Monthly Archives: December 2011

Haunts – Reliquaries of the Dead, edited by Stephen Jones

Ghosts, objects with unnatural power, demons taking the place of innocent, vengeful houses, bones, doors, people possessed, all that and more can be found in this collection of supernatural tales. Comprised of twenty-five stories, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and while it wasn’t as horrific as I expected (not complaining, just saying) it still gave me a nightmare from which I woke, eyes wide awake, trying to remember if that black shape near the mirror was there before I went to sleep. It was.

I enjoyed reading all the stories, and I thought the introduction before each one was a nice touch. It was interesting to see how an idea based in real life evolved into a good scary story. While I can’t say I didn’t like any of the stories, a handful of them I consider a step above the others. Here they are:

The Poison Pen, by Christopher Fowler, is a tale of the occult, greed and an object with a lot of power. When a rich relative dies, his fortune is divided among his family but the favorite nephew gets nothing. This is strange, considering that at their last get-together, the wealthy uncle had promised Mark ‘something very special’. And then tragedy strikes and Mark finally realizes why he was omitted from the will. This was my favorite story.

The Door, by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
A writer with a passion for collecting old things buys a door that belonged to an old house. A massive door made of ‘solid walnut’ with ‘an intricate pattern that seemed to grow more complicated the longer it was examined’. Little does he know this is no ordinary door but something far more sinister that needs to be fed in order to maintain its power.

Grandfather’s Teeth, by Lisa Tuttle
When people die, the loved ones left behind are tempted to keep something that belonged to them, something to remember them by. For his nephew, Dougie, that keepsake was his grandfather’s fake teeth. Possessed by a fascination he could not explain, the boy keeps them in his room but they prove to be more than a harmless piece of ‘ivory-colored teeth arrayed in the pink plastic gums’. I actually cringed when I got to the end of the story.

Grandmother’s Slippers, by Sarah Pinborough, starts with the mention of a funeral and continues with the story of a pair of slippers with a purpose. What that purpose is and how they manage to achieve it, makes for an interesting story.

City of Dreams, by Richard Christian Matheson, is a story made of delicate threads; references to movies, writing, famous people, brings a sophisticated air to the narrative. It is also a story about curiosity satisfied but with a price that brings about many more questions.

A House on Fire, by Tanith Lee
Not only people have souls, but houses, too; this seems to be the main idea behind this story in which a house haunts the one who burned it down. This is no ordinary pile of wood and stone and glass, and its revenge is terrible.

The Hidden Chamber, by Neil Gaiman, it’s a beautiful poem that starts like this:
‘Do not fear the ghosts in this house; they are the least of your worries.’
I love the last part of this poem. It brings to the page a feeling of loneliness and longing, and sadness.

*Read in December, 2011

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A Christmas Story

It was a cold and starry night and the reindeer were tired. After circling around the globe to bring presents to children, all they wanted was to go back to a nice warm barn for a well-deserved sleep.

Last stop boys, said Santa, before shaking the reins, and the reindeer groaned.
Where to now? said a grumpy one with a red nose.
We’re going to Thailand, boys.
Thailand? But they don’t even have snow there and wait…do they believe in Christmas? said a small reindeer in a piping voice.
Well, they may not have real Christmas trees and fireplaces and snow but they are still expecting us. Besides, I could use a beer right now and a day or two on the beach. From what I remember last year, it’s nice and hot there this time of the year and I could do with a bit of sun on my old bones. And the best thing is no more going down the chimneys! These guys don’t have any, so that will save me some trouble. I was getting tired of trying to squeeze through those things, said Santa patting his ample belly.
All we have to do is deliver the gifts to the Mall and the children will find them afterwards.
With a hearty laugh Santa shook the reins and the reindeer gathered their strength for the last trip. As they were getting closer to Bangkok, the last snowflakes on their coats melted and a pleasant drowsiness overtook the animals.
Hey, this is not bad, said a white reindeer with sparkling antlers.
Kinda windy, said another.
At least it’s not cold AND windy, shot back Sparkly.
Is there something to eat? said another.
There’s plenty if you like it spicy, said a reindeer behind Rudolph.
Do they have cookies here, I wonder? said Rudolph.
Hey, a coconut shake sounds nice, with lots of milk and…
Cookies! said Rudolph.
Yeah, yeah, we’ll find you some cookies, replied a voice at the back.

Meanwhile, Santa was getting ready: the heavy fur trimmed coat was replaced by a red and white t-shirt which barely covered his belly.
Hmm, I never should have listened to those Thai girls. One size only, sir, good for you, sir, you look so handsome, sir! Bah, it was only 199 baht, what did I expect, eh?
With a last pull at the t-shirt who was stubborn enough to ride just above his belly button, Santa adjusted his red beach shorts and rummaged under the seat for his slippers.
Where did I put those things? Hey Rudolph, do you know where my flip-flops are?
No, came a strained voice at the front.
Hey guys, is it getting hotter here or what? This sleigh weighs like a ton or something.
Tell me about it, said Sparkly, his tongue hanging out.
Are we there yet? said the small reindeer.
Almost, said Santa, who was rummaging under the seat.
There you are, cried he at last. My flip flops! Pink, of all colors! he added with a disappointed shake of his head. Never mind, Thais love bright colors. Pink will do.
Ready boys? he asked, and six voices answered back: Ready!

The descent was slow. Between the densely packed buildings and temples, the cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and bicycles, Santa’s entourage swooped down on the city, almost colliding with a motorcycle on which four people were squeezed like biscuits it a pack.
Whew, that was close, said Santa. Careful boys, we don’t want any accidents.
The reindeer were too busy trying to avoid the traffic. Although nobody could see them or the sleigh, it didn’t mean they couldn’t be hit. As they came around a corner, the lights of a big building dazzled their eyes and Santa pulled the reins.
Here we are…at last…he said, climbing out of the sleigh and patting each reindeer in turn, smoothing their fur.
Be good boys and don’t forget, no moving during the day or you’ll freak people out. I’ll come back tonight.
With cookies, said a voice.
And coconut shakes, said another.
No problem, said Santa with a wink.

Merry Christmas!

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A Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell

Ah, Orwell, I fell in love with your writing ever since I read 1984. I loved your clean, uncomplicated prose, the despair and sadness of your characters, the uncluttered narrative of your books. That is why I regret not buying “Why I Write”, a book of yours I picked up and then let go. But I will read it one day, I promise.
Despite of my admiration for your work – I loved Burmese Days and 1984, of course – I found A Clergyman’s Daughter a rather dull book in the beginning. Life as the unmarried daughter of a country priest, between the Christian duties of visiting the neighbors to provide help and also coax them back to church, and the demanding requests of a selfish father, did not hold a lot of excitement. I did admire Dorothy for bearing it all so well, for managing to split herself between her duties and trying to please everybody. There were costumes to be made for a children’s play to raise some funds for one thing or another, endless housework, the garden to be weeded and catering to the comfort of her father, the priest, a strict, gloomy and demanding man who lived in the past with no idea of the struggles of the daily life. I just wanted to shake slap the man.

Halfway through the book things took a turn for the worse and as cruel as that may sound, put a bit of life into the book. Dorothy was thrown into the harsh city life of London. With the country still battling the Depression, the fight for survival was cruel, brutal and shocking and Dorothy got to experience it all. Suffering from memory loss and with no money in her pocket, she tags along with three people who are trying to find work as day laborers on a farm. Dorothy falls right in with the exhausting life on the farm – it seems that as long as she has a routine to hold on to she goes along as if in a dream, never once questioning her past or the fact that she doesn’t remember her name. A tragic incident startles her out of the stupor and memories come back in a rush. Trying to get back home she writes to her father to send her some money and clothes but her letters remain unanswered. Forced to leave the farm, she wanders the streets, living with the homeless, being thrown into jail and suffering from cold and hunger until a cousin takes pity and helps her find a job as a teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Dorothy’s experience as a teacher, her enthusiasm as she tried to devise new ways to teach the children, her struggles to keep both her employer (what a cold-hearted woman!) and the parents happy (more handwriting and arithmetic if you please!) and in the end giving up. It was probably the most dreadful part of the whole book because there is nothing more horrible than watching the hope for a new life being killed, slowly, methodically, utterly driven into the ground.

“But the children wouldn’t have understood the play if I hadn’t explained!” protested Dorothy for the third or fourth time.
“Of course they wouldn’t! You don’t seem to get my point, Miss Millborough! We don’t want them to understand. Do you think we want them to go picking up dirty ideas out of books? Quite enough of that already with all these dirty films and these twopenny girls’ papers that they get hold of – all these filthy, dirty love-stories with pictures of – well, I won’t go into it. We don’t send our children to school to have ideas put into their heads.”
“That’s it! Practical work – that’s what we want – practical work! Not all this messy stuff like po’try and making maps and sticking scraps on paper and such like. Give ‘em a good bit of figuring and handwriting and bother the rest. Practical work! You’ve said it!”

In the end, Dorothy’s prayers are answered. Ironically, it is the man who got her into trouble that saves her, and she goes back to her boring, repetitive, colorless life.

This was Orwell’s third book, published in 1935, after Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Burmese Days (1934). It can be divided into 2 parts: life before and after. Before she lost her memory and after she regained it. There was the tedious but familiar environment of her village with her days filled with endless things to do, and the new, bleak, harsh life of the big city, independence but also misery, loneliness and despair. The book raises some interesting questions regarding religion, the purpose of one’s life, and the benefits of a life comprised of routine, endless work to keep the hands busy and the mind from wandering and asking too many questions.
This is my favorite kind of book, one that focuses on a central character, their feelings, their journey through life. Beautiful in its simplicity, with few characters, it allowed me to understand and connect with Dorothy in a way that few books do. It’s a sad story with a bitter-sweet end and even if it’s not my favorite Orwell novel it helped make me like his writing even more.

A few paragraphs I enjoyed:

About the Rector (Dorothy’s father):

The service was beginning. The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practiced voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. ‘This is a valid sacrament, he seemed to be saying, ‘and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.’

About Dorothy:

“Dorothy drew a long glass-headed pin from the lapel of her coat, and furtively, under cover of Miss Mayfill’s back, pressed the point against her forearm. Her flesh tingled apprehensively. She made it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to her prayers, to prick her arm hard enough to make blood come. It was her chosen form of self-discipline, her guard against irreverence and sacrilegious thoughts.
With the pin poised in readiness she managed for several minutes to pray more collectedly. Her father had turned one dark eye disapprovingly upon Miss Mayfill, who was crossing herself at intervals, a practice he disliked. A starling chattered outside. With a shock, Dorothy discovered that she was looking vaingloriously at the pleats of her father’s surplice, which she herself had sewn two years ago. She set her teeth and drove the pin an eighth of an inch into her arm.”

During a google search I discovered a site with the texts of Orwell’s books and essays. It’s nice to know that “Why I Write” is just a click away.

*Read in December 2011

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The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

I’ve seen this book before, I remember picking it up and putting it back on the shelf. The subject did not really interest me. The title seemed too bombastic, the tagline too much. This time however, I opened it and started reading. Time and space disappeared and a few pages later I said to myself, well, why not take it home and see what this is all about.

The story is divided into eight parts, each part representing the view of a different person: Hector, Anouk, Harry, Connie, Rosie, Manolis, Aisha and Richie. A barbecue party where a man slaps a child is seen as the trigger of a series of escalating events that bring about some major changes involving all the characters mentioned above. Friendships are challenged, old family conflicts flare up, sexual issues come to the surface and everything just goes crazy. Among issues explored are infidelity, homosexuality, single parenting, drugs, motherhood and interracial connections.
Even though each character’s perspective kept the story moving at an alert pace, I would find myself alternately looking forward to the next character’s story while at the same time asking myself why I was still wasting my time with it.
Things improved after I reached Manolis’ part – something changed, the story started to feel real and I found my connection. Was the looking-back-on-my-life thoughts of the old man, the proximity of death, the coming back of old friends that struck a chord in me? It must have. That was my favorite part in the book and if only for that I consider I have not wasted my time. There is also a section about Bangkok, and that contributed to the “real” feeling I’d started to get – the exaggerated politeness of the shop girls, the silly smiles and friendly attitude of the locals, it’s all there in the book and here in the real world. It also emphasized the contrast between the stressed out world inhabited by the characters and their view of different cultures.

Reading this novel felt like watching a soap opera where the never ending drama keeps you glued to the TV, even though you know it’s just something to pass the time, that you should turn it off or watch cartoons instead or maybe something on National Geographic. And yet, you are having one of those days when all you want to do is take a day off from the world and lounge around in your pajamas, eat ice-cream straight from the box and watch TV all day. So I kept reading, partly because I hate giving up on a book and partly because of plain old curiosity.
And still, under the profanity that made my head spin, the drugs, the racism, the macho attitude of the men and fearlessness of the women, there is a grain of reality – it made me think of the raw, stripped, naked thoughts that run through our heads, hidden, pushed in corners, willed into oblivion, of desires reaching deep and passion and regrets. This is the amplified drama of ordinary lives.
Time to change out of my pajamas and get back to the real world.

*Read in December 2011

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Horns – Joe Hill

This is my second book by Hill, after Heart Shaped Box, and I have to say I enjoyed it much more. It has the shine and luster of a more practiced novel, you can almost see the elements combining and working together like the insides of a clock. Tick- tock, the little wheels spin and everything works just how it’s supposed to.
If I were to sum it up in a few words, I’d say: The Devil is in all of us. Sometimes it just takes longer for his horns to come out.

Is it a story about love, is it about friendship, or about the (d)evil in all of us, or about human weaknesses, about envy and lust and gratitude and horrendous cruelty? Yes, yes, and more yes, it’s all that and more.

Ig Perrish and Merrin Williams are high-school sweethearts. Their love story starts in a church and ends in an old abandoned foundry. Quite poetic, one might say.
Ig and Merrin seem to be made for each other and apparently nothing stands in the way of a happily ever after. Except, well, someone with an unbelievable streak of cruelty.
When Merrin is found raped and dead, Ig becomes the suspect. By an incredible stroke of bad luck, the circumstances are not in his favor either, but due to his father’s connections, there is no trial and he gets released. Almost a year later, after a drunken night spent at the place of the murder, Ig wakes up with horns on his head. They give him a strange power and he decides to use it to find Merrin’s killer and punish him. The secret is out about halfway through the book – you don’t have to go through the whole novel just to see who did it but you’ll have to keep reading to see why and how that happened.

The narrative goes back and forth between present and past, presenting snippets of events that connect with each other. There are quite a few musical references, The Beatles, Keith Richards, Louis Armstrong to name just a few. Religion is ever present, from the morally corrupted priest to Merrin’s protective golden cross and the blessed tree house in the woods.
The book brings back memories of reading Stephen King’s novel, IT – there are some common elements but Hill made his evil characters much more vicious and straightforward. I particularly liked it for the way in which the author managed to weave the little details together making the story fit together nicely, each detail placed exactly where it can have a better impact, like Merrin’s letter which I thought was a neat insertion – it provides a few interesting answers and brings about closure. If you’re looking for a book which will answer the questions it raises, you have picked up the right one. This is no subtle reading but a pure straight shot of evil.

*Read in November 2011

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About three books with a dystopian theme

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin

If you’re a George Orwell fan, I strongly recommend you read this book. Written under a pseudonym, the book describes the author’s journey through Burma, in an attempt to prove that Orwell’s 1984was based on the political situation still in place in this country governed by the military. There are passages or/and references from/to 1984, Burmese Days, Animal Farm and other works by Orwell. Having read the first two, it was easier to understand the narrative and follow the author’s travels to places where Orwell had lived. If, however, you are new to the books of Orwell, it’s best if you wait until you’ve read them before you give this book a try. Things will make much more sense if you do. I’m glad I had the chance to read them before and this book felt like a nice finishing touch. Not to mention that I’ve added Burma on the list of countries I want to visit. And, ironically, a few weeks after I did, I almost got my wish.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

I can never think about dystopia without 1984springing to mind in an instant. That book was my first introduction into this genre and I loved it. That is why it took me a while to get into Brave New World – I was afraid it would be too much like Orwell’s book but fortunately it isn’t.
Huxley creates distinctive characters in a book that takes a slightly different approach from Orwell’s. There are two separate worlds: one of strict rules, mindless tasks and orderliness, and the other, more like a roadside attraction, where the old ways are still in place: rituals, marriage, but also disease and poverty. John and Bernard belong to these two worlds and each gets to experience the other side but as they do tragedy follows.
I would say give this book a try, even if it’s just to see a different dystopian perspective, although I have to say that 1984 remains my favorite.

The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna

What could a supposed madman, a woman about to give birth and a prisoner trapped in an Orwellian-like world, have in common?
Ignaz Sommelweis is believed mad and as he struggles in the hands of his captors, hope and despair mingle in his mind. It’s Vienna, in the year 1865.
Brigid is a woman living in present day London. The mother of a young boy and pregnant with her second child, she experiences the pangs of childbirth and knows the time has come.
In 2153, a prisoner bearing a number instead of a name is showed into a cell and she thinks back to a time when she was free of the system, when life was hard but she was happy.
Switching between past, present and future, the author describes the “worlds” these three characters inhabit; it’s depressing and harsh and painful, but brief rays of hope come true, even if just for a moment. It was an interesting reading experience – there’s a lot of symbolism: the moon, wine/blood, even a supposed “virgin birth” which bring religion into focus, medical knowledge; description of the pangs of birth, which was difficult to read. Would I recommend it? Yes, for the nicely flowing narrative which manages to incorporate all three stories into an almost seamless tale.

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