CBR #143 – Sticks To Your Ribs

The Cook by Harry Kressing

Kressing’s 50-year-old novel is getting a republishing, much to the glory of its cult of fans.  Like Robert W. Chambers King in Yellow, it’s one of those influential favorites that horror fans point to as necessity.  And, like The Lottery or The Haunting of Hill House, it’s readily apparent why this is a classic.

Set almost out of time or place — could be medieval, could be modern but archaic — the novel slowly unfolds like a Hammer film.  Conrad arrives to Cobb, a mysterious town with strange geography.  The Prominence, a massive castle, overlooks Cobb.  The castle was built by A. Cobb, the founder of the city, and has been left abandoned since his family started feuding.  One daughter was given the Hill territory, and one was given the Vale territory.  And until the Hills and Vales intermarry, the Prominence will remain unoccupied, and if they all die out before this happens, the land goes to a trust.  After generations of this infighting, there remain two families: The Hills, who have twins, Ester and Howard, and the Vales, who have one daughter, Daphne. They’ve finally patched their differences, and it seems like Howard and Daphne would finally marry.  Then Daphne got really fat and depressed.  And now Howard doesn’t want her.

Enter Conrad, a master chef.  Upon his arrival, he immediately browbeats the townfolk on the quality of their food and goods.  Then he goes to the Hill home, seeking out position as their chef.  And he begins creating sumptuous meals.  Eventually, everyone around him begins to change as Conrad implements his influence on them.

It’s such a tight and strong narrative, it feels like a fairy tale or short story beefed up to novel length.  It’s a simple and relatively familiar story, but again, that’s only because its influence has been strong on so much future horror. It definitely belongs in the same breath as Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson.

The only strange element comes from the plot device that characters become useless when they are fat.  Howard could easily have entered into a loveless marriage with Daphne no matter what weight she was.  Eventually, Ester, the sister, also becomes fat.  And that makes her unworthy as a mate several times.  It’s really, really uncomfortably odd. In the scope of the story, because it feels like its an old fable, it works, but it shouldn’t.

Still, if you’re a horror fan, look this up. It’s a very fast read and a very excellently crafted tale.


CBR #142 – We Come From The Land of the Ice and Snow

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

I’m a big fan of the Percy Jackson novels.  Much better than those abysmal movies.  After his first five book series, Riordan tried his hands with a trilogy on the Egyptian gods.  And it was AWFUL.  I hated his heroes, especially the sister.  So Riordan went to the Roman gods this time, and did a neat little blended pseudo-sequel using Percy Jackson’s greek pantheon and the Roman gods and the overlap.  Well done, another bang up five books.  And so Riordan announced he was going to tackle the Norse gods next.  I was super fucking nervous.  Because Egypt didn’t do so hot — pun intended.

But this one works out awesomely.  Magnus Chase is a homeless runaway in Boston.  He discovers that his cousin and uncle have been searching for him.  His cousin being Annabeth Chase from the Percy Jackson books.  Didn’t even occur to me.  Shows how close a reader I am.

Anyway, Magnus suddenly finds himself fighting a fire giant on a bridge with an enchanted sword when he sacrifices himself to save the city and ends up in Valhalla.  And from there it becomes a good ol’ fashioned Riordan romp through mythology with teen heroes.

Riordan pretty much nails it like he did with Heroes of Olympus.  It’s got ties to Percy Jackson, but not overt ones, so that avenue is there, but he’s not forcing the issue.  The wacky Norse shit stands on it’s own.  Magnus is a fun reluctant hero, and as we delve into the past of him and his supporting cast, we get nice depth.  And the main quest, while incredibly circuitous, is superbly interesting.  Plus, I love that Midgard and Asgard and shit are centrally located in Boston. And that Riordan justifies it nicely.

Plus, he has a diverse cast that never feels like checklisting.  I accuse a lot of authors of just dropping diversity because they want to seem sensitive at the cost of the narrative.  Here, we’ve got a black dwarf into fashion, an Arabic Valkyrie whose faith and culture are entwined in her actions, and a deaf elven rune mage, who contacts through sign language.  Each of their differences plays a part in the action rather than being other for the sake of other.  It’s as awesome as Ms. Marvel being Middle Eastern.

I really am excited to see what Riordan does with the rest of the series.  I’m a fan of his myth work.

CBR #141 — My Wayward Son

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

The fact that this book exists is already a pretty spectacular achievement.  They could literally teach an entire college literature course solely on this book, the way it intersects so many varying branches.  Wrap your head around this shit: In Fangirl, the lead character writes fan-fiction based on a series of novels that are sort of an amalgam of Harry Potter and a proper version of Twilight. So, Rowell decides to write an entire novel that involving the fan-fic characters. Only, it’s NOT the original Simon Snow novels as written by their author in Fangirl.  And it’s NOT the fan-fic version written by Cath.  It’s somewhere in the middle.  And it’s all fictional.  And it all takes place in this world that’s more like The Magicians — Harry Potter with the kids who swear like all those British sitcoms you love watching. And ALL OF THIS IS FICTION.  Rowell fan-fics her own fan-fic in her OWN NOVEL.  I’d make an Inception BRRRAAAAHHHHMMMM but my brain hurts.

Now, I didn’t care much for Fangirl.  I had my reasons.  I much preferred Carry On.  It’s hard to levy proper complaints against what this was.  Because part of it is just a pseudo Harry Potter slash-fic repurposed.  Which is SUPER fucking hilarious when you weigh that against Cassandra Clare and EL James, two fan-fic authors who repurposed their Harry Potter slash-fic, changed the names, and became fucking millionaires with their oh crap, oh crap, oh crappy styles. Rowell is ONE MILLION times the writers they are, and yet, she’s done it so much more deftly and yet doesn’t have the filthy lucre those bitches have netted.

My issue was that the actual quest portion of the story was less satisfying.  The Voldemort story as it were.  I think Rowell kind of shunts it aside to make it about Simon and Baz as love-haters.  Which may very well have been the point or the intent.  And it’s fine.  It kind of fucked things up for me.  You have to step back so many times to appreciate the full scope of the story.  It’s kind of beautiful how she takes a thoughtful whack at the love triangle of Harry Potter without thumbing her nose at Rowling.  Simon, the chosen one, has been seeing Agatha for all their years and adventures at their private magic academy.  Penny is his loyal companion, who has her own love interest somewhere in America, but she’s always kind of harbored loving feelings for Simon. And then there’s Baz, Simon’s Malfoy, who he’s roomed with for years, and at the conclusion of the story prior to Carry On, was making out with Agatha before The Humdrum (Voldemort) does his Voldemorting.

The beauty of the book is, Baz has a crush on Simon, even though they are sworn enemies and Simon’s supposedly straight. Agatha is sick of being Simon’s handbag in the form of the princess in the other castle and kind of wants to chuck the whole secret magic world aside to be normal.  And Penny wants Simon even though she won’t admit it to herself.  There’s so many amazing layers to how she puts it together.

It’s an ALRIGHT love story, but so impressive for how many threads are woven into the novel.  Fans of Rowell will assuredly squee with glee.  And even though I wasn’t keen on her most recent works, I dug this one.

CBR #140 – The Time Has Come The Walrus Said To Talk Of Many Things

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

A truly fascinating story, meant for young adults, that really works itself out to be a puzzle.  It’s haunting and beautiful.

I wasn’t that enamored with Scorcese’s Hugo, and I have never read any Brian Selznick before.  Or experienced is probably a better term.  It’s not a conventional novel.  It’s a three part story, the first and third being told entirely in (mostly) wordless pictures.  It’s almost like a silent film.  And even Selznick’s name calls up cinematic thoughts.

The first portion of the story tells — again, in black and white illustrations — the legend of the Marvels, spanning several generations of actors and artists who each are inspired or haunted in their own way by Shakespeare and the stage.  This part starts in the 1700’s and makes it all the way to 1900, where the story abruptly stops.  And I mean abruptly.  Cliffhanger doesn’t do it justice.  It’s as if someone tore the pages out of the books.  (Which consequently, my dog actually did.  He’s never before attacked a library book, but for some reason, he felt the need to sink his fangs into this beauty, rending out an entire section of illustration which I then had to piece together.  He’s got exquisite tastes — it was a $33 book to replace.)

Then we move into 1985, where we receive a tale in prose, of a young dream-minded runaway who flees to England to find his uncle.  What spools out is virtually Dickensian.  And at times, your brain keeps trying to click it up against the portion of the story that took place during the early eras.  If only for the inclusion of one character’s mother, who runs a clinic to take care of the sick who none will touch — and during the 1980’s this meant AIDS — it would feel out of time.

As the two stories work themselves together, slowly clicking into place, it’s really heartbreaking and gorgeously crafted.  Especially the final few illustrations that make up the final part of the story.  The Marvels is a testament to storytelling, itself artfully rendered by leaping between illustration and prose.   The prose part is a bit heady, and clunky at times.  But that’s easily forgive.  It’s made for a younger audience’s palate.

The story itself actually is based on real events, more or less, and that to me makes it even more magical.  If you’re a fan of either Shakespeare or storytelling, give this a chance.  It’s really quite something.

CBR #139 – Frommage, Formaggio, Ost, Syr, Kase

Foreign Affairs by Stuart Woods

In any language, it’s still cheese.  I’ll say it every time, Stone Barrington, the 1%-er James Bond for the elderly set who liked when women knew their place and served you cocktails and appreciated a firm hand on the backside, is the goddamnedest Mary Sue in the world.  And Jesus Christ, its even worse in this book.

At the last minute, Stone has to fly to Rome to build a hotel.  So he ends up in the regular folks seats on the plane for about five minutes.  There he meets a painter.  He invites her to his first class seats.  At this point, you know he’s going to fuck her because she has a vagina and she spoke in more than two chapters.  I’m pretty sure there exists a novella where Woods had Stone fuck his maid and secretary and the other characters he hasn’t in the real books.  Must be saving that for Sweetest Day.

So in this book, the mafia is after Stone and Marcel because they want to build a hotel but refuse to give kickbacks.  So Stone pisses off a mafioso.  And then gets threatened.  So he flees to Paris.  Where he threatens the mafioso with the President, and the CIA, and the Pope.  The only deal is, Stone actually has access to all these people.  The hot MI-6 woman calls him to pout that he didn’t include her in his threats.  The president is like, “Shit yeah I’ll kill a fucking Italian citizen suspected of being a mafioso.  You’re Stone groove, baby!’

It’s not that bad, but honestly, the plot involves a cardinal threatening the mafia guy with going to hell and the mafia guy freaking out about it.  Stone pretends to be a blind pianist to sneak into the mafia guy’s house to lead a sting operation.  It’s so bad.  It’s SO BAD.  Not as bad as the setup for what will presumably be the next book.

You gotta ask, why read them if they are so bad.  Because I can’t believe how bad they are.  That’s why.  I literally can’t believe what he gets away with.  Banging anything with a pulse, literally telling all these high level security and police how they should be doing their job.  And flying, and fucking, and buying estates and manors.  National Bestsellers each time.

CBR #138 – Something Wicked This Way Comes

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Finally, a Tiffany Aching that I quite liked.  It leaned heavily on the old witches.  Again, same principal as Unseen Academicals, it payed homage to the previous witch tales while selling us on the old.  It made everyone in the background around Tiffany infinitely more interesting.  And it was a children’s story that wasn’t afraid to murder a few people.

It really was a very strongly plotted story, Wintersmith but with an actual point.  This is the penultimate Tiffany Aching story, thought I think this might have been a great one to bow out on.  The Discworld ends with Aching, and having read this, I’m a little more okay with that.

It’s a great story on the tyranny of community and the responsibility of everyone in a community.  It ponders on what it means to be a witch, to be a kelda, to be the Big Man, to be a Feagle, marriage, all sorts of deep issues.  I didn’t LOVE the final showdown, but I liked how it was handled.

I’m not crazy about giving Tiffany an alternate love interest, but I guess Pratchett knows what he was doing. Again, we creep closer to the end of Discworld, and it feels like Pratchett is giving all his characters a chance to have their final bows as they approach the last scene.  And that’s nice.  I guess Sir Terry saw death on the horizon, and so he sort of put a bow on everything.

CBR #137 – Sugar and Spice and Fat Frizzy Haired Girls Who Live in Your Eye Sockets

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

This book is barely 100 pages, a graphic novel, not be confused with the Kami Garcia one.  So buckle in for this gruesome little fable.  It’s the story of a small village that apparently lives inside the corpse of a dead little girl.  YEP.  It’s like Cinderella or one of the Disney Princesses.  But instead of a Elsa making a castle of ice while she let’s it go, it’s a FUCKING DEAD LITTLE GIRL.  And it’s not like, oh, maybe she’s sleeping.  Nope.  At once point, a crazy character takes up residence in her hollowed out eyes sockets.  Because she had decayed.  Earlier this character was eating the maggots growing underneath the little girl.

It’s a sadly beautiful treatise on how fairy tales are supposed to work.  With a wicked princess and a dick of a prince who just uses everyone.  There aren’t many nice people in this story.  Even our heroine finally gets fed up and nasty.  It’s got a brutal bastard of an ending, one that was just appropriately wonderfully mean.  And yet totally apropos to the story.

Again, this is reminiscent of the old Roald Dahl stories where nasty kids actually got murdered and where the prince actually hacked off the heads of the wicked stepsisters and Cinderella was like, “Yeah, fuck you, Charming” and ran away to the woods to live happy and free. The heroine of these story takes care of herself.  Sometimes she needs help.  Sometimes she gets double crossed.  It’s wonderfully drawn and sinister and I highly, highly recommend it.