“Where is Rowan Morrison?”

In which Christopher Lee is amazing

I’ve always wanted to see the 1973 drama/thriller/sorta-horror classic The Wicker Man, and it ended up being a rollickingly fun watch for last week’s summer solstice.

In the film, straight-laced Sergeant Howie is dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison on Summer Isle, a remote Scottish island, only to find that not only does every villager on the island deny any knowledge of Rowan Morrison, but that his visit coincides with the island’s highly enthusiastic and – to the devoutly Christian Howie – unwholesome May Day preparations. Cue an increasingly frenzied search by the valiant but humorless Howie, a collision of equally blind faiths, and more references to to Celtic folklore and fertility symbolism than you can shake a Maypole at. There’s an inn named the Green Man; a sweet shop stocked with pastries and chocolates in the shape of women, leaping hares, and what look like rams’ heads; lots of nubile gamboling in graveyards and stone circles; a lush estate encircled by phallic topiaries… Oh, and Christopher Lee as the island’s erudite neo-pagan lord, who enjoys nothing so much as wearing a kilt and soliloquizing about the joys of the animal world while intercut with footage of glistening snails intertwining and set over a soundtrack of hypnotically pulsating drums and recorder.

Christopher Lee, plus kilt

No, I didn’t have too much fun watching this movie, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Continue reading “Where is Rowan Morrison?”

Tales of madness and depravity

Reviewer: Emera

I liiiiive! Somewhat. There are still exams to come, but I have a comfortable breathing space at the moment, so I’m going to work on whittling down my absurd backlog of short story reviews. To start, here are two helpings of dark fantasy/sci-fi.


The nurse said that when I’m moved to my permanent home, there will be mirrors to see my reflection and windows made of glass instead of plexiglass. I do not know what a mirror is. I have read the word in the dictionary, of course, and heard it spoken. I know the press of the “m”, the sensuous delicacy of the “r”, as though biting a very soft peach. But the mechanics of the word — its sensation and definition — are different than the thing itself. I must have looked in a mirror before, although really, who knows?

Kelly Barnhill‘s “Tabula Rasa” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) plays out a well-worn premise – an amnesiac patient recovering from an unknown operation slowly recovers troubling memories of her past – but even if none of the ideas are new, the execution is suspenseful and atmospheric, with great details and often lovely prose. I can never help imagining a moody graphic-novel adaptation, complete with blotty ink washes and scrawled lettering, whenever I read a story like this.

Michael S. Dodd‘s “The Madwoman” (read 4.4.10, from The Three-Lobed Burning Eye) makes a lot more sense if you read the bit in his bio where he says that it was inspired by Storm Constantine. Transfigurations with cosmic consequences, combined with high-pitched melodrama and mild abuse of the English language – vintage Constantine. Unlike Constantine, though, Dodd creates too-portentous-for-you protagonists who are irritating and implausible rather than endearing.

“If you do not tell me,” Ylsa intoned in a velvet voice, “I shall eat these delicate morsels, one at a time, until you do.” With that pronouncement, she reached into the jar and withdrew a handful of the packets, pressing one to her lips.

“No!” Marisel screamed, and Ylsa shrank back for a moment at the sheer volume of the cry.

Mmm… yeah. It’s a shame because the premise has great potential, and some of the details are fun – I like that the main character is a shady apothecary, for example.

Go to:
Kelly Barnhill
Michael S. Dodd

The Cat in the Coffin, by Mariko Koike (2009) K

Translated 2009 by Deborah Boliver Boehm.

Date Read: 4.11.10
Book From: Personal Collection, from Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Kakaner


The Cat in the Coffin is a romance/suspense (rather than a romance/mystery as the back cover claims) novel set in Japan that revolves around three lives: Masayo, an aspiring painter who is simultaneously a casual student of Goro, one in a family of famously lucrative artists, and a live-in tutor for Goro’s reserved and precocious daughter, Momoko. As Masayo eagerly begins her duties in the househould, she beings to naively fall for Goro, until the entrance of an old flame sets catastrophic events into motion.


Unfortunately, I have much more gripe than praise for this book, despite giving ample room for consideration given that I was not reading it in the original language. Overall, it is a superficial, cheesy, predictable, simple story, heightened by the fact that it is very apparent Koike was trying to weave a masterful complex tale. First, I would use this book for the classic lesson of “Show. Not tell.” Most of the suspense in the novel would have been halfway effective had Koike not prefaced every twist with flashing red warning signals. Momoko goes out into the snow at night, and Masayo is “filled with a sense of foreboding” and “knows something bad is about to happen.” As she rushes out in the snow after Momoko, she images a sinister scene unfolding (which, I might add, had been set up from the first chapters anyway), which lo and behold, just happens to be the same as the events that actually do take place. In this way, several crucial scenes are effectively ruined throughout the book. It’s actually pretty surprising how Koike manages to wrangle so many elements of Suspense 101 yet is still described as a celebrated mystery and romance writer in Japan.

Continue reading The Cat in the Coffin, by Mariko Koike (2009) K

The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra (2004) K

Date Read: 1.16.07

Book From: Boston Public Library

Reviewer: Kakaner

I happened across this book during one of my genre frenzies (this particular one being religious fiction), and after being bombarded with recommendations for this book in every genre search I conducted, I decided to read it. The story is about Father Agostino who is sent by the church inquisition to investigate Leonardo Da Vinci’s current painting, The Last Supper, and to find proof to convict Da Vinci as a heretic. Cue Christian religion conspiracy subplots.

As I am sure you can tell from the gist of my setup, this was like The Da Vinci Code in 300 pages, of which you may have already discovered Emera and I are entirely not fans. Admittedly, it wasn’t as excessively dramatic as The Da Vinci Code — now that would be an amazing feat– but it was an intensely painful read. Above all, it was *boring*, one of those books where you stop every 20 pages to look at the cover or read the blurb again to get a sense of what you’re holding out for. The main character was completely devoid of personality, although the supporting characters were slightly more developed. There was a crapload of anagramming and cryptogramming that required huge reaches of the imagination to seem plausible. Not only was the plot weak, but each 3-page chapter was also a subplot that didn’t really lend any meat to the overarching story, therefore rendering the quality of storytelling nil. Overall, I’d say this experience was a frustrating waste of time.

I’m curious as to whether this novel was influenced directly by The Da Vinci Code/Angels & Demons. After all, both garnered international fame and were published before The Secret Supper. However, it seems that Sierra has been publishing historical intrigue for many years and perhaps it’s just bad luck that he chose Da Vinci at this time and that I’ve been holding him up to Dan Brown.

Interestingly, The Secret Supper won the Premio de Novela Ciudad de Torrevieja award, a Spanish literary prize which is awarded to a promising unpublished novel and the third highest monetary literary prize in the world. Whew. I’d venture a guess and say Sierra‘s writing is probably stronger in his native language, and the translation may have messed with the word games, but I doubt it would still be able to make up for all the plot and story faults.

Go To:

Javier Sierra

Locke and Key Volume 1, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (2009) E

Date read: 1.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez - Locke and Key Volume 1

(Locke and Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft collects Locke and Key #1-6.)

After their father is murdered by a disturbed former student, the three Locke children travel with their mother to start a new life in an unlikely haven: the Keyhouse, an ancient mansion on an island named Lovecraft, off the Massachusetts coast. Keyhouse, with its sprawling, dilapidated grounds and many doors, is where their father grew up, and where he insisted – with unaccountable prescience – that his family stay should anything ever happen to him.

Here, oldest son Tyler immerses himself in guilt over his tumultuous relationship with his father and his possible culpability in his death, while middle sister Kinsey struggles with her overwhelming fears and loss of sense of self in the wake of the violent attack. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Bode explores the house unattended, and soon discovers something of the curious properties of Keyhouse’s doors, and the keys that can be used to unlock them. Unfortunately, Bode’s explorations bring him within the reach of an unsavory force dwelling on the mansion’s grounds, with a particular interest in keys and what they can achieve.

First of all, books with ribbon bookmarks and nicely designed endpapers = win:

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez - Locke and Key Volume 1

(might be a bit hard to see, but the papers have a pattern of black keys.)

For those who might not already know, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s middle son, but has eminently succeeded in making a name for himself outside of his father’s reputation. I’ve been meaning to read his first novel (Heart-Shaped Box) and short story collection (20th Century Ghosts) for a languishing Forever, but Locke and Key Volume 1 ended up being my first foray into his work, after I grabbed it off of Kakaner’s shelf last summer. I went in with high expectations, and came out jonesing for moooore.

Continue reading Locke and Key Volume 1, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (2009) E

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (1938) E

Date read: 2.8.09
Read from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Young, unworldly, and hopelessly shy, our nameless narrator finds herself swept off of her feet by the widowed and much older Maxim DeWinter while working as the companion of a wealthy American woman on the French Riviera. Maxim takes her away to his estate in England, Manderley, where the soon-disenheartened narrator learns that her lot is to live in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was glamorous, flamboyant, the consummate wife and hostess; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is fiercely devoted to her memory, and regards Maxim’s second wife as an interloper and a poor replacement. Between Mrs. Danvers’ cruel manipulations and Maxim’s moody secrecy – which the narrator fears is a sign that he still loves Rebecca – the narrator finds herself without allies in Manderley, and is driven both to uncover the truth of of what happened to Rebecca, and to come into her own as a woman.

Hmm, awkward summary. Anyway, I read this following Isaac Marion’s The Inside, and together they ended up being a one-two punch of delicious, delicious suspense. I couldn’t read Rebecca in anything less than 100-page chunks – addictive to the max, it is.

Continue reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (1938) E

The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

Continue reading The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

Date Read: 9.26.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


The story follows Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor who calls upon the residents of the once glorious Hundreds Hall and begins to form a friendship with the remaining family and staff that reside there. His friendship to the family becomes a crux on which they rely, and soon he finds himself involved in ever stranger circumstances at Hundreds Hall.  The interactions of the story are characterized by mysterious fires, writings, and sounds with the underlying ever-increasing tension of Faraday’s relationship to the mother and daughter of the house.


It took me a really long time to review this because I couldn’t form a concrete opinion. Basically, there was good and bad, but the good was oh so good and the bad was characterized by raging mediocrity. Every time the scales tipped in favor of one side, I’d remember something to the contrary and the dilemma would reassert itself.

The Good: Superb writing and storytelling. Of course, it is apparent from Waters‘ four previous novels that she knows how to write, and once again she demonstrates her ability to spin a tale out of not an incredible amount of material. I was reading along the first 100 pages, and I was still, somewhat inexplicably, waiting eagerly to find out what would transpire during Faraday’s fourth visit to the same dreary hall. There’s no rampant drama or lgbt overtones that characterize her previous novels, which I found quite refreshing, as if I were here for the sole purpose of enjoying raw word manipulation.

Continue reading The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay (2004) K

Date Read: 11.26.08
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


Short version: Dexter S1.
Long version: Dexter, a serial killer of serial killers, works in the Miami Metro Police as a blood spatter analyst alongside with his foster sister Deb. We learn that Dexter was taken from a violent crime scene and raised by a cop. Upon learning that Dexter was prone to murderous intentions, his dad taught him the art of killing. Suddenly, a new wave of killings crop up and are accredited to the “Ice Truck Killer” and Dexter recognizes that these killings are somehow a message to himself. Using his skills as a killer and resources at the police department, Dexter helps track down the killer while trying to keep those that matter to him safe.


Unfortunately, I have to say this is exactly what I expected. I watched two seasons of Dexter before picking up one of the novels (much to my shame), partly due to the horrible things I had heard about the books. Unsurprisingly, the writing was entirely mediocre, unsophisticated, and wholly disappointing.


Naturally, I couldn’t help but compare Darkly Dreaming Dexter to the TV series. The novel is told from Dexter’s point of view, and really does try hard to achieve the same dark, cynical, wry atmosphere that the TV adaptation manages to accomplish so well… but just falls short. The pacing of the book was alright, as in there was always some action each chapter to propel the story forward. I feel like I’m really at a loss for what else to say about the novel. It was just unremarkable (again, comparison to the TV series). There are some minor plot differences between the novel and show, except for the ending; however, I don’t really care because I’m not reading anymore books.


At the least, reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter has made me appreciate the TV adaptation immensely. You really begin to gain an understanding of the skill involved in developing Dexter’s character for the screen, piecing together the soundtrack and film style for that perfect cynical criminal atmosphere, and the screenplay is just impeccable. The TV show has really come a long way from the novel and certainly shaped a masterpiece from raw materials.

Go To:

Jeff Lindsay

Affinity, by Sarah Waters (1999) K

Date Read: 12.26.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


Margaret Prior becomes a “Lady Visitor” at the Millbank prison. There, she takes in the prison experience, from the food to the garb to the treatment of the prisoners and takes steps to befriend and be a source of comfort for many of the inmates. As her visits progress, she finds herself drawn to one girl in particular, a spirit medium Selina Dawes, convicted of spiritualistic fraud and assault. Soon, between her own declining health and the nature of her friendship with Selina, Margaret finds herself hopelessly committed to the Millbank prison and tangled up with mysterious spirits.


Well, I don’t really know how to approach this review. I could either review it superficially and not give away the story, or try to convey everything I want to and ruin everything by implication. I’ll… just… charge ahead as best I can and see where it takes me.

Overall Affinity was a much easier read than either Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith because it was so linear and set in one place– the prison and Margaret’s house were the only settings and the prison was the only plot. As a result, the circumstances definitely called for a slow, steadily snowballing story.

Continue reading Affinity, by Sarah Waters (1999) K