning offers to buy Hancock’s land, which contains the family cemetery, containing several generations of Hancocks.   The last remaining Hancock agrees, as long as Mr. Dunning maintains the cemetery, and permits no further burials in it.  Dunning agrees to the deal,  all is sold, and Hancock disappears, went wandering, and is never heard from again.

Mr. Hancock had a brother, dearly loved, who was killed in the war.  I am fuzzy as to which war.  His vehicle is blown up, and there are no remains to return to the family, but they do receive a box which contains his medals.  They obtain a black obelisk, which they erect in the center of the cemetery and bury the box in front of it.

Years later, the cemetery forgotten and abandoned, young Ian and friend ride their bikes out to see it, a kind of teen boy rite of passage in the area.  Ian sees the obelisk glowing red, and hears a humming, or thrumming, and he touches the stone and is overcome with a …. I don’t know what.  He is overcome.  Being the son of a military man, the father is stationed elsewhere and Ian soon after has to leave the town.

Fast forward to Ian as an adult, come back to the one town he felt was a little like home, hired to help the town rise out of its doldrums and try to rejuvenate it by attracting businesses to the place.

I know, you are asking about when the ghosts and golem will appear.  I am getting to that.  Have a little patience.  First we have to talk about the abandoned train trestle, which the kids jump from in rites of courage, etc.  Occasionally, the hidden rocks in the river claim a jumper.  And now we come to our first ghosts.  (I know.  You’re saying, “It’s about time, woman.  Get on with it.)  These are wispy spirits of the dead in the river, the accidental deaths, the kids who hit a rock, the suicides, and a few murders.

And these spirits haunt and taunt Minister Jackstone,  a former town drunk, now on the wagon, with a congregation that loves firearms.  He wears a couple of antique guns on his hips because he has made a deal with the river.  He will try to keep their memories alive if they stop haunting him.  At times when they come back, he goes back to the bottle.

And now the ghost train.  I sooooooo loved this ghost train.  It has a conductor with a pocket watch that tracks the hours of the universe, and goes all wonky when earthly activities are awry.   It has imps piling in the coal to make it hotter than hot so that the train can make a specific curve that will bring it into this dimension, where it arrives at the old depot, no longer used as a depot, but is a warehouse.  The night watchman feels the ghost train, sees the oncoming headlight of the huge monster, sees it stop, then leave the station.  What is left behind is a box, coffin sized.  The sheriff is called, and the box is found to contain a body.  It turns out to be the body of the last Hancock.  The local mortician takes it to prepare it for burial, but where to bury him is the question.  Ian feels he should be buried out in the family plot, the sheriff thinks the public cemetery in town should be the place.

There is where the golem enters the picture.  He is a sewn together creature, with a bad leg, and secretly comes to town.  The next morning after the arrival of the body, the body is found on the front steps of the local B&B.  How it got there out of the mortician’s locked basement work area is a mystery.  The body is taken back to the mortuary, and the following day is found in the old movie house, no longer in use.  The following day it is found up top on an abandoned smoke stack.

There is so much more wonderfulness to this story, but really, I hate making a spoiler out of it, so I will stop here, because I have given you the ghosts, the golem and the ghost train as promised.  If you like ghost stories,  paranormal, that kind of thing, do read this.  You won’t be sorry.

OK, field notes.  The golem is not strictly a golem.  A true golem is made of clay, or earth, and a spell put on it by its maker which brings it alive and if must do the bidding of its maker.  It is old Jewish lore.  This figure in our story is more  a self-created Frankensteinish creature, having sewn himself together to accomplish this one mission.

The ghost train comes back two more times.  For a reason.

The book was first published in 2008, and the e-version I have is riddled with editing problems –typos, missing words, homophones,  stuff like that. Enough to be slightly annoying but not enough to make it unreadable.  I would assume that a current version will have been thoroughly cleaned up by now.

I believe there is now a sequel, but for me, this was so perfect in and of itself that stretching it out any further would totally ruin it for me, no sequel for me.

Loved it.  Go read it.

 

 

THE DEMON AND THE CITY by Liz Williams

demon and the cityThis is the second of the Detective Chen books, set in some future sci fi-ish Singapore III.  You may remember I talked about the first book in the series, Snake Agent, here.   I recommend you go read that review because it gives you a lot of background that I am not going to repeat here.

The landscape in this book is filled with temples and places of Chinese mythology, and just chock full of Chinese dieties, demons, and metaphysical places, like Hell, and a boring Heaven, and Dogtown, which seems somewhat like a purgatory.

Detective Chen works with a Hellkind, a demon assigned to him from the Vice Squad of Hell, and in this story, they get themselves involved with a creature who looks like a woman but is actually some kind of catlike being who is on her way to being the richest person in the city.  She has her lab working on altering celestial beings she has captured, and it all gets really crazy.  She wants to take over Hell and Heaven as well.  Talk about ambition!

It involves a dowser, not for water, but who dowses for the meridian lines, the energy lines crisscrossing the city.  His patron goddess was once a human and has become a bovine personage, but is beginning to lose her power, and finally turns into a placid cow.

No, really.  I don’t make this stuff up.  Liz Williams did.

So it is more of a fantasy thriller than a mystery, and a lot of fun, and goofy, and a world you cannot possibly ever imagine living in. But I want the tea kettle/badger who lives with Detective Chen.  If I remember correctly, it was a demon or something that got stuck in a spell and now spends its life in this altered state, traveling around with the Detective and helping out.  You would be surprised how much a tea kettle/badger can do in the way of spying and biting enemies.  Really.  Almost as good as a pit bull.

 

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly

lost thingsI started to read this book expecting to love it.  After all, it has ‘Book’ in the title, right?  And some rave reviews somewhere.  I forget where.  I see so many Ya Gotta Read These 27 __________Books Before You Die lists that I lose track of where I saw anything.

It starts off just fine.  It is set in England right before the start of WWII, although, really, it could be set anywhere and in any time period.  A young boy of twelve loses his mother to cancer.  The boy is given to hearing things, voices.  The voices of books, actually.  They speak to him.  They whine, they complain, they grumble, they gossip.  What’s not to like so far.

About six months after his mother’s death, his father introduces him to a new woman, and not long after, announces they will be getting married.  And she is pregnant.  So in addition to raising our collective eyebrows at this, we are starting to suspect that maybe dear old dad had been seeing the sweetie on the side while his wife was busy dying of cancer.  But really, none of that is any of our business and has nothing to do with the story.

They get married and move to the woman’s house about 50 miles outside of London, which at this time is getting to be a good idea, what with the bombing and all.  She has the baby, our young man, David, is as most teens are with new stepparents, unpleasant to her, and is highly resentful of the baby.

His books are talking more and more to him.  One night, thinking he hears his dead mother calling him to rescue her, he wanders out to the garden just as an enemy plane, hit by defensive weapons and afire, crashes, into the garden, whereupon David is thrown aside, finds himself in a tree, and steps out into another world.

He has all kinds of nasty adventures in this other world, a quest built upon typical quest lines, meets a woodsman, then meets a knight on his own quest, comes upon a murdered girl in a bottle, is abducted by a huntress bent on sawing apart animals and humans and fusing them together to create innovative prey for her hunting skills, a whole lot of wolves and half men/half wolves, some dwarfs, trolls, harpies, and a really fat Snow White.

He complains that the stories are all mixed up, and when they find a modernday military tank in the woods, observes that it doesn’t belong there.  He is on a journey to find the old, ineffectual king of the region who has a mysterious book called The Book of Lost Things, which David hopes will help him find his mother and get back home.

So basically the bulk of the book is taken up by this mashup of old fairy tales and legends, all corrupted and twisted and quite violent and bloody.  And finally, guess.  You will never guess.  He wakes up in a hospital bed.

Was it a dream?  A paranormal event?  But after his adventures, now he is sweet and kind to his stepmother and a loving sibling to his half brother.  And we have a few pages where everything is wrapped up all tidy to the end of each character’s life.

Well.  It was too bloody and gory and gratuitously violent to be a child’s book, it wasn’t much of a coming of age book,  it didn’t appeal to me as a self-defined grownup, so I don’t know who it is aimed at.

It is full of the kind of sticky declarations of morality like in those dreadful tales meant for Victorian children.  I almost expected to see Dorothy clicking her red heels exclaiming, There’s no place like home.

So it isn’t YA, or a children’s book, and someone called it an adult urban fantasy.  Or a psychological study. Someone else called it an examination of the loss of innocence.

I just call it boring.