Halloween Mini-Reviews: Horrorstor and The Phantom Coach

31 October 2014

It's Halloween! And while I don't much go in for horror (I'm a weeny when it comes to being scared), even I can't pass up the month of October without a few spooky reads.

The Phantom Coach, edited by Michael Sims: I've made a point to try to read more classics recently (with limited success), so I was delighted when I saw Sims' new anthology: a collection of Victorian ghost stories boasting authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Amelia Edwards, Elizabeth Gaskell and Henry James. The stories range in subject, from truly creepy to mere frights, but make for perfect jumping-off point for anyone wanting to explore the Victorian era's fascination with death and dying.

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix: I was hooked from the moment I saw the galley for this book, which (like the finished edition) is perfectly sized to mimic an IKEA catalog's dimensions. The dimensions and feel of the book are perfect for the somewhat-gimmicky hook for the story (note that "gimmicky" is in no way a bad thing in the context of this review): The hook here is gimmicky (in the best way imaginable): Orsk, a faux-IKEA furniture depot meant to compete with the real IKEAs of the world, has been riddled with strange break-ins and damaged products, so a zealous manager recruits a team of employees to spend the night in the store to "catch the bad guys," as it were. But the bad guys turn out to be more than just bad guys--they're ghosts. Or something else that is like a ghost but isn't a ghost, but is just as dead and vicious as a ghost.

Horrorstor will reel readers in with the haunted-IKEA hook, but will keep them reading by delivering what turns out to be a very scary, surprisingly layered story. And Hendrix delivers even more than that, managing to cram not only a thoroughly creepy ghost story between the pages of IKEA-like furniture, but a story of a young woman trying to find her place in a grown-up world.

What are your favorite Halloween reads this year?

An Anniversary

30 October 2014

Four years ago, I stood up in front of my friends and family and promised to love this man for the rest of my life. Four years in, I still promise the same.

Happy Anniversary, darling.

European Adventures: Dublin, Ireland | Dublin Castle, St. Stephen's Green, a Literary Pub Tour

29 October 2014

Another day in Dublin, another day of siteseeing: Dublin Castle, which is a surprisingly mismatched collection of old medieval walls, an early 19th-century church, medieval foundations, and staterooms that have hosted everything from Taioseach speeches to JFK visits. And then, in case that didn't hold enough Dublin history in one place, we ventured over to St. Stephen's Green, where I promptly started reading Joyce's Dubliners, because how could I not?

Oh, yeah, and we went on a literary pub tour. Because beer + books = best.

Dublin Castle

The only remaining tower from Dublin's original medieval city walls. It's now a police museum.

Old medieval walls pressed up again modern buildings... a thing about Europe that will never cease to surprise me.

This carriage wall was actually built in the mid-19th century, but designed to look like part of the medieval castle.
Note: That green is not retouched. It's really that shade of green.

The Chester Beatty Library, because: free library with exhibits on the history of books. Duh.

One of the "new" wings of Dublin Castle, from the courtyard.

My uniform for all of our stay in Ireland: hiking/walking shoes, raincoat, jeans, sweater, bun on top of my head (none of our apartment rentals had a hair dryer...), Strand tote bag.

The kinds of photos one finds on one's camera when one lets one's husband use the camera.

Underneath the modern Dublin Castle, medieval foundations from the original city walls.
Interesting side story: There is a river that flows underneath of Dublin city, and pools of water can be seen from that river here under the castle. The river's name? Dubh Linn (pronounced "dove linn", which means "black water" in Irish Gaelic); the now-buried river is what gives the city its name.

For contrast: one of the staterooms in the castle above (this is where JFK was hosted when he visited Dublin). This is a mere three stories above those medieval walls, but centuries away.
All of the rooms are about this decadent, though we realized after a few photos that we weren't supposed to be taking photos in there. 

St. Stephen's Green

You know how you hear about how green Ireland is? Well, yeah. Those rumors are true. (Even more true in the countryside, but even Dublin is remarkably green.)

The husband and his authorly idol.
Quite possibly the best sandwich I have ever, ever eaten. That bread is called a blaa (not a typo), and I am making it my life mission to learn how to make it. 
Because it's not self-explanatory: The Famine Memorial. 

Seriously, those colors though.

No really. That ivy.
Believe you me this is what had me breaking out Dubliners as soon as we got back to our apartment.

Literary Pub Tour

I'll admit I didn't take many pictures on this tour (too busy drinking beers and soaking in the literary trivia), but if you ever find yourself in Dublin, I can't recommend this pair enough

Trinity College at dusk.

Book Review: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs

27 October 2014

This post originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

Robert Peace was born in 1980 in a Newark, N.J., ghetto. His parents had high hopes for him, pushing him to receive the best education possible, though his father ultimately ended up in jail and his mother struggled to make ends meet. Still, their efforts paid off: despite growing up in a city riddled with drugs and gangs, Peace succeeded in high school and earned a place at Yale, where he graduated with distinction with degrees in molecular biochemistry and biophysics. At age 30, he was shot to death in a marijuana den in the basement of a Newark home. Jeff Hobbs (The Tourists), Peace's college roommate, asks the obvious questions in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: How could this happen, and why?

Hobbs captures Peace's life with great detail, assembling observations and thoughts from those who knew the promising man before, during and after his Yale years, and makes it clear when assumptions have been made in place of records or hard facts. One part biography and one part study of poverty in the United States, Hobbs's account of his friend's life and death highlights how our pasts shape us, and how our eternal search for a place of safety and belonging can prove to be dangerous. Peace's life was indeed short and tragic, but Hobbs aims to guarantee that it will not go unmarked; this affecting story is a tribute to the many people that Peace touched while he lived, and a lens through which we can better understand poverty and opportunity after his death.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace | Jeff Hobbs | Scribner | September 2014 | Hardcover

European Adventures: Guinness Brewery and Kilmainham Gaol

25 October 2014

It's taking me longer than expected to sort through all of our several thousand Europe photos, but working through the trip in chronological order... I've made it to day 2: a tour of the Guinness Brewery, and a walk over to Kilmainham Gaol.

The Guinness Brewery

Unfortunately you can't tour the actual functioning brewery, but they have made quite an impressive museum out of the build that housed the old brewery. I'm just as fascinated by old architecture as I am by beer-making, which made for an excellent seven-story walk through the old factory building.

Plus, we got to pour our own Guinness pints, and I was able to cross another thing off my 30 by 30 list: drink a Guinness in Ireland.

Drink a Guinness in Ireland: check. (And at the Guinness Brewery, no less.)
From the top of the Guinness Brewery (starting our tradition of climbing to the tops of things in every city we visited).

Kilmainham Gaol

This prison was built at the end of the 18th century, replacing the old jail nearby (both were technically outside of Dublin city limits at the time). Kilmainham staged public hangings and executions in its front courtyard, but truly became famous during the Famine--when people would commit crimes with the intent of being thrown in jail so that they would have something to eat (prisoners were crammed several dozen to a cell, and the hallways functioned as overflow "storage," but at least they were fed every day, which was more than could be said of the outside)--and again during the Rebellion in the 1920s, when it housed political prisoners--and saw many of them shot.

For those familiar with (or interested in) Irish history, an interesting series of facts: Eamon de Valera was held here after the 1916 rebellion, but released by the British forces because he was not believed to be a threat (little did they know). He was later held here again during the Irish Civil War, so the famous Irishman has not one but two cells with his name on a plaque over the door. And because history likes to take things full circle, when the prison was officially re-opened as a National Monument, guess who cut the ribbon? Eamon de Valera, Taioseach of the Irish Republic. 

If you've seen In the Name of the Father, this should look familiar to you.
The prison's stoneyard, historically where prisoners would break stones as work during the day.
In 1916, however, it was where 14 leaders of the Easter Rebellion were executed by British Forces. 13 of them were shot at this end of the courtyard, marked by the cross.

Before the executions, public opinion had not been in favor of the rebellion. But after 14 young men were killed in rapid succession, the tide of public opinion began to shift.

James Connolly, the 14th and final prisoner to be executed here, was shot on the opposite end of the courtyard. Because he had been injured during the Easter Rebellion, he was held in a hospital, not at the prison itself. He was brought by ambulance to the courtyard for execution, and, unable to stand to face the firing squad, was tied to a chair for his execution. 

Book Review: The Phantom Coach, edited by Michael Sims

22 October 2014

This post modified from a review that originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

It's that time of year again: spooky stories and ghost tales abound, and we've all changed our Twitter names to something Halloween-appropriate. In the spirit of Halloween-reading, The Phantom Coach couldn't be more appropriate; for those of us also trying to read more classics, it's a double-whammy: Sims has curated a collection of Victorian ghost tales that celebrate the genre as much as the writers featured.

In the introduction to The Phantom Coach, editor Michael Sims (The Dead Witness; Dracula's Guest) explores why modern readers are still so entranced by classic tales from beyond the grave, writing, "the protagonists face the great chilling fact of human life: that it's brief, linear, and moves toward the grave as swiftly as an arrow. Ghost stories permit us to peek behind the shroud." Sims's chosen Victorian works do just that, ranging among topics such as lost children, lingering family spirits and haunted boating expeditions.

Sims's collection features a dozen authors, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and Amelia Edwards, with many lesser-known and infrequently anthologized pieces in place of more commonly known works from the era. Sims introduces each story with a brief background on the author, notes about how the ghost story fits into the author's oeuvre and, where relevant, how the story relates to the others in the collection (Dickens, for example, edited several of the tales found here for his periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round). The pieces, arranged in chronological order, span the Victorian era, pulled from as early as 1852 and as late as 1907. Combined into one volume, these 12 stories give readers an excellent entry point into the spooky literature of the Victorian era--a time marked by a fascination with death and dying.


The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories | ed. Michael Sims | Bloomsbury | September 2014 | Trade Paperback

Book Review: A Deadly Wandering, by Matt Richtel

20 October 2014

This post originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

In 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw was headed to work when he veered over the double line in the center of the road and skimmed the side of an oncoming car, sending it spiraling out of control; the crash took the lives of both of that car's occupants. Investigators subpoenaed Shaw's cell phone records and found that he had been sending and receiving text messages in the minutes--and seconds--leading up to the accident.

What followed was a years-long legal battle as the state of Utah struggled with the issues involving texting while driving, and how much control the state could exert over drivers' actions behind the wheel. Ultimately, Shaw's own testimony proved indispensable in pushing through legislation that would limit drivers' use of cell phones and make more people aware of the dangers of texting and driving.

Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times series on the subject of distracted driving; A Deadly Wandering is his account of Shaw's accident and the ensuing legal battles. Not content with simple reportage, Richtel weaves in accounts from neuroscientists who are studying distraction, technology and how we can become addicted to our devices. Though Richtel sometimes offers too much detail, presenting more biographies of the players in the court case than might be necessary, his book ultimately serves as a testament to the power of journalism to retell a story with added layers for maximum impact. In a world where 89% of American adults believe it's dangerous to text and drive (though 64% still admit that they do it), that impact is clearly needed.