Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Penguin Books. 2012. Personal copy. Vacation reads, a series of adult books reviewed before holidays for your vacation reading.

The Plot: Christian has returned home, returned from the United States to Germany, to a place that is no longer the dark, small town he remembers but instead is a place of vacation homes and brightness. Retired, away from Germany for decades, he returns after the death of his mother.

He sees friends from his past: Martin, Alex, Linde. Their past holds secrets, the types of secrets that people in small towns know about but do not talk about. “Our secrets in Hemmersmoor were always open and always kept safe.”

An old man has returned to his childhood home. Come, let him and his friends tell you their secrets.

Be warned: these secrets are dark.

The Good: I’m not sure what I thought Your House is on Fire was going to be; oh, I knew it was about secrets, about what had happened to these adults as children, I expected twists and turns and  to be scared and horrified.

Still, knowing all this, I didn’t expect — I couldn’t know —

Christian says at the beginning, “I have returned, but not to the village I once left. That village doesn’t exist anymore, survives in only my memories and dreams.” I was thinking something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story or Stephen King’s IT would follow. Both of those books are lighthearted romps with puppies and unicorns in sunny fields of rainbows and daisies compared to Your House is on Fire. I thought this was going to be creepy; it is, but it so redefines creepy that I’ll be frugal about how I use that word in the future.

I began, thinking ah, Christian is the main character because he begins the story. He lets us know hints of some of the secrets that will come (Alex’s time in jail, Linde’s scarred face, deaths in Christian’s family). After the prologue, though, there are a series of small chapters, each with a different narrator (Martin, Christian, Linde, Anke) telling a different story of themselves and their town, starting with when the children are seven. “Time is of no importance,” the reader is told — and Your House is on Fire tells us how true that can be.

Kiesbye never gives the reader a year, but he gives clues. The talk of two Germanys, of wars, of televisions and trainers in the present, let the reader know that this story is taking place after World War II, with these children born in the end days of that War. Lurking unsaid over this tale of tangled secrets, dark desires, darker actions is the bigger secret, unspoken but known, of the town’s role in that war and what lies behind the town.

The first story, told by Martin, is the story that let me know I’d fallen into a rabbit hole, had no idea what was up or what was down or what would happen next. Martin, only seven, is telling about the town’s fall Thanksgiving festival and the yearly contest for best stew, best roast, best baked goods. I settle in, and get what I expect in Martin’s story told from seven year sensibilities and then — wait, what? What just happened? No, it couldn’t, it didn’t go there — And Martin, almost innocently, always matter of factly, continues on almost as if he didn’t share watching a horrible crime.

This is a horror story, make no doubt about it. Is it a supernatural one? I think not, even though there are references to ghosts and witches, to folk lore believed as truth, to curses. It can be read as a place where belief makes old wives tales real; or it can be read, as I do, with ghosts and witches being used to try to understand a confusing world where a prior generations actions and inactions, no matter how much kept secret, tangle up the lives of the village’s residents and even children cannot escape.

The sins of the parents, though, is too easy an answer for what happens in Your House is on Fire. Christian, Martin, and the others have free will, after all — and what is most surprising to me is how long they disassociate themselves from their own actions. Perhaps this is also merely a reflection of the war years and the aftermath, the ability to not take ownership.

Have I been clear enough that I adored and loved this Your House is on Fire? I did; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013; and I want others to read it. I love what is said and unsaid; I love the language. I love the hints that this is fairy tales made real, that this is history, that this is a Twilight Zone town made real. I love that it’s a story tightly told without any extra words. I loved the unflinching look, almost without judgment, at the darkness in people. I love how much is left up to the reader. I love how unsettling it was. Word of warning — if you need to “like” characters to read a book, then this is not for you. 

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Author Interview at CarolineLeavittville; Jenn’s Bookshelves.




Review: The Iron Duke

With the Thanksgiving weekend coming up, here’s something a little different for you — something for the grown ups to read! Yes, I sometimes read books for grownups, and this steampunk romance is a fun, entertaining, hot read for the weekend.

  The Iron Duke (A Novel of the High Seas) by Meljean Brook. Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: A dead body has been found on the estate of the Duke of Anglesey and Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth has been called to find out what happened. It’s a delicate situation. The Duke is Rhys Trahaearn, the pirate who nine years ago freed England from the control of the Horde. Mina knows that the investigation will be difficult, because Rhys is a pirate made respectable, a national hero, adored. Mina, on the other hand, is the oldest daughter of an impoverished Earl — and she is also half Horde. The Horde had enslaved England and its people in every possible way, and every time people look at her, they can only see their enemy.

Investigating the mysterious death is not going to be easy. It turns out that Rhys is not a suspect — so Mina doesn’t have to worry about accusing the most popular man in England of murder. Together, Mina and Rhys discover a conspiracy that could threaten England itself. Mina must also fight a growing attraction to Rhys. 

The Good: This book is AWESOME. But before I get into all the amazing wonderful reasons I love this book and want there to be many, many more, let me be one hundred thousand percent clear: Adult Book. For grown ups. For the romance section of your library, or general fiction, or science fiction. This is for YOU. Enjoy it over Thanksgiving.

The Iron Duke is alternate history, set in a Victorianish world where the Horde (the descendants of Genghis Khan) successfully invaded Europe and England. Those of you wanting all the specific details can check out the author’s website for the exact details. There are airships, and steam powered vehicles, and nanoagents. Why, what is a nanoagent? Small bugs that were introduced to the English, hidden in sugar and tea. Once activated by the Horde, the Horde could use radio waves to control the nanoagents and thus control the people — their actions, their emotions, their bodies. Strong emotions, that may lead to rebellion? Done away with. What would make a miner or seamstress better? Why, having their tools be part of their bodies! The nanoagents help incorporate the metal into bodies, but also helps people heal, go faster, be stronger — be better workers for the Horde. And if the Horde thinks not enough babies are being born to create new workers, they order a Frenzy. A Frenzy is… well. I told you this was for grownups.

Brook does an amazing, astonishing world building. I was blown away by this intricate alternate history, and how careful Brook was in what she told the reader. Obviously, she put a lot of thought and research into The Iron Duke, but she resists the temptation to infodump all she knows on the reader. We don’t know all the history, we don’t even know all the present day politics and events. We know what Mina and Rhys know, we  learn what we need to make this work. Any science fiction or fantasy writer should take a look at the way the history is told, is related, to see how less is more even when dealing with a complex alternate historical and technical world.

Mina and Rhys are two smart, flawed people. Mina is half Horde as the result of a Frenzy. She herself was old enough to be subject to a Frenzy before the Horde were driven out of England. Mina’s past makes her who she is: smart, driven, enough of an outsider to be a good observer, enough of an insider to know how people think. She doesn’t trust easily — not other people and not herself. When you’ve learned you cannot control your own body, your own emotions, your own feelings, how can you trust anything? And that is another thing — her past is part of this story. Mina’s relationship with Rhys is one she fights, not because she doesn’t like him, but because she has to learn to trust herself before she can trust herself to be with him. Also? Mina’s past is not unique. Her entire country – including Rhys – is full of people trying to figure out the same things. Bad things didn’t just happen to Mina, or to Rhys. They happened to everyone.

Rhys. Rhys is hot. And he is strong, impulsive, loyal, smart, a leader. Like Mina, he has things in his past which means he keeps people at arm’s length. Rhys is attracted to Mina but he has his own issue about emotional intimacy. Sigh. It’s so much fun seeing these two people, attracted to each other yet being held back by their own baggage.

This is a love story, yes, a love story between Mina and Rhys. But it’s not the only love story here: it’s also the love between friends and family. Rhys, an orphan, has created a family out of friends, one bound with loyalty. Mina may be the child of rape, but she is also the adored daughter of her parents. Her parents are amazing people — despite the Horde trying to control strong passions and emotions, despite being subject to multiple Frenzies, despite all their hardships, her parents love each other and love all their children.

Oh, and while this is a romance, and steampunk, it’s also a mystery! A very well crafted mystery which I didn’t figure out ahead of time.

Did I mention the hot romance? And that it’s a romance for adults? It is steamy. Rhys and Mina work through their issues with physical and emotional intimacy. A lot.

Oh, and before I forget! ZOMBIES. Yes, there are many, many zombies.

There are no unicorns, but given the technology which has included some genetic mutations and scientifically altered creatures, I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up at some point.

I have some questions about how the nanoagents work and the Horde and other details. But you known what? I trust Brook. My questions are just because Brook has created such a believable, real, world that I want to know more. I trust that we may have those answers in future books. Heart of Steel is due in November 2011; I’m hoping we see even more!

One more thing. No, this isn’t for your middle school. No, it isn’t for your high school. Ask your adult fiction selector to buy it. Your teens who are excited about books where a couple may or may not kiss? Yes, this is not for them.