Catch-Up Reviews

I have actually read some books lately, which seems such a novelty. Well, I’m always reading books, but for the whole of this shit year of lockdown I’ve often found it difficult to finish them even if I am enjoying them. I’ll be re-reading a bunch of books as I’m teaching the Killer Women course again (and fending off non-stop requests to over-enroll it, too). Maybe I’ll post about that collection of novels later. And there’s Highsmith’s 100 birthday next week. In the mean time:

CONVICTION
Denise Mina

This is a thrill ride that just doesn’t stop. It packs events plucked from the headlines with the non-stop craziness of social media, the weird exclusive life of the rich, a reclusive ex-pop star, eating disorders, jetting around Europe (ha, that’ll date it now, eh Brexiteers), hauntology (!), and the coldest killer imaginable. As usual Mina knits it all together with humour and effortlessly efficient prose. Don’t start reading this late at night — start in the morning so you can be sure to finish it.

CURIOUS TOYS
Elizabeth Hand

Liz has been obsessing about Henry Darger for years. I recall a talk she gave on him and other ‘outsider artists at ICFA in the 90s or early noughties. But it was her mom who suggested putting him into a book as a detective. This book is just stuffed with the careful research she did of the era — don’t let that scare you off: it’s seamlessly knit together — including the amusement park where much of the action takes place. There’s also the nascent movie company through which Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery and other luminaries pass like the ambitious Glory, who wants to be an opera singer but making pictures pays better. She dazzles Pin, the girl who’s hiding as a boy and carrying the grief of a murdered sister along with some other heavy loads (also a dawning realisation about her own sexuality).

While Pin is the main anchor of the narrative, chapter to chapter we follow along other character, including the former cop/whistleblower who’s now security at the park and Darger himself, who thinks like he writes. There’s all the amusement park folk, some of whom are based on historic figures: Clyde, the black magician, Max & Maxene the ‘She Male’ and Pin’s mother who is a fortune teller. Then there’s the ride Hell’s Gate where the first murder takes place.

An ambitious weave of storylines with wildly different voices, but Hand makes it all work.

Review: Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

One for the music fans amongst you: you may know Hand’s work from the Cass Neary stories (if you don’t know them yet, waste no time diving into Generation Loss and then jump into Available Dark and Hard Light). While Cass brings a punk sensibility to the rebel photographer’s life, this novella explores the harder edge of alternative folk music in the sixties. Wylding Hall is of course the place where the mystery happens and the narrative unfolds like one of those Behind the Music docos.

Blurb:

After the tragic and mysterious death of one of their founding members, the young musicians in a British acid-folk band hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with its own dark secrets. There they record the classic album that will make their reputation but at a terrifying cost, when Julian Blake, their lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen again. Now, years later, each of the surviving musicians, their friends and lovers (including a psychic, a photographer, and the band s manager) meets with a young documentary filmmaker to tell his or her own version of what happened during that summer but whose story is the true one? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

Like all of Hand’s books, it cracks right along with indelible images, told through the different voices of the band members and the others who become entwined in the tale. The mystery of what has really happened to Julian deepens as the ‘eye witnesses’ of course don’t agree — and don’t see the same things. There’s a familiarity with the music world that will satisfy fans (showing Hand’s encyclopedic knowledge of the field with such touchstones as Brian Jones’ The Pipes of Pan in Joujouka), a touch of the supernatural (or is there?) and a lot of emotions boiling under the surface of a tight-knit group, as you would expect. All of which makes for great fun.

Some snippets:

On folk songs: ‘It’s a kind of time machine, really, the way you can trace a song from whoever’s singing it now back through the years—Dylan or Johnny Cash, Joanna Newsom or Vashti Bunyan—on through all those nameless folk who kept it alive a thousand years ago’

‘He reminded me of Syd Barrett. Oh god, I thought, another fucking acid casualty.’

“Burna thyn haer yn flamme Tiss wrennas fedyr and thyn hatte blod.”

‘As soon as he opened his mouth and began to sing, the room fell quiet. Not just quiet: dead silent. I’ve never seen anything like it. Like a freeze-frame in a movie. Nobody spoke, nobody moved. Nobody breathed. I know I didn’t, not for half a minute. It sounded as though he were whispering the song into your ear.’

‘Truth is, often Lesley got the fuzzy end of the lollypop. Didn’t get enough credit for the songs she wrote or the arrangements she came up with, didn’t get credit for how much of our live performances she carried.’

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