Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer


Blurb:
A fateful mistake... 
When Elinor Rochdale boards the wrong coach, she ends up not at her prospective employer's home but at the estate of Eustace Cheviot, a dissipated and ruined young man on the verge of death.
A momentous decision...
His cousin, Lord Carlyon, persuades Elinor to marry Eustace as a simple business arrangement. By morning, Elinor is a rich widow, but finds herself embroiled with an international spy ring, housebreakers, uninvited guests, and murder. And Carlyon won't let her leave...

My Reaction:
If you're a fan of Regency romances (even those which are very light on the romance) and mild mysteries, this could be just for you.  I found it a pleasant read for the most part, but nothing out of the ordinary.  The romance is very light, and parts of the story quite implausible, but it was still entertaining.

I was surprised that the story wasn't more centered on the title character's point of view.  Multiple times, the story leaves her behind, and she's not even in the room where the action is set.

...I don't have much to say about the book, and that's a reflection of its "lightness".  It didn't leave a strong impression, one way or the other.  Sometimes that's just the right kind of literature, though.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Death in Kashmir

Death in Kashmir
by M.M. Kaye


Blurb:
When young Sarah Parrish takes a skiing vacation to Gulmarg, a resort nestled in the mountains above the fabled Vale of Kashmir, she anticipates an entertaining but uneventful stay. But when she discovers that the deaths of two in her party are the result of foul play, she finds herself entrusted with a mission of unforeseen importance. And when she leaves the ski slopes for the Waterwitch, a private houseboat on the placid shores of the Dal Lake near Srinagar, she discovers to her horror that the killer will stop at nothing to prevent Sarah from piecing the puzzle together.


My Reaction:
This book is in much the same vein as Mary Stewart's "travel mysteries".  True to the formula, a young and beautiful British heroine visiting a foreign country finds herself embroiled in a suspenseful mystery, with the additional thread of a light romance.  Both also possess the charm of a retro setting.  (This particular book is set in India in the late 1940s, soon after WWII and right before the British left the country.)

I've enjoyed several of Stewart's novels, and my introduction to Kaye was also satisfactory.  So far, I think I prefer Stewart, but they are fairly close, in my estimation.  Both are good choices for light dramatic fiction with strong settings, a little suspense, and a sprinkle of romance.

I have a few quibbles, which I'll address below, but on the whole, it's a reasonably enjoyable read for the genre.


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Pluses:  Some of the descriptions of Kashmir were lovely.  (It's a part of the world I haven't seen much about before, so I had to look up some photos.)  The novel got off to a strong start.  I learned a little more about the history of India (and the British Empire)-- something I've never really spent much time thinking or learning about before, to be honest.  The "whodunit" aspect kept me guessing until the end.

--The romance element of most of these books leaves me uninterested, and such was definitely the case here.  I just couldn't bring myself to care about Sarah and Charles as a couple-- found myself bored or, worse, rolling my eyes a few times...  A little too much insta-love?

--Maybe part of my problem with the romance is that I just didn't love Sarah as much as we're supposed to... She's okay, but maybe a little too self-satisfied with her own loveliness.  And Charles... Well, we don't really know him, do we, beyond the fact that he's smitten with Sarah.

--"Girls who are spectacled never get their necks tickled"?  Wonderful.  That's one thing I truly do like about the modern day.  Glasses are no longer (for many people, at least) an instant negative.  Glasses can actually be considered nice-looking-- at least not a horrible affliction that renders women universally unattractive.  I hope that doesn't change anytime soon.

--Sarah sometimes doesn't seem as smart as she's supposed to be (for instance, as in the case of the bead curtain, which felt immediately clear as soon as the line of poetry turned up).  There were numerous times that she felt too slow on the up-take.  Of course, the hero is just as slow, sometimes, which is strange, considering that he's a spy/international man of mystery/secret agent man.  I guess the author was trying to give the reader a chance to figure things out for herself, first, but there are limits.

--Sarah's (and at times even Charles') lack of urgency in finding Janet's hidden message frustrated me.  I guess it had to be drawn out somewhat (though maybe not quite so much), but surely there could've been unavoidable interruptions.  Instead, it feels like Sarah's just too lazy and self-indulgent to bother looking.  She dines with friends, goes to sleep early, shops, etc. when she could have been looking for that message.  Annoying!!

--I was certain that Meril would turn out to be one of the bad guys.  Certainly didn't see Hugo coming.  He felt "safe", as a close associate of Sarah's-- but I guess that if his own wife didn't suspect, it's not impossible that Sarah's connections to him (whatever they were, for I can't really recall) could also have been hoodwinked.

--It was an unusual experience to read about a villain who is devoted to "the Party"-- a Red-- a Communist.  These days, we're trained to laugh at such things.  Earlier generations were ridiculous to see Communism as a threat, and any suggestion of the very real evils of Communism?  Scoff-worthy.

--"The big struggle is to come, and it is going to be far more bitter: because it will be between ideologies and not nations."  The struggle between ideologies continues, though the ideologies in question may change or go by different names...

--There's a scene where Sarah starts laughing hysterically soon after finding a body, and Charles slaps her across the face to snap her out of it.  I have always found that practice (fairly common during a certain era of literature and film) to be bizarre.  What's wrong with just letting the person continue laughing until s/he stops on his/her own?  (I can think of few circumstances under which hysterical laughing could cause anyone physical harm...)  The mental image of the hero slapping the heroine is distasteful.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

More Short Stories

I just found this review of a short story accidentally left in draft mode.  It's another from the LibriVox collection-- Short Ghost and Horror Collection 010-- that I was listening to about a year ago.


"The People of the Pit"
by Abraham Merritt

A tale of the weird in the Lovecraftian tradition.  (Or at least I believe it's Lovecraftian... Honestly, that genre is not my expertise.  It seems that Merritt and Lovecraft were contemporaries, but I suppose an author's works can be "Lovecraftian" even if s/he wrote before Lovecraft lived-- if you use the term to mean than there's a similarity in themes and atmosphere more than that one was inspired by the other.)

The most effective element of the story (in my ever-so-humble of opinions) was the escaped man's physical deformity from prolonged crawling and the instinctive creeping motions he continued to make-- beyond his own control. 

...With that said, I wonder how often Lovecraftian horror is actually scary.  I'm not sure why, but the little of it I've read generally doesn't give me the same creepy feeling that I more frequently experience when reading other types of horror.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe invisible slugs with lights for heads are just too far-fetched to terrify so practical a reader as myself. ;o) 

Maybe I just haven't read the right things, yet.
I don't dislike this style of story-- and it can be unsettling-- but it's rarely ever outright scary (again, in my limited experience).

Friday, August 5, 2016

Harvest Home

Harvest Home
by Thomas Tryon


Blurb:
It was almost as if time had not touched the village of Cornwall Coombe. The quiet, peaceful place was straight out of a bygone era, with well-cared-for Colonial houses and a white-steepled church fronting a broad Common.  Ned and Beth Constantine chanced upon the hamlet and immediately fell in love with it. This was exactly the haven they had dreamed of-- or so they thought. 
For Ned and his family, Cornwall Coombe was to become a place of ultimate horror.

My Reaction:
While not without its faults (slow-moving until the last third of the book, somewhat predictable to modern readers), Harvest Home kept me curious and interested until the very last page.  Some of the descriptive prose is lovely (though that's also part of what slows the pace), in stark contrast to... certain other aspects of the novel (which I'll get into in the spoiler section).  I never really cared for the main character, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the book.  

Note: This is definitely an adult horror novel that I would not recommend to either younger fans of the genre or those offended by sexual content.  


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--For a book written in the early 70's, this has held up pretty well.  (Possibly the biggest age-related distraction for me was the protagonist's own name-- Ned.  It's such an old-sounding name for a youngish man!  It was startling, every time his name was mentioned.)  Because the setting is so rural, antiquated, and unusual-- a throwback even when the book was written-- there weren't that many references to "current events", pop culture, or outdated technology, aside from the oft-mentioned "books-on-record".  Even the whole "back to the earth" movement that Ned refers to has had a little of a modern revival.  Today's version isn't exactly the same, but it's close enough to remind the reader that there's nothing new under the sun.  

--On the other hand, there were major plot elements that seemed very predictable to me, as a modern reader, and I wonder if they might not have been quite so obvious to a reader in the 1970's.  Were these plot points less expected back then, perhaps?  It was immediately clear to me that the residents of Cornwall Coombe were involved in some strange beliefs related to the corn.  Fertility rites?  Blood sacrifice?  Oh, how shocking.  Who could ever have foreseen these mind-shattering developments?  I'm not sure how different the reading experience would've been, as an average reader of 40+ years ago.  

--However, while certain things were predictable, there were others that kept me uncertain and guessing.  Even though I knew she might turn out "bad", I still liked the Widow Fortune at times and wasn't positive how the character would develop.  (Thinking back, of course, she had to know; she knew everything that happened in the community.  Still, for a while, I was hopeful that it wasn't a whole-town lunacy.)  Though it was clear that Gracie Everdeen hadn't committed suicide, I never guessed precisely why she was murdered.  The red herring of the odious Soakes family did its job effectively, too.  While I knew something involving sacrifice was coming up, I wasn't sure exactly how it would all play out-- who would take which role-- and I have to admit that I'm surprised the author chose as dark an ending as he did.  

--I had a hard time placing Kate's age.  If it's ever precisely mentioned, I've forgotten it.  I suppose she's meant to be an odd character, with her psychosomatic illness and all, but even so... On the one hand, she's old enough to be flirting mildly with Worthy and hoping he'll ask her on a date.  Yet she sulks like a toddler, dances around on the lawn shouting something about "moon madness", and calls her parents "daddy" and "mummy".  (It seems fairly common for a girl to call her father "daddy" even as an adult, but I don't believe I've seen anyone call her mother "mummy/mommy" past the single digits.)

--Though I never cared particularly much for Ned, his bizarre behavior around Tamar is especially off-putting.  He puts himself into odd situations with her-- and just about every time he sees her, he ends up repeatedly referring (in his internal monologue) to certain aspects of her body.  Her red fingernails, red lips-- and especially her breasts.  It's blatant enough to become distracting and outright annoying.  (I mean, good grief, dude!  We get it-- as a woman, she has boobs.  Try to focus on something else!)  

So, having drunk too much, Ned puts him into an awkward position inside Tamar's house, where he proceeds to drink some more (like the idiot that he is).  He's practically ogling her, she puts the moves on him, and of course, because he's a jerk, he responds.  He manages to pull himself away before anything too serious has happened, but come on!  He went into her house, drank when he should've known better, and let her kiss him/kissed her back.  And then, when his wife realizes what he's been up to and confronts him?  "Even in my innocence, I felt a flood of guilt."  Ha!  In his innocence?!  You're not that innocent, Ned.  

Then there's the scene between Ned and Tamar at the river.  What was that all about?  Completely bizarre and unpleasantly creepy.  First of all, he ends up skinny-dipping through the most contrived of circumstances-- and when Tamar comes along, instead of leaving, he stays, even though he suspects that she murdered a woman several years ago.  The entire scene is by turns disgusting and unintentionally hilarious.  As hateful as Tamar is, there's no possible excuse for Ned's unhinged behavior.  At best, he's cheating on his wife after he specifically promised not to have anything more to do with Tamar.  At worst, he's kinda-sorta raping Tamar.  Except she "wants it" (of course *eyeroll*), so it's not so much rape as it is violent "hate sex".  The whole thing is incredibly disturbing and misogynistic.  

--After the (ob)scene at the river, Ned goes home and tries to pretend that all is normal.  He notices that Beth, his wife, is staring at him.  "Something was terribly wrong, I could tell.  Her face was pale; she needed lipstick."  ...What the...?  Seriously, I'm not one of those women who looks to find misogyny everywhere, but this?  You come home from cheating on your wife and when you notice she's pale, your first thought is that she needs lipstick?  Heaven forbid that she not be optimally pleasing to the eye at all times.  (This kind of crap makes me not care what happens to him later on, to be honest...)

--"I stood up and looked around the room.  It suddenly seemed different-- not a room we had made, part of our house, but-- simply a room.  I glanced at Beth; she seemed different too, somehow.  A stranger-wife."  ...Yes, it must be she who has changed.  Couldn't possibly be a reflection of a change in yourself.  Because "kind-of raping" a woman/cheating on your spouse surely wouldn't change you in any way or affect the way you see the world around you.  (I mean, yes, he's right that Beth has changed, but Ned needs to acknowledge that he himself has undergone a few changes, too.)

--Poor Worthy.  He might be the only character I really liked in this whole darn book-- and even he was a let-down.  Why couldn't he just have sneaked out of town without all the unnecessary displays/outbursts?  Why did he confide in anyone, knowing the risks?  It wasn't smart.

--Ned is amazingly dim-witted.  It became almost a joke in the last quarter of the book.  He was always so shocked!  so dismayed!  so surprised! by things that, at some point, should cease to be quite so unexpected, given what he knows has already happened.  

Yeah, sure, he knows that Tamar killed Gracie.  He knows that the women were responsible for cutting out the peddler's tongue and sewing his mouth shut. --But surely they wouldn't hurt Worthy...  

Oh no, the townspeople killed Worthy!  
Ok, so they've killed Worthy, but for sure they won't hurt Justin...  

Egads!  They're going to kill Justin!!  Ok, so they're going to kill Justin ("they would poison him, undoubtedly", because these people have shown such reluctance to cause physical pain to their previous victims, right?)-- but first he has to "make the corn" (nudge nudge, wink wink) with the Corn Maiden.  "Then the Corn Maiden was brought to him and I realized what must follow.  Together, in front of the others, they were to make the corn!"  But, but-- that's abhorrent!  What, right there in front of all the other women?! ~shudder~  I mean, it's one thing to engage in ritual human sacrifice, but exhibitionism?  You hold it right there, missy.  That's going too far.  (In case it's not clear, exhibitionism isn't okay with me, but at that point, once you know they're going to kill the man, how can that be so shocking?)  

--The phallus-worship of these Cornwall Coombe women... If there were ever any doubt, that alone would make it clear that the author was a man.  (And evidently he was gay, whatever implications that might have...)  Tamar goes bananas (*smirk*) over Ned's "reaction", by the river.  I thought that was ridiculous enough-- but then at Harvest Home all the women are completely ecstatic over the "display" of that stud, Justin Hooke.  On the one hand, I laugh at how silly it all sounds.  On the other hand, I try not to barf.  I'm too embarrassed to share the worst offenders, but enjoy these milder excerpts: "object of their adoration"... "cries of torment, their frenzy now insupportable"... "a wild pantomime of devotion, an obscene reverence to the maleness of the Harvest Lord"... Yeah, dream on, guys.    

--The weird chanting of the women gradually disintegrating/working its way back through time to some strange, forgotten tongue must have been inspired by Lovecraft.  

--There was one real shocker... I thought the person hanging back out of sight would turn out to be his daughter and that he'd be horrified to find her a witness to this ceremony.  It never occurred to me that the woman in the veil-- the Corn Maiden-- would actually be Beth.  I guess seeing his kinda-sorta beloved wife makin' the ol' corn with handsome Justin finally sends Ned over the edge, based on his crazy pagan/religious experience in which he awakens to the presence of Mother Earth.  

--I had to laugh at Ned's painful obliviousness when it came to the Dodds (the next-door neighbors).  Robert drops some heavy hints about the terrible consequences of attempting to witness Harvest Home, but Ned still doesn't get it-- still thinks Maggie will be sympathetic to his cause.  When she tells Ned he's a fool, I can't help but agree!

--As I mentioned earlier, the ending is darker than I would've expected.  I figured Ned would get away, but that maybe his wife and daughter would refuse to come with him. Speaking of Beth and Kate, they "converted" awfully quickly!  I guess some people do fall in with cults in a short space of time.  Neither of them had any other strong religious beliefs to supplant... Beth had a gaping hole in her life where her mother should have been and which the townswomen filled.  They also saved her daughter's life and promised to help her have another child, which she desperately wanted.  In Kate's case, she's young and impressionable, she sees her mother going along with it all, and the Widow Fortune saves her life and seems to (somehow) make it possible for her to do things she wants, like horse-riding.  

--And in closing, there's a character named Corny Penrose.  ...I know this community revolves around corn, but really?  Corny?  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Crying Child

The Crying Child
by Barbara Michaels


Blurb:
From the moment she arrived on King's Island, Joanne McMullen knew that her sister's grief over losing her child had driven her dangerously close to madness. But when Joanne heard the same child's voice that her sister had heard wailing in the woods, she knew something terrible was happening!

My Reaction:
This is typical Barbara Michaels "cozy gothic" fare.  There's a beautiful old mansion, some mildly spooky occurrences (with a mystery to unravel), and a side-story romance (which in most cases is very sparsely sketched).  If you like her other gothic novels, you'll probably like this, too.  It seems about on par with the several others I've already read.

I found it rather blandly enjoyable, but there were also some of the same irritations I almost always find in this author's works.  The overtly old-school feminist angle gets old, for instance.  (More on the annoyances below, in the spoiler section.)

So... It was okay.  Neither bad nor great.  I'll probably keep reading these books, every so often, because some of them are better than others (and maybe my mood and other factors come into play, too).  If you want something to (more or less) pleasantly pass a little time without requiring much concentration or emotional investment, this will do.


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--At least in this book there wasn't a heavy reliance on the word "chauvinist", but there were still things like this:  "I just stood there and thought of that poor woman; only a girl, really, when she got involved with Hezekiah.  Yet she wasn't so much his victim as she was a victim of the times, times which condemned women to a single role in society and damned them for eternity if they accepted the role without the magic scrap of paper which legitimized it.  If there could be such a thing as a psychotic ghost, she was it-- caught in the vicious trap of the guilt her culture had brainwashed her into accepting."  Not to say that there's no truth to any of that, but it's so heavy-handed!  I came here looking for an escape, not a lecture on the bad old days...

--These books so often have such an odd attitude toward religion.  It annoys me when the same character who has witnessed and acknowledged and accepted paranormal phenomena still acts like Christianity (or any religion, probably) is suspect and not to be taken too seriously.  Um, so ghosts/spiritual manifestations are completely real, but the Bible just isn't plausible?  ...Okay, then.  Silly of me to have expected a little more open-mindedness from characters who've just gone through a series of events that challenged so many other preconceived notions.

--One of the two openly religious characters says things like this:  "I'm not saying our kind of faith was a purely good thing.  It can be awfully narrow and cruel."  *eyeroll*  No obnoxious stereotyping here, no siree.

--"I don't know what you think about the soul, or survival after death, or anything like that; the important thing is what Mary believes.  I know how she feels because I have the same weaknesses."

...Weaknesses?  Is she saying it's a weakness to believe in any sort of afterlife?  Why is that "weak", exactly?  Seems like an odd choice of words, no matter what you believe.

--"Somebody started praying.  It was me.  The prayer was a hodgepodge, bits of the 'Our Father' and 'Hail Mary' and miscellaneous lines from the ritual.  I'm not claiming that the words themselves had any particular value.  Maybe the multiplication table would have been just as effective-- anything mechanical, learned by rote, to focus the mind and wrench it back to independent thought."

Keep in mind, this takes place during the dramatic climax of the novel, when the characters come face to face with not one, but two ghostly presences-- and yet our heroine still has to carefully question the possibility that her instinctive reaching back to her religious upbringing was really any more helpful than reciting something from math class would have been.  ...Well, alright, if you say so, lady-- but why the insistence on questioning or undercutting religious belief every time it comes up in the story?

--"'Take the Book with you,' Mrs. Willard said calmly.  I had an insane desire to laugh.  'What good is that going to do?' I demanded."  ...I'm not saying that I think a Bible is likely to protect anyone from ghosts (which I don't believe in, anyway, but that's another issue)-- but that was kind of rude, wasn't it?  And honestly, how in the world would Jo know if the Bible is any protection or not?!  Ugh!  Just shut up, Jo.

--This was strange:  "She was thoroughly doped; her face had an almost oriental tranquility, but she was thinking rationally."  ...What?  I assume we're meant to think of statues of Buddha, but "an almost oriental tranquility" still seems a weird turn of phrase.

--"There have been no manifestations since that night.  Opinions differ as to what did the trick. ... I am convinced that my courage and sensitivity in communicating with "Miss Smith" gave her the strength to [blah blah blah]."  Ha ha ha!!  Such modesty!

--The closest they come to a consensus is Jed's belief that in order to dismiss the wandering spirits, "all we had to do was find out the truth".  Very convenient.  But why did these spirits care so much that a mere handful of people finally learn the truth?  Because, honestly, people already did know the truth, back when the original events took place.  Maybe not many people knew back then, but it's not like the story has been spread far and wide at the end of the book, either.  Talk about a facile explanation!

--Maybe the most obvious sign that this is an older book is all the cigarettes.