Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe



I’ve been on an academic/paranormal kick these days.  After finishing A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness which I’ll review later, I picked up Katherine Howe’s 2009 novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  After reading both books back to back, I have to say that “Physick” is my favorite of the two, despite the global popularity of “Discovery.”  Although both books deal with the subject of witchcraft, Howe’s novel is more subtle, but even eerier than Harkness’s “Discovery” due to its understated quality.

“Physick” shifts seamlessly between two worlds: 1991 Massachusetts and 17th century Salem where the witch trials have reached fever pitch.  In the present, doctoral candidate Connie Goodwin is preparing for her oral exams in Colonial and New England History.  Howe was also studying for her oral exams when she first began her imaginings of “Physick” and the scene in which Connie sits for her exams could only have been written by someone who has gone through the ordeal.  I even found myself breaking a sweat as Connie answers painfully intricate questions about New England history that only the most diligent scholar would know. 

After her exams, Connie is made caretaker of her grandmother’s old home in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Again, Howe drew from personal life, having moved to Marblehead with her husband in 2005.  The home has been vacant for years and has no electricity or telephone service.  As Connie fixes up the house, she comes across a hollowed out key which holds a fragile piece of parchment with the name “Deliverance Dane” scrawled on it.  Like all good academics, Connie is curious, and so begins her search for Deliverance Dane, a possible victim of the Salem Witch trials that perhaps was not as innocent as the other men and women who senselessly lost their lives.  In fact, Connie herself might possess powers that not even she is aware of. 

I should note here that another interesting twist in Howe’s own story is that she is related to Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe who were both accused of witchcraft.  Elizabeth Proctor was released from prison in 1693.  Elizabeth Howe was hanged along with four other women on July 19th, 1692.

Woven in with Connie’s quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane is a power struggle with her academic advisor, Manning Chilton, whose interest in Connie’s research might be more for his own gain than hers, as well as a romantic entanglement with a local steeplejack which gives some enjoyable lightness to the book.  Howe also shifts back in time to examine the lives of Deliverance Dane and her heirs who had to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the trials.

Howe’s work is a prime example that academics can also be creative.  She develops a complex plot with witty dialogue, and pulls from personal experience to create an engaging story.  I haven’t had the honor of meeting Howe, but I have watched several interviews and follow her on Twitter, and she is absolutely delightful.  Being an academic, she is able to give a good deal of historical context regarding the choices she makes in her work.

If you enjoy The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, you’ll want to check out Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving excellent reviews and is set shortly after the sinking of the Titanic.  Howe is also working on a third novel that I am eagerly awaiting.
For more information about Katherine Howe and her books, you can visit her website: katherinehowe.com, Facebook page: facebook.com/katherinebhowe, or Twitter:@katherinebhowe
  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slouching Towards Grad School



So all the neuroses were for nothing.  Despite wondering if my acceptance letter had been sent to me by accident, I have completed my first semester as an MFA candidate in Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction Program.  As I write this, I look at a picture of two new friends, Adry and Naomi, and I at a party making the duck face.  I wish someone could have shown me that picture on those sleepless nights in late August.  However, I had to relearn the old lesson that things rarely turn out as disastrous as I imagine.

I was guided through this semester by good friends, professors, and family who held my hand every step of the way.  Mom picked me up from school every Wednesday night because I would have had to wait two hours for the train.  Jenny, David, and Suzanne taught me how to read carefully, write effectively, and teach passionately.  My peers coaxed me out of my shell and invited me to study sessions, readings, and parties. 

This semester I had to relearn the benefits of discomfort.  Susan Sontag said, “A free life is one in which you are willing to be uncomfortable some of the time and insecure some of the time.”  I’d have to say I lived about as free a life as I ever have these past three months, experiencing various degrees of anxiety from the end of August until my second essay went through workshop on Halloween.  I would rather have gum surgery than repeat that process again, but I grew more in those two months, as well as this past month, than I did in the last two years.  I learned that the fulfilling life is not one where you take the easy way out, but the one where you do something you might fail at. 

My writing was not as good as I thought it would be, but still better than it’s ever been.  I’ve learned that not every essay has to read like a novel, and that it’s ok to write about that time on the train, or losing your friend.  I have also relearned the importance of surrounding myself with people more intelligent and more talented than I am, because they all taught me how to be a better writer.  I am finding my own voice by looking for the voices of my peers and professors in their writing.

My work is praised and my confidence rises: I am becoming a better writer.  My work is critiqued and my ego is bruised: I am becoming a better writer.  One professor said that workshop is a great place to crash and burn, and I have.  My friends have shown me how to put the pieces back together.

So the next cavalcade of anxieties is waiting around the corner.  I will be teaching some unsuspecting undergrads next semester and I will be submitting new work to new eyes for new praise and critique.  I will have to relearn the old lessons.  I am terrified and I am elated.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling


"But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky, could anybody stand to know that they all were?"-J.K. Rowling

She’s lost her touch I thought to myself as I read the first few chapters of The Casual Vacancy.  This book, filled with despicable characters and foul language that read like a Jerry Springer transcript could not have possibly been written by the woman who made me love reading.  As much as I’d wanted to, I did not like J.K. Rowling’s new book--but I kept at it.  I felt that I somehow owed it to her to read the book in an act of loyalty, and as a thank you for everything she’d unwittingly done for me over the last 13 years.  So I read on about the death of a parish councilor in the village of Pagford, and how lives would be destroyed if the wrong person filled his seat on the council.

I kept reading, and I fell in love with the broken people created by the same woman who brought Harry, Ron, and Hermione into my life.  The Casual Vacancy is a “comic tragedy” to quote Rowling; it incorporates her easy humor while still being one of the saddest books I’ve ever read.  This story does not have a happy ending, but it does have a realistic one.  Good doesn’t conquer evil, but it certainly gives evil a run for its money.

Despite the differences between The Casual Vacancy and the Harry Potter books, there is still something distinctly “Rowling” about this novel.  It’s written in third person, and there are those long, vivid descriptions of people and places.  If there is one thing that she excels at it is setting the scene.  There are characters we love, characters we despise, and characters we find so much of ourselves in.  There is also that ever-present battle of good vs. evil, but things aren’t as black and white now as they were in her previous books.

Although a work of fiction, there is also a lot of fact in this book and it’s obvious that Rowling did a tremendous amount of research.  There is also quite a bit of Rowling’s own life nestled between the pages.  She portrays poverty in a way I’ve never thought about it before.  All the romanticism of being being poor and living by your wits is gone, and you get the insider’s look into a world of constant uncertainty and unhappiness.  

Rowling also pulls from her own life by focusing on the lives of teenagers in a much darker way than in the Harry Potter books.  There’s cutting, drug use, sex, abuse: things teens shouldn’t be exposed to but are nevertheless.  There are also numerous pop culture references and I assume that Rowling looked to her teenage daughter for guidance during these moments.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is also addressed extensively throughout the book.  Rowling battled OCD in her teen years (most people are diagnosed with OCD at 19), and has said she had to do a lot of re-checking and rituals, but doesn’t feel the need to anymore.  OCD is an issue close to me and I’m glad that Rowling addressed it in her book.  I’m hoping that it can show people without the disorder just how debilitating it can be, and that people with the disorder are not alone.

Despite all my initial misgivings, I was sad when The Casual Vacancy ended.  I wanted to know more about the people of Pagford, not because I was dissatisfied with the ending, but because they had become such an important part of my life.  Although there can never be another Harry Potter series, this book is good enough to stand on its own.  It’s a book Rowling is proud of and a book I think she should be proud of.  She showed everyone, including me, that there was a whole other side to her than the one she’d shown us for all these years.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I've Really Gone And Done It Now

Tomorrow I begin my MFA at Columbia College so I've been spending the day dry heaving, throwing up, having diarrhea, and unexpectedly sobbing. I realize I already lost half of you with that last sentence, but for those of you still willing to go along with me, good for you! I'm hoping by writing about this potentially successful and possibly embarrassing situation I can get some of the nervousness out of my system.

For those of you who don't know, I've decided to earn a degree in Creative Writing-Nonfiction and try to make a go of being a professional writer. I chose nonfiction because although I do enjoy making up stories, I always run into a dead end I can't get myself out of in fiction writing. There are about six novels saved on my computer that are all about three pages long, but nonfiction always comes easily.

I applied to Columbia because although I didn't think I would get in, I wanted to at least say, "I tried." Columbia (bless their little hearts) actually saw some potential in me, and I've spent this past week puttering around the house, clutching my head, and thinking, "How did I get myself into this?"

Every time the negative thoughts come into my head I just remind myself of all the writers out there who doubt themselves. Even the best wonder if their next endeavor will be a success or failure. I've been reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and she focuses a lot on the self doubt of writers which turns down my inner terror a few notches.

Columbia does have a great program though. The current students have been so welcoming, and the faculty have been equally gracious.  There are ten new students which seems like the perfect setup for an Agatha Christie novel. I'm only taking three courses this semester, which will mean a mere 90 hours of homework every week. I think that with the right amout of confidence and Xanax I might just be able to pull the whole thing off, and even if I don't, at least I can say, "I tried."

Thanks, I feel better now.

Monday, July 23, 2012

American Gods by Neil Gaiman


“‘It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,’ said Mr. Ibis, ‘We believed in you.’”-American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I’m always fascinated by how one author can lead you to another. When I read Neil Gaiman’s blurb on the back of Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, I had no idea who he was. I know. It’s shocking. Just shocking. It’s the truth though. Anyway, I kept Gaiman’s name stored in the back of my mind, and while at a bookstore in San Francisco, I spotted a stack of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition and decided to see what Mr. Gaiman was all about. All the books were signed in fountain pen ink (I’m guessing Montblanc Bordeaux, but I’m not certain) and I instantly became a fan of Gaiman for that fact alone. I bought a copy of his book and was intrigued that much of the story takes place in the Midwest. The plot revolves around ex-con Shadow whose wife dies just before his release and return to Eagle Point, Indiana. Matters are made stranger by a Mr. Wednesday who practically stalks Shadow in an attempt to hire him as a body guard. With no other options, Shadow accepts Wednesday’s offer and enters a surreal world where the gods of the old world barely survive in an age of modern technology where people sacrifice time to television sets instead of animals at altars. 
Throughout the first fifty pages of Gods I was convinced that I was not intelligent or cultured enough to understand the book: it was just weird. I understood that this was a fantasy novel with elements of horror, but the complexity of Gaiman’s writing left me feeling a little less superior about my literary background, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fortunately, I am not one to give up on a book and once I delved further into the story things started coming together and I realized we aren’t meant to understand everything Gaiman is trying to say right out of the gate. Shadow isn’t even sure what’s going on, so why should we?
When discussing the Tenth Anniversary Edition it is crucial to point out why this text is more than just a reprint with a fancy new dust jacket; it’s actually a different text from the original American Gods with an additional two thousand words. I’ve never read the original version, but I suspect there’s something of value missing from it because there is no fluff in this new edition. The publisher also included an essay about the novel written by Gaiman, addressing the issue of being an Englishman writing about American culture. His words are poignant and it reinforces the fact that writers can write compelling work about places, people, things, and events they never experienced first hand.
Although often perceived as a serious author, Gaiman made me laugh out loud on several occasions. Mr. Wednesday gets most of the chuckles with snide comments like telling Shadow that mead, “tastes like a drunken diabetic’s piss.” Wednesday is one of those wonderful characters who is completely devoid of morals, but you always want to succeed.
If you enjoy American Gods you’ll have plenty more to choose from in Gaiman’s prolific body of work. His novel Anansi Boys is a spinoff of Gods  and focuses on the character of Mr. Nancy and his sons. It’s not exactly a sequel, but more like what The Ropers was to Three’s Company...except enjoyable.
Writing such unusual and quirky books, Gaiman himself is an interesting person to research. Rather than living in an LA McMansion or a New York penthouse like some celebrity authors, Gaiman’s primary residence is a Victorian home in rural Minnesota which he refers to as his “Addams Family House.” He also has a small writing studio in the woods behind his home where he writes his stories longhand using a fountain pen. He also has a cavernous library as all good writers should.
I believe that he is also kind. He responds often to fans via Twitter and email, and regularly promotes Kickstarter projects in which he has nothing to gain. I also read on a writing forum that when a young author asked other authors for career advice on another forum, Gaiman was the only person to respond. That’s pretty badass though, to have your question answered by Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman’s books are just about everywhere so please pick up a copy of American Gods when you can and let the weird wash over you.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Author Encounters: Jenny Lawson


Last Saturday was the best in recent memory.  I had the chance to attend the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in downtown Chicago and meet Jenny Lawson who many of you know as ‘The Bloggess’.  Printer’s Row was the last event on the third leg of Jenny’s book tour and I thought I would have a nervous breakdown when her Sunday appearance sold out in less than a day.  I was happy for Jenny that so many people wanted to come see her, but I was a little stabby nonetheless.  
Favors were called in and my very sweet friend  Stephanie Precourt even tried to get a ticket for me, but luck was on the side of the ticketless misfits because Jenny graciously added a Saturday appearance to her schedule.  So on Saturday morning Mom, Dad (he didn’t know what the hell he was getting himself into), and I headed up to Chicago and found Center Stage, where Jenny would be appearing, amid a see of books, authors, publishers, and voracious readers.  It was both overwhelming yet wonderful, and I spent a little time browsing before heading back to Center Stage to ensure a spot at the head of the line because I’m selfish like that.  
I was glad I arrived early because Jenny had a great opening act: an author named Sapphire who called all her characters ‘motherfuckers’ and probably didn’t realize she was Jenny’s opening act.  Anyway, no sooner had Sapphire finished her rant--I mean reading--did Jenny casually walk onto the stage and begin setting up for her reading.  It was sort of a pre-show watching Jenny wrap Copernicus the Homicidal Monkey around her microphone and lining up all her pill bottles on the table which created a disturbing yet festive display.  One of Jenny’s readers brought up a fan for her since it was unbearably hot and as Jenny fanned herself she said in that sweet Southern voice of hers, “All I need is a pool boy up here.” I thought about volunteering, but nobody wants to see me with my shirt off. Trust me.
When Jenny officially took the stage there were deafening applause of the rock concert variety.  Jenny was humble and admittedly surprised by the size of the crowd (over a hundred). For our earhole pleasure, Jenny read “The Psychopath on the Other Side of the Bathroom Door” which also happens to be one of my favorite chapters from her book.  She also added little side notes during the reading pertaining to this chapter including “No one told me coffee was a laxative...I know now,” and “Pepto Bismol contacted me. They were not pleased.” The latter was in reference to her being one of the one in six people who’s tongue turns black when they drink the aforementioned antidiarrheal. 
The reading was followed by a fun and enlightening Q & A section where Jenny promised to answer anything except algebra questions. I love learning about writers, about how they write and what they read. Jenny answered both questions saying that she loves Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Dorothy Parker. She also explained that, “writing is super lonely which is why I love blogging.” She addressed her anxiety disorder and told us that although she couldn’t always open up to people when she was growing up, “I always felt like I could open up to a book,” which is something a lot of us can relate to I’m sure. 
Jenny also informed us that she is working on another book that will focus more on mental illness and self harm.  Additionally, she’s writing a children’s book which I can’t wait to buy for my goddaughter (and myself). 
The Q&A ended all too soon and I suddenly found myself in the middle of an insanely long signing line. While waiting in line I was able to see Jenny’s great generosity and patience first hand.  She talked to everyone, signed everything, and took pictures with all her fans. No one was rushed and it was well worth the wait when I spoke with her. It surprised me how relaxed I was talking to Jenny.  I wondered if perhaps I was getting a Xanax contact high since I hadn’t taken any that day, but I think it was just Jenny’s positive and calming aura that just let the words flow out of me so that I could say everything I needed to say to her.
We had a great day at Printer’s Row and I’ll blog about the rest of the day soon, but today I wanted to focus on Jenny and the love she so readily gives to her fans.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened book by Jenny the Bloggess"I was still painfully shy and would have rather starred in a Tijuana donkey show than to have to make small talk with semi-stranger."-Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson


I used to think memoirs were for old people. I mean, they should be written by old/older/oldish people, because really, how many people’s lives were changed by Miles to Go?  Not mine, that’s for sure.  70 seems like a good age to write a memoir, don’t you think?  Well, that’s what I thought until I read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess. 

I first heard about Jenny last year when I was in Listen to Your Mother and I’ve been an avid fan/stalker since. Her wit, humor, irreverence, and unique perspective on mental illness have made her something of a role model for me.  In fact, “Let’s Pretend” is sort of my new Bible…not that I ever had a Bible to begin with, but if I did have a Bible, Jenny’s book would replace it.  Now that I’ve alienated all my Christian readers I’ll go ahead with the actual review.

“Let’s Pretend” met and exceeded every expectation I had and made me laugh like I haven’t laughed in months. Each chapter essentially stands on its own, but Jenny’s overall theme is that you can overcome any obstacle life puts before you as long as you have the right attitude. It’s more about the reaction rather than the action itself (kind of like in acting). It’s a lesson I’ve never really learned, but thanks to Jenny I’m hoping to get the hang of it.

For readers of The Bloggess, you’ll be greeted with the usual cast such as Jenny’s husband; Victor, her daughter; Hailey, and even her ever growing collection of taxidermy animals; Hamlet Von Schnitzel, Jean Louise, and James Garfield. They all get their moment in the spotlight and readers will feel as if they’re in Jenny’s rural home, seeing the chaos unfold first hand.  The book has a good flow, taking you chronologically through Jenny’s childhood in rural Texas, life with Victor, her time as an HR manager (one of my favorite chapters), as well as life in the here and now.  There are also lots of pictures, so even if you’re illiterate it’s still a fun book!  There is no losing side to buying this book. Trust me.

The book is not just fun and games by any means. Jenny is open about her mental illness and the brutal struggle she went through trying to have a healthy baby. Luckily, Jenny always seems to come out on top, even if it results in a sex concussion. That last bit will make soooo much more sense once you read the book.

I hope you will enjoy Let’s Pretend This Never Happened as much as I did. Jenny has done so much to help me feel unashamed of my own depression and anxiety without even realizing it. She has taught me that you can still have a fulfilling life even when the black days come around without warning.  The words that flow from Jenny’s beautifully bizarre mind are sure to give you a lot of laughs, and you’ll learn a lot about Jenny, and maybe even yourself. How’s that for deep?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Author Encounter: Anne Rice

Anne Rice and my mountain of books


 This post is going to be the first in a series about my encounters with authors and the things I’ve learned from them that have helped me as a writer and as a person. Basically I’m going to figure out a way to make it all about me…but not really.

I may or may not have let out an involuntary squeal when I read that Anne Rice would be coming to Chicago as she wrapped up her tour for The Wolf Gift.  Most of the tour had taken place on the West coast and I doubted that Rice would make it to the Midwest. Always full of surprises, she made three Chicago stops including a signing at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL which I attended. I reserved a spot in line the second I heard about the signing and the woman at Anderson’s assured me that I would be among the first in line. My stalker skills had really paid off.

I was probably more nervous than Anne Rice on the day of the signing, and being paranoid I decided to double check that my spot in line was secured and also to find out exactly what number I was. That’s when shit got real (and that’s the nicest way I can put it).


Me: Can you tell me what number I am?
Woman: Let me check…You’re number one.
Me: (falls on floor, picks self up) Really?
Woman: No one told you?
Me: Well the other lady said I was one of the first but not the first.
Woman: Well you’re first so don’t be late! (She said this in a totally non-snotty way just for the record)

So now I’m really nervous. I brought a couple books from home for Ms. Rice to sign and decided to put them in a bag so my sweaty hands wouldn’t ruin them.  Really I didn’t have to worry because I mylar all my books because I’m just that crazy, but I still thought some added sweat protection was in order.

Anyway, Mom and I get up to Naperville and as I’m walking in to the store I see this beautiful blonde man with a petite older woman all in black with an intricate cameo fastened at her neck. “Sweet Baby Jesus it’s Anne Rice,” I may have thought to myself and she and her assistant, Becket, walked towards me. I held the door open for them and Ms. Rice smiled and thanked me. Actually that last part was a lie. Another guy held the door open for her and I just stood there with a big stupid grin on my face and Anne Rice probably thought, “Someone needs to call security.”

After I eventually recovered from Anne Rice encounter number one I was able to get my copy of The Wolf Gift as well as a copy of Rice’s 2010 novel, Of Love And Evil since signed copies of that particular book are scarce.

So I finally get in line with all my books, Mom ready with the camera, and we wait for them to call my number. One of the things I enjoyed most about being first in line, besides being first in line, is that I was able to see Ms. Rice get ready before the signing began. Anderson’s set up the signing table behind a large bookcase so you couldn’t see Rice until your number was called. I was struck by how polite and friendly she was to the staff.  She was calm and focused, setting out her pens as Becket opened a can of Diet Coke for her. After settling into her seat, Ms. Rice gave a gentle nod signifying that the signing could begin.

Ms. Rice was gracious and warm as I spoke to her. My voice initially went up an octave, but I quickly felt at ease and told her how much her writing meant to me and the courage it provided  me as I left the Catholic Church. After signing the last of my books, she smiled at me and said, “Thank you very much. I wish you the best of luck in your own spiritual quest.” She then gave me one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.  She’s one of those people who can instantly make you feel like the center of attention, as if you’re the only one in the room with her.

Clutching the books to my chest like a mother with her newborn, I basked in the knowledge that I had met one of the greatest writers of our time and for that I will always be grateful.

P.S. A special thanks to Mom & Dad for buying a first printing of The Vampire Lestat for Ms. Rice to sign. It’s one of the highlights of my collection.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

"'The young reinvent the universe,' he said.  'And they give the new universe to us as their gift.'"-The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice
 
After spending almost a decade writing about the life of Christ and the good works of angels, Anne Rice has returned to her horror roots in The Wolf Gift.  This new novel explores the ambiguous folklore of the werewolf while incorporating familiar Rice themes such as religion, morality, spirituality, and even some tasteful bestiality.  The result is a novel which, although not quite on par with the winning streak of novels Rice had going in late 80s/early 90s (The Queen of the Damned, The Mummy, The Witching Hour), still proves superior to most current fiction.

Reuben Golding is the hero of The Wolf Gift and it’s evident that Rice adores this character.  Reuben is 23, a reporter for the San Francisco Observer, and a man trying to figure what he really wants out of life.  When Reuben is asked to report about the selling of a sprawling mansion clinging to the Pacific Coast, which he nicknames Nideck Point, Reuben quickly decides to become the home’s new owner.  Like many of Rice’s characters in past novels, Reuben is extremely wealthy thanks to a trust fund which allows him to buy just about whatever he wants.  Reuben is entranced by the home and I was reminded of Michael Curry’s infatuation with the Mayfair house in The Witching Hour.  Reuben also takes an interest in Nideck Point’s current owner, Marchent, who inherited the estate from her assumed to be dead uncle, Felix Nideck.  Felix hasn’t been seen in 20 years and it’s time for Marchent to move on with her life.  However, Marchent’s life is cut short by an attack at Nideck Point during Reuben’s visit, and our protagonist is nearly killed by some sort of animal.

After the attacks, Reuben’s life makes takes on a surreal change.  Not only did Marchent will the house to Reuben shortly before her death, but he has also discovered his ability to change into a werewolf, or “man wolf” as Rice likes to say.  Reuben realizes that some sort of power has been passed to him through the beast which nearly killed him.  Throughout the novel, Reuben investigates what this creature was, and what it’s made of him.  This is where Rice’s talents as a fiction writer truly shine.  She creates a whole new lore for the werewolf and turns the transformation from man to wolf into something almost erotic, rather than the painful experiences we’re used to seeing in films. 

Rice portrays the man wolf as inherently good.  The man wolf helps others, and kills only those who are evil, much like Lestat from the Vampire Chronicles who only fed on people who more or less deserved it.  Speaking of which, I was pleased that Rice did not try to recreate the vampire storyline of feeling damned, outcast, and living in a godless world.  Reuben seems to very much enjoy his new powers, and he does not struggle with the same spiritual and theological questions that are so prevalent in the Vampire Chronicles.  This was a wise move on Rice’s part, and the story feels fresh.  I watched an interview that Rice did a couple years ago where she said she felt blocked in her writing, but now that she’s cut ties with the Catholic Church for the second time in her life, there is a reawakening in her creativity that is ever present in the novel.

The Wolf Gift is full of intriguing characters that I’ll let you find out about for yourself, but I will say the Russian doctors were a little much for me.  They didn’t seem “real” like the other characters did, and almost parodies of mad scientists.  I wish Rice would have spent some more time developing these two individuals as they are key to the plot.  Aside from that small criticism, the novel works well as a single volume, but I could certainly see it being turned into a series.  Regardless, it is safe to say, as many already have, that the queen is back.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

“During his first morning at Cannon, Stephen’s only companion was the collective din of whispers, snickers and openly disdainful glares he received as he passed.”-A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice
Today I want to tell you about a wonderful new author, and by new, I mean I just discovered him even though he’s been writing for ten years.  The author is Christopher Rice, son of brilliant vampire writer Anne Rice, and poet Stan Rice.  I chose to read A Density of Souls because of who Christopher’s mom is, and since the word “Rice” takes up about a quarter of the cover, I assume many other people picked up the book for that same reason.  I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered Rice’s debut novel to be a rather gripping read.
Rice wrote “Souls” in his early twenties after visiting his mother in New Orleans following her first near-death experience.  Christopher had been studying theatre, but decided to take up writing as his preferred art form.  A decade later, Rice is working on his sixth novel and will soon co-host “The Dinner Party” with Eric Shaw Quinn on XM radio.  He’s also a finalist in Out magazine’s list of most eligible bachelors. 
From the start, Rice has been labeled as a gay writer who writes gay novels.  For me, he is a writer who writes novels; he also happens to be gay.  However, themes of homosexuality, isolation, bullying, and eventual acceptance reoccur throughout his work.  
“Souls” opens with four teenagers growing up in 1990s New Orleans.  Rice shares his mother’s love of the city and beautifully recreates New Orleans on paper the way only a native can.  The novel’s main charter, Stephen, is coming to terms with being gay as well as the fact that his friends Greg, Brandon, and Meredith have disowned him during that soul-sucking transition from middle school to high school.  Stephen spends much of high school living as an outcast, a theme reminiscent of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.  Regardless of your sexual orientation, Stephen’s struggle to find his way during adolescence is a dreadful thing that we can all empathize with.  
Greg, Brandon, and Meredith go through their own dramas and part one of the novel ends with a stunningly horrific death that changes the course of their lives as well as Stephen’s, bringing the friends together once again, but on very different terms than before.
Part two of “Souls” fast forwards to the friends’ college years, during which Stephen embraces his homosexuality despite anonymous threats towards New Orleans’ gay community.  In the meantime, Meredith’s self-destructive behavior reaches fever pitch, and the adult characters of the novel strike up unique and engaging relationships (perhaps more so than the younger characters).  
The climax of “Souls” is pleasantly unpredictable and the book is tied up in a tight package making for a strong stand alone novel.  Rice admits that he’s not much of a series writer, and since so many bad things happen to his characters, he feels they should be left alone after one book.
Although a bit naive and histrionic at times, A Density of Souls proves to be a refreshingly strong start for a young writer.  There was certainly more substance than I ever expected and it’s clear that Rice inherited a good deal of his parents’ talent.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Am-Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

"I had half a mind to march upstairs to my laboratory, fetch down a jar of cyanide, seize the boob’s nose, tilt his head back, pour the stuff down his throat, and hang the consequences.  Fortunately, good breeding kept me from doing so."-Flavia de Luce
I’m late.  I know, I know.  I was supposed to do my Christmastime book review BEFORE Christmas, but I got sidetracked trying not to lose my mind before the holidays as I’m sure many of you were.  Well, I’m writing my review now.  Who cares if it is mid-January?  It’s the thought that counts...right?
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is a book that can be enjoyed regardless of the season, although it does take place during Christmas, 1950.  The fourth installment  in Alan Bradley’s wildly successful Flavia de Luce series holds its own as a well thought out novel, rather than a piece of holiday fluff.  We find the familiar cast of characters preparing for a film crew to arrive at Buckshaw.  Colonel de Luce is more desperate for money than ever and this film is his last chance to pay off his heaping debts.  It’s also actress Phyllis Wyvern’s last chance at a comeback.  Phyllis is akin to Norma Desmond except with a few more marbles than the Sunset Boulevard icon.  As the film crew rolls into the manor house, Flavia is toiling away at setting a trap to catch Santa Claus.  This subplot is genius on Bradley’s part as it shows us how intelligent and at the same time naive Flavia is.
This section contains a SPOILER!!!


Soon after the crew’s arrival, Phyllis agrees to do a scene from Romeo & Juliet with her longtime costar, Desmond Duncan.  The two were famous for playing the forlorn couple in a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play...several decades earlier.  The performance is scheduled for December 23rd and the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey travels to Buckshaw for the event just as a winter storm sets in (spooky I know).  However, the town is less than receptive to the performance when the leading lady turns into a raging diva (diva isn’t really the word I wanted to use).  To make matters worse, the blizzard leaves everyone stranded at Buckshaw for the remainder of the evening.  It’s only slightly surprising that amid angry conversations behind closed doors, strange glances, and Phyllis’s subsequent public outburst that she ends up being murdered during the night.  Flavia finds Phyllis slumped in her chair, strangled with a strip of film: one of the actress’s old films as it happens.  With a house full of suspects, what else is Flavia to do but solve the murder herself?  As always, Inspector Hewitt is reluctant to ask for Flavia’s all-too-eager assistance, but succumbs as usual to her persistence and utter brilliance.
Like all of Bradley’s books, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is extremely satisfactory.  We get some great interaction between Flavia and her sisters, as well as an intriguing guest appearance by Flavia’s Aunt Felicity.  Flavia’s aunt has appeared in past novels, but has been portrayed as an old crab.  In this book, we see a more well developed Aunt Felicity: one who had to make some difficult choices during the war which still haunt her.  There are also some brilliant quotes from our innocently diabolical little sleuth.  Whether you’ve read all the de Luce mysteries, or this is your first time at the rodeo, I am confident that you will not be disappointed.