Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse


Blurb:
Bertie and Jeeves do their best to help, and occasionally hinder, love-struck Bingo Little as he falls head over heels and back again. Honoria Glossop, Mabel the waitress, and gold-toothed revolutionary Charlotte Corday Rowbotham are just a few of the women to cast their spells over Bingo. Meanwhile Bertie must keep the quick-tempered, aspiring actor Bassington-Bassington from the stage at Aunt Agatha's fiery behest, deal with the energetic Claude and Eustace, and win on the girls' Egg and Spoon Race and money lost to the Great Sermon Handicap! Luckily, of course, there is Jeeves: intelligent, loyal, and capable of extricating Bertie from the tightest of tight spots.

My Reaction:
This is a shared read and a re-read. Donald and I have read this together once before-- though to be honest, most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories blur together in my memory, and I have trouble telling one from another. Fortunately, that doesn't matter. Neither repetitive plots and "motifs" nor re-readings can dull the luster of Wodehousian wit.

Rather than a true novel, this is a set of short stories; there's no long-arc plot to speak of, but each "episode" is enjoyable and cozily, comfortably easy to get into. There are even recurring characters (beyond Jeeves and Wooster themselves, who are of course in every story), which helps it feel like an almost-novel.

While this is probably not the very best Jeeves book (or the best introduction to the series of novels and short stories), it's undeniably a fun, happy read.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Potted and Pruned

Potted and Pruned: Living a Gardening Life
by Carol Michel


Blurb:
Carol Michel, author of the award-winning blog May Dreams Gardens, has penned a delightful book of gardening stories recounting her years speed weeding, scolding plants for their poor manners, experiencing the magic of a clover lawn, searching for elusive "rare in cultivation" plants, narrowly avoiding tussles in the garden center, formally evicting drought from her garden, and offering advice for those new to gardening. 
Is it possible to be utterly charming and wickedly funny at the same time? Yes, and avid gardeners will find themselves nodding along and laughing out loud as they turn the pages, recognizing their own quirks reflected back to them in Michel's words. Whether it's the chapter about the four phases of houseplant care or the gardener's unique interpretations of time, measurements, and quantities, one can't help but point and say, "That's me!" and then read a snippet or paragraph aloud to one's friend or significant other. 
Through 36 light-hearted essays, readers are treated to a glimpse behind the gate at May Dreams Gardens and the philosophies and musings of its caretaker. There's take-home wisdom for gardeners new and experienced between the pages.

My Reaction:
This isn't primarily a book of gardening advice and instruction (though there are some useful tips, here and there), but rather a friendly conversation from one gardener to another about the highs and lows of coaxing plants to grow where we want them. Anyone who gardens and spends a fair amount of time thinking, talking, or day-dreaming about gardening will recognize him- or herself in these essays. It's an inside joke. It's vegetable soup for the gardener's soul.

Certain essays appealed to me more than others, of course, and I wish the book had been longer-- but the good news is that if you enjoy these essays, the author has a gardening blog with a whole blog archive to read through.


Random Tidbits:
--"Now the idea of completely getting rid of the ditch lilies in my garden, as much of a nuisance as they are, seems to me like getting rid of a cherished family memory. So I keep them and contain them as best I can."

I think most of us who grow orange daylilies feel pretty much like that about them... They're more family mementos than plants!

--"The vegetable garden also tells stories of family gatherings where okra and eggplant picked that same day were then battered and fried and served at suppertime. When I'm out in my vegetable garden, I still hear the congenial arguments among my uncles about whether tomatoes should be sugared or salted."

--"I begin flinging mulch from one bed to another and hope by some miracle it will actually cause now full-grown weeds to wither and die while the plants I planted will flourish.  Since this is rarely the case, I drag out a variety of weeding tools and begin the battle."

...That sounds (all too) familiar!

--"However, every gardener knows or soon learns that stolen seeds, cuttings, or even plants will not grow in the thief's garden."

That's funny, because I've heard the exact opposite-- namely, that "stolen" seeds and cuttings grow best. It's probably related to the belief that you shouldn't say "thank you" when someone gives you a plant or a cutting, because if you do, the plant won't grow. That said, I wouldn't dream of stealing plants from a private garden-- or even taking cuttings without permission.  Plants that have clearly been abandoned or thrown away, on the other hand, seem like "fair game" (though of course it depends on the circumstances).

--"Then one day, it happens. Motivation disappears. It's hot. There are mosquitoes. Motivation doesn't like heat and mosquitoes. Motivation gets discouraged, too, because not everything turned out as we thought it would. Motivation likes pretty flowers, but runs and hides at the sight of weeds."

--"Every gardener, at some point, should learn when it is appropriate to scream in the garden and when it is better to cuss."

--This book taught me about the Pomodoro Technique (not sure I'll use it, but it's interesting).


Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
by Laird Barron

Blurb:
Over the course of two award-winning collections and a critically acclaimed novel, The Croning, Laird Barron has arisen as one of the strongest and most original literary voices in modern horror and the dark fantastic. Melding supernatural horror with hardboiled noir, espionage, and a scientific backbone, Barron’s stories have garnered critical acclaim and have been reprinted in numerous year’s best anthologies and nominated for multiple awards, including the Crawford, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards. 
Barron returns with his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including “Blackwood’s Baby”, “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven”, and “The Men from Porlock”, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

My Reaction:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge right away that I stopped reading after 70%, skimmed the next story ("Vastation"), and stopped even skimming after that. Technically, this is a DNF (did not finish).

I tend to think I'll enjoy short stories more than I actually do. Short stories simply don't (typically) offer the kind of character development and longer-arc story-telling that I like best, and they are frequently (unsatisfyingly) open-ended. There are exceptions, and I'm tempted by short story collections that sound promising-- but even when I enjoy them, I find them more work to read than a novel and requiring more motivation to finish. This collection was no exception.

Still, even as a person who wants to like short stories but often struggles with them, I can say something positive about these. First, I appreciate that at least I could more or less understand what was happening in (most of) them. (Parts of the first story were a little disorienting, though, and "Vastation" was definitely out there.) Sometimes it seems that short story writers take pride in being incomprehensible, laboring under the misconception that if the reader has any grasp of what is happening (much less why), it's a sign that the author lacks that ineffable something.

I also found more of these stories to have true conclusions than I've come to expect from modern short stories. Conclusions! A satisfying sense that the story has come to an intentional end rather than just keeling over in mid-stride! Amazing!

Actually, it's funny that I keep seeing reviewers complaining-- or maybe simply commenting-- that these stories lack cut-and-dried conclusions. Maybe I'm remembering incorrectly, but I have the impression that I knew basically where most of the stories/characters were headed, at the end.  (Not-quite-a-spoiler alert: Usually, death or a fate worse than.) In any case, that I at least felt there was a sense of conclusion was good enough for me, I guess!

Then there's the writing itself, which is skillful. It's not quite to my personal taste, but I'd say it's well-crafted (if rather self-conscious).

Now for the negatives. I've already admitted that I'm probably just not the ideal reader for most modern short stories. Well, that's not the only reason I found myself unwilling to keep reading. Unfortunately, I find this style of horror ineffective. I'm not sure whether it's more properly called "cosmic horror" or "the weird"-- or even "Lovecraftian horror"-- but it just doesn't usually work on me.  Some of "the weird" that I've come across (in my limited forays into the genre) have given me distinct moments of "The Creeps", but it's certainly not my go-to genre for all my spine-chilling, goosefleshing needs. At some point, I just find these stories of Infinite Weirdness... boring.

As others have noted, it's impossible to care what happens to most of these characters-- with the exception of "The Redfield Girls". However, unlikable, unsympathetic characters seem to be rather more common than not in this type of story. (Rather like those horror movies that apparently desire you to hate the characters so much that you won't mind seeing them finished off one by one.)

There was also a bit more gore than I like.  I can deal with some of it-- especially if it seems necessary for the story/book, but gross-out/body horror-- while it does gross me well and truly out-- is not what I'm looking for in horror. I'm that weirdo who finds all the gratuitously grody zombie close-ups/zombo-cameos in The Walking Dead uninteresting, if not outright annoying.  ("Look, we get it: Zombies be decomposin'. Now, can we get back to the survival story?!") These stories aren't even that extreme, in the realm of gross horror, but it was gross enough often enough that I noticed I was skimming to sidestep the blood and guts.  Blugh.

...So, anyway... If you love cosmic horror, you should give these stories a try. If you're left cold by the unknowable Blah-Blah-Blah drifting in from some dark corner of the universe (like some sort of scary, gargantuan, blood-feasting jellyfish), maybe it's not worth the effort.

I see that many reviewers particularly enjoyed the last two stories, which I skipped, so I may go back and read them, if/when the mood returns. However, unless there's something unexpected in those last two tales, whatever it is that inspires such adulation from this author's many fans will remain a mystery to me!

I'm rounding up to a 3, but really, this is more of a 2.5 for me.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Arabella

Arabella
by Georgette Heyer


(Edited) Blurb:
Daughter of a modest country clergyman, Arabella Tallant is on her way to London when her carriage breaks down outside the hunting lodge of the wealthy Mr. Robert Beaumaris. Her pride stung when she overhears a remark of her host's, Arabella pretends to be an heiress, a pretense that deeply amuses the jaded Nonpareil. To counter her white lie, Beaumaris launches her into high society and thereby subjects her to all kinds of fortune hunters and other embarrassments-- but it may turn out that the joke is on him...

My Reaction:
I do believe this is my favorite of the Heyer Regency romances I've read, so far! I enjoyed it immensely and would wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of clean, witty historical romance.

The romantic leads are charming together-- and they are together on page after page, which is so much more entertaining than those romances where the hero and heroine seem to barely see one another, much less converse!

Another positive is that the cast of characters includes a cute mutt. (If it weren't already a five-star read, an extra star would be merited, just on the basis of the dog.) Though there is a slightly less interesting section where we follow the heroine's brother's doings a little too closely for my liking, at least it's relevant to the story-- not as potentially annoying as the rambunctious much-younger brothers that sometimes crop up in Heyer's romances.

What more is there to say?  This is a light, happy, delightful read that demonstrates just how good the genre can be, in the hands of a talented author.


Specific Tidbits:
One of the joys of Heyer's Regency novels is puzzling over the amusing, sometimes obscure slang/language of the period.  (Someone who reads more "Regencies" than I do may not be as dumbfounded as I sometimes am!)

Here follows a sampling from Arabella:
-- cestus  (an ancient battle glove-- though in the book, it was an ornament/item of jewelry)
-- Job's comforter (one who aggravates distress under the guise of giving comfort)
-- mumchance (not speaking/unable to speak)
-- loo-mask (half-mask worn during 18th-century masquerades)
-- tiffany (thin, transparent gauze of silk or cotton muslin)
-- lustring sack (an item of clothing more easily image-searched than described)
-- Paphians (...prostitutes?)
-- honey-fall (an unexpected piece of good luck)
-- gull-groper (a money-lender)
-- the Florida Gardens (Cromwell's gardens?-- I just thought they sounded interesting...)
-- Pandean pipes (pan flute)
-- Blue Ruin (gin of inferior quality)

The whole conversation between Arabella and Mr. Scunthorpe (regarding Bertram's whereabouts) is hilarious and filled with slang-fueled misunderstanding.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Death in Berlin

Death in Berlin
by M.M. Kaye

Blurb:
Miranda Brand is visiting Germany for what is supposed to be a month's vacation. But from the moment that Brigadier Brindley relates the story about a fortune in lost diamonds--  a story in which Miranda herself figures in an unusual way--  the vacation atmosphere becomes transformed into something more ominous. And when murder strikes on the night train to Berlin, Miranda finds herself unwillingly involved in a complex chain of events that will soon throw her own life into peril. Set against a background of war-scarred Berlin in the early 1950s, M. M. Kaye's Death in Berlin is a consummate mystery from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

My Reaction:
While it was not without fault, I enjoyed reading Death in Berlin.  This was my second read from the "Death in..."series, the first being Death in Kashmir, and though it seems that most reviewers prefer Kashmir, I think I found Berlin more interesting, for some reason.  (That may be due to something as simple-- yet elusive-- as "the right book at the right time".)

Based on what I've read so far (and comments from other readers), Kaye has a formula for her mysteries, and she sticks to it.  Murder(s) and suspense in a foreign (usually exotic) setting.  Very young Englishwoman on holiday.  Handsome man (often in position of authority/law enforcement) comes along/works the murder case, and the two fall in love along the way-- but with as little fuss and romance as possible.  This book was no different, though post-WWII Germany is less exotic than her typical choice of setting.

So, formulaic?  YES-- spelled out in flashing red light.  Still enjoyable?  Again, yes.

It seems that many found this a plodding read, but I thought it moved along at a decent clip.  However, I do agree that some of the characters could've been better defined and developed.  It took a while for me to differentiate between the Leslies and the Merediths (I think that was the name...), for instance.

The mystery kept me guessing through most of the book, and even though the romance element of these mysteries is always usually somewhat disappointing, at least I actually liked the male lead, this time-- much more appealing than the hero in Kashmir.  Miranda herself, I didn't particularly care for in the beginning-- a bit too young and fresh, perhaps-- but by the end of the book, she was fine.  Unobjectionable, at least.

All in all, a pleasant read for the genre.


Random Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--I appreciated the "cool, calm, and collected" Simon.  The romance did move at break-neck speed-- jumping from a few significant looks and a soft gesture of affection to a proposal in the blink of an eye-- but at least Simon was likable.

--Part of the reason I didn't love Miranda at first is probably the gratuitous physical comparisons between herself and the older Stella.  Did these authors think that their audience was made up of only the very youngest women-- or did they think that a thirty- or forty-something lady would like reading such comparisons?  Maybe I was just feeling particularly sensitive about my age when I read the first chapters...

--Subsequent revelations explain most of it away, but Miranda's early reflections on Mademoiselle are so uncharitable that Miranda herself comes across as an unsympathetic character, for a while.

--Ah, one of my pet peeves!  "'It's me,' said Miranda with a fine disregard for grammar."  Mm-hmm, yes, dear.  We know you know your grammar.  Very well done!  Have a cookie.

--"...Sally, whose reading seemed to be entirely of the escapist variety..."  A bit catty, Miranda.  And especially amusing considering what kind of book this is!  You wouldn't be judging your own readers, would you, Ms. Kaye?  How much of my reading is "allowed" to be escapist fluff before I'm relegated to the bubble-head class of woman?  Book snobbery!! ;o)

--It does seem a little bit of a stretch that Stella would be so willing to kill Miranda-- and it's always hard to believe when a character has seemed mostly normal and been able to hide their insanity and/or wickedness successfully for so many years.  However, it seems a necessary evil for this type of book.  There's not much of a mystery if characters behave normally or aren't good at hiding their true nature.

--I'm seeing another trend in the "Death in..." books I've read so far...  If I remember that when I start the next one, I'll be particularly suspicious of the protagonist's good friends.

--"I think I'll get some knitting.  It's a nice, soothing occupation."  Yes, there is something infinitely soothing about simple knitting or crochet!