This book is a hidden gem that I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon. It’s a curious mix of heartwarming and heartbreaking, humorous and cautionary, satirical and utterly genuine. It’s weird, folks. It’s so weird. It’s reminiscent of Terry Pratchett in its silliness, its anachronisms, and its ability to tell more than one story at a time - the story you’re reading, and the story beneath that story, the one you’re feeling with your heart. That sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true. This is a book for every person who loves reading, for every person who’s found community in their fellow misfits, for every person who will fight to the end for the world they love. Everyone else might read this book and walk away confused and underwhelmed, but for those who are looking to dive into a strange and wonderful new fictional world, this book will delight and captivate.Also, QUEERS!
This book is utterly fantastic. I was initially a little hesitant (past life stuff can be pretty cheesy) but was immediately blown away by the depth of the story and characters. Switching between the protagonist’s past and present life keeps both plots moving swiftly and the reader wanting more. Even though I knew how her past life would end, I still found myself anxious and eager to find out what happened. A definite recommendation for anyone interested in Roman history, queer fiction, and/or past life stories.
Self-published books can have a certain raw charm and edginess to them. Frequently, there is no shepherding staff of an editor to whack at plot slip-ups and corral run-on sentences. Or, suggest ways out of the dead end into which you’ve just written yourself. It takes grit to publish them, and grit to read them. Some of us (cough) edit live, months after the book has been published, and breathe a secret word of thanks that only a handful of understanding friends have bought the book.The braver of us send them out into the world and trumpet their arrival, because they’re convinced that somewhere out there are readers craving fresh ideas over echo.Schwellenbach’s first book deserves attention from those readers.It isn’t that Scourge hasn’t been edited (the author is after all editor of a weekly newspaper). It’s just that it’s impossible to miss how enamored Ashley Schwellenbach is of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters ... writing. And making lists! My quibble with Scourge is that she sometimes surrenders storytelling to a rhapsody of detail and subplot. But it’s hard to become impatient since Schwellenbach must touch and sniff her words. Her love of what she’s doing (writing!) runs through every single page. Who can find fault with that?Not me. I kept reading.Right through Liam’s 816-word supply list (I counted them) at the end of which she deftly tucked a Hawaiian shirt between Dockers and Galoshes. To see if you were paying attention. She burnt a forest and delivered a eulogy to tree species I’d not heard of. She wrote a song. And played with the table of contents. There are times when even she gets a little fatigued (this is a hefty book) and a chapter ends while you’re still thinking about why it would do that right then.At the heart of the book is a jealous making idea: orphaned girls who spend their days writing, and whatever issues from their pens actually comes to pass. Who are the orphans? Consider their names: Alice, and Ayn (“Her self-confidence was that of a much older woman, battle-tested, scarred, and proud, and the rabid zeal with which she defended her own highly inflammatory ideology would not mellow with age.”), and Beatrix, and Charlotte, and Chitra (who mixes her ink with exotic spices!), and Emily, and Eudora, and Isak, and Miles, and Sylvie. Of course that roll doesn’t end there.Scourge of the Righteous Haddock is a celebration of that ineffable something which has this author now editing her second book: imagination. Clearly she has enough of it to give away since she’s also at work on a third book.I read the first half of this book on a plane and kept dog-earing pages (sorry!). And I’ll close this review by sharing a few of the passages I marked. Enjoy:”But Miles knew that words derive their power, not from being bound and contained, but by their release. There was no poetry without the wind and sky. And there would be no Trundlewood Academy without the tangled heap of fabric wrapped round and round the school, keeping the planets in their proper orbits, delivering screaming infants to eager parents, and collapsing the cakes of inattentive bakers.” (Page 71)”All that obeisance must be rough on the trousers, particularly at the knee. And denial of the flesh seemed hard on the flesh.” Trousers! (Page 107)”Love was very different from true love, and Emily believed the use of the word “true” actually diluted the word it was intended to modify. You shouldn’t need to modify love, Emily thought, or accessorize it with other happy sounding words. At a certain point you just had to let it be, either to stand the test of time or fade away or combust right in your face, depending on your preference.” (Page 237)There’s a lot more to savor. All I can say is, if this is her first book I can’t wait for the second. Or the third.
A photo on Schwellenbach’s blog (janeeyrelikescupcakes.wordpress.com) shows a binder that can’t possibly hold anything else. This is the author’s research for Vestal, and if you know Schwellenbach like I do (getting that out of the way now), you’ll wonder where she stashed the rest of it—because there’s no way she could fit it all in just one binder.Vestal rides smoothly on all of that careful homework, slipping with ease from the stew of tourists in present-day Rome to the time of the emperor Commodus, whose public appearances centered around such events as the binding of thirty humans into a cluster so the emperor in the guise of Hercules could relish the slaying of a writhing giant. This is the brutal setting in which Schwellenbach directs a love story between a woman who can’t be touched and the woman who breaks every law by daring to do just that, and it makes for a second novel that is a very good read.However, the story is missing some of the lightness of pen of her first, and there are excellent reasons for that, most of which have to do with my own preference for the bizarro fantasy at which she excels. I don’t want to go on about the slightly less brutal landscape of publishing, since it doesn’t in fact affect what we write, but it does make for a final period that is leaden. Read this book, and look for the author’s third.