No-one Puts (zombie) Baby in a Corner…in defense of genre fiction (And some other things)

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Today, we dip into our Bookish News file and pull up an editorial written by author Glen Duncan for The New York Times in October of 2011.  The piece is, from its first sentence, a study in “nerd-baiting”, to borrow a phrase, though we should not ignore the charming threads of misogyny woven throughout the piece, beginning with the very first, sucker-punch of an opening line: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”

Ahem.

When I first read this article, it took about eight hours for my eyes to stop involuntarily rolling in reaction (this article sums up my thoughts beautifully), but I managed to shake it off.  Because the truth is that no one who loves “genre fiction” is going to stop reading because “the sad man who isn’t making as much money as the guy writing about zombies” said it was lame.  And hopefully, that same sad man isn’t going to stop readers from trying “genre fiction”, either.

…Actually, “Genre Fiction” is actually like a porn star, but not in the way that Duncan meant.  Just like the word “porn star” describes what someone does, and not who someone is fundamentally, “genre fiction” describes where a book is shelved, not what it is, fundamentally.  Neither should be seen as less than their peers, and neither should be discriminated against for the title given to their position.  Instead, we should get to know them, rather than standing back and judging them arbitrarily.

imagesIn the case of genre fiction, this means realizing that the little stickers on the spine doesn’t tell you what the book is truly about–for example, as we’ve noted before, Salem’s Lot might be about vampires, but it’s also about human love, and human fear, and human loss, and about a deep-seated need to find a home.  The Maltese Falcon may be about a private eye and a femme fatale, but it is also about the quest for truth, the vagaries of the human heart, and the need to make wrong things right.  Any of the romance novels we’ve discussed may have handsome men and lovely ladies and kissy-faces in them, but they are also about the search for personal validation, recognition, and self-fulfillment.  These novels do exactly what “literary fiction” claims to do…it just goes about it in a slightly different way.

570729-MAnd different is great; because genre fiction also tends to be more inclusive, and enjoy a more diverse readership–Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, used the science fiction to explore feminism, arguing that writers have a duty  “to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.”  In so doing, she opened the whole genre to female readers, as well as female characters. Octavia Butler has used her genre fiction to explore not only feminism, but race, and racial relations, as well, giving perspective to issues that are all too real and present.  Genre Fiction provides the tools not only to evaluate our world, and our place in it, it also provides the tools to imagine a better world.

So here are a few ideas to help you get past the labels and the signs, and explore some genre fiction for yourself.  As you feel your imagination–and your heart–expanding, know that this is why those books are here, and why it is so necessary for us to explore them!

3019938Embassytown: China Miéville was one of the first modern writers to tackle ‘Weird Fiction’–that magical genre that exists somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy.  The world he creates have some of the unsettling oddities of Lovecraft, the strange inventions and scientific possibilities of H.G. Wells, but the way he spins these tales out is something wonderfully unique.  Though it might be difficult to relate to the alien/human hostilities and deep-space travel featured in this book, the heroine’s struggles to speak a language that has developed while she was in space, and her divided loyalties between two cultures that can’t quite accept her feels remarkably, painfully familiar.

1161903Making History: Speaking superficially, this book is a work of speculative history–a ‘what if’ that explores what the world might be like if one man was able to travel back into the past and ensure that Hitler was never born.  But beneath this premise is a shattering commentary on human nature, an against-all-odds love story, and a well-researched bit of historical analysis.  Honestly, there is nothing that Stephen Fry do that he doesn’t do magnificently, but this book…this book.  Funny, gripping, cynical and yet somehow hopeful, this is one book that is just too much to pass up.

1979090A Drink Before the WarDennis Lehane’s series of detective novels featuring PI Patrick Kenzie and his secretary/Girl Friday Angie Gennaro harken back to the pulp novels of the 1950’s, with their focus on the gritty underside of urban areas (in this case, Dorchester and Boston), and the struggle for survival that drives every schemer, con man, and mobster.  But Lehane, a former social worker, uses the genre to bring to light some of the true evils in our society–ignorance, jealousy, and cruelty to the defenseless, and that makes them incredible important.  Somehow, he is also talented enough to make these books utterly addictive and simply unforgettable, and his sense of place is spot on.

2336642Already DeadLike the best noir author, Charlie Huston has the ability to put pages-worth of angst, fear, and emotional impact into a few short words or phrases.  His dialogue is rapid-fire and pitch-perfect, and, like, Lehane, he is able to craft compelling investigations that gradually build to a fundamentally shattering conclusion…the fact that his hero is a vampire, paid by several factions of vampires to carry out their bidding among the Boroughs of New York City only add to the fun of this series.   Things only get weirder from here, trust me, but Huston is so perceptive, and so fiendishly clever in his plotting and characterization that you’ll be only too willing to follow him into the shadows.

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellOh hey, we haven’t mentioned this book in a while!

The Baileys Prize: The Best of the Best!

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We’ve talked before about the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and what a remarkable award it is, and how critically important it is to recognize women’s writing.  Well, it turns out that the Baileys award people, including the dynamic women on the Fiction Board have given us some new reasons to celebrate this award, and all that it stands for in the publishing and reading word.

For the prize’s tenth anniversary–when it was known as the Orange Prize for Fiction–the Fiction Board presented a “Best of the Best” segment on the BBC’S Woman’s Hour, featuring a round-up of the ten winning books of the past decade.  And on Monday, in honor of the prize’s twentieth birthday, the Fiction Board (headed by co-founder and chair Kate Mosse) named a new “Best of the Best” from amongst the Bessie winners of the past decade.  And yes, the award’s name is Bessie, bless her heart.

The award ceremony itself was preceded by two weeks’ worth of programs on Woman’s Hour, including readings from all the winning books, and interviews with the authors that were insightful in an of themselves, but also offered readers the chance to discover these marvelous works–again, and for the first time.  Finally, today, the ceremony itself featured readings from stars like Stanley Tucci and Sheila Hancock, and a celebration of all the diverse, funny, heartbreaking, mind-blowing and intensely creative art that these women have produced in the past ten years.

Before announcing the winner, here is a list of the ten books considered for the “Best of the Best” of the Baileys Prize’s second decade:

unknown_005002a2300194Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Marilynne Robinson:  Home (2009)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

A.M. Homes:  May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Eimear McBride:  A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

Ali Smith: How to Be Both (2015)

And, after lively discussion from the judges, a public vote, and much speculation, the winner is…..

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!!!

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria, where her father was an statistics professor at the University of Nigeria, and her mother was the University’s first female registrar.  Though she initially studied medicine, she switched to creative writing and moved to the United States in 2003.  Since then, she has presented talks at worldwide forums, including a sensational TED Euston talk entitled “We Should All Be Feminists“.

CS1XzzuWcAALNh6Her novel takes place during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), and charts the intertwined stories of five characters: the twin daughters of an influential businessman, a professor, a British citizen, and a houseboy who survives conscription into the Biafran army, during and immediately after the war.  By jumping back and forth in time, Adichie is able to tell a uniquely complex, and yet undeniably human story.  On one level, this is a novel of love, betrayal, and empowerment, while at the same time it deals with broad cultural and political themes, such as the scars of imperialism on Nigeria’s history that can never fully heal, the way the media shaped and, ultimately controlled the Nigerian Civil War, and whether there is any academic, rational way to affect positive change in a society that has been so fully corrupted by western influences.  This is both a tremendously wise book, and a very readable one, that touches at the heart of some issues more precisely than most non-fiction works can.

At the time of its publication, The Washington Post stated that it was a “transcendent tale about war, loyalty, brutality, and love in modern Africa. While painting a searing portrait of the tragedy that took place in Biafra during the 1960s, her story finds its true heart in the intimacy of three ordinary lives buffeted by the winds of fate. Her tale is hauntingly evocative and impossible to forget.”

Muriel Gray, who served as the Chair of Judges for the 2007 award said of Adichie’s work: “For an author, so young at the time of writing, to have been able to tell a tale of such enormous scale in terms of human suffering and the consequences of hatred and division, whilst also gripping the reader with wholly convincing characters and spell binding plot, is an astonishing feat.  Chimamanda’s achievement makes Half of a Yellow Sun not just a worthy winner of this most special of prizes, but a benchmark for excellence in fiction writing.”

For the record, Adichie will be receiving a special Bessie, cast in manganese bronze (and if anyone knows quite what that is, we would love to hear).  You can watch her joyful acceptance video here:

And I’m sure you’ll help the Free For All offer sincere congratulations to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, for changing our ideas about what fiction is, and what is can do for twenty remarkable years!

Publisher’s Weekly Tells You What To Read


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I’ll be honest…I’m always a little uncomfortable about “Lists of Best Books”.  There is no way anyone could ever read all the books published in a year (though I am tempted to try…), and there is also no way to measure how  a book will affect all readers, or if a certain book will arrive at the right time to save you, as so many of the best books do.

Nevertheless, Publisher’s Weekly can give you an idea of what books made headlines, made waves, changed the way people think, or changed the ways in which people saw each other.  And those are some pretty neat accomplishments.  So have a look at this list and then stop by and check them out.  And let us know what you think should be a top-picks list for 2015!

Publisher’s Weekly Top Ten Books of 2015:

3650622Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: In this book, written as a letter to his teenage son Samori, Atlantic writer Coates reflects on just what it means to be black in America, from a historical, as well as a personal perspective.  “I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it.”  Coates said in an interview with NPR.   “…But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that’s the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.”

3658391The Invention of Nature : Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World,  by Andrea Wulf: Prussian-born naturalist, explorer, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) may not be a household name today, but his work was quite a mover and shaker during his time, not only for his diplomatic work, but for his “Humboldtian science”, which held”nature is perfect till man deforms it with care”.  As a result, he has been recognized as the first scientist to consider the possibility of climate change and human influence on the planet.  Andrea Wulf’s biography makes great strides into putting Humboldt’s name back in the books, and making readers realize for just how long humans have been compromising their world.

3644749The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, trans. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein: Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have grown wildly popular, and this is the second time that PW has listed them amongst their favorite books of the year.  In this installment, the brilliant, bookish Elena uses details from her own life, and friendship with the dazzling Lila in her work, and recalls all the vagaries, fights, reconciliations, and escapades that have brought them to this point in their lives.

3680297Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan: A writer for The New Yorker, and a lifelong surfer, Finnegan recounts his love for–and addiction to–the art of surfing, along with all the friends he’s met and wild adventures that he’s had in pursuit of his love, as well as his struggle to balance all those adventures an encounters alongside a family and successful career.  This book is also being hailed as brilliant travel memoir, as Finnegan recounts the incredible and the mundane places that he’s explored in his drive to find the next big wave.

3606718Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham: This is one of those books that is downright impossible to sum-up briefly, but here goes…Hannaham’s book is a metaphor for addiction (Scotty, one of the narrators, is the actual embodiment of crack), a southern gothic/horror novel (the titular farm that holds the characters captive is simply chilling), and a deeply emotional tale about love, family, and recovery.  To truly get into the complexity of this novel–you’re simply going to have to read it for yourself!

3637441Imperium, by Christian Kracht, trans. from the German by Daniel Bowles: These are the kind of “based on a true story (no seriously, this actually did happen)” books that I love to read: In 1902, a German named August Engelhardt fled his homeland, and founded a sect of sun worshippers that were lived as cocoivores–coconut eaters.  As in, they ate nothing but coconuts.  Kracht envisions this island paradise (located on an island in what was then German New Guinea known as Kabakon, to which Engelhardt brought about 1,200 books), the idealism, and the inevitable disaster that befalls Engelhardt’s attempts to reinvent society in a way that is both haunting and touchingly funny.

3654339Beauty Is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, trans. from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker: A native Indonesian herself, Kurniawan’s debut novel tells the tale of a prostitute named Dewi Ayu, who rises from her grave after twenty-one years.  Though the tale is bound up in the lives of Dewi and her four daughters, this is also a novel about the destruction, violence, and lasting scars of colonialism in Indonesia’s history, and a love letter to a place, a time, and a culture that is sure to surprise and entrance American readers.

3585739Crow Fairby Thomas McGuane: PW is hailing this McGuane’s newest release the best collection of short stories to come out this year, and it they are not alone.  This compendium of sixteen stories set in the rugged Montana wilderness, and full of characters who are shaped by its terrain, are by turns terrifying, funny, mysterious, and wonderfully realistic.  Best of all, McGuane is a master at redeeming even the most rascally characters, providing readers with plenty of emotion, in addition to his wonderful landscapes and plotlines.

3637116The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson: There are lots of intellectually, jargon words thrown around in regards to Nelson’s memoirs…it is a work of ‘autotheory’, it challenges ‘homonormativity’….but at its heart, Nelson’s story is about finding love, and a language to talk about it.  Her life and love with queer film-maker Harry Dodge is full of far-flung adventures, and also deeply personal moments of self-realization, and wonderfully sympathetic tales of making and raising a family.

3652522Black Earth : The Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder: While Snyder’s book is a story of the Holocaust, it is also about the circumstances that created it, the environmental, the interpersonal, and the political.  And his book is also a warning…that the various climates that we are creating around us today are perilously close to that which existed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, forcing us to confront not only where we have been, but where, precisely, we are headed as a ‘civilization’.

So what do you think, beloved patrons?  Any books you would add to this list?

The Romance Garden!


Welcome again to the Romance Garden, where some romance aficionados from the Library Staff bring you the books that made their hearts skip a beat…and offer your mind a little dirt in which to grow…

Gennaro Befanio (Italian artist, 1866-1911) A Read in the Garden

As the days grow shorter and chillier, it seems even nicer to have even a mental garden around which to wander, and we hope some of these selections will catch your eye and tempt your fancy!

Bridget:

3651393Last Chance Llama Ranch by Hilary Fields

I have come to realize, in the course of writing these monthly posts, that I tend towards darker romances, with angst and emotions that stick to everything, and challenges that the protagonists must overcome.  This book, however, has very little of any of those things, and that precisely one of the reasons that I so enjoyed it.

Hilary Fields’ debut isn’t a romance in the strictest sense of the genre–it’s more about the heroine, Merry, and her coming to terms with her life and what she wants from it.  Merry is over six feet tall, and was an Olympic ski champion…before a collision with a tree ended any dreams she had of athletic competition.  Now, she is a travel writer, which might sound like a nice job, until you consider that she is assigned a blog piece called “Don’t Do What I Did”.  Much to her bewilderment, Merry is sent to a llama ranch in a tiny town, stuck with a cantankerous owner who wants nothing to do with her, and no idea how to escape.  Slowly, though, Merry finds not only the llamas, but the whole of Last Chance Lllama Ranch growing on her…

Fields’ is one of those rare authors who can make even the most mundane of scenarios seem funny, so when she sticks her big, awkward, outspoken heroine in the middle of a pack of llama and alpaca, she is positively hysterical.  This doesn’t obscure, however, the real emotional power of Merry’s journey, thankfully.  This is, ultimately, a woman who has lost everything she once was, and has no where to belong.  Though this llama ranch is the last place she ever thought she’s discover herself, watching Merry find a home–and love–at Last Chance Llama Ranch was a genuinely delightful experience!

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Kelley:

3680942The Stolen Mackenzie Bride by Jennifer Ashley

When Malcolm Mackenzie, better known as Mal, makes a decision to do something, you can be sure that it will happen, so when Mal decides that Lady Mary Lennox is the only woman for him, he is willing to overcome any obstacle to make their dream of a future together a reality. And, in this case, the obstacles are quite significant. First, Lady Mary is English, and her father is fiercely loyal to the Crown. Second, Lady Mary is already betrothed to a powerful Englishman. And, third, this book takes place during the time of the Jacobite uprising and Mal is a Scottish warrior, so war is a constant threat to Mary and Mal’s plans to marry.

With Mal and Mary, Ashley brings together two complex and engaging characters, and the result is a tale that will please any fan of Scottish historical romance. Mal is charismatic and passionate, but driven to dangerous extremes when it comes to the protection of those he loves. Mary also places duty and the people she loves above herself, but as her character develops, she uncovers her bravery and a fire she didn’t know she had inside of her. The couple comes together more than once only to be separated, so the title of the book is apt as Mal does indeed need to steal his bride. More than once.

For those of you familiar with Scottish historicals, expect to see some familiar conventions. For instance, Jacobite uprising books love to cite two battles in particular: Prestonpans and Culloden. There are nods to both in this book, and the chapter where Mary searches for her husband’s body on the field in the aftermath of Culloden made me think of a very similar scene in The Blood of Roses by Marsha Canham. However, Ashley balances history and romance well, and offers a book that is light enough to satisfy those focused on romance and adventure, but dark enough to add weight and depth to the story for those looking for something more. A prequel to Ashley’s Mackenzies Series, The Stolen Mackenzie Bride works well as a stand-alone novel, but I’m certain it will make you want to read more about the clan in the previously published books.

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Bonus Pick!

3168533Firelight by Kristen Callihan

In honor of our gloriously ghoulish month of All Hallows Read, I also wanted to recommend one of my favorite paranormal romances of all time.  The opening of Kristen Callihan’s wonderfully clever and sumptuous Darkest London series is a lushly romantic, and genuinely creative tale full of terrific historic detail and two protagonists who are utterly irresistible.

Miranda Ellis was born with a mysterious power, but up ’til now, it has caused her and her family nothing but disaster.  When she attracts the attention of the reclusive Lord Benjamin Archer, Miranda finds a man who sees beyond her quirks.  But Archer himself is a man of many secrets, not the least of which is the mask that he wears over half his face…and the shadowy villains who begin to track their every moment, and threaten the fragile happiness they have discovered together.

The fact that this story is a direct homage to The Phantom of the Opera endeared it to me almost immediately, but Callihan makes the truth of Archer’s past (and face) so much more twisted and so much more interesting.  In addition, she is a master at building tension between her characters along with an enormous amount of respect, ensuring that her characters are equal partners in nearly every step of their journey together.

Amanda Palmer and the Art of Asking


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Once upon a time last Saturday, two members of the Library staff attended the Boston Book Festival in order to witness the keynote address provided by Amanda Palmer in conversation with Neil Gaiman.   The talk was primarily focused around the paperback release of Palmer’s book The Art of Asking, which is hereby highly recommended, and was followed quickly by the news that the audiobook (read by Palmer, as well) was nominated for a Grammy in the Spoken Word Category.

 It has taken a week for both attendees to overcome their gleeful, emotional reaction to the event and assemble their thoughts in (somewhat) rational fashion.  For those of you who would like to see the interview, and understand what we are going on about, here is the link to the Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/posts/3646070

So, without further ado, here are our thoughts regarding Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, and the brilliant event they created for us all.  In the course of their adventures, our correspondents decided to adopt literary pseudonyms, because it sounded quite fun.  If you get the reference, you probably shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.

The crowd:

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Lady Pole: The crowd was somewhat surprising. As a somewhat regular Boston theatergoer, I know that Boston crowds tend to be pretty reserved, but considering Amanda Palmer is a little less mainstream, I expected a bit of a more active crowd. Everyone was so well-behaved! As the moderator said, they were all really attune to social cues.  You could have heard a pin drop! I found this astounding even for such a bookish crowd. There wasn’t any low murmur or people talking amongst themselves. Clearly they were all rapt with attention (as I was, so maybe it’s not so surprising?)

Arabella:  I’ve haunted the Boston Book Festival for years, in part because it’s one of the few ‘big, social, crowded’ events I can attend without wanted to curl up in the corner and hum quietly to myself.  The BBF seem to be somewhat unique, in so far as it tends to attract introverts and The Bookish.  Thus, when people do talk to each other, they tend to be around a bookcart, and are apologizing for trodding on people’s toes, commenting on how much the enjoyed the book that another person is holding, or asking if this seat it taken.  Otherwise, it’s kind of like a library, in the sense that everyone is there for the books and stuff.  So I was right at home nestling in amongst the bookish.

Amanda Palmer:

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Lady Pole: I feel badly saying that I was surprised at how incredibly articulate she is, but I was. I knew she was impressive and artistic, but initial impressions of her nontraditional artistic path somewhat belies her depth. She’s thoughtful and engaging and I was extremely impressed by how seriously she took the audience members’ questions. Clearly the PR aspect of this event worked on me because I immediately borrowed the audiobook version of “The Art of Asking” from the South. I’m genuinely excited to hear what she has to say in the book after hearing her talk about it at the BBF.

Arabella: I, too, knew very little about Amanda Palmer beyond the cursory, and was genuinely awed by her coherency and thoughtfulness, and especially how honest she was in front of a crowd of strangers.  Not the kind of “here are my intestines” honest, but a “here is my soul” honesty that was as inspiring as it was touching.  I usually come away from these events going “man, I wish one day I could do something half as cool as those people”.  After hearing Amanda Palmer encourage everyone to create something and to take risks because life is just too short not to, I came out thinking “I have to go do something wonderful now!”

Neil Gaiman:

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Lady Pole: I could gush excessively as to how delightfully charming and British he is, but then I run the risk of being completely fan-girlish. Instead, I’ll talk about how he is clearly a seasoned professional at this book-tour thing. He kept everything running smoothly and on-schedule but still casual, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to segue into audience questions.

Arabella: I will admit to having very similar thoughts upon seeing Neil Gaiman walk on to the stage as I did the first time I saw Stephen King in person: “Holy cow, he’s real!”  Once I was able to overcome this, I was also really impressed with how incisive his questions were; he stated early on that he knew the book nearly as well as Amanda, which could have made question-asking difficult, but instead, it allowed them both to get right to the heart of the book as quickly, and yet as sympathetically as possible.

The chemistry:

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Lady Pole: I think my favorite part of the whole night (aside from the song) was the chemistry that Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer have together. They are clearly very much in love, but there’s an air of mutual respect that’s almost palpable. They’re attentive when the other speaks. It’s nice to see such engagement that seems to be equal on both sides.

Arabella: I couldn’t agree more.  The only thing I can add here is that when they brought their surprise guest (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings), to discuss her Afterward to the paperback, which is a tribute to love and the uniqueness of not having to ask, once you’ve found Your Person, both Neil and Amanda reached for the other’s hand.  Which just made my heart happy.

The song:

 

Lady Pole: Holy cow, the song! I’ll be honest, Amanda Palmer doesn’t have the best voice I’ve ever heard, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think she went into music because she had something to say and felt that was the best way she could get her message across. And the message in the song she sang was beautiful. She sang about self-doubt and acceptance and in her vulnerability it didn’t matter whether the notes were perfectly in-tune. I found the official video of the song on YouTube and it was still good, but the live version still gets me a little misty.

Arabella: Yup.

Scaring strong for 250 years: Saturdays @ the South – All Hallows Read edition

Halloween is here! A happy All Hallows Read to all!

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In honor of the day, let’s talk about horror.* Horror as a genre has been around for 250 years (though elements of horror have been around much, much longer), but horror itself, essentially, is an emotion, which means that horror books belong to a genre that is tied to an emotional response. In that respect horror shares more with romance than it does with many other story types. It also makes it pretty easy to qualify. If a book causes fear or is designed to scare someone, it’s a horror book. But horror, and fear, can be pretty wide-ranging. What makes some people cower in terror might not affect others in the slightest (snakes and spiders come to mind as an example). Some horror novels might make use of explicit language and gore to elicit horror. Others might make use of the supernatural or an old, dilapidated location (haunted house, anyone?). These aren’t really defining characteristics, however, because not all horror novels have all of these elements.

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Some characteristics that all horror stories have in common include: dark and/or eerie settings, a foreboding tone that induces dread, a quick, suspenseful pace, and monsters. Monsters don’t always need to be supernatural (vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.) they can be good, old-fashioned evil humans as well (Hannibal Lecter comes to mind as a prime example). The quick pace of a horror story can gets readers’ hearts pounding which usually compounds the element of fear. Horror authors are masters at manipulating a story to maximize fear and suspense. which is a great way to create that sense of dread. Horror also has a tendency to leave people wanting more because there is never really a final resolution. Sure the monster might be beaten down for a time, but there’s always something waiting, lurking just beneath the surface.

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So with all the terror and dread, why would any sane person want to read horror in the first place? Sometimes you just need a good scare. When I was a kid, I devoured all of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. As (arguably) an adult , I find there’s something about a horror story that is appealing, not to the degenerate or creepy, but to the sanity in all of us.  The thing about horror is, while it may breath life into our nightmares, there’s something comforting about having that nightmare trapped on a page. Horror gives readers the space to explore such a strong emotion without necessarily having to experience it in real life. We can face our fears in a safe environment and learn how to deal with fear without letting it get the best of us. It’s no wonder that Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (generally considered the first horror novel, published in 1764) became not only popular, but widely mimicked in style, culminating in classic masterpieces like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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So today, to celebrate horror, the joy of a good, creepy story and, of course, All Hallows Read, instead of book recommendations, I’m giving you an entire story. Read it with the lights on or by the glow of a flashlight, on the couch or under the covers; it’s your call. This story is a personal favorite of mine and one that never fails to give me the shivers. I hereby present to you, dear readers, from a master of suspense and the macabre, your All Hallows Read treat: The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

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*Much grateful deference goes to Kelly Fann, whose chapter on Horror in the 7th edition of Genreflecting was an extremely helpful source for the defining characteristics of horror.

 

A Final, Frightening Five Book Friday…

Today is our final Five Book Friday before All Hallows Read, which gives us one more chance to sing the praises of the scary and the ghoulish and the eerie in literature…and a brief moment of panic about what on earth we’ll find to talk about after the candy-coma wears off?*

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But until there, here are some fun facts about Halloween in advance of our suggestions for your Halloween weekend:

1) This is one of the earliest known jack-o-lanterns:

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Some good, old-fashioned nightmare fuel right there…

Originally, jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips and beets and were placed outside to keep people away (it wasn’t until the Irish began coming to America that pumpkins became widely used).  There is a story in Irish folklore of a man named Jack, who was “cursed to spend all of time roaming the earth with only a burning coal (inside a carved out turnip) to light the way, as his punishment for trying to trick the devil.”

2) The Celts also believed that the barrier between the spirit world and the human was thinnest at the end of the harvest, and would wear masks and costumes so it would be more difficult for evil spirits to tell that they were humans.  They also left food and cakes and drinks out for the spirits to keep them happy.

3) Spirits, as well as library staff, are always happier when someone brings them cake.

4) Salem, Massachusetts (right over there!) is the self-proclaimed “Halloween capital of the world” because of the legacy of the witch trials…and so is Anoka, Minnesota, for reasons that remain slightly more obscure.  However, Boston, Massachusetts holds the record for the most jack o’lanterns lit at once (30,128 in 2006, according to the Boston Globe).

5)  According to English tradition, if one wears one’s clothes inside out and walks backwards on Halloween, one will see a witch at midnight.  Also, in Scotland, tradition states that if a lady were to hang a wet sheet before the fire on Halloween, she would see her future husband. I can only imagine he would look shadowy and pale…and probably damp, or scalded.

And here are some books that are equally as fun, quirky, and spooky as these facts (though probably more interesting to read….)

2702516Sandman SlimAt the age of nineteen, James Stark was betrayed by his arch-rival and sent to Hell, where he was forced to defend himself in the gladiator ring.  Now, having escaped, he is back on the streets of LA, eager for revenge and armed with a whole bunch of nifty tricks he learned on the other side.  Richard Kadrey’s paranormal noir series featuring Stark, which is now up to seven books, is one of my favorites, not only because it is fiendishly creative, but also because he can craft a short, sharp sentence that carries as much weight as a whole paragraph from most writers.  Also, I helped him out at a book signing once, and he was downright awesome.

2709181Johannes Cabal the Necromancer: Since we have already alluded to the gloriousness that is Jonathan L. Howard, it seemed like high time to cheer about Johannes Cabal, who walked to Hell to learn the secrets of necromancy in return for his soul, and then walked back again to demand a refund.  Rather than deal squarely, the devil provides Cabal with a traveling circus.  If this isn’t enough of a description to make you want to run out and read this book right now, let me add that Johannes has a terribly dapper and polite vampire brother who aids him in his quest.  This book–and the series that resulted from it–is genuinely unnerving in places, but it is also riotously funny (especially the Lovecraft jokes…and the Cthulu Song), unexpectedly emotional, and a downright sensational read.

2713707The Gates: Young Samuel Johnson (not that Samuel Johnson) has noticed some odd goings-on at 666 Crowley Road, but neither he never suspected that his neighbors’ harmless dabbling in devil-worship would actually cause a rift in the universe, or the opening of the gates of Hell, or the release of Satan himself upon the world….but it is now up to young Samuel, and his faithful dog Boswell, to put everything to rights once again….  John Connolly’s series featuring the intrepid Samuel Johnson and his Boswell has grown to three books now, and each is funny, frightening, touching, and delightful irreverent.  This is one of those few, magic books that can be read, and enjoyed, by almost any age group–or read together, for even more Halloween fun.

3573295Maplecroft: Celebrated steampunk author Cherie Priest takes on the Lizzie Borden legend in this surprisingly inventive series.  In Priest’s world, Lizzie is an unwitting defender against the dark powers, and committed the crimes she did in order to set her father and step-mother free from the spirits that were consuming them–spirits that seem to come from the depths of the sea…though this series (which continues with Chapelwood) requires a bit of a suspense of disbelief, particularly for those of us who learned that weird Lizzie Borden rhyme as children, Priest’s fast-paced series is quite inventive, deeply rooted in New England folklore and stories, and definitely worth checking out.

3637428Slade House: David Mitchell, who also wrote The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, gave an interview to Salon Magazine recently where he broached the topic of genre fiction and the prejudices against it, saying that “The idea of confining an entire genre as being unworthy of your attention is a bizarre act of self-harm.”  In light of this, it’s not surprising that Mitchell’s newest release is a sort of ghost story, centered around a house that only opens its doors once every nine years for one lucky visitor, hand-chosen by the odd siblings who inhabit it.  But no one knows for sure…because those invited to Slade House rarely have a chance to tell about the secrets they’ve seen….This book is being touted as one of The Big Releases of the season, so be sure to pick up a copy soon!

Happy All-Hallows Read!

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Trust me, we have plenty of things to discuss.  Never worry about that.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass