Carpathia | Matt Forbeck

It has been a very long time since I have written a standalone book review. I had to go back to September 24, 2019, to find one so apologies if I’m a little bit rusty 🙂

It seems fitting that the book I’m talking about today is one I’ve had in the stacks for absolutely ages – Carpathia by Matt Forbeck.

When the survivors of the Titanic are picked up by the passenger steamship Carpathia, they thought their problems were over. But something’s sleeping in the darkest recesses of the ship. Something old. Something hungry.

Something that’s trying to get back to the Old Country. Yes, you’ve guessed it – vampires.

Vampires have always been my favourite supernatural monster-type thing, going way back to reading Dracula of course, but mostly I blame Stephen King and Salems Lot, both the TV version starring David Soul and the amazing book it’s based on, still my favourite of King’s vast output. However, I had drifted away from them due to a combination of the increasing daftness of Anne Rice’s novels and the twinkly dark romance of the Twilight saga.

Then, over the New Year, we watched the BBC Dracula which was awesome, and as I was looking for my next read I decided Carpathia would be just the ticket.

And I was right – it’s great fun as long as your idea of fun is out of the frying pan (the freezing Atlantic post-iceberg) into the fire (a band of vampires travelling back to Europe because they were becoming too visible in America – spoiler – not all of the vampires are happy about that) with a love triangle and early feminism thrown into the mix.

Our main protagonists all have names derived from the original Dracula and in a nice touch it becomes clear that their parents (a) knew Bram Stoker, (b) were referenced in the novel and, (c) had a lot of garlic and crosses around their homes when the kids were growing up, from which you can draw your own conclusions.

The descriptions of the sinking of the Titanic and the ordeal survivors went through are well done, and the willingness to believe in actual vampires by a (small) number of the characters arrives quickly given the evidence of their own eyes. I’m often exasperated by the tendency of figures in horror blithely banging on about how there must be a rational explanation for the handsome man in a cloak chewing on someone’s neck.

I also really liked the idea that “modern” vampires might be reckless compared to the older ones who are more reserved (and have therefore survived) and will not listen to their advice.

It gets a bit breathless towards the end and there is a lingering suspicion that a sequel may have been on the cards, but overall I liked it.

Sunday Salon | 5 January

So, here we are in the first Salon of the new decade! I hope everyone has a very happy and healthy 2020.

Photo by Daniela Turcanu on Unsplash

We had a super-quiet Hogmanay chez Bride and not much reading was done (I finished one book which I’ll be talking about later in the week) as I was distracted by other things, namely:

Podcast of the WeekHunting Warhead, a CBC podcast about the international hunt for the administrator behind a heavily used online child abuse site. The way in which the authorities managed to track and identify Warhead and prosecute him was fascinating, and although the subject matter is very distressing the podcast was not at all graphic and treated all aspects with sensitivity. Would recommend but only if you have the stomach for that sort of thing.

Drama of the Week – the BBC adaptation of Dracula, starring Claes Bang and Dolly Wells. You may have seen in the Twitterverse that a lot of folk did not like this, mainly because of the third and final episode. I am here to tell you that I reject their opinions; I adored it and have already ordered the blu-ray so I can watch whenever I want. It is funny and clever and properly horrifying (in the right way) so if gothic horror is your thing please give it a try.

New Book of the Week – I received one new book this week, a pre-order of The Great Pretender by Susan Cahalan which tells the story of an undercover investigation into the treatment of mental ilness which ended up leading to major changes in the field. I am lucky in that my own mental health struggles are well managed through medication and wider support from my local health authority and I am fascinated by how such issues were treated in the past especially where women are concerned.

Hope you all have a fabulous reading week!

Fiction Reading Round-Up

Here we go with a review of novels that I read earlier in the year and didn’t get around to reviewing. Eight books that deserve recognition, even though not all hit the right spot for me.

The Behaviour of Moths * Poppy Adams

From her lookout in the crumbling mansion that was her childhood home, Ginny watches and waits for her younger sister to arrive. Vivien has not set foot in the house since she left nearly fifty years ago; the reclusive Ginny has rarely ventured out, retreating into the precise routines that define her days, carrying on her father’s solitary work studying moths.

Is it wrong for me to say that the bits of the book about moths are more interesting than the story of the two sisters? I normally like an unreliable narrator, here partnered with time shifts and carefully parcelled out revelations, but I was slightly frustrated that there was too much room for the reader to guess what was going on, particularly about Ginny. What, if anything, was actually “wrong” with her? Donated this one as soon as I had finished it.

The City of Mirrors * Justin Cronin

The world we knew is gone. What world will rise in its place? The Twelve have been destroyed and the terrifying hundred-year reign of darkness that descended upon the world has ended. The survivors are stepping outside their walls, determined to build society anew—and daring to dream of a hopeful future. 

Which doesn’t tell you that much, not surprising given that this is the long-awaited (by me) final volume in The Passage trilogy, bought because I enjoyed the first two and was very keen to see how it all ended.I’ve had it for a while and picked it up at this point because we had started watching the TV adaptation, which started promisingly but which I lost interest in after a few episodes.

I loved this book. The ending was very satisfying and I found the detour into the background of Zero (the Big Bad Guy) gripping, though I’m aware not everyone agrees. If you need a post-apocalyptic vampire thriller (and who doesn’t) then this series is for you.

Convent on Styx * Gladys Mitchell

The nuns of the Order of Companions of the Poor summon eminent psychiatrist and sleuth Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate a series of anonymous letters, but when she arrives the prime suspect has just been found drowned in the convent school pond with, appropriately enough, her own massive Family Bible.

A late Mrs Bradley mystery, published in 1975, this was a very enjoyable and easy (in the best sense) read. There is a convent, there are nuns (obvs), there is a school attached and so there are inquisitive schoolgirls, and there is more than one mysterious death to be solved. Mrs B doesn’t turn up until halfway through the novel but that gives the reader plenty of time to get to know all of the characters, which makes the story all the more enjoyable. I may have picked this edition up because I loved the cover.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things * Iain Reid

I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always. Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.” And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.

Apparently, when I read this back in January (I KNOW) my reaction as expressed on Goodreads was “Still thinking about this one. Enjoyed it enough to read to the end but also somewhat frustrated by the story.”

Basically, I found it totally bizarre and I’m not at all sure that I understood it. Perhaps I should read it again and see if it makes more sense a second time. Or I could just wait for the Netflix adaptation, though goodness only knows how they will film this one.

The Affinity Bridge * George Mann

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. […] But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes. 

Way back in the dawn of time, otherwise known as January 2014, I read The Executioner’s Heart, not realising that it was the latest in the Newbury & Hobbes series. I finally got around to reading this, the very first, thoroughly enjoyed it and will be reading them all.

Currently * Sarah Mensinga

Every year, Nerene’s village shelters in Varasay City while the surrounding lands flood. Yet Varasay only protects those who obey its laws, and after Nerene’s best friend starts a riot, he’s in danger of being cast out. Nerene manages to find Lord Osperacy, a travelling thief with enough power and money to save her friend, but he’ll only help her if she agrees to work for him. 

Sarah is a hugely talented artist and illustrator (I have her clever portrait of Anne Boleyn hanging beside my desk) and this is her first novel. I really enjoyed it. The world-building, which I understand is inspired by early 20th-century travel on ocean liners is really strong. Nerene is engaging and likeable and I was rooting for her all the way. An excellent fantasy, and Sarah also has a YouTube channel where she shares an illustrated audiobook version of the novel. Go look!

Black Helicopters * CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan

Says Goodreads:

A dark jewel of a novella, this definitive edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters is the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original.

I appreciated the writing but I think I would have got more out of the novella and just generally understood it better if I had read Agents of Dreamland first. So I will do that and may then re-read this one to see if it works better that way. I can feel that it’s impressive but it didn’t speak to me in the way I thought it would.

Real Tigers * Mick Herron

London’s Slough House is where disgraced MI5 operatives are reassigned to spend the rest of their spy careers pushing paper. But when one of these “slow horses” is kidnapped by a former soldier bent on revenge, the agents must breach the defences of Regent’s Park to steal valuable intel in exchange for their comrade’s safety. 

Another excellent entry in the Slough House/Jackson Lamb series. So realistic that whenever I’m in the Barbican area I look for the office building (full disclosure – I haven’t found it yet). Strong plotting and characterisation as always, though I’m sure any resemblance to the current floppy-haired British PM is totally coincidental (though probably spot on!) I’ve already bought the next one.

Strange Practice

Greta Helsing inherited the family’s highly specialized, and highly peculiar, medical practice. In her consulting rooms, Dr Helsing treats the undead for a host of ills – vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s been groomed for since childhood.

Can you feel a BUT coming?

BUT, when Greta is called in by her friend, the vampire Edward Ruthven, to tend to another famous vampire, Sir Francis Varney, who has been attacked in his home with a combination of garlic and a cross-shaped dagger coated with something nasty, it becomes clear that there is a concerted effort to destroy the “monstrous” and the humans who work with them.

Of course, this means Greta herself is in danger along with the motley crew of vampires, ghouls, a demon and a researcher from the British Museum from a rampaging group of monks with a mission. But what’s motivating them and how can they be stopped?

Strange Practice is a really enjoyable urban fantasy which manages to mix traditional mythology (garlic, crosses and os on) with a different approach (alliances between human and undead), particularly the concept that such creatures would need medical support.

It works because not only is the conceit well-thought-out, but the characters, especially Greta, are complex, engaging and likeable. There’s even a glorious cameo from the Devil, and the use of my new favourite phrase “inferno-celestial politics”

I loved this and am looking forward to reading the remaining books in the series.