Thursday, October 17, 2019

Indiana Jones meets Earthsea--with airships: Hûw Steer's The Blackbird and the Ghost

Title: The Blackbird and the Ghost
Series: The Boiling Seas (Book 1)
Author: Hûw Steer
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 252

What Goodreads has to say:

The Boiling Seas are the mariner’s bane – and the adventurer’s delight. The waters may be hot enough to warp wood and boil a hapless swimmer, but their scalding expanse is full of wonders. Strange islands lurk in the steamy mists, and stranger ruins hold ancient secrets, remnants of forgotten empires waiting for the bold… or lying in wait for the unwary.

On the Corpus Isles, gateway to the Boiling Seas, Tal Wenlock, the Blackbird, seeks a fortune of his own. The treasure he pursues could change the world – but he just wants to change a single life, and it’s not his own. To reach it, he’ll descend into the bowels of the earth and take ship on burning waters, brave dark streets and steal forbidden knowledge. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and fight – but he won’t get far alone. The ghosts of Tal’s past dog his every step – and one in particular keeps his knives sharp.

The Blackbird will need help to reach his goal… and he’ll need all his luck to get back home alive.

What I have to say:

It must be my birthday or something, because I keep getting sent these awesome books to review. On the same day I finished listening to Rob Keeley's adorable MG ghost story Childish Spirits, I also turned the final page of Hûw Steer's thrilling fantasy adventure The Blackbird and the Ghost

This book is kind of like Indiana Jones meets Earthsea. Tal Wenlock is a tomb-robber with magical powers. Sounds awesome, right?

It is.

But it's about to get even more awesome when I tell you that there are also sailing ships, boiling waves, ancient libraries, deep dark mines, and world-building that will make you stop and exclaim: "Yes! That's how you do it!"

In other words, this book is my dream come true.

I've got a thing for archaeology. (I'm kind of obsessed with Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb.) I also love magic, stories of adventure, and far-off places. And clearly I've got a thing for books or I wouldn't be writing this blog.


OK. Deep breath. I'll try to settle down and talk about this book in more sensible terms. 

Let's start at the very beginning.

Oh yeah, there might be some minor....


The beginning of this book is actually the end.

And talking about the way this book is structured is almost sending me into another geek out session, but I'll try to stay calm for the sake of my hapless, captive readers.

The story starts with Tal Wenlock--alias The Blackbird, famed tomb-raider--breaking into the tomb of his career. He's after an ancient scroll with magical properties, and no mission has ever been so important to him.

The prologue follows Tal as he breaks into the tomb and makes his way toward the sarcophagus of the king, avoiding one deadly trap after another in pursuit of his object. It's so intense and it's so boss that we're not even told his name until the very last sentence! 

Then there's a sudden, totally unforeseen disaster, and then the chapter ends and we go back to three weeks before!

I can't even with this book. It's so freaking cool.

Because the whole time I'm reading from here on out, my mind keeps flashing back to that prologue and what happened at the end of it, and internally I'm screaming, but I'm also strangely invested in what's happening on the page in front of me right now, and I'm rooting for Tal so hard even though I know what lies at the end of his journey. 

I'm hoping against hope that once we get there, once we return to that moment, there will be something I missed the first time around and it will all be all right after all. Man.

On the subject of rooting for Tal, he's definitely someone to root for. A thieving tomb-raider with a strong interest in history, a respect for the dead, and a love of thick books, I mean, what's not to love? 

He's also very good at what he does, and his skills at everything from lock-picking to locating rare books to evading certain death are, to say the least, impressive.

The other characters are great too. Max is a scholarly young doctor and historian who, upon very slim persuasion, gets pulled into Tal's illegal quest for a mythic item. She doesn't fit the mold of the average sidekick, and for that she's way cool.

Mikhail is a seriously terrifying rival tomb-raider who I assume is the "ghost" of the title. I love the effect he has on Tal because it makes Tal himself more vulnerable and relatable as a character. He's a competent, thrill-seeking tomb-raider with serious survival skills, but he's not fearless. The idea of Mikhail stalking him makes Tal's hands shake.

Also, side note: I just love that Tal is a tomb-raider who also digs libraries, is super nice to people, and goes to therapy. He's a total boss but he's also kind of adorable.

Besides awesome characters, another thing this author does really well is world-building. All the places--the coastal town of Fort Malice with its wharf and maze-like streets, the chilling ruins of the Sydren Mines and the forbidding tomb on the island of The Palm--they all feel so vivid and real.

This story is richly painted: you can almost feel the salt wind on your face as Tal walks the streets of Fort Malice, hear the sinister velvet of Mikhail's voice, taste the stale air of the ancient tombs. 

I felt like I was right there with Tal from start to finish, shadowing him on his quest for the scroll, because all the scenes, sights, and even Tal's private emotions had such immediacy to them. 

Long story short: 

Loved this book. Hope there's a sequel in the works. Send it my way.

(And keep sending me awesome books, everyone.)


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A perfect Halloween read (or listen): Rob Keeley's Childish Spirits Audiobook

Title: Childish Spirits
Author: Rob Keeley
Genre: MG Fantasy / Ghosts
Listening Length: 3 hrs and 26 min
Read by: Sally Millest
(Or you can listen for free with a 30-day Audible Trial)


When Ellie and her family move into Inchwood Manor, Ellie quickly discovers strange things are happening. Who is the mysterious boy at the window? What secrets lie within the abandoned nursery? Who is the woman who haunts Ellie’s dreams - and why has she returned to the Manor, after more than a century? Ellie finds herself entangled in a Victorian mystery of ghosts and tunnels and secret documents - and discovers that life all those years ago isn’t so different from the world she knows today.... Rob Keeley’s first novel for children brings out all the ingredients of the classic ghost story within a recognizable modern world setting.

Listeners of his short story collections for children will find in Childish Spirits the elements which made his past books such a success - strong and contemporary characters, inventive twists on traditional themes, and a winning combination of action, suspense, and humor.

Erin's take:

Childish Spirits is an adorable book. As in, I adored it from start to finish. It's also adorable in the sense that its characters and story are charming and sweet. 

But it's not just a "cute" story. There's a strong creep factor (it's a book about ghosts, so I'd hope so), and talk of some deep issues like divorce, class prejudice, and suicide. Also, it's incredibly well-written. 

As read by Sally Millest, it's doubly enjoyable. Of course, a big part of my personal enjoyment probably stemmed from the fact that she has a great English accent and as an American, I'm a succor for that. But she also reads with beautiful flow and expression. Animated by Millest's lively yet sensitive voice, the characters are vibrant and vivid, each with a unique, strong personality.

Let's talk about the characters, shall we? Edward, the ghost of a rich (read: spoiled) 10-year-old, is absolutely adorable. He's also a pain in the rear, but somehow, that makes him not less endearing but more. He's certainly infuriating at times and Ellie deserves a ton of credit for putting up with him. But despite that, I for one grew very attached to him. 

I also love Ellie, the main character. An ambitious if young painter and poet who's about the same age as Edward (and also alive, by the way), she makes for a wonderful heroine. I also found her brother Charlie hilarious. He calls his younger sister "small person," and "miniature one."

I've read plenty of MG novels that bored me. Likewise, I usually have a hard time listening to audiobooks because I'll zone out and miss something important. To prevent this from happening, the book has to be both very well-written and paced, and the reader has to be very dynamic. Otherwise, I probably won't make it to the end.

I'm happy to report that I didn't zone out once during Childish Spirits. Not only is it well read--it's perfectly paced. The story is a flawless blend of suspense, mystery, creepiness, charm, and character development. 

The first few chapters were deliciously creepy in exactly the kind of way I like (I don't really do scary movies but I dig ghostly stuff and am obsessed with E.A. Poe). Then I was curious to know who Edward was and what he died of. Soon a strange new ghost appeared in the house and it was totally creepy and suspenseful again.  

Mystery followed upon mystery: just as Ellie solved one, it would lead to another. Then there was very real danger and needless to say, by this time I was hooked.

While a few of the twists were things I saw coming, this is a MG book, so I feel like that's how it should be. And there were definitely other twists that threw me for a loop. 

In short, Childish Spirits is the kind of MG ghost book I wish every MG ghost book was like. It reminded me of The Graveyard Book and The Children of Green Knowe, except it's probably more exciting than those books (especially Green Knowe, which, though I say it affectionately, has an excitement factor of about 1).

It's also a wonderful October read. Not too scary, but mildly creepy and totally--to use my favorite word because I always will if at all possible--phantasmagoric.

Parts of it made me shiver, parts made me catch my breath, and the end left me smiling. I'll say it again: adorable.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Haunting Edgar Allan Poe in Manhattan: A Travelogue

Once upon a time there was a girl who couldn't get enough Poe.

That girl was me.

Is me. 

I'm obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe.

So much so that I have a goal to visit every single location he lived in. I've been to his birthplace in Boston, his house in Philadelphia, and even (by coincidence) a bed and breakfast he stayed at in Scotland. 

I've also been to his house in the Bronx (Poe Cottage), and seen the bed in which his wife died. I've walked the Highbridge, which is a short distance from Poe Cottage, and which Poe used to walk--almost manically--at all hours of the day. 

Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York
The Highbridge in the Bronx, New York

But Poe also lived in Manhattan. In about 60 different locations.

OK, that may be an exaggeration, but he certainly got around the city a lot.

This summer, I decided to track down every single site in Manhattan that Edgar Allan Poe once lived at and visit all of them--in one day.

I compiled my list from several websites and planned out my route. Then I grabbed my pocket-sized Poe book off the shelf and went on an adventure.

I kept a travelogue of my journey.

Here, as we kick off the absolute best month of the year and get ready to read scary stories and go to haunted houses, is a record of my adventure haunting the steps of Edgar Allan Poe.


Erin's Ex-Poe-ration of Manhattan

Today I embark on my long anticipated Edgar Allan Poe tour of New York City. One day. 12 locations.* Anything could happen.

(*Excepting Poe Cottage and the Highbridge as I’ve already visited and they’re a little out of the way. Both are in the Bronx and could be done on the same day.)

First stop: Broadway and W 84th St. 

From 1844 to 1845, when the Upper West Side was still farmland, Poe and his wife lived on this corner in a house on a rocky outcropping. The street looks quite different now, but there is a memorial plaque on 84th between Broadway and Amsterdam. 

It was at this site that Poe finished writing "The Raven." So let's just pretend this strange eagle statue is actually a raven, shall we?

Now down to the end of 84th St for a location that reportedly helped Poe find inspiration for "The Raven."

Walk to the end of 84 St and enter Riverside Park. Looking down toward 83rd St, you will see a mound of rock that seems “a swelling of the ground.” Framed by trees and bushes, it feels almost like a hidden woodland shrine. Approach via the dirt path.

When he needed a quiet spot to ponder, surrounded by the beauty of nature, Poe would walk to this rocky hill overlooking the Hudson. He christened the spot “Mount Tom.”

It’s a windy place, a place that, given the right imagination, could be called Romantic and windswept and even gothically sublime. How much more sublime it must have been surrounded by countryside and without the murmur of cars, when you could stand atop Mount Tom and see the Hudson River sparkling below.

As it is, it’s a good place to sit and read “The Raven” which Poe wrote just a few blocks away.

Poe spoke delightedly of the rockiness of Upper Manhattan. It must have inspired him like the moors inspired the Brontes. But he suspected that all too soon, the dramatic landscape would be flattened and paved to make way for buildings.

Next stop is 154 Greenwich St.

It’s a longish ride on the 1 line, so let’s get into some background, shall we?

Poe moved to Manhattan in the 1830s. When he arrived, he was a struggling writer who had yet to publish any big hits. If I’ve calculated correctly, he lived in 10 different locations around the city until he moved in 1847 to Baltimore, where he died two years later. It was in Manhattan and the Bronx that he wrote and published The Raven and nursed his young wife Virginia, who died of tuberculosis in their Bronx farmhouse in 1847.

The next three stops have changed so radically since Poe’s time that it’s nigh impossible to even locate the addresses in question. 154 Greenwich St is now part of the World Trade Center area. 

 O’Hara’s Pub is fairly picturesque; Poe lived where the restaurant now stands, and there is something vaguely Poe-ish about the building’s red brick and wood paneling.

Ann St, on which Poe lived (4 Ann St) and worked (25 Ann St) isn’t much to look at. As far as I can tell, Zara’s now stands where his residence was.

Another of Poe’s residences, 195 E Broadway, is now part of the Manny Cantor Center. Across from it is a beautiful New York Public Library building.

Now to Greenwich Village. It seems only natural that Poe would have lived here, in the charming place so many writers and artists have called home.

At Waverly Place and Christopher St, in the middle of a street triangle, is the Northern Dispensary, founded in 1827. It was here during Poe’s time and he (supposedly) once visited to buy medicine for a cold. The old brick building is still intact and conjures up Poe’s Manhattan better than any of the other buildings seen on this tour so far.

Just steps away is Waverly Place and 6th Avenue, where Poe resided at one time.

From there, it’s a short walk to 85 W 3rd St, where Poe lived in 1845. Here he wrote “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” and revised and published “The Raven.” The original building is no longer here, but NYU (pressured by preservationists) has made some attempt to replicate the facade of Poe’s building.

It’s definitely the best preserved of Poe’s residences I’ve seen today, but then again that’s not saying much. Still, it’s charming. The building is open to the public from 9 to 11 AM on Thursdays, but honestly I doubt it’s worth going into, as it’s now simply NYU offices. The banister of the original staircase has been preserved.

The intriguing 113 1/2 Carmine St (reputedly another of Poe’s residences) no longer exists, but a walk down Carmine St is nice regardless.

Now to the last stop on this tour of non-existent locations: 
E 47th St and 2nd Ave

What I’ll find there is anyone’s guess. Probably nothing.

At E 47th St and 2nd Ave is a rather nice park, as urban parks go. It features a long mall framed with benches and tall, slender trees—their wispy branches reveling in the wind.

There’s also a black structure like a skeletal Greek temple, and a series of fountains that look vaguely Gothic. 

As I watch, a pigeon lands on the edge of the fountain’s dish and I just manage to snap one photo before it flies away, beating its wings and rising upward.

It’s not a raven, but I’ll take it.


In case anyone is wondering, I have only two Poe cities left to visit before my goal is complete: Richmond, Virginia; and Poe's house and grave in Baltimore, Maryland.

Happy October!

Until tomorrow.