Saturday, December 29, 2012

Leave It to Psmith

Leave It to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse

A "Somewhat Lacking" Blurb I Found Online:
A debonair young Englishman, Psmith ("the p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan") has quit the fish business, "even though there is money in fish," and decided to support himself by doing anything that he is hired to do by anyone. Wandering in and out of romantic, suspenseful, and invariably hilarious situations, Psmith is in the great Wodehouse tradition.

My Reaction:
This was one of the (if not the) funniest I've read of Wodehouse.  I can't recommended it highly enough!  Laugh-out-loud moments abound, and Psmith is such a charming main character that you can't help but love and root for him.  I was not quite so fond of... let's just call them "the Americans".  Their outdated slang was less of a joy to read, but (as Mr. Cootes would say) "Hey!"-- even they couldn't spoil such a darn good book!

I don't know what more I can write without spoiling any of the "surprises"... Many of the basic plot developments are obvious far in advance of their actually happening in the book-- but they are delivered with such absolute sparkle, and everything fits together just so...  It's impressive, to say the least.

This one ranks right up there with the very best of the Jeeves & Wooster series.  (I had been a little worried that none of Wodehouse's non-Jeeves books could ever measure up to that standard; this gives me new hope.)

(This was-- of course-- another read-aloud with Donald.  It's a definite tradition, at this point.  It probably wouldn't feel right reading Wodehouse on my own.  He's best when shared.)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Men at Arms

Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett

Publisher's Blurb:
Corporal Carrot has been promoted! He's now in charge of the new recruits guarding Ankh-Morpork, Discworld's greatest city, from Barbarian Tribes, Miscellaneous Marauders, unlicensed Thieves, and such. It's a big job, particularly for an adopted dwarf.

But an even bigger job awaits. An ancient document has just revealed that Ankh-Morpork, ruled for decades by Disorganized crime, has a secret sovereign! And his name is Carrot...

And so begins the most awesome epic encounter of all time, or at least all afternoon, in which the fate of a city—indeed of the universe itself!—depends on a young man's courage, an ancient sword's magic, and a three-legged poodle's bladder.

If you've read one of my Pratchett reviews, you've read them all.  Funny, as usual!  (Another read-along with Donald, which explains the complete lack of specific commentary.)

I appreciate Pratchett less for plot and character development than for humor and wit.  (Incidentally, the same goes for P.G. Wodehouse.)  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wool 4: The Unraveling

Wool 4: The Unraveling, by Hugh Howey

There is a legend in their past of an uprising, a war they have learned about, but have learned nothing from.

Nobody knows what went wrong. Nobody talks about what happened. Such are the silo taboos.

Now, nearly two hundred years later, the people of the Silo will get a chance to learn more about that distant uprising.

They'll get to start one of their own...

My Reaction:
This is probably my least favorite in the series, so far.  (I think...)  It's not that it doesn't have its high points-- because it does-- but the story is largely split into three strands set in different places, among different people, and when you find that you're groaning to yourself every time one of those strands comes back up (which is roughly a third or more of the book), it's not a good sign.  Also, this is definitely a "middle of a series" effort.  You pick up from one cliffhanger and leave off with another.

I'll have to finish the series to know more about how I feel about this book, I think.  Also, it might have hurt the book that I took a break after reading Wool 3 before starting Wool 4... Actually, though, I think what was more of an issue was that I got distracted by life and took a week or so away from the book before reading what turned out to be the final three segments.  Never a satisfying way to finish a book, in my opinion.  Much better to read the last bit while more of the whole work is fresh in your mind.

(SPOILER-filled) Specific Comments:

--  There are a lot of (apparent) suicides and suicidal thoughts in the silo.  Now, I'm fairly sure that some of these so-called suicides will eventually be ruled as murders (or if nothing else, we're certainly meant to have suspicions), but even with those aside, it's a pretty dark series.  I don't doubt, however, that there would be suicides in this sort of situation, with people holed up in close quarters from birth to death, with not much hope for an improvement in circumstances.

--  Juliette uses vats of soup to clean her suit.  I found myself wondering how those could still be wet enough to pour, if the people in the building were evidently so long dead.  Wouldn't all the liquid in them have dried out, leaving nothing but a solid "soup brick"?  If she found the soup inside a refrigerator or freezer, maybe that would make a difference, but I'm a bit skeptical.  Later on, Howey does mention something about water in open containers having long since evaporated out-- and we eventually discover that the soup must've been sitting there for well over thirty years.  I'm just curious. (Now that I think back, it seems like maybe she had to struggle to open the soup.  Was it sealed in airtight buckets?  If so, that would explain it. Duh! (g))

--  Lest there be any misunderstanding, the "strand" of the book I found comparatively boring was Knox and the people of Mechanical and Supply rallying to war and marching up the silo.  Up until they started actually mobilizing, it was interesting, but the further along that storyline went, the less I wanted to read with it.  Parts of it felt clichéd, and I'd have much rather spent more time in the new silo.  (Maybe one reason I dreaded this thread was that it was bound to end badly.)

--  Knox's speech to Supply... felt embarrassing and too grand to be realistic.  I squirmed.  Maybe that's just me, though.  I tend to find that sort of thing (whether in a book or a movie) unrealistic when supposedly concocted on the spur of the moment.  I think he does take some time to stop and think before speaking-- probably an attempt to mollify us over this very point-- but it wasn't enough to convince me, I guess. (g)  Perhaps it's just that since I'd be very unlikely to make such a speech (because I'd feel so silly doing it and am not generally an eloquent speaker), I find it difficult to imagine other people doing so-- especially without time for writing and preparation.  Even Lincoln didn't deliver the Gettysburg address impromptu.  ;o)

--  When Juliette finds tomatoes growing in the second silo, she wonders if tomatoes require seeding or "come back every year like weeds".  That gave me pause.  How long, again, are people supposed to have been living in these silos?  Hundreds of years, right?  It has to have been a long time, for people to have forgotten/failed to pass down through an oral tradition stories of so many animals... and speak/think about whoever built the silos as almost mythical-- not historical, flesh-and-blood-- figures... and there was an uprising that occurred 200 years ago.

Anyway, all this to say that with all that time to remove and destroy existing weeds-- and no new weed seeds coming in on the wind or from birds... How does Juliette even know what a weed is?  I doubt she would-- especially since she has nothing to do with the farming levels of the silo.  ...Unless the concept of a weed has somehow stayed alive in the silo longer than the memory of so many animals (despite the existence of children's books, which frequently focus on animals).  I guess it's possible, but I doubt it. (Another possibility:  They keep weeds alive in the silo simply to avoid the extinction of the species-- or in case they should prove useful later on.  But this is a no-nonsense world, and unless the weeds serve some purpose, I doubt they'd be purposely cultivated.  After all, they "steal" precious nutrients that could otherwise go to the food-producing plants.)

--  "Juliette wondered if she would start talking to objects, now.  Start going crazy."

Ugh, it's one of my pet peeves.  No, Juliette, talking "to objects"-- or simply aloud to yourself-- does not mean you're crazy or even simply "going" crazy.  Now, if you start imagining that they actually feel or think-- or if you're talking to them and expecting or hearing answers... ;o)

--  I know thirty-four years is a long time to be alone in a silo... and Solo is somewhat immature / stuck in the mindset of a teenager, since that's how old he was when he was deprived of human contact... but there were a couple times when I had to roll my eyes at the things he said.  He was sixteen when all that happened, if I recall correctly.  Sixteen is plenty old enough for him to have matured to the level of not blushing over the concept of, ahem, "waste elimination", for instance.  And when he says, "I talk to things sometimes, and whistle.  I'm a good whistler"... I just don't know.  Is that realistic, do you think?  Maybe it is.  To me it feels slightly less "50-year-old guy who's been completely alone for 34 years" and more "someone that even Forrest Gump would recognize as 'simple' and treat with extra kindness and sensitivity".  But I do like Solo, poor guy.  I hope he makes it along with Juliette back to "her" silo.  He deserves a nicer life.  Of course, then there's the question of how well he'd be able to adjust to an existence suddenly crowded with other people...

--  There seemed to be more cursing in this book than in the previous parts of the series, something I noticed with a certain degree of disappointment.  However, most of the time, the cursing comes from a handful of bad apples / generally disagreeable characters (except for the very end, when Juliette drops a couple of f-bombs on Bernard)-- and if you're going to complain about something, Lukas' contemplation of suicide seems much more objectionable / bad influence-y than "bad words"-- but still, I noticed it, so I mention it.

I was interested to see that someone pointed out this issue in a review on Amazon-- someone who was evidently much more bothered by the cursing than I was-- and that the author himself replied.  His response noted what I'd already observed-- that most of the cursing comes from "bad guys" or people in extremely emotional situations.  (And let's admit that it's fairly realistic.  I'll admit it: I curse, too, sometimes-- though I try to stay on the milder end of the spectrum. (g))  What really struck me, though, was his apologetic and respectful tone.  I'm impressed by such handling of negative feedback!

Final word:
I may take another break before picking up Wool 5.  (Variety: the spice of life.)  I think that's the last in this series (though there are also at least two prequels).  I'm hoping for a strong finish!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

(An Edited) Publisher's Blurb:
Celebrated novel traces the moral degeneration of a handsome young Londoner from an innocent fop into a cruel and reckless pursuer of pleasure... As Dorian Gray sinks into depravity, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait reflects the ravages of crime and sensuality.
 (I edited the blurb because part of it gave away a critical plot development.  Perhaps the publisher thinks that with such a famous story, there can be no spoilers, but I disagree.)

My Reaction:
I decided to read this on a whim.  It was a "classic" I'd never heard much about, apart from the obviously most well-known aspect of the portrait that ages in the main character's stead.  I believe I saw it listed as horror, which is what excited my curiosity, since I'd never seen it described as such.  Now that I've read it, I'd say that labeling it as horror may be going a bit too far, even by "classics" standards.  There are certainly horrible happenings, but that doesn't make this horror. 

While reading, it felt like it took me a while to slog through this short novel.  Even before the half-way point, I really just wanted the thing over and done with.  Once the story is going and things are actually happening, it's a speedy enough read.  The problem is that there are long stretches with very little non-repetitive dialogue or action of any significant kind.  One could easily condense the book into a short story and leave very little (worth reading) out, in my humble opinion.

So no, I was not enthralled.  The basic concept is intriguing... but it suffered from having too few really likeable characters to balance out the horrid ones.  It was interesting at points, but those points were too few and far between.  The wit sparkled, but soon it felt like a loop of the same old same.  If it wasn't a repeat of the same exact sentiments, they were close enough to seem like repeats.  The clever, wicked sayings grew tiresome.  An excellent command of the language can only carry you so far-- especially when you are overly conscious of your own cleverness.

I doubt I'll ever want to revisit The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I suppose it is one of those things that are worth reading once.

More Specifics (with one spoilery one at the end):
--  After reading a little about the book online, after finishing the novel itself, I learned that the preface was added after the novel's initial outraged reception.  I'm not surprised.  It certainly felt very defensive:

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all."

I don't quite agree.  Can the book itself-- the printed words on paper-- be moral/immoral?  No, it is only an object.  But it is possible to write a book that leads people astray more than not-- a book whose reading sullies the mind and excites unworthy impulses in the hearts of those who read it.  To completely ignore that truth-- to wash your hands of it after the writing and say, "It's not my fault if they behave badly after I've shown them how it's done!"-- is a rather pathetic attempt at self-deception. If you believe in morality/right vs. wrong at all, you must recognize that a book is an expression of thought-- a communication between minds (those of author and reader) -- and of course they can contain moral or immoral messages and intentions.

--  "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely."

No, I disagree.  Why not admire a useful thing?  Why cannot a thing be useful and admirable (beautiful) at the same time?

--  "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."  Many of the "sayings" in this book feel extremely familiar because they have become famous in their own right.  There's no denying that Wilde was clever with words. 

--  Lord Henry/Harry... Ah, what can I say about him?  Perhaps that he is possibly the most loathsome character I have ever come across?  Or at least, the most loathsome (and misogynistic) in recent memory.  His speech to Dorian-- the speech on the all-importance of youth, stirring the seeds of vanity and wickedness in the boy to life and growth-- is one of the most noxious, depressing things I have ever read.  He really is horrible.  Anyone over the age of thirty reading it must feel a draining away of spirit while reading it.

--  On the one hand, this books does seem somewhat dangerous to the young and impressionable.  Some of the sentiments expressed are nothing short of vile and poisonous.  On the other hand, we look at what happens to Dorian and see the story as a warning against hedonism...  Still, not a story for children-- not that many children would even be interested.

--  Henry is definitely a man who loves the sound of his own voice, and it's obvious that Wilde enjoyed using the character as a mouthpiece for some of his own most scandalous and witty observations.

--  Though nothing is stated explicitly (in the probably edited version that I read, at least), all the male characters act and speak as though they are gay-- including those who are married or who have dalliances with female characters.  (The one exception is the rough Jim, Sybil Vane's brother.)  For instance, look at Dorian's detailed description of what Sybil was wearing one night... I think very few straight men would remember a woman's dress down to such tiny details-- and certainly not describe it thus.  What was the point of that?  Are they supposed to be gay, or did Wilde simply find it difficult to write about sophisticated males in such a way that they didn't seem affectedly feminine?

--  What was with that long chapter covering Dorian's actions over the space of many years?  It went on forever!  Also, there is nothing inherently evil about a fascination with jewels, music, etc.  I suppose Wilde couldn't/didn't wish to go into details about the truly awful things Dorian has done, so we get pages about famous gems instead... ???

--  "Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face.  It cannot be concealed.  People talk sometimes of secret vices.  There are no such things.  If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even."

I disagree.
I don't think such things are always visible.  If a person acknowledges to himself that he has a vice, and if it troubles him night and day, then it will likely show-- but not always.   Also, that does not account for those who don't recognize their sins for what they are.  Or rather, those who know that what they do is deemed wrong by the world (so that they know to hide it), but who are lacking in conscience to the degree that the knowledge doesn't trouble them.

--  "She laughed again.  Her teeth showed like white seeds in a scarlet fruit."

Um, gross.


I thought the portrait might burn in a housefire (or similar) with the same essential result as what actually happened in the book (sudden reversal of appearances between Dorian and his portrait)-- but I didn't foresee Dorian himself destroying the portrait. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

At Sunwich Port

At Sunwich Port, by W.W. Jacobs

(My) Blurb:
In a charming seaside village in Edwardian England, the (humorous) fates of two sea-faring families (and assorted other townsfolk) intertwine in interesting ways.  

My Reaction:
Before I found this novel (at a great resource for free books), the only time I'd come across this author was through his famous (and quite creepy) story, "The Monkey's Paw".  This book is as far from horribly-twisting, wish-granting, mummified animal parts as you can get. 

I found the book a little slow getting started-- it begins when several of the main characters are children, then skips ahead to when they are young adults-- but once it's fairly underway and you're familiar with the characters, it's clear sailing. 

I read this aloud with Donald because I'd seen it compared to P.G. Wodehouse, one of our very favorites for shared reads.  While it's not quite on the same level as the best Wodehouse, it's good.  (I'll confess, though, that I didn't even try to read the accents accurately.  I didn't drop all the h's, for instance.  Not my thing.)

I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys the Wodehousian style.  It has that nice, cozy atmosphere that makes a book a true pleasure to read.  I want to stroll down Fullalove Alley and take in the sights-- but since that's not possible, I'll have to be satisfied with trying something else by Jacobs-- maybe Dialstone Lane...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sweden - inside out

Sweden - inside out, by Anita Shenoi

So you've heard of IKEA and Ingemar Bergman.  But how much do you know about the country behind the famous names?

Get the low-down from an insider, who presents a wry but affectionate perspective on Sweden and its super-shiny Swedes.  Packed with pointers for business travellers, tourists or new residents alike, this guide guarantees to turn Sweden inside out!

My Reaction:
This book (a gift from Swedish in-laws) provides a good, broad-strokes overview of Sweden for anyone interested in the country.  Someone looking to plan a trip will want to dig deeper for specifics-- and the book provides many web addresses (scattered through the text) to point you in the right direction.

Because it tries to give a little of everything, some topics are sure to interest you more than others.  (That's just the nature of this type of book.)  Fortunately, each segment is brief, so if you find your attention wandering, it won't be not long before the subject shifts. 

There are lots of photos to keep things interesting, which also means that the book is a shorter read than it looks from the outside.

(Side note:   The author is a native of Britain, which was very obvious from some of her word choices and syntax.  I don't know that it affects her approach and perspective, but I suppose it's possible.)

So-- good for a brief look at Sweden from a variety of angles.  For more in-depth coverage of specific topics-- history, cuisine, travel-- you'll probably need to locate additional resources.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ammie, Come Home

Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
For the guests at Ruth Bennet's fashionable Georgetwon home, the seance was just a playful diversion . . . until Ruth's niece Sara spoke in a deep guttural voice not her own . . . and the game became frighteningly real.

My Reaction:
Overall, it was... fine.  Not absolutely amazing, but a decent read.  I've read a couple (or is it a few?) of Michaels' other books, and after doing so (and enjoying them to varying degrees), found that reviews indicated (for the most part) that they were not her best work.  This one had higher ratings, so maybe my expectations were too high going in... Again, it's fine, and I enjoyed most of the reading experience, but I wasn't especially wowed.

More Specifics:
-- The mystery aspect felt predictable, unfortunately.  I was hoping there would be something a bit "more" to catch me off my guard, but no, it was pretty much just what I expected.  This may have something to do with the book's age.  Maybe when it was originally published in the late 1960s it would've been less predictable.  Also, there's an aspect of the story that is only hinted at-- possibly because putting any more emphasis on it would've been pushing the envelope too far for the intended audience of relatively "mature" women of the 1960s.

--  Speaking of which, I guess Barbara Michaels specialized in writing gothic mystery romances with "older" heroines.  At least, I'm certainly seeing a trend.  Writing as a "you're no spring chicken, yourself", 30-something reader, I don't have a problem with that, exactly, but I don't like the emphasis on age... and it's getting a bit repetitive. 

--  When one of your characters remarks toward the end of your novel that "this is anticlimactic"... maybe it's time to consider a rewrite.  Sorry, but it was anticlimactic.

--  I know, I know.  Characters almost have to be a little slow and/or a little foolhardy in order to find themselves in bad situations, but good grief, it gets annoying.  How many times did they neglect to notice that it was getting dark?

--  These characters drink more than characters in soap operas!  Of course, near the end, Michaels acknowledges this fact through one of her characters-- but she attributes it to the stress they've all been under.  I beg to differ; I noticed the copious references to hock, wine, brandy, sherry, vodka, and the generic "drink" well before the real drama kicked in.  

-- The choice of the name "Bruce" feels extremely dated.  That's not a complaint; just an observation.  When's the last time you heard of a young man named "Bruce"?  It makes me think of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) and this Monty Python sketch.

--  It always makes me smile when I find the inevitable "hidden" reference to Egyptology.  This time we got "the secret of the Great Pyramid".

--  Maybe I'm being overly critical, but this love scene makes me shudder:  "...wherever his hands and lips had touched she felt stripped, not only of clothing but of skin, as if the skillful fingers manipulated the nerves themselves."  Stripped of skin?  Fingers manipulating the (bare) nerves?  That is so totally not romantic.  Probably the creepiest thing in the whole darn book, if you ask me-- and unintentionally so, I think.

-- References to The Three Faces of Eve (seen the film, don't think I've read the book) and Shirley Jackson's novel, The Bird's Nest (never read it).

--  Oh, boy; it's another book in which most of the characters obviously don't hold religion in very high regard.  They're too modern and intellectually advanced for that, I guess.  On the other hand, one character talks about "the mumbo jumbo of psychiatry", so there's some balance...  It makes me curious about the author's personal beliefs, since these things seem to come up in so many of her books.  I suppose it's almost unavoidable, when you're writing about ghostly things, but I got tired of the two male characters debating one another when there were bigger fish to fry.

-- "'We seem to spend half our time eating and/or drinking, under the most peculiar conditions.'"  Well, at least the characters themselves have noticed it, too.

--  There are three novels loosely (?) based around some of these characters and/or the house.  I read the second one (Shattered Silk) before I realized that fact.  I don't think it made a shred of difference-- but from what I understand, some of the characters from this book reappear more significantly in the third novel (Stitches in Time).

--  On the plus side, most of the main characters are multi-dimensional, and they do change through the course of the novel (though it often seems that Sara is a drowsy do-nothing who spends the whole novel lying on the floor-- when she's not being "overshadowed").  They are generally likeable.  The novel moves along at a decent pace and is always readable.  There's suspense, and it's a little creepy at times, but not keep-you-awake-at-night creepy.  (One reviewer sums it up it as "cozy gothic", which is a perfect descriptor, I think.)

So, final word?  It's a pretty good novel of its type.  A fine example of a "cozy gothic"-- but I'm not sure I'd rate it as highly as most Amazon readers have.  Still, I'm sure I'll continue reading more of Michaels' gothic novels, so she obviously did something right.  ;o)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wool 3: Casting Off

Wool 3: Casting Off , by Hugh Howey

The silo has appointed a new sheriff. Her name is Juliette, and she comes not from the shadows of deputies, but from the depths of the down deep.

But what does being a mechanic have to do with upholding the law? And how will she be able to concentrate on the silo's future when she is surrounded by the ghosts of its past?

Before she can even settle in, the whirring gears of the silo begin to grind anew. Things aren't right. And the people whose help she needs the most are gone.

If Juliette isn't careful, she'll soon be among them.

My Reaction:
The third installment in the Wool series is better than the second, I think.  (Not that the second was bad...)  There's another cliff-hanger ending (sensing a trend there), but I found it less of an instance of "must keep reading now" than the ending of Wool 2.  Maybe that has more to do with me than the books, though.  I need a break from the intensity of the silo.  I'm thinking something by Barbara Michaels... Maybe I'll enjoy this series more if I don't gulp it all at once.

A more specific comment--
I kind of wish the story was a little bit slower-paced.  I mean, I appreciate the fact that you don't have much chance to get bored, and I like the brevity, overall... but there are times when I feel that the story-- or the characters' interactions are a little too compressed.  Juliette and Lukas are a great example of this.  I like both characters, and I enjoyed their budding relationship, but it feels like they are way too invested in one another after, what, two or three evenings of even knowing one another by name.  Maybe emotions run higher and faster in the silo, but I would've liked to have seen things play out a little more slowly and realistically. 

Oh, and another thing... which happens to contain SPOILERS...

Ahem.  Did you catch that?

...We were supposed to know/guess about the 8"x2" screen after the end of Wool 1, right?  I really hope that wasn't supposed to be a shocking revelation at the end of Wool 3.  Because it was pretty obvious by then.  The existence of other silos, on the other hand-- not to mention Bernard's communication link with at least one of them-- now, that was unexpected.

I hope Juliette manages to find one of those other silos and shock its inhabitants by sauntering up to their cameras and waving.  (g)  Or at least finds a way to survive (good thing she's a master-mechanic), because I'm tired of all the deaths in this series, so far!


So, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.  But a break might be nice.  Something vaguely spooky and Octoberish, maybe.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wool 2: Proper Gauge

Wool 2:  Proper Gauge, by Hugh Howey

A cleaning has been performed, and now the silo is without a sheriff. With only one good candidate available, Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marnes set off for the down deep to recruit her in person. Along the way, they discover much about each other, troubling news about this candidate, and stumble upon fractured alliances that could spell the doom of a silo they've worked long years to protect.

My Reaction:
I enjoyed it.  Not quite so much as Wool (the first installment), though... But whereas Wool felt like it could have been a stand-alone short novella, Wool 2 has more the feeling of settling in for a longer story.  Wool was one man's story, and while Wool 2 can be seen as one woman's story, it's also the beginning of a story about the silo as a whole.

...Anyway, it was enjoyable, but sad.  (Few dystopian tales can help being sad.)  Also, it has a major case of the cliffhanger ending.  You might as well secure a copy of the Wool Omnibus Edition, if you liked the first installment (which is now free on Amazon), because I can guarantee you won't be satisfied to stop after the second bit-- not if you like stories with some sense of closure. 

Spoilery Comments:
Bernard's insulting words about Jahns and Marnes-- spoken in their presence-- felt a little over the top.  Maybe it was just me, but that felt just too much, even for a guy who thinks he runs the place.  True, considering later (somewhat predictable) developments, maybe someone who'd be willing to do that wouldn't think twice about harsh insults based entirely on someone's age... but I picture Bernard as at least believing himself to be a mastermind of sorts.  What kind of mastermind would cast suspicion on himself by openly insulting the woman he's planning to kill?  Of course, for that matter, how does he think he'll escape suspicion when they trace the water back to his office?  I'm sure he'll have some excuse, but it seems like a bright guy would've found some other place/way to contaminate the water...

In any case, I think I'll have to brace myself for Bernard being an Evil Incarnate character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever-- though I hope he won't continue to be so cartoonishly drawn. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Wool, by Hugh Howey

Thousands of them have lived underground. They've lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you'll get what you wish for.

My Reaction:
I'm impressed!  Well-written and thought-provoking.  It's not long-- just a short novella / long short story-- so if you enjoy reading about dystopian futures, definitely give this a try.  (The Kindle version is currently available for free on Amazon.)  This is the first in a series (not sure if the other installments are so short...), and I'll definitely be reading at least the next one (Wool 2 - Proper Gauge).

It might not be for everyone (can't go into details without spoiling it).  Heck, it might not even be for me on some occasions, but for today, it was good. 

The Girl on the Boat

The Girl on the Boat, by P.G. Wodehouse

Billie, a young woman with a lately developing habit of finding herself engaged to the wrong man finally becomes engaged to the right man, only to put an end to that engagement, as well.  Fortunately, the right man is persistent, and Fate is kind-- but not before she (Fate, that is) has her fun with the would-be love-birds and their friends and family. 

My Reaction:
We chose this novel as our next Wodehouse read simply because I found it available for free on  I expected it to possibly be inferior quality Wodehouse (i.e. still a good comedic read), but was pleasantly surprised.  This is not quite equal to the pinnacle of the Jeeves and Wooster body of work, but neither does it slouch.  In fact, I enjoyed it very much, indeed.  (The "authorial asides" are wonderful.)  Highly recommended!  Wodehouse is just plain good for the soul-- an escape into an ideal world where nothing very bad is likely to happen, and there are sure to be many good laughs along the way.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

DNF: As the World Dies

As the World Dies: The First Days, by Rhiannon Frater

The morning that the world ends, Katie is getting ready for court and housewife Jenni is taking care of her family. Less than two hours later, they are fleeing for their lives from a zombie horde. 

My Take:
Well, it's a DNF (Did Not Finish), so... I think you can guess what I thought of it, but since I'm already here, I'll tell you more.  ;o)  The short explanation is that it feels amateurish-- and even more amateurish than I'd expected, knowing that this was originally a self-published zombie tale.  I could pinpoint multiple little niggling details that turned me off, but why bother?  Here are just two tiny things that turned me off from the book:

1.  "An angry howl from the other side of the door made her jump and her thick raven hair fell into her face.  With trembling hands she pushed back her tresses."
Ok, two points.  First, where are my commas?  I demand commas!  Second, ugh.  "Thick raven hair"?  "Tresses"?  Really? 
2.  "'I'm Jenni.  With an "i", not a "y".  I like it spelled that way,' the woman said softly beside her."
You have to take into consideration that this comes mere minutes after the other woman has rescued Jenni-with-an-i from a horrible death at the teeth of her own family.  Alright, maybe Jenni's supposed to be numb-- in shock-- whatever... but still.  Meh.
Anyway, there's more (the cliched pairing of a battered wife and a lesbian, some random elderly man calling out to a woman he doesn't know that she should save herself, even as he's being eaten), but why be mean by pointing out each problem?

By this point (not even through the whole first chapter), I had pretty much decided I wasn't interested, but I read a few reviews on Amazon to see if it might get significantly better, later on.  It has tons of favorable reviews, but the poor reviews seemed to point out the same kinds of things that were already getting on my nerves... so I've decided to "call it" and move on to greener pastures.  

It's unfortunate.  I wanted to like this.  It's the first novel in a zombie trilogy, so there'd be more books to look forward to reading-- and it has a unique point of view (a female perspective of a zombie outbreak)-- but I just couldn't.  

Somehow, this book managed to gain a cult following online (probably because it was originally published for free, online, in a serial format)... so maybe it's perfect for someone.  Not for me, though. I'll pass.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Damned

The Damned, by Algernon Blackwood

An English brother and sister go to stay a while at the home of a widowed friend of the sister's.  While there, they sense that something is terribly wrong about the place-- yet find it difficult to pinpoint the cause of their unease. 

My Reaction:
Well... It's not awful, for this kind of thing, but no, I would not recommend this book to many people.  Only those rare few who like horror stories where nothing really happens... and those who can't get enough theologically-themed psychobabble.  (I suspect that such people are rare.)

Before reading this short novel, I knew nothing of the author and only selected this book because I found it in my first in-depth browse of  (which I do recommend, incidentally).  It was free-- and short-- so why not?  Well, I'll tell you why not:  It's pretty dull and repetitive.  Anyway, I'll go into a few more details of my (mostly) dislike below-- with spoilers.  Otherwise... I'll give another of his books a chance.  One with higher ratings.  If that one fails to impress, he's off my to-read list for the time being. 

Possibly Spoilery Comments:
--  I lost count of the (many, many) times that the narrator (the brother) complains (for lack of a better word) that "nothing happens" at the so-called haunted house.  Argh!  Look, man; we know nothing's happening!  ...And unlike some few readers/reviewers, I find myself on the side of the many who don't think that repeatedly stating that "nothing happening" is part of the indefinable "horror" makes up for the fact that... nothing happens.  I mean, really?  I like old-fashioned tales with more atmosphere and less gore/monsters jumping around corners, but you gotta give me something

--  "The desire for violence came over me.  If only she would say a definite thing in plain King's English!"  Ha!!  We can relate, narrator.  

--  Toward the end of the book:  "There was no climax in the story sense.  Nothing ever really happened."  (Cue the nervous laughter edged with hysteria.)

--  Couldn't help but notice the frequent disparaging use of the word "suburban".  Struck me as odd.  I am not particularly impressed by disdain for the suburbs.  Sorry.

--  "Wellingtonias" (aka giant redwoods or sequoias) and "monkey trees".  Funny plant names I don't recall seeing before.

--  The "coincidence" of this particular spot having been cursed by the awful thoughts of so many different groups of people... Hm.  Mighty big coincidence, there. 

--  Ohmygosh, the anti-religion psychobabble!!  ...When I come right down to it, that's what I disliked most about the story-- and you can't exactly look past it, because that's the gist of the whole thing.  I keep reading that Blackwood was not against the idea of God-- just the evil that man (and man-made religion) does in the name of God.  Particularly the "intolerant" idea of damnation for those who don't believe ABC or XYZ.  ...And I get that.  I mean, obviously some people have done and still do awful things in the name of God-- things that God condemns.  But on the other hand, I can't go along with this New Age-y idea of all religions being equal or true... I just can't.  So.  That was a bit detrimental to my enjoyment of this book.  ;o) 

--  Still, when it wasn't being preachy (ironic!) and long-winded, there were times when it was creepy or suspenseful enough that I didn't want to read it when alone in the house-- or at night, in bed.  The episode that takes place in the middle of the night?  Very creepy-crawly.  (A pity that most of the story was so analytical that the eerieness was blunted, if not completely smothered out of existence.)

--  Mabel's belief that she was hopelessly damned reminded me uncomfortably of the journals of L.M. Montgomery, where she writes about her own (reverend) husband's frequent obsessive conviction that he himself was preordained for damnation.  ~shudder~  So, yes.  When you stop to consider that that part of the book, at least, has some basis in reality... That is truly horrifying.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Summer People"

"The Summer People", by Shirley Jackson

If you like Jackson's most famous short story, "The Lottery", there's a good chance you'll like "The Summer People", too.   On the surface, it's just a mundane story about a retired couple who decide to stay in their rural summer cottage one month longer than usual.  Why not squeeze in a few more weeks of enjoyment before returning to New York City?  However, as the people in the nearby village repeatedly tell them, summer people simply don't stay on after Labor Day... And the more you hear it, the more you begin to wonder why...  Subtle undercurrent of dread, anyone?

Specific Notes:

--  I gather that a "backhouse" is the same thing as an "outhouse", but I think this is the first time I've seen that word.

--  Mrs. Allison, considering the local grocer, remarks "it was horrible to think into what old New England Yankee stock had degenerated", and her husband replies that "it's generations of inbreeding" and "the bad land".   Hm.  Well, good to know that City Folk (of the past, at least) didn't think it was just Southerners and/or hillbillies Mountain Folk who had succumbed to inbreeding.  I guess.  ;o)

--  "A garbage man was only necessary for improvident city folk; country people had no garbage."

--  "City manners were no good with country people; you could not expect to overrule a country employee as you could a city worker..."

--  Maybe this is a sign of increasing life expectancies, or perhaps it's merely a reflection of my own increasing age and the resultant wish to push the margins of "old" further and further out... but I found it odd that this couple is described as being old (and apparently with fewer and fewer friends still living) when they are only 58 and 60... Yeah, it's probably just me.  I think about my parents' ages... and my own age... and just can't admit to myself that none of us are as young as we were ten or twenty years ago.  *sigh*  But really, 58's not that old, is it?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"

"Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Well, you know that anytime someone in a ghost story gets an inheritance, it's bound to come with something sinister, and this tale doesn't break with tradition.  Overall, a decent story...  There were some ends that I felt were not satisfactorily tied up, but to compensate, there were the requisite Creepy Moments. 

This was the last story in the book.  I heartily recommend it to anyone fond of old ghost stories. 

More Specific Comments (on this story only):

--  Thank you, story, for introducing me to the word "valetudinarian", which was purposely misspelled as "valentudinarian".  (Someone in poor health and generally obsessed with his/her health.)

--  Mr. Cooper is a male Mrs. Malaprop.

--  Something about the middle of this story-- the labyrinth?  the temple?  both?-- reminded me strongly of some other short story (I think) I've read in the past several years, but I can't figure out which one.  I thought it was in a volume of short stories by Daphne du Maurier, but I looked through that and can't find it... so I'm stumped.  All I can recall is a group of people hanging out around a temple/shrine-- possibly in the center of a maze-- and something ancient and evil coming into play.

--  The "hole in the paper" scene!  It had the vibe of some of the creepiest modern horror movies-- particularly Japanese films or remakes thereof.  (The Ring, maybe...)

--  So... what was up with the mysterious moving/changing shrubs/trees in the garden?  That could have used a bit more explanation, I think.  Or at least I would have liked a little more development on that point.  I guess it was just meant to suggest that there was something wrong about the maze-- and that it was slowly working its way toward the house.

--  Are the carvings on the globe more than a mishmash of figures to suggest Generic Evil?  If you're up for it, this article offers an interesting take on the story.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Martin's Close"

"Martin's Close"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

I'm still not sure how I feel about the courtroom transcript format, but I guess it made for a change of pace, if nothing else.  However, the inclusion of (very slight) humor in the courtroom scenes serves to weaken the horror of the story overall. 

Though not (in my opinion, at least) one of James' best, this story does supply a few quite creepy moments.  One or two descriptions in particular reminded me a lot of Dark Water... but told in an old-fashioned, much less graphically gruesome way than is typical of modern horror films.

Interesting tidbit:
Such crimes as this you may perhaps reckon to be not uncommon, and, indeed, in these times, I am sorry to say it, there is scarce any fact so barbarous and unnatural but what we may hear almost daily instances of it.  
Another example of "some things never change"?  Or would M. R. James (or his narrator) be shocked by anything in modern-day crime? 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral"

"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

 A bit anticlimactic, overall, but not without its moments. 

Interesting snippet:
The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may 'operate as an example to the rising generation'...
Some things never change!

Psmith, Journalist

Psmith, Journalist, by P.G. Wodehouse

The adventures of the dapper Psmith continue when he and his confidential secretary and adviser (a.k.a. Mike) "cross the pond" over to the U.S.   While Mike tours the country playing cricket, Psmith promptly finds himself involved in the fascinating world of New York City newspapers.  There are tenement buildings, gangs, pugilists, and cats, as well.

My Reaction:
Psmith himself is fine in this book, but I think I liked it less as a whole than Psmith in the City.  The "social justice" aspect of the tenement story failed to enthrall, for one thing.  Also, I was happy to hear that the drowse-inducing Mike would be absent for most of the book, only to learn with some disappointment that a Mike-style surrogate would be there in his stead.  (Though perhaps a straight-man is required for comic characters like Psmith...) Finally, I was not entirely smitten with the "local color"-- boxers, gangs, and nearly impenetrable accents.

Meh.  This was not my favorite Wodehouse, by a long shot.  I prefer his stories of the upper crust.  Still, it's not at all bad.  But this is Wodehouse, so you already knew that.  ;o)

(This was another read-aloud with Donald.  I quickly gave up on trying to read the accents as written.  "Translating" to more-or-less ordinary speech on the go was infinitely preferable to muddling awkwardly through that garbled mess.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Casting the Runes"

"Casting the Runes"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Overall, I liked it much better than "The Tractate Middoth".  There are amazing coincidences again, but we'll just have to look past those, I think.  There are also some rather clunky transitions.  ("It is not necessary to tell in further detail blah blah blah." ... "The next scene that does require to be narrated is such-and-such.")  However, I'm not so great at making seamless transitions, myself, so I'm very forgiving of such shortcomings.  ;o)

I could describe / refer to the creepiest moments, but that would only ruin them for any reader who hasn't read the story.  That leaves me with little more to add...  I can say that the story isn't really a ghost story, by the strictest definition.  As is so often the case with these old tales, I think I can identify some more modern works that have taken inspiration from this one.  Either that, or those elements are universal enough that many writers have simply naturally come up with them on their own.

 --  The scary slide show (magic lantern show) feels very familiar... Reminds me of that tunnel scene in the old Willie Wonka movie-- only many times creepier. 

-- Why would Karswell warn Dunning with Harrington's name?  That just doesn't make sense at all.  The only reason I can come up with is that he meant Dunning to learn some of what happened to Harrington-- enough to fear that something similar may be happening to him, too-- but not enough to figure out that there might be a solution to his troubles.  Still, it just seems like an unnecessary risk on Karswell's part.  I see why James needed Dunning to have this extra clue, but it doesn't make sense from the character's point of view, and I think there were other ways of bringing Harrington's brother into Dunning's acquaintance.  ~shrug~

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The Tractate Middoth"

"The Tractate Middoth"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

There are some majorly convenient coincidences in this one.  It's quite a bit weaker than the two first stories, but there's a disturbing image or two to give you something to avoid thinking about.

The "eerily empty library" setting reminded me of the upper stories of "my" old university library, back before they renovated it.  It was so quiet up there, and often there seemed to be no-one there.  Maybe a few people using the computers or tucked quietly into one of the study nooks-- but when you were wandering the maze of tall bookcases in the dim light... ~shiver~  That place was creepy enough even without unsettling memories of ghost stories.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"The Rose Garden"

"The Rose Garden"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

People in ghost stories are (usually) so slow on the up-take!  (Fortunately for us readers, I guess...)

There are a few pleasantly creepy moments, but the ending felt a bit odd.  ...It was ok, but the better parts of the story definitely come before the end. 

Side note:  M. R. James was inordinately fond of Latin, apparently.  I seem to remember it popping up a lot in the first volume of "Antiquary" ghost stories, and there's been Latin in both of the first two tales in this second volume.  Unfortunately, my knowledge of Latin is extremely limited, so unless it's spelled out pretty clearly in context clues, I worry that I'm missing some nuance.  In this story, the unexplained Latin was "quieta non movere".  Ok, I could guess the meaning, but it's nice to be able to search online and know that it means "don't disturb things that are at peace". 

"A School Story"

"A School Story"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Part 2, by M. R. James

Oooh, creepy.
Somewhat predictable?  No tidy explanation?  Well, yes, but still.  Old-fashioned creepiness abounds.

I found the summaries of the "typical ghost stories told at a school" plenty creepy, too.

Thank you again, Barbara Michaels, for bringing M. R. James to my attention.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Just an Ordinary Day

Just an Ordinary Day, by Shirley Jackson

Publisher's Blurb:
The stories in this edition represent the great diversity of her work, from humor to her shocking explorations of the human psyche. The tales range, chronologically, from the writings of her college days and residence in Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, to the unforgettably chilling stories from the period just before her death. They provide an exciting overview of the evolution of her craft through a progression of forms and styles, and add significantly to the body of her published work.

Just an Ordinary Day is a testament to how large a talent Shirley Jackson had and to the depth, breadth, and complexity of her writing. Though this remarkable literary life was cut short, Jackson clearly established a unique voice that has won a permanent place in the canon of outstanding American literature, and remains a powerful influence on generations of readers and writers.

My Opinion:
Most of the reviews I looked at before starting this collection indicated that the short stories are extremely uneven in quality.  I have to agree, though it's only to be expected.  (Remember, many of these were never published in Jackson's lifetime, and very likely she herself considered them lacking.)  Some of the stories were quite good; others were merely passable; some were downright dull.  Though I think there were a few exceptions, most of my favorites were her published "creepy" tales.  (See below for specifics.)

Before reading this book, I'd been on the look-out for Jackson's memoirs of her young family's life (Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons).  However, after having read the stories/essays in this collection that seem to have been based on/inspired by her family, I'm much less enthusiastic.  Maybe the full, polished memoirs are better than these previously unpublished snippets, but if not, count me out.  In general, I found the children in all these stories to be just plain annoying.  Horrid, disrespectful little brats, in other words.  (No holding back, now!) 


Well.  So, was it worth the read?  Yes, but only for the sake of relatively few of the stories.  Still, there were enough good ones to interest me in locating copies of Jackson's previously collected (and apparently stronger) short stories.  Autumn's coming, and it's the perfect time to read some creepy short stories.

(And by "Specifics" I mean quick notes I jotted down after reading each story...)

"I Don't Kiss Strangers"
Weird.  Don't really get it... Would she act that way if he were dying?

"Summer Afternoon"
Odd.  Spooky, but doesn't really go anywhere.

"Indians Live in Tents"
Odd.  Seemed like some dystopian future with very limited housing... but in the end, I guess it's meant as comedy.

"The Very Hot Sun in Bermuda"
A charming tale of a b***h of a college student and the art professor who finds her so captivating that he cheats on his wife (with whom he has kids).  Lovely.

Unsettling... Twilight Zone-ish.  Feels like a hallucination... or a nightmare.  (How surprising, given the title!)  Ending is weird, though.  Not much of an ending at all, really.

"Dinner for a Gentleman"
The name "Dimity Baxter" is oddly familiar...  A kitchen fairytale.   Somewhat "meh".

"Party of Boys"
Laurie (the narrator's son) is obnoxious.

"Jack the Ripper"
Creepy.  The title gives is away somewhat, though.

"The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith"
People in Jackson's stories say "look" or "listen" more than people today really do.  A sign of the times in which she lived?  Weirdly anticlimactic story.

"The Sister"
Odd.  Supposed to be funny, maybe... (But obviously it wasn't that successful with me.)

If this is based on her real family... I'm sorry, but I can't stand her son, Laurie.  What a rotten kid!  This makes me glad I don't have kids, honestly, though I'd hope that my own kids wouldn't much resemble the children in these stories...  Blugh.

"Mrs. Anderson"
Weird.  Interesting idea, but weird.

"Come to the Fair"
Pleasant fairytale of happy endings.

Totally bizarre.

"Gnarly the King of the Jungle"
Weird... Another spoiled kid.

"The Good Wife"

"Devil of a Tale"
Bizarre and fablelike... and not in a good way.

"The Mouse"
Is it true that mice will avoid a trap that's already caught a mouse?  I guess it makes sense that they could smell the death... I just never thought about it before.  The story is bizarre.  Did Jackson have something against childless women?  Like we're all unnatural creatures with no maternal instinct whatsoever?  (Ok, so maybe this woman doesn't represent all childless women...)

"My Grandmother and the World of Cats"
Odd and-- well, pointless.

"Maybe It Was the Car"
(No comment, I guess.  (g))

"Lovers Meeting"
Don't really get it...  The point, I mean.

"My Recollections of S.B. Fairchild"
This just makes me really irritated on the narrator's behalf.  And there's no real resolution!!!  ARGH!
"Deck the Halls"
Feels incomplete.  I was sure the girls were running some sort of scam on the whole neighborhood-- or rather that their mother was using them to run a scam.  Who sends her kids out begging for gifts?  If nothing else, wouldn't she go in their place to spare them the experience?  (And if they needed clothes, there are charities that provide free clothing to the truly needy.)  I found a place online where a few people were commenting on this story, and some of them seemed to think that the couple should have given away the teddy bear.  Personally, I don't think so; actually, I think it was very poor behavior for the girl to make a scene about it in the first place.  (I know-- I'm cold and heartless.  Oh well!)  Oh, and five dollars wasn't nothing back when this story was written.  (This story makes me so mad at the mother for sending her kids out begging!)

"Lord of the Castle"
Meh...  Not her finest work, to say the least.

"What a Thought"
One of the stronger of the unpublished works.   I think almost everyone has occasionally had one of those awful random thoughts.  Never anywhere near this insistently, of course-- so don't pack us off to the looney bin, please-- but just the passing, uninvited idea of something horrible that presents itself almost out of the blue...  Horrifying to imagine one that comes and just won't go away.  Sudden madness?  Demonic possession?

"When Barry Was Seven"
A family memory maybe, but not a real story.  Feels like a Peanuts or Family Circle cartoon come to life... or a mash-up of the two.  If her nonfictional books are like this, I'm less interested than I was before...

"Before Autumn"

"The Story We Used to Tell"
Creepy.  Another story about a haunted painting!

"My Uncle in the Garden"
Odd.  No plot, really.  Were the uncles supposed to be... "touched"?  They certainly didn't feel quite normal.

"On the House"
Another weird story that just makes me mad.

"Little Old Lady in Great Need"
Meh.  More characters that make me angry.

"When Things Get Dark"
Don't really get it.  Seems unfinished... Lacking.  (Like many of these stories do.)

"Whistler's Grandmother"
Meh.  Unfinished feeling again.

"Family Magician"
I liked this a lot.  Reminds me of Marry Poppins and other lightly magical children's stories.

"The Wishing Dime"
Too predictable and sickly sweet.

"About Two Nice People"
Ok, but predictable.  Felt like it was supposed to be funnier than it actually was.

"Mrs. Melville Makes a Purchase"
Annoying, frustrating characters and situations... and no real conclusion.  Very unsatisfying.

"Journey with a Lady"
Ok, I guess... It felt odd that we were supposed to sympathize with a thief and a kid who thought a thief was cool.  I half expected her to turn out to be a murderer... push him off the train on the way to the dining car, or something... (g)

"The Most Wonderful Thing"
Meh.  (Not so wonderful, apparently.)

"The Friends"
Very unlikeable, catty people.  If you like "Desperate Housewives", try this!  ;o)

"Alone in a Den of Cubs"
Boooring.  I wonder how much truth/real-life inspiration is in these "family" stories? 

"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
One of the be st in the book, imho.  Awful, of course-- and somewhat predictable-- but interesting.

"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
Odd tale.  Not the ending I expected.  Which is the whole point.  Thought-provoking twist ending.

"The Missing Girl"
What...?  Not sure why even the mother gave up.  Seems unlikely.  Just because she had other kids?  Insufficient explanation.

"The Omen"
Ok.  But nothing amazing.  But fine.  (g)

"A Great Voice Stilled"
Weird and boring.  More awful people that you don't really even love to hate... Awful people that you just don't want to waste your time hating.

"All She Said Was Yes"
Predictable that of course they would disregard Vicky's warning... but still a little creepy.  I expected more of a bang of an ending, though.

They're planning on staying in that house...? Creepy.  They'll never be able to use that road in the rain, I guess...

Fine, but a bit boring by the end.  Could've been shortened.  Again, Jackson's depictions of children make me want to avoid children-- but maybe real kids aren't this sickening?  At least, I don't remember being that bratty and generally infuriating...

"The Possibility of Evil"
Dark, nasty little story.  But in a good way...? ;o)

If you read all my brief reactions to individual stories, one right after another, in one big gulp... it looks like I must have hated 95% of the book.  Not really so.  I'm just more likely to express dissatisfaction right after reading an individual story (possibly with only a small aspect of it), even though looking back at the book, even the ones I thought weren't strong weren't necessarily awful.  

Anyway, here's a list of the stories I remember liking most / finding the most thought-provoking (and would be the most likely to want to re-read):

"Come to the Fair"  (but be warned that it's a non-creepy romance)
"Deck the Halls"  (even though it infuriates me)
"What a Thought"
"The Story We Used to Tell"
"Family Magician"
"The Friends"  (despite the awful people in the story)
"The Order of Charlotte's Going"
"One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"
"All She Said Was Yes"  (...I guess.)
"The Possibility of Evil"

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Beckoning Fair One

The Beckoning Fair One, by Oliver Onions

A writer takes rooms in a long-abandoned house, seeking peaceful surroundings in which to finish his current novel-- the work he hopes will finally give him a measure of recognition.  However, strange occurrences soon lead him to wonder if the building has been inhabited-- by something-- all along...

My Reaction:
I listened to Julie's (of Forgotten Classics) reading of this novella.  The brevity and advertised creepiness reeled me in.  ;o)  So, my opinion?  It felt a little slower getting started than I usually like in such a short work, but once it got going, there were some raised hairs.  (You must read/listen to the end.  It's the best part, by far.)  I'd recommend this for anyone who loves creepy ghost stories.  ...As for the rest of what I have to say, I don't think I can write it without spoilers, so...

SPOILER-Filled Comments:

--  I remember one of my high school (or was it middle school?) teachers recommending a very creepy ghost story in which someone hears the sweep and crackle of ghostly hair being brushed-- but I didn't remember the name of the story or author.  How funny to just happen across it all these years later!

--  I was convinced that there would be a happy ending.  Paul would drift away to la-la land for a while, Elsie would come and do no-nonsense battle with the feminine ghost of the place (or maybe she would come to help, but end up in such danger that Paul would finally be scared back into his wits and flee the haunted building), and Paul would realize that he did love Elsie, with a "happily ever after" soon to follow.  So the actual ending came (needless to say) as something of a shock!

--  As I was saying in the last point, shocking ending!  Definitely the creepiest part of the book, to me, was the discovery of Elsie's body and the realization that she'd been dead a while... with Paul lying in just the next room for days (?)... and that now he'll either be executed for her murder or locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane... And meanwhile, that house (or whatever is in it) is still just sitting there, waiting for its next victim.  ~shudder~

--  This is one of those stories that seem to just get creepier and creepier the longer I think about them...

--  Apparently there's an argument that you can read the story not as a ghost story but as a description of Paul's mental breakdown.  From that perspective, he is delusional regarding the haunting and actually kills Elsie himself.  Personally, I think we're "supposed" to believe there's really a ghost, if for no other reason than that Elsie herself seems to sense (multiple times) that there's something wrong about the place and that it's antagonistic to her in particular.  (Plus the house/ghost hurts her twice before she is finally killed.  I don't see how Paul could be blamed for either of those incidences.)

-- I'll have to look out for more Oliver Onions!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Uninvited

The Uninvited, by Dorothy MacArdle

A little-- or a lot-- of background & related info before I get to the book:

I've wanted to read The Uninvited ever since seeing it mentioned in one of Barbara Michaels' books.  (I love it when authors mention other author's works in their books!)  However, it seems to be out of print.  There's a play script available-- something based on the novel-- but I preferred to read the original novel.  The only copies of the original story I could immediately find were used, and the sellers were asking (what I considered to be) ridiculous prices.  Fortunately, I located an audio version, and even better, it's offered free of charge! 

Forgotten Classics is a weekly podcast produced by Julie D., who selects and reads books aloud, a chapter or so at a time.  Usually, these are classics of literature that may have fallen by the wayside or otherwise been overlooked in favor of the famous classics, but sometimes she obtains special permission to read more recently published books.

Julie has a very pleasant, clear voice, and if you didn't know better, you'd think you were listening to a professionally produced audiobook.  (Actually, this one was in many ways superior to some of the professional audiobooks I've heard.)  She chats a little at the beginning and ending of each weekly segment, which may not be to someone's liking if s/he wants an audiobook (as opposed to podcast) experience, but it's not repetitive, mindless chatter (which is the bulk of some podcasts, imho), and Julie has such a soothing "radio-style" speaking voice that it's easy to listen to her, and during the course of listening to The Uninvited, I felt that I got to know her a little, which was nice.  Also, she recommends other podcasts as part of the chatty segments.  I've already found a few other promising sources of entertainment through those recommendation-- so thank you for that, too, Julie (if you ever see this)!

Oh, and I thought I'd mention that I listened to this podcast on my Kindle.  I like having my current audio book in the same place as my current e-book(s)-- and not having to wear earbuds (unless I need to plug them in to avoid disturbing someone else in the room)-- and the fact that the Kindle holds my place in an audio file perfectly, every time (more on that below).

If you have a Kindle but don't know how to listen to audio books on it, it's very easy.  I think some people are under the misapprehension that you can only listen to audiobooks from Audible, but that's not the case.  (Not with the Kindle Keyboard / K3, at least-- the only model I know about.  I suspect that other Kindle models work similarly, though.)  When you have the Kindle hooked up to the computer, simply drag / copy and paste the audio files (in mp3 format) into the "Audible" folder.  That's it.  Each file should show up in your Kindle's table of contents / Home screen.  You'll need to find and start each file manually, so this method works best with files of a reasonable length.  (You don't want to have to start a new file every few minutes-- very disruptive.)  I like to put all related files into a single collection so that I can easily find the next one when I want it. 

One idiosyncrasy I've noticed about listening to audiobooks on the Kindle is that I really must be careful about how I turn off the Kindle.  A while ago, I was having problems with the Kindle forgetting my place and putting me back at the beginning of a file when I turned it on again, which was annoying, to say the least.  I finally figured out how to prevent that from happening, though I'm still not sure why it happens.  If you have the same problem, try this:

When you listen to an audiobook for a while, the Kindle will eventually go to the screensaver, but continue to play your audiobook.  To reactivate the screen (and be able to pause the audiobook), simply slide the power switch as you would to turn it on.  When the screen comes back on (or if it never went to the screensaver at all), pause your book (using the cursor button).  Then-- and this is the important part!-- hit the "Home" button before you turn the Kindle back off.

As long as I do that, the Kindle saves my spot.  Otherwise, it doesn't remember where I was.  Now, if you want to read an e-book after listening to the audiobook, you needn't turn the Kindle off, then back on again to access the e-book.  Just go the Home screen, find your e-book, and commence reading as usual.  They key for saving your spot in audio files seems to be (for my Kindle, at least) to go to the Home screen after listening to the audiobook.

Ok, now back to my typical format!

Blurb (from Book Review Digest):
A beautiful old English house, situated on the Devon cliffs, is reputed to be haunted. Roderick Fitzgerald, a London journalist, and his sister, buy the house, and convert it into a thing of beauty. Almost immediately psychic manifestations occur which grow stronger after every visit of the lovely Stella, who was born in the house, and whose mother has died there.
My Reaction:

It was as advertised-- an enjoyable old-fashioned ghost story.  I didn't find much of it very scary, but then again, I didn't listen to it in a scary atmosphere.  However, there were a few definitely creepy, edge-of-your-seat moments.  By the time I got to the big resolution, I'd already figured out the mystery (as most readers do, perhaps), but I still found it an interesting story.  I'd certainly be interested in reading (or listening to) similar books (and am always on the look-out for a good old-fashioned creepy story).

More Specifics:
--  The original title was Uneasy Freehold.  I'm not sure which title I prefer.  Uneasy Freehold is more distinct... unique... but The Uninvited is so ominous. 

--  I'm proud to say that I actually figured out the mystery of "Lily"/ "li li" almost immediately.  (g)  But it was clever.  The parallels in Roderick's play, on the other hand, never occurred to me.

--  I don't have many specific comments, apparently, because I don't take notes on audio books. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Psmith in the City

Psmith in the City, by P. G. Wodehouse

(Another read-aloud with Donald.)

I think I enjoyed this one more than Mike and Psmith-- possibly because of the change of setting, definitely because there was less cricket.  The game does crop up here and there, but mostly just (briefly) near the beginning and end, so it's not too bad.  (Apologies to those who simply love reading about cricket, but it's deadly dull to those of us who don't even know-- much less care-- how the game's played.  Honestly, though, I can't see myself being interested in reading about any sport.  As far as I'm concerned, sports are meant to be watched-- if even that-- and not read about.) 

Some reviewers point out the various ways in which this early work compares unfavorably to Wodehouse in his prime.  I'm sure they're right, but for the most part, I enjoyed the book just fine and found it an effective comedic escape from the stresses and trials of Real Life.  Is the plot (such as it is) unrealistic?  Well, of course, but who reads Wodehouse for stark realism?!  I want my Wodehouseian heroes to have unrealistically happy endings.  If those endings are extremely convenient and pop up just at the end of the book, I don't really mind.  Besides, the best of Wodehouse, for me, is the dialogue-- the humorous use of language in general.  Plotting is an afterthought.

That said, I was a little disappointed that Mike didn't even have to tough it out for a single night at his rented room in London.  I'd have found that very amusing reading.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"The Transplanted Ghost"

"The Transplanted Ghost:  A Christmas Story", by Wallace Irwin
(from Humorous Ghost Stories)

Started off with promise enough, but ended up being pretty dull, with hardly any humor (but no horror, either).  Also, this story felt much more modern than most of the others.  Electricity, station wagons, etc.

Three interesting points:

--  It took me a while to realize that "donjon" must be an variant of "dungeon". 

--  The ghost makes reference to "earth-years", which makes me think of an alien speaking to an earthling.

--  The castle moved (piece by piece) from England (or Europe in general) to America is a familiar premise.  It's fascinating to think of... Such an extravagant action-- so costly-- so eccentric.  I wonder if it was ever actually done...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"The Ghost Ship"

"The Ghost Ship", by Richard Middleton
(from Humorous Ghost Stories)

Finally, Humorous Ghost Stories redeems itself with another more captivating story.  Still not quite enough to make me want to run through the streets telling strangers they need to read this (but that's not likely to happen even with my very favorite books). 

This story had a nice, chatty flow to it, as well as some rather charming details.  I liked it!

"Back from That Bourne"

"Back from That Bourne", by Anonymous
(from Humorous Ghost Stories)

Well, why even bother "reviewing" them, at this point?  Here's another that was passable, maybe mildly interesting or amusing in spots, but somehow not my cup of tea.  This one was better than the last, at least...  

Do you want to read about a ghost who is "materialized" by a medium and subsequently refuses to dematerialize?  Well, this-un's for you!  ;o)

"The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall"

"The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall", by John Kendrick Bangs
(from Humorous Ghost Stories)

This was an odd one.  There were a few moments of mild humor... (such as the idea of stopping a clock so that a ghost who consistently appears at midnight will not know the time)... but the bulk of it was just... odd-- and a bit dark.  

From what I recall, more of these humorous ghost stories have been odd than not.  I'm getting to the point of just taking the book off my "currently reading" list altogether...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"The Rival Ghosts"

"The Rival Ghosts", by Brander Matthews
Read in Humorous Ghost Stories

It's been a while since I read anything in this Humorous Ghost Stories anthology.  Partly, that's the fault of this very story.  I started by reading it aloud to Donald while we drove somewhere, but stopped when we reached our destination.  The story felt so slow starting that I've put off picking up the book again!

So, that gives you an idea of my impression.  It was not a compelling read, even for a humorous ghost story.   Rather long and wordy and rambling for a short story.  A tiny bit amusing in a few particulars (see below), but nothing amazing.  Then again, if I'd read it all in one sitting, maybe I'd have a more favorable view.  If you're interested, the whole collection of short stories is available for free (in e-book format) from Amazon.  For this individual story alone, look here

SPOILERY Comments:

--  I think some of the humor requires that you be somewhat familiar with history and the locale.  For instance, there's one joke about the (historic?) rivalry between NYC and Boston.  I'm a Southerner with no ties to either place, so... I got the joke, but it might've been funnier if an awareness of the rivalry had been part of my youth.  Then again, maybe that kind of humor just isn't laugh-out-loud funny to me, no matter where I live.

--  All the rest aside, the idea of the two ghosts being forced to occupy one space and not getting along is amusing. 

--  This was funny, too:  "'...he could not hear them-- at least, not distinctly.  There were inarticulate murmurs and stifled rumblings.  But the impression produced on him was that they were swearing.  If they had only sworn right out, he would not have minded it so much, because he would have known the worst.  But the feeling that the air was full of suppressed profanity was very wearing...'"

--  The solution of having the ghosts marry?  Funny, but you can't think much about it or it makes no sense (even for a humorous ghost story).  For one thing, when did marriage ever prevent quarreling?!  (Especially in a couple that was prone to quarreling even before marrying.)  For another, where will they "live"?  I thought one ghost was tied to a property and the other to a man who doesn't live in that property... Long-distance marriage?  How sad.

--  Very abrupt ending-- probably to avoid having to explain how that whole "living situation" thing was going to work out... ;o)