Monthly Archives: January 2014

Just the Right Balance: A Review of CONQUER THE HIGHLAND BEAST by Eliza March

Conquer the Highland Beast is the second book in Eliza March’s Hearts of Darkness paranormal erotic romance series. I enjoyed the first installment, Defeat the Darkness, but I found this story of vampire Dylan Macgregor even more compelling. Some of this may be because I’m now familiar with the fictional world March has created, a murky southern landscape populated by a multitude of pure-blooded and hybrid supernatural creatures. It was fun to catch up with characters from the first book and see how their situations have evolved.

Conquer the Highland Beast: The Vampire Dylan Macgregor (Hearts of Darkness #2)

Conquer the Highland Beast: The Vampire Dylan Macgregor

The structure of Conquer the Highland Beast is rather unique and added a lot to the reading experience. The main story concerns Dylan, a Vampire-Berserker (with overtones of Fae) who is the acting leader of the paranormals in New Orleans. It’s not always an easy alliance. Lately there’s been trouble with invading demons. In the course of exercising covert damage control, Dylan crosses paths with FBI profiler Caitlin Donovan. The attraction is instantaneous. Caitlin is a well-rounded character. March takes the time to establish her as an individual with her own complicated past.

At this point the author begins a second story, a deep and lengthy exploration of how Dylan became a vampire. This second tale takes us to 17th century Scotland. March does a great job depicting what clan life might have been like in that scary, violent time. She mixes historical detail with fairy tale touches in just the right proportions. We follow Dylan from when he’s a frightened child determined to avenge his betrayed family,through adulthood when he actually makes good on that promise. The character development is carefully wrought and believable. The erotic encounters evolve naturally and don’t seem out of place.

When we rejoin Dylan in the present, we have a clear understanding of where he came from as a character and we want so much for him to find some peace and–dare we hope?–lasting happiness. And it looks like it may happen. He and Caitlin share a serious attraction and, as they grow closer, sparks fly. Even here, March is restrained in her use of the erotic, never allowing it to overwhelm the narrative. I did wish that Caitlin and Dylan were given just a tiny bit more time to fret and struggle individually before they declared their feelings to one another, ratcheting up the tension even more, but by now both characters have been well established and their coming together seems inevitable.

That said, there’s a big twist that points to future challenges for this couple. I wouldn’t call the ending a true cliffhanger–there’s no doubt that Caitlin and Dylan are crazy in love. It’s just that this is a complicated world with its own rules and contradictions that the couple will have to deal with. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that I can’t wait to read the third installment and see how March writes her way through the exciting complication she’s created.

My Love Affair with LOLITA

Being a fan of 18th and 19th century fiction, developing my “Modern Masterpieces” feature for this blog posed a challenge. I could think of plenty of good books I’d enjoyed over the years, but Good is not the same as GREAT, and I wanted to spotlight those novels with the best chance of becoming “classics”. You know, the ones destined to be foisted on the high school and college students of two centuries from now, who will probably be more interested in tooling around on their flying scooters than reading dusty narratives from long-dead authors like Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. Luckily, I have Facebook friends with a much better grasp on modern and contemporary fiction than I do. They provided me with enough ideas to carry this monthly feature through 2025 at least.

Lolita

Lolita

But there was one book, I knew I’d discuss–Vladimir Nabokov’s delightful, delicious, disturbing Lolita. To explain the importance of this novel to me, I need to go back two decades to early 1993, when I realized how little reading I’d done in the seven years I’d spent earning my B.A. and M.A. degrees. Granted, I’d majored in Anthropology and not in English Literature. But, still…there I was, a highly educated person, a book lover, and I’d never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Henry James or Willa Cather. Add this to the wonderful poetry and fiction being published year after year after year…How could I catch up, much less keep up?

So I set a cut off for myself. 1950.  It seemed reasonable enough at the time. I could start with Beowulf and The Iliad and work my way forward. This way I’d cover all the important stuff, right? It was a fabulous plan. Until Lolita. I’d heard of the book. Of course. My century’s Madame Bovary. The book which dared speak the unspeakable–a debauched Old World serpent slithering through the cool green lawns of all-American suburbia. Published in 1955, it was out of bounds for me.

Thank goodness for tax season and rude library patrons. I went into the photocopy room to xerox my freshly prepared 1040A and there she was abandoned next to a pile of home and garden magazines. The cover: a pair of bare, knock-kneed legs in bobby socks and black-and-white Oxfords. The person using the copy machine warned me she’d be a while and suggested I come back later.

I picked up the book.

A brief forward by a fictional editor describes what follows as the memoir of one “Humbert Humbert,” who died in prison a few days before the start of his trial. The nature of his crime is withheld until the end of the book. And it’s not what the reader assumes. Then, chapter one:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Friends, he had me.

I still find it hard to believe that English was Nobokov’s third language, and he (as he states in his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita“) didn’t feel he wrote his best work in it:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

I don’t know about you, but I’d take his brand of English, second-rate or even third!

And yet it isn’t just Nabokov’s style that elevates his novel from good to Great.  The settings–from young Delores Haze’s cluttered, mock-genteel New England living room to the unending series of roadside hotels and motor inns Humbert and his young hostage inhabit during their time on the run–are beautifully realized accretions of detail. The latter were based on the author’s travels across the United States on annual butterfly-hunting trips with his wife.

For me, though, character is where Nabokov shines brightest. In Humbert Humbert, he presents us with a monster and proceeds to reveal its human heart. Don’t misunderstand me, the pathology depicted here is real and incurable. Humbert is a pedophile. He recognizes his perversion and is powerless to control it, though near the end of the book, during his years-long search to recover his lost Lolita, he manages to sublimate his behavior (if not his urges) through a semi-permanent relationship with an adult woman. It isn’t a perfect solution, and one wonders if, had his mental and physical health not been so broken down, it would have worked as well as it did. Yet in spite of his terminal, tragic flaw, Humbert changes over the course of the novel. Somehow, Nabokov redeems him to a degree that would seem impossible except that, by the end, we thoroughly believe in that redemption, that by some twist of fate and the human psyche, the predator’s lust turned to love and, more than that, to empathy for his prey. Ultimately, Lolita’s life (as a grown woman in a normal relationship with an ordinary man)  is more important to Humbert than his mania, and certainly more important than his own life.

Language, style, setting, character, humanity, chutzpah–there are so many reasons to call Lolita a Modern Masterpiece. Most important to me is that it was my first. Afterward, there was no going back to that neat, efficient, rational course of study I’d created for myself. My reading life since has been chaotic and messy and infinitely satisfying.

A Complex and Lyrical Historical Mystery: A Review of THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH by Alastair Fontana

Fair warning: this exquisitely plotted historical murder mystery is as much a philosophical meditation as it is a Whodunit. THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH takes us on a tour of (let’s call it) “17th” century Venice in all its beauty, grotesqueness, grandeur and depravity. Author Alastair Fontana populates his fictional world with historical figures from a range of time periods, which might annoy certain purists, but for me made the reality he creates waver like the sun on the Mediterranean. This liquidity fits nicely with the shifting alliances and tangled motives at the bottom of the murders of two public figures with diametrically opposed political affiliations.

The Aquatic Labyrinth: A Venetian Mystery

The Aquatic Labyrinth: A Venetian Mystery

Our hero is Jacopo, an outsider from his very conception. His mother was Italian, but his father was an English sailor and therefore not allowed to live in Venice. Though very much in love, the couple spent their lives mostly apart. Jacopo is now a sailor himself. He comes back to Venice to see his sister and meet his future brother-in-law. Matters go awry when the brother-in-law discovers a ceremonial dagger in the street. Only later, as he and Jacopo go to return it, do they notice the dead body of the man they will be accused of murdering. Though Jacopo initially escapes, he refuses to flee the city until he can clear the name of his brother-in-law, now imprisoned and facing torture and execution. Helping Jacopo are a collection of characters taken from every level of Venice’s complicated and highly stratified society.

Fontana does a wonderful job building complex, believable characters. Both his male and female creations are set firmly in their particular social strata and yet given such rich inner lives that they stand out as individuals. It is this attention to human detail that made me stick with the story when things went off on more theoretical and philosophical tangents.

The author offers a huge amount of historical detail in the course of his narrative. At the beginning of the book, when I was still feeling my way around and trying to get situated in Fontana’s world, I found the period descriptions and explanations a little heavy-handed. As the plot unfolded, however, detail and context melded together almost seamlessly. The novel’s roving point of view also took some time to become used to. On top of repeated shifts from first to third person, there’s an omniscient voice
that seems to be constantly present, watching and commenting. Yet, once I was used to it, I could see how well the multiple voices reflected the complexity of the setting and the characters.The Venice of this novel is one city and many cities. It is both a place AND an idea.

I loved Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and THE AQUATIC LABYRINTH has similar depth and resonance. It is well worth having to look up a definition or literary allusion here and there to enjoy such an engrossing experience.

 

What is a Modern Masterpiece?

Attempting to define a masterpiece is like taking the proverbial long walk off a short pier–you’re going to get wet. Refining the discussion to modern works, for my purposes this means books published after 1950, ramps up the debate. These are the stories that have their genesis in the world we (and our parents) have known and experienced. In defining the modern masterpiece, we’re seeking to divine which of our stories are the classics of the future, destined to take their place alongside works by Dickens, Austen, James, Faulkner and all the other greats, and which will evaporate into time.

When I think of what makes modern fiction, I think of books that explore the complexity of human emotion in a world of constantly shifting social, cultural and personal boundaries. Unlike earlier works, which tend to deal in opposing values or symbols (good versus bad; beautiful versus ugly; right versus wrong), modern fiction wallows in shades of gray.  For the modern protagonist, conflict is most often internal, rather than a battle against the greater society. Drama lives in that place where even honest attempts fail–and the only way to reach the authentic self is through a hard road of rejection and re-invention. Think Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert as dangerous as he is pathetic. The anti-heroes of John Updike and Saul Bellow. Toni Morrison’s lost souls forever searching for a true identity and a place in this world.

The marked global emphasis of modern fiction shifts away from other cultures simply as colorful background or a convenient means of setting a narrative in history. Instead the view is from within. Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz. They sing of the displacement of the newcomer, of what is shed with transition and at what price, of what is lost in translation and never recovered.

Lacking the gift of prophesy, I don’t know for certain which modern masterpieces will cross into literary immortality. It’s also quite possible that the same book to which I apply the word “masterpiece” is someone else’s doorstop, roach smasher, or sleeping pill. My intention over the next year is to present suggestions–just one per month-works of modern fiction which just might survive long enough to become something more. I’m hoping at least a few intrepid readers out there will join me on the adventure.

A Short and Sexy Romp: A Review of the Witch of Air and Fire by Eliza March

This novella-length erotic tale is a quick and spicy read. Candace is a young witch with a big destiny that is intertwined with a pair of sexy immortals. Will a joining of the elements save the universe, or will evil steal the day?

Witch of Air and Fire

Witch of Air and Fire

The setting–a stormy beach with a suggestive lighthouse is atmospheric and adds a lot to the fun. The plot is meaty enough to carry the action but not too weighty for the abbreviated length. The sex is integral to the story–rare in much erotic fiction. The characters are three dimensional and engaging. I was surprised that March managed to make the males–Cian and Regan–as layered as Candace. She also gave Candace a cat/human familiar whose brief appearance added a lot of fun.

If there was one aspect I had to single out for improvement, it is how the heroes ultimately deal with the villain. It’s a little too neat and easy. There was the potential to take a tense situation and really turn the screws.

Also, there’s a surprise at the very end. I won’t give it away. Personally, it works for me–adding a humorous twist to the whole.

Overall, a sexy romp!

The House of the Seven Gables: Why Can’t Nathaniel Hawthorne Keep His Mouth Shut?

It wasn’t easy settling on the first Carrie’s Classic. Many a masterpiece have I read and loved in my forty-year reading career. A Jane Austen might have been nice. She has a voracious audience full of enthusiasm and opinions. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the book that was introduced to me–via that mellow-voiced older man who used to present Masterpiece Theater on PBS–as the (technically) “perfect” novel. Only perfection isn’t the point here. Nor is popularity. My intention is to present Carrie’s classics–the books that have impacted my vision of my world and, yes, in many ways molded my writing style. The hope is that those of you following this blog will create your own list of classics and begin to think about how your reading has shaped you.

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables (1850) is an imperfect work. The plot revolves around the four surviving members of a great family that–cursed by the misdeeds of its founding ancestor, the severe and terrifying Colonel Pyncheon–has fallen into ruin.  Their condition is reflected in the dilapidated, ghost-filled mansion where elderly spinster Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, mentally broken by many the many years he spent in jail for murder, live out their narrow, angst-ridden last days. Their cousin, the slimy and conniving Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, is the actual heir to the estate. He’s obsessed with old tales about a deed hidden in the house that would restore the family to its former glory. Worse, he believes Clifford knows where the deed is and plans to get that information by any means possible. Rounding out the cast is young Phoebe, a country cousin who unexpectedly shows up and brings a little light into the House of the Seven Gables, and Holgrave, an artist lodging with them.

     The House of the Seven Gables, Salem MA (right) 

The House of the Seven Gables. Salem, MA. Actually one of four houses believed to be the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorn's novel.006

 

008I first read this book back in 1994, after visiting Salem, Massachusetts where there is a real House of the Seven Gables, though it is actually one of four properties in the region that Nathaniel Hawthorne mashed together to get his ancient pile of cobwebs and rotting timbers. The romance of the historical site, a complex of 17th and 18th century buildings, including Hawthorne’s birthplace, led me to crack my signet classic edition with high hopes. Reality…well, there was plenty of creepy, old Salem atmosphere…along with a tangle of overblown exposition, author intrusion, digression, and moralization. I’d go on, but I truly don’t want to put readers off the book. Because, despite its extravagances and weaknesses, there is a lot to admire.

Written only seventy-five years after the Declaration of Independence, The House of The Seven Gables takes on the subject of the triumph of the common man over the aristocrat. The ruin of the Pyncheon dynasty lies at its very beginning, Colonel Pyncheon, a British-born favorite of the crown, builds the his luxurious gabled palace on land snatched from a working man named Matthew Maule, whom he helped get convicted of witchcraft during the great witch hysteria of the 1692. It is Maule’s son who engineers the disappearance of the property deed that will become so vital a century and a half later. And it is a Maule descendant who recovers the document and saves the tattered remains of the aristocratic line. The families actually fuse through marriage. By doing so, they wash away the ancestral sin that has dogged the Pyncheons and step into a bright (egalitarian) future.

In the course of the story, Hawthorne also explores the motivation behind what was in his day a raw, embarrassing wound–the arrest of over one hundred and fifty citizens and the execution of nineteen of them (with almost as many dying in prison) for the alleged crime of witchcraft. Hawthorne is a religious man and believes the strength of Puritanism directly led to the success of the uprising against the British. Yet, he recognizes how the puritanical world view also led to the horror of neighbor destroying neighbor on the most flimsy and fantastical of pretexts. We join him in his struggle to to make sense of this paradox. Ultimately, Hawthorne blames arrogance and greed, an aristocratic poison brought to the shores of the new world along with its first settlers.

So when it comes to The House of the Seven Gables, the very thing that makes for a convoluted and imbalanced novel–Hawthorne constantly poking his nose into our reading experience–is also its enduring value. How often does an author centuries dead make himself and his creative process so available? Hawthorne overtly seeks to open a discussion, talks to us about his rambling character sketches and historical digressions, points them out to us and laughs at them.  There is a dual purpose to this Gothic clowning and stumbling, a thinking man’s attempt to reflect the idealist values of a new nation and also make sense of a very real horror story that, in its way, will always be alive in our country’s collective memory.

 

Sinister and Beautiful: A Review of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

It is difficult to know where to begin a discussion of this odd and aching fantasy. It opens in the murky “now” with a middle-aged man back in his hometown for a funeral. We never find out who has died, but it appears to be someone close to him. He stops in to see an old neighbor and recalls a troubling event from his childhood, a magical string of occurrences that begins with the accidental death of his kitten and ultimately leads to a tear in the fabric of the world.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Helping the boy navigate this swiftly tilting reality is eleven-year-old Letti Hempstock, who lives with her mother and grandmother at the very end of the boy’s lane, next to a pond that the Hempstocks call an ocean. Gaiman’s characters have a dark, liquid quality. Imagine people you know, but as they appear in your dreams…skewed photographic negatives of themselves. The setting also adds to the sense of dread. We’re in Sussex, England in an area with lots of farms and open space. Yet the atmosphere is heavy and claustrophobic. There’s a storm lurking. You don’t know from which direction it’ll come, but THAT it will come is inevitable.

I would have preferred a more resolved ending. The book begins and ends with the boy as a grown man, so we learn some details of his life–his profession, marital status, that he has children. What we don’t know is whether he’s been saved or lost. Did the right side triumph all those years ago? Or is good and evil just a story we tell ourselves, a way to make sense of a random and impartial universe?

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a moving book, but it isn’t easy or straight forward. If you don’t mind fiction that leaves you with almost as many questions as answers, it is worth reading and pondering.

 

An Intimate and Haunting Story of Family Love: A Review of Where Petals Fall by Melissa Foster

I received an ARC of this novel in return for an honest review. And I honestly loved it! I have read and reviewed other works by Melissa Foster. While I’ve enjoyed them, WHERE PETALS FALL really grabbed me.

Where Petals Fall (Women's Fiction/Suspense)

Where Petals Fall

Quick summary: Junie Olson’s family is in crisis. For reasons no one can figure out, her four-year-old daughter has stopped speaking and developed other difficulties. A frustrating search for answers has put a strain on Junie’s marriage. As if this isn’t bad enough, her father dies unexpectedly. Junie heads to her childhood home to help her mother and finds memories surfacing about her childhood friend, who vanished at the age of seven. Unable to escape these flashes from the past, Junie sets out to decode their message. In the process, she uncovers secrets that could cost her everything she loves most.

Foster manages to balance her weighty, complex subject matter with fast-paced action and close attention to character. Her book is populated by complicated, flawed people who often make terrible decisions with the best of intentions. Foster makes these people real to us. She tells their story with plenty of tension but without resorting to melodrama. This is helped by a tight, tight focus on the point of view of her main character. We’re able to follow Junie’s search for the truth, living through all of her missteps and moments of uncomfortable self-discovery. There are plenty of dark corners in Junie’s story–human hearts are challenging places–but this is ultimately a book about love, loyalty and the power of friendship.

Readers with a taste for character-driven mysteries mixed with a good dose of family drama will enjoy this novel.

What Is a Classic?

Ask readers to define what makes a book a classic and you’ll probably get something like: it’s an old book with boring plots and characters written in antique English. Me? Well, I like old books and archaic language. So, I wouldn’t argue against those points.

But boring plots and characters?

We must not be reading the same classics.

Like contemporary books, classics come in all flavors. Some are more to my taste than others. I have a weakness for novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Before 1800, I find the lack of a clear narrative makes the reading tedious. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) is an exception. The first part, anyway. The second part–Zzzzzzz-fest. To be fair, epistolary novels, those told in the form of letters, start the writer off at a disadvantage in terms of show versus tell. In a letter, it is ALL telling.

As for novels after 1930, you may as well be reading the newspaper. All the romance has been ground under the heels of dreary realism. I might, when pressed, stretch my cut off to 1955. Not because of Hemingway–in my opinion his best work was pre-1930–but in recognition of three other authors. First and second, those odd and compelling French Existentialists–Sartre and Camus–who added so much angst to the 1940s. Third, an unassuming iconoclast named Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 masterpiece Lolita ignited the biggest literary firestorm since Gustave Flaubert faced charges of obscenity for his 1856 tale of that lusty and unrepentant adulteress Madame Bovary. This trio demands a little stretching of boundaries.

But my flavors are MY flavors. We could argue chocolate versus strawberry all year and never get anywhere, much less address the question I’ve set here: What IS a classic? What makes one book survive centuries, while another, which may have outsold it a million times over at the time of publication, sinks into obscurity? What makes fiction transcend the page, lodge itself firmly in the imagination, and remain there for generations?

Critics and literature professors talk about universality…that the best books explore what is true of all people, throughout all time. Yet that’s not quite right is it? Love is a human universal. Few “romances” achieve the esteem and longevity of the works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Conflict is a human universal. How many novels of war have attained the reach of Homer’s Iliad?

Psychiatrist Carl Jung took the theory of universality to its deepest level, explaining much of the human psyche in terms of a “collective unconscious” or deep shared knowledge organized around specific archetypes. These are patterns of thinking and being that we instantly recognize and respond to: the self, the shadow, the anima (female in male), the animus (male in female), the persona, the father, the mother, the child, the maiden, the hero, the wise old man, the trickster.

Looking at fiction through a Jungian lens, we see these archetypes (aspects of our own selves) in a story and it becomes OUR story and–in a way–no longer fiction. Rather, it is transformed into a virtual or alternate reality that we can, for the time we are reading, exist within. Then, once that last page is turned, so are the tables–the book then exists within US. I think that’s what people mean when they say, “____________  (novel) changed me.”  BOOM! They’ve discovered a classic. More than that, they’ve created a classic.

Given this strong personal reaction to specific stories, it strikes me that the future definition of “a classic” is going to change radically as we go on. Consider, literary canons came into being at a time when relatively few people were literate and even fewer were literate people who wrote books. The pool of candidates for inclusion was tiny. These days literacy, to one degree or another, is the rule and there are LOTS of people writing in many formats. Lots of flavors to choose from.

So it seems we can look forward to more and more conversations (arguments!) about what makes a book good or worthy and few, if any, definitive conclusions. For the creators of literary canons this future is likely to seem a frustrating and hostile landscape. But for the curious reader happy to write her own list and then tear it up and start another then tear that one up? Happy days ahead!

So THIS is Steampunk! A Review of THE SIX-GUN TAROT by R.S. Belcher

THE SIX-GUN TAROT was my first foray into steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction usually set in an alternate history version of the 19th century Victorian era or the American West. I wasn’t quite sure if this would be my cup of tea…or, in this case, brand of whiskey. I was worried it might be a little comic bookish for me. As it turned out, I enjoyed myself tremendously.

The Six-Gun Tarot
The Six-Gun Tarot

First of all, it’s hard to believe that this is author R.S. Belcher’s first novel. The richly drawn characters and complex plot demonstrate the skills of a seasoned wordsmith. The tale takes place in Golgotha, Nevada, a tapped-out mining town that seems to attract the haunted and the hunted. Young Jim Negrey, a wanted man at only fifteen, is near death at the edge of the 40-mile desert when Mutt, a Sheriff’s deputy, rescues him. Jim gets a job helping to look after the jail, and it isn’t long before he learns that there’s trouble roiling beneath Golgotha’s cracked and dusty surface.

None of Belcher’s characters is quite what he or she seems. There are plenty of secrets and private agendas, all of which are endangered when the odd new “Reverend” and his Deacon hatch a plot to consign the earth to oblivion by freeing the primordial power stirring in the deepest bowels of the dead silver mine.

What I love about Golgotha is the sense that the impending Armageddon is not the town’s first brush with supernatural trouble and that it won’t be the last. As soon as I finished the book, I found myself wishing there was another one to enjoy. With any luck Belcher is hard at work creating another ungodly denizen of the underworld for Jim and his new-found friends to battle.