The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello

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The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello has left me torn. The story is told in two parts, one in the past and one in the present and unfortunately, they are worlds apart in scope and storytelling. Had one part been told this book would have been a masterpiece of historical horror and fiction. If the other tale was told on its own it would have been instantly forgettable. A book that would have been started, put aside and forgotten. But by combining them we have instead, a drowning man whose savior is not strong enough to support him, so together, agonizingly slowly, they both perish.

While on patrol in Topanga Canyon, Environmental Scientist Rafael Salazar follows an endangered pack of wolves, knowing that the dangers of poachers and hidden drug dealers surround him, he stumbles upon a dilapidated antique steamer trunk. Inside he finds a journal written by none other then the renowned author, Robert Louis Stevenson. In the journal, Stevenson tells the origin of his tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and also other secrets. The truth of the identity of Jack the Ripper. But in the trunk there is more than the journal, there is also a flask. A flask containing a forgotten potion. A potion that gave birth to London’s most infamous killer.

There are two stories here.

The story of Robert Louis Stevenson, who deathly ill, travels deeps into the mountains to a retreat with holistic healing techniques. One of these techniques is to infuse the patient with the blood of a wild animal. A potion that heals Stevenson, returning him to full strength, but in the hands and cruel mind of someone else, it will create a monster.

The next story is that of the Environmentalist, Rafael Salazar whose obsession to protect his Canyon from the criminal element that find this remote area to their liking. But Salazar has no true authority and no respect. When he finds the old chest, he finds it pursued by others who think its contents valuable. But Salazar, reading Stevenson’s journal, knows that the chest and its contents is far more than valuable, it is dangerous. The potion inside has the ability to create a new monster.

The story that is that of Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the best tales of historical fiction I have read in some time. The tale of Stevenson learning of the potion that would eventually become the essence of his great story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and then the horror as his inspiration becomes reality in the East End of London. Among the alleys and darkness of Whitechapel. Then to learn that his potion has far more than an inspiring effect on the killer, that it create him. A killer that Stevenson is very close to.

The story of Rafael Salazar pales horribly in comparison. It is slow and disjointed and serves more as a distraction; an interruption to the real story of the book. If there was a simple way to skip the pages on this telling and just focus on the historical fiction, the flow and tempo of the book would be strong and fast.

The Jekyll Revelation is a good book that could have been so much better with a little less ambition and an editor who paid attention.

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

 

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal is one of those rare gems of a novel that not only crosses genres but deftly transcends them. Yes, this is a book of erotic fantasies. Yes this is also a book about the confines and the oppression of women. It is also a book about the gap in faith and station between those women who were born and raised in their native countries and their daughters who were born in the West. But overall, it is a novel of freedom and the desires that cry to be free.

“…How did Maya die?’ Nikki asked softly.
‘She took her own life,’ Tarampal said.
‘How?’ It was a morbid question but Nikki had to know.
‘The way women in our culture do it when they are filled with shame,’ Tarampal said. She blinked and turned away. ‘With fire.’
Nikki stared at Tarampal in horror. ‘Fire?’
Tarampal nodded at the back door. ‘There is still a patch of burnt grass in the garden. I don’t go out there any more.’

Nikki lives in West London, tending bar at a local pub but she may have lived a world away from her family and the home they had made in London when her parents had left India. Nikki grew up a very modern English girl, this created a rift between her, her mom, and her older sister. It had created a divide between her and her father, who had died before she could ever make it right again. Nikki dropped out of law school and finds her life adrift. Forsaking the traditions of her Sikh community and upbringing, Nikki is determined to make a new life for herself. When she spots a job posting for teaching a “creative writing” course at the Sikh community center; the heart of the London’s Punjabi community, she takes it on impulse.

But she soon finds that the class is meant to be about learning basic English literacy and not creative writing. The students were widows, a lost class of women who, without husbands, find that they have little standing in the community. With the loss of their husbands, they seemed to have also lost their own identities. Forbidden to re-marry, they were dependent on their family and husband’s family. Nikki is surprised when one of the women find a book of erotica and begins to share it with the rest of the class. What she finds is that with this group of women, there is a hidden and untapped well of sensuality and loving memories of their lost lovers. Soon Nikki finds it her mission to unleash the secret desires and forgotten lives of these women.

“…Nikki stopped and looked around. She was surrounded by women with their heads covered-women hurrying after their toddlers, women giving each other sideways glances, women hunched over walking frames. Each one had a story. She could see herself addressing a room full of these Punjabi women. Her senses became overwhelmed with the colour of their kameezes, the sound of fabric rustling and pencils tapping, the smell of perfume and turmeric. Her purpose came into sharp focus. ‘Some people don’t even know about this place,’ she would say. ‘Let’s change that.’ Fiery eyed and indignant, they would pen their stories for the whole world to read…”

As gossip of what is happening in the class spreads, more women decide they wish to join. But that also raises the attention of the community and Nikki soon finds herself under scrutiny. There is also intimidation from some of the younger and more conservative men who have appointed themselves the communities morale police. During this, Nikki becomes aware of the death of a young woman in the community. A death that seems less and less like the suicide everyone believes it to be. A young girl very much like her.

Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows is at once sad and funny. Tragic and victorious. It does all this without being judgmental and condemning of the past or the future of a culture in flux. There are books that try to be too much. A mish mash of genres and styles as if the story’s editors were on permanent leave and the author, like a heavy man at a buffet, could not rein in his tale. Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows tells its story without being held back with the borders of different genres. But instead cruises deftly through them and blends the tale with erotica, romance, mystery and drama.

This is one of those books that will still be talked about years from now.

A very good read!

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova is a historical novel that is hidden behind the thin veil of a suspenseful thriller. Kostovas debut novel, The Historian was heralded and her second novel The Swan Thieves met lukewarm reviews. The Shadow Land is her third book.

Alexandra Boyd, a young American woman is taking a new post in the country of Bulgaria as a teacher. She is hoping that moving to another country could help her put behind her the loss of her brother and the disintegration of her family. Something that she has never truly recovered from. Soon after arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria, Alexandra finds herself helping an elderly couple into a taxi. But too late, she realizes that one of their bags had gotten mixed up with hers and now they are gone. When she opens the bag she is horrified that it contains the ashes of a deceased man. She has the remains of one of the family’s members, a man named Stoyan Lazarov. With the help of a young taxi driver she goes in search of the family, in a country where secrets are kept and people distrust.

“…The changes?’ Alexandra was still eating her salad, which was good.
‘In 1989, when out communist dictator was deposed. And our change to democracy, the next year-or at least to a new kind of capitalism,’ he said. ‘First we had the Turks, then we had the Russians, and now we have Coca-Cola’. She got the sense that none of these things had worked out very well, in his opinion. ‘We have not solved our other problems, either…”

The quest to deliver Stoyan’s remains to his family quickly turns into much more and the past of this country and its present collide in violence and hidden secrets. Who was Stoyan Lazarov and why was the life of the quiet violinist of such interest to a dark and cruel government. Soon Alexandra realizes that she is in danger and the choices of whom she trusts will be life and death decisions.

“…There was a moment of complete unreality, and he actually turned his head away and looked back into the hall, because he could not register what he was seeing. Velizar Gishev was in the kitchen, but he lay on the floor on what looked like a red blanket; his wife lay next to him, and their son lay beside her with his legs thrown awkwardly apart. The blanket had soaked into their clothes. There was a gun beside Velizar’s hand, just clear of the spreading red, an old gun of the sort people’s great-grandfathers left behind, to be displayed in a parlor cabinet. Except that since the Revolution no one was allowed to have one, even without bullets, even to display. Stoyan saw again that velvet edge on the cuff of Velizar’s jacket, except that now it rested next to a gun…
Then Stoyan saw that the back door stood ajar, too, and there were two figures moving in the tiny walled garden. An acrid smell rose all around him. He felt he should go away, leave at once, but he hovered at the edge of the kitchen, where the seep of blood did not reach his feet…”

Stoyan Lazarov’s life is one of tragedy and survival. A peaceful man whose world is filled with oppression and death. Stoyan must survive the upheaval in his country and to do so he must accept the corruption and evil he witnesses. But the cost may be too much for one man to live with and it is in death that the life of Stoyan Lazarov speaks out. A voice that is at once enlightening and dangerous.

I loved Kostova’s first novel the Historian and did not follow the consensus that the Swan Thieves was not a good novel. I enjoyed it as well, but with The Shadow Land I cannot say that I found this one to anything as good as the prior two.

As a historical novel of the country of Bulgaria and its people, The Shadow Land does succeed. The false promises of Socialism and Communism has ruined and oppressed the people of this historic country. Had it been told in that manner then the tale may have been more interesting but the issue I had with The Shadow Land is its main character. Not Stoyan Lazarov, but Alexandra Boyd. And my question with this character is why? Why is she here? What purpose does she serve?

The character of Alexandra simply, in comparison to the richness of the Bulgarian characters is a vast void of disbelief. This seemingly intelligent young American woman would leave her family and country behind and everything she knows to travel to an Eastern European country she knows so little about. The traumatic event, the disappearance of her brother when she was a teenage girl; a brother who had wanted to run away and had tired of his small town and small life. But telling him, in an argument, to get lost somehow makes it her fault that he disappeared? Then to trust a strange young man with her life and her quest to find Lazarov’s family. That to embark on this quest itself is incredulous and there is nothing about Alexandra that makes one feel that she would do so.

It is almost as if someone looked at this novel and said, “…We better put a pretty young white American girl in here or no one will want to read it…”

And that is really too bad because the tale of Stoyan Lazarov and the tragic history of Bulgaria is a story that is very much worth listening to.

The Kill Society by Richard Kadrey

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The Kill Society is book nine in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey. For fans of the series they will find themselves confronted with a character whose life and death changes may have finally taken their toll, but still faced with one more final challenge that will lead Sandman Slim to the very gates of the Heaven he despises so much.

Sandman Slim has been a man, a warlock, a demon fighter, the devil and on the verge of God himself. What he has wanted most is to left alone with the woman he loves and when he is on the cusp of being so, he finds himself dead. Murdered and betrayed. Not that this is the first time this has happened. But this is a death unlike any other. He is in an unknown land, on the far edge of the Tenebrae, the wasteland that is home to the lost dead.

It is here that Sandman Slim finds himself aligned with a caravan of mis-matched dead and demons on a mission. Among them is his old friend Father Traven. The group is led by a mysterious figure known as the Magistrate. They travel from forgotten town to forgotten town in this pit of hell in search of a legendary treasure. For those who will not join the group, the Magistrate orders a final violent death.

Sandman Slim knows that this death is no accident. His last act on Earth of trying to open up the gates of Heaven has thrown the afterlife into a chaos of war. Now Heaven is under attack from Hell and from within. If the Magistrate finds what he is looking for, it could set of a chain reaction that would change the very face of reality.

Sandman Slim knows he needs to set everything back on course but can he survive this new group of demons and the accursed he is traveling with; get past the Magistrate whose secrets are as deadly as what he searches for, and still make it to the gates of Heaven. Where a vengeful and angry angelic host wait to exact murderous revenge on him. His only hope, his only friend may be the once epitome of evil, the Devil himself, who is now Death.

Or could that be who set this whole circus of blood and mayhem in motion to begin with?

Kadrey’s Sandman Slim is anti-hero that Earth, Heaven and Hell have waited for. He is the abomination. The bastard child of an angel who is hated and hates the heavenly host. He is just a whole lot of fun. Have you ever been so pissed at God that you wanted to tell him off but didn’t have the guts to do it, you know, just in case? Have you ever wanted to cuss out the Devil but didn’t, because you know, just in case. Well don’t worry, here comes Sandman Slim to do the job, because honestly, he just doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

The Sandman Slim novels just keep getting better and better. The character changes along with each event in his life and death. He evolves. The stories themselves are told as the character changes. I mean they fit his moment in life and he isn’t changed to fit them. That is guts. That takes a certain size of cajones to take a profitable and popular character like Sandman Slim and change him along with time. To allow him to evolve.

Thank God for the rest of readers that Kadrey has such a pair.

A terrific read!

The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

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The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn is one of those novels that tend to lose its way in the telling. What began as sort of a coming of age horror story morphs into a slow read of offbeat tension and suspense. The tale is told in two parts that come to a finale merging the two tales. While this is often a strong way to tell the story, it will break the suspense that is already created and unless the second part of the tale can hold the reader, we will lose our way.

Jude Brighton is a young boy in Deer Valley, Oregon and though he is often in trouble, it does set off alarms when he goes missing. When days pass, the locals begin to say that he has just run away, because they really don’t want to think of what may have happened. Stevie Clark is Jude’s younger cousin and he knows that Jude did not just runaway. Stevie knows that there is something in the woods just beyond town where he and Jules play. He knows that the old road that leads to the abandoned house is dark and scary. And Stevie knows that the house is not really abandoned at all.

There is also the story of the young boy Max Larsen who disappeared so long ago and all the pets that have gone missing. In fact, there are almost no pets in Deer Valley, unless you consider the host of feral cats that roam the alleys and woods.

All this is like something out of one of those crime shows that Stevie watches all the time. He knows that something horrible has happened to Jude, but no one will listen to Stevie. Because there is something off about Stevie. His mind is not right, and then there are those episodes he seems to have and the whispers about him from the town people. No, there is something really wrong with Stevie.

Then Jude comes home. Scared and quiet he is home. But Stevie knows that something is still not right. Stevie knows, that somehow, this is not really Jude.

The Devil Crept in is a novel that is required to suspend belief for it to be entertaining and it too often misses on that mark. Is it about child abandonment, a monster in the woods, the supernatural of the evil darkness that is humanity. This indecision in what type of novel this is causes The Devil Crept In to drag along. Another weakness are the characters themselves.

Stevie, who is the main narrator for most of the tale has a stutter that makes him sad and after a point, just laughable. His inability to articulate leaves the tale itself enormously frustrating. He comes to conclusions and certainties that no one else in the book sees and in so doing, makes him the only beacon of sanity in this blind and ignorant town. Only as said before, there is something off about Stevie and you can’t trust what he sees.

Small town where children die or go missing, monster on the outskirts of town, only a child can see the evil and this child cannot communicate his knowledge because of a stutter….the parallels to Stephen King’s book “IT” are unmistakable but unfortunately The Devil Crept In is way out of IT’s league.

It took me awhile to finish this book and when I did I am left questioning why I gave it so much time. Horror writing is hard, I know, it is an underappreciated art form. Which is why it is so obvious when it totally misses.

The Good Widow by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke

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The Good Widow by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke is, in this copycat female heroine deluge of badly or average written novels; a breath of something different. There is in this novel, something that is lacking in so many others and goes so horribly underappreciated. An originality in storytelling and even an embracing of its own flaws. But more than all that. there is story; dammit, story.

“…Our marriage was far from perfect, but did I think he was cheating on me? Never. Not even in hindsight. Maybe that made me naive or stupid or a little of both, but I was happy. I wasn’t one of those wives with trust issues. I’d heard it all from friends whose husbands traveled-that they required their spouses to check in several times a day, to supply them with a full itinerary, to regale them with details about their trips when they returned back home. I didn’t want to be like that…”

Jacqueline, “Jacks”, Morales was an elementary school teacher whose marriage, though not perfect, was quite fulfilling until the day when two policeman showed up at her door. Her husband, James, who she believed was on a business trip to Kansas, has suffered a fatal car accident in Hawaii. Only he wasn’t alone.

Burying her husband is hard, but it is made worse by the knowledge that his final moments were spent with another woman. Now as she wrestles with both the betrayal and grief, Jacks is visited by a stranger. A man named Nick who may be the only person who truly understands how she feels. Nick, whose fiance disappeared only to wind up dead, in Hawaii. So Nick has a proposition. A way for both he and Jacks to find closure.

“…I explained to Beth what Nick said when he came to see me. That he hadn’t been able to sleep since he found out his fiancee died, because he needed answers. He needed to understand more. About Dylan. About James. About the bond they had formed together, seemingly right under our noses. He wanted to travel to Hawaii to retrace their steps. It might sound crazy, but would I go with him?
‘He asked you to do what?’ Beth interrupts me.
‘To go to Maui with him.’
‘A perfect stranger.’
‘Yes.’ But what I don’t say is that we are connected by this event in a way that no longer makes us people who don’t know each other…”

Together, Jacks and Nick travel to trace the steps of the lovers who betrayed them. But what they find is even darker and far more dangerous than the pain they are already going through. Can their newfound love survive the truth of the past that haunts them?

Okay, I started this with a pretty positive review but now is where I pull back. This could have been a really good tense thriller if the authors had invested a little more time in the characters and made them as compelling as the story could have been. But what we have is a story, a very good story, but still one where I was able to piece together what would happen in the first third of the book.

Let’s begin with Jacks. Despite the title, she is not a good widow. Hell she wasn’t even a good wife. She marries James in a whirlwind romance and forgets to mention that she may be infertile. A minor kind of thing in this day and age, seriously, why would any man ever expect to have children with his wife? But her lies and deception are really James’ fault. An unfair expectation of his predisposed by his Latin American family. But being barren aside, lets screw he boyfriend of the lover of your husband because, because you know, we all need closure.

Then there is Beth. The caricature of the best friend/sister who will travel across the world to take care of you. But then you don’t. Not really. Not when Jacks is in danger or just making bad decisions. You’re pretty much just loud and obnoxious. A busy body who serves no purpose.

But now to the real issue with this book.

I seriously figured out the plot in the first 100 pages and finished the book hoping that there was more to it than that.

The Good Widow is a good story, with an obvious plot and weak characters who cannot raise it above it’s failings.

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

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Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King is a novella much in the line of his full length novel, Needful Things, but with none of the true skin crawling horror . It is however, one of those sweet little gems of a story that will resound with you much after you put it away that is a trademark of King’s earlier works.

Twelve year old Gwendy Peterson lives a quiet but strangled life in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. Castle Rock is a small town that has seen a great deal of strange going ons over the years but for now has fallen into a lull of sorts. That kind of lull that cries out to be broken. Gwendy lives with her family whose existence has been one of hopeless survival. Love has become despair and the hope of a better future seems impossible. Gwendy, herself, has spent the previous year being ridiculed and bullied for her weight. But she has finally decided that she has had enough and everyday during the summer of 1974, she takes the suicide stairs up to Castle View, stairs that are bolted into the cliffside. The trek has often been uneventful but one day there is someone waiting for her at the top of the cliff. Someone with a box in his hands.

“…Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me…”

On a bench at the top of Castle View sits a man dressed in black with a white shirt and a small black hat. He gives Gwendy a box with buttons, each button does something different. What Gwendy comes to find out is that this box can give her all her dreams. A future for her and her family. But the buttons can do other things as well. They can harm as well as do good. They can cause natural and man made disasters. The buttons can control everything. The box is Gwendy’s for now, but with all it can give her, can she handle the responsibility of what it can do?

This is a very well conceived novella and King has shades of his old storytelling abilities coming through here. Like many of his novels, Gwendy’s Button Box borders on the realm of Horror but falls more distinctly in the genre of fantasy. This novella follows Gwendy as she grows for a pre-teen girl into a young college age student and the story itself seems that it could have been much bigger than what is laid down in black and white. Perhaps King has finally decided to edit his newer work with a finer eye toward the story, as was so true in his early works.

I found the characters and the story far more satisfying in this novella than I have in much of what is King’s newer work. I am actually wondering what wasn’t told, what parts of this tale are missing in this format. I am hungry for more of this story, something a newer King novel hasn’t done for me in a long time.

Gwendy’s Button Box is Stephen King doing what he does best.

He can tell a damn fine story.