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Monster, She Wrote

Authors Lisa Kroger and Melanie Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction highlights female writers who have greatly contributed to the horror genre ever since its inception. From the classic gothic tales of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish (the 17th century Kardashian), Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley to the contemporary and modern stories of Anne Rice, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jewelle Gomez, Monster, She Wrote provides a glimpse of horror’s evolution as a genre and how each female writer helped cement the tropes that we understand to be horror and speculative fiction.

Monster, She Wrote is divided in eight parts, separating authors by the theme they were exploring and the era in which they were writing. Each of the author has a brief but very informative biography. Additionally, at the end of each biography, Kroger and Anderson provide a reading list that helps connect works by different authors as well as expand the wealth of authors already mentioned in the book.

Monster, She Wrote has the fascinating and informative aspect of a reference guide as well as the fun quality of reading an illustrated book. It is a good introduction to those who are new to horror and speculative fiction and a good starting point for long-time fans who are looking to expand their repertoire of books in the genre.

Besides, if you’re a Jessica Fletcher fan, how could you not love the play on the title?

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Quick Review: ‘Within Plain Sight’

When a dismembered body of a young woman is found in an abandoned lumberyard at Portland, ME, Detective Sergeant John Byron is called to investigate. He notices certain similarities with murders committed by a serial killer known as the Horseman around the Boston area.

As with any good crime fiction story, there is more to the case than what it seems. This recent installment of the Detective Sergeant John Byron series has all the elements that make for a great police procedural. Within Plain Sight may be one of Coffin’s best yet.

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Starred Review: Circe

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Countless writers have taken inspirations from characters in Greek Mythology for their quintessential characterizations everyone could easily recognize. Written in first-person narrative, Madeline Miller’s Circe follows the life of its titular protagonist as she navigates the world around her.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Circe plays a minor role as one more obstacle that Odysseus needed to overcome. Miller, on the other hand, takes Circe’s story and turns it into an epic tale that spans thousands of years (gods are immortal, after all). Born as the daughter of Helios, the god of the Sun, Circe does not exude the beauty of her naiad peers or other gods—she is a lesser god among other lesser gods. According to her father, “Circe is dull as a rock” . . . or so he thinks. Circe discovers where her true power lies. When she uses it against one of her fellow nymphs, Circe is exiled to an isolated island called Aiaia. In exile, Circe hones her craft and makes a name for herself.

It is a feat to write a novel that spans a thousand years while making the story organically flow, and Miller has done just that. Her narrative never loses its cadence and, as readers, we find ourselves completely taken by Circe. The way Circe’s character develops feels authentic, and, it is where the strength of this novel lies. Miller’s version of Circe is one of the most captivating and genuine fictional characters I’ve come across.

There is a beautiful fluidity in Miller’s writing style. The story transforms from the ethereal world of gods to something intimate that all of us could identify with. Even though Circe is a goddess, Miller’s portrayal of her is deeply human—with all the strength and flaws that comes with being one. In Circe, Miller explores relationships, love, and mortality with a certain dynamism and tenderness that strikes our very core. One of the most poignant moment in the book that stuck with me is when Circe confronts Trygon for his tail, which serves as a poison to gods, in order to protect her son, Telegonus, from Athena.

“I felt the currents move. The grains of sand whispered against each other. His wings were lifting. The darkness around us shimmered with clouds of his gilded blood. Beneath my feet were the bones of a thousand years. I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.

Then, child, make another.”

Miller’s Circe makes us appreciate the ground beneath our feet—the world we live in—with all its beauty and atrocity. Miller casts a powerful spell on her readers, and it is one that lingers for a long time.

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The Parade

In Dave Eggers’ The Parade, the reader is not told where the story takes place, other than it is a country somewhere in the Middle East which has been ravaged by war. There is constant danger from renegade rebel factions, requiring very strict security rules for foreign workers who are paving dirt roads to reconnect rural people to urban centers.

The main character, known only as “Four,” works with one other person known as “Nine.” They have virtually no verbal interaction or even eye contact with locals. Small personal connections often tend to encourage desperate, or unscrupulous people to extort, kill, kidnap, or steal from the workers. While any form of anomaly or impediment slows the progress of the road building, Four has always managed to finish his assignments on time. Nine, on the other hand, proves to be irresponsible and negligent: engaging with the locals, eating their food, attending their parties, sleeping with their daughters, and leaving Four and the RS-80 paving machine unsupported. Four manages to pave and yellow-stripe 25 or more kilometers each day on his own, hating Nine more and more as company rules are violated again and again.

Circumstances arise which force Four to trust a local man, Medallion, who offers much needed help. Four is in a constant state of anxiety as questions of ethical right and wrong pile up in his mind. He is not an unkind man, but the breakdown of a postwar society makes these questions hard to answer.

For a short book (less than 200 pages) this leaves an indelible image of the human suffering that goes on well after military troops have been pulled out.

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The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley Circle Season 1 & 2 featuring (left to right) Rachael Stirling (Millie), Anna Maxwell Martin (Susan), Sophie Rundle (Lucy), and Julie Graham (Jean).
The Bletchley Circle Season 1 & 2 featuring (left to right) Rachael Stirling (Millie), Anna Maxwell Martin (Susan), Sophie Rundle (Lucy), and Julie Graham (Jean).

If you entirely missed the television series originally broadcast in the US on PBS called The Bletchley Circle a few years ago, I am not surprised.  Like me, you were likely still consuming and enchanted by Downton Abbey, and had never even heard of The Bletchley Circle.  No worries, you are not alone!  I recently discovered it and am very excited to share it with you!  

Rachael Stirling (Millie) in front of the data board.
Rachael Stirling (Millie) at the data board.

This series that first aired in 2012 was cancelled after its second season broadcast in 2014.  Britbox, a channel available for streaming video (both on Amazon and directly from Britbox.com), decided to bring back the series in 2018, producing the third season it would title The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco.  Although each season does build on the previous one, each season can also stand alone and make sense, so you do not absolutely have to go in order.  The library currently has all 3 seasons in circulation. 

The ladies in season 1 at the data board looking for patterns to predict the next murder.  Will they figure it out in time?
The ladies in season 1 at the data board looking for patterns to predict the next murder. Will they figure it out in time?

This captivating mystery series based on women who worked as code-breakers during WWII, both of UK and US nationalities is unique and powerful.  The Bletchley Circle follows four very smart women after The War as they seek to catch serial killers and solve mysterious deaths of female friends or acquaintances, through code & cipher breaking, pattern identification, and intelligence gathering. They prove they have both the nerves and intelligence to be taken seriously by the police with whom they are dissatisfied.

Season 3 produced in 2018 brings back Julie Graham (Jean) and Rachael Stirling (Millie), and introduces Cristal Balint (Iris) and Chanelle Peloso (Hailey).
Season 3 produced in 2018 brings back Julie Graham (Jean) and Rachael Stirling (Millie), and introduces Crystal Balint (Iris) and Chanelle Peloso (Hailey).

Set in the early to mid 1950s, the women both in the UK and in the US navigate the cultural limitations by pushing back on societal pressures and standing up for themselves until they are heard.   Based on the real women of the Bletchley Park code breakers of WWII, this series brings to light the plight of so many women post-war, who found themselves suddenly out of work, society pressuring them to return to their pre-war roles.  The supporting characters encourage and celebrate the women’s intelligence and need for something more, as they refuse to disengage from “utilizing their mind,” as they seek purpose, while uncovering truth and finding justice. 

Crystal Balint as Iris and Chanelle Peloso as Hailey in Season 3, San Francisco.
Crystal Balint as Iris and Chanelle Peloso as Hailey in Season 3, San Francisco.

This is quite different from other familiar mystery series.  It is worth a look! You just might find yourself hooked!  

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Snowblind

There is something beautiful and eerie about the wintry landscape of Iceland, which is why it’s a perfect setting for a murder mystery. In Ragnar Jonasson’s debut, Snowblind, he takes you to an isolated, small fishing town north of Reykjavik.

Ari Thor Arason is a police-officer-in-training from Reykjavik, when he is offered an opportunity that is difficult to refuse – his first job. He moves to Siglufjordur, a small town known for its herring. On the surface, Ari Thor’s new home looks idyllic, with its winding roads and mountains, until two local deaths shake up the town.

Jonasson begins Snowblind with a vivid visualization: “The red stain was like a scream in the silence.” Throughout the book, there are eloquent descriptions of the landscape of Siglufjordur. Readers will feel as though they are walking the snow-filled streets with Ari Thor. When the weather declines and the anxiety around town builds up, the novel takes on a grim atmosphere that one can almost touch. This sense of unease makes Jonasson’s Snowblind a compelling potboiler. Jonasson has mastered how to build tension by creating well-developed characters and wrapping the setting with a claustrophobic feeling.

With a slew of crime fiction getting published nowadays, Jonasson’s Snowblind stands out for its believable characters, sweeping landscapes, and riveting atmosphere.

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The Satapur Moonstone

Sujata Massey followed her Edgar Award finalist book, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018), with another captivating mystery featuring the female Bombay lawyer, Perveen Mistry.

Set in 1922, in a remote state of Satapur, a tragedy has befallen the royal family when the maharaja suddenly dies. Jiva Rao, the maharaja’s ten-year old son, finds himself the new maharaja. This presents a problem though since he will not be able to rule the princely state of Satapur until he reaches the age of eighteen. The widowed maharani Mirabai and the dowager maharani Putlabai disagree about the young maharaja’s education. Mirabai wants his son to go to England, while Putlabai insists that her grandson remain in the royal palace. Perveen soon finds herself involved and quickly discovers that there’s more to the situation than a simple family dispute.

The Satapur Moonstone delves into the cultural, political, and social dynamics of 1920s India. Massey’s novel is filled with descriptions of the breathtaking Indian countryside, scrumptious food, and fashion of the era. The characters are well-drawn. Readers will root for Perveen Mistry as she breaks boundaries and proves that women are capable of greatness. What is most fascinating is how Massey explores the social divisions found in India’s caste system. Altogether, Massey’s The Satapur Moonstone gives us a fascinating glimpse into both the Parsi and Hindu culture as well as the history of India under British rule. The Satapur Moonstone makes for a very engaging historical mystery and comes highly recommended.

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Losing Earth

This short, well researched book is a powerful documentation of precious time lost to prevent climate change. The focus is on the years 1979-1989, a single decade that encompassed the Antarctic ozone hole crisis, and the tremendous flurry of scientific evidence and testimony about rising global temperatures that followed.

It wasn’t just the scientific community raising the alarm. Oil, gas, and coal companies had done their own studies and had known for decades about the climate effects of long term unrestricted extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Initially, they were on board to begin moving to renewables. In Congress, there was strong bi-partisan support to resolve the ozone hole problem and to take climate change seriously.

George H.W. Bush included in his campaign speeches, a promise to address climate change issues, but after winning, appointed John Sununu of New Hampshire as his Chief of Staff. Sununu perhaps did more than anyone to stymie action. He advised U.S. representatives to global summits not to sign protocols, insisting the science was weak. He ordered NASA scientist James Hansel to submit congressional committee speeches to his office where they were censored and re-written. James Hansen, to his great credit, refused the changes, testifying as a U.S. citizen rather than a government employee.

In 1979, Rafe Pomerance was Deputy Director of Friends of the Earth, based in Washington, D.C. After reading a technical EPA report on coal that said there would be”significant and damaging” changes to the global atmosphere withing two to three decades, he was immediately alarmed. This man, who most of us have never heard of, had widespread connections to all levels of government, from his years with the Sierra Club. He set in motion congressional hearings, press coverage, and the education of legislators by scientists. He and James Hansen are perhaps the original heroes of our growing awareness of our existential peril.

Losing Earth is a very accessible, quick read that you may be tempted to read a second time. Its authenticity and accuracy is based on many dozens of interviews with the major players (scientists, legislators, CEO’s, presidential staffers, etc.) involved in the governmental action and in-action of the 80’s.

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Starred Review: We

Even though the term dystopian was first coined in the 1740s by historian George Claeys, dystopian fiction novels did not become fully defined until the turn of the twentieth century. Written in 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s social satire We laid the foundations for the genre that is now ubiquitous: dystopian fiction.

Zamyatin’s We imagines a future devoid of free-will and individuality. The ruler of OneState, the “Benefactor”, has discovered the equation for happiness—absolute and complete subjugation of the state’s citizens. Within the glass walls of the state, everyone is known by their designated numbers; everyone adheres to a regimented schedule (inspired by the concepts of industrial efficiency by Frederick Winslow Taylor); everyone wears the same uniform; and everyone’s thoughts are regulated by the Benefactor. “Imagination” and “having a soul” become synonymous with the word disease.

Written as diary entries by the book’s narrator, D-503, We’s narrative is erratic and peppered with undertones and ellipses. This may seem like a criticism. But oddly enough, it adds a certain weight to the messages that Zamyatin is trying to convey: first, the significance of human individuality; second, the intrinsic part of what makes us human is our inherent primal instincts; third, a perfect society is unattainable due to humanity’s complicated nature; lastly, in every totalitarian regime, there will always be revolutionaries.

Zamyatin’s We is an emotionally-charged book. As D-503 begins to discover his own individuality and begins to experience cognitive dissonance, the narrative takes on a more hallucinatory and disjointed tone, making the book even more riveting. For such a short novel (less than two-hundred pages), Zamyatin includes a lot of nuance about the human condition and posits questions about human nature and society to which there are no easy answers. It is no wonder that authors like George Orwell took inspiration from Zamyatin’s novel. In this current socio-political climate, We remains as relevant as ever.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Language and women’s facility with it are the focal points of linguist Dalcher’s chilling dystopian tale and first novel. Jean McClellan and her family live in a U.S. taken over by religious extremists who have forced the female population to wear electroshock bracelets that deliver painful charges to any woman who speaks over 100 words a day. Jean, a scientist whose research centered around a neurological condition that causes aphasia, is forced to watch in virtual silence as her three sons become indoctrinated and her six-year-old daughter tries to speak as little as possible. Jean’s marriage grows strained as her husband goes along with the new regime. She is then offered a potential respite when government officials come to her for help after the president’s brother is diagnosed with the very condition for which she had been seeking a cure before women were forbidden to work. With its focus on the vitality of communication and human interactions, Dalcher’s tale is a fresh and terrifying contribution to the burgeoning subgenre about women-focused dystopias spearheaded by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. — Kristine Huntley (Reviewed 7/1/2018) (Booklist, vol 114, number 21, p21)

Severance by Ling Ma

With apocalyptic fiction having become so popular a genre, how does one approach it with originality, avoiding the too-familiar reference points? Embracing the genre but somehow transcending it, Ma creates a truly engrossing and believable anti-utopian world. Ma’s cause for civilization’s collapse is a pandemic. Shen Fever spreads through fungal spores, causing its victims to lethargically repeat menial tasks, ignoring all external stimuli, including the need for sustenance. Prognosis is terminal. Candace Chen, a rare survivor of the outbreak, blogs anonymously as NY Ghost on a slowly disintegrating internet, capturing the horror of what has happened in her photographs of an empty New York City, where she lived when “the fevered” started dying. The narrative flashes back to Candace’s life before the end, working for a book-manufacturing company in the Bibles department; spending free time watching movies with her on-and-off boyfriend, Jonathan; and longing for the seemingly fulfilled lives of other millennials her age. Candace’s story also crosses that of a group led by a former IT specialist named Bob, who seems to be suffering from a messiah complex. Ma’s extraordinary debut marks a notable creative jump by playing on the apocalyptic fears many people share today, as we live in these very interesting times. Pair Severance  with Adam Sternbergh’s similarly disturbing Shovel Ready (2014). — Ruzicka, Michael (Reviewed 6/1/2018) (Booklist, vol 114, number 19, p36)

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

This first novel from award-winning short story writer Mackintosh is set on the  edge of a postapocalyptic world. Three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, live in a moldering spa hotel with their mother and a father called King. The  parents have kept the  young women isolated from the  mainland, where environmental toxicity and gender wars have ravaged the  female population; Grace’s pregnancy can only be the  result of incest. The  hotel somehow has running water  and a pool, and the  girls languish in shabby luxury. Occasionally, damaged women arrive on the  shore, and the  mother gives them a water cure , which involves salt water  purges and muslin wraps. The  tension ratchets up when King fails to return from a trip to the  mainland for provisions, and their insulated women’s world is violated when two men and a boy wash up on the  beach. VERDICT This image-laden and lyrical first novel, its short chapters interspersed with brief, disturbing messages from women from the  mainland, imagines a societal breakdown that has inflicted most of its harm on women, which seems both frightening and inevitable, offering a dark, extended metaphor on toxic male/female relations. [See Prepub Alert, 7/9/18.] –Reba Leiding (Reviewed Winter2018) (Library Journal, vol 143, issue 21, p71)

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The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited

This is the second book from the creators of The Adventure Zone roleplaying game podcast, the McElroys. The first one was set in a middle earth type environment and this one is now on a train (still with wizards and elves, but now there are trains involved). The first book was a hilarious send-up of D&D type games and this one makes jokes about mysteries and whodunits. Taako, Merle, and Magnus are back and on a mission to retrieve a lost (and powerful) artifact that is believed to be on the Rockport Limited train. Mishaps befall them, jokes are made, and a lot of laughter is had by all. Not as good as the first novel, but still a lot of fun.

The artwork by Carey Pietsch is detailed and humorous and really works with the RPG elements of the game, like having the Game Master pop up in little bubbles when he has to tell the players something. Aimed at teens and adults, there is some profanity and gore involved, but nothing over the top. A definite purchase for any YA or Adult graphic novel section where RPG games are big.