The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

thewitchinghour

This is the first part of The Lives of the Mayfair Witches series which includes three books so far. Here’s what The Witching Hour is about:

Rowan Mayfair is a successful doctor in California, but unbeknownst to her she is the heiress of a legacy of an old New Orleans family. Despite rigorous attempts of a few family members to prevent her from coming to New Orleans, the death of her birth mother does exactly this. Together with Michael Curry, her lover and someone sharing a supernatural power since their first meeting, she discovers what this legacy entails: riches and jewels, yes, but also a ghost-like apparition whose aim and desire it is to become flesh and blood. And Rowan is supposed to fulfill that desire.

The book is over a thousand pages strong, so this short blurb only scratches the surface. There is a whole history contained in the book, but though it is supposed to be about the Mayfair witches, it’s more about their live-in spirit, Lasher.

I was actually looking forward to reading a book about witches, but already the beginning taught me that Anne Rice won’t just tell a plain story about a family of witches, about women (excuse me, if I think of women hearing the word ‘witches’, of course there are male witches, too). I’ve read some of her Vampire Chronicles books, and The Wolf Gift and they all struck me as very male-centric. I presumed that a story about witches (and Anne Rice seems to think mostly of female witches, too) would actually be about women. I was wrong, though.

While the story is interesting, enticing, gripping even, the story is not really about the Mayfair witches. It is more about the men watching these women. There’s a secret society in the book calling themselves the Talamasca, who have compiled the history of the Mayfair witches. Petyr van Abel tells a great part of that history. Then there’s Michael whose story starts in New Orleans where he is already pulled into the Mayfair history by seeing ‘The Man.’ Aaron Lightner is protagonist as well as compiler of the history. There’s Julien Mayfair, himself a powerful witch and pretty much the center of the tale about the Mayfairs, as well as his son Cortland.

The Witching Hour is another good example for the tale of women told through male eyes. Anne Rice is such a superb story teller, but I’m wondering if she is actually able to grab the female voice, to tell a story from the female perspective. This astonishes me, honestly. You may wonder why it is important, but if you read any of my other reviews you know I’m a feminist and kind of focus on stories about women, often by women.

It’s certainly not a great tragedy, or a fault that makes Rice’s writing unreadable. As I said, I enjoyed the tale. But even her one female protagonist – every other female’s story was told by a male – has a strong masculinity about her. And Rice makes it part of her personality, actually. She’s aware of it, she uses it, also in the character of Carlotta Mayfair, or Aunt Carl.

This is an intersting observation and maybe I will one day write a paper about it, but let’s come back to the book.

It’s a good story. The history is told from the Talamasca point of view and you never know if the narrators are trustworthy. You don’t get to know the witches’ story first hand, so that you can never see through their reasonings. You don’t get to know who Lasher is, where he comes from until the end of the book. But you know he’s a man (gendering a spirit and making him sexually potent and all-consuming, really?).

Rice ends the book on a kind of cliff-hanger, but I’m reluctant to pick up the follow-up Lasher. For all the reasons I already disclosed. As for wanting to read a story about witches and wanting to know what they do, how they do magic? Maybe pick up Harry Potter again, because The Witching Hour is more a history of a family where psychic powers are rather common. But if you’re a Rice fan, go pick it up, it’s a good read.

Advertisements

The Diviners by Libba Bray

thediviners

Look who’s been a lazy book blogger! Yes, that would be me. I have been reading, but I’ve been too lazy to tell you about it. Shame on me. But today, I wanna tell you about this book, ’cause it’s really good.

I first came across The Diviners at my favorite multi-media store in the German version, but the cover had just the right mix of mystery and 1920s feel to it that I was instantly intrigued. I wrote the title down and totally forgot about it, then lost the note, but finally reremembered. At some point, it was the only book I wanted to read at that instant and that was last month. And finally, I read.

And let me tell you, there was no disappointment there. Libba Bray writes in a humorous style about young adults, but that doesn’t mean she writes just for young adults. Just like the J.K. Rowling, Bray understands that the tone of a story can lure in people of all ages. She tells a mature story, doesn’t shy away from gory details and delivers a tale that’s thrilliing and engaging.

And now I almost forgot to tell you what it’s about:

Evangeline O’Neill of Zenith, Ohio, gets herself in a little bit of a bad situation at home and is temporarily shipped off to her uncle in Manhattan. The perfect moment for Evie to shine, though she didn’t think it would be as a part of a murder investigation. Evie has the ability to divine secrets from the possessions of people and it gets her into more trouble when those possessions belong to murder victims.

She’s not the only diviner in town. Through the happenings of the story, a number of people with mysterious abilities revolve around each other: Ziegfeld girl Theta, poet Memphis, piano player Henry, and trickster Sam are more than just coincidentally acquainted in one way or another. But Evie is the one whose life is in danger as she fights the spirit of a serial killer who’s about to put an end to all that’s golden about the 1920s.

Evie is a charming protagonist, but she’s also a bit of a self-involved mess. The tone in which she and her peers talk is the big-talking way of youth, but also the quick-witted repartee of their time. Bray describes the 1920s so well, the book rushes by in a blur. I found myself completely pulled into the plot. And it’s only the first part of The Diviners-series.

This is a story for people who like a good scare, some mystery, some thrill and little drinky at a speak-easy before bedtime. And who doesn’t like that?

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

parableofthesower

I feel like Octavia Butler is not appreciated or read enough. I love her work. I loved Fledgling, I loved Lilith’s Brood, I loved Kindred – and now I loved Parable of the Sower. And this is so surprising because I’m really not into religious fiction, or fiction about religion of any kind. Religion is just not something I can securely wrap my head around.

Usually. But then there’s Octavia Butler and she writes about Lauren Oya Olamina, a young woman living in a futuristic suburb of Los Angeles, surrounded by a wall to keep poor people, addicts, and drug dealers out. While her father is a baptist minister, her own faith is one she is writing down herself. She feels like this religion, or faith, is presenting itself to her, that she is a medium to write it down and bring others to this fate.

Lauren has to leave her neighborhood behind when it is brutally destroyed by drug addicts and scavengers. With two of her former neighbors she takes to the road north where a better life can supposedly be found. The journey gives her the possibility to spread word of her new faith and find followers, find a new family.

Butler combines a compelling story about faith with the hardship and terrors a small group of people faces in a dystopian future. It’s a story about family but has distinct markings of a good horror story. Butler knows how to weave all these together. She’s a master story-teller with an inexhaustive imagination. If you haven’t read anything by her yet, you should feel like you missed out because Butler is one of the best – in science-fiction, in story-telling, in writing about heroines of color.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

salemslotIt’s been awhile. It’s been awhile because I have read very little. It’s March and I’ve only finished reading my second novel for this year (both I had begun in 2013, by the way). Slow reading, indeed. Faster writing because that is what I spent most of my time on – which is good but I find that without reading writing is… less valuable, certainly less stylish. My ramblings become stunted and prosaic without the ‘food’ of words written by others.

But that wasn’t my reason to return to King (returning always in the sense that he was the first adult author I ever read and also inspired my own writing). I’m currently investigating the supernatural (in case I have mentioned this already, I apologize for the repetition) and a vampire novel by Stephen Kind was hardly something I could ignore.

Here’s what happens:

Ben Mears is a writer who returns to ‘Salem’s Lot – scene of his most vivid childhood nightmare – to write a novel about the Marsten House as it is called in town. It seems to be one of those sinister places that exude evil. But it’s not the house, it’s its new resident who stirs the dead in their graves: Barlow is a vampire and he begins his evil trail through town around the same time that Ben starts writing his novel.

The desease of undeadness spreads quickly and Ben, together with young Marc Petrie, has a hard time keeping up and score of living, dead, and undead. And it seems that more than just one house is infected by an inherent evil in Jerusalem’s Lot.

‘Salem’s Lot is King’s second novel and he already picks up the theme of evil places that is probably most elaborately told in It – my all-time favorite King novel. Indeed, some paragraphs about evil that inhabits a place is reminiscent of those in It. I’m not criticizing this, I actually enjoy the thoughts as well as the concept. The mingling or merging of a supernatural evil and the way it changes a place is fascinating. King also has a good grip on the vampire lore. I like that instead of giving vampires a new spin, making them his own, changing everything about them, he goes back to the basics – making them more elusive and yet more vulnerable than it has been done lately.

The book comes equipped with an introduction by King, two short stories to enhance on the story of Jerusalem’s Lot as an evil place, and even deleted scenes. I haven’t yet read those last ones, I’m not sure why and I’m not sure I will. The ‘extras’ have been added to the original text after almost 25 years. King seems to return to his earlier stories quite frequently, probably the tales never quite let go of him. I’m not sure about the value of returning to stories or places those stories have taken place. But maybe that’s just me liking an ending better than an ongoing mystery.

‘Salem’s Lot is a good read. It’s not above criticism but it’s the same kind of criticism that one can apply to all of King’s books – too few good female characters, not a single female hero, a writer as hero, a little boy as hero. It all comes down to characters for me. But the issues I have with his texts are almost as vintage King for me as what he writes, how he writes. Reading a King novel can be as frustrating as it is exiting and enchanting.

Well, if you’re tired of all the new takes on vampire lore, if you want to go to bed avoiding to look into shadows because you’re afraid of what might be lurking there, if you like the thrill of a good horror story combined with extensive quirky details of the lives in a small town – read ‘Salem’s Lot (and remember that it’s been written and told in 1975).

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

thewolfgift(Above shows the book cover I have and it’s one of those that really feels nice to touch… that fetish thing again but you should really get that edition to know what I mean.)

I haven’t read in a while – that’s the reason I haven’t written on here, not because I was too lazy to write about what I’ve read. I’ve been writing a lot and sometimes these two occupations that should work together perfectly, don’t work for me at all and then I neglect one or the other. The last few days I did more of the reading again and here’s what I read:

I have read a couple of Anne Rice-novels before, from her vampire-series, but I can’t remember much of it. I know I’ve read Interview With a Vampire and I liked it but that’s pretty much all I remember: that Rice is a really good story-teller of the supernatural, the occult, the mystic. The Wolf Gift certainly proves that once again.

Rice builds a story around 23-year-old Reuben Golding who is bitten by a beast he couldn’t see in a fight for his life. He survives, other than the people who were with him at the time, and he inherits not only a big house but a ‘gift,’ the gift of difference, of wolf-dom, if you will. He’s changing, growing, his hair gets thicker and finally the wolf man breaks out of him and he feels that he has to punish evil, help the innocent. Yes, it reads like a superhero story but, of course, this is only part of it as the ‘superhero’ is part animal, a beast. This beast kills in it’s frenzy, feeding on the evil-doers, hunts them, tears them to pieces. As Reuben comes from a Catholic family (his brother, Jim, is actually a priest) there are musings about morality and religion. Other man wolves appear, the werewolf-myth is turned around, then skillfully resurrected. The great big evil is disposed of and we get to hear the whole myth in the end.

Well, the book has its lenghts, that’s for sure but it’s actually really fascinating how Rice loses herself in Reuben’s transformation, how she describes his struggles, not only with his new identity but with his family, with the outside world. The masterful descriptions of surroundings, smells, food, noises, rain… yes, here is somebody who knows her craft – and in the light of somebody (who will not be named) who tried to resurrect another mystical creature and did a crappy job of it, it almost feels like Rice is showing off. As well she should because she really is that good.

But with all the amazing talent this writer has, she also falls into some tropes I could have done without. The inevitable girlfriend, for example. He finds her in her cabin in the woods as his wolf-self and she’s not afraid. And they have sex, fall in love instantly – while he is still his wolf-self. I don’t know. I simply don’t feel it. He’s huge, he’s hairy, he has just killed some people, and this woman finds all that appealling? I find that a little disconcerting, to be honest. On the whole, the character of Laura takes a long while to become a character at all. She’s there for two-thirds of the book but there are only rare glimpses we get into her character, she seems more like an elongation of Reuben, she’s there to depict him as a loving man, she’s there as a plot-device – and she very rarely becomes anything else. It’s like Rice felt that with all the males around, there should be a female… but then her other female characters, minor characters fail to materialize as vivid as Rice’s males. They either seem caricatures, like Dr. Klopov, or they seem to be mere tropes, stereotypes: mother, girlfriend, true love, the doctor.

Given, most of the male characters are larger than life-myths, vibrant characters that have lived for centuries. They’re supposed to be the ones sticking out but it wouldn’t have hurt the story if there had been at least one female werewolf, surely?

I’m never sure where I stand with female novelists who make males their cherished protagonists and fail to let their female characters have substantial input into the plot, as well. The man/beast myth – yes, I know it’s traditionally just that MAN (not woman)/beast but Rice left the door open for the possibility of a femals werewolf. By the end of the novel that door still stands wide open but is never filled with a woman wolf. You can argue that Rice sticks to what she does best: describing the struggles of man – sometimes I’m just tired of patriarchal story-telling and wish that female authors would write more and better about their own gender (and I’m aware that I’m laying too much emphasis on gender here).

What Rice certainly does – and does well – is include gay-ness into her novels. The whole theme of werewolf-being can easily be read as homosexuality but Rice divides the two as she writes gay characters. That’s certainly commendable. If we see the man wolf as superhero, and that trope is certainly strong with Reuben, we have to attach the same trope to Stuart, an out 16-year-old, who gets accidentally bitten by Reuben. The same goes for Felix Nideck whom I read as gay even though it is never actually said out loud. Sexuality isn’t the big gay elephant in the room unless you want to make a point that Reuben’s heterosexuality is advocated a little bit too vehemently (but maybe that’s just me being sensitive because there’s never a good enough reason to use the word ‘impale’ in that context).

The Wolf Gift is a solid novel, it does what it promises to do: resurrect a myth – and there’s certainly no one in this genre who does that better than Anne Rice. It’s a little showy at times, yes, it lies heavily on moral contemplations, on the question of god/s and religion but it is still an enjoyable read. It captivates the reader, it overwhelms them in it’s lusciousness, and there’s certainly room for deep interpretation – and maybe a sequel.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

In the last couple of weeks while I was reading this book I came across at least three versions of “The Butterfly Effect.” One was in the book, one was on Warehouse 13 and then there was another and I don’t remember… I think it was at a party but I was boozed, so. All three were different from the first account I read about – this in a Xena Uber fanfiction – that if a butterfly beats its wing at one end of earth it can cause an earthquake at the other end. I cherish this version because, as I remember it, it was put into beatiful prose (not the ever-rattling shorthand that I use). The gist of the thing is that if you change the past a little it will have big consequences in the present/future. Trekkers remember it as the time-space-continuum and how Captain Janeway liked to bend that one.

So, this is what Jake Epping, the hero of King’s novel does. He changes the past when somebody shows him the way into it, saving President Kennedy, having Oswald killed, losing his fiancé in the process. But the new present (2011) he created is the worst case scenario because such things don’t sit well with… the butterfly effect or the time-space-continuum. Reality slowly rips apart.

There is another novel that pretty much builds on the same premise: time travel and changing a historic event.  Stephen Fry’s Making History is one of my favorite all-timers. But Fry is European and instead of preventing Kennedy’s assassination, he prevents Hitler from being born. Eliminating evil creates new evil in his version and it is brilliant.. a brilliant novel.

I wish I could say the same about King’s novel. Stephen King has been part of my life since I was 10 years old, trying to read It for the first time (I stopped after the second chapter because I was appalled but picked the book up a year later to read it for the first of many times). It is still my favorite of the novels I read (I haven’t read all of them but a fair share) by King, it is still one of my favorite novels and he was the first adult author I read. When I came to the moment in the plot when it became clear that Epping was going to Derry, I rejoiced… Revisiting Derry, wow! But looking back this may not have been the wisest decision. And comparing Dallas and Derry – even by someone as clueless about Derry as Epping – also felt off. The only scene I cherished was the one with Richie and Bev and I guess, it will stay with me and I will remmeber it whenever I will read It in the future. But everything else… it was rather disappointing. Maybe because the kids had already (almost) finished the monster off when Epping appears on the scene, I’m not even sure, it just wasn’t … right, somehow.

This is, of course, a highly subjective opinion, it’s my opinion after all. But maybe King was too eager to combine Derry and Dallas, to make the connection. What follows in the wake is a little boring, to be honest. The years that stretch out where we learn a lot of history, and a lot of Epping (calling himself George Amberson). True, I have little patience with stories about men, their heroism, their sexual exploits, etc. and maybe my bored state comes from this fact and not from King’s writing at all… But I was bored during a lot of the book and I am sad to say it and even sadder to have felt it. Because I am interested in history, and because I have always been interested in the Kennedy assassination (I guess that happens when you are born one day short to exactly 15 years after the assassination), and time-travel, yay! and Stephen King, even greater yey! And still I was disappointed and still I was bored.

The plot really only picks up speed after the attack on Sadie and from that point on you can happily skip through the book like any other King novel. By then he had almost lost me. Of course, the rest of the book makes up for it some, here is King at his best and presents us with the horrors of the past that doesn’t want to be changed, with Jake being beaten to an inch of his life, with a race to Dallas and the Book Depository from which Oswald (presumably) shot Kennedy. And the aftermath, and the changed present, and an explanation from the Green Card Man – and finally a lovely reunion. This is once again so well written, exciting and, yes, lovely that – as I said – it almost makes up for the almost 500 pages that were not that good. But this almost stems from the fact that I have been reading Stephen King for over 20 years, the fact that only one third of it – to me – was worth reading, the fact that it was the last third and hence the more memorable third, the one that people will remember and point to and say: this is a fantastic read.

There are other misgiving, I guess. Some stem from the fact that King does not create great female heroes, and although Sadie is a wonderful, lovable character, and quite the hero, she is not THE hero, the same way Bev Marsh was never THE hero of It. From someone of King’s story-telling prowess, I would like to read about more diverse characters than the typical Jake Epping – I am white, I am straight, I rule the world – the same way I wished that he gave the world Under the Dome a different set of rules than those of patriarchal society gone anarchist. Maybe 11.22.63 would have been better if the hero was someone African-American, someone hispanic, a woman, someone who would have felt the restrictions of 1963 more severely.

I am being hard on King because I know he could write something like that. But then, of course, he does not cater to one complaining, nerdy fan of his somewhere in Germany. And this is alright because I am a writer myself and the first person I write for is myself. Still I complain, still I wait for something extraordinary to come from one of my all-time favorite writers. I guess it is only fair to expect the best from those you admire most.