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Ghosts and Goblins

When I was a kid, Ghostbusters was a Thing. I got into the cartoon—both of them—and the movie. I wrote ghost stories and read far more than was healthy. One book, I remember, I had to physically get rid of because the cover carried so much residual horror after I read it. I’m 95% certain that I was initially interested in Supernatural because of Extreme Ghostbusters.

The name is stupid, but it had an awesome cast. I will still fight people in the street over how great that show was.

Anyway. There are many reasons I grew out of Ghostbusters. The first cartoon was of that kind of 80s/90s quality that does not age well. The jokes are bad and/or tired, mostly puns, and it accidentally teaches some upsetting moral lessons. There also aren’t actually that many ghosts in it.

From the very first episode, you can see that whoever was in charge, they did not know what to do with the property. The voice cast is phenomenal, but the character designs are cosmically confusing when you know what the actors look like, and the ghosts are so not ghosts. They never resemble anything living, they’re garishly colored, and they behave like corporeal beings. The first episode has some goofy decisions, like an obese ghost getting stuck in a pipe and the ghosts using the terminology that the Ghostbusters made up like “Level 5 apparition.”

Often, they were expressly dealing with things that were not ghosts. The Grendel, trolls (bridge trolls in New York, seriously), a leprechaun at least once. Demons and goblins.

Goblins are an interesting “thing” in mythology. Outside of places where the meaning of the word has been thoroughly codified, like Dungeons and Dragons, there’s not really a set appearance, although it carries connotations of being vaguely humanoid and usually ugly. Culturally, goblins tend to live in the dark, be cunning or tricksy, and are not the nicest creatures.

This is one of the reasons why 쓸쓸하고 찬란하신 – 도깨비, which was originally translated as The Lonely and Great God—Goblin saw a mid-broadcast name change to Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. The titular 도깨비 was more of a benevolent force in the world than a grimacing trickster.

Goblins are a better choice for children’s television than ghosts. Goblins are more readily dynamic in how they can affect the world than ghosts. They don’t have an implied history. Nor do they necessarily have feelings or agency. They can just be nasty things that need to be hunted down and contained. They don’t need a reason to exist or to do any of the things they do. Just like bugs.

Ghosts have the problem of questionable visibility and tangibility. They’re usually lacking in one or both to some degree or entirely and that is what makes them ghosts. Also being the lingering spirits of a thing that was once living. Usually a human.

Put that context on the ghosts in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters and it just gets uncomfortable.

everettpeck

[Everett Peck’s stock ghosts for the show]

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a construct created by a malevolent god. So. Not a ghost. But what was that pink thing with the blue crest and antennae in life?

Goblins, demons, or monsters fit better. The first has the most palatable parent-friendly name.

I’m not sure if I have some kind of conclusion other than that the ghosts in The Real Ghostbusters were usually not ghosts any more than I am a block of cheese.

[post requested by dither]

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Review – Spectacle Vol 1

Spectacle Vol 1, Paranormal Mystery Graphic Novel by Megan Rose Gedris

Series: Spectacle, first volume

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

Although her true talent lies in interpreting the data processed by the difference engine she built, Anna works as a fortune-teller in a circus. Her twin sister Kat also works in the circus, as a knife-thrower. The circus is a visual accomplishment, both in the art–which shows the reality more than the spectacle, which is fun–and the depiction of the community. People bicker, put together church services, gossip, and come together in crises. One such crisis is Kat’s sudden murder.

Anna finds the body, as well as Kat’s ghost. The two work together to catch the murderer without disrupting the circus, hoping that resolving the mystery will allow Kat to move on.

I loved all of the characters and their relationships. Anna is not a social butterfly. She’s awkward, accidentally insults people, and has difficulty accepting kindness at her sister’s funeral. In contrast (because they’re twins I guess), Kat is brash yet forges emotional connections with others. An interesting difference between the two of them is that Kat is the forgiving one. My impression was that Anna was less so because she doesn’t ‘get’ people the same way.

Art downfalls, the stupid belch, cliffhanger sudden stop

For the most part, the art is great. The chapter covers are stunning and really show the time and care taken with them. Sometimes there are things that look strange or don’t quite work. Sometimes the blood looks like finger-paint, I think because the colour saturation in those instances is too high. The text is easy to read, except when it’s white and written directly over the art.

The biggest downside to this book is the sudden jerking stop at the end. There’s no denouement, no To Be Continued caption box in the corner, not even a blank white page. Calling it a cliffhanger would be missing the mark. It looked unfinished.

There is a satisfying story arc, though. After a mysterious event gives the local acting sheriff a dubious reason to lock up the ringmaster, the performers band together to earn as much money as possible to make his $500 bail. When Anna tries to gain access to the ringmaster to get his advice on her own ghost/murder problem, she discovers the acting sheriff is corrupt and dangerous. It’s a slow burn arc, but as I said, ultimately satisfying.

I love ghosts and murder mysteries, and this combined them very well. To be fair, the abrupt ending does offer a culmination of a few very subtle clues throughout the book. There are a lot of unanswered questions, so I’m looking forward to the next volume!

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Review – The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding, Middle Grade Paranormal by Alexandra Bracken

Series: The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’m of two minds on this book. In some ways, it’s a shallowly crafted world with ideas and elements that I’ve seen done better elsewhere. Yet it’s also a fun occult story that takes itself exactly as seriously as it should and carries off some good themes about family and self esteem.

The titular Prosper Redding is a bullied screw-up who also suffers from being part of the wealthy and accomplished Redding family. It seems like the only people who don’t despise him are his parents. Strangely, his aura of loser-ocity does not seem to stem from the malefactor squatting in his body like a toad in a fouled pond.

Prosper’s black sheep Uncle Barnabus and cousin Nell hide Prosper after the fallout of the malefactor’s reveal. For some reason this includes giving Prosper the chance to attend a school where he isn’t constantly bullied and honestly makes for rather a slow middle. He learns what it’s like to be accepted and that Nell is pretty awesome. The real meat of the plot in the middle is dependant on the malefactor, Alastor, as he seeks answers to what’s been going on “Downstairs” and who is in power.

Unfortunately, for all that the structure and dynamic are somewhat reminiscent of the Amulet of Samarkand, the comparison is incidental. Alastor is no Bartimaeus, nor is Prosper a patch on Nathaniel. There are high stakes but they’re bizarrely offset by things like school plays and a haunted house. Prosper isn’t a strong main character, though he at least has a distinct voice. Nell is the only supporting character with any substance. I rather wish she had been the protagonist.

However, I am glad that I stuck with it. The ending is remarkably strong and surprisingly satisfying. It’s a fast-paced avalanche that draws on all of the threads in a way that proves Bracken as a storyteller knows what she’s doing.

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Review – Ghost Talkers

Ghost Talkers, Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A tightly written, exciting murder mystery with ghosts everywhere. I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner.

Set during the pressing weight of a war gone far longer than the promised “over by Christmas,” the women of the Spirit Corps bear more than their fare share. Outwardly providers of tea, comfort, and a sense of normalcy, their deeper purpose involves spiritualism and channelling. When a soldier dies, his ghost delivers a final report to the circle of mediums. Obviously this opens up new avenues of information-gathering.

Ginger Stuyvesant may be American, but she has plenty at stake in the war. For one, her fiancé Ben is a British officer stationed at the front. For another, she is English at least in part, through her mother. Ginger is great. She has a strong sense of morality and she will not stand for anyone’s bullshit. One of my favourite recurring things in the narrative were the conversations in which she stood up for herself as competent in the face of the prevailing views on women of the time.

Everything is well executed. Spiritualism may differ from its real life counterpart (by authorial intent), but the structure and workings of the Spirit Corps feel authentic and akin to real things like Bletchley Park. The characters inhabit a very realistically portrayed period range of diversity. One of my favourite characters was Mrs Richardson, an older lady who knits at the speed of lightning. She handed out mufflers and socks like flyers in front of a club. The setting shines, obviously polished by research and passion.

And of course, it’s a pretty darn good mystery. The hook felt so classic I mistakenly thought the text had been bolded. (full disclosure: I am also sleep-deprived.) Suspenseful page-turner qualities juxtaposed with the weariness that is always in the background, and sometimes in the fore. I literally hid outside in the car so I could finish reading this without interruption.

Not to be too optimistic, but so far, 2018 has been good to me. I’ve only read ten books and loved all but one. Either I’m getting better at picking my reading material or I’m heading for a nasty DNF in the near future.

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Review – The Raven Boys

#1 in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

⭐️⭐️

Disclaimer: Back when I tried to read Shiver, I found it boring and the main character repellant in every way. The only reason I decided to give the Raven Cycle a try at last is because someone told me they also hated Shiver and that reading The Raven Boys was a polar opposite experience. It wasn’t that magical for me, but two stars instead of throwing the book against a wall is a marked improvement.

Extra Disclaimer: I vented more than I expected to in this review. I think anyone who enjoyed this book is entitled to, and I’d be more than happy to hear them rave about it. As long as no one tells me I’m “wrong,” because no one is wrong about a book unless they make a weird statement like, “Twilight is a VCR manual that can raise the dead.” …even that would be an opinion I’d like to see elaborated upon.

That said, I’ll start with what I liked. Ronan is one of those characters with a load of negative traits, disliked even by the other characters, whom I just adored. Sometimes I just have to love the unrepentant asshole who is also a troubled bad boy. I’m only human. I liked the otherworldliness that came in when they finally followed the corpse road, and I liked the family of psychics. Calla reminded me of Amethyst from Steven Universe, for some reason. That’s a good thing. While I wasn’t a fan of the relationships among the core cast, I actually like the girl joining a group of guys on a quest thing. I’d like to see it without said girl being a romantic interest for a guy in the group, but that was not too bad here. The antagonist is intriguing and legitimately threatening when he needs to be. I loved the way he was set up so early and occasionally bolstered. This is one of the few times that I thought the multiple perspectives were pulled off pretty well.

My biggest problem with The Raven Boys is something I was afraid of and half-determined not to do: I hated the only female main character. I tried to like her. I don’t want to be one of those people who reads a book with a predominantly male cast and hates the token girl just because she’s female and there. I liked all of the other female characters, even Persephone, who is yet another cheap, phoned-in expy of Joss Whedon’s Drusilla character type. I even liked Blue’s name until I realised that rather than invoking Aerith and Bob, almost every name could easily be found on a fancy dog collar. Possibly Helen was one of the characters I wasn’t supposed to like and wouldn’t have if I were an obedient reader, but I liked her too. (and no, her being a helicopter pilot was not my sole reason)

So what’s wrong with Blue? She’s kind of a bitch, but it isn’t that simple. It would have been obnoxious enough if she’d just been another super-speshul fatherless wish fulfilment girl who makes her own clothes and even rebels in a “unique” way, despite having a witch/hippie mother. That would have simply been eye-rolling. But pretty much from the word Go, Blue lays out the one thing that made me want to slap her and later Adam: the nasty prejudice against people with money.

This drove me insane. She damns all rich people and any traits she can pin on them as Bad. Never mind that none of the rich people she meets do anything to validate her views or to deserve her nastiness. Wear anything she can identify as expensive? Guess what, she’ll call you a privileged asshole. Even if she assumed incorrectly. She treated Adam liked this just for going to the rich boy school. Of course, when she realises that he’s One of Her People, she can’t praise him enough–especially so she can compare him favourably to those Awful Rich Guys. (and boy do those two ever act like this is an issue of race)

The worst of it for me was that it usually boiled down to anti-intellectualism. I’m defo not rich, but I have endeavoured to be well-educated, so I will admit that this part felt personal. Gansey has a large vocabulary. The guy goes to a pre-Ivy League high school, and his central motivation in the book is seeking the tomb of a Welsh King. NO FUCKING DUH HE USES BIG WORDS. It has nothing to do with either of them. But both Blue and Adam correct him if he uses a word they don’t know and make it clear that they think he’s wrong for doing so. There wasn’t a single time that either of them accused Gansey of being condescending where he was actually guilty. He could not win. If he said something and defined it, he was called or thought of as condescending. If he said something and didn’t define it, Blue decided he was making her feel stupid on purpose and called or thought of him as condescending. The guy is seeking something supernatural and she acts like his owning an EMF reader is just more rich asshole posturing. The hell?

Adam has an inferiority complex that has basically zero to do with Gansey himself. But Adam blames Gansey for it, and takes it out on him pretty much constantly. I couldn’t stand Adam’s complaining, hateful ass either. He was supposed to have this deep brotherly relationship and fierce loyalty to Gansey, but all Adam ever did was bitch about him. There came a point where I was only reading to see if Gansey would ever stand up for himself (spoiler, he doesn’t) and the scraps of times that Ronan would come in and be the only character I gave a shit about anymore. Noah is sketched so thinly that his entire character arc thing was a bit insulting. It was a good read, but not a moment of it felt like it had been earned, so it either rang false or looked cheap.

Sometimes, I wondered if Stiefvater is just not any great shakes as a writer. The style and voice are dull pretending to be profound. Chekhov should shoot this book for the details that take up significant time only to come to nothing–I don’t care if they’re going to be important later in the series. They belong in the book in the series wherein they become relevant. Fight me. There are also a lot of dumb mistakes that I would think a decent editor would’ve caught. I could live with Llywelyn’s name being spelled wrong, since the king they were looking for was Owain Glendŵr. But saying that Ronan “flaunts” school rules rather than “flouts?” Explicitly stating that a phobia is only an irrational fear? What about acrophobia? Two seconds of looking at a dictionary will tell you that a phobia is an “extreme OR irrational fear.” Then there’s the cringe-inducing misinformation about epipens. While I can believe Blue being stupid enough to think that epinephrine is used to “restart the heart” rather than to reverse the effects of anaphylaxis, I refuse to believe that a rich boy doesn’t carry these on his person as well as keeping a few in his room and car. I know they expire incredibly fast compared to other drugs (I think even etanercept lasts 24 months as long as you keep it refrigerated), but he has a lot of money and is clearly very scared of succumbing to his allergy. No way he has just one epipen in the glove compartment. For heaven’s sake, don’t they come in packs of two?

If there’s anything I find next to impossible to forgive in a book, it’s when the author tells me how to feel. It’s particularly egregious here, where the telling is more of a demand that says if I feel differently, I must be wrong. I think that might turn out to be a problem I will forever have with Maggie Stiefvater. I’m going to read the next book in this series, because someone pointed out that it’s “Ronan’s book” and he’s the only one I still like. But any further than that will be 100% dependent on how much I like that one. I’ve got a feeling the ice is gonna be thin.

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Review – Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, Paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“…dead is the change you can’t take back, dead is the mistake that can’t be unmade.”

Another stunning Seanan McGuire novella. There are two supernatural groups at play: ghosts and witches. Ghosts need to take time away from humans. This means that the human is made younger, and the ghost is older. It’s the only way they can age and reach the time they were meant to die. Their dying day. Jenna Pace is a ghost, killed when she ran into a ravine while grieving for her older sister Patty, who committed suicide. Witches draw their power from a singular source, which can vary. Witches can tell the dead from the living and they can control whether or not a ghost gives or takes time from them.

Jenna operates under self-imposed conditions. She needs to feel that she’s earned the time she takes. She does so by working at a suicide hotline and counting only the minutes from calls that she felt made a difference. Proof that, as the book later says, ghosts are still human.

Most of the beginning is establishing the world and its rules, which is good. I didn’t understand “taking time away” at first. The plot kicks in when Jenna is warned that all of the other ghosts in Manhattan have disappeared. She and a sort-of witch friend named Brenda work together to find out why they’re gone.

The cast is principally female, which felt natural and not forced. The writing is melancholy, with a bit of a poetic bent that makes for a dreamy reading experience, as well as nicely establishing Jenna’s otherness, both as a ghost and someone who is old while never having quite aged like a loving person. I was lucky enough to score a glass-door study area at the library, which combined with my cold to make for an atmosphere of altered consciousness.

“As always, it’s comfortable to put my death-clothes back on, like I’m setting the world a little closer to right. The shape of the skin under the shroud has changed as I’ve stolen my way into adulthood, one minute at a time, from the people around me, but this is one thing that will always fit, no matter how old I get. I was buried in it. It knows me.

This is a ghost of a garment, worn thin by my memory, and as gone as the rest of me. The worms have had my flesh by now. The creeping roots of trees have had the cotton stitching at my hips and the colour of my hair. It’s been forty years since I went to the earth, and even my bones will be crumbling by now, going down into the Hollow, like the bones of all the folk who came before me. There’s something comforting in that.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect. The ending is rushed in the worst ways. That could just be a mild irritation, but so much of it falls short of satisfaction. Lots of things go unexplained, which is already bad in a shorter work, but looks worse in comparison to all of the things that interweave and call back so well. The antagonist gets the worst of this. Coming in late is fine, but they had almost no motivation, no explanations, and lacked impact.

Still, this author is generally a win with me, and with good reason. She has awesome ideas and the execution is often just as much fun as the core concept, which is sort of the holy grail of cool moment generation. I think this novella is a perfect gateway for people interested in checking out the paranormal genre without romantic elements.

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Friday Book Review – The Gathering Storm

tgs

 

I had two major impressions of this book. My favourite was, “WHOA RUSSIA. We have had a Russia crush since high school.” The cultural parts of the setting are meticulously researched, and it definitely shows. Like the best of historical fiction, the details are accurate, and presented as though everything is immediate and familiar. The historical and cultural stuff is put into a natural context, rather than seen through the veil of the modern day or another culture. Katerina is a duchess in the Russian court in a time when the court flourishes. Everyone she knows is royal, and everyone knows who is related to whom. I recognised all the named places. It was never like Die Hard 5, where Russia was actually Hungary the whole time. It’s just a good solid… part of the setting.

My other impression was not impressed with basically the entire rest of the book.

The rest of the setting was given only the vaguest, lightest possible amount of attention. I honestly finished the book unsure of what supernatural elements were definitely a Real Thing and which were debunked as far as this world is concerned. In my original review, I wrote, “There are vampires, but also no one believes in them, except that someone famously drove them away, but people are acting like vampires are only a myth, so what is even the hell.” The writing offers very weak, often incomplete information, and often backpedals and contradicts that very information.

Without the historical fiction as a background, this would have just been an embarrassingly weak entry into the paranormal genre. It borrows from notable books without really bringing new things to the table, either with plot or characters, and the supernatural elements are treated like unwelcome guests to a really loud party.

Katerina herself is not a remarkable character. She isn’t immediately annoying, but she isn’t all that sympathetic or interesting either.. Maybe there isn’t any intentional borrowing, but it definitely reminded me of other books. None of them were ones I would have rather read, but that is not a point in this book’s favour.

Anyway, Katerina is a necromancer, which mostly serves to make her scared of her power and being found out. She doesn’t do anything interesting with it, except by accident once or twice, and it’s easy to get annoyed with her concern and outright refusal to confide in anyone. She behaves a lot like the necromancer in Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning. This is most apparent whenever she is threatened. She’s very easily cowed. The people who menace who dont’ even have to put any effort into it. She does try to stand up for herself sometimes, generally when it won’t matter.

Her silence, often held on the thinnest of pretexts, is the cause of a lot of tragedy in the book, and if you come to care for the world or any of the other characters, it’s hard to forgive her for that. She is almost directly responsible for the death of one of the most likeable characters. For a really stupid reason. To make it worse, even when she has the sense to blame herself, someone actually tells her it isn’t her fault EVEN THOUGH IT EFFING IS. I hate when characters do that. MAN UP AND TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY YOU ARE A FLIPPING DUCHESS.

Once I realised this kind of thing kept happening, it was impossible to enjoy the book.

I mean it. There are multiple times when she could have and should have brought someone into her confidence or just explained a situation in order to get out of trouble. There is no way to emphasize this enough. A significant percentage of the conflict is predicated on her not sharing information for no damn reason.

What makes it worse is that every single time that she actually stopped being a moron and asked for help, the conflict was resolved or at least ameliorated. Her cousin is mysteriously ill and no one will do enough to help? She goes to Dr Kruglevski and he saves the day. This is a very direct, positive result to a request for help, and she doesn’t learn from it. People died who did not have to, because Katerina deludes herself into thinking she can’t/shouldn’t tell anyone what’s been going on. Not through some bold hubris that makes her believe she can take care of things on her own. That would be an interesting character flaw. No, she’s just a wet rag who finds it easier to stand dumb than speak the hell up.

The other thing that started to grate on my nerves is that it sometimes feels like a Twilight expy. Not in a big way, but the further it went on, the more little similarities cropped up. And these little similarities were small but rather strong.

  • Katerina is crippled from action by fear of others’ opinions
  • She refrains from protecting herself from all sorts of harm and justifies it as protecting others.
  • Vampires
  • Her love interest is a fairy or something
  • He has a female relative who sees the future
  • Werewolf? (i think)
  • Vampire war
  • Poorly developed romance that results in encompassing passion

Maybe it’s not the Twilight thing that’s annoying, but that these are all overused tropes that were in that book too. Maybe this book is just not my thing. I liked the plot, I liked the part of the setting that dared to be complete, and I like this author.

This book would have been three stars, but now it’s 2.5 because I’m tired enough to not have understood all of the supernatural elements.

I still think that Katerina could use some better communication skills. I’m really tired of inaction being a character flaw. All it does is open the way to unlimited navel gazing and the only conflict coming from other characters or a timer running out. Give me the screw-ups who rush into danger back, please.