Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Stupidest Angel

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
By Christopher Moore

"'Twas the night (okay, more like the week) before Christmas, and all through the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, people are busy buying, wrapping, packing, and generally getting into the holiday spirit.

"But not everybody is feeling the joy. Little Joshua Barker is in desperate need of a holiday miracle. No, he's not on his deathbed; no, his dog hasn't run away from home. But Josh is sure that he saw Santa take a shovel to the head, and now the seven-year-old has only one prayer: Please, Santa, come back from the dead.

"But hold on! There's an angel waiting in the wings. (Wings, get it?) It's none other than the Archangel Raziel come to Earth seeking a small child with a wish that needs granting. Unfortunately, our angel's not sporting the brightest halo in the bunch, and before you can say "Kris Kringle," he's botched his sacred mission and sent the residents of Pine Cove headlong into Christmas chaos, culminating in the most hilarious and horrifying holiday party the town has ever seen."

This was... unusual.  I had a hard time getting into it because it felt like the author was trying a little too hard to be clever.  Then I got used to it and thought, "You know, this isn't bad."  Then the end came and I decided, "Meh.  Well, it was ok.  I wouldn't mind reading more of Moore, but maybe a little later." (...That seems to be my reaction to most books/authors, lately.)  It didn't have me ROFLOLing, but to be fair, I think it's rare that I actually laugh out loud when reading silently to myself.  I guess my LOL instinct reacts better to the spoken word.

The Pine Cove universe sort of grew on me over time, even though there were things I didn't love about the book.  I've seen Pine Cove described as a "Margaritaville version of the world", and that captures the mood very well, I think.  (No wonder it felt familiar, even if it's set in far-away California.  The beach, the tourists, the warm winters... Jimmy Buffet is from around here, you know.)  I'll definitely give Christopher Moore another try, eventually.

Random Comments, Snippets, Observations, Etc.:

•  "Pine Cove, sleepy California coastal village-- a toy town, really, with more art galleries than gas stations, more wine-tasting rooms than hardware stores."  This description of Pine Cove reminded me a little of the local city I shall refer to as "FH".  (If you know me and are from "around here", you'll figure it out.  There simply aren't many local cities with names starting with an F...)  The artsy-ness.  The little boutiques with overpriced merchandise.  The pretentiousness.  (Oops. Sorry.  Didn't mean to let that slip out.)  It is a pretty town, though.  If I had to live in a town instead of out in the wilderness ;o), that's the sort of town I'd most want to live in-- somewhere small and pretty and charming, where I could walk my dog(s) along the sidewalks and go to watch the sunset across the bay whenever the mood struck me. 

•  "Dressed in their red suits and fake beards, they rand their bells like they were going for dog-spit gold at the Pavlov Olympics."  --AND--  "So what had started as a moment of sheer glee and a mild adrenaline surge for the six of them who were watching as Lena chased Dale through the parking lot, turned quickly to shock as the evil developer thwacked the Latin Santa-ette in the breadbasket with a satchel of minicubes." (See what I mean about trying too hard?  No?  Well then, I suggest you get your hands on some Christopher Moore, pronto.)

•  To the author's credit, he posts a warning at the beginning of the book that it's not for kids or anyone easily offended by cussing and various other things that commonly give offense.  Some of those things aren't my cup of tea, but they're not usually enough to stop me reading a book.  That said... Some of it is a little more over-the-top than I'd like, and Mavis is... gross, honestly.  Besides, isn't the elderly female bartender with a filthy mouth and mind somewhat cliché?  The character goes too far for me.  Not charming.  Not really even that funny.

•  I'm not crazy about the stupid angel and the resultant flippant references to Heaven/religion in general.  I mean, with the plot as it is, he had to be included, but... some of the jokes make me a little uncomfortable. (Uptight?  Me?  No way.)  It's just not my absolute very favorite sort of thing to read. 

•  How old are Josh and his friend supposed to be, again?  Because several times the kids think/say things that simply don't ring true for a six/seven/eight-year-old to think or say... Possibly this is part of the humor, but it's missing its mark with me.  Or maybe I'm out of touch with what kids these days think and say... But do kids really say "trippin'"?  Or this: "I could be wrong.  I'm a kid.  We make notoriously unreliable witnesses."  Also, the kid refers to CSI.  Parents, CSI is not appropriate viewing material for young children, for a variety of reasons.  Don't let your little kids watch CSI, m'kay?

•  One thing that did make me laugh was that Dale is consistently referred to as "evil developer Dale Pearson".  (It would've been even funnier if the character hadn't been so genuinely despicable, though.)  And then later on, there's a reference to him having owned a "vintage German SS uniform", which I must admit struck me as pretty funny.  Of course he has one of those tucked away for special occasions. What evil developer worth his salt does not? 

•  The trendy, faddy slang in this book's dialogue reminded me of how much I dislike such slang.  It sounds stupid.  Furthermore, it will seriously date this book, in a few years (if it hasn't already).  

•  Maybe you aren't supposed to take anything in this book too seriously ("Ya think?"), but the thirty-foot Christmas tree keeps nagging at the back of my mind...  I'm thinking a 30-ft tree would be awfully heavy and unwieldy.  Impossible for a man and a woman to drag into a church-- not to mention that the woman is supposed to have somehow maneuvered it onto her vehicle all her own.  I don't care if she is Pine Cove's answer to Xena: Warrior Princess, that's just not gonna work. (Right?)

•  Funny how nearly all the main characters seem to be in their forties.  I found it comforting, honestly.  There is life beyond the thirties, even for the childless.  (g)  It's one of those things you already know, but it's still nice to read a book where 40+ characters are the norm and not just some stock character thrown in to round out the cast.  

•  Apparently, all the main characters (and there are several) are from Moore's earlier books.  That may mean that this book has a different feel from his "regular" novels.  I haven't read any of them, so I can't make a comparison.  

Spoilery Comment:

This book was recommended to me as a humorous zombie book set at Christmastime.  I began reading it on the strength of that recommendation, so imagine my dismay when chapter after chapter passed with no mention of zombies!  When they do finally make an appearance, you're about 65% of the way through the book.  Also, the zombies talk.  (That's right.  They use words like a normal, living person.  And the living can hear and understand them.  Have conversations with them.  It's very odd.)  So.  If you're strictly looking for traditional zombies or a zombie-centric book, this isn't your best bet.  If you like humorous zombie tales where the zombies don't show up until the second half of the book-- and can talk-- then it might be worth your time. 

Incidentally, I wonder how it would've affected my enjoyment of the novel if I hadn't been aware that "they" would eventually show up.  It probably would've been an amusing and surprising plot twist instead of a "well, finally" moment.  


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Diary of a Nobody

Diary of a Nobody, by George & Weedon Grossmith

(Also published as The Diary of a Nobody.)

"'The Diary Of A Nobody' began as a serial in 'Punch' and the book which followed in 1892 has never been out of print. The Grossmith brothers not only created an immortal comic character but produced a clever satire of their society. Mr Pooter is an office clerk and upright family man in a dull 1880s suburb. His diary is a wonderful portrait of the class system and the inherent snobbishness of the suburban middle classes. It sends up contemporary crazes for Aestheticism, spiritualism and bicycling, as well as the fashion for publishing diaries by anybody and everybody."
Well, that blurb just about covers it.  This was a "read aloud" book and suffered slightly in my estimation from my expectation that it would be even shorter than it was, the length being the deciding factor in my choice of it over a couple of other titles.

I went in hoping for something in the style of P.G. Wodehouse, and this faux diary is humorous-- but it offered fewer laugh-out-loud moments than a Jeeves and Wooster novel.  However, it's also more realistic and relatable, perhaps, as the main character is a middle class working man rather than the independently wealthy Bertie Wooster, whose whole life seems to be a series of vacations abroad or to various country estates. 

In short, this isn't one I'm planning to re-read obsessively, but it was nice for a once-through.  Gentle, friendly humor and full of reminders that that more things change, the more they stay the same.

Note:  We were reading an Amazon freebie e-book version on the Kindle.  It's still available for free, but be warned that the free e-versions do not include the original illustrations (or any illustrations at all, in fact).  I'm not sure how much we missed through the absence of those illustrations-- but not enough to make them worth paying for, I think.  If I read the book and loved it, then maybe I'd consider finding a nicer copy for next time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Gathering Dead

The Gathering Dead, by Stephen Knight

"The Horde Is Always Hungry...
The zombie apocalypse has begun, and Major Cordell McDaniels is given the most important mission of his career: lead a Special Forces team into New York City to rescue the one man who can stop the ghastly virus that reanimates the dead."

If you like action movies, zombies, a military p.o.v., and stories that take place over a short period of time (in this case, fewer than 24 hours pass from the novel's start and finish), this one's for you.  Personally, by the last few pages, I couldn't help feeling some agreement when a character asks, "Good God, when will this be over?"  That said, the very end won me back (a little), and earlier in the book, I was thoroughly enjoying the story, so...  Maybe I can only handle so many descriptions of Hollywood-style action sequences before my eyes start to glaze over.

Many who've read this novel think it would make an excellent movie.  I'd be interested in seeing a film adaption (especially given that much of it feels like your typical action flick), and I'd even be interested in similar books by the author.  After I've had a palette cleanser in the form of something less military/action-focused.

My Incredibly Long List of Random Notes:
(Some of them may be slightly spoilerish.)

•  Wolf and Regina Safire?  Very odd names.

•  I thought about commenting on the cursing, but then I realized that, A) this is a book about zombies, so it's not really geared toward kids, B) cursing when a zombie's chasing you is different from casually cursing because you think it makes you sound cool, and C) most of the characters are military.  I don't know what percentage of those serving in the military actually curse with frequency, but if you believe what you see in movies, it's practically a requirement.  ;o)  Actually, there's not that much cursing.  Not as much as I've seen in some other books where characters weren't in life-or-death situations.

•  At first, the military-speak and terminology can be a bit off-putting to someone who isn't familiar with it.  It's a little like reading a book that's peppered with foreign words and phrases.  However, eventually it settles down and you stop feeling (so much) like you're having to jump over verbal hurdles every sentence or two.  Still, the specific names of military vehicles and guns... Good grief!  I guess a military buff might think they add to the story, though.

•  Ditto for the NYC street names.  I might have found them worthwhile if I knew anything about NYC. 

•  Though I may not have always enjoyed the gratuitous military terminology, I did it refreshing that the author seems to be pro-capitalism.  The zombie virus is suspected to have originated in Russia (thought to be a "long-forgotten relic of the Cold War" that was tampered with and released).  "...Within weeks, Russia went dark.  Satellites showed the legions of the dead moving across the nation, heading for both Europe and China.  It was the double attack on capitalism the old Soviet guard might have dreamed of, but the soldiers had an entirely different perspective.  They weren't in it to destroy capitalism."

Another opinion I rarely see in novels:  "McDaniels had heard reports on his way in that a group of the walking dead had emerged from the East River and was headed for the United Nations building.  He had chuckled at that.  Finally, something would devour the United Nations before it could envelop the world in leftist glory."

•  Zombies in this book are called "zeds" and "stenches".  (Reminded me of "stenchable", a made-up word from my childhood/youth...)

•  The writing at times (many times) could've used some polish.  "The security situation was clearly deteriorating more quickly than the forces on hand could handle." (forces on hand could handle?)  "The wheels folded up as they were designed to do, absorbing a goodly amount of the G forces."  (goodly?)  "Keep an eye on the weather... It would totally suck if we get closed out because of a little rain and wind, over." (Yeah.  Totally.) "...temporary situation..." (should've been "temporary solution"...) "...his battlefield skills were beyond redoubt." (should be "beyond doubt", right?) "Beyond the door, darkness reigned, slashed by wet rain."  (Oh, so it's the wet sort of rain.  Important distinction.)

• "The first sergeant's head panned from side to side like a tank turret as he took in the sights."  Heh.  Like a tank turret, huh?  (g)  Even the author's similes and metaphors are military in nature.

•  What a surprise that the doctor's daughter happens to be beautiful!  Black hair!  Big green eyes!  At least she's in her mid-thirties instead of a perfect twenty-two. 

•  I was confused when the helicopter pilot and gunner turned into zombies.  They weren't bitten... or had I missed something?  Apparently, in this universe/zombie apocalypse/whatever, you turn into a zombie after dying even if you haven't been bitten. I guess it's airborne.

•  Of all the military terms the author uses, he chooses to spell out/define two of the ones that almost anyone would already be familiar with-- "hooah" and "FUBAR".  (g)

  Interesting that the author chose not to reveal that the main character is black until ~70 pages into the book.  But later on much is made of McDaniels's race.  (A little too much, imho.)

•  A couple of times, I was surprised to realize that such-and-such was supposed to have taken place in a mere twenty minutes (for instance).  These characters seem to squeeze more time out of their minutes than I do.

•  I preferred the part of the book where the characters are holed up in a building.  I like the survival aspect-- watching them think things through, compare options, take precautionary measures-- better than when characters are just running around in imminent danger, shooting at zombies.  However, I'm well aware that many people must have the exact opposite opinion.  (Don't worry; there's plenty of running and shooting later on in the book, which is when it started to go downhill for me.)

•  I was surprised how many conversations take place over radio.  Interesting...

•  Doctor Safire is so completely unlikeable.  I think the author went out of his way to make Safire someone that no-one really cares about. 

•  On the other hand, clearly we're supposed to fawn over Earl-- and I like Earl just fine, but I felt like I was supposed to like him even more than I did.  However, I can't help be feel resistant when I'm so clearly meant to feel sympathetic, and the "folksy" is poured on a little too thickly, at times.

  Or in other words, there are some character clichés-- stock characters.  

•  The description of Regina being "turned on" was unnecessary and...  just ew.  I really found myself wishing Regina wasn't even in the book, by this point of the story.  She felt pointless.  I guess she was there to provide a humanizing element for Dr. Safire, but honestly, both the characters fell pancake-flat for me.

•  "...another goofy Jersey Shore guido..." Ick.  A bit too current pop culture for my taste.

•  The descriptions of exactly what everyone is eating feel amateurish:  "She went ahead and made herself a zesty salami sandwich with oil and vinegar and black pepper..." Well, what are you waiting for?  Don't hold back!  Go on!  I need more detail!  How many slices of salami, exactly?  How many swishes of vinegar?  What kind of oil?  I MUST KNOW.

•  Also:  You're holed up in a building surrounded by zombies, waiting for rescue.  Anything could happen at any time.  What better time to kick back and drink a few beers, right?  (At least the military characters don't partake, but neither should the civilians!)  What is it with characters in zombie movies, TV shows, and books drinking alcohol-- sometimes even hard liquor?  Honestly, if you get drunk or even just tipsy in a zombie apocalypse situation, you deserve to be eaten by the zombies.  It's natural selection, weeding out the poor decision-makers.  (Never mind the fact that I'd probably be weeded out for my inability to run long distances. And if I ever lost my glasses... *gulp*)

  "He understood now why there were so few African Americans in Army Special Forces.  No one wanted to deal with this s**t."  Um, and members of other races have no problem with that sort of thing, I suppose...

•  It felt like the characters had some obsession/compulsion about cleaning/checking their weapons.  I guess it makes sense-- don't want to find something not working when you need it-- but I wonder if members of the military really are always doing that so often, or if it was exaggerated here.

•  When Gartrell said something was "totally of the hook" I stared at the page in disbelief.  He didn't really say that, did he?  How old is Gartrell supposed to be, anyway?

•  Another amusing moment: "You listen to me, soldier.  You've been a total stud muffin this entire time... ...No one's ever going to be able to convince me you're a girlie-man.  Got that?"  Got it.  Stud muffin, yes.  Girlie-man, no.  

•  "I need both of you out there with booger hooks on the bang levers."  Much more efficient than saying "fingers on triggers". 

  Oh. My. Gosh.  How many times did the author compare the zombies to cancer?  I think I counted at least three.

•  How in the world did OMEN keep up with the group when they were driving a van?!  I guess they weren't driving very far each time?  I had a hard time visualizing that part of the story.

•  "From behind, more zombies massed, but even the most fleet of them were unable to match the pace of the living."  Oh really?  Because at some points in the book, they're sprinting...  Incidentally, I'm not sure how I feel about the sprinting zombies... I guess it makes sense that the "fresh" zombies who died at a young age, in fit condition might be able to run pretty quickly...

•  This novel is responsible for my finally googling "tango uniform".  So that's what it means.  (Obviously, it meant a bad situation, but I never exactly knew what it stood for.)

•  How many times was Finelly described as "big"?  That's almost all I remember about him, apart from the fact that he was "raw-boned", looked like a farmer's son, and was the one responsible for Regina's disgusting and utterly pointless "turned on" moment.  Thank you, Finelly, so very, very much.  (*fakeretch*)

  "This isn't my idea of a hot date!" Gartrell said as he blazed away at the approaching mass of ghouls, dropping them to the street as quickly as the AA-12 could fire." 

Comments with **BIGGIE SPOILERS**:

•  I'm not super crazy about the OMEN zombies.  For one thing, are we supposed to believe that these were the smartest guys in NYC?  Wouldn't some of the non-OMEN zombies be just as intelligent?  True, they wouldn't be as likely to have weapons on them, but surely they would remember how to drive a car, etc.  The bigger issue is that any zombies at all remember how to drive, shoot a gun, use a grenade, and so on.  I think that I, personally, prefer the old-fashioned zombie that's dumb as a bag of rocks, but I wouldn't want to discourage writers from experimenting with different types of zombie characters.  There's no reason why they all have to be the same.  Just like vampires.  You have the scary vampires, and then you have the sparkly ones.  ;o) 

•  When Regina grabbed the gun from McDaniels's belt, I had to roll my eyes.  Really?  She has to be the one to shoot her (now dead) father?  And it's not even one of those "I should be the one to do it" moments-- it's because everyone's in a hurry to move on and can't spare the time to fire a single shot.  Give me a break!  Another clichéd Hollywood-style moment.

•  I was seriously annoyed when Leary died.  I think he was one of my favorite characters, which is odd, considering that we hardly get to know him.  Very rude to kill him off like that.  Not nice. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

Overall impression:  This is a ghost story in the classic style.  This means that it is somewhat predictable in spots, but it still manages to deliver the goosebumps and prickly scalp.  I'd recommend it for people who like good old-fashioned ghost stories and aren't afraid of something a little dark.

More specific tidbits:

•  Early in the book, some characters want to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and so of course there's a reference to the fact that it's an "ancient tradition" to do so.  That's not the first time I've heard about this "ancient tradition", but I must confess, I don't think I know anyone who actually does tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  Is this a tradition that didn't make it to America, or is that just my family?  (Also, apart from the ghosts in A Christmas Carol-- Scrooge's old partner and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future-- I can't think of a single Christmas story with a ghostly appearance.  I realize the ghost stories needn't be about or set at Christmastime.  That just crossed my mind.)  

 Honestly, ghost stories feel somewhat inappropriate for Christmas Eve-- definitely not a tradition I'd want to start.  That's what Hallowe'en is for.  Christmas is a time to feel cozy-- warm-- thankful-- joyful-- peaceful or can't-sit-still excited, depending on your age and the circumstances.  First and foremost, it's a religious holiday-- and also a time to focus on loving your fellow man-- not my ideal time for eerie stories.  (But that's just me. (g))

  Some very evocative, creepy place names in this book!  Eel Marsh... the Nine Lives Causeway... Gapemouth Tunnel...  Even the town's name (Crythin Gifford) and the house named Monk's Piece seem a little odd (to my American ears, at least).  "I've come to the land of curious place-names, certainly."  Yes, Arthur, you have. 

  "Sea frets".  I'd never heard of a fret before.  Apparently it's a sea mist/fog.

  "It's a far-flung part of the world.  we don't get many visitors."
    "I suppose because there is nothing much to see."
    "It all depends what you mean by 'nothing'.  There's the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village," he chuckled.  "Those are particularly fine examples of 'nothing to see'."

I would've liked to have heard/seen more of those things.  Unless I missed them somehow, though, that was the only time they were mentioned.

•  This book was written in the 1980s, but I think Susan Hill did a good job of making it feel much older than that.  I could have believed it was written in the time it was set (the Edwardian era, I think, or between the wars).  

•  Susan Hill really likes to stick in foreboding "warnings" that bad things are coming up in the story. I'm not sure I'd say it's a good thing, really, but apparently it didn't completely ruin the novel.  ;o)

•  " as blue as a blackbird's egg." 

•  Very atmospheric, which is of ultimate importance in ghost stories.  Without atmosphere, they are nothing.

  The salt marsh made me think of the Everglades... and more locally, the Mobile Bay delta and the Weeks Bay estuary.  

•  Quicksand has always fascinated me... It also frightens me, and I wouldn't want to get too close to it, but any book with quicksand gets bonus points on my personal book rating scale.  ;o)

•  Mr. Jerome likes to repeat himself for dramatic effect.

•  This book mentions that a woman is crocheting "something elaborate with very fine cotton".  Double bonus points!  (Even though the character is described as rather a mousy, shy, "powdery-looking little woman".  If the crocheter had been young and pretty, quadruple bonus points would have been awarded, with sugar on top.)

Spoilery observations:

•  There's a little of the usual "why is the character doing this stupid thing?" (Why not just pack up the papers, cart them back to town, and sort them there?  Sure there are a lot of them, but better that than go back to the haunted house.)  But in this type of story, you've just got to look past that-- and really, Hill did a decent job of explaining Arthur's rationale for what he does. 

•  I figured out pretty quickly what the bumping was.  Or, well, I had it narrowed down to two things, so I was not surprised.  But then again, maybe you were supposed to figure it out ahead of Arthur.  It just wasn't that hard to guess.  

•  After a certain point, it seems obvious who the ghosts are, why they're there, etc.-- long before Arthur finally spells it out.  That's probably intentional, though-- give the reader ample opportunity to figure it out on his/her own before you spill the beans.  

•  For most of the book, I felt that what happened to Arthur was pretty tame.  Admittedly, there were a few creepy moments, but looking back over them, it wasn't anything that different from your average ghostly ghost-story happenings.  I wasn't sure what more "should" have happened, though... 

•  The end was also somewhat predictable.  At least, I figured out, when Stella came for Arthur, that something would happen to their future child.  You can see it coming, but it is still horrifying-- especially the fact that Stella hangs on through another ten months.  I didn't predict that little detail, and it makes the last page so much worse.  

End spoilery observations.  

One more thing-- after I started reading this novel, I learned that it's being made into a movie that will come out sometime next year.  I'll be interested in seeing it, eventually.  There are certain scenes that should translate very well to the screen.  (In fact, many aspects of the story seem better suited for a movie than for a novel.)  I doubt it will be for fans of serious horror, because the novel is not, but for those of us who like a good ghost story, it's something to look forward to.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

I found this collection of autobiographical essays to be a little bit hit-or-miss.  Generally, there would be at least one or two funny moments per essay, but there would also usually also be one or two things that I felt could just as well have been left out.  If something's not funny and doesn't contribute much to the anecdote at hand, be ruthless and rip it right off the page.  (I guess the problem is that the author and editor(s) thought those boring, troubling, and/or irrelevant bits were funny or somehow important.  Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.  As they say.)

I selected this as read-aloud (with Donald) material, not realizing that it would contain quite so much cursing as it does.  Considering that I'm simply not comfortable cursing very heartily (especially "in cold blood"), this led to a lot of bleeping during the reading.  In most of the essays, there are only a few bleeps-- and then there was the essay about the author's brother, who calls himself "the Rooster"...

All in all, this book wasn't the sort I'd recommend without reservations to just anyone, but I can't deny that some of it made us laugh, so I'm willing to try another book of essays by Sedaris-- particularly since the reviews I've read indicate that this may not have been his very best work.  

Note:  I'm labeling this as non-fiction, though there seems to have been some embroidering in spots (based on reviews).  I'm assuming there's enough basis in fact to make the "non-fiction" label apt.  It certainly doesn't feel like a cohesive work of fiction or a collection of short stories, so non-fiction it is!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Wheel Spins

The Wheel Spins, by Ethel White

This was another (temporary) freebie from Amazon, downloaded on the strength of its classification as mystery/suspense and the fact that it served as the basis for an early Alfred Hitchcock film (The Lady Vanishes).  My verdict: it's not the most fast-paced or challenging of mysteries, but it was certainly compelling enough that I wanted to keep reading to the end.  Particularly if you like the older style of mysteries and writing in general, I'd give it a rating of "good" and recommend it.

More specific observations:

  • It took longer than I expected, based on the blurb I read, for the action to move onto the train. 
  • The first description of the Misses Flood-Porter makes the fifties seem more like the sixties.  Maybe this is a sign of changing times.  This novel was written in the 1930s, and back then, someone in her fifties might well have looked ten years older than the average modern woman in her fifties appears.  Also, the Flood-Porters are described as smokers.  Which brings me to my next point...
  • Cigarettes!  At some point, I noticed that everyone was smoking.  It's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but these old books do have people smoking all the time.  Phew.  I'm glad I don't have to be cooped up in a confined space with clouds of cigarette smoke. 
  • In reference to my last blog entry, there are quite a few typos in this copy of the book.  For example:  "With a guilty glance at her husband's back she drew out of her hag a limp leather case."  Ew.  Please don't draw limp leather cases out of hags.  It's gross.  Even worse than the typos, though, are the very frequent formatting issues-- the large spaces between paragraphs.  Clearly, they aren't meant to there, as they usually interrupt chains of thought or conversations.  Most of the time, I could ignore them, but they are distracting, and sometimes lead you to believe you're coming up to a change of scene or other pause in the story, when you're not.
  • "'This is my large son,' she said, trying to hide her pride."  Is she really saying her son is "large"?  I thought he was still almost a baby... Is this a typo? 
  • Some of the characters seem to swap places in my level of approbation.  Iris goes from bad to good over the course of the novel, while some of the others (the vicar's wife, for instance) fall somewhat from favor. 
  • This book makes train travel seem much less appealing than books usually do.  The train is constantly described as crowded, lurching, and stuffy.  (Incidentally, I've never been on a real train-- nothing more than open-air transportation around an amusement park.)
  • I guessed fairly early into the story (by my own standards, at least) where Miss Froy was and how the guilty parties had effected her disappearance.  I didn't figure out why she was "disappeared", though.  (When I read the explanation, I felt I ought to have known that, too.)
  • Ethel White must have been a dog person. 
  • There's a lot of reference to national pride and trust in one's countrymen.  I guess it only makes sense, under the circumstances.  
  • The phrase "under the seal of the apple" is unfamiliar.  While getting the backstory on an adulterous couple, we read that "after a few meetings in London, under the seal of the apple, he swept her away with him on a passionate adventure."  Is this a reference to the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?
  • There are plenty of times when you just want to shake the characters.  One example:  Iris talks about some of her suspicions right in front of a character whom she has every reason to suspect of being involved in the plot.  I guess she's under the impression that time is running out, but still!  That's just stupid.  
  • I was struck by how often the term "free agent" crops up in this novel.  (Also, there was reference to "the psychological moment"; that phrase feels very early-20th-century to me.) 
  • At one point, Hare reflects on the fact that "he could not give her that essential sock on the jaw" to break her out of... hysteria, I guess, though she wasn't screaming or flailing about or laughing crazily like characters usually are when they get that slap across the face.  Anyway, it made me wonder what it is about that "essential sock on the jaw".   Do people still believe that's an appropriate reaction to someone going into hysterics, or was that a thing of the past?  How did the notion originate?  It seems to me like it wouldn't do any real good-- just shock someone out of making a fuss for that moment-- but maybe I'm wrong.
  • I believe I counted at least three references to oil on the sea or other body of water.  Yick.  What's with all the oily water?
  • I thought the sleepwalking bit was odd.  I don't know how else it should have been resolved, but... It was strange.  
  • Miss Froy strikes me as a unique character-- the youthful, girlish, middle-aged spinster.  She and her family felt vaguely L.M. Montgomery-ish to me, and of course that's a compliment, coming from me.  
  • Now that I've read the book, I'm curious to see Hitchcock's adaptation. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

To Err is Easier & Cheaper

Just last night, I was thinking about the typos I keep finding in e-books.  Some books are worse than others for typos-- and some aren't any worse than paper books I've read-- but plenty of them are worse, and it can be pretty annoying.  At the least, it disrupts the flow of the story (and takes you out of the story); at worst, it's downright insulting.  Perfect timing, because this morning I came across a brief article about that very issue-- "'E' Stands for 'Errors'"

The reasons behind the errors boil down to this:  it's faster, easier, and cheaper for the publisher to conduct its business in a way that leaves errors in an e-book (even after they've been corrected for paper versions of the same text).  If you're frequently frustrated by the errors in e-books, that's an irritating message, but it's not exactly surprising.

I think what makes it even more aggravating is that publishers insist on charging so much for e-books-- often even more than they charge for the "dead tree" version.  Also, because of the nature of e-books, it would be so easy to go back and fix the original file before taking it to market.  I mean, any fool with access to a computer and a word processing program could do it!  I regularly take the time to go back and correct typos in my own silly little blogs, when I spot them.  In effect, I'm putting more effort into my blogs that hardly anyone ever reads than these big publishing houses do for something for which they charge good money.

The book designer/typesetter/author quoted in the article hopefully suggests that "maybe this [the comparative lack of attention to typos in e-books] will change as e-books gain more market share".  Yes, most likely.  However, I think that leads us to another aspect of the issue-- namely, that publishers aren't very happy with the growing popularity of e-books and e-readers.

Suddenly, it's becoming more feasible for authors to bypass publishing houses altogether by self-publishing and still reaching an increasingly wider audience.  For that and a variety of other reasons, I think publishers are afraid of e-books.  Why else do they charge as much (if not more) for the e-book version than for the paper version of the same book?  Some try to argue that the cost of materials for a physical book are minuscule, but I'm not buying it.  You have to pay for the manufacturing process, too-- upkeep of the printing machinery-- paychecks for those responsible for keeping it running-- storage space for unsold books-- not to mention the expenses of distribution.  Do they seriously expect us to believe that with all of that taken into account, it's not significantly cheaper to process and "ship" a digital file?

No, I think publishers want to keep e-books down as long as they can, but they have to balance that instinctive fear and even hatred with their awareness of certain (seemingly inevitable) realities.  E-books are here, and they're only growing in popularity, so publishers need to keep up with the times and try to get a piece of the e-pie by selling digital copies that must cost them nearly nothing to "produce" (since they're using the author's original files-- not even bothering to fix up the formatting and typographical errors).

Not happy with your typo-riddled e-book?  Well, that's too bad... but I guess that's just the way it is.  E-books just aren't as nice as good old-fashioned paper, are they?  And look, it's actually a couple dollars cheaper for this thoroughly proofread paperback...

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Ring, by Koji Suzuki

I've seen the (American remake of) the movie, of course, as anyone even vaguely interested in horror movies will have done by now, considering that it came out nearly a decade ago.  I don't remember the finer points of the film, but from what I do recall (and based on a brief conversation with my youngest sister, K, who probably has a better memory of both the novel and the book than I do), I feel safe saying that this is an example where the movie was better than the book.  (There.  Is that long-winded enough for you?  ;o))

My biggest complaint about the book is simply that it's not very well written.  It is a translation, so possibly it's better in the original Japanese, but honestly, I don't see how it could be that much better.  Also, there's not much of a feeling of horror, which is a bit problematic in a horror novel.  I won't deny that there are occasional moments-- the first drive up to Pacific Land is full of foreboding, for instance-- but more than horror you get dread.  ("Oh  no!  These characters I care about only mildly may die horribly... in a few days.  Possibly.")  Dread can be powerful, but when it's dragged out too long, it's just tiring.  There were too few shocks to the system.  So much of the story seemed better on film than in words.  Of course, with this kind of subject, it's probably a lot harder to write it than to just show it...  For example, in the movie, the "video" was naturally quick and easy to show.  (Well, everything but the sensation of smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling things, like they do in the book.  I can't recall if that was mentioned in the movie at all...)  But in the book, it took pages to describe the series of scenes.  It wasn't nearly as effective.

So, I wasn't terribly impressed, but maybe I'd have liked it more if I hadn't already known the story.  (There are at least a few differences between the book and movie, but the basic elements are the same or very close.)  As it was, I really just wanted to finish it so I could start something new.  (Usually a bad sign.)

Spoilery observations/comments:
  • Asakawa is (especially in the earlier parts of the book) kind of a jerk to his wife.  "He wished his wife would act like her name, which meant 'quiet'. The best way to seal a woman's mouth was not to reply."  Gee, what a dreamboat. 
  • More of the romantic Asakawa:  "Although they'd been married for a full three years, he and his wife had a relatively good relationship."  Wow.  You mean they have a "relatively good relationship" after a full three years?  What a great achievement-- not to mention a wonderful advertisement for marriage.  (Ugh. I hate anti-marriage tropes.)
  • I was going to comment on Ryuji's being a psycho and Asakawa's own sickness that allows him to  know of but not do anything about Ryuji's supposed crimes (not to mention his bringing R. into the home where his wife and daughter live)... but then at the end of the book, the author throws in a twist.  Well, I still think R. is a bit of a psycho even to tell A. such things (even if they weren't true)... and it really doesn't change my poor opinion of A. at all, since he believed R.'s stories.
  • "...There are a few people who can actually produce psychic photos.  But there can't be too many paranormals who can actually project images onto a television tube without any equipment whatsoever."  (Yes, I doubt there are "many" (read: any) who can do that.) The parapsychobabble got on my nerves.  Look, it's paranormal horror.  There's no need to explain it; it's unexplainable, and your audience is aware of this.  Just give us the creeps, ok? That's all we're really after.
  • Very occasionally, the particular wording used struck me as odd.  I wonder if it just didn't translate well, or what...  For instance, grown-man Ryuji speaking to grown-man Asakawa: "Imagine being able to go night-night in a place like this."  Night-night?  Um, okay... (Alright, so I tell my dogs they have to take their "night-night walk", but they're dogs, so it's perfectly normal and not at all weird.)
  • This made me laugh:  "The next morning, Sunday, Asakawa dialled Ryuji's number as soon as he woke up. 'Yeah?' answered Ryuji, sounding for all the world like he'd just woken up."  Ha!  Why's A. so shocked that R. sounds (for all the world) like he's just woken up?  Didn't A. just wake up, himself?  A. then should've said something about R. being a lazybones.  It would have made me happy. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dear Coca-Cola

Dear Coca-Cola, by Terry Ravenscroft

Non-spoilery observations, reactions, etc.:
  • I read this one aloud with Donald. 
  • At first, I thought this would be a collection of unwittingly amusing letters written to Coca-Cola by a variety of "regular people".  It turned out to be a collection of rather silly letters (of complaint, recommendation, query, etc.) written to a variety of businesses/corporations by a single (rather silly) man-- Mr. Ravenscroft himself.  
  • Some of the letters are amusing. 
  • Some of the letters take things a little too far (imho) and lead me to roll my eyes and sympathize with the poor men and women tasked with reading and responding to them.  On the one hand, these letters could have been a spot of humor and a little change of pace in what must ordinarily be the somewhat boring grind of responding to the same old same, day in, day out.  On the other hand, they surely have better things to do with their day, and Ravenscroft (who is roughly the same age as one of my grandfathers) comes across a bit more like a teen-aged prankster than a grown man of advanced years. 
  • I feel like a middle-aged fun-squasher, admitting to the feelings described in the bullet-point above.  I think that reaction is the result of reading these letters one right after another... Prolonged exposure wears down my (possibly weak) tolerance for such things.  Still, at least some of it was funny.  Maybe it's better taken in small doses.
  • The author is British, so it was interesting noting which products were familiar and which were not.  (I think I could happily read a [brief] book just about products in foreign countries... I enjoyed wandering around the grocery stores in Sweden, for instance.  But then again, if I'm not in a rush and it's not too crowded, I sometimes enjoy looking around American grocery stores, too.  I am easily entertained.)
  • The last 15% or so of the book seems to be excerpts from the author's other publications and quick reviews from satisfied customers.   (I didn't read through them all, so I can't say for sure.)
  • I'd certainly consider reading more by the same author, though based on the few excerpts I did read, I think I'm more interested in his works of nonfiction (like this one) than those of fiction. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Link: Flashlight Worthy

Flashlight Worthy: Handpicked book recommendations on hundreds of topics. 

I just happened upon this website last night, and I've yet to really delve into it, but it seems like an interesting idea.  As the subtitle indicates, this site offers topic-based lists of book recommendations.  There are currently 429 lists-- and at first glance, at least, plenty of variety.  I find myself drawn to quite a few lists, such as the following:
  • Epistolary Novels
  • Run, Zombies Ahead!
  • Nordic Noir
  • These Books Have Gone to the Dogs
  •  Literary Thrillers for the Book Lover
  • Creepy Houses That Must Be Explored
  • Brevity is the Soul of Wit: Rec. Short Story Collections
  • Cold Weather Mysteries
  • Some Books of Dry Humor, Old and New
  • The Top Ten Most Influential Fictional Characters
  • Where Utopia Distorts into Dystopia: Dystopian Novels
Well, that's it.  Just passing along (and bookmarking for my own future use) a link of possible interest.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Death at Wentwater Court

Death at Wentwater Court, by Carola Dunn
(audiobook read by Bernadette Dunne)

Hm.  I begin to suspect that I may be too harsh a critic... This was another case of "not bad, but not great... and only mildly good".  It's a very light, fluffy mystery with a romantic subplot (which will clearly be carried over into subsequent books in the series).  The bad guys are very, very bad (irredeemable), and (most of) the good guys are just too good to be true (sickeningly so, at times).  Daisy herself strikes me as a little Mary Sue-ish.  She's "cursed" with one of those faces that inspire confidences, so of course everyone tells her his/her life story with hardly a moment's hesitation.  (If this is going to be a "thing" in this series, it's going to get old fast.  In fact, it was already old, by the middle of this book.)  I'm a bit disappointed; I'd been looking forward to this series (possibly based on the name "Daisy Dalrymple" alone), and now I find it merely "alright".  Still, if you like British-style mysteries set (if not written) between the wars, this is probably worth a look.  I'll likely give another book or two a try in the hope that the author was just finding her feet with this first entry in the series.

As I noted above, I listened to the audiobook version-- and yet again we have the narrator "doing voices".  She was decent on the women's voices, I guess... Though her Annabel got on my nerves, that might've been the character's fault as much as the narrator's whispery rendition.  Overall, I didn't like her intonation, much of the time, with sentences ended on a raised inflection that I think should usually be reserved for questions. Then there was the way she pronounced "pater"-- like "patter" instead of "pay-ter".  Evidently, that is an accepted pronunciation, but I don't approve-- and since it was in the prologue, it started us off on a bad foot.  Oh well.  I'm picky about audiobook narrators, it seems.  (What a shock.)

Side Note:
This was another library check-out.  This was the first time I've tried listening to an audiobook on the Kindle (as opposed to the computer or MP3-player) from start to finish.  If I wasn't careful, I'd return to resume listening only to find that the Kindle had forgotten my place in the audio file-- and it's a true pain to find your place again when you can only skip ahead 30 seconds at a time in an hour-long clip.  (The book was broken into six pieces each of approximately 60-75 minutes.)  At first, I wasn't sure what was going on (and still am not, entirely), because one time the Kindle would remember my spot just fine, then the next time it would have taken me back to the beginning of the clip.  I think I've figured out that to ensure my spot is bookmarked, I have to pause the file, then go back to the home screen of the Kindle before putting the device to sleep.  If I just pause it without returning to the home screen, the Kindle forgets my spot.  It's weird, and I can't figure out why it works that way-- fortunately, I've never had that issue with a regular e-book-- but for whatever reason, that seems to be the situation.  It's not a big deal, so long as I remember to pause and hit the "home" key before shutting down.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

DNF: Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, by Linda Berdoll

This one really belongs in a blog titled "I DIDN'T Read This".  That's right, it's my first DNF (Did Not Finish) since I started this blog. 

I probably should've known better from the title alone.  (Oh, the embarrassment.)  However, I was looking for books that looked even marginally interesting in the local library's e-book collection, and for whatever reason (I like Pride and Prejudice; I was curious), I decided to give it a try.  This proved to be a poor decision.

Only a few pages in, I began to have second thoughts.  I glanced over some customer reviews to help me decide whether or not to continue, and the answer was clear:  this was not worth my time. 

Here are some spoilery things that I learned either from my few pages of reading or from customer reviews on Amazon:
  • The writing is awful.  The author clearly tried to sound like Jane Austen, "howbeit" did a very poor job. (The first page or so was almost unreadable.)
  • Apparently, there are way-too-explicit love-making scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth, which is kind of gross to think about.  I don't know why, but I feel one shouldn't think of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy doing much more than kissing and... well, discreetly fading to black when things begin to heat up. I thought I could handle a romantic sequel to P&P, but upon reflection, I find that I do not want to picture Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth getting down and dirty.  *shuddersquirm*
  • Everyone behaves unforgivably "out of character".  The most egregious example I saw mentioned was that Mr. Bingley-- Mr. Bingley, I tell you-- cheats on poor Jane and conceives a love child.  Oh!  The very thought of it!  I have such tremblings-- such flutterings all over me-- such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at my heart!  Mr. Bingley would never do such a thing.  It is impossible
Anyway.  I gave up on the book. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Play Dead

Play Dead, by Anne Frasier

(It feels like a disproportionately large number of the titles I read lately contain the words "dead" or "death".  This is what comes of reading mysteries, horror/thrillers, and the Sookie Stackhouse series...)

I'm going to pick this one apart and list the things I didn't like (which seems to be my usual method on this blog), but honestly, despite imperfections, I found the novel enjoyable enough-- especially considering it was free on Amazon.  (It's not free at the moment.  Check every week or so, because the list of freebies changes frequently.)

(with slight spoilers)

•  The cursing.  It certainly wasn't the worst I've read for cursing, but... I'm probably in the minority, but I don't feel it adds much to a book.  Possibly there are occasions where it's useful, but most of the time, it's more of a distraction than anything else.  (Incidentally, the cursing reminded me that, though I wasn't crazy about The Girl in the Green Raincoat over all, at least I don't remember it having much/any foul language.)  Anyway, regarding  what I deem to be "unnecessary" cursing-- it's not a total deal-breaker, but it is something I take unfavorable note of.  There were times when it was probably merited here, for the characters and the situations, but I still would've toned it down a shade or two.

•  The Yankee vs. Southerner angle.  Meh.  A little mention of it is ok, but... it's not the most comfortable subject to read about, as a Southerner.  This bothers me mainly because there's plenty of prejudice against Southerners-- and negative stereotypes of Southerners-- so to get only the "backward Southerners are stuck in the past and hate this poor, innocent Northerner just because he's from... Ohio" point of view is somewhat irksome.  I'm very thankful that at least not every character was painted as being "anti-Yankee".  Since it was mostly limited to two marginal characters, this is a very small nit-pick.  (Still, Ohio?  I tend not to think of Ohio as "Yankeeland"...)

•  The love spell?  (The "mojo" or whatever it is that Flora uses?)  Yuck.  Possibly the grossest, creepiest thing in the whole book.  

•  David's "interactions" with Flora... :o/  I really wish the dude had had more self-respect than to call a prostitute then keep up a kinda-sorta relationship with her just because she was convenient.  Related:  "Or were they just two smart but extremely messed-up people clinging to each other for comfort? Yep."  Um... smart?  Ok, whatever you say, brainiac.

•  Elise's relationship with her daughter is frustrating.  The bratty teenager who wants nothing to do with her mother.  The weak parent, afraid to assert herself.  It's not a pleasant dynamic-- but fortunately things have begun to improve between them by the end of the novel.

•  "Finding my way around in the tunnels was a little like playing Monopoly, only with bigger pieces."  ...Huh?  But isn't Monopoly just going around and around the square game-board?  Nothing at all maze-like, so far as I can recall... 

•  I could've done without the mortuary insight.  (This is from notes I wrote while reading, and I have already forgotten what the "mortuary insights" were-- some details of what they do to prepare bodies for burial, I think.  This is one of those times I am thankful for my sieve-like memory. (g)) 

•  If I'm going to read about "witchcraft", I prefer the fantastical kind-- Harry Potter style-- to this "realistic" kind.  I would've liked Elise even better (though I do like her as she is) if she didn't believe in any of it... or decided once and for all that it wasn't going to be part of her life, going forward... but it was such a big part of the character, I knew we wouldn't see her turn away from it.  *shrug*

(just observations / reactions) 

•  "Root doctor".  Apparently it's the pc/preferred alternative to "witch doctor".  First I've heard of it, but then again, I don't really move in the root-doctor/witch-doctor circle... ;o)

•  "...the doors and window trim painted blue to repel evil spirits."  Hm.  Interesting, considering that I think I know of one or two local homes with blue-painted trim.  (Or at least they did in the past... Not sure if they still do.)  I always thought those people just had (really) bad taste in house paint, but now I wonder if there was more to it than that... (Kind of creepy to think that people actually believe this stuff... Makes the whole novel creepier.)

•  We hear a lot about how this story is set in Savannah, Georgia-- reminiscent of the frequent mention of BALTIMORE BALTIMORE BALTIMORE in The Girl in the Green Raincoat-- but this book does a much better job of giving you the feel of the place-- or this author's version of Savannah, at least.

•  That said... this book makes Savannah seem pretty weird-- like another New Orleans.  I wonder what people who live in Savannah would think of Frasier's presentation of their city.  I've come across a series of murder mysteries set in Mobile.  Now I'm curious to read one just to see how that author paints the (semi)local color... (I suspect I wouldn't like all of it.  But then when do I ever like all of a book?  (g))

•  I'm surprised by the number of people who seem to find this book scary/creepy.  There were a few eerie moments, but I didn't find any of it that creepy.  There wasn't even that much suspense...

I figured out the killer's identity a little before it was revealed, but not so early that the book was dull.  It was always clear that it wasn't going to be... let's say "the Prime Suspect"-- and then when the killer is thinking about how s/he went into the tunnels from his/her house (or something like that), the killer's identity becomes obvious.  However, I'm a little confused about how this woman could so easily haul around male bodies for miles... I guess none of the ones she intentionally killed and then moved around were described as being large men.  Most (all?) were young, in fact, and possibly slight-figured.  Plus she was using the tunnels, so she could wheel them around most of the way...  I guess it's plausible.

Verdict:  It's not Book of the Year quality, but still definitely readable.  I liked the main characters (Elise and David) and was happy to see some of the relationships work out as I'd hoped.  Some aspects of the story were predictable, but not so much so that I didn't enjoy reading to see how they would resolve themselves.  I'll be happy to try another book by this author.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, by P.G. Wodehouse

(I almost forgot that we'd finished this, we'd been reading it for so long.) 

What is there to say about this book?  It was your typical formulaic yet perennially amusing Wodehouse, but it felt like Jeeves was absent throughout almost the whole story, so if you're a fan of Jeeves or scenes of Jeeves/Wooster interaction, you may find this one somewhat lacking.  It doesn't stand out as a special favorite, but let's be honest-- even non-special-favorite Wodehouse is notably superior to most of the junk churned out these days.  (IMHO.)

It strikes me that I've never read any Wodehouse solo.  Wodehouse is so perfect for reading aloud that it almost seems a shame to read it silently to yourself.  I'll have to try, sometime, though.  I wonder if I'll find it quite as funny on my own... 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman

This novella merits a resounding "meh".  It was written with serialization in mind-- and apparently it's not the first in a series about the same group of characters-- so maybe either or both of those things have something to do with my reaction... but no.  Honestly, there are more things I disliked than liked in this one, yet I won't go so far as to say it was unreadable or even terribly written.  Based on some of the other reviews I've skimmed since finishing the novella, even her fans feel this work wasn't her best, but I doubt I'll be tempted to try any of the novel-length works in the series.  There's just so much to choose from in the mystery genre.  Why settle for characters that don't grab your interest?

My Long List of Mostly Complaints:
(Slight spoilers to follow...)

•  I selected this book because I liked the title, the cover, and the indication that it was inspired by Rear Window.  I think I would've been better off just rewatching Rear Window.  Also, this is a perfect example of how a nice cover so often leads you astray.

•  I had to groan when I realized that the gimmick that lands the character on bed rest was a difficult pregnancy.  Preeclampsia?  It's not the kind of thing I really want to read about, to tell the truth.  That's actually exactly the sort of thing I least want to read about, ever.  Fortunately, the pregnancy/health aspects aren't described in too much detail.  

•  Unfortunately, the mystery itself is skimpy, predictable, and buried in the character's own life stories.  Which I found uninteresting.

•  One of the things I dislike about modern novels (mostly those set in contemporary times) is so many authors' penchant for inserting references to pet causes, current events, and "cutting edge" technology-- whether or not they'll add anything of value to the story they're telling.  Maybe it's asking too much of authors to wish that such things be kept at a minimum.  Probably some people love these references, and I can deal with them when they have anything significant to do with the plot or the character, but often they seem shoehorned into place.  The author wanted to make a Statement about this or that issue, so s/he works hard to find a way to work it in,  Even if it doesn't really "work".

•  I dare you to forget, while reading, that this story is set in Baltimore.  It's vitally important, apparently, based on how often it's mentioned.  However, despite the frequent mentions of Baltimore and local attractions/features that (I assume) Baltimoreans would recognize, I couldn't get a real sense of the place at all... (What it looks like, feels like, etc.) Which, considering that the main character is bed-ridden, was not that big of a deal.  I didn't read the book because I wanted to experience Baltimore vicariously.  But if it's not important to this particular story, why keep mentioning that it's set in Baltimore?  Baltimore. Balt. i. more.  BALTIMORE. 

•  Does product placement exist in books?  Did the author receive reimbursement from Apple?  Seriously!  The first mention of the iPhone, I thought, "Ok, I get it.  You're writing a story set in modern times-- times congruent with the miraculous invention of the iPhone.  Wow, that reference to the iPhone sure does make the story and its characters feel real to me!"  Then there's this:  "Even as she spoke, her well-trained thumbs had found a local rescue group for Italian greyhounds on her iPhone's Web connection and a single tap dialed the phone number."  ...Um, what?  Oh, sorry, I mean, wow, I gotta get me one of them iPhone things.  "A single tap"!  Fancy that!  Later on, we get another sales pitch:  "She had mocked Tess's iPhone, but it had a GPS function, something she would dearly love to have right now."

•  So, the main character and practically every "good" character in the book is identified as a democrat?  How nice for them all.  I, however, am not, and I'll admit that I got tired of the frequent references to political issues and/or leanings.  

•  "Whitney had a well-trained mind and she knew her anecdotal experiences were proof of nothing, but she believed in climate change and worried that things might be more dire than anyone realized  How did someone bring a child onto this fragile planet, when it might not even exist in a few decades?"   #1:  Gee, thanks for the science lesson, 'specially since it had nothing to do with the story I was reading.  #2:  Whitney, dear, Earth has been around a long, long time.  I doubt it's quite as fragile as you think, and I find it even more doubtful that it's going to cease to exist.  Any given species, on the other hand, now...

•  Tess (the main character) has been smoking marijuana "as recently as four months ago-- before she knew she was pregnant"?  Oh yeah, she's an ideal woman, for sure. 

•  What is it with calling a police officer working homicide "a murder police"?  She does it more than once, uses "police" as though it's singular.  It just sounds wrong to me.  "Police officer", please. 

•  There's a dog who uses a chamber pot.  Without being specifically trained to do so.   ...Has Ms. Lippman ever actually owned a dog?

•  "But even as her wireless connection allowed her to collapse time and space, it could never provide the serendipity of legwork she had known... She couldn't help wondering if this was part of some conspiracy, if this excess of access was a form of sleight of hand.  Look over here, look how much you can find.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."  ...Uh, yeah.  It's probably a conspiracy of some kind.  A deep, dark conspiracy. 

•  Augh!  Stop the pop culture references!  I beg you!

•  Possibly the best part of the book was something borrowed from another author:  "As Sherlock Holmes had said to Watson, to lose one wife was tragic, two was careless, and three-- well, Holmes hadn't had a word for that, as Whitney recalled."

•  I'll admit it:  I looked up the handbags mentioned in the Nordstrom's scene-- or at least the one mentioned by a specific name.  It's a real handbag.  It's big and pretty hideous. No wonder Whitney disapproved.

•   "I heard it on NPR!"  :o/  Sure, it's put in as a joke, but still... Myuck. 

•  "A man who believed in the death penalty--ugh."  Consider my eyes rolling in disgust right about at this point.

•   When the story begins to "climax" (if it can be said to climax when it's really not that much of a shocking twist and you never feel seriously worried over the main character's safety), there was this weird abrupt shift back and forth between two points of view-- Tess's and Whitney's.  A little visual cue that the POV is about to change might have been nice.  It was pretty jarring-- completely inelegant.  

•  "Thank God she had her handgun in her purse. Which was in the car."  Really?  Man, I don't think Whitney's really cut out for this line of work... It's getting close to sundown and you're being driven out into the middle-of-nowhere-in-the-woods by a guy you have reason to suspect may have murdered a handful of women (even if you do find him inexplicably attractive), and when the two of you get out of the car, you neglect to carry your purse, where you stowed your "just in case" handgun?  That's kind of careless.

• They gave the baby "Scout" for a middle name?  Well, what can you expect from a dad who calls himself "Crow"? 


While I was discussing the book with Donald, he observed that it sounded like it was full of cliches, and I think that's it exactly.  Basically, think of your (stereo)typical literary "liberated" female P.I. and ask yourself what you think her opinion of X, Y, or Z would be.  When I do that, pretty much every assumption I can think of is there.  It makes for dull reading.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Child Called "It"

A Child Called "It": One Child's Courage to Survive, by Dave Pelzer

First things first:  I really only selected this title because I wanted to try out the newly available feature of checking out Kindle-format e-books from public libraries.  (Please note that not all libraries offer this service... yet.)  Honestly, I had a little trouble finding a title I really wanted to read that was currently available, and the Overdrive search engine leaves something to be desired, but assuming you can find a book you want to read that's not already checked out... and is in the Kindle format... it's a very quick and easy process.  With just a few clicks (after signing in with your library card number and PIN), you're ready to turn on your Kindle's wireless and load the library e-book just as quickly and painlessly as you load any book through Amazon. 

So, I chose this book because it was available for instant download and was in the Kindle format.  It's not the type of book I usually read, and it's not the kind of book I think I want to read very often-- but that said, it was compelling enough that I finished it in one day.  (And I'm not usually a finish-a-book-in-one-day kind of person, because I tend to prefer to read in smaller chunks of time.  This book's short though.  Speed-readers probably zoom through this one in an hour or so.)

There may be spoilers to come, so read at your own risk.

This book is purportedly a non-fictional, firsthand account of a child's experiences in an abusive household.  It's not what I would describe as "well written" (though I've certainly read worse), but with such a shocking story-- from a child's perspective-- simplicity is perhaps best.

It's difficult to believe that someone-- and a child, at that-- actually endured years of such treatment.  It's impossible to understand how anyone could do such things to any innocent creature-- much less her own child (in the case of the mother)-- or how someone could stand by and not intervene in any significant way (in the case of the father).

We are asked to believe that "it wasn't always like this"-- that there were "good years" before the author's mother became an abusive (more than abusive-- demented, torturous) alcoholic-- years in which his mother was the Brady Bunch ideal mom.  I have trouble accepting that.  Oh, I can believe that's how a child might remember it... but... I just don't see how that can happen.  I can't believe a person can just turn that completely evil-- not even with alcohol and marital problems.  The only way I can buy that is if his mother developed some form of insanity.

This isn't a recent publication (it's from 1995), and apparently there has been controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Dave Pelzer's story-- if not over the basic fact that he was abused as a child, then over the degree of abuse and the details he recounts.  I'll admit, several times while I read, I wondered... I felt a little guilty for doing so, because I know abuse exists, but some of it was so outlandish...  It reminded me at times of Sybil (definitely one of those books I almost wish I hadn't read, so I wouldn't have some of those images in my head)-- another work of non-fiction that seems too awful to have been completely true.

In any case, however much veracity there is in this book, at least it does offer a positive message.  (The reader's reward for suffering through the second-hand horribleness?)  Despite the stomach-turning awfulness of David's experiences, he manages to survive and achieve the kind of life he always wanted-- one full of love and warmth.  I appreciate the "moral" that no matter what anyone does to you-- no matter what happens to you--  you don't have to let it determine who you will be or how you will live your life going forth.  It's a powerful and uplifting statement-- especially if coming from someone who faced such darkness during his formative years.  ...I think I've gotten the message, though.  There's no need for me to read the two subsequent entries in this trilogy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

I read this at least once as a young teen or pre-teen, and after coming across a mention of it online, I had a hankering to revisit the story.  It's written for children/young adults, and I think I enjoyed it more the first time I read it, but it's held up pretty well after all those years-- not one of those things you go back to as an adult and wonder how you ever found it entertaining.  I don't think I'll be tempted to read it again, unless I forget this most recent experience, but I'd recommend it for girls (particularly) of the target age.

Spoilers follow!

Negative reactions:

•  The Cruff woman is a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out.

  Mercy is unpleasantly reminiscent of Beth March.  (Stand up for yourself, girl!)

  Uncle Matthew (that was his name, right?)... We're obviously supposed to respect (if not admire) him by the end of the novel, but frankly, he's too much of a tyrannical grump for my taste.  A truly great man commands respect without being so harsh and unrelenting.

•  Yes, this is set in a Puritan village and is a story for "children", but still... the romantic relationships are mostly poorly drawn.  I guess Kit and Nat are the best-presented couple in the bunch, but even they are a bit of a mystery.  Ok, so they're in love by the end of the book-- or possibly from the very beginning, depending on how you look at it.  But why do they love one another?  Most of the time they're together "on screen", they're annoying one another.  Which is a time-honored way for writers to show that people are In Love, but come on, give us a little more basis for a relationship than that.  It's a little weak... As for the other relationships (Mercy and John, Judith and William, William's infatuation with Kit), I guess they were cases of love at first sight... or love based on mutual obsession with fancy new houses.

•  This one is actually as case of "I Listened to This", since it was an audio book. This is aimed at children, and they may be more likely to enjoy the different voices the reader used, but I often found them distracting or even irritating.  (She made Judith sound even ickier than she deserved, Prudence was sickly sweet, so on and so forth.)  I don't have tons of experience with audio books; maybe this type of "every character gets a different voice (from the same reader)" thing is the norm.  Possibly I'm weird for not liking readers who "do all the voices"...  (It's different when you're reading to a young child, I'll admit.)

Positive reactions:

•  If nothing else, this has made me glad I don't live in Puritan New England.  ~shudder~

•  Kit matures over the course of the novel, which is nice to see...

•  There are some historically interesting tidbits scattered through the book-- without it devolving into a lecture or history textbook.

•  Speare does a good job of showing the world through Kit's eyes.  

•  Listening to this, I was surprised how much of it I remembered.  This is worth mentioning as a positive reaction because it means I can on occasion recall details from books.  ;o)  (However, some of the episodes turned out to be much shorter and less detailed than I thought I remembered.  The corn husking party, for instance...)

•  Ah, a happy, tidy ending.  One of the best things about reading "children's" or YA fiction.  Or at least from the olden times.  Modern YA might be more prone to dark or open endings... I'm not sure, honestly.

Altogether, a nice story.  A bit tame from an adult's perspective-- and occasionally very annoying, what with all the insistence on conformity and the characters who act like superstitious fools-- but interesting, all the same.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

This is a creepy novel, without question.  I think two or three parts of the book, in particular, are the eeriest, creepy-crawliest things I've read in a long time.  I have a feeling Shirley Jackson won't be to everyone's taste.  Some modern readers (especially those who enjoy graphic, explicit gore) may even be bored, but this is definitely more my style of horror.  Tension, suspense, "the unseen" vs. "in your face" scariness, slightly (or not so slightly) off-kilter characters and dialogue, uncertainty of the reality of your main character's perceptions.  This is the kind of writing that stays with you a while.  I think I may finally have had my fill of being creeped-out, though, for the time being.  I'm ready for something lighter.

More detailed (even rambling) reactions & observations (which may be spoilerish in nature):

•  The writing style of the first part of the novel (most particularly) reminds me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which probably means it's Shirley Jackson's usual style.  It's haunting, dark, bizarre in spots, familiar in others.  I recognize aspects of myself in Eleanor.  Some of her daydreams as she drives to Hill House had me nodding in understanding.  Recognizing parts of yourself in a character makes it all the more disturbing when you then have to watch her slowly losing her grasp of reality.

•  Suffocation seems to be one of the central themes of Hill House.  The descriptions of the house and its situation make it feel buried in plushness and lushness... drowning in close, silent darkness.   Also, I dare anyone not to notice the frequent cropping-up of references to "mother". 

•  What is real in this book?  It's frustrating, never knowing, but I'm sure that was the intention.  How much of what Eleanor hears and sees is real?  Is Theodora really that cruel?  Is Luke actually so clueless?  Or is Eleanor distorting what they say and do?

•  Why does Shirley Jackson love the word "concretely" so much?  ;o)

•  The single biggest question one has when reading this novel-- the point that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief-- is simply this:  Why in the heck don't these people leave that creepy, horrible place?!  Nell (Eleanor) feels she has no other option-- stay at Hill House or go back to live under the thumb of her sister-- but what of the others?  You'd think that what they experience would be enough to make most people flee the very next day.  Dr. Montague has some motivation to stay, I suppose (research for his book), but what about Theodora and Luke?  Also, why are Mrs. Montague and Arthur apparently immune to the house's evil?  We are given to understand that everyone else who's come to stay over the years has been horrified and left within just a few days... I guess one could argue that they simply haven't been in residence long enough yet, or maybe that the house has (by that time) focused its attention on Nell and can't be bothered with the comic relief.

•  Speaking of Mrs. Montague and Arthur-- they do seem to be comic relief, but they are (or mostly she is) also horrible... Mrs. Montague is such a strange character.  (I don't remember her in the 1999 film version of the story, but then I don't remember much about that, except that it was weird and not very good.  Some of the dialogue in the novel felt very familiar, though, so I know it must've been incorporated in at least one film version I've seen.)  She reminds me forcibly of the banker's wife (Mrs. Maxwell, thank you, Google) in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, but there's something a tiny bit sinister in her, too.  She's so utterly cold and selfish-- and so blind to what's happening under her very nose.  The combination of her yoga lessons and the planchette (before it turns goose-fleshy) also reminded me, fleetingly, of Miss Mapp in E.F. Benson's Lucia novels.  (Read them to find out why. (g)) 

•  This part confused me:  The night when the four central characters are hiding in the same bedroom, there's this sentence:  "Then there came, suddenly, quiet, and the secret creeping silence they all remembered..."  See, I thought the men didn't hear/experience the pounding on the earlier night.  So how could they all remember the sudden silence?  It's a small detail, but still it jumped out and bothered me.

•  Eleanor can be so completely pathetic at times... It's sad, really, but also somehow disgusting.  The part where she practically begs Theodora to let her live with her after they leave Hill House... It's degrading.  But then Theodora is so cold... I don't know what we're supposed to think.  How accurate a view of Theodora's behavior are we getting, here (and elsewhere)?  Is she really being so harsh-- so mean-- to the obviously fragile Eleanor?  Why?   It makes no sense!  (People don't make sense, sometimes, self.)  These people sometimes seem to be very aware of Eleanor's fragility, then they go and ignore her, taunt her... Unless what we're getting is Eleanor's distorted viewpoint...  But even assuming that, why doesn't Dr. Montague notice her odd behavior and send her home (much) sooner?  

  Occasionally, the others say things (such as Luke's talk about the house as a mother and reiteration of Nell's mantra, "journeys end in lovers meeting") that make it seem as though they're going mad, too.  I can only assume this is being filtered through our unreliable... not narrator, exactly, but main character.  

•  Dr. Montague is a bit of a dunce.  Otherwise, he might have been my favorite character of the bunch (simply because he seems so normal and canny compared to the others)-- but I have a hard time forgiving him for his inability to predict what was coming at the end.  He should've known better.  Too wound up in his "research" and his book to protect the lives in his care.

•  Mrs. Dudley is a creeper (as they say) for most of the book.  You almost suspect that she might be "touched", with her repetitive insistence on the keeping of the schedule.  But then there's that very odd section near the end where Nell eavesdrops on Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague's conversation.  Mrs. Dudley suddenly sounds normal-- even sympathetic.  Befuddling.  

•  Ok.  So there's the 1999 movie adaption and one from 1963.  (I'm not sure I've seen the latter, but I'll try, now, out of curiosity.)  I thought that The House on Haunted Hill (you know, the one with Vincent Price, where he invites a group of total strangers to stay in the rented haunted house to celebrate the birthday of his wife?) was also based on / inspired by this novel, but any connection between the two must be extremely tenuous.  (Possibly the makers of the movie thought the title would remind people of the book and draw in a larger audience.)  The movie, so far as I recall, is not genuinely frightening, but least one aspect of the movie that makes more sense than the novel is that the guests have to spend the night in the house in order to receive a substantial amount of money.  Not enough to risk your life or sanity over, but at least there's some reason for them to stay when things start getting scary.  Plus, the doors are locked at some point, so that they no longer have the option to leave.  (Yes, very safe practice, that.) 

•  I'll have to see if I can get my hands on anything else Shirley Jackson wrote (apart from "The Lottery" and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both of which I have read).  I find her style intriguing-- even darkly spellbinding-- but I think she has a depressing effect on me and requires something light and life-affirming as an antidote.