Book Review – California’s Deadly Women by Michael Thomas Barry

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Full Title: California’s Deadly Women: Murder and Mayhem in the Golden State
Genre: True Crime / History
Publication Date: June 28th, 2018
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing

Darkly fascinating and tragic, California’s Deadly Women unearths the crimes of a hundred years. The blood, shame and sorrow of these womens’ acts of murder are shown in a versatile light – whether it’s forgiving or damning is up to the individual circumstance. Whether desperation or malice, accident or intent, the crime was done, nonetheless.

The cases in this book range from 1850 to the 1950’s, and speak volumes about the issues of their respective era, notably women’s rights. Some were nothing more than a straightforward act of evil, but many of the stories are ones of panic and desperation which led to the worst. These showcased with clarity how paradoxical, stigmatizing and merciless society could be to women, even if the law was lenient.
Consider that they were almost always victims themselves, and if it weren’t for that same system, they wouldn’t have been driven to desperate ends in the first place. The cases where it wasn’t intentional, but a necessity of self-defense, are a deeply disturbing portrait of the time. No one should get away with murder, but no one should be forced onto a path where something as vile as killing seems like the only means of escape, either.

The book delves heavily into different facets of women murderers and how they became that way, as well as the flippant inequalities of the American justice system towards criminals based on their gender, race, appearance and personal history – still unfortunately very prevalent today, as evidenced by the uncanny parallels between these women’s circumstances and recent stories.

The writing style is accessible and clever, and many interesting photographs of good quality are included – such as portraits and gravestones of the accused, as well as houses, locations and how these places look today. Ultimately a thought-provoking and well-constructed piece of nonfiction which gives a face and story to tragedies and cruelties buried by time.

 

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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Book Review – The End of Chiraq by Javon Johnson (Editor)

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry / Social Issues
Publication Date: May 15th, 2018
Publisher: Northwestern University Press

“Mixing culture for the sake of chaos is a sin. Mixing culture for the sake of love… now, that’s God’s work.” -Demetrius Amparan

Poignant and sobering – simultaneously a love song to the city of Chicago and a desperate cry for it to change, for the rapid and unforgiving cycle of violence to end. I feel unequipped to review this book fully, as I’ve never been to Chicago, so I don’t know what it’s like. I can only imagine from the words of those who have seen it at its best and at its worst.

In these poems and essays lies optimism, faith and hope alongside an overwhelming sense of oppression, aggravated further by factors such as poverty, racism and corruption in law enforcement. There is both criticism and dissection of the term “Chiraq” used to describe the city and its violence. Mariame Kaba warns not to embrace the term, as they feel it leads to negation and “shoving to the side” of serious issues, or worsening them:

“The act of renaming the stolen land upon which they live, considered to be agency by some, perversely seals their fate. […] In ‘Chiraq’, community voices are drowned out. […] ‘Chiraq’ conditions how we think of ourselves and neighbors. It traps us into considering solutions that are steeped in a punishment mindset.”

The End of Chiraq is both a call for action and a call for solace – a thought-provoking anthology with a strong chorus of voices. It is both the songs of pain and beauty, or in the echo of its own words, a flower that is brave enough to rise from the concrete and seek freedom. Powerful, and I recommend to all.

Some essay and poems that stood out to me in particular were “To Live and Die in Chiraq” by Mariame Kaba, “My grandmother tells me…” by Demetrius Amparan, “Concrete Flowers” by Aneko Jackson, “When Asked About Chicago” by Alfonzo Kahlil, and “History as Written by the Victors” by Krista Franklin. I also found the essay by Leah Love on interviewing a female graffiti artist to be fascinating.

 

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Murder, Melancholy and Mystique – More NetGalley Picks and Books for Summer / Late Spring

Ah, NetGalley, you blatant sadist. Every time I think I’ve gotten my review backlog to under fifty books, here you come dangling more enticing literature in front of me. Anyway, I’ve been mostly consumed with an attempt at writing a novel and trying to churn out another free book before the month’s end, so unfortunately I still have a large amount of books I own and books generously approved to me by the Galley left to review. However, they will all eventually make it on here in the next few months, including these freshly-picked beauties listed below. This batch includes the mystical intrigue of poetry and romance, juxtaposed alongside the griminess of horror and thriller.

❤️NEW❤️ – My new Patreon page – please consider becoming a Patron or sharing this page on any social media – 100% goes towards improving this blog and all of my work. I can’t promise any large-scale rewards, however Patrons get first notice of all work beforehand and the chance at free advance copies of anything I publish, and if it’s successful will be personally thanked and featured right here on BRV. If you would like to donate but not long-term, I also have a Buy Me a Coffee page. These are brand-new and still in the touching-up phase, so you’ll have to forgive their looks.

Recent NetGalley Approvals

Other Books to Be Featured Soon

  • “The Paying Guests” – Sarah Waters (Historical Fiction / LGBT)
  • “Tipping the Velvet” – Sarah Waters (Historical Fiction / LGBT)
  • “The Sisterhood” – Florence Stevenson (Retro Horror Review)
  • “The Legacy” – Jere Cunningham (Retro Horror Review)
  • “Chasing the Omega” – Jessica Edwards (Independent / Fantasy YA)
  • “The Day is Ready For You” – Alison Malee (Poetry)
  • “Trolls in the Attic” – Joanie K. Findle (Fantasy YA / Short Stories)
  • “California’s Deadly Women” – Michael Thomas Barry (Nonfiction / Crime)
  • Several new artbook reviews with included photographs, of varying genres.

Book Review – The Little Book of Witchcraft by Astrid Carvel

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: History / Spirituality
Publication Date: March 20th, 2018
Publisher: Andrews McMeel

I’m not honestly very knowledgeable about Wicca or Paganism, nor do I practice either, but I respect both as belief systems, namely their omnipresent respect for nature, something we could all learn from. Their history is fascinating as well, which is largely why I picked it up from NetGalley.

Wicca and Paganism are still shamefully misunderstood and continue to catch a bad rap in media and culture, but as the author says, like any belief there are positive, healthy ways to convey it (like those described in the book), and there are ways that perpetuate evil, often under the guise of being more “true” to the religion’s roots (which they aren’t).

From Carvel’s descriptions, in a nutshell – true Wicca is not cursing people, selling your soul, transfiguring people into animals, luring in humans with gingerbread houses or anything else media and witch hunts would have you think. As she explains it, it’s essentially a strong focus on the power of the mind and the power of plantlife and things existing in nature, and combining them to yield positive results in your life or someone else’s. It’s never to be used for malice, as all malice comes with vicious consequences for daring to want such things.

I didn’t have much interest in the spellbook half, personally, but the history half was nothing short of intriguing. A few facts that stood out:

  • The “Witchcraft Acts”, laws set in place to punish accused witches or practitioners of magic in England and Scotland, were introduced to largely unnecessary harm and hysteria in the 1500’s, but not fully repealed until the 1950’s.
  • Witches’ marks, ancient symbols of protection, have been found at the birthplace of William Shakespeare, as well as the Tower of London.
  • The earliest artistic depiction of witchcraft is believed to be a cave painting (circa 12,000 BC, possibly older) in what is now France, depicting a horned god and a pregnant woman standing in a circle with others.

I love the decorations and style of this book, and I think its information is useful and would make a great gift book.

[I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Further Reading:

On the Witchcraft Acts (Wikipedia)
History and Information on Paganism (BBC)
History and Information on Wicca (Wicca.com)

Book Review – Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Thriller / Drama
Publication Date: October 31st, 2017
Publisher: Simon Pulse
From the Blurb: “When Sasha’s best friend Xavier gets back together with his cheating ex, Ivy, Sasha knows she needs to protect him. So she poses as a guy online to lure Ivy away.
But Sasha’s plan goes sickeningly wrong. And she soon learns to be careful of who you pretend to be because you might be surprised by who you become…”

Sometimes “I’m sorry” just isn’t good enough, and it never will be if the one you mean it for is too dead to hear it.
A tangled triangle of finnicky romance, envious obsession and infidelity – a wicked brew indeed.

Bad Girls twists like a sharp bone fracture, but was quirkier than I expected it to be. The dialogue in the first half is mostly surreal humor and the male MC, Xavier, is a blue-haired, borderline manic pixie dream-boy. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed it more for this – it gives it a strange and disconcertingly light air that is unique and at beautiful odds with the darkness of its secrets.

Delicious and fraught with fragile, explosive emotions, Bad Girls with Perfect Faces explores unusual characters who mix together like gasoline and matches, and are destined to destroy each other whether they intend to or not. The love that’s there teeters on a wire, strong for a moment but so easily broken in two.

Story – 4.5/5
Characterization – 4/5
General – 4/5

Book Review – Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

★★★★★ 5 Stars

Genre: Poetry / Realistic Fiction
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2018
Publisher: Kids Can Press

“On the shoreline there was a lion, tame enough to be climbed, wild enough to play with the waves […] I will stay here until I get stranded. The water will get higher and higher and no one will be able to reach me, to save me, and I will deserve it. I will deserve to be stranded on an island all by myself.”

The fortunes of life are much like the waters of the sea, full of malice as often as they are full of kindness, both on different flipsides of the same waves. This Ebb and Flow gently plucks at the heartstrings, enough to stir but not so much to hurt.

Its prosaic soul tells of how a boy, Jett’s, year and most vital friendships are marred by a few bad events and to him the damage looks like it might be beyond repair. A bully for a friend, a criminal father, the loss of a real best friend who feels Jett’s betrayed him, and a mother who has no more patience for him, all culminate in the summer he leaves for his grandma’s house on the seashore.

Jett and Junior’s friendship is really poignant, if poisonous while it lasted. It’s hard to describe other than a “devil’s deal” – they both shared a dark bond that came from having fathers who had done horrible things, and that no one but them understood, but with a friendship like that no matter how genuine it is, comes with some toxic costs. In the fashion of such a deal, they may have gained a friendship for awhile but it loses them so much more and in the end dissolves anyway.

“I never knew the devil could cry.”

Ebb and Flow‘s characterization is nothing short of beautiful – Jett is a truly kind and patient character warped into cruelty by someone who has never known anything but cruelty, and while Jett can’t change that he can change himself to be different.
The relationships between Jett and his grandma, as well as Junior’s mentally disabled uncle, are absolutely heartwarming but carry a powerful tinge of sorrow.
An engaging and haunting story.

Prose – 4.5/5
Story – 4.5/5
Characterization – 5/5
Overall – 5/5

I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – Please Don’t Go Before I Get Better by Madisen Kuhn

★★★★ 4 Stars

“You make so much sense / amidst the tangled vines of learning and unlearning / please don’t go before I get better.”

Blissful and youthful, like the newly-bloomed lavender caressing the wind. A journal of dreamy celestial memories of love that hang in the sky, while the cell of depression chills alone down on the earth. A candle whose pale light melts a sorrow into something like a sense of joy.

I thought these were just charming, but I definitely prefer the traditional poems over the diary-like entries on romance. I feel like those will be personal to the individual but don’t resonate with me much.
There is an overarching lucid-dream innocence that’s beautiful – pure, colourful, longing. I can see why Kuhn’s poems are popular on social media, but at the same time, for some reason I can’t imagine those sites being so receptive of such delicate writing. Anyway, I recommend.

I received a review copy of this from NetGalley. This book releases May 1st, 2018.

Book Review – CITY Vol. 1 by Keiichi Arawi

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

This CITY is the definition of quirky, but it certainly has nothing at all to do with an ancient bird statue. Definitely not. And nobody in this city uses said bird statue to hang out their laundry to dry, and no one worships it either. Nope, not in this city.

However, it is true that there is one girl in this city who owes several hundred yen to every single citizen, and it’s also true that planting expensive Haniwa statues in seemingly random locations is a popular hobby. This city might or might not also be home to a semi-demonic obāsan who demands chores rather than souls.

CITY is a quick, cute slice-of-life read. Light, surreal humour just dances in its pages. I especially like the weird little background details, for example the “wanted” posters at the police station showing overweight snakes and anime villains. The art style is adorable, though personally I feel like it would “pop” more if it had all been in colour, like the cover illustration. The characters are all off-beat and random, in a good way. In tone it reminds me somewhat of the more oddball American newspaper comics, like The Far Side.

Art – 4/5
Story – 3.5/5
Humor – 4/5
General – 3.5/5

I received a copy of this through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – Audition by Ryu Murakami

★★★★ 4 Stars

“No forgiveness for lies.”

Is it the needle-sharp sting of malice, or unchecked madness grown poisonous?
Or, in the end, is it just a small misunderstanding twisted beyond repair? Too beautiful, too wrong, too strange to be real.

A widower, Aoyama, who lives with his son, decides several years after his wife’s death to finally remarry. With a producer friend, they hold an “audition” for a film which will never actually be made, hoping to find Aoyama a prospective young bride by designing a casting call that requires traits he prefers. And boy, do they find her. Enigmatic Asami Yamasaki, whom Aoyama is at once powerfully struck by, but only he seems to see an angel. Everyone around him sees something lurking beneath the mask.

Aoyama himself is flawed, being a bit shallow and impatient – he focuses on women’s looks and history more than their personality, and resorts to dating via a lazy scam of an audition. These things are somewhat small considering, but clash with the flaws of the girl he ends up choosing, persistent and with a unfathomable, unforgiving nature.

Audition is a nearly exact mirror to R. Murakami’s Piercing – both with his signature theme of genders and generations at explosive odds. Brutal, illogical desires and acts all stem from their utter inability to understand each other in the disconnection of modern society. Audition is a little different in that the hate is one-sided. Aoyama never truly grows to hate Asami, I don’t believe. Even when he very clearly should and has more than enough reason to. He just doesn’t see what she really is, or understand what she wants.

Only maybe the last fifth of the book could be considered a thriller, the rest is very much a character drama. A clean but uneasy surface barely covering up some pulsing, visceral horror that breaks through at the last minute to bad, bad, bad consequences.
Audition is a little predictable, especially with its film adaptation being so (in)famous, but nonetheless a thought-provoking and disturbing read.

*Note – There is some violence towards both an animal and people that may upset some. It’s mostly concentrated to the last few chapters, and isn’t drawn-out or gratuitous, but felt I should mention it.*

Book Review – Thornhill by Pam Smy

★★★★ 4 Stars

Thornhill, in which the past and present are webbed together in faded cruelties and a loneliness that runs deep to the heart.
A beautiful, but more tragic than terrifying sort of ghost story where atmos clings like the mist behind the rain.

The past is told in the form of a diary, the present in the form of images – a girl, Ella, moves into a house in 2017 with a view of the ruins of an orphanage across the fence, which keeps the forgotten story of a girl, Mary, who lived there in the 1980’s.
Ella’s plot is more of a conduit into the supernatural side of Thornhill and its restless history, but Mary’s is where the true flesh and soul of the story lies.

Mary is the outcast and black sheep of the orphanage, but her unnamed tormentor and bully is the angel, who can do nothing wrong in anyone else’s eyes. No matter how she hurts Mary though, Mary never says a word and keeps solace in her attic room.
As the others leave the orphanage, the two are eventually alone, both forgotten and mistrusted, horribly warped by Thornhill.

In a way, a spiritual sequel to The Secret Garden, Thornhill is a haunting drama about children who made invisible by their loneliness.

Art – 5/5
Story – 4/5
Characterization – 4/5
General – 4/5

Book Review – Mind Platter by Najwa Zebian

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

This begins strongly. Eloquent yet accessible philosophy, but it loses traction somewhat as it gets to be repetitive toward the end. I have nothing bad to say about the way it is written, however, and is a welcome relief from disheartenment.

To my mind it is more of a self-help book written in stylised prose than it is a poetry book. The verses are oddly in more of a quotation format rather than more traditional poem styles, but it works.

3.5/5

I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – She Felt Like Feeling Nothing by R. H. Sin

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Precise, small prose carries the weight of massive emotions.
A romantic tribute to the brave woman who overcomes hardships caused by a lover, caused by society, caused by her doubts.
I feel like this might resonate more strongly with others than it did with me, though I did enjoy these, and the design of the book is stylish as well. I admire its intention – She Felt Like Feeling Nothing succeeds at being uplifting and in parts evocative of beautiful renewal and fresh beginnings.
The themes get a bit repetitive and I feel could be more daring or experimental, but overall a good collection.

Some quotes:
“The rain falls from within / overflowing eternally / i’m drowning, slowly consumed / by the sadness of it all / and somehow living in this moment / feels like dying all the same.”

“She walked through the fire wearing nothing but a smile, because she knew damn well that she’d bring her demons to their knees.”

I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace

★★★★ 4 Stars

We are what we’re born, and we become what we cultivate. This is nothing to be condemned for, and yet it happens each day.

A witch to me is a paradox – transgressive yet natural. She is only controversial because as a people we have separated ourselves so far from natural wisdom, so what is perfectly human now seems inhuman. A power we could easily have seems terrifying, because it’s been smushed underfoot for so long.

Like a lot of poetry, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One is a bit of a mystery bag – the dip into the next page may give you something beautiful. Some was a little clichéd. Lovelace’s books get a lot of high praise, so I can sit with the cool kids now because I’ve finally read one and agree that it’s deserving of most of it.

What I love is the prose of course – the metaphor of a witch-burning for so much unnecessary pain and burden given to women throughout history, it’s very powerful. It’s angry but not damning, it’s more a sense of liberation. Like, we can get past this and we can evolve, but don’t forget the sacrifice of these women. We are blessed with so much now because of them.

What I don’t love… and you can take this as traditionalist nit-picking, which it is, because you may personally enjoy these things… I’m not crazy about the Hunger Games references, and think that body size as a feminist issue could’ve been handled better. The later prose talks about loving your faults, or accepting them at the least, but also assumes that not being thin (ie – what society wants) is a rebellion against it, which it isn’t. Like I said, we are what we are and we’re all different sorts, and that’s what is important to accept.

The Witch Doesn’t Burn does but shouldn’t have a content warning – it does talk about sensitive topics but we need to. Shoving them under the carpet will only create lumps. These lumps have no warnings and they will trip you without fail.

I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review – Labyrinth Men by John Beach

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

“Men are a borrowed breath, and then we’re done. We net the fish from a glistening sea, plow dirt, and farm ourselves out to someone, whose hands may shape us into poetry.”

Labyrinth Men is available for free read or download on Smashwords.
Beautiful, artful little indie gem of a poetry collection whose bright cover caught my eye. In eloquence and relateable words that say so much in just a few well-thought-out lines.

It is tricky to review poetry, as like art, one may take a completely different meaning, or see a vision that is not the author’s, so I don’t bother with in-depth analysis on poetry reviews. I feel it ruins the writing somewhat for those who have read the review. However, I will say that I found it to be melancholic and has a sense of the veil being lifted, of disillusionment, yet is also uplifting and charming. Some are amazing, a few are just okay, but none are bad. Wonderfully written chapbook.

Stand Outs – “Constellations”, “If Hearts Might Lie”, “Poles”, “Negotiating”, “A Nervous System Sensing”

Book Review – Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami

Coin Locker Babies

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

“I thought if I were beautiful enough, all my dreams would come true. But you don’t stay beautiful forever. One day you wake up and it’s gone, and then where are you? Dreams are made with blood and sweat and tears.”

A mentally exhausting but still addictive book about two adopted siblings, Hashi and Kiku, who share the bond of abandonment – rescued from coin lockers on the same day as infants. As adults they are fed up with the sick, seedy world and everyone in it and look to destroy it or destroy themselves trying.
It stays twinging in your brain like the bug of Hashi’s fable, crawling up into your thoughts and taking them over. No matter how you feel about it, it is impossible to forget.

Coin Locker Babies can be a deceptively time-consuming novel. It’s only about 400 pages, yet it feels like you are living through these characters’ lives along with them and in real-time. You can sense the brothers’ maddening isolation, vivid anger and frustration which seem to pursue them no matter what they do. Not exactly a cheerful read, but it does have its own delusional beauty.

If you are not familiar with the author, know that he does NOT under any circumstances, shy away from vivid detail. This is a double-sided skill which can make for either a heavenly scene or a stomach-churning horror, or possibly even both on the same page. (The concert scenes come to mind.)
Misanthropy and violence are aplenty, but in this case they aren’t meaningless or glorified – but used to show how and why someone could reach that point to where they feel nothing but loneliness and hatred.

From reading most of his short novellas, I don’t think larger novels like this are really Murakami’s forte, in all honesty. While it’s a great book, there are some bizarre scenes which get darker and higher levels of weird as the book goes on and feel like padding.

Hashi and Kiku are believable but… not healthy people, to say the least. Both of their obsessions – Hashi’s with sound and Kiku’s with his mother, only throw them deeper into their madness until they are barely relateable as human any longer.
I wasn’t crazy about Anemone as a female lead, either. Much of her personality is doing nonsensical things, and the crocodile she keeps is a pet is a more likeable character.
I liked Neva much more and felt much worse for her, having to pretty much run Hashi’s life for him while he apparently has no issue with abandoning her on random whims. Even in the end, she takes the blame for what he becomes, as no one else will.

Writing – 4.5/5
Characterization – 4/5
General – 4.5/5

Book Review – Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Cynicism makes for much nervous laughter.
Sellevision is akin to trying to jam to elevator music in an abandoned office building – wholly corporate in appearance yet jarring and an oddly specific experience.

Sellevision focuses on the staff and actors of a home-shopping network who are faced with stalkers, scandals and shopping addictions. It was part of a self-challenge to read a larger variety of fiction. I rarely read comedies, so this was something different. I did enjoy the story, but felt like maybe I’m not quite cynical enough to find it a “riot” as the blurbs claim. No idea what home shopping networks are like now, I imagine pretty much the same as they’ve always been. I really have no strong emotions about them, but the book uses them well as a platform for a biting jab at consumerist culture and its blind apathy.

I liked Max’s and Peggy Jean’s storylines most – Max looking for another job after a nudity scandal causes him to lose his, and Peggy Jean being harassed by an angry fan. Bebe and Eliot’s affair was cute if cloying (that fake-out reveal almost got me though). Trish and Leigh’s plots about network drama were neutral ground, felt kind of like filler.

Ironically, despite being made out as a walking rich suburbanite stereotype, I found Peggy Jean to be the only sympathetic character in the end, and the only one who grows as a character rather than moving horizontally from one wreck to another.
Yeah, Peggy Jean is a target for a lot of cynicism for at first being a covert snob and ignoring other people when it counted. Fair, but does she really deserve the horrible things she gets from the story? Awful kids, psychological trauma and a husband who is a foul human being. But as it all falls apart, her character and faith turns out to be far more genuine than it seems, and in the end she’s much better and happier.

Max is an interesting case. He’s a likeable protagonist with realistic faults. I feel like Max is how most people feel about the kind of shows mentioned in the book – knowing a lot is fake, trashy or pandering and yet wouldn’t turn down the chance to be a part of it if the opportunity was there.

“It’s all a wasteland, he thought. But I belong in that wasteland.”

Book Review – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Sweet, inspiring holiday classic to start the prelude to Christmas!

A relatively short read that practically radiates Christmas spirit from its pages, in tufts of snow and spices and emotion. In a day of materialism and violent holiday-shopping mobs, we need things like this especially to remind us of the original point of the holidays – to be thankful and appreciative of what we have, to enjoy it before they’re taken from our grasp by the flow of time.
No matter if you celebrate Christmas, don’t celebrate it, or don’t know anything about Christmas, the lesson still holds entirely truthful and valuable for anyone.

A Christmas Carol has the entire adventure buffet – humor, sorrow, imagination and even a bit of horror. And a main character who (rather famously) is forced to rethink his existence as a miserable, crotchety miser who only seems to cause discontent, to himself and others, by a trio of ghosts who pay him a visit.

Writing – 4/5
Characterization – 5/5
General – 4/5

Book Review – The Monster Show : A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal

I originally wrote this review on Halloween, but I suppose if it sneaks over into Christmas no one will mind. You can’t go too wrong with a book like The Monster Show, what with Edward Gorey cover art and a healthy bit of each era of horror, though the author does tend to favor silent and classic films. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

A sharply-written, well-researched and intriguing look into what and who made horror films what they have become – how they grew and changed with the fears, taboos and interests of the people.
There are good bits also on how stories of other genres often get their roots from something horrific, as well as the strange lifelong relationship that horror and erotica have with each other, and how both tend to be heavily challenged genres. If a film got picked on by censors, odds are it was one or both genres.

Horror itself is one of the oldest core genres of fiction, many early horror films and novels being inspired by themes which were already ancient and immersed in society at the time through folklore, superstition and even religion.

Fun fact – The oldest known (and intact) horror film is Georges Méliès’s short The Haunted Castle / Le Manoir du Diable. The oldest surviving full-length horror film is Frankenstein (1910). What is thought to be the first horror novel, officially, is The Castle of Otranto, though of course there have always been elements of horror in literature, long before that.

Overall, an incredibly interesting book that gives more insight into the genre’s origins in film, how we have evolved (or devolved, depending on what you feel about modern horror) from the dreamlike surrealism of early horror movies, to the occultish and symbolic mid-century films, into the visceral, discomfortingly realistic films of today.

In my own opinion, a good horror film should be unassuming, to catch one off-guard. The filmmaker shouldn’t be concerned with being ‘edgy’ or ‘shocking’, but rather creating a nightmare to be experienced onscreen as if it were one happening in your mind’s eye.

General – 4/5

Book Review – The Makioka Sisters (細雪) by Junichiro Tanizaki

A capturing in words of a lost way of life, as well as the struggles and serenity unique to it.
The Makioka Sisters unfolds gently like a bud on a tree. Tanizaki tells these women’s stories in thoughtful, observant prose while making no assumptions of the reader, creating a beautiful but isolated world with a tinge of sadness to its edges.

You have to be prepared with patience for this drama, as it is slow-paced, but that doesn’t detract from its admirable beauty as a piece of fiction. It is a glimpse into historical Japan through the eyes of someone who recalls it both fondly and longingly, who laments the problems of the era but not quite as much as the encroaching issues of modern times.

In retrospect, a wistful family drama is sort of unusual for Tanizaki, who is known for decadent, semi-erotic works. You can still tell his distinct style apart from other writers, though. His writing pattern is that of an artist who cautiously, patiently translates his dreams from his mind onto paper.

I highly recommend to anyone interested in the pre-WWII culture of Japan and those who love historical fiction.

General – 4.5/5

Book Review – Ascending Peculiarity by Edward Gorey

“My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like.” – Edward Gorey

If you’ve read any number of his morbid stories, you’ve probably familiar already with Edward Gorey’s many obsessions – ballet, fur coats, the Victorian era, silent films, androgyny and of course, literature.

Ascending Peculiarity won’t tell you anything new or surprising, but it is interesting to hear the thoughts of such a reclusive artist. Always too modest about his work, these are various interviews on how some of his books came into being – inspirations and base ideas behind them. Some are on other topics, and I did enjoy the one about the ridiculous amount of ballets Gorey had been to – so many that he might as well have been a member of the ballet crew himself – and his observations on them.

It’s not incredibly difficult to find anything from the Gorey library today, but in the past it has been, especially early ones when they were more of a niche interest. They do include many illustrations from these macabre not-exactly-children’s-picture-books, which is pretty cool. A collector or fan would be the ideal for this book. I think anyone would basically enjoy it, but in my opinion a straight autobiography and not just interviews would have been more interesting.

3.5/5 Stars