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Quick Review of Black City Saint by Richard A. Knaak

Reading

From my Goodreads review:

 

Black City SaintBlack City Saint by Richard A. Knaak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m reading these books because I’m going to be doing a review on Book 3 for a website I contribute to. So I’m plowing through books 1 and 2 🙂

I love the 1920s Chicago time/location! This is what actually drew me to the series. I’ve always been fascinated by the 20s and the entire role of the mob in social and cultural fabrics of the time. It’s really clear that the author put a lot of research into this time period. Sometimes it was a little too clear (ie – the author was dropping details that weren’t necessarily important — particularly about cars 😉 ). But those were not problematic at all, for me. Just noticeable.

The other thing I really liked about this book is the portrayal of Feyrie. Original folklore about the fey show them as … well, narcissistic sociopaths at best. Psychopathic at worst. And I really feel that these books kept to those traditional ideas about the fey.

I also found the “retelling” of the St. George tale, the twist on it, really engaging. Not gonna spoil it, but it’s revealed within the first 75 or so pages.

The only thing I found occasionally problematic was the relationship between Nick and Claryce. It felt very angsty on his side and it felt like she latched on to him WAY before there was anything to warrant it. There is some previous connection to him (again, no spoilers), but that as the reason for the fast connection isn’t on the page until much much later. Too late, to me. So that bit didn’t ring particularly true for me. It wasn’t enough to make me put the book down, not anywhere near that. Just a niggling.

So, overall, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to Book 2! 🙂

View all my reviews

Venessa’s Top 5 Books on Her Shelf!

Reading

What I’m Listening To: baby birds chirping in the walls — apparently, we have a woodpecker nest in the siding of our house. I’m sure there’s a story idea in there somewhere!

Something Cool: I watched the Doctor Who spinoff show, Class, recently. I blogged about it at Speculative Chic!

Venessa’s Top 5 Books Found on Her Shelf

Okay, read this with the caveat that these choices can often changes with my mood… So I could likely do this once a month and come up with a mostly different list!

These are all books that have had a profound effect on me in some way, whether to influence my writing or my life in general. There isn’t a whole lot of genre consistency here. I have several genres that I love to read in (urban fantasy, horror, mystery/thriller).

Something they do all have in common is that they’re old (of course, I’m old, so there’s that…). If you have some great books with a more recent publication date, drop them in the comments! My TBR pile is certainly not big enough 😉

Okay, here we go!

5. Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

Love her or hate her, Anne Rice created a brand new subgenre protagonist: the romantic vampire. I remember this being on my mom’s bookshelf when I was about ten or so and I read it not too long after that. I was blown away by the sheer atmosphere of it. It put New Orleans on my bucket list to visit, which I finally did a couple decades later.

4. Hotel Transylvania – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

And if Anne Rice invented the romantic vampire, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro perfected it and, in turn, helped to create another subgenre: historical paranormal romance. I fell in love with the Count Saint Germain and continued to remain in love with him throughout my life. This book, and those that followed, gave me a great appreciation for the richness of history, because Yarbro wrote with such eloquence and lush detail. I eventually ended up a history major at college.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

DON’T PANIC!

If you’ve read the Guide, you know why it’s on this list. If you haven’t, you should. And then you’ll know why it’s on this list. You’ll meet Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin, and, of course, Arthur Dent. All great fun! You’ll be a convert, I promise.

Also, gave me a great appreciation for towels.

2. The Stand – Stephen King

I debated between this and Different Seasons, which is the first Stephen King book I ever read. I plowed through The Stand over a family vacation in Wisconsin when I was 14. It caught my attention and kept me entranced and, of course, I had to finish it before the end of the vacation, because it was on a bookshelf in the cabin we were renting, so I couldn’t take it home with me. I spent the majority of that trip either in my room at the cabin, reading, or carting that book around with me. It was worth it. And it made me a SK fan forever.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

Truly, if you haven’t read this book, you should. It is one of the most brilliant and vivid stories of revenge ever written, in my opinion. I believe most writers can learn from his use of deceit and strategy in this book. I loved it so much, I used to read this book every single year for a couple decades, but have gotten out of that habit in recent years. I need to go back to it.

 

So there are the top 5 books on my shelves! Have you read any of them? What are your top books?


On Reading in One’s Genre…

Craft of Writing, Reading, Writing

A writer should read within his/her genre, absolutely. The obvious reasons are because you learn what’s been selling in your genre, what others have done, etc. You can consciously study others’ work. However, what is not as obvious is that reading deeply in your genre also allows you to subconsciously learn the mechanisms of that genre. You absorb how to write it. As an example, when I was young, I read voraciously in the horror genre (back, yknow, when there was one :p). I mean I would probably read thirty books in a year, just in horror. Some of it was awful, some of it was amazing. As a writer now, I don’t write horror, per se, but some of my stories do contain horrific elements. Those are the easiest bits to write for me. Those scenes tend to need the least revision and editing. And I firmly believe that it’s because of how deeply I read in that genre.

As an editor, I know right away when an author hasn’t read much in the genre she is trying to write in. Why? Because the settings are stock, the characters tend to be stereotypical and the plot is often predictable. And it’s because they don’t know what went before them. They don’t know the tropes of their genre, therefore that cannot avoid or otherwise set the tropes on their ears. You can’t play with something if you don’t know it exists.

Every genre has its rules, its reader expectations and its tropes and, as writers, we have to be educated in those items. In the same way that one cannot *effectively* break the rules of grammar unless one is very familiar with those rules, the effectiveness of writing within a genre is going to be tied directly to knowledge of that genre.

Do you read in your genre? Classics? Current stories? Why or why not?

Just Read: “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” by Douglas E. Winter

Craft of Writing, Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU, Writing

 

Are you a horror writer? Yes? Have you read Doug Winter’s essay, “Darkness Absolute” in On Writing Horror? If you haven’t, you should purchase that assemblage of essays collected and edited by Mort Castle and read Doug’s. It’s mandatory reading for horror writers. I don’t care that you didn’t know that. Get there, now.

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” (125)

Although I expect some might find this controversial, I think it is dead-on. What makes horror horror is the fear factor. Without it, there is no horror. Interestingly, I think horror is most closely aligned with romance in this regard. Romance is also an emotion. Without love, there is no romance “genre.”

Winter goes on to point out that horror “can be found in all great literature” (125). This is also true. Certainly, the seminal works like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and the works of Poe are horror, without a doubt. But horror also shows up in “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad (horror of man’s descent into madness), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (horror of political and social anarchy) and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (horror of loss of self).

Winter also touches on the need for reality in horror. He argues that we need normality in horror in order to bring out the horrific elements. Again, I agree. In the same way that alternative music can only exist if it’s different than the music played on Top 40 stations, horror is only effective if it can be contrasted with what is “normal.”

Other topics in the essay include subversion, monsters, originality and characterization. It’s a must-read for horror writers, but non-horror writers can also gain a lot from the information here. I really recommend this highly!

Just Read: The Shining by Stephen King

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

I’m a big Stephen King fan. I’ve read most his books and loved most of what I’ve read. I’ve had a copy of The Shining for a very long time, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. So I was excited when I saw it on the reading list for the horror genre class (part of the excitement, I admit, was not having to buy a copy!).

King usually writes about the Average Joe and The Shining is no exception. Jack Torrance has more than his fair share of demons, stemming from an abusive childhood. He tries to do good, but sometimes (often?) fails. Jack  is just ripe for the picking when the Overlook Hotel gets hold of him.

I really love unreliable narrators. One of the fascinating things about this story is Jack’s descent into unreliability. The reader can actually watch as he becomes more and more unhinged. This is a brilliant from a craft perspective. We can see as Jack tries to fight it, albeit half-heartedly, and the turning point for him is clear. He just can’t fight anymore. He’s driven by his need for acceptance (by the hotel) and his weakness of spirit. It’s tragic.

While I was enthralled with Jack’s descent-into-madness, I was annoyed at Wendy’s reactionary hysteria throughout most of the book. Later in his career, King fleshes out female characters and makes them much less stereotypical, but Wendy pre-dates that time.

Danny, their son and the boy who shines, is typical of King’s child  protagonists. He is scared shitless, but driven to protect his family. In the beginning, he is so afraid as to almost be catatonic, but over time, he realizes he must stand up to the evil. There’s just no other choice. And like most heroes who make this realization, he tries to do what he needs to do. I liked Danny a lot as a character.

The thing that bothered me about The Shining was the constant point of view shifts. I tried very hard to ignore it at the beginning, but it became more and more difficult, particularly when the shifts started being so frequent that there was one five line paragraph that began in Wendy’s point of view and ended in Jack’s. But even worse than that, and the deal-breaker for me, was when we were in Danny’s point of view and Danny made references that no seven year old would be able to make. This was not in reference to his shining ability. As an example, when he’s in the ball room, he starts up the old clock:

There was a small, ratcheting series of clicks, and then the clock began to tinkle Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (302).

Really? A seven year old boy recognizes a Strauss composition? Bzzzt. Sorry, wrong answer. Thanks for playing.

It’s the point of view issues that really mark the weak points in this book. And I wonder if King ever sits back and cringes over that. His later books don’t have this issue, that I’ve noticed. I do grant that I haven’t read any of his books in the last couple years due to time constraints, so the critical eye I use now might notice things the casual eye didn’t.

The book is still horribly frightening, even with the mechanical issues. One of the scariest things in life is the betrayal of a loved one. It can rock the entire foundation of a person’s life. And in this sort of horror especially, King is still a master.

Just Read: “The Dreams in the Witch-House by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

Ugh. Just ugh. All the Lovecraft stories we’ve read have had their difficulties, I think. I had issues with all of them. However, I didn’t hate any. Some I liked better than others, but I wasn’t disinclined to finish any of them. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is the exception to that. I really wanted to fling it across the room (but I reserve the actual action for Dan Brown novels).

I hated this story. Lovecraft’s usual talent for setting is still present, but it’s not as impressive. There seemed to be more of a science fiction bent, which isn’t bad, but seemed more a focus than setting. But from a technical perspective, it just sucked. It was slow and plodding. All exposition and not a bit of dialogue. All telling and no showing. And no real point of view character. Every time I turned the page, I just saw two more pages packed tight with words: no breaks, no white space. Like someone stranded in the desert, I looked for an oasis and came up with nothing but sand. I just have to say again: ugh.

The story was, for the most part, predictable. The only thing of interest was where the witch and Brown Jenkins were doing their dirty deeds. Aside from that, the plot points were pretty obvious. I’d like to be able to say that it has to do with the fact that we, as modern readers, are now jaded. That all the devices and tropes that were so new back then are standard now. But I don’t even think it’s that. How could any intelligent reader not get that the abysses in the story were Gilman crossing dimensions? It was blindingly obvious simply by all the little hints dropped about the witch and her disappearing and reappearing. Ugh.

Normally, I’m pretty generous with historical reads. I know different eras had different expectations of books and stories. But I just can’t do it with this one. It’s almost enough to put me off Lovecraft altogether.

Just Read: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

I’d bought Rosemary’s Baby years ago at a run-down second hand bookstore. It’s the sixth printing of the 1968 Dell paperback, priced at ninety-five cents. Ninety five freaking cents. Anyway… I read it back when I bought it and enjoyed it then. It’s been a lot of years, so it was nice to revisit the story. I knew the ending, so I was able to concentrate more on the details that a first pass doesn’t readily leave in the reader’s mind.

One of the most interesting things about the way Levin lays the story out is the way that everything seems innocent, but nothing truly is. With the foreshadowing done by Hutch, the reader looks at everything as sinister. But there’s so much and the conspiracy is so big that we can’t fathom that it’s really everything that’s sinister. Surely, the doctor recommendation isn’t. Surely Guy can’t actually be a part of what’s going on… surely…

I found Rosemary to be annoying in some cases, but true to her background. She lived a sheltered childhood, came to the big city and lived with other women (girls, really) and then seemed to go from there to Guy. Though she’s spunky, she’s clearly never been very independent-minded. At least, not in the long-term. She is at once gullible and suspicious. Once someone has her trust, she is loathe to see them in a different light. But for those she doesn’t fully trust, she waffles. And, again, I think this holds true to her character. I was very pleased with the well-roundedness.

One of the very interesting things about this novel is how centered it is in time. It references major events that really happened (Pope Paul’s visit to NYC, the newspaper strike, etc) and items that were popular in that time (Life and Look magazines, etc). So from a cultural or anthropological point of view, this book is like a little snapshot of life in New York City in 1965. Levin did a very good job with setting here. Modern city life is well-represented.

The ending strikes me as one of those post-modern, anti-happily-ever-after endings. It really underscores the concept that real life can’t be tied up in a pretty bow right before “The End.” It’s a rebellion against the tv trope of everything being hunky dory at the end of the hour. Real life is messy and sometimes you choose the least bad choice out of a slew of horrible choices. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have a choice and sometimes it’s because you don’t want to choose the really bad thing even if it might mean something good later. It’s the human condition.

If you haven’t read Rosemary’s Baby, you should. Go out and find you a ninety five cent second hand copy!

Just Read: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

So here is my first introduction to something associated with the Cthulhu mythos. Granted, it’s a subtle reference, but it’s there. I think Lovecraft had a thing for marine organisms. Really big, ugly marine organisms.

Anyway, as I read Lovecraft, I’m enjoying subsequent stories better than previous ones. This is the first I’ve read where the narrator is a direct participant in the horrific events that happen. This really makes a difference. I still think there’s entirely too much telling and not enough showing, but it would be a novel if it went by modern strictures, rather than a short story.

Setting is still a character in this story. Indeed, Lovecraft seems on top of his game in bringing out the complete creepiness of the town of Innsmouth. The dilapidation of the town can be seen clearly in the descriptions. An interesting tactic that I think was a bit overdone was Lovecraft’s attribution of “fish” properties to things. A fishy odor is one thing, but he tended to drop fish or water references for lots of descriptions, regardless of whether it was an odor, something visual or even something aural. It was okay for awhile, but soon it became silly to attribute a fishy look to some inanimate object.

The ending I found interesting. Once it became clear that the narrator was one of the Innmouth people, I didn’t need Lovecraft to point out the things in the story that supported this conclusion (the Marsh woman who married the man by trickery, etc). I remembered those things. So having them told to me undermined the “ah ha!” moment I was having. I found this disappointing.

The ending also calls to mind the narrator’s flight from Innsmouth. He was never caught, so the reader is left to wonder: were the Innsmouth people chasing him to kill him, as he assumed, or were they chasing him because they recognized him as one of their own? That’s a question that won’t be answered, but I still find it intriguing. How would things have been different had be been captured before escaping? Would they have been able to convince him of his heritage? Would he have, instead, gone mad? Would they have kept him against his will? It leads to some interesting questions.

Overall, I like this story better than the others. The narrator is the protagonist, which I tend to prefer. Also, there’s more of a balance between setting and character in this story that is lacking in the previous stories. This really works, I think, because Lovecraft really was a setting mastermind, but when it’s all setting, I find the story itself to be lacking. Having a balance is ideal. Again, I would have liked a lot more action and dialogue rather than so much exposition (even the dialogue was exposition!), but on the whole, I didn’t hate it. 🙂

Just Read: “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

So this is the third Lovecraft story we’ve read for class and I will say it’s been my favorite so far. I suspect it has to do with the story being more about the characters than the setting.

We’ve ascertained that Lovecraft was a master of the “setting as character” skill. And while I have great respect for that, I find stories of that nature don’t hold my attention for very long. I have the same issue reading Tolkien, another master of this. When the story was about the characters (Fellowship of the Ring), I went along just fine. But in the later books, so much time was spent on the setting, I just put the books down. My own interest seems to always lie in the characters and their journey.

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more character-oriented than either “The Music of Erich Zann” or “Pickman’s Model.” Another story told in first person. Lovecraft seems fond of telling a story from a bystander’s point of view. Granted, in this case, the narrator has a direct hand in the end of the story, however, most of the frightening build-up of the story is left untold because we only get glimpses of it through a third person’s eyes.

This is an interesting way to build tension, I think. In life, it’s often what we don’t know which scares us the most. When we don’t know how badly we did on a test, we imagine failing the entire class. When we don’t know the details of an accident a loved one has been in, we think of the worst possible scenario. when we’re waiting for medical test results, we imagine the worst outcome. When we don’t know what to expect, we get anxious and freaked out.

Sometimes leaving the horrible thing to the imagination is the best way to completely squick the reader. The more I read of Lovecraft, the more I think that was his kink. Because he chooses not to write from the point of view of the character who is being haunted/hunted/corrupted, but rather a bystander, many details of the possibly horrific things done are lost, because this bystander isn’t on the inside. And so the reader begins imagining all these horrific things.

Our instructor recently engaged us in a discussion of our own fears and how we translate that into our stories in order to help engage our readers. I think this is what Lovecraft is doing. He is engaging the reader in the story – actually, he’s enlisting the reader to help tell the story. When the reader is left to imagine the horrors that Lovecraft leaves out, he’s going to imagine things that are much more personal to him than Lovecraft could ever have imagined. And using a bystander as the narrator is the perfect way to achieve it, I think. This is pretty brilliant.

As far as the story itself, I really enjoyed it so much more than the previous two. I did have an issue with all of the telling. I’d guess that 60% or more was simply told. I suspect that if the scenes were shown instead, we’d have a novella instead of a short story. But I still felt compelled to continue reading. I would have liked to have seen more detail at the end, though.

Overall, I did enjoy the story and I’m looking forward to reading more Lovecraft to see what other similarities and differences become apparent.

Just Read: “The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P Lovecraft

Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU

 

“The Music of Erich Zann” is the second Lovecraft story I’ve read. It’s about a young man who discovers an old musician up in the uppermost floor of his rooming house. This musician plays darkly. The narrator is drawn to try to befriend him in order to hear more of the music. When in the uppermost room, the narrator is drawn to look out the window but does not until the end of the story, wherein he sees not rooftops, as he should, but nothing.

There are a number of similarities between “Zann” and the previous story I read. Both are centered around an artist who is, in some way, tortured. Pickman seems a willing victim, though still a victim, while Zann is most definitely unwilling. Zann is tormented by what’s out the window. He’s frightened, terrified. Demons or nothingness. These are what await humankind.

Like “Pickman’s Model,” the setting is a key character. It’s really this device which sets up the horror of the piece. I think it could be equated to the ominous music in a scary movie. The settings in Lovecraft’s stories set the tone and the ambiance; they lure the reader into a dark place where we’re drawn by the danger which lurks just past our field of vision. It’s really the anticipation which is most effective. I almost don’t want to know the ending, because that will mean that all the things my imagination is dredging up aren’t really what’s going on. I think, ultimately, this is the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing. To a modern reader, the endings aren’t even remotely surprising… but what our imaginations can slip into the dark corners that Lovecraft paints – well, there’s the real horror, sport.

This brings us neatly to another similarity. In both “Pickman” and “Zann” the frightening thing is what’s not seen. In “Pickman,” the narrator doesn’t see the demon which is the painter’s model, but sees a photo and interprets its existence. In “Zann,” the narrator literally sees nothing and that is what is terrifying. The nothingness calls to him. It’s the dark corners, again, which are the frightening places. It’s what we don’t know – or what we didn’t know, but know now. It’s almost like a warning, that old proverb: Be careful what you wish for. Don’t look down the rabbit hole. You don’t want to know how deep it goes.

Both narrators escape the horror, but yet are still drawn to it in one way or another. For the “Pickman” narrator, he relives it in the retelling to Eliot and one suspects he relives it more often than that. In “Zann,” the narrator relives the terror by trying to find the original street where the rooming house was located. And he cannot find it. Yet he searches.

That’s what we humans do. We ride rollercoasters; we go to haunted houses; we skydive; we race cars; we rubberneck at accident sites; we watch scary movies. We search and we’re drawn to what ultimately terrifies us.