Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach

SpookRebecca has read a fair amount of Mary Roach, but this is my first book of hers, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! I don’t often like nonfiction, but she has such a juvenile sense of humor about it all that I really appreciated! Basically if anything has even a distant relationship to genitals or farts or such, she’ll be sure to delve into it.

In the introduction, Roach writes, “Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith.” And I’d say that describes me to a T! She covers reincarnation, séances, ghosts, and near-death experiences, among others, and it is all fascinating. I’m not sure that I can sell this book any better than including the opening to one of my favorite passages:

Is it possible to dress up like a ghost and fool people into thinking they’ve seen the real deal? Happily, there is published research to answer this question, research carried out at no lesser institution than Cambridge University. For six nights in the summer of 1959, members of the Cambridge University Society for Research in Parapsychology took turns dressing up in a white muslin sheet and walking around in a well-traversed field behind the King’s College campus. Occasionally they would raise their arms, as ghosts will do. Other members of the team hid in bushes to observe the reactions of passerby. Although some eighty people were judged to have been in a position to see the figure, not one reacted or even gave it a second glance. The researchers found this surprising, especially given that the small herd of cows that grazed the field did, unlike the pedestrians, show considerable interest, such that two or three at a time would follow along behind the “ghost.” To my acute disappointment, “An Experiment in Apparitional Observation and Findings,” published in the September 1959 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, includes no photographs.

Roach goes through an enormous amount of archives, in order to bring us the juiciest bits. In fact, I think that’s why I like it so much – reading this felt like gossiping with a good friend. If I have one little quibble, sometimes Roach’s research takes her into realms that are a bit much for me. Rebecca warned against the vivisection chapter in Gulp, and I’m here to warn against the ectoplasm chapter in Spook. I did not know what rumination was before I read this, and I’m not super happy that I know now.

Between Two Thorns

By Emma Newman

Between_Two_ThornsThis book was described as Jane Austen meets magic, which sounded pretty good. And it is pretty good! It just isn’t…that. Lately any book set in a regency-type society is compared to Jane Austen, completely disregarding that it is the characters, not the setting, that makes her so popular. Austen imbues her characters with such wit and charm that it is a delight to read about them even in the most mundane setting or plot. Between Two Thorns doesn’t have any of that charm, really, but instead it has some very good world building.

Three worlds, actually. The mundane, which is our normal reality and set in modern times. The Ether is the faery world, which is very pastoral and hyper-saturated, and no apparent link to time or other laws of physics. The Nether is the land between the two, where the fae-touched live. They are human families that serve the fae in return for longevity and some various magical boons. What I thought was particularly clever is that the Nether, time-wise, is sort of caught between the timelessness of the Ether and the progression of the Mundane, and so progresses, but at a much slower rate. At the time of the novel, it is in a Victoria-like age, with extremely strict rules for society and hierarchy.

The main protagonist, Cathy, is the oldest daughter of a fae-touched family, and desperate to escape the confines of the Nether society. At the book’s beginning, she has escaped to the Mundane where she has been living for a year, going to university in Manchester. It’s a long book, but one of the things that makes it pass so quickly is that there are actually three storylines with three different protagonists.

In addition to Cathy, there is a completely mundane man who accidentally witnesses a crime committed by one fae-touched against another, and is now pursued by both those that were behind the crime and those that are investigating it. He starts sort of shlubby but grows on you.

One of the investigators is my favorite character, or rather ‘characters’. Those that investigate the fae must be sundered from their souls, so that they cannot be magically influenced. It is a whole process; however, our investigator’s soul accidentally gets absorbed into a gargoyle, who is then animated by that soul. So, you’ve got a very hard-boiled detective, because he lacks the ability to truly feel anything, and a very emotional gargoyle, because it now feels everything the detective does not. I love both of them, but perhaps the gargoyle a little better.

Between the three characters and plotlines that eventually converge, there’s a lot of action, which initially distracted me from the book’s pretty significant plot flaw. (spoiler alert)  Continue reading

Meet Cute

By various authors

Meet_CuteI’ve been having a bit of a reading crisis lately. I’ve started three different books and can’t seem to get past around the midway point. It’s not the books’ fault – I mean they aren’t stellar or anything, but there wasn’t any clear reason for my lack of interest. My best explanation is just that the news has been so inundating and depressing lately, and I can’t seem to stay off twitter, and I’m just all worn out.

So, I figured I’d recharge with a fluffy collection of short stories! Just a bunch of cute first romantic meetings sounds comforting, right? Well, I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for. They for-sure cover the meet part, but most of the authors seem to have forgotten the cute part. About half (okay, only a quarter of them, but it felt like half) the stories feature someone in mourning for a dead loved one, like only through grief are they vulnerable enough to accept love, and it is a real bummer.

On the plus side, they mixed it up with good diversity, in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so that’s something at least. Here’s some cold, hard data:

  • Short stories included in anthology: 14
  • Stories involving grief over the death of a loved one: 4
  • Stories featuring high-school bullying: 3
  • Stories with a main character older than 25: 0
  • Stories that my cranky old self actually thought were cute: 3.5*
    (none of the death or bullying ones)

*3 stories were straight-up super cute, and one had a very interesting premise, but the characters themselves weren’t super engaging.

The Hearts We Sold

By Emily Lloyd-Jones

Hearts_We_SoldThis was a tough read honestly. It is a moderately well-written YA fantasy novel with a great title and an interesting premise. Demons are real and will grant wishes for people in exchange for a body part. Small requests cost a finger or toe, and they go up to a hand or foot, to an arm or leg. The body parts appear to get taken in a supernaturally clean amputation, and there doesn’t seem to be much lasting physical pain to the process.

Our protagonist, Dee Moreno, is desperate for the money to pay the tuition for her boarding school, which is the only thing that keeps her out of her parents’ abusive home. It seems likely this would have cost her a foot, or an arm at most, but unfortunately for her, she meets a demon who transacts only in hearts. Which of course sounds appalling, and everyone is appalled, but here’s the thing: he takes the heart on a two-year contact, during which Dee must run errands for him. Admittedly, they are life-endangering, supernatural errands, but after two years she gets her heart back. Which sounds like a much better deal than losing even a toe for life.

She joins four other teenagers, who have also lent out their hearts to run this demon’s errands, and of course one of them is a quirky, sensitive artist boy. Dee spends a fair amount of time mulling over her heartless state, though it doesn’t seem to prevent her from falling for the obvious romantic lead, and I spend a fair amount of time mulling over how I’d probably lend out my heart for two years just for the favor of not having to feel anything for two years. Which made me feel old and sad, but is probably not ultimately the book’s fault.

(I do still fully blame the book for telling, but not showing, any real consequence to being ‘heartless.’ Every time the book emphasized the awfulness of it all, I kept thinking how angry I would have been to have given a limb without knowing that the heart was an option.)

The Truth According to Us

By Annie Burrows

Truth_According_to_UsI loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so much! It is the sweetest, funniest story you will ever read about an isolated community trying to recover from Nazi occupation in WWII.

When I saw that one of the authors had written a second book, also set in a small community and character-focused, I was immediately engaged. And it is super engaging! It just isn’t quite so sweet and funny. (I may have cried multiple times when reading it late at night.)

It is significantly longer, with a much larger cast of characters, just about all of whom I grew to care about, even as they got tangled into conflicts that cannot end satisfactorily for them all. Ostensibly it is about a small town trying to recover from World War I, the Great Depression, the downfall of the factory that employed most of the citizens, and the anti-union movement.

The novel cycles around the family that used to own the factory, but is now falling to ruin along with the rest of the town. Much of the story is told through one of the very young daughters in the family, trying to make sense of it, and in that narrative, it is a bit of a coming-of-age story. From the older generation, it is more of a story of laying ghosts to rest and moving on. A significant chunk, though, is also told from the outside perspective of a wealthy young woman sent to write a pamphlet about the town, as part of the Federal Writers Project, who almost immediately blunders through the various small-town quarrels due to ignorance, and it is a coming-of-age story for her, too, though a more serious one.

It is just a huge mess of family loyalty and betrayal and forgiveness, and the different types of relationships we have with the different people in our lives, and I’m just in awe that the author was able to fit it all into one (long) book!

The Arnifour Affair

By Gregory Harris

Arnifour_AffairSometimes I worry that I’m getting too cranky in my old age – that books I would have enjoyed when I was younger, I now pick apart as trite since I’ve read so many other, better books by this point. I really wanted to like The Arnifour Affair: it is a Victorian-era murder mystery featuring a renowned detective, and his partner, both in work and life. Unfortunately, it reads like someone’s Sherlock/Watson fanfic with the names changed. Which, honestly, I would be all over, if only it was well written!

I swear every other line of dialogue included some synonym for “laughed”: chortled, smirked, snickered, chuckled, etc., until they all sounded like a pack of lunatics, laughing inappropriately at every single scene. This also clinched the idea of fanfic origins for me; smirking is a favorite of amateur writers, to the extent that I now hate the very word, and think it should be given a moratorium of use for at least a decade. See what I mean about me getting cranky?

The bare-bones of the character and the plot were there, so it could have been something really interesting. The Sherlock character sticks pretty close: son of a high-level government official, he is considered too eccentric for polite society, but still admired for his top-notch detective skills. Instead of recovering war veteran, though, the Watson character is an ex-street hustler and drug addict, who Sherlock…I mean, Colin Pendragon, has rescued. This could have been an interesting dynamic if they weren’t constantly chortling at each other.

All of the characters made little sense, switching personalities fairly dramatically whenever it suited the author’s purpose (though always maintaining a hair-trigger laugh impulse). This really threw off the plot since it was really hard to predict how any character would act in any given scenario and what their motivations would be. Everyone ended up being fairly unlikeable, and yet I was somehow still offended by which unlikeable character ended up the culprit. I’m still not sure what the final motivations were for the crime, though there were enough of them floating around that it seemed like Harris maybe just threw everything at the wall to see what stuck.