Shadows Over Baker Street: A Holmes Meets Lovecraft Collection

I’ve been on a kick of discovering older books recently, and really enjoyed the classic Shadows Over Baker Street from 2003, edited by Michael Reeves and John Pelan. It’s a collection of short stories from a number of fantastic authors including Neil Gaiman and Billy Martin (writing at the time as Poppy Z Brite). The stories feature characters from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes universe, set in a world of HP Lovecraft’s monsters. The notoriously logical Holmes faces mysteries without rational explanation, tied to eldritch beings and their fanatical human worshippers.

The benefits of a short story collection are many. For one thing, the short form keeps the book readable and fast-paced; in this case there was still some feeling of repetitiveness by the end of the book, but it still held your interest as it moved through various vignettes. Because in this format, each story can take a different approach, timeframe, and set of characters, which lets the reader discover not only more of Lovecraft’s plots and characters but also more of Holmes’ cases and adventures. While many of the stories do rely on a Watson-and-Holmes-at-Baker-Street structure, a good number find Holmes in different places, with different narrators or helpers. In one case, Holmes doesn’t appear at all, and the story connects to him through Irene Adler (Tiger! Tiger! by Elizabeth Bear). The overall effect is of a somehow cozy journey into the terrifying and impossible adventures of yesteryear, like ghost stories told by the fire. If you like Sherlock Holmes, HP Lovecraft, or similar universes like Doctor Who, this is a great book to curl up with as the nights start to get colder and spookier.

However, if you’re looking for something slightly more recent but with the same vibe/premise, I’m planning to try 2019’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall, which is also a Sherlock Holmes retelling set in an alternative universe, with plenty of monsters and action, but with all of Alexis Hall’s charm, humor, and LGBTQIA diversity.

What’s YOUR favorite Sherlock Holmes read?

The Batman on DVD

You could probably tell a lot about a person by their answer to the question: “Who’s your favorite Batman?” Me, personally, I’d probably say Michael Keaton from the Tim Burton Batman and Batman Returns movies, with Christian Bale’s Dark Knight a close second (but that’s because of Michael Caine as Alfred). I don’t know what that says about me (escapist nostalgia?), but I have a theory about people whose favorite Batman is now Robert Pattinson in The Batman: they’re probably thoughtful, complex people who know what it’s like to struggle with trauma and anger, and who care about responsibility and accountability.

Here’s why I think that. I’m not going to summarize the plot for you too much, because you’ve probably heard plenty about this movie while it was coming out (I sure did). I wasn’t surprised that a brooding Bruce Wayne faces a brutal Riddler after two years fighting crime as Vengeance. What I was surprised by was how NOT romanticized the Batman figure was. Rather than making him a kooky crimefighter (Adam West style), a pitiable and misguided orphan martyr (like in the Gotham TV series) or a playboy and noble warrior for justice (Christian Bale style), this film makes him (and his Bruce identity) undeniably problematic both as a person and as a symbol to Gotham. Feminists will probably be notably uncomfy with his behavior toward Selina Kyle, Alfred fans (like me) will be startled by how little time and affection Bruce has for his surrogate father, mental health advocates will recognize a truly troubled personality in the unwashed and obsessive Bruce, and by the end of the movie there will be a deep dive into the dark effects a violent vigilante like Batman would really have on the culture and crime rates of Gotham. It’s an important thing to consider in an age of radicalization, polarization, and people pushed to extremes – and it makes a film that really sticks with you.

I know many people were struggling to accept Pattinson’s jump from Twilight mega-fame to tough-guy Bruce, but if you haven’t already you should definitely give this film a watch. If you’re not interested in the philosophical exploration of violence and accountability, try it for the truly wild card atmosphere of this film. For one thing, I promise you are not prepared for the Wayne Manor, and second, I would not be surprised if the casting call for this film stated “must have an unusual or silly-sounding voice”. Moreover, Zoe Kravitz’ Selina Kyle is as tough and sultry as advertised, and ALMOST as good at critiquing Batman’s privileged perspective on the world as Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Batman Returns. Other worthwhile highlights for longtime Batman fans include a clearly retro-inspired Batmobile, an ethnically diverse cast including a particularly effective Jim Gordon, and skillful camera work and orchestration (almost as good a score as The Dark Knight, though not quite at that unsettling level).

Whatever your reason, don’t miss the latest reimagining of The Caped Crusader, now available in DVD and Blu-Ray at the library. Did I miss your favorite Batman? Tell us in the comments!

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

You may know I’m a big fan of classic retellings, and of Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins is the ultimate retelling of both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, with modern feminist sensibilities.

Jane is the new dog walker in Thornfield Estates and resents the casual privilege her extremely wealthy clients display, while she’s struggling to make ends meet and living with a creepy church musician for a roommate. It seems a huge stroke of luck when she hits it off with reclusive widower Eddie Rochester and embarks on a whirlwind romance. But her sense that something isn’t right only grows as they start to talk about marriage, since the spectre of Eddie’s late wife Bea is never far away, in the neighborhood, in Eddie, and in the house. To make matters worse, then the police start asking Eddie more questions about the night Bea went missing and her best friend Blance died, and Blanche’s husband has plenty of unpleasant insinuations to make. Not to mention Jane’s own past is threatening to rear its ugly head…

I love that this book uses all the Jane Eyre names, but makes the original characters make sense in the modern world – John Rivers for example is perfectly drawn as an unsettling religious figure who wants Jane for himself and treats her badly. The plot is also optimized for modern readers as strategic flashbacks, confessions, and slow reveals avoid the boggy parts of Jane Eyre by mixing past with present. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and other unreliable-narrator thrillers are clear influences, and The Wife Upstairs easily joins their canon of feminist thrillers where realistic women earn their victories the hard way.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

If you know me you know I love a good retelling, and that I fanatically loved Lyndsay Faye’s retelling of Hamlet. Recently I picked up her 2016 Jane Steele, a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Jane Eyre, in which rather than bearing up stoically under adversity, Jane turns to murder to escape her various oppressors. Once again Faye perfectly captures the spirit of the original while adding certain improvements – with both style and modern sensibilities.

Jane Steele has decided to write her memoir, after reading an interesting book called Jane Eyre. However, while she admires Jane E, Jane S has taken a rather different approach to her own life of suffering. It all started with her uncomfortably attentive cousin Edwin, after Jane’s beloved mother dies. In the spirit of honesty, Jane admits: “Reader, I murdered him.” Through her various trials – a cruel boarding school, her time in London – Jane often resorts to this problem-solving method, until one day she discovers that someone has bought her childhood home. Curious, she makes her way there, and is surprised by her feelings for new owner Charles Thoringfield. But can someone as admittedly wicked as Jane really get her happy ending?

I was impressed at how well this book echoed Jane Eyre‘s narrative style, while also feeling like an original story. Jane manages to be simultaneously sympathetic, relatable, and unique in her unflinching homicidal instincts. The murders themselves become a sort of feminist commentary – at the time this book (and the original) are set, the options for women to succeed are few, and the opportunities for them to suffer are boundless, and so from the beginning Jane’s victims are archetypes for those who oppress women: Jane’s cousin is a sexual predator as well as a demanding relative, the school’s headmaster shames and torments the girls in the name of religion, a later victim abuses his wife, and so on. This allows the reader to feel righteous glee as through murder Jane rejects and destroys these individuals’ harmful and/or misogynist messages.

To balance out the gore and social justice, Jane has her share of tenderness, love, and friendship from her mother, school friends, and others along the way – in most cases Jane only takes drastic measures in self-defense or to protect those she loves. There’s also a good amount of intrigue, mystery, hijinks, and romance, and of course, to lighten things up, the whole thing is shot through with frankness and humor. I think the story works particularly well because it follows the general structure of the original Jane, but puts even more focus on Jane Steele as an individual with power in her own hands doing her best to protect herself and her loved ones from many very real dangers.

For an excellent retelling and feminist romp in the spirit of An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, don’t miss the vibrant and violent Jane Steele.

Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cori McCarthy

If you like the King Arthur legend, rebels against dictators, outer space adventures, or LGBTQ+ found families, you’ll probably like Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cori McCarthy, which reimagines King Arthur as a 17-year-old refugee girl, fighting a corporation’s stranglehold on the galaxy with the help of her brother, her maybe-girlfriend, their loyal friends, and a thousand-year-old backward-aging wizard.

Ari Helix has been on the run most of her life, ever since being forced to flee her home planet of Ketch. More recently, she and her adopted brother Kay have been trying to find a way to free their moms from a corporate prison planet, with no success. But then Ari meets Merlin – the actual Merlin of legend, who’s been aging backward for thousands of years as he tries to complete King Arthur’s story. Ari is the most recent reincarnation of the king, and it’s her destiny to wield Excalibur, defeat an ancient evil, and unite all humanity. Now-teenage Merlin sets out to train her for the coming battle, and tries to protect her from her smoldering passion for (who else) Queen Gwenivere. But their enemy, the Mercer Corporation, has a long reach and no mercy for rebellion…

This book has an absolutely breakneck pace and is extremely plot-driven – you never have to slog through angsty introspection or detailed scene descriptions, which makes for a breathtaking and addictive story where lots of things keep happening to hold your attention. But it can also feel a bit rushed, as in some places an event’s emotional consequences don’t feel fully explored because the plot’s too busy moving on. Luckily it’s also packed with humor and heart, keeping it light while engaging vital and heavy issues.

Queer inclusive and gender diverse, with strong chosen family bonds, the cast of characters will capture your heart and never let it go; alongside Ari’s romance with Gwen, Merlin himself finds a surprising attraction forming with Val, the Queen’s trusted adviser and brother of Ari’s old friend Lam, who uses they/them pronouns. It’s so refreshing to read a world where diversity and inclusion are the norm, with prejudice an unimaginable relic of long-forgotten systems.

Definitely check out this book if you like classic retellings with an inclusive, space-faring twist!

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye

An amazing retelling of Hamlet that makes the original more comprehensible to a modern audience, The King of Infinite Space is the ultimate read for those who loved reading Shakespeare in high school, those who (like me) are suckers for a good retelling, and those who just live for drama, love triangles, family intrigue, yearning, sinister dreams, and yes, murder.

Here’s the gist: the Hamlet character in this case is Benjamin Dane, son of oil tycoon and theater magnate Jackson Dane, recently deceased. Benjamin is spiraling because his manipulative mother, Trudy Dane, has suddenly married his annoying uncle, Claude Dane, AND his ex-fiancée, Lia, has recently started appearing in his dreams, an unwilling participant in some kind of psychic link revisiting the fire that traumatized their shared childhood. In order to have any kind of support, Benjamin summons back to New York his estranged best friend Horatio, who fled home to London after his longtime crush on Benjamin culminated in a one-night-stand that neither of them knew how to deal with.

That’s already a lot, right? And that’s just the setup – the whole book spirals, like water around a drain, toward a gala event that Trudy and Claude Dane are hosting to celebrate their marriage / honor Jackson Dane’s contributions to his theater company. Benjamin is trying to find out whether his mother, uncle, or anyone else contributed to his father’s fatal overdose, while Horatio desperately tries to keep him alive and sane. Lia, on the other hand, has become caught up in the machinations of three enigmatic sisters and their (for lack of a better word) frenemy as they all seek to influence the outcome of the doomed gala. There are secrets and deceptions and half-truths GALORE that need to be unearthed before the book comes to its inevitable (but still surprising) conclusion.

Personally I thought that Faye knew exactly where to be faithful to the spirit of the original and where to deviate. For example, Lia’s role is a a great interpretation of the role of Ophelia, with certain improvements including rounding out her personality more and giving her more power over the narrative. For another, Horatio and Ben’s complicated platonic/romantic relationship seems to just make explicit what Shakespeare strongly implies in the original (depending on how you read it). In another important point, Faye also uses typeface and writing style to great effect in Ben’s chapters, moving the text around on the page in various ways to reflect his neurodivergence and unique experience of the world. If you’re into murder mysteries, modernized classic lit, and lush magical realism, you’ll probably love this book.

The Roads to Rebecca

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic novel for very good reason — the suspenseful tone, the clever writing style, and compelling characters all make it a story for the ages. The original novel was published in 1938, and was turned into first a play in 1939, a film in 1940, and most recently a Netflix film released this year. If you’re not already aware (and let’s be honest, obsessed) with this story, here are some details about it and some different ways to experience it.

First, the basics: a young woman falls in love with an older man, Maxim De Winter, while working as a companion to a rich American woman in Monte Carlo. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to his estate, Manderley. Once they arrive, the young woman discovers the house is a monument to her husband’s deceased first wife, the Rebecca from the title. The house’s habits, decoration, and staff all bear her stamp, including a sinister housekeeper who undermines our insecure narrator at every turn, bullying her with stories of the glamorous Rebecca. In mounting distress, the narrator struggles both to escape Rebecca’s shadow and to uncover the dark secrets her husband is keeping from her about his past. Eventually, he confides in her, but that may only cause them more problems…

What I love about this book is how the writing style underscores the plot — the narrator is given no name other than Mrs. De Winter, while her predecessor Rebecca is not only named but is the book’s title. The narrator’s identity is literally erased, insignificant compared to Rebecca. Also, the story is told as a flashback, giving the reader enigmatic hints of the book’s ending long before it arrives – much as the narrator learns about Rebecca in mysterious bits and pieces.

Intrigued? Check out the book or the film version (or any one of the several available) from the library. But wait, there’s more!

Also released this year was a YA novel which retells the Rebecca story in a modern setting, to chilling effect. I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick echoes Du Maurier’s twisty plot full of drama, chills, and unexpected revelations. In this case, the story is about Anna, who comes to the Hamptons to spend the summer working as a nanny. She’s hoping for a fresh start but finds herself instead overshadowed by Zoe Spanos, a local girl who recently went missing, and who looks a LOT like Anna… Slowly, the mystery of Zoe Spanos takes over Anna’s life until she’s sure they’re linked by a dark connection. But did Anna really kill her? And how can she find the truth?

This is far from the only retelling of or companion to this iconic story, of course. There’s also Rebecca’s Tale, The Winters, Mrs. De Winter, In Her Shadow, and more. If you like atmospheric mysteries, thrillers, or marriage stories, check out any of these titles from the Rebeccaverse.

The Remix: YA Retellings of Classic Novels

Chances are you’ve seen lists of “books everyone must read” or “books to read before you die”, or something similar. And it’s also pretty likely that you’ve tried to read some of these “essential” or “classic” books, only to find them dense and difficult. Books written in the 19th or 20th centuries often have a very different writing style than modern works, which makes it more challenging to get hooked and keep reading. My secret? I do my best to read the original, and then read a fantastic YA retelling. There are a lot of YA authors taking these iconic stories and making them accessible to modern readers so they get the story’s proper emotional effect. Here are two examples of what I mean.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is undoubtedly a classic. It has been referenced in plays, movies, and TV shows for years due to its universal themes of obsession, revenge, and their destructive effects. However, this book is also a classic example of a wordy 19th century writing style, and in my opinion Melville tells you way more about the technical aspects of whaling than you need to know. The point of this book for me is in Ahab’s obsession and its deadly effects for innocent bystanders like Ishmael and the rest of the crew. If you agree with me (or just don’t have time to wade through some five hundred pages) another way to experience this story is And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. It retells the Moby-Dick story from the whale’s perspective: a pod of whales led by Captain Alexandra goes to war with the human Toby Wick, with devastating consequences for all concerned. It maintains the gravitas and the action of the original, but it makes some really effective changes. Among other things, it has beautiful illustrations and the perspective change really highlights the complicated ethical questions hinted at in the original. And it’s shorter, by a lot. Not an action-adventure reader? Not to worry, I have a romantic example too.

Jane Eyre is, to be fair, one of my favorite books even in its original form. The ordinary but strong-willed protagonist who determines her own fate and goes after what she wants is inspiring to me, and the writing style isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. However, for me the book spends the middle section of the book slogging through a fairly irrelevant subplot before returning to the main story, and I have some ethical concerns about Mr. Rochester – this is the main character’s fairly pushy love interest, who (spoiler alert) locks his mentally ill wife in the attic of his house and tries to marry the main character anyway. For these reasons I was delighted to discover Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne. It retells the Jane Eyre story with a few improvements – setting the action on a futuristic spaceship, keeping the story’s pace moving, and tweaking a few things to make the love interest less problematic.

These are just two examples of a great trend in YA literature – translating iconic historical works into modern terms so the story and its significance isn’t lost on present and future generations. There are plenty more I could highlight, including remixes of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and lots of fairy tales. Don’t get me wrong, I love the new stories being written just as well, but there’s something special about rediscovering great stories (and their lessons) so many years later. More than that, I like looking at what gets changed, because it shows me how the world and its systems change over time to be more ethical, inclusive – or just more interesting!

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

As you might know by now, the things I love in books include: murder mysteries, retellings of iconic works, and ensemble casts. Recently I discovered that One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus ticks all three of those boxes! It’s a twist on the iconic movie The Breakfast Club, featuring a compelling murder mystery, and it features a dynamic and well-rounded set of characters. I devoured this book in a  a day or two, because it’s very compelling reading and I had to know whodunit.

The brain is Bronwyn: driven and Ivy League bound. The athlete is Cooper: a baseball player already being scouted by teams and colleges alike. The princess is Addy: the popular girl with the perfect boyfriend. The criminal is Nate: the drug dealer with a broken home and a bad reputation. These four find themselves in detention with Simon, who runs their school’s notorious gossip app and loves spilling everybody’s secrets. But before their punishment is over, Simon is dead and they’re facing a lot of tough questions. Their lives, and their secrets, will never be the same again.

One of my favorite things about this book was the character development. Rather than sticking to their typecast roles, these characters grow, change, and discover new things about themselves through the course of their ordeal. Nobody is quite who they appear to be, in both good and chilling ways throughout the story. It reminded me strongly of the new Jumanji movies in that a dangerous situation is brightened by unexpected friendships made along the way.

Even better – there’s a sequel! One Of Us Is Next is available now, and to my delight it doesn’t immediately put the same characters in danger, derailing all their personal growth and happy endings. Instead, secondary characters from the first novel (including Bronwyn’s hacker younger sister) step into center stage in the second, taking on a whole new mystery and a whole new set of secrets. If you like hopeful mysteries, teen books, great characters, or can’t get enough of The Breakfast Club, I recommend this author’s work whole-heartedly.