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!

Half Way Home

Half Way Home
by Hugh Howey


Blurb:
Five hundred of us were sent to colonize this planet. Only fifty or so survived.

We woke up fifteen years too early, we had only half our training, and they expected us to not only survive... They expected us to conquer this place.

The problem is: it isn't safe here.

We aren't even safe from each other.

My Reaction:
(This was a DNF-- Did Not Finish.  First, I tried this as a shared read with Donald, selected on a whim because it was a temporary freebie.  We got bored and abandoned it, but I decided to continue on my own, thinking it might be better suited for reading alone.  I didn't get very far before giving up in disgust and skimming the last two chapters.)

The premise was promising, and it started out pretty well, but before long it felt as though the author stepped aside and let someone else pick up where he'd left off.  The quality of the writing went downhill, and I was endlessly irritated by the author's sledgehammer-weight "social issues" overtones.  Prepare for a heavy-handed message of "religion is bad/dangerous (and believers are insufferable and stupid)".  Oh, and you'll thrill to the totally-not-done-to-death cliche of the evil corporations that care about nothing but profit.  There's also a very odd focus on a character's sexuality (see spoiler section below).  That's not really what I expect (or want) to be the focus of a book that's ostensibly a sci-fi tale of survival in a hostile environment!

Amusingly (?), there's also a bit toward the end that is rather scathingly anti-abortion (see section below for direct quote), which I imagine would displease many of the same readers who thoroughly enjoyed the other "messages" in the book... Sure, in this book the ones being aborted are 15-year-olds-- so obviously it's wrong-wrong-wrong-- but we mustn't have the word "abortion" being sullied by association.  Didn't the author get the memo that it's not cool to question the morality of abortion?

I didn't realize this was supposed to be YA literature until after I'd started reading it-- and to be honest, I probably wouldn't have chosen it, if I'd known.  Some YA lit is great, but there's just so much dross to wade through to find the good ones-- unless you have a reliable recommendation to steer you aright.  (Of course, that's not true for just YA...)

I enjoyed the author's Wool series (though even those I felt were uneven in quality-- strong in premise, somewhat weaker in execution), but this was not nearly as interesting (beyond the "intro" section).  When I read his novella, The Hurricane, I had a similar sense of disappointment-- though that at least I managed to finish reading.  (That, too, was written for a YA audience; make of that what you will.)  Too bad... I wouldn't recommend this.


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--The narrator is homosexual, and in the first quarter of the book that I read before skipping to the end, he seemed to struggle to come to terms with this fact.  It just kept cropping up, which felt weird and uncomfortable-- and frankly, completely out of place, given what I thought the focus of the book was going to be (i.e. a fight for survival on an alien planet).

Then, to make things even stranger, it's revealed at the end of the book that all the psychologists for the various colonization groups have been carefully selected to be homosexual (because apparently it's as easy as looking for some handy dandy gay gene).  Each psychologist is the only gay colonist in his/her group.  Since they won't be able to have a romantic relationship with another colonist, these psychologists will be completely impartial and clear-eyed (or something).  Enforced celibacy/monkhood.  Um, okay...  Yeah, it's not like people can form platonic bonds strong enough to make them emotionally involved, biased, or whatever else.

--"Note the pit in the earth where Geiger counters register the death of five hundred potential humans.  And know that you killed more than just them in your ruthless calculations.  You killed every generation that may have come after, if only you'd given them a chance."

If this sentiment is true when applied to 15-year-old colonists-in-goo, why isn't it true when applied to a fetus/unborn child?  Believe what you will.  Speak and vote for what you want-- but be honest with yourself about the results of what you're advocating.  (No wonder some readers get in a twist over this aspect of the book!)

--One review I've skimmed indicates that there are caterpillar-type creatures with golden poop.  As in, their "droppings" are literally made of gold.  (insert blank expression here)  If that's true... I no longer feel the slightest twinge of regret for giving this a one-star rating.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Benighted

Benighted
by J.B. Priestley


(Edited) Blurb:
Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel are driving through the mountains of Wales when a torrential downpour washes away the road and forces them to seek shelter for the night. They take refuge in an ancient, crumbling mansion inhabited by the strange and sinister Femm family and their brutish servant Morgan.
Determined to make the best of the circumstances, the benighted travellers drink, talk, and play games to pass the time while the storm rages outside. But as the night progresses and tensions rise, dangerous and unexpected secrets emerge. 
Which is more deadly: the apocalyptic storm outside the house or the unknown horrors that await within? And will any of them survive the night?

My Reaction:
Benighted is quite well-written and timeless in many ways.  It tends toward philosophy, psychology, and introspection more than I was expecting, and as a result, it is also relatively slow-moving, though it's such a short novel, that's less of an issue than it might have been.  Sometimes characters act in maddening ways-- repeatedly splitting up, for instance.  (There's one example of this that I found particularly annoying, but it's a major spoiler, so I'll put that behind a spoiler warning, further down the page.)

Much of the novel is atmospheric, mysterious, and otherworldly-- but when the chief "menace" is revealed, I found it something of a let-down.  I'm not sure what else it could/should have been, instead, but nevertheless, I was slightly disappointed.

Overall, this is a more serious, nuanced book than you often find in the genre and period.  Recommended for fans of mysterious light horror with a psychological bent.  I'd probably give this 3.5 stars, but since half-stars aren't available, I'm rounding up to four.


SPOILERS:
--The way the men sometimes try to protect the women may ruffle some modern feathers.  I personally find it very irritating when Penderel locks the two women into another room.  Of course I realize that he's trying to save them-- and maybe he does protect them by doing so-- but they're grown women.  Surely they should have as much right as men would to decide for themselves what they want to do.

Also, one of my pet peeves is when characters act as though a woman (or even a child, for that matter!) can't contribute to the fight against the Bad Guy.  Two strong, healthy young women could probably have helped Penderel fight Saul-- cracked him over the head with something, while the two were struggling-- something!  Penderel might not have died, if he'd just let the women help him.  That type of thing frustrates me to no end!

Oh, and since the chief danger from Saul was that he might set fire to the house, what if Penderel hadn't been able to stop Saul?  I guess he assumed that by that time the two other men would come along and stop him, but if it hadn't worked out, the women would've been locked in that room, doomed to burn to death.  (And that's why you don't lock the women into a room while you face the Bad Guy all by yourself!)

--Though there was definite foreshadowing, the ending came as something of a surprise to me.  It was certainly more somber than I was expecting.  The whole book was grimmer than I would ever have guessed.

--This isn't technically a spoiler, but I'll tack it here at the end, anyway.  I adore the original cover art-- the black and white depiction of a house looming in a rainstorm.  It's so evocative-- so beautifully simple and effective.  The font choice, too.  Very representative of the art of its time.  (So much nicer than modern stuff, to be completely honest.)  Actually, I like the cover better than the book itself.  Five diamond-studded stars.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Naomi's Room

Naomi's Room
by Jonathan Aycliffe


Blurb:
Charles and Laura are a young, happily married couple inhabiting the privileged world of Cambridge academia. Brimming with excitement, Charles sets off with his daughter Naomi on a Christmas Eve shopping trip to London. But, by the end of the day, all Charles and his wife have left are cups of tea and police sympathy. For Naomi, their beautiful, angelic only child, has disappeared. Days later her murdered body is discovered.
But is she dead?
In a howling, bumping story of past and present day hell, Jonathan Aycliffe's haunting psychological masterpiece is guaranteed to make you sink to untold depths of teeth-shaking terror.


My Reaction:  
I have come to the conclusion that I am a picky reader.  I make what are probably unreasonable demands of authors.  Reading this book reminded me of one of those tightropes I expect a good author to walk.

I've complained (more than once) that so much ghostly horror doesn't even try to explain itself-- and when there are "explanations", they are often disappointingly weak and thin.  Usually, this leaves me unsatisfied with a book-- but now I'm about to complain that this book provides too much explanation!  Impossible to please.  I guess I want something to go on-- to feel that I more or less know what the author intended-- but not a too-clearly spelled-out and delineated specter.

The first half of the book is wonderfully atmospheric and creepy-- full of promise.  Then the narrator finds a diary, and things start to go downhill...  Evidently it is possible to simultaneously go into too much explicit detail and yet leave one or two of the biggest questions unanswered.

Ah well, despite shortcomings, I "enjoyed" reading this, if you can say you enjoyed something that made you shudder, squirm, and occasionally feel guilty that you were even reading it...

If you don't mind a slight pall of depression and darkness hanging around after you turn the last page, give it a try!  Aycliffe is still one of the best modern authors of atmospheric horror I've yet come across-- though I believe this book has more graphic violence than any of his other novels I've read so far.

Recommended for fans of ghost stories that blend psychological and physical horror-- but you may want to give it a pass if you're particularly sensitive to violence against children in works of fiction.



Specific Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--Liddley's "origin" leaves me scratching my head and thinking, "Is that all?  Dude needed to get over himself..."  We're probably supposed to find it especially awful that Liddley started out as just an ordinary man-- even a good man who wanted to spare his patients unnecessary suffering.  That a good man could end up being so evil is frightening, of course, but I find it difficult to believe (in a ghost story, where above all else one demands plausibility, darnit!)-- particularly when the things that drove him to it seem so... insignificant and ordinary.  He didn't love his wife, then felt betrayed by his mistress?  Well, boo-hoo and cry me a river.  I guess we're supposed to be appeased by the convenient explanation that he had dabbled too far into the arcane (plus he contracted syphilis and may have been driven mad by that-- though I think insanity doesn't manifest for years)... Maybe I just don't like the idea that a good person could go so bad-- not just everyday kinds of bad, but beyond the pale.

--The cover I've linked for this book is awful.  It has nothing to do with the book at all-- except maybe the watching eyes...  Who is that woman supposed to be?  It's not Naomi, obviously.  It looks nothing like the description of the narrator's wife, either.  And those eyes, while somewhat more related to the novel, are hilariously close-set!  (This author has at least one other mass market cover in a similar style, with similarly close-set eyes behind a woman with no relationship to the story.)  Embarrassingly bad!

--"The act of forgetting has itself become the trigger for memory.  Some things are like that, they lodge in your mind for ever.  Trying to forget just makes it worse."

--"...I harboured a belief in an essential current of goodness running through things, I saw a shape, a pattern to the whole, even if life in its particulars seemed at times shapeless or inchoate, even if children died in pain.  It was, I suppose, a religious sense of the world, though I did not formulate it in theological terms.  A sterner theology, a dogma, might have seen me through what happened.  But my innocence was not made of such iron stuff, nor so well defended.  It was half-formulated, lax, too much in tune with the time and too little with the experience of generations."

--The idea of law enforcement officers who work on the case dying mysteriously (murdered, coming down with serious illness) after coming into such close contact with the affected family-- it's familiar, to the point that I think the author might've used the same device in one of his other books.  (Not that it's unheard-of in other works, of course.  I can think of several other examples, off the top of my head-- such as in The Grudge)  I find this especially eerie.  Someone just doing his job happens to get this assignment, and then he's somehow cursed.  (Creeeeeeepy!)

--The title of the book is a bit of a stretch-- not the title I would've chosen.  It's explained near the end (Naomi's "new room" is the attic torture chamber, where she says she's allowed to play any time she likes), but it's weak and misleading.  Obviously, the reader expects there to be some special significance to Naomi's original bedroom-- and I can't see that there's any point in that little deception.

--The last bit of the book is reminiscent of The Shining-- the movie, not the book, which I've never read.  The loving family man "possessed", turned into a violent, sadistic monster who turns on those he's meant to protect.

--"They will fit into my old trunk, the one I bought when I was an undergraduate.  I never thought then that I would have such a use for it."

--The next candidate, the prospective buyer, a "medical man" (like Liddley was) is a Galsworthy-- an old family for the area.  Liddley's wife's maiden name was Galsworthy.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Shivering Sands

The Shivering Sands
by Victoria Holt

Blurb:
Ancient ruins. Family scandal. Forbidden love.
Caroline knows something is wrong. Her sister Roma has gone missing, and no one can tell her why. The only option is to go where Roma was last seen—an estate with a deadly history...
The Stacy family has lived off the Dover coast for generations, carefully navigating the treacherous quicksands nearby. But the sands aren't Caroline's biggest threat. Everyone here has a secret, especially enigmatic young heir Napier Stacy. No matter where Caroline turns, the ground she walks is dangerous. And the closer she comes to unraveling the truth, the closer she comes to sharing her sister's fate...


My Reaction: 
I have a certain fondness for gothic novels, though sadly there are a great many unsatisfying and/or ridiculous books in that genre.  I suppose I'll keep muddling through them, lured on by the hope that the next one will be better than the last.

As these novels go, this one seems about average.  Not remotely literary, but perfectly readable, it's peopled with strange characters who have mysterious pasts and behave in suspicious ways (and have frustratingly repetitive conversations).  The heroine isn't a complete idiot, yet neither is she particularly astute.  The romance, unfortunately, is just blah-- an unappealing love interest and no perceptible chemistry-- but I've come to almost expect that of gothic romances/thrillers.  Rarely is the romance up to snuff.  As for the mystery, you'll probably have it figured out by the end, if you're paying attention and "playing along at home".  Add to the mix a hefty dollop of implausibility and a sprinkling of melodrama-- and there you have it!

None of the parts are remarkable (or remarkably palatable), but taken altogether, they combine to make a pulpy gothic mystery-romance-thriller that can be enjoyable, if read in the right frame of mind, under the right circumstances.  (Under the hunter's moon, when the flowers of the rare Baloola tree are in bloom and the wind is in the east...)  I thought it was... okay.

I keep wishing I liked Victoria Holt's novels better, because she wrote so many...  Some of them I've actively disliked; others are okayish-- but I've yet to read one that I absolutely loved.  They're passable, but there's just a spark of magic that's missing.  If I remember, the next one I'll try will be The India Fan, due to favorable reviews.


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--It was the title that lured me, as I have always been fascinated by the idea of quicksand.  The fact that it is the title is a blatant clue to the solution of a couple of the mysteries (though there's a twist).

--The setting is Victorian England-- for some reason I want to say it's around the 1880s-- but there are anachronisms/improbabilities galore (imho). Examples below:

* It wouldn't have been likely that a woman would have pursued a career in music, yet we have Caroline and Napier's mother who have apparently given up chances at brilliant careers as pianists.  Then there's Roma's career as an archaeologist.  One or two such trail-blazing woman would've been enough for one novel.  Three is just silly.

* Characters use phrases that don't seem correct for the time period.

* Mrs. Lincroft has the girls (most of whose ages are never definitively stated-- somewhere between 12/13 and 16) reading Jane Eyre as a school assignment.  Jane Eyre was written for an adult audience.  Unless I'm seriously mistaken, in Victorian times, JE (though a bestseller) would've been considered far too mature and scandalous-- even immoral-- for teen girls to read.  If the setting is the 1880s, things might have settled down a bit since its publication in 1847, but I still doubt that it would've been deemed fitting reading material for impressionable young ladies.  Too much passion, too many unsettling ideas about the equality of the classes and the sexes.  It might have been read on the sly, but I hardly think it likely that a housekeeper acting as a temporary teacher/governess would have made it assigned reading.

* Admittedly, Allegra is supposed to be a handful, but a young lady of the time wouldn't have been allowed to discuss things like illegitimacy so openly.

* Ah, another unlikely "career"-- "Alice says she wants to write stories like Wilkie Collins. ... She could be an actress, too."  Writing novels for publication wasn't something a young woman was likely to do, at the time, and acting... If I'm not mistaken, it was very rare for respectable women to be professional actresses during the Victorian period.  Not to say it never happened, but it wouldn't have been encouraged.

* One of the girls speculates that Edith may have run away to London to be a governess.  Keep in mind that Edith is pregnant when she disappears.  I think it was very rare that employers would want to hire a pregnant young woman to work in their home-- particularly as a governess!  (What a fantasy world!)

--"Did I think one could dismiss the Muse and then summon her back when one felt like seeing her again?  How right he was.  I had had my chance, thrown it away and now would never be anything but a competent pianist."

Maybe it's because I'm not an artistic genius, but straight-faced references to a "muse" (particularly a capitalized "Muse"!) induce strenuous eye-rolling.  Besides, I think it's nonsense that a truly gifted musician (or any type of artist) can so easily throw away their "chance".  Will you get rusty if you stop practicing and learning?  Sure, but what's to stop you from getting it back, if you make a serious, concerted effort?  It might be more difficult to get going again than if you hadn't stopped, because you've lost momentum, but that's true for everything and everyone in life-- not just the tortured "artistes".

--Caroline rationalizes that locals wouldn't have noticed her among all the archaeologists who'd been around during the dig, but I still think it's very unlikely that only one person (the lady with the little shop) would have recognized her when she returned-- especially since, when she does return, the vicar's wife makes such to-do over how small the village is and what an excitement it is when someone new comes along.  It's a little thing, maybe, but it kept nagging at me as I read.

--Alice is a great example of those characters who, by the end of the book, are proven to be totally bonkers (insisting she was "a sort of a goddess"?), yet somehow manage to fool everyone by seeming completely normal up until the very end.  Of course, when you live in Lovat Stacy, where practically every other character seems suspicious or downright oddball, appearing completely normal is its own kind of red flag...!  It doesn't seem realistic that the other girls would've been too cowed to say something to someone, but whatever.  I guess that sort of thing does happen, but it's frustrating to read about, because it's just so darn stupid.

--Sybil Stacy is a creepy character who gave me strong flashbacks to Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole book.