October 23, 2017

Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

 “Never go into the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s vast and opulent home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember. She has learned to prowl through the darkened corridors at night, to sneak and hide, using the mansion’s hidden doors and secret passageways.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows the clues to follow. A terrifying man in a black cloak stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity before all of the children vanish one by one.Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear, where she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must not only face her darkest enemy, but delve into the strange mystery of her own identity.

I was enchanted from the first chapter when Serafina describes hunting rats and living in the basement of the great Biltmore Estate. How could I not? As an adult, I laughed out loud, I was intrigued and turned the pages in eager anticipation of what was to happen next. I loved the character of Serafina - brave and different and quirky.

"If you meet someone face-to-face and they don't hiss at you and bite you, does that mean you're friends?"

I also grew to be entranced by the setting of the story, Biltmore Estate. Beatty's descriptions of it stirred my imagination so that I have put North Carolina as a must-visit destination in the near future.

"Biltmore Estate rose four stories high with its ornately carved gray stone walls. Gargoyles and ancient warriors adorned its dark copper edges.  Chimneys, turrets, and towers formed the spires of its almost Gothic presence. Two giant statues of lions guarded the massive oak doors at the entrance, as if warding off evil spirits...

In the golden light of the setting sun, the mansion really could be startlingly lovely. But as the sun withdrew its brightness behind the surrounding mountains, it cast ominous shadows across the estate, which reminded her of griffins, chimeras and other twisted creatures of the night that were half one thing and half another. The thought of it gave her a shudder. In one moment, the estate was the most beautiful home you had ever seen, but in the next, it was a dark and foreboding haunted castle."

Serafina is an excellent middle grade mystery with a touch of the supernatural. It's intelligent and unique - I was genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the narrative and my heart beat quickly in quite a few scary scenes. 

October 16, 2017

Book Review: The Quick by Lauren Owen

Source: Vine

1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Alarmed, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine London that greets her, she uncovers a hidden, supernatural city populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of the exclusive, secretive Aegolius Club, whose predatory members include the most ambitious, and most bloodthirsty, men in England.

I raced through this book in two days. I read it before going to work, during my breaks, during my lunch, after work. When I wasn't reading it, I thought about it. Do yourself a favor - settle into the first 102 pages, which are lyrical, sumptuously gothic, and contain a wistful love story. It is slower paced than the rest of the book, but nevertheless immersed me into the character of James and the Victorian London setting. Let the novel's subtle seduction work on you ... and then, prepare yourself for a thrilling pageturner of a ride. Believe me, you won't even have time to breathe. As subtle and gentlemanly as the first 100 pages are, the next 400 or so will escalate into true literary horror - until the very last breathless page, which left me in utter shock.

SPOILER - I only read the synopsis and the blurbs before deciding to read this book so I had no idea what was in store for me, only that I was open to whatever lay inside. James's and Christopher's secret love affair is beautifully rendered. I had to wonder though, whether the author was using vampirism as a metaphor for homosexual love in the Victorian era. As a child, James is accidentally locked into a secret hideaway in the library (closet-like), which again becomes significant much later on. James and Christopher's relationship is so shameful, they do not even say what they are out loud. Similarly, the word "vampire" is mentioned perhaps three times within the entire 523 pages and multiple characters take pains not to say it, as though to just to acknowledge vampires' existence is taboo. There is a theme of shameful secrets to be kept hidden, as well as never vocalized, linking homosexuality and vampirism. Both are forced to stay "in the closet" even until the end.

October 9, 2017

Book Review: The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth

Source: Vine

Philadelphia. The late 1870s. A city of cobblestone sidewalks and horse-drawn carriages. Home to the famous anatomist and surgeon Dr. Spencer Black. The son of a “resurrectionist” (aka grave robber), Dr. Black studied at Philadelphia’s esteemed Academy of Medicine, where he develops an unconventional hypothesis: What if the world’s most celebrated mythological beasts—mermaids, minotaurs, and satyrs— were in fact the evolutionary ancestors of humankind?

The Resurrectionist offers two extraordinary books in one. The first is a fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black, from his humble beginnings to the mysterious disappearance at the end of his life. The second book is Black’s magnum opus: The Codex Extinct Animalia, a Gray’s Anatomy for mythological beasts—dragons, centaurs, Pegasus, Cerberus—all rendered in meticulously detailed black-and-white anatomical illustrations. You need only look at these images to realize they are the work of a madman. The Resurrectionist tells his story.

Had the book only contained the intriguing, very detailed anatomical sketches of mythical creatures with human characteristics (or vice versa), The Resurrectionist still would have been a curious but fascinating tome. Hudspeth's imaginative rendering of fantasy in a pseudo-medical setting is ingenious. But the sketches are preceded by a biography of the enigmatic Dr. Spencer Black, which provides a very sinister dimension, one that is only fully realized once the reader arrives at the last set of sketches.

There's a quietness to the narrative style which makes the strange events of his life all the more startling, beginning with a childhood spent robbing graves of their corpses to provide anatomy specimens for his father, a medical doctor. From there, Dr. Black's life seems to settle into normality, only to veer into the macabre, and then the horrific.

Warning: bad things happen to animals.

With the exception of one very graphic scene, however, Hudspeth mostly clouds Dr. Black in suggestive mystery. Is he mad? Is he a genius? A charlatan? What happened to his wife? What happened to him? The biographical section ends with all of these murky questions swirling around. But with the illustrations of these strange human/mythical hybrids, some of them are answered. I turned the last page, thinking, "Oh!"