Review: The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

Imagine for a moment that you’re looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re noticing all of the things you don’t like about yourself, the curve of your nose, the birthmark on your cheek, the shape of your earlobes. Would you change your face, if you had the power to? Now imagine that someone else had the ability to change themselves, too: Would you trust them? They could look like your best friend, your husband–or just like you. What if they were obsessed with you? This is the premise for Stephen Lloyd Jones’s debut novel The String Diaries (Mulholland Books, 2013).

The String Diaries relates one family’s century-plus struggle with stalking and violence at the hands of a “supernatural” predator. (I use quotes here because, although the term is on the dust jacket, and could describe Jones’s creation, his text seems to indicate a biological foundation for his monster’s abilities.) The three strands (strings?) of the story span space and time, from nineteenth century Hungary, to 1970s Oxford, to a present-day location in the Welsh countryside. This is no European idyll, though: The protagonists are looking over their shoulders all the while, trying to evade a killer who can look like anyone, even one’s lover.

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries begins as Hannah, her husband, Nick, and daughter, Leah, careen down a country road in a remote corner of Wales. It’s the middle of the night, they’re being pursued, and Nick is dying: His blood is everywhere. Hannah needs to get to the “safe house” the family established for just such contingencies. What’s going on is, at this point, not exactly clear. Jones immediately hooks the reader by dropping her into the thick of the action. The reader has questions, but few answers–only those hints Jones drops in the context of Hannah’s flight. The chapter breaks as the family arrives at the farmhouse, in which their enemy may or may not be waiting. As early as the first chapter, Jones demonstrates his skill with pacing, grabbing the reader with action and reeling her in by creating tension: What, if anything, lurks in the darkened farmhouse? The next chapter picks up another thread of the story, a cliffhanging agony the reader happily endures.

It’s difficult to go into detail about the other plot lines without divulging “spoilers.” Suffice it to say that Jones teases the reader along, jumping from now to nineteenth century Budapest, now to 1970s Oxford, providing the readers the answers she craves at just the right pace. The part of the story set in Hungary, of course, is deep background, the “origin story” for the tragedy that unfolds over the next century. The chapters set in Oxford bridge the gap between the past and present. There is a danger, with such a structure, of unevenness, of one story line being weaker than the others. The author risks boring the reader or even losing her. Fortunately, Jones demonstrates an intuitive knack for pace and plot, and, if the story lags in spots, especially in those chapters sent in the past, it’s a minor weakness. Rest assured: Jones will maintain your interest.

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Jones is adept, too, when it comes to imparting upon his reader a sense of place. I’ve never been to Oxford, Wales, or France, and I certainly wasn’t around for nineteenth century Budapest, but it’s clear that Jones has either visited those locales or researched them. The detail into which Jones goes in his descriptions of the Snowdonia region of Wales are particularly well done. (Do you have your own safe house there, Mr. Jones?) There are times when Jones’s affection for his setting works to his disadvantage. At one point Hannah’s Welsh refuge seems more like a respite, a homey sojourn in the Welsh countryside. Hannah and Leah go horseback riding and enjoy a picnic with a neighbor. I suppose fleeing from a shapeshifting stalker can be tiring.

There are other problems, especially with the novel’s climax. Jones introduces late in the novel elements that, if not quite deus ex machina, still seem forced, out of place. The resolution of those elements is just as offhand, although it does produce one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. (Recall the Nazi’s melting face from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.) There is, during the same scenes, a glaring hole in the plot, dependent upon the “supernatural” powers exhibited by the villain and his ilk. It’s an obvious question, the sort that causes readers to pause and think, “Wait, why wouldn’t so and so…” but Jones ignores it, which is, perhaps, better than going through contortions in order to explain it away. The ending, if not altogether satisfying, ably wraps up the novel’s loose ends.

Many reviews have compared The String Diaries to Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian, and with good reason: Both novels involve supernatural (or what might as well be supernatural) villains, span decades, and are set in lovely European locales. The String Diaries, though, is less a “supernatural thriller” than it is a suspense novel with supernatural elements. In another incarnation, The String Diaries might have been, sans its fantastical aspects, a straightforward spy novel or thriller. Still, Jones’s choices work. If not a perfect novel, The String Diaries is a strong debut from a promising new author. Recommended for fans of suspense novels and thrillers, especially those readers who appreciate a touch of magic in their stories.

Inbox/Outbox: August 10-August 30, and August Recap

Here we are at the end of summer. In a few short days, the dog days of August will give way to school buses, football, and pumpkin spice. PUMPKIN SPICE IN EVERYTHING! MOAR PUMPKIN SPICE!

Eh…sorry.

With the onset of autumn, I invite you to read an essay that, for me, has come to embody it: “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.” I hope this rings true for those of you whose mothers are “crafters.”

Inbox

The Croning, Laird Barron

The Croning, Laird Barron

There isn’t much to report, really; hence my silence during the last two weeks. If I look back, farther, farther still, into the hazy distance of late July, I see some acquisitions that I didn’t report in my last “Inbox/Outbox” check-in. I nabbed Saladin Ahmed’s collection of short stories, Engraved on the Eye, for free, and you may be able to, as well. You may know Ahmed as the author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, an interesting young adult foray into Islam-themed fantasy. To be honest, Throne of the Crescent Moon didn’t work for me, but the price was right for Engraved on the Eye. The same is true for Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories. (Not free, but cheap.) Bacigalupi has also written YA and “adult” novels, notably The Wind-Up Girl. Finally, I went flip mode and picked up Laird Barron’sThe Croning, his debut novel; Barron is better known for his short stories. If you’re looking to put more cosmic horror in your life–and who isn’t, really?–then you might consider my review of The Imago Sequence.

Outbox

So, with all this time I spent, you know, not blogging, you might think that I accomplished a lot of reading. Aw, you’re cute.

August is always a mixed-up month for me, hot, muggy, each day laden, incrementally more than the day before, with the creeping dread that comes with the end of summer and the onset of a new school year. (Yes, I graduated years decades ago, but the school year seems to be imprinted on my psyche.) As such, I’m always in the doldrums, impatient to get on with fall even as I wish summer could go for another three months. My reading habits become unsettled, too, and I think that’s reflected in the paucity of finished books and blog posts for the month.

Under the Empyrean Sky, Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky, Chuck Wendig

I finished and reviewed both Under the Empyrean Sky and The Woman in Black. I probably didn’t need to review the latter, since it was published in 1980, but the movie (starring Daniel Radcliffe!) was released in 2012 or 2013, so what the hell.

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

 

I did not review either Burial Rites or All the Birds, Singing. I didn’t feel up to the task of the former, which is best characterized as “literary.” No one has ever made the mistake of characterizing me as literary. A novelization of the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland (in 1829), Burial Rites is very good, probably one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’ve been waiting, too, to read All the Birds, Singing, which has received a lot of praise, but I have to confess that I was underwhelmed. It’s not that Wyld’s novel is bad. Far from it. I think the glowing reviews primed me with expectations that it simply couldn’t live up to. All the Birds, Singing is often described as “psychological.” If you’re at all curious about it, you should check it out.

August Recap (and looking ahead)

An altogether slow month, but we have to relax sometimes, right? That’s how I’m rationalizing it. Shut up. My meager August output:

Looking ahead to September, you may also want to check out my announcement regarding my plans for a readalong of Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath. (Original review from October 2013.) Look for the introductory post on September 1 or 2. (Permit me some wiggle room in light of the Labor Day holiday.) After the introductory post, in which I’ll provide some information on Tidbeck, I’ll devote some posts to each story, or to several stories, since some of them are very, very short. Adding in my “routine” posts, this means you should be seeing me more often next month. You’ve been warned.

And, in October, my blogs-buddy Megan and I will be doing a readalong of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. We’ve talked and agreed that we’re terrible planners, so expect more details on this over the next few weeks. In the meantime, head on over to From Couch to Moon and click that “follow” button.

Oh.

Oh.

Review: The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

What’s a reader to do when a ghost story is the embodiment of “The Ghost Story”? If it ticks off every requirement–old, isolated house; sullen villagers; gloomy weather–does that make it “the best” ghost story? I might once have insisted that, yes, a ghost story that meets all of the criteria (whatever the list might be) is in fact the best of its genre. (The hubris of youth!) Having read Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, I’m forced to concede that perhaps there is more to a ghost story than spooks, moors, and crisp English diction. I’m reminded of the words of a comic book writer, who advised teenagers aspiring to his role, “If you only read comic books, you might write the best comic book ever written, but you’ll never write anything different.”

The Woman in Black begins, appropriately enough, on a Christmas Eve sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century. Arthur Kipps’ second wife and his step-children sit around the fire, telling one another ghost stories. Here we have already satisfied one criterion of a ghost story: It must be set in England. Certainly, every culture in every time and place has spoken of ghosts, but “the best” ghost story can only be set in England. Bonus: By beginning  her tale on Christmas Eve, Hill tips her hat to the fine English tradition of telling ghost stories on that most-anticipated evening of the year. More spooky stories by the fire, fewer fat men and elves!

Kipps is agitated as his family’s stories grow grislier and more ridiculous. As his children’s merriment increases, his declines. Urged by his step-sons to join in the fun, Kipps storms off in a huff. Staring at the clear night sky, he is reminded of events through which he suffered as a younger man, a trauma he has worked hard to put behind him. He resolves to write it down in its entirety, a purge that becomes Hills’ larger narrative, the ghost story “proper.”

I don't see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

I don’t see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

The action commences with Kipps dispatched on legal business to a small village a day’s train ride outside of London. Kipps, stymied in his career aspirations, gladly takes on what his elder partner perceives as an imposition. In addition to seeking refuge from his humdrum duties as a solicitor, Kipps flees the London weather, characterized by many days of fog so dense it made travel within the city dangerous. Kipps sallies forth to put in order the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Read those names again: That is some heavy handed foreshadowing going on there.

En route to Eel Marsh House, Kipps encounters what you might expect from the villagers, which is to that they seem to know something about Eel Marsh House, but are unwilling to talk about it, to Kipps’ growing frustration. The local lawyer, Kipps’ contact, is thrown into paroxysms of fear when, at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Kipps confesses to having seen the eponymous “Woman in Black.” Kipps nevertheless proceeds, as an ambitious and sensible young man is likely to do, to head to Eel Marsh House, which, sitting in the middle of a swamp, can be reached only by a narrow causeway during low tide. One requirement of a successful ghost story is for the protagonist to be headstrong in his foolishness to the point of foolhardiness. He (or she) must tempt fate with his (or her) stupidity. Needless to say, Kipps’ visit does not go as planned, and it is at this point, as his adventure derails, that I can so no more about the plot. It is obvious from the first chapter of the book that Kipps survives, albeit as a changed man.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

There is much to be said in favor of The Woman in Black. Kipps’ voice, channeled via Hill, is spot-on, which is to say very, very English. (I am subconsciously mimicking it as I write this.) Whether or not Kipps really sounds like a turn-of-the-century British professional, I don’t know, but it’s house I imagine such men would have sounded. In other words, it’s believable. So, too, is the tone, which is one of creeping eeriness, abetted by Hill’s strength in establishing setting. Hill obviously knows the English countryside and its weather, and lavishes attention on such details. Of course, atmosphere is in some ways the most essential aspect of any ghost story. The author must ease the reader into it, step by step, just as the protagonist, for instance, Kipps, cheerfully whistling his way to his doom. You can’t just toss an idiot into a decrepit old house and throw spooks at him. It takes subtlety, and Hill masters that.

In the end, though, even as The Woman in Black meets all of the expectations a reader might have of a ghost story, in doing so it somehow fails to do anything different, and that, perhaps, is the problem. There’s a predictability about the plot that is comforting if you want a good, old-fashioned ghost story, but is dissatisfying if you want anything more. The story is also rather tame, although one must keep in mind that it isn’t horror in the modern sense, meaning that it isn’t dripping with gore. Still, contemporary readers (The Woman in Black was published in 1983) might be desensitized to the novel’s quiet dread. Recommended for lovers of the supernatural, but not necessarily for horror aficionados, The Woman in Black is a fine book with which to spend any autumn day.

Jagannath Readalong

Autumn holds a special place in my heart, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it appeals to the cold, shriveled nugget of creativity that lingers at the center of my being. There is, of course, the sensory stimuli: The endless blue skies and the long, rainy days; the touch of frost on the grass; the turning of the leaves. But underneath all of that, and I’ve said this to many friends, many times, I feel that same magic that stirred the Celts to celebrate with Samhain. Autumn is a season of creeping darkness, of dwindling warmth, of the death of nature–of chaos. During autumn, even this aged cynic can appreciate the universe’s mysteries.

jagannath

With the above in mind, then, it’s my pleasure to announce a readalong of Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath, to begin on September 1. Autumn calls for a certain type of book, a role Jagannath perfectly fits. I know–autumn, strictly interpreted, doesn’t begin until the end of September. But the signs will already be in the air: Children will be heading back to school; football season will have begun; Halloween decorations will be on display. In any case, consider reading Jagannath the prep work for a well-lived fall season.

Readers of my blog, all two of you, are likely aware that I reviewed Jagannath just last year. Why revisit it so soon? Jagannath is a collection of short stories, the first I read in some time, having developed an aversion to the form some years earlier, probably the result of a freshman year American lit class. Tidbeck’s stories, so finely wrought, made me a believer; I’ve since read several books of short stories. I gushed in my review about how wonderful Tidbeck’s stories are, and I use “wonderful” here not to mean “good” or “great,” although they are certainly that, but, rather, to mean “full of wonder.” Wonder and mystery are in short supply in my life, and any writer who can spin the numinous out of the mundane earns my devotion. Such it is with Karin Tidbeck.

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So I plan on rereading these stories I loved so much a year ago, and on taking my time with them this time, and sharing that experience with you. My hope is that you’ll read my posts about the experience, and share your thoughts, even if you never read Jagannath yourself.

Jagannath readalong: September 1.

The Scratch of a Pencil

This is a story about drawing. Well, not so much a “story,” as that term implies a coherent narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end, but more a series of impressions based on my personal experience. If you extracted from my life all the time I spent drawing, or talking about drawing, and my feelings regarding both, and, taking that distillation, muddled it all up, then perhaps you’d have a sense of what I’m getting at, which is to say no proper sense at all: Something on which you can’t quite put your finger. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” the saying goes. And telling a story about drawing is like making a sandwich about programming, or some other ridiculous and forced analogy.

Some of my earliest memories are about drawing. By the time I was a first grader, I had created my first comic strip characters, drawn with fluorescent crayons, which were then in vogue. (This was the mid-eighties.) To adult eyes, they must have looked like stroke-inducing penises. Like any child who came of age during the eighties, I spent countless slack-jawed hours awash in the glow of a television, absorbing the inanity of cartoons created as marketing devices for toys. Whatever the effect on my intellect, the “art” I saw inspired me to continue drawing. As a third grader, I created a comic strip based on toys which, if memory serves, were anthropomorphic “army ants.” When unfurled, the comic took the form of a large ant. At about the time I turned nine–the last year of single digits–I figured out how to draw a hand so that it looked as if it were holding something. This was a major turning point; prior to this breakthrough, guns and weapons and whatever else a boy might want to draw were balanced on the tips of my subjects’ fingers. Here I had begun to peel back the veil on reality.

Turtle. Turtle, turtle.

Turtle. Turtle, turtle.

My parents indulged my “hobby,” if you could call it that. I assume they were pleased to have a child who was happy to sit quietly for hours without supervision. In any case, I soon ended up with “artist” sketchbooks, containing high-quality paper, and boxes of pencils, markers and colored pencils. (Neighbors borrowed the latter from me when I was a little older and had begun to abandon “childish” things. They never returned them, a loss I still think about to this day, and I say that as someone who doesn’t feeling strong connections to material “things.”) My late childhood and early adolescence were spent on the back porch of my parents’ house, sitting at a picnic table and drawing, drawing, drawing. The shadows moved around the back yard as the sun made its circuit, but, with the exception of my hand (and the occasional bathroom break), I remained where I was, the human version of a sundial.

Although I spent my childhood telling adults, when asked what I “wanted to do with my life,” that my goal was to work for Disney, and then patiently explaining to them that, no, I didn’t want to dress like Mickey, I wanted to animate their movies, the facade began to crack by the time I turned 12 or 13. Those are strange years for any American child, of course, but they were particularly so for me, which perhaps deserves its own post at a later date. In any case, too young to work, and too old to be babysat, I spent my summer days alone in a big empty suburban house in the middle of Amish country, the only sound the clicking on and off of neighbors’ air conditioning units. I had discovered comic books, which inspired fits of frenzied creativity, a new superhero every day. If anything, I was more devoted than ever to drawing, but, during one of those summers (and I can’t recall which one), three things happened that, I think, played a role in my (not entirely self-aware) decision to move away from my “artwork”:

  1. I was reading comic books one afternoon, and had laid one down on the floor, open face to save my spot, while I sifted through a pile of others on my lap. My dad, recently home from work, entered the room and reached around me to grab something off of the coffee table next to which I sat. In doing so, he stepped right in the middle of my comic book, tearing its cover. “Hey,” I yelled, “why are you doing that?!” “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have put it there,” he said, and turned around without a second look. His intentional disregard for one of the few things I cared about stuck (sticks) with me.
  2. I drew a scene of medieval village life and, on one of my dad’s rare days off, showed it to him. “This is the castle,” I explained, “and this is the church–” “Yeah, I can tell what they are,” he said, cutting me off.
  3. I spent an entire day drawing a “page” of a “comic book,” the story entirely of my own creation. By this time, I had moved far enough away from my artistic ambitions that I was using number 2 pencils and notebook paper for my creative endeavors. When my dad got home from work, I proudly marched up to him and showed him what I had spent the entire day working on. He glanced at it. “Don’t quit your day job,” he said.

Of course, it doesn’t take an observant reader to note that these experiences all involved my father. Make of that what you want; I’m not sure what it means. Years later, during a conversation I can’t otherwise remember, but which involved some talk of my habit of drawing when I was younger and why I hadn’t pursued it, I stared at him with bafflement and grief and said, “You never encouraged me!” I can still remember the wounded look on his face, but I think there was a recognition of truth there, too.

Shalom.

Shalom.

After I entered high school, it was only a matter of time before I abandoned drawing altogether. I continued for a time, usually in study halls, and to some encouragement from my peers. But it’s funny: People who can’t do something at all are quick to criticize those who can. “That’s his nose?” they would say. “I couldn’t tell what it was.” Or: “You know Eddie draws better than you, right?” I was actually at my most focused in classes when I was permitted, head down, to scribble in my notebook. Perhaps the doodling provided an outlet for anxiety, quietening an otherwise noisome brain and giving me the space I needed to absorb the day’s lesson. But of course teachers frowned on that, too; one lectured me for setting a bad example for a fellow student who had attention deficit disorder. Others docked my grades for not paying attention, despite the fact that, by doodling, I was paying better attention than I otherwise could. Art class, with its structured activities, especially “contour drawing,” which I hated, and on which we always spent the first several weeks of the school year, only served as evidence that art wasn’t for me. By the time I graduated, I no longer drew at all, not even for pleasure.

When I went to college, I avoided art classes, focusing instead on the kind of academics that are entirely cerebral (involving no manipulation of matter for creative purposes), writing my share of term papers and essays. I continued to doodle in my notebooks during lectures, a practice to which professors were happily indifferent. Indeed, I filled more notebooks with scribbles than I did with course content. They all ended up in the trash.

So what’s the point here? What does all of this mean? I don’t know, and that’s why this isn’t really a story. When I see a blank piece of paper, I still feel the urge to fill it with cartoons, all of which are variations on the same shape, since I never pursued drawing far enough to really “stretch” myself and learn to create those things with which I’m unfamiliar. My hand itches to hold a mechanical pencil, my favorite instrument. I still endure the longest, most soul-numbing meetings by doodling, a compulsion I can’t deny, even as a supervisor stares pointedly at my notebook.

A story has a narrative arc, a beginning, middle, and an end. But I have no ending, yet: I’m stuck here, in the middle, a line between two points.