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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The May Queen Murders: (Sadly) More Drippy than Murder-y

The May Queen Murders, Sarah Jude (HMH)

Wow! What an amazing cover on this book, right?  Absolutely dripping with Gothic horror promise.  Yeah.  Sad, that, because The May Queen Murders does very little to live up to that promise, exploiting bizarre stereotypes and building blind alley scare moments on its way to a seriously B-Movie conclusion.  Or, rather, several B-Movie conclusions.  (Sorry!)  Messy and disappointing.

After a brief and terrific flash of an opening, The May Queen Murders begins in earnest, with the introduction of Ivy, the self-styled plain-Jane narrator of the book, and her “don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful” cousin Heather.  Not a unique pairing, but I am struggling so hard to understand these people and where they are supposed to be coming from that that’s the least of my concerns.  Watching them go through their days is no help:  lots of “ain’ts” are tossed around, and Ivy is prone to declaring her intent to “bear witness” and quaint things like that.  Why?  I don’t know, and no one seems to care; she is treated like a sensitive child by her family.  Ivy is also trying to keep silent Grandma Mamie’s ancient ways and wisdoms alive, so there’s that.  She is gently mocked by Heather for this dedication, so it’s plain that the community is not of one mind, whatever Ivy may think.

Then there are the encounters between the Glen folk and the town residents, mainly the teens because they all attend school together.  These encounters are uniformly – and also needlessly – confrontational, especially since there is apparently little difference between the two groups of students.  The Glen teens swear like truckers, smoke pot grown in the Glen, snitch alcohol from their elders and, in a scene I found fairly notable, describe early sex acts that I am pretty sure adults would not share so openly, and with nary a blush.  Brava for the sexual freedom/know thyself moment, but again I ask:  Who are these people?

One of the first serious stumbling blocks I hit on the way to my Wall of Disbelief was composed of Ivy describing how outsiders used to come to the Glen to have their chickens butchered and deplucked.  Excuse me?  I know that chickens are today’s new favorite backyard producer of fresh food, but were there really that many “town farmers” needing chicken butchering?  Because a farmer, even a non-weird-sect one, knows how to kill a chicken.  And deplucking?  Were the feathers being put back on?  Maybe this is just an editing mix-up, but it was just part of building that wall that made me go, “huh?”  

Regardless of what first brought the Glen folks together generations ago to eschew mainstream society, today they seem bound together mainly by long skirts, superstition, braids and poor electrical wiring.  Oh, and possibly being eaten by a mysterious scream-y thing in the woods … once-t in a while.  (No biggie.  We like it this way!)  So are they just isolated so they can be killed more easily?  Hmm.  Could be.  The end result just feels tremendously contrived.

Ms. Jude writes with emotion and there were some great descriptive scenes, but her attempt to create a believable Glen community left me feeling cold.  So many things just reminded me of a B-Movie from the 60’s:  Two lovely young girls (1), in a backward community (2), in the woods (3), where unexplained deaths are occurring (4), experiencing sex for the first time (5) (bonus here!), repeatedly going where they should not (6) (7) (8), while repeated scary things occur (9) (10) (11), etc.   At first I was afraid for Ivy, that she would be caught napping on a grave in the forbidden cemetery (Ikr?) or get caught out late washing sheets in the river (that's yes, to electric lights; no, to washing machines), but then I just felt annoyed.  I just wanted it to make sense!  No such luck here.  Sadly, I liked this one better before I opened that fabulously creepy cover.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Into the Dim is a time-traveling journey of discovery!

 Into the Dim, Janet B. Taylor (HMH) 

Into the Dim manages to be realistic and fantastical at once, as we follow Hope Walton from present-day Georgia, to Scotland, to 12th-Century England.  After Hope’s mother Sarah is declared dead in an earthquake in India, Hope’s father is moving on with his life and his new girlfriend (!), but Hope is feeling more lost and trapped in her world of crippling phobias and migraines than ever before.  Even her gift – a truly eidetic memory – can paralyze her, if she does not carefully control the flood of information.  When the future -- and more – opens up to her, requiring more of her than she feels she has to give  … how will she meet the challenge?  Who can she trust completely, now that the person she relied on most is gone forever?  Into the Dim is a wild ride that is also a personal journey, and one that is well worth taking.

When Into the Dim begins, Hope Walton is a shattered teen struggling against accepting her mother’s death.  Because she disappeared far away in India and no body has ever been found, Hope is clinging to the solitary thread that her mother may still be alive somehow, even seven months later.  But everyone else is moving on.  Even her stepfather – the only father she has ever known –  is already remarrying, and Hope is facing other unwelcome changes in her previously rather cloistered life:  She is being sent away – that’s how it feels – to her mother’s family home in Scotland, while her father goes on a cruise with new girlfriend Stella.  So who will be there now to help Hope deal with the panic attacks, migraines and myriad phobias of her daily life?  No one, that’s who.

Hope was extremely close to her mother, home-schooled and raised in a fairly isolated manner, with her mother as her guiding light.  It was a loving relationship, and Hope has been a good student, learning to control her fears and tame her wild memory skills, but still she always depended on her mother.  Now that her mother is gone, she is mired in justifiable sadness and a fair bit of self-pity, only after months, finally believing that her mother has actually died.

When she agrees to fly to Scotland, drugged against the panic, she doesn’t do so with any excitement but only to get away from the worse fate of waiting around at home while her father is on his cruise.   Waking up in the ancient family home, Hope begins also to wake up to the possibilities of her own life, connections to things outside her previously narrow world, as she discovers for herself secrets her mother never shared with her about her own past.

I was prepared to see this book as a slow ride with a character “learning to be strong,” oh my!  But I found Hope to be a realistic mix of strength and weakness, and the ride was more of gallop!  The descriptions of panic felt very true, but I also enjoyed those times when she rose up and gave someone a little smackdown.  Good for her!  Going along on this journey with Hope is not so much about her being cured of her problems but really about learning more about herself in a way that makes sense … in a fantasy book about traveling back in time to 12th-Century England and meeting Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Becket!  

Although I found the evil characters a little one-dimensional, I really enjoyed Into the Dim, and I liked it more and more as it went on.  I found myself hurrying to read it and not wanting to stop because it was really an adventure as much as anything else, although there is romance, as well.  The 12th Century episodes also rang very true, and I appreciated that Ms. Taylor gave us a realistic view of the very smells of the time instead of an overly sanitized view.  I couldn’t help myself from seeing Eleanor of Aquitaine as Kate Hepburn (á là “The Lion in Winter”), but that was not really much of a problem.  It was a nice attempt at bringing such a famous personage to life, and I know for a fact that there is slim biographical work available on the amazing Eleanor.

Into the Dim is a wild ride through time with Hope as she looks for answers about herself and her mother, past and present.  If you like adventure, romance and personal challenge, I think you’ll find the ride is worth it.

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