Review 1549: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Readers Imbibing Peril XV was just announced for books in September and October, and just by coincidence, here is my first entry.

Theodora Goss must really like Victorian and earlier monster stories. In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, she brings together characters inspired from Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, adding in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne for good measure.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died, and Mary has been left in near poverty. While going through her father’s papers, she finds that her mother was paying monthly sums for the support of Hyde. Thinking that if Mr. Hyde was alive, he might be responsible for the series of grizzly Jack the Ripper murders, she goes to Sherlock Holmes to find out how she might investigate and claim the reward for solving the case.

Dr. Watson comes with her to the address on the invoices to what turns out to be a home for fallen women. There they find, not Mr. Hyde, but a teenage girl named Diana Hyde, who calls her sister.

When Mary and Diana continue to investigate their father’s papers, they take up with Beatrice Rappachini, whose father changed her to breathe poison; Catherine Moreau, half woman, half panther; and Justine Frankenstein. They all begin working with Holmes and Watson to try to solve the killings.

At first, this seemed like a fun book for light reading. It was written in a jaunty style, with characters interrupting as Catherine writes their story, and it seemed entertaining and clever. By 50 pages in, I felt I had figured out everything important, just not the details. By 100 pages in, the story was beginning to flag. The characters didn’t have discernible personalities. It struck me that Holmes, for example, is described as being full of himself when he hasn’t behaved that way.

I finally stopped about halfway through, because I still had 200 pages to read and I wasn’t enjoying myself. What had started out seeming a clever idea got old and was too over the top.

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Review 1544: Sealskin

Ever since I heard Joan Baez sing “Silkie,” I have been fascinated by stories of selkies. They don’t seem to feature very often, but a few years ago, I reviewed an intriguing one in The Sea House.

In Sealskin, Su Bristow explores the legend, in particular one about a man who finds a selkie and hides her sealskin so he can keep her. This novel is set in as realistic a way as you can get in a story about a selkie (except in The Sea House).

Donald is a misfit in his Scottish fishing village because of a skin disease. Although his uncle Hugh would like him to crew with him, he avoids going out on the fishing boat because of taunts from the crew. He spends most of his time avoiding the other villagers.

One night he goes crabbing and sees seals on a rocky ledge. They take off their skins and become young maidens and dance. Thinking of the value of the sealskin, Donald steals one, and when the maidens are frightened into donning their skins and swimming away, one cannot leave.

Donald captures the selkie and in a fit of madness, rapes her. When he takes her home to his mother, Bridie, she tells him he can’t send the girl back because she knows she is with child. Bridie tells him he must marry the girl, whom they name Mairhi, and pretend he met her months before in another village.

Mairhi cannot speak but shows she is very unhappy. Donald doesn’t want to marry her, despite his mother’s warnings, so he goes back to find her skin, but it is gone.

Although I have an objection to love stories that start with a rape—a technique that used to be used often in romance novels—Bristow handles this story of love and personal growth tremendously well. It’s a touching novel about consequences.

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Review 1510: The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, an envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of other worlds, has been waiting for an audience with King Argaven XV of Karhide for two years. Although he does not trust Lord Estraven, Argaven’s prime minister, he has understood the prime minister was supporting his efforts to gain an audience. But during a state parade, Lord Estraven tells him it is not a good time.

Genly’s disappointment makes him doubt that Lord Estraven ever had good intentions. When Lord Estraven hints that Genly should leave the capital, Genly ignores him. Soon, he learns that Lord Estraven has been banished from Karhide upon pain of death.

King Argaven encourages Genly to travel around Karhide, and he does so. The planet of Gethen is an ice planet, formerly called Winter by Ekumen, and Genly is constantly cold. He has trouble understanding the Gethenians, who are androgynous; when they are in heat once a month, they take on whichever sex is opposite to that of their partner. Genly has a hard time adjusting to the feminine side of the Gethenians. For their part, they consider him a pervert for always, as they see it, being in heat.

Eventually, Genly decides to leave the more primitive, indirect Karhides for Orgoreyn, an apparently more civilized and direct country, where he is welcomed. This state is much more authoritarian. Whereas in Karhide his presence was known, in Orgoreyn it is being kept secret from all but the government. Soon, the situation takes a turn he doesn’t expect.

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I thought it was about the best book I had ever read. Reading it again, I see no reason to change my mind except to say that others stand up there with it.

It is written as a set of documents, Genly’s story mixed in with records from other envoys and stories from the myths of various cultures on Gethen. It manages to explore many topics with its theme of light and darkness, including the effects on our lives of different sexual orientations. It’s really a masterpiece.

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Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Review 1422: #MARM Margaret Atwood Reading Month—The Testaments

I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to read The Testaments. I had heard conflicting opinions. More importantly, I felt that The Handmaid’s Tale was just about a perfect book that didn’t need a sequel. The Testaments ended up co-winning the Booker Prize, though, so I had to read it for my project, and I also decided to read it in time for Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

The novel is narrated in documents: testimonies, a hologram hidden in a library, and finally the text of a lecture. The major narrators are Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of Gilead; Agnes, a girl raised in Gilead; and a younger girl named Daisy raised in Canada.

Aunt Lydia is busy recording a secret document telling tales of corruption by the leaders of Gilead. Her narrative takes us back to the founding of Gilead, when she, a judge, and all the professional working women were rounded up and “tested” for their ability to move forward. Agnes tells about how her protected childhood was destroyed by the death of her mother, the discovery that her actual mother was a handmaid, and the advent of her stepmother. At 13, she is to be forced into a marriage with Commander Judd, a much older man who has had many young wives who have all died. Daisy begins to find out secrets about herself after her parents are killed in an explosion.

So, what did I think of this novel? Well, Atwood always knows how to capture and keep her readers’ attentions. The book is fast moving and well written and should make many of the television program’s followers happy, which is its purpose. Did I change my mind about a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? Not really, especially since it does its job in a way that is so often predictable. I also felt that the final chapter was very weak. Atwood has tied everything up nicely, but sometimes I prefer ambiguity. So, a mixed review from me, even though overall it was a good book.

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Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Day 1236: A Most Extraordinary Pursuit

Cover for A Most Extraordinary PursuitHaving read Juliana Gray’s second Emmaline Truelove novel, A Strange Scottish Shore, a few months ago, I decided to read the first. Juliana Gray, by the way, is a pen name for Beatriz Williams, known for her historical romances.

It is February 1906, and Emmaline is finishing up the details for the funeral of her employer, the Duke of Olympia, when the Duchess sends for her. It seems that Maximillian Haywood, the heir to the dukedom, has not been heard from in months. He was off working at the newly discovered archaeological site of the palace of Knossos, but he has not sent in his expected report or responded to any messages. The duchess asks Emmaline to go find him, accompanied by Lord Silverton, a renowned womanizer but apparently also some sort of government agent.

As Emmaline sets off on her journey aboard the duke’s steamship, she finds herself re-evaluating her first impression of Lord Silverton as a simpleton. She also can’t deny he has his charms. Unfortunately, nor can most of the women they meet.

This is a fun adventure story with a bit of a twist—time travel! You’ll like the practical, redoubtable heroine, Emmaline, and the charming Lord Silverton and will probably have a good time along with them on their journey.

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Day 1148: A Strange Scottish Shore

Cover for A Strange Scottish ShoreHere I go again, starting a series at the second book. This time, I wasn’t aware it was part of a series until I went to enter it in Goodreads as currently reading. In some cases, it being the second in a series doesn’t matter, but if A Strange Scottish Shore sounds appealing to you, I advise that you start with the first Emmaline Truelove book, A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. I might just try to find a copy myself.

A lot is going on here, and it takes a while to figure out all of it. It is 1906, and Emmaline Truelove works for Max, the Duke of Olympia, in charge of some type of foundation. Emmaline is a practical, down-to-earth person, but she is helping Max try to learn about a power he doesn’t understand, the ability to move people through time.

Emmaline is on her way to Scotland with important documents when she meets two different men. A ginger-haired man seems to be stalking her until Lord Silverton comes to her train compartment. Lord Silverton, with whom she has had adventures in the previous book, is a handsome man with a reputation with the ladies, so Emmaline can hardly believe him when he claims to have fallen in love with her. Nevertheless, she spends the night with him, only to awaken the next morning and find her papers gone.

In Scotland, Emmaline and Max are summoned to a castle in the Orkney Islands to view a suit that the owner found hidden in a secret compartment of a chest that hasn’t been opened in centuries. The suit sounded to me like a wetsuit, which of course hasn’t been invented yet in 1906. The castle has a legend of the founder of the family having been married to a selkie, so Emmaline and Max begin calling it a selkie suit.

link to NetgalleyIn the meantime, Lord Silverton has disappeared. Emmaline finds clues that he has been in this castle at another time. She concludes that Max inadvertently sent him back in time, so she talks Max into sending her back for him.

This novel features a redoubtable heroine, a nasty villain, and plenty of action, plus time travel! If this sounds like your thing, you will probably enjoy the combination of historical novel, speculative fiction, action, and romantic suspense.

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Day 1138: The Vengeance of Mothers

Cover for The Vengeance of MothersThe Vengeance of Mothers is Jim Fergus’s sequel to One Thousand White Women, and telling about it faces me with a problem. If you are at all interested in reading either of these books, this is your warning that it’s impossible to tell anything about this one without mentioning the events at the end of the other.

One Thousand White Women was presented as the journals of Mary Dodd, who participated in a (fictional) U.S. government exchange of white women as wives for the Cheyenne for horses. In the 1990’s, the son of the journal’s publisher receives a visitor in his office, Molly Standing Bear, who gives him another set of journals, the basis for The Vengeance of Mothers.

These journals are those of three women—Meggie and Susie Kelly, the wild Irish twins who appeared in the previous novel, and Molly McGill, a young woman participating in the second program of brides for horses. Meggie and Susie are determined to wreak vengeance for the events at the closing of the last novel, which resulted in the deaths of their children. Molly’s group is captured by the Lakota when their train is massacred, but the Lakota give the survivors to the Cheyenne.

link to NetgalleyThe women’s adventures include the return of the dastardly Jules Seminole, who led the army to attack the Cheyenne instead of the group of Native Americans they were supposed to attack; the reappearance of a few of the women from the first book; and a romance between Molly and Hawk, a young warrior.

I found the same things interesting in this novel that I liked in the other, particularly the details of life among the Cheyenne, but Fergus doesn’t give us much of anything new here, except a strange turn to the spiritual. In particular, I found the ending unsatisfying. Still, I enjoyed most of the journey to a limited extent.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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