Summer Lit

This has been the summer of the faux Victorian novel for me. It’s a genre that I’ve enjoyed for some time (Think Mr. Timothy, The Poe Shadow, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, etc.), but somehow I’ve chosen to really steep this summer in it.

Last week, I took in The Dark Volume, the sequel to Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. The Glass Books was probably the best thing I read in 2007, so I was excited to find that Dahlquist had written a sequel. The Dark Volume was disappointing, though. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and given how fantastical The Glass Books was that’s saying something), and the characters’ motivations are hazy at best. Some of the most tantalizing questions of the book, like what exactly the so-called “dark volume” is, and, by the way, the tome in question is never referred to as such within in the pages of the book itself, are never explained. Moreover, one of the best things about The Glass Books was that it was so smutty I was ashamed to be reading it. The Dark Volume is … not. On the other hand, Dahlquist’s main characters — Miss Temple, Dr. Svenson and Cardinal Chang — are so compelling that I would read more. And the ending of The Dark Volume is ambiguous enough to lead me to think that I may get the chance to. Grade: B-

Over the weekend, I ripped through John Harwood’s The Seance. The cover called it a novel for Wilkie Collins fans, which I have to confess to not being, but it had a very definite Gothic feel. I would put it in the Ann Radcliffe vein, with definite Romantic influences (Shelley, Byron). Basically, it’s an extended ghost story. Harwood’s modern vantage point shows in that the narrator evinces a goodly amount of skeptical distance from the events that unfold, but it’s certainly meant to be taken earnestly. It was a good, quick read, but it’s already been sold back to Half-Price Books, so it’s nothing I would return to. Grade: B

By far the standout of the summer has been Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist. What’s particularly noteworthy is that I just stumbled upon it on the wall at the checkout at Borders a couple months ago; otherwise I would never have heard of it and my summer reading would’ve been confined to mediocre fare. The Somnambulist is outstanding, though. Barnes has twisted together literary history (again the Romantics, specifically Coleridge) and fiction and then added a good dose of horror. In fact, the most intriguing part of The Somnambulist are the characters of the Prefects, whose entrance and deeds I had to read aloud to Dan because they were so compelling. The Washington Post reviewer refers to them as “a demented, supernatural Tweedledum and Tweedledee who take pleasure in pain.” Indeed. They’re marvelously terrifying, and I couldn’t stop thinking about their every appearance on the page (as much as, believe me, I wanted to after I had turned out the lights after reading).

At the end of my copy of The Somnambulist, the publisher included the first chapter of Barnes’ second book, The Domino Men. Upon reading it, I thought it had nothing to do with The Somnambulist, being set in the present day and all that. However, as I neared the end of the rest of my reading, I asked Dan to pick it up for me. Lo and behold, the Prefects are back! So I’ve just very happily settled into The Domino Men. So far it reads more like Jasper Fforde than anything Victorian, which I’m perfectly content with. (As a side note, I’m as lucky to have stumbled upon The Domino Men as I was to have picked up The Somnambulist: apparently, even though it was only published in January of this year, the unsold hardcovers were already being shipped back to the publisher. When Dan asked for it at Bookstop, the clerk had to go get it out of the box in the back in which it was already packed for return.)
The Somnambulist Grade: A
The Domino Men Grade: in progress, but probably A

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