The Gentling Box by Lisa Mannetti

The Gentling BoxOh my Wild Things, come close, come close; the Dragon has a treasure for you.  I remember now what it is to be afraid . . .

It is the mid-nineteenth century, but the Age of Enlightenment has bypassed Hungary and Romania’s itinerant gypsy population.  Imre is a half-gypsy horse trader who lives with his wife and daughter in Hungary, but their happy existence is shattered when they receive word that his wife’s mother, the sorceress Anyeta, is dying.  Mimi insists they go to Romania to ease her mother’s final days and against his better judgment, Imre agrees to make the journey with his wife and young daughter, Lenore.

By the time they arrive, Anyeta’s body is dead, but the old sorceress’ spirit has taken possession of another woman’s body.  Anyeta contrives to seduce Imre from his family so she can destroy him.  Anyeta has plans for Imre and Mimi’s beloved daughter, Lenore.  Imre can stop the sorceress, but first he must overcome his own terror of using the gentling box.

Imre’s haunting tale grabs the reader by the eyeballs from page one and does not let go. In spite of his best efforts, Imre watches everything he loves slip away, and his struggle with his conscience is heartbreaking. Mannetti weaves Imre’s story with skill and her dark prose evokes the wild loneliness of the Romanian wilderness where Imre’s small family struggles against Anyeta’s evil.

I was delighted by the accuracy of Mannetti’s research both into Romany culture and the time period.  Mannetti recently won the Bram Stoker Award for first novel with The Gentling Box, and it is an honor that is richly deserved.

I warn you now: let no one disturb you when you read this novel, because you will not want to stop until you have devoured the last word.  I could not put The Gentling Box down and neither shall you.

Tshailo sim.”

I am replete . . . (hehe)

My rating:

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

I believe this is the most recent book by Patricia McKillip (published in late 2008) and it is my third McKillip book.  While I did enjoy it for the most part, it was the least satisfying McKillip book to date for me.

The story centers around a crumbling manor house in the small town of Sealey Head, perched on the cliffs above the sea.  To all outward appearances, not much happens at Aislinn House where Lady Eglantyne lies on her deathbed.  The only sign that things are not as they seem is the mournful tolling of a bell as the sun goes down each day.  No one knows where the bell is or what it signifies.  It has been a part of the lives of the residents of Sealey Head for so many years that many don’t even notice it any more.

It soon becomes apparent that there is another side to Aislinn House which only a select few people know about.  Emma, the housemaid, sometimes opens what seems to be a closet door or a door to an unused bedroom and finds instead a parallel world of princesses and knights entangled in some sort of bizarre ritualistic existence unchanged for year upon year.

The entire idea of the story is fascinating and as I said before I did enjoy the book, but the ending was a bit of a letdown with many questions left unanswered (for me at least).  The mystery is wrapped up rather quickly and anticlimactically (is that a word?).  Of the three McKillip books I’ve read, this one seemed to have the least of the enchanting and poetic language that initially drew me to her work when I read In the Forests of Serre

Still, I would recommend this one to McKillip fans and those who have not discovered McKillip yet and enjoy “world within a world” fantasies.  As always, the artwork on the cover by Kinuko Y. Craft is extraordinary as well.

My Rating: 

Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

Having greatly enjoyed my first McKillip book, In the Forests of Serre, I moved immediately to Winter Rose with great anticipation.   Rois and Laurel are two sisters, opposites in every way.  Laurel is calm, serene and happily making beautiful lacey things  for her upcoming wedding to Perrin.  Rois prefers losing herself in the woods, wandering barefoot collecting flowers and herbs.  One day handsome Corbet Lynn shows up at crumbling Lynn Hall intent on rebuilding his family home, stirring up gossip and talk in the village of the murder that took place years before and the curse on the Lynn family.

At this point I was enjoying the “gentle elegance” of McKillip’s style (as described by Library Journal), but scratching my head thinking that this story was shaping up as a typical historical romance.  Around about Chapter 7 I began to realize that things weren’t quite what they seemed.  That charming spring in the woods reflected more than just the bramble roses hiding it, and Rois was hearing more than just the wind in the trees.  Not to mention that odd look in Corbet’s eye. 

McKillip weaves a tale as intricate as that tangle of bramble roses, drawing us into her fantasy world (or should I say worlds?) and holding us there with beautiful, evocative language.  I’ve already started my third McKillip book of the summer,The Bell at Sealey Head, and it’s only May.

My Rating: 

In the Forests of Serre by Patricia A. McKillip

When I was twelve-years-old (yes, my Wild Things, I was not hatched old; it only seems that way) I was browsing the stacks at the Reidsville Public Library and found a slim paperback book entitled The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia A. McKillip.  It was my first fantasy, and that novel led me to Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, then to The Hobbit, and on to a life-long love of fantasy, folklore, and stories.  Most importantly, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld made me a fan of Patricia A. McKillip and her bewitching, beautiful characters.

In the Forests of Serre is an enchanting novel that tells the tale of Ronan, crown prince of the land of Serre, who seeks death through war, because his grief over the loss of his wife and child has made his heart a barren thing.  While riding home, Ronan accidentally kills the prized white hen of the oldest witch in Serre, Brume. Ronan refuses to enter Brume’s cottage of bones, and the witch places a curse on him that will cause him to wander the forest of Serre until he finds her once more.

Thread by thread, Ms. McKillip then weaves into her story the beautiful princess Sidonie; the ancient wizard Unciel; the brash, young wizard, Gyre; and the scribe, Euan. Each character plays a part in Ronan’s tale, and only Patricia McKillip could spin such an intricate yarn about grief, love, and what it means to steal a heart.

With her elegant prose and her rich characters, Ms. McKillip sweeps the reader into a fairy tale as colorful and elaborate as the Unicorn Tapestries. So I invite you to journey to the forest of Serre where “ you never know when and where a tale will become true . . .”

My Rating:

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Having read Gaiman’s graphic novel, Coraline, I was eager to dig into his adult fantasy, Neverwhere, but as I moved through this book, I kept experiencing déjà vu. I began rooting through my old paperbacks and found that I had read Neverwhere when it was first published in 1996. I felt good knowing this wasn’t a flashback like having a purple pony dance on your pillow. Not that I would know anything about that. It did happen to a friend of mine, though.

ANYWAY . . .

This is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young businessman in London, who has a good job, a grand heart, and a fiancé who rules him with an iron fist. It is also the story of London Above, London Below, and a girl named Door. (Dragon note: one day I’d like to know about Mr. Gaiman’s fixation with doors . . .)

On his way to dinner with his fiancé, Richard comes across an injured girl lying in the street, and though his fiancé demands that they leave the girl alone, Richard helps her by taking her to his apartment. When she awakens, she tells Richard that her name is Door and that he must find the marquis de Carabas, who owes her a favor and will take care of her. What she doesn’t tell Richard is that her family has been murdered, and that two of the most entertaining villains that I’ve had the good fortune to read are hot on her trail – Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, who live by the motto: “Things to do. People to damage.”

Unfortunately, after his contact with the marquis and Door, Richard suddenly ceases to exist in London Above. Richard embarks on a trip to London Below where he hopes to find the secret that will allow him to return to his normal life in London Above, but London Below is a place fraught with magic and intrigue. Joining the marquis and Door in their hunt for the killers of Door’s family and pursued by the vicious Croup and Vandemar, Richard struggles to understand himself and the strange new world he inhabits.

Gaiman gives us a wonderful romp with delightful characters. At times laugh out loud funny, poignant, and just plain fun, Neverwhere takes the reader on a wild ride through London Below where nothing is sacred, neither angels nor death.

My Rating:    

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“Coraline discovered the door a little after they moved into the house.”  Thus begins the creepy adventures of a little girl who discovers an alternate world in her own house.  The world beyond the door is similar to her own world.  There is even an identical set of parents…but wait!  Are those big black buttons in place of eyes?  Soon Coraline realizes that her “other mother” wants to keep her permanently in her world.  She even has a lovely set of black buttons for Coraline. 

This is the graphical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s hugely popular children’s book, Coraline.  Not having read the original book, I can’t really compare them, but it seems the ideal story to receive the graphical treatment.  The illustrations by P. Craig Russell are detailed and realistic, evoking the kindness of Coraline’s real mother and the evilness of her sinister “other mother” equally well. 

This book will be released as a major motion picture in stereoscopic 3D in February of 2009.  See the trailer here

My Rating: 

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories [edited] by Alan Ryan

Ahh, it’s that magical time of year again, the spectral month of October when the world wastes away and horrors stalk the night (hehe); ‘tis the Dragon’s favorite time of year, my Wild Things

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, edited by Alan Ryan, is the title that should be in the library of every serious horror/vampire fan, for here shadows pursue and vampires haunt with a rapacity that tears not only the body, but the soul. This comprehensive anthology of vampire tales spans the decades from 1816 through 1984 beginning with the “Fragment of a Novel” written by George Gordon, Lord Byron, which has an interesting story behind the story. Lord Byron often traveled with his close friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Shelley. During a spate of bad weather while they vacationed in Italy, they read ghost stories to one another and decided that each would pen a ghostly tale; Lord Byron penned the “Fragment of a Novel,” Percy Shelley lost interest in the project, and Mary Shelley conceived her novel, Frankenstein, which was published two years later.

Thirty-two tales grace this volume with brief introductions of the stories and the authors by Mr. Ryan that are as entertaining to read as the stories themselves. There is even an excerpt from the “penny dreadful,” “Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood,” written in 1845 by James Malcolm Rymer and while the writing is overly melodramatic, the vampire is stark and deadly. I could find no fault with any of the tales, some were more memorable than others, beginning with Lord Bryon’s “Fragment.” J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” is here, and it is interesting to note that Bram Stroker admitted the influence of “Carmilla” on his own Dracula tale. 

So it is hard for even the Dragon to pick a favorite until I come to the final tale, “Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur De Feu,” by Tanith Lee. A lyrical fantasist whose prose I have long admired, Lee’s vampire story haunts us with her erotic tale of the doomed lovers, the vampire prince, Ferlouce, and the scullery maid, Rohise. Lee weaves her heartbreakingly ethereal tale with fathomless skill exemplifying the love of the damned and the beauty with which such love can flower. A most perfect ending to a perfect vampire anthology, you will put it down only to pick it up and read it again and again.

My Rating:  

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

I’m late to the party with this series.  I had not heard of the Southern Vampire Series until recently, and decided to give the first book, originally published in 2001, a try (I believe there are 8 Sookie Stackhouse books).  I was about a third of the way through it when I found out that the series is now also a show on HBO called True Blood

Sookie lives a quiet life with her Gran in small Bon Temps, Louisiana.  She waitresses at the local beer joint, Merlotte’s, where people think she’s a bit odd.  You see, Sookie has a “disability” as she calls it — she can read minds.  Her quiet world is turned upside down when Bill, a dark sexy vampire who is trying his best to fit into small town life, walks into the bar one night.  As her romance with Bill blossoms, women start turning up dead.

Harris keeps the story moving along and the premise that vampires “come out of the coffin” and live openly among humans, even stopping by the local bar for a cold one (synthetic blood, that is) is unique and intriguing.  The story veers awfully close to romance novel territory in places, and I would have liked for it to be a little less fluffy and a little more dark, but overall a very entertaining read and I’m looking forward to seeing the HBO series.  That being said, I’m not chomping at the bit to read the second Sookie Stackhouse book, but then I’m not big on series fiction to start with.  Recommended.

My rating: 

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

“The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.” And from this point forward I was so thoroughly pulled into young Harvey’s life that I forgot my own for a couple of days.

Bored by the dreary month of February, Harvey wishes to have some fun and is rewarded by the appearance of Mr. Rictus, whose name alone should give some indication of foreboding. Mr. Rictus promises to take Harvey away from his horrible doldrums to an enchanting place called the Holiday House where he can have fun all the day long everyday.

Of course, there’s a price to be paid for a life of non-stop fun, but Barker has created an engaging hero in Harvey and carries him through his adventures with grace and imagination. Barker also illustrates this novel with images that can be more disturbing than the text in some places, but the overall effect is marvelous.

This is not a trite young adult novel where everything works out peachy with no ramifications for the protagonist. A lesson learned through adversity can be the most treasured lesson of all, and there is a definite feeling at the end of this novel that Harvey will carry the lessons learned from Holiday House like a childhood scar. Creepy, engaging, and populated with fascinating characters, The Thief of Always is a treat.

My Rating:

Grendel by John Gardner

Books, books, boxes of books, glittering my world are books and in this great accumulation are jewels, gems of such rare note and beauty that I read them again and again.  Grendel is one such book.

We all know the fabled story of Beowulf, greatest of Geats and hearth-companion of King Hygilac, but here is the story of Grendel, poor misunderstood monster haunting the mere and Hrothgar’s meadhall. The epic poem of “Beowulf” is retold through Grendel’s point of view as he grows up on the mere and watches Hrothgar make war on his neighbors to amass riches and warriors. One night a blind harpist comes to Hrothgar’s hall and his poetry changes their collective world by transmuting their past with the magic of words and song. Even Grendel is moved by the Shaper’s magnificent phrases and golden lies to remember Hrothgar’s past as the glorious event it never was. Stunned by the beauty of the Shaper’s songs, Grendel puzzles over the meaning of his own miserable existence until he meets the dragon.

The dragon informs Grendel that violence and fear motivates men to prominence, driving them to science, religion, and knowledge. The dragon’s discourse with Grendel leaves him disturbed, but Grendel never stops searching for the truth and is ever disappointed to find the deities created by man unworthy of veneration. Inflamed at the weary light of man’s blind hope in a universe rushing into nothingness, Grendel becomes an active participant in Hrothgar’s history; a ferocious weaver of words and killer of thanes is Grendel, Cain’s lost son.

Comic and bewitching, Grendel will leave you pondering the majesty of poetry, the futility of religion, and the terror of ridiculous monsters deep into the night.

My Rating: