Review of Harvest of Scorn, by F. G. Cottam

Abandoned House in Lewis and Harris

It is a huge relief to be finally off New Hope Island and realize the new hope of never setting foot on it again. And yet this trilogy – The Colony, Dark Resurrection & Harvest of Scorn – proves that F. G. Cottam deserves recognition as the principal author of full-length horror fiction in the English-speaking world. In the last two centuries two distinct species of supernatural stories have developed since Poe established and J. Sheridan LeFanu perfected the genre. There are classic ghost stories in the tradition of the master M. R. James. These tend to be placed in a homely setting such as manor house, cathedral, college – one of the greatest in a seaside hotel. They sneak up but can culminate in a climax that is scary as all get-out. They work best for me @ short-story or novella length: horse artillery – get into action fast, strike hard. Susan Hill & Andrew Taylor are the greatest contemporary exponents. Then there are the siege-artillerymen of horror fiction who create elaborate full-scale imaginary worlds. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the standard and archetype. Stephen King is the most successful contemporary commercial practitioner, Adam Nevil & Graham Masterton haven’t ever quite got it together, Sarah Rayne will be a star if she ever learns how to write a believable back-story – she excels @ horrid deaths. Mike (formerly M. C.) Carey is superb but now writes spiritual rather than supernatural fiction tho’ in that tradition, and F. G. (formerly Francis) Cottam is simply the best.

Back-story is plausible & generally accurate, tho’ I can no more believe that an 18th-century English-speaking Scot would be called Seamus instead of James (perhaps Jamie, pronounced Jimmy) than that I go about being addressed as Wilhelm rather than William (actually Will, pronounced Bill! The notion among English speakers that Gaelic names were somehow romantic surely dates only from the second quarter the 19th century, when bastard forms such as Hamish were invented—now in America we have the unisex name Shawn.) The tale of the slaver Andromeda and the witch-doctor’s curse, the slave ship captain who converted (like John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace), became a religious fanatic who tried to create his own utopia in the Hebrides (one such attempt BTW is still very much with us in America – it’s called Utah, formerly Deseret), and the really scary apparitions of the ghost of Rachel Ballantyne were all very effective. But the contemporary cast is too large to develop convincingly. For me the characters are only types: Baxter the sleazy resort developer, Lassiter the recovering alcoholic cop, Fortescue the bereaved marine historian, Ruthie the goth fiction writer, Helen the architect . . . it goes on – I’m still wondering how the name of an infamous Belgian SS-man got attached to Monseigneur Degrelle – all tend to be mere types with a label to keep them straight. For me, in contrast, the characters in Brodmaw Bay, The Waiting Room (especially when a character travels back in time to be with his love), & Cottam’s 1st out-&-out supernatural thriller The House of Lost Souls, were much more interesting and Dark Echo perhaps the most engaging story. (But authors: please ask me before issuing military rifles!) So whilst the Colony trilogy is Cottam’s greatest accomplishment, Harvest of Scorn is not his best book. But worth the effort, even if like me you have to recruit an Audible reader to carry you over the finish line.

 

Review of The Lie, by C. L. Taylor

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An honour one can acquire on Goodreads is to have written the ‘go to’ review for readers who had a very strong positive or negative reaction to a particular book. I’ve not achieved the former—proud as I am of my reviews of Dare Me & The Likeness—in several cases I fear I’ve accomplished the latter, to have written the review that captures perfectly the faults of a book. My review of C. L. Taylor’s The Accident seems to be one of them. I’ve felt guilty about that ever since, because the manifold faults in that story might have been obviated by better editing (‘no, lambs aren’t “happy” to be roasted’; ‘the I in ICU stands for “intensive”; that means they don’t casually allow strangers to stroll into the ward and try murder the patients’; ‘no, Sylvia Plath didn’t drown herself in her kitchen’) when like all of us, the author was having a momentary attack of the stupids.

Guilty because subsequently I won a signed copy of the author’s next book, The Lie—& it reads on the title-page: ‘To Bill, I hope you enjoy The Lie. All the best. C. L. Taylor.’ It was confession time. I posted a comment on Goodreads: ‘Is my face red! Talk about turning the other cheek. I wrote a snarffy review of C. L. Taylor’s The Accident & now thanks to A. J. Waines I’ve received a signed copy of Taylor’s next book The Lie. Mea culpa! I promise tho’ to amend my life, to read it with care & to try to write the most generous & thoughtful review I can, consistent of course with telling the truth. As I love the theme of double and false identities, I really hope this one will work for me & in the meantime thanks very much to both A. J. & C. L.’

For over a year it sat accusingly @ my bedside whilst accumulating good reviews from other readers. When I finally took the plunge, The Lie indeed reveals itself to be an excellent read. It does tho’ have one feature I’m growing to dislike intensely, the two-track narrative scheme with the same 1st-person narrator, one set in the present & the other in the past. (See also The Roanoke Girls.) As the present-tense narrator (unless amnesiac) already knows how the backstory (here 5 yrs ago) turned out, as a reader I feel played with or jerked around by the author’s pretense to keep me in suspense. But The Lie has as well a theme I love, the principal character who invents a new identity for herself & what happens when the past intrudes.

The backstory is mostly set in a hippy cult commune in Nepal called Ekanta Yatra where 4 BFs, Leanne, Daisy, Al & Emma/later-Jane go on holiday. Only (shouldn’t that be ‘twoly’?) Al & Jane/formerly-Emma) come back to England, & they’re not Fs anymore. What happened to them turns out to be both fascinating & quite harrowing. Isaac, the cult leader, is a particularly vile specimen who talks Tavistock Square jargon in a revoltingly lower-class Scots accent reproduced in all its ugliness in the Audible edition. Even tho’ I have a strong aversion to DV (& there turns out to be a lot in this book), as an adventure thriller The Lie gripped me completely once I got into it on audio @ about 1/2 way. The present story isn’t as riveting & I thought a bit less plausible. What works in an exotic setting (as I read The Lie, I was often reminded of Katy Gardner’s Losing Gemma, tho’ their denouements are very different) loses its flavour & sparkle as a domestic. That may be why The Accident failed to entertain me.

If you’ve not yet read the book & love perilous escape thrillers, I highly recommend The Lie, especially if you like dual-track story lines. So, thank you very much C. L. Taylor, I did indeed ‘enjoy The Lie’.

 

Review of The World Remade: America in World War I, by G. J. Meyer

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Though The World Remade: America in World War I is a big disappointment, in fairness to the author G. J. Meyer one should concede that he probably wrote the book he intended, but unfortunately not the book that I hoped for. I wanted to find out why and how the United States found she had to enter the Great War on side of the allies. The principal fault in the book is the lack of discussion or even recognition of the place in the world that America had achieved by the second decade of the last century. Though militarily the United States had then created a navy comparable to the Royal Navy, her army was little more than a frontier constabulary scarcely up to the task of chasing Pancho Villa out of Texas. Had the war continued as expected well into 1919, she would have fielded the most powerful army in the world. Leadership of western civilization had belonged to Spain in the 16th century, passed to France in the 17th century, Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. Now it was American’s turn, though it was a responsibility neither her politicians nor her people were ready to accept till 1945, perhaps not entirely even now, as the foreign policy of the current administration betrays.

When I read the phrase, “The American army’s Springfield rifle was considered the best in the world,” I realized that G. J. Meyer ought not to be writing military history. In fact the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield (Lee, BTW, was an American officer) had twice the magazine capacity & an experienced infantryman could fire it much faster, so fast that the Germans thought the British had a machine gun. There are only a few chapters in this very long book given to the actual fighting by the AEF, mostly at a high level of abstraction, though we read a good deal about Douglas MacArthur. Meyer seems to have missed the significance of the U-boat campaign, and its role not only in America’s entry into the war, but why marked the necessity of abandoning a passive role and leaving freedom of commerce to the Royal Navy to insure.

The British might have committed more technical violations of American neutrality with their no-nonsense enforcement of their naval blockade, though I found Meyers’ hand-wringing about starving German civilians maudlin—if the Germans had cared about their civilian population’s welfare, they could have ended the war; they were occupying Belgium and Northern France, after all. But the U-boat ended the leisure the two oceans had provided to isolate the United States from what was going on in the rest of the world, though another couple of decades would pass before Americans would receive a demonstration of what enemy submarines off their coast could accomplish.

Meyer notices, though in passing and mostly with respect to Wilson’s ambitions, that only by entering the war could America play a significant role in making the peace, a peace that would result in redrawing the maps of three continents, with consequences that are very much still with us today, especially in the Middle East. More important, as appears to have escaped the author, is that if America had remained neutral, the peace that would have resulted in Europe would have been the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, leaving Germany and her clients masters of eastern Europe, and ultimately the most powerful rival claimant for world leadership.

Of course, strategic reality had to be sold to the American electorate with the mushy moralism we still label “Wilsonianism”—“making the world safe for democracy” and “self-determination”—but under all the mush there is not only a good deal of enlightened self-interest, but a vital understanding of why America exists, of the duty of the people who inhabit the world’s most powerful nation to make the world a civilized and peaceful polity, to banish cruel tyrants and unnecessary suffering. The Romans understood that, the British understood that, and in 1917 it began to dawn on the Americans. And it may dawn on G. J. Meyer.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Random House for an advance review copy.

Review of The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel


The big family secret of the Roanoke’s should be transparent even to the least sophisticated reader well before half-way into the story, tho’ its enormity in stretching to three generations may @ 1st be difficult to swallow. My favorite line in the entire book was: “He’s not a pervert. He waited till I was fourteen & could decide for myself!” As the bad stuff involved neither domestic violence, abduction & false-imprisonment, or small chidren, none of my personal triggers got tripped. But some readers may have a problem. In the idiom most of the characters employ in this book, this is one f-bombed-up family! Also, I fear I am becoming very tired of books with two time lines, in this case eleven years apart, esp. when they have the same narrator, because of course character telling the foreground story also knows everything that happens in the backstory, but has to keep it hidden till the back story gets there. I think if the backstory had been the whole story it would have been a better & more suspenseful book. But it would have been less convoluted & could not have as nearly approached tragic stature.

Essentially, the backstory is what happened to the 16 y/o Lane, who is sent to her grandfather’s farm in western Kansas after her mother committed suicide in New York, where she gets to know her look-alike cousin Allegra. In the fore-story eleven years later, Lane is summoned back to the farm by grandfather because Allegra had disappeared, so the mystery is what happened to her & why. Lane renews her relationship with teenaged boyfriend Cooper as well as Allegra’s old heart-trob Tommy, now an unhappily married cop, & delving deeper into family history which most readers will long since have figured out.
Plot: Mostly I listened on audio. For an e-book, this one is shamefully overpriced so that getting someone else to read to me while I drove was a better deal. Because I was using an iPhone as an audio player and every time you pick up an iPhone you can jump several chapters ahead or behind with0ut realizing it, it became esp. obvious that this book is a jelly fish structurally; it doesn’t much matter where in the story any incident occurs, as you already have long ago figured out the family secret anyway—whether it’s being foreshadowed or back-shadowed is immaterial. A trifle tedious but saves you the trouble of keeping the plot straight, the little there is. Except for finding out what happened to Allegra, absolutely everything that happens in this book was totally what a reader expects, including what happens to Lane in the end.
Setting: If you’ve ever driven on a two-lane blacktop in the American Midwest beyond the 100th parallel of longitude, you’ve seen Osage Flats (unless you blinked). It makes the Australian town in Jane Harper’s The Dry seem a metropolis in comparison. This is really the boonies.
Characters: Growing up in such an abusive & dysfunctional family leads to a Dead Sea level of self-esteem. There is no need to comment on liking the characters; it is impossible to dislike them as much as they hate themselves. So strangely I became fond of both Lane & Allegra. I admired Lane’s honesty & Allegra’s courage in making the best she could of what most of us would find an impossible situation.
Style: Characters throw lots of f-bombs but generally observe the common convention that when referring to the activity which f-bombing literally denotes, they substitute the euphemism “sleeping with” instead. I admired Lane’s exceptional literalism. But though Lane’s style features poetic metaphors & descriptions, “f-bombed up” and “excrementy” are the closest she can come to an artistic description of the tragic dimension of the human condition, what she saw when she gazed into the abyss. Allegra however made her home there.
So despite being repetitious & boring, The Roanoke Girls almost achieves the level of full-blown tragedy because however squalid & unnatural the relationships, they were in their own way loving as well as lethal. It’s the kind of story you could imagine belonging to Classical mythology, to being the plot of a Euripidean tragedy, with rather a bit more bloodshed. It’s not the book the publishers ballyhooed, and priced, either artistically or sensationally. But it’s almost worth the time to read it if you get it from the PL.

Review of Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough

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Loved it! I’d say I earned a B grade in sussing & wonder if I’d stopped before starting chapter 52 & let the story ferment for a day or two the whole thing would have come together for me. Shall write a ‘spoiler’ review for readers who have finished this book. But for now, let me say it’s close to perfect – starting with the title!

It is simply impossible to review Behind Her Eyes without taking into account the now notorious ‘WTF’ ending, so this is a spoiler review intended for other readers who have finished the book. Do not read further unless you have read it, or decided you never will but want to know what all the fuss was about:

** Spoilers Follow **

I liked it very much tho’ I did not quite suss out the ending, but the concept it’s based on wasn’t new to me: I’d seen the movie The Skeleton Key. Other features were familiar. Some, like out-of-body experiences are absolutely routine if you work in a hospital. Others, like travel on the astral plane and lucid dreaming are widely accepted—perhaps more widely than most of us might suppose. For many reasons, those who have first-hand knowledge don’t talk about it much, especially to strangers. And of course possession by an alien identity was frequent in Biblical times and is commonly believed to occur in Africa today. (I gather in West Africa encountering an ancestor who happens to be dead isn’t exactly a routine experience, but nothing to write home about.) And I also liked how a fairly hackneyed domestic drama plot could be reworked to accomplish something completely original. Unhappy single-mum Louise has one-night stand with David, psychiatrist husband of Adele, who becomes Louise’s best friend. Finally we discover that the supposed BF Adele actually intended to take possession of Louise’s body, to put new life into her now stale relationship with the David, leading her to put Louise on a slimming programme. And to add an even more original twist, @ the end we find that Adele’s body had been commandeered years ago by a junkie whom Adele had met in a rehab centre, a male drug addict who himself was burning with desire for her future husband David. Reading the book again watching for clues should be a great experience; glad I bought the hardback. I had figured out that @ least one of our characters was really dead, as well as out-of-body travel. But efforts to discern what was coming were thrown off-track by a singular pronoun (one of the last places in English where grammatical genders survive) @ the very beginning, which misled me by being masculine, though had it been feminine I doubt I’d done better, just come up with a different not-quite-correct solution. When writing about a male consciousness in a female body, you really need pronouns like ze & zir whilst speculating what it would be like for a man’s consciousness to experience sex in a woman’s body. (But just what would potential readers think if the title of the book were Behind Zir Eyes!) If like me, you not only enjoy ‘paranormal’ phenomena in literature, but regard them quite possible albeit infrequent occurrences in ‘real life’, you should find Behind Her Eyes a great piece of innovative fiction.

Review of Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham


I wish Anne Perry would write a memoir telling what it was like to have been Juliet Hulme & what the friendship with Pauline Parker felt like from within. Of course it’s Perry’s life & it’s obvious she prefers to sink Pauline & Juliet & the entire episode into oblivion. But that tragedy so long ago & far away will continue to haunt us. Anne Perry & the Murder of the Century – I much prefer the earlier title So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme & the Murder that Shocked the World – seems as good an account of the case from an external factual & legal POV as we are ever going to get. Unfortunately a society has to deal with such an event & the persons seen to be responsible according to its own cultural values, which in 20th-c. New Zealand meant a criminal trial to determine whether the girls were guilty or innocent. As there was no question that the girls had killed Pauline’s mother deliberately by striking her head with a stocking containing a brick, the only possible defence was for their counsel to try to prove that the girls were insane, & given the very narrow definition of insanity that Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence requires, not surprisingly they failed. For me the girls were not insane, but they had travelled far beyond our criteria of legal guilt & moral evil.
‘I finally see . . . that guilt & blame & responsibility aren’t the same things at all. They’re not even close,’ Natalie Haynes has her narrator remark in a novel also about a teenaged murderer (The Amber Fury, p. 105). That sums up my perplexity about the Parker/Hulme case – that our legal & ethical concepts of guilt & responsibility seem somehow irrelevant to something that could be the subject of a tragedy by Euripides. One might as well ask whether Agave & her sisters were guilty of the death of Pentheus in the Bacchae or Medea of the death of her children. A different, perhaps more ‘primitive’ culture might well had seen Gina & Deborah (as the girls had restyled themselves) as under the control of powerful daimons & been conveyed to another world where the ultimate value was preserving their relationship, which they thought they could save by killing Pauline’s mother.
Gina & Deborah constructed their own private mythology, largely out of bits & pieces of contemporary popular culture, tho’ very high quality popular culture. Among their icons were James Mason, Orson Welles, & Mario Lanza, & such films as The Prisoner of Zenda & The Third Man. Conceiving how their imaginary world collided with what we call ‘reality’ is almost like fancying the Brontë sisters murdered their father Patrick – with Emily as the ringleader! Gina even had a name for their imaginary realm, the Fourth World.
Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, the name given the girls in one of their poems, comes as close as anything we have to letting us see what it would be like to live in the girls’ world, with the film’s strange prosthetic dancing statues representing the divinities in the girls’ pantheon. But we can hope that someday a truly excellent imaginative writer will base a novel on this story. I imagine it might be something like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Tana French’s The Secret Place, but even more beautiful & eerie.

Review of The Drowning Girls, by Paula Treick DeBoard


The Drowning Girls (BTW, only one girl actually comes to a bad end) is like those fake meringue pies you see in the bakery shop windows or the plastic meat @ the butcher’s stall, alluring till you actually take a bite. Yet I could not stop listening to the audible: I had to find out how this one ends. Specifically, to discover what happens to Kelsey, the nasty girl in the story.

Except in the areas of plot, setting, characterization, and especially literary style, Paula Treick DeBoard has mastered her craft. Let me take each in turn:
Plot: an apparently disturbed 16 y/o hottie named Kelsey is inflamed with lust for Liz’s husband Phil, an Australian (tho’ his nationality plays no role @ all in the story). Liz spends most of the book consumed with suspicion of infidelity. He is supposed to have texted Kelsey an indecent photo showing Phil displaying himself next to his pool, & Kelsey manages to steal a kiss from him in his office. As Phil & Liz are unable to trust each other, Kelsey’s infatuation leads to estrangement. The author keeps foreshadowing a violent denouement that I shall not reveal, but as it could have occurred anywhere in the story, is hardly an ingenious resolution. We also have a large and vicious mountain lion in the story, & I was reminded of Chekhov’s famous axiom, that if the set includes a gun hanging from a wall, it should go off before the curtain drops. So let me warn potential readers: tho’ Kelsey spends lots of time outdoors @ night spying on Phil, if you’ve read Tom Sharpe’s Blot on the Landscape & hope for something similar, you’ll be disappointed.
Setting: The story is set in a “gated community” in Northern California called “The Palms.” Although Liz, a public high-school counselor who grew up in Riverside, is clearly dying of class envy, the inhabitants are but middle-class. The folks Liz feels ashamed to associate with drive Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses, not Bentleys and Ferraris, and have such ordinary occupations as lawyer (Liz’s husband Phil apparently thinks calling a lawyer “an attorney” makes them both upscale) and doctor: not hedge-fund CEO or dot.com millionaire. Playing golf in checkered trousers or taking their daughter to Rome for Christmas week is their idea of recreation. Nobody races a yacht in the Trans-Pac or even seems to have a condo in Vail. Everybody lives in a new house, not a San Francisco Victorian. Liz’s kitchen contains a “peninsula”—I wondered if that was a way of telling us the kitchen was so big that Italy or Spain and Portugal would fit into it, but eventually I figured out it was some kind of protruding counter-top.
Characters: Tho’ Phil was reared in Australia and therefore ought to be familiar with the intricacies of cricket, he likes to watch San Francisco Giants baseball, which for a cricket fan is like Boris Spassky’s observing a game of checkers. His bedtime reading is a snails-pace perusal of a biography of John Adams, tho’ we are never told why he is supposed to care (not so much) about early American history. Liz had an unplanned pregnancy @ 19 resulting in dtr Danielle, now 15 & a science geek @ a high school that in Liz’s reader’s pronunciation sounds like “Mars Landing” (couldn’t decide which was more unpleasant, the California voice given Liz or the Australian voice of Phil’s—both grated on my ear). Tho’ Liz takes pride in her “professional” standing, @ one point she plays a very sleazy trick to get unauthorized information about Kelsey from one of the girl’s former teachers @ another school. For me, that was something that should insure the perpetrator never worked again in education. (Ironically, Liz gets in trouble instead for something she didn’t do.) I keep wondering if I would have fallen for her ruse when I was a teacher. I fear if she caught me on a really stupid day, she might get away with it. But if I had any of my wits about me, I would have asked her number to phone her back @ the agency she claimed to be representing.)
Style: “It was less like a kiss than a near death experience” and “The ends of the head of romaine stuck out of the bag like an alibi.” These were my absolute favs. But it was also striking how in Liz’s idiolect the imperative mood is signaled by the oft prefixed phrase: “You need to” as in “You need to come out here @ once.” (This form of the imperative – pretending grammatically to be a declarative statement about the addressee rather than a command – is also a favorite of bullying police officers as well as parents.) I’d have expected a bright teenager such as Danielle to be very tempted to reply, “I don’t need to do f-bomb all; if you want me to something, just say so.”
Characters: We’ve already got Liz & Phil’s numbers. Danielle is a fairly attractive character except for her response to being (falsely) shamed on Facebook as a lesbian (these days I’d hope for “honi soit qui mal y pense” from a feisty teen) & general subservience to her bullying mother, tho’ she finally asserts herself by getting a tat. (Generally I don’t like tats, but Liz’s discomfiture made me want to stand up and cheer.) Of the minor characters, Liz’s mother in Riverside (referred to as “mom”) is blind, tho’ that fact plays no role in the plot, and her sister Ellie, who lives in Chicago, knocks herself out to be a character by having a snake tat around her upper arm. (Not surprisingly, her attempts @ internet dating keep coming up with losers!) But the biggest failure @ developing character lies in Kelsey the villainess. The author makes no attempt to explain or account for her obsession with older men. We would expect @ least some elementary attempts @ family dynamics & an exploration of her relationship with her father, but she remains simply a stock villainess spoiled rich girl.
I have given this turkey much more attention than it deserves, but I still cannot explain why it kept its grip on my attention. Part may be that it still works on the archetypal level. One of the principal criticisms of Northrop Frye’s system is the absence of quality control. In this case Paula Treick DeBoard’s book probably attracted me for the same reasons that I found Megan Abbott’s Dare Me amongst the best school stories I ever read. A good author could have given us a Kelsey of the caliber of Beth Cassidy. But the difference is in the substance.