The Deep by Alma Katsu

The Deep by Alma Katsu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Annie has come to understand the erratic ways of the insane — the crying fits, incoherent babblings, violent flinging of hands and feet. There is, after days and weeks and years, a kind of comforting rhythm to them. But no, she is not one of them. Of that she is certain.

Chapter One

In 1916, Annie Hebbley leaves Morninggate Asylum to join her friend Violet as a nurse on HMHS Britannic. She is uncertain of herself, her memories of her life before the asylum hazy. One thing she does know is that four years earlier, she and Violet worked together on another ship, the RMS Titanic. As the Britannic begins its voyage, Annie begins to remember exactly what happened aboard its doomed sister ship. There was something very wrong, something haunting the Titanic from the moment it set sail.

The Deep is a dual narrative, alternating between 1916 and 1912. It primarily follows Annie, but the perspective shifts among a few other characters as events unfold. Those events are mysterious and creepy, with a constant sensation of something lurking just out of sight, something terrible. The reader already knows what is about to happen to the ship, adding to the pressure while the time ticks away to April 14th.

Katsu fits her characters among some of the famous figures aboard the ship: Annie’s friend Violet is real-life survivor of both the Titanic and the Britannic disasters Violet Jessop. Period details melded with supernatural aspects create a gripping, atmospheric read.

I’ve seen this tagged as a horror novel, but it feels more like a historical mystery. A paranormal mystery centered on one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.

Source: Started reading as an e-ARC from NetGalley, then checked the finished book out of the library.

Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#7: A historical fiction novel not set in WWII)

View all my reviews

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.

Chapter 1: Introduction

So begins Wells’s classic “scientific romance”, published serially in The New Review in 1895 (and in revised novella editions after that). Over drinks with some gentlemen friends, including the narrator, the unnamed adventurer shares his theories on the nature of time as a fourth dimension in which one can travel. His friends are skeptical, even after seeing a demonstration using a model he has constructed.

For my own part, I was particularly preoccupied with the trick of the model. That I remember discussing with the Medical Man, whom I met on Friday at the Linnaean. He said he had seen a similar thing at Tübingen, and laid considerable stress on the blowing-out of the candle. But how he trick was done he could not explain.

Chapter 3: The Time Traveller Returns

A week later, the narrator is again at the Time Traveller’s home for another dinner party. The Time Traveller appears after his guests have arrived, and the details of his adventure form the main narrative. He has gone hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he encountered the Eloi and the Morlocks, apparently the two strains of humanity left at that time.

The Eloi are small, delicate, and child-like. They spend their days playing in the sunshine, picking flowers, and eating fruit. They do no work, the genders appear nearly identical, and there is little difference between the children and the adults. They sleep in groups in large structures. They seem to be unafraid, in the way of those who have never encountered anything of which to be afraid.

“Seem to be unafraid,” because the Time Traveller eventually learns that the Eloi are scared of the dark. They stay away from shadows and refuse to venture out at night. After nightfall, the Morlocks – pale, large-eyed, and ape-like – come out their underground tunnels, and they are on the hunt.

Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case than before. Hitherto, except during my night’s anguish at the loss of the Time Machine, I had felt a sustaining hope of ultimate escape, but that hope was staggered by these new discoveries. Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by the childish simplicity of the little people, and by some unknown forces which I had only to understand to overcome; but there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.

Chapter 10: When the Night Came

My first encounter with The Time Machine was with a Moby Classics illustrated abridged edition when I was in elementary school. I mostly remember the Morlocks being very, very creepy and scary. Having read the full text, I still think the Morlocks are very, very creepy, but also very sad. As a child, the life of the Eloi was appealing: play all day and eat lots of fruit. Aside from, you know, the terror of what might happen at night, it looked ideal. As an adult reader, I was struck by the horror of the exact circumstances under which the Time Traveller meets Weena. (No details, because I’m still glad it came as a surprise to me.)

The entire vision of the future of humanity presented here is disturbing. There is the vacuous beauty left above ground and the terrifying existence below. No wonder the Time Traveller was delighted to find himself back at his own table. And yet, he clearly still has questions. He clearly still wants to explore. So, maybe, he even still has hope.

The narrator asks us to deny the implications of the narrative he has just recorded. It is a striking way of ending this little puzzle of a book, an appeal that seems to throw into doubt everything that we have just read. What a perverse start to a literary career!

Roger Luckhurst, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition

For this reading, I borrowed the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Time Machine from the library. The supporting material is excellent. The “Chronology of H. G. Wells” includes significant personal events and world events, as well as noting the publication of various influential works, giving context on multiple levels. The expanded version of the chapter “The Further Vision” is included as an appendix, as are two scientific essays published by Wells in 1891 and 1893.

Roger Luckhurst’s introduction expands on some of the ideas Wells engages with in the novel. Evolutionary theory – both biological and social – was very much in the public consciousness. Would people and society forever march toward perfection, or would both reach a zenith and then inevitably deteriorate? The utopian fiction of Bellamy and Morris get satirical jabs in the Time Traveller’s description of the future. Luckhurst provides pointers to further reading on all of these and more. I appreciated the very helpful and engaging explanatory notes, as well as the fact that the introduction begins with a note that there will be spoilers, so newcomers might want to read it as an afterword, instead.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: Back to the Classics (6: Genre Classic); Classics Club; Read Harder 2020 (#17: A Sci-fi/fantasy novella); Victorian Reading Challenge (January: Journeys & Travels)

View all my reviews

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The woman’s name doesn’t matter. Just picture anyone you know and love. She’s in her mid-twenties when her world begins to crumble. She can’t concentrate at work, stops sleeping, grows uneasy in crowds, and then retreats to her apartment, where she sees and hears things that aren’t there — disembodied voices that make her paranoid, frightened, and angry. She paces around her apartment until she feels as if she might burst open. So she leaves her house and wanders around the crowded city streets trying to avoid the burning stares of the passersby.

In 2009, Susannah Cahallan was hospitalized with what appeared to be classic symptoms of schizophrenia: paranoia, delusions, violent impulses. Anti-psychotic medications didn’t help. Test after test found nothing useful. Until one did, and as soon as the medical establishment was able to identify her illness as auto-immune encephalitis rather than psychosis, everything about her treatment changed: “Hope, clarity, and optimism replaced the vague and distant treatment. No one blamed me or questioned if each symptom was real. They didn’t ask about alcohol consumption of stress levels or family relationships. People no longer implied that the trouble was all in my head.”

In 2012, Cahalan published Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, a memoir of her experience. A variety of subsequent encounters led her to continue looking into the history of psychiatry and the fine line between sanity and madness, and how society identifies those on either side of that (shifting) line. That brought her to the story of Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and his 1973 “pseudopatient” experiment: Eight healthy people got themselves committed to psychiatric facilities and then had to prove their sanity to get released.

The resulting Nature article, “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, cast a glaring spotlight on what appeared to be serious problems in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. But there seemed to be holes in the story, questions without answers. Rosenhan died in 2012, never having finished the follow-up book he was contracted to write. The volunteers were never publicly identified.

Cahallan digs into the details of what happened and how it affected the development of psychiatric care. She also looks backward, into the various threads of psychological theory and their supporters and detractors over the years. From Nelly Bly’s 1887 undercover investigation at Blackwell Island through the mass closure of mental institutions a century later and into the present day, it’s a fascinating and sometimes appalling tale, told with a story-teller’s flair. 

In the words of medical historian Edward Shorter, “The history of psychiatry is a minefield. Reader: Beware of shrapnel.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges:  N/A
View all my reviews

Shadows over Baker Street

Shadows Over Baker Street

Shadows Over Baker Street
Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan
My rating: 5 of 5 star

According to the receipt tucked in the back of the book, I bought this in 2013, not long after I fell headlong into the Sherlockian world. I’m pretty sure I bought it solely because of the Gaiman story. I’ve never actually read any Lovecraft; while I read a lot of Stephen King and Dean Koontz as a teenager, I moved away from horror over the years. This made for an interesting reading experience, as I picked up bits and pieces of a through-line from story to story.

I really enjoyed “A Study in Emerald”, the opening story in the collection, written by Neil Gaiman. It’s a very clever twist on A Study in Scarlet. I’m glad I read it before reading the graphic novel adaptation, which was also very, very good, but the ending packed a little more punch for me without the visuals. As with any anthology, there were stories that really appealed to me, and there were others that didn’t. Some of the stories have awfully tenuous claims to Sherlockiana, too, at least as far as I could tell. Perhaps I would have enjoyed those more if I were familiar with the other source material.

Source: Purchased at my local used bookshop.

Challenges: Counts for the 2018 Mount TBR Challenge and the Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. (And R.I.P. XIII (Readers Imbibing Peril), but I didn’t manage to post about it in October!)


The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The north of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.

In this novella, published on the 400th anniversary of the 1612 trial of the Pendle Witches, Winterson draws on those events in crafting a work of historical fantasy, a tale of horrifying events, beautifully told.

The historical facts are these: in 1612, a group including Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alizon Device, Katherine Hewitt (“Mould-Heeles”), Elizabeth Southerns, and others were arrested under charges of witchcraft. A key witness was Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter, Jennet.

Winterson takes these facts and creates a new dark and magical story around them. She draws in other historical figures, including local magistrate Roger Nowell, William Shakespeare, John Dee, and court clerk Thomas Potts, whose account of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster was published in 1613. The 1605 Gunpowder Plot and the fate of the convicted conspirators is also woven in; there is little difference, in some minds, between Witches and Catholics. “Popery witchery, witchery popery,” Thomas Potts says more than once.

The writing is lovely, spare but rich in imagery. It is an atmospheric book, focused on people and emotions, how human beings can love and betray each other. There are truly horrific scenes, especially toward the end, that pass by in such a small section of narrative that it sometimes took my brain a few pages to realize what I had just read and be struck not only by the terrible violence, but by the casual way torture is inflicted on one person by another. It feels so very wrong, but true.

Trigger warnings for rape, torture, and child abuse.

Source: I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while. I think I picked it up at my local used bookshop, where I regularly check to see if they have anything new (to me) by Winterson and a couple of other authors.

Challenges: Counts for the 2018 Mount TBR Challenge, the Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, and R.I.P. XIII (Readers Imbibing Peril)

 

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.

Cheryl Strayed’s story is pretty well-known at this point, since her memoir was an Oprah Book Club pick, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE, as the cover of my paperback edition proclaims. In her early 20s, she lost her mother to cancer; after that, what was left of her family drifted apart, and then her marriage ended. In the depths of a Minnesota winter, she happened upon a guidebook to the Pacific Coast Trail. With seemingly nothing to lose and nowhere to go, she made an impulsive decision to hike the trail that summer in an effort to rebuild herself.

The memoir unfolds in mostly chronological fashion, beginning with her mother’s illness and death and following Strayed’s trek up the trail. As she travels, though, vignettes of her past appear, doling out the details of her life before the PCT gradually. Strayed is an excellent storyteller, making what was largely an inner journey into riveting reading. She does not ignore the risks that come with being a woman traveling alone through remote locations, but while she has at least one scary encounter with a man on the trail that could have ended much worse than it did, most of the challenges she faces are the result of the mistakes of a neophyte hiker. She takes a wry tone in relating her misadventures, treating her younger self with humor and love.

I heard about this book a lot before I finally got around to reading it. Really, it wasn’t high on my list of things to read, probably because of an overdose of hype. One evening in May, Lil Miss and I were taking a walk to break in our hiking boots before our family trip to South Africa, and I found a paperback copy of Wild in a Little Free Library on our way. How could I resist a book with a hiking boot right in the middle of the cover? On our flight back to the States, the film version was one of the options, so I watched it while I failed to sleep in my seat. Once we got back, I picked up the book off my desk and read it in a day or two, and I really enjoyed it. Good call, Oprah.

Source: Found in a Little Free Library

Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #13: An Oprah Book Club Selection)

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals, #1)A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
My rating:
4 of 5 stars

Dear Ms. Smith,

I hope that my letter finds you well. I, Likotsi Adelele, assistant to His Royal Highness, have sought you out high and low over the last few months, at the behest of the most exalted – and most curious – Prince Thabiso. He has tasked me with finding his betrothed, and I believe I have succeeded: it is you.

Naledi Smith lost her parents to a car crash when she was so young she barely remembers them. Without any other family, she lived in a series of foster homes until she aged out of the foster care system. Now in grad school and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she has zero time for these weird emails that keep showing up, claiming that she is some sort of long-lost African princess, if only she will please send all of her personally identifying information to confirm.

Prince Thabiso grew up wondering whatever happened to the girl to whom he was betrothed when they were just small children. An only child, facing increasing pressure from his parents to settle down with a wife, he is extremely curious when his assistant believes she has tracked the woman down – and she lives in New York City, where Thabiso just happens to be headed on business.

A misunderstanding on first meeting gives Thabiso the chance to get to know Ledi personally before revealing his – and her – true identity. But will there be a way to finally tell her the truth without the betrayal coming between them?

Since this is a romance novel, you already know the answer to that: the happy ending is guaranteed. Oh, but the getting there. Ledi is the sort of character who is so real you would swear you know her. She hasn’t had it easy, and the walls she’s put up around herself are totally understandable. A scientist to the core, she thinks of the distance she puts between herself and others as a

social phospholipid bilayer: flexible, dynamic, and designed to keep the important parts of herself separate from a possibly dangerous outside environment. It had been working for the prokaryotes for eons, and it would suffice for a broke grad school student, which was only slightly higher on the evolutionary scale.

She is smart and funny, and a devoted friend, and she deals with everything that comes her way until her resilience is finally tested to the breaking point. She is a woman of color, working in a STEM field, and she has no family to support her. I loved getting inside her head and seeing the world through her eyes.

The third-person perspective shifts between Ledi and Thabiso, and Thabiso is also an absolute delight. He is honestly baffled by everyday things like taking the subway or cooking a meal from scratch, because he grew up having his every need or want taken care of without his having to even think about it. He so wants to step up and do the right thing… if he can only figure out what it is and how to do it. His assistant, Likotsi, seems to be the closest thing he has to a real friend. His parents are determined to see him married off and settled down to the business of managing the kingdom, navigating the complicated issues that come with the crown.

The kingdom of Thesolo comes across as something of a Vibranium-less Wakanda. It’s a gem of a country in the south of Africa that was never colonized, instead growing into a modern nation that maintains strong ties to its past. In my head, Queen Ramatla is totally Angela Bassett, and no one can convince me otherwise.

I enjoyed this book so, so much. There are elements of Cinderella and other fairy tales, but this is a thoroughly contemporary romance. Ledi and Thabiso have chemistry that leads to some very steamy scenes, yet Ledi is clearly aware of possible health risks (as an epidemiology grad student, one would hope so!) and how to be as safe as possible on that front. The dialogue is entertaining, even when it’s really only one-way, as when Ledi finally sends a two-word response to Likotsi’s “spam” emails. One of my favorites might be when the postdoc in Ledi’s lab approaches her, about to drop some more of his work on her. The entirety of the next paragraph reads: “This motherf***er, she thought.”

(I should note here that the redaction of the curse word is mine; the actual word appears in the book. If salty language and sexytimes on the page are not your thing, this is probably not the book for you!)

The next book in the series features Portia, Ledi’s best friend; the teaser chapter in the back promises good things. Personally, I’m hoping we eventually get a book about Likotsi. A girl can dream.

Source: Checked out from my public library

Challenges: It would qualify for Read Harder 2018 Task 10, but I’ve already completed that one.

Round-Up Review: The ScotShop Mysteries

A Wee Murder in My Shop (Scotshop Mystery, #1) A Wee Dose of Death (ScotShop Mystery #2) A Wee Homicide in the Hotel (ScotShop Mystery #3)

A Wee Murder in My Shop by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Dose of Death by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Wee Homicide in the Hotel by Fran Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with the Gethsemane Brown books, I’m putting up one review for all three of these. I read all three of the span of five days, so they’re sort of a single entity in my head at this point.

Those Gethsemane Brown books seem to have sent me down a major rabbit hole of cozy mysteries, by the way. Specifically, it seems, cozies with ghosts in them. I did not see that coming, frankly.

Peggy Winn lives in Hamelin, Vermont, where she runs the ScotShop, selling all things Scottish to tourists. She makes regular visits to the Perthshire town of Pitlochry to purchase authentic Scottish wares for her stock. At the opening of the first book, she’s particularly glad to get on that transatlantic flight, because she’s just discovered her (now ex-)boyfriend in bed with her (now ex-)best friend. While in Scotland, she happens upon a strange shop and purchases a lovely tartan shawl, which she soon discovers comes with a genuine Scottish ghost. Macbeath Donlevy Freusach Macearacher Macpheidiran of clan Farquharson, deceased circa 1359, to be precise. She nicknames him Dirk.

Peggy returns to Hamelin, ghost in tow, to discover her ex-boyfriend is now her late ex-boyfriend – he’s been murdered overnight inside her shop. In the grand tradition of cozy mysteries, Peggy takes on the task of unmasking the murderer, since the local police chief is not exactly pursuing all leads.

In the second book, the local police chief is still thoroughly unhelpful, and Peggy (and Dirk) take on the task of figuring out who killed a local college professor in a deserted mountain cabin. Once that mystery is solved, the third book brings the Highland Games to Hamelin, along with (yet another) murder for Peggy and Dirk to investigate.

This appears to be a three-book series, without a fourth installment on the horizon. Which is a bit of a shame, since it seems poor Dirk will never actually get to reunite with his own Peigi or otherwise get to rest in peace.

I found the series charming, with its slightly eccentric small-town characters. The interactions between Dirk and Peggy, fraught with communication difficulties due to the seven centuries of linguistic development between their respective versions of English, in addition to cultural differences, are entertaining. Peggy’s relationships with the secondary characters round out the story and provide some interesting glimpses into parts of her life not revealed on the page. It is some of the loose ends of those threads that have me rather hoping for another sequel.

Also, I kind of want a Scottie dog now.

Source: Checked out the first book as an e-book from my public library via Libby; borrowed the second and third in paperback form from the library.

Reading Challenges: None. I’m ignoring the glares coming from Mt. TBR over there.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the CenturyThe Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century
by Kirk W. Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2009, Edwin Rist, age 20, American student flautist at the Royal Academy of Music, broke into an outpost of the British Museum and stole hundreds of preserved birds. Among the haul were scientific samples gathered in the 1800s by Alfred Russel Wallace, painstakingly labeled with data about where and when they were obtained. Priceless to researchers, the birds – or, more precisely, their brightly-colored feathers – were worth thousands of dollars to a select group: Victorian salmon fly-tying enthusiasts. When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the heist two years later, during a difficult time in his own life, the case gave him something to focus his energy on. Why did Rist do it? What happened afterward? And where, exactly, were those hundreds of birds?

Johnson opens the book with Rist in the middle of the burglary, then jumps back to the history of the birds and their collector, Alfred Russel Wallace, the Tring Museum and its beginnings as the private collection of Walter Rothschild, and the nineteenth-century “Feather Fever” and birth of the hobby of tying salmon flies to exacting standards. He chronicles Rist’s life as the homeschooled tween learns about and becomes obsessed with fly-tying, becomes famous among his fellow hobbyists, and heads to London with his flute. He covers the official investigation as well as his own inquiries into what exactly happened and how. It reads like a novel, introducing characters and backstories while briskly developing the plot. End notes detail his sources, including official records and personal interviews with key figures.

This book sounded interesting from the first time I heard about it – a feather-stealing flautist? Victorian fly-tying masters buying and selling black-market bird parts? It did not disappoint. In my paperback ARC, the photo section was black-and-white and not great quality, so I was very happy to discover the photo gallery on Johnson’s site. This is definitely my kind of true crime book!

Source: ARC borrowed from a friend (thanks, CG!)

Reading Challenges: Counts for Read Harder 2018 (Task #2: A book of true crime)

A Study in Lavender by Joseph R. G, DeMarco (ed.)

A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
A Study In Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes
edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is Sherlock Holmes homosexual? Is Watson? Should we even be asking these questions?

DeMarco opens the Introduction to this collection of short stories with these questions. The following stories look at many facets of queer life in Victorian London as they touch on the lives of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and various original characters. In most of the stories, the (identified) queer characters are people other than Holmes and Watson themselves. Indeed, Holmes and Watson are all but entirely absent in at least two stories.

As with any anthology, the style varies between contributors. Most of the tales are written in traditional pastiche style, modeled on the Canon stories and narrated by Watson. One story is in third-person, one story is narrated by Holmes himself, and one story is a first-person narration by an original character.

I enjoyed the stories overall. There were a few that I just didn’t connect with, and the very first one surprised me with (content warning and spoiler alert!) references to incest. That topic is a Hard Pass for some readers, and I personally find it problematic in context. But that’s my personal engagement with the book, and yours is bound to be different.

If you are looking for Holmes/Watson romance, this is (mostly) not your book. If, however, you are looking for thoughtful, well-written explorations of the challenges faced by queer people in Victorian London, with a little Sherlockian flair, then this is the book for you.

Source: Purchased new

Reading Challenges: Counts for the Official TBR Pile Challenge and Mount TBR.