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.

‘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).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

hpandthedeathlyhallowsFor a moment after reading this, I felt elated that it was over. No more crying. And I think that this is one of the most enticing things about the whole series: it challenges us emotionally. Following Harry Potter’s life at Hogwarts is rewarding in many ways but the best thing about it – at least as far as I’m concerned – is that it makes you feel. A lot. There are not many books I cry over but I feel that the last two books of this series will always accomplish that. And that’s good to know.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, don’t return to Hogwarts for the new school year. They set out on the mission of finding and destroying horcruxes into which Lord Voldemort has infused parts of his soul. But the mission is a dreary one at first since Dumbledore has given them few clues to work with. The strain on the friendship gets overwhelming and Ron leaves the other two after a fight – only to return and save Harry’s life. The friends gain insight into the myth of the Deathly Hallows, are being taken captive by the Malfoy family and barely escape – losing a friend in the process. The return to Hogwarts, finally, brings on a showdown that will cost even more lives but results in the Dark Lord’s death.

I hope that last one wasn’t too much of a spoiler. It’s how all stories must end – evil dies, good endures. Endures because there is no real victory in war, and Rowling knows that. Too many lives had been lost but, for once, the wizarding community actually comes through for Harry Potter as he and his classmates are joined by family and friends. It is not the great assemblage one might want to fight with against a powerful wizard but considering how Harry had been left fighting for everyone for most of the series it is a pleasant surprise.

If there is a weakness in this last book, it is the long passages where things are being explained. I am not saying that it wasn’t necessary, it was – and Rowling makes sure to cover all unanswered questions – but these passages can be a little tiring because they are bulky. Especially the scene with Harry and Dumbledore in King’s Cross and Harry walking through Snape’s memories. As I said, they were necessary but they still make for slow reading.

One thing that I only just realized – or maybe I had only forgotten – is that with all the fear the wizarding world has of Voldemort, he really isn’t that great a wizard. He is cruel, certainly, but he is not as clever as he thought himself, as others thought him either. Seeing his whole story revealed, he is more cunning than clever. And seeing how Grindelwald struck up a friendship with Dumbledore because of a kinship in character, he might have been the stronger opponent.

There are always those small doubting voices in the back of one’s head, asking questions like: why didn’t Dumbledore kill Voldemort? He was the most powerful wizard ever, why give the job to a teenage boy? These questions are certainly valid and I’d say that people should seek for their own answers. I, personally, wouldn’t have wanted to read a story about a very old wizard defeating a younger one who probably never had a chance against him in the first place. The story wouldn’t have had the same appeal. It might make us think less of Dumbledore that with all his power he did not stop Voldemort’s first rise to power, that he didn’t prevent the Potter’s from being killed, but a vengeance story makes for better reading.

About the epilogue Nineteen Years Later. As many have agreed, I could have done without it, too. Especially from the point of view of a fanfiction writer, it would have been nicer if the story hadn’t been closed off this way. It’s a very sentimental piece of writing, assuring the reader that twenty years later all is well still, that even Draco Malfoy can be part of a community that lives just as before. Because what the epilogue does not do is: show progress. Muggles are still looking strangely at progressions of wizarding families, the Hogwarts Express still leaves from platform 9 3/4. And this is where I would have liked to see change, if only a little. It would have been nice to see that after the crises, wizards/witches could have come out to muggles. But Rowling decided that the wizarding community just went back to normal – opening the field for another story just like Potter’s tale where a teenager has to solve the problems of a community that never changes.

There are a lot of things one can praise and criticize within the Harry Potter-series but that makes for even better reading. Harry Potter is a great story, it changed our world.

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.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

There are a couple of people in my life who recommended both the books and the HBO series to me. I was reluctant to begin reading and watching. For once, reading even one of these books means commitment – and commitment to a genre I have little experience with – because I would most likely not only read one of the books but each and every last one. For another, the medieval look of it always conjures up familiar tropes of rape and sexism that I am not very willing to face. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the first episode of the series and it was mainly how I imagined it would be: brutal and sexist. I gave up on the television series after this episode but I could obviously not do the same with the book series.

Do we really know the kinds of obsessions that form under the surface, and the mechanisms that lead to these obsessions? For me, the mechanism seemed to be looking at the books in my local bookstore and feeling mocked. Here is a good story, the books seem to say, a story people talk about, one that wil work its way into the popular culture much like Harry Potter did and if you don’t read it, you will feel left out. I also wanted to see Martin’s approach on his female characters. In the end, I bought the first book – meanwhile I have bought the second book as well – and have read it by now.

The story develops in multiple places, from the points of views of several people. We are introduced to a world that seems slightly familiar in its medieval trope – which may or may not be more familiar to Europeans than Americans (I would like to hear your take on that theory). The seven kingdoms are reigned by one Robert Baratheon who just lost his second-in-command and chief advisor to a sudden illness. Sudden illnesses have the tendency to be not of natural cause and the widow at least suspects foul play. The king, on the other hand, does not. He goes in search of a new Hand – that’s the title – and comes to his old friend Eddard “Ned” Stark, a lord in the far north and an old friend. Ned becomes Hand to the king reluctantly but mostly to solve the murder of the former Hand, Jon Arryn, who was not only an old friend but also husband to Ned’s sister-in-law Lysa.

That’s the premise. There is a lot of historical background being told while the story unfolds. There is a wannabe-king in some far land who sells his sister to a horselord to get his men to go to war for him. Said sister, Daenerys, turns out to be the stronger character among the siblings, the one who could be able to go back to the seven kingdoms to cause havock. But there are others who are willing to help things along in the kingdoms and war ensues when Ned finds out that the heir to the king is not heir to the king but actually son to the queen and her twin brother. When Robert dies, due to a hunting accident, that might not have been entirely accidental, Ned wants Robert’s brother Stannis to take the throne but the queen has other plans and imprisons Ned as traitor. Several lords mobilize their armies and in the end, there are four kings: Joffrey, heir to king Robert though not his trueborn son, Stannis, eldest brother to Robert, Renly, younger brother to Robert who somehow feels himself intitled to the crown, and Robb Stark, fifteen years old and heir to Eddard Stark who at this time of the novel has become an ornament on the walls of Joffrey’s castle.

A Game of Thrones is a well-written story. Yes, there are the common tropes of woman stands beneath man, woman may be raped at any given moment since it is costumary especially within a medieval war theme, and men underestimating women at every turn. Yet there are also strong female characters who put these tropes to shame. Cersei is evil and cunning, Catelyn willful and strong, Arya a free spirit and a tomboy, and Daenarys is simply glorious in her stubborn believe that she is entitled – to pretty much everything she desires. Martin is eager to give his female characters almost as much space to develop as his male characters, yet the men still have more room to act – as they are the main players at war.

Another thing I thought captivating, was Martin’s willingness for confrontation. He likes his coincedental meetings and doesn’t shy away from pulling through a difficult plot. Take Catelyn’s confrontation with Tyrion Lannister at the infamous inn on the crossroads: it could have been easy for Martin to dodge this highly explosive moment by just having Tyriion not see Catelyn. Instead he chose to have this confrontation which results in Tyrion’s imprisonment. He does this on several occasions to quite surprising outcomes. As a writer, I find these moments in the novel daring yet conclusive.

I am still not sure if I am really a fan of the series, though. I will continue to  read it, I find the investment into characters of such a long story quite rewarding although I might at first shy away from it. But with all that is really good and exciting, there is still the one trope of partriarchal story-telling that I cannot simply comply with: rape. There is a comstumary repitition in literature – and culture – that produces compliance within society, we seem to accept it as part of a story. I must say, though, that Martin does comment on this critically when he has Daenarys stop the men of her husbands army from raping several women. On her part, it is too little too late but the fact that here is a heroine who at least tries to stop something that has become a normal, expected part of warfare for the men, is an unexpected and positive commentary.

With so many characters and the different points of view it is easy to relate to them – or at least some – and quite natural to formulate favorite characters. As per usual, I am more partial to female characters but I really like Tyrion Lannister, the imp. He is intelligent and a cynic. Besides him, I like Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister best. Yes, these are quite different but I have alwaysbeen partial to evil queens and it helps that Lena Headey plays her on the series. Ambition can turn so ugly so fast.

On the whole, I think A Game of Thrones a rewarding tale and I am looking forward to the sequel.

Maurice by E.M. Forster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(In case you were wondering about why there are two book covers this time: I own a copy of each. I read the left one but I just love the other cover so much that I had to put it up, too.)

Forster wrote this novel sometime around 1913-14 but it was only published after his death in 1971. The topic of homosexuality seemed too sensitve, too taboo. Today the novel seems outdated but for the fact that Forster dared to let it end happily-ever-after for his main character.

Maurice Hall is a product of the British upper-middle class. He is a snob, not overly intellectual but clever enough, and he fits into a well-carved position his father left him – but for the fact that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wild sort,” an invert, a homosexual, or in modern parlance: gay. He is lucky enough to have a friend to share the sentiment with, I say sentiment as their relationship never becomes sexual. Maurice and Clive meet in Cambridge, their friendship evolves over one summer when they are parted and Clive finally tells Maurice how he feels. They become lovers – in the platonic sense – until Clive “becomes normal.” Maurice is shattered, thinks of suicide but finally decides to bury his desires inside the farce that is his life. He will work, he will be a good son and brother but he will not be a lover. While he tries for medical help and a cure, he meets Alec Scudder who works for Clive and they fall in love.

I have read and re-read this novel multiple times now and it always shocks me out of my certainty of being a queer person myself. For the most part, I think Clive is the more sympathetic character. His homosexuality can only be understood on an intellectual level as he deals with it on that ground. The question whether he even desires men is as fascinating as the one about his transformation toward heterosexuality? Does he believe in it? Do we? Naturally, this evokes strong opinions and emotions but I find Forsters approach a  legit one. I rather like the idea of fluidity in sexuality (I call it an idea because I don’t find my sexuality all that fluid) and I think it is quite possible for a person to go from one kind of sexuality to another – and back again. Either in this or in getting rid of the labels and just loving who one wants to love. The sad thing about the character Clive is that he gets stuck once he owns to his heterosexuality. There may be a sentimental moment when he kisses Maurice hand but his mind is set on being straight – so much so that he becomes unsympathetic, a hypocrite.

Maurice is not the most likable character. He is destined to be dull and only when he allows himself to be himself he becomes the character we would have wished for from the beginning. The development is a believable one and in the end, we couldn’t like Maurice more. He loves, and he loves beyond borders, beyond the distinctions made by his class. And that is a truly remarkable evolution for a character who starts out as middling in everything he does. Maurice may not be remarkable but his coming-of-age and coming-out are.

There are many things to love about this novel, the fact that I have read it several times and always like to pick it up again, attests to this. It poses a lot of interesting questions about society and sexuality. It also condemns a certain British class and it’s way of living. There is wisdom and beautiful prose, thoughtful contemplation of topics that still interest the human mind and… soul?