Thursday, March 29, 2012

Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett.

Publisher's blurb:
Here there be dragons...and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork wish one huge firebreather would return from whence it came. Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis ("noble dragon" for those who don't understand italics) has appeared in Discworld's greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, in rather short order it is crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all...).

This was another "shared read" with Donald.  I never seem to have as much to say about those as about books I've read on my own.  (I'm less likely to take notes and it takes longer to get through a book-- both of which lead to my forgetting anything I'd ordinarily comment upon.  ...Which is probably just as well, really.)

My general impression is one of enjoyment.  It took me a little while to warm to some of the characters (particularly Vimes, who seemed to be just a drunkard at the beginning)-- and I've never really cared much about dragons, so that aspect didn't hold any special, innate charm for me, either-- but Vimes quickly turned out to be a decent chap. ;o)... And the book's not really "about" dragons (even though it kinda is).   Anyway, overall, it's an amusing novel with some laugh-out-loud moments.  (That's the benefit of reading with someone else; I'm much more likely to actually laugh than when I read alone.)

Spoilery bit to follow:

I suspected that Carrot would turn out to be the king-- which would be revealed after he'd killed the dragon-- and that he would then be welcomed back with open arms by the dwarfs, be crowned their king (though I guess they already had a king, come to think of it...), and marry Minty.  Well, at least I got the "Carrot would turn out to be the king" part right.  (g) 

(That's it.  The spoilery bit is over!)

...And that's about it.  Like the other Discworld stories I've read or seen (film adaptation)-- despite the occasional dragon or what-have-you-- this is much less "Fantasy" than a tale of humor that just happens to be set in a land where nearly anything might possibly happen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Am Legend

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson.

Publisher's blurb:
Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone.

An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.

By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn.... 

I chose to read this novel for a variety of reasons.  I'm on something of a post-apocalyptic / dystopian / zombie novel kick, and I'd seen this title listed as a masterpiece of the genre.  Also, I've seen the most recent film adaption (the one starring Will Smith) and was curious how the novel differed from the movie.  (The answer to that question is that there are far more dissimilarities than commonalities-- most noticeably in the ending of each.)

The (somewhat) condensed, non-spoilery portion of my "review":

I find myself better pleased with the novella toward its end than I was through most of the book-- and yet I don't exactly like the end, either... (Read it; you'll know why.)

I was frequently frustrated or repulsed by Robert Neville-- his drinking to excess, his apparently nearly-uncontrollable carnal impulses, his inability to hope for or seek out a better life for himself.  (Yes, he had lost everyone in his life and was continuing to live through a nightmare... but I can't help being frustrated by him any more than the character could probably help being frustrating.)

Then there were some things I can't really go into without spoiling the book... but basically it felt like the author was occasionally offering up a tempting little bit of hope, only to snatch it away at the last moment.

I won't pretend to completely understand all the "science" of the plague.  I can't decide if it was poorly written or if I merely failed to see its brilliance.  In the end, it doesn't matter; you simply have to accept it-- and I'm ok with that in this kind of novel, so long as the author keeps it somewhat consistent-- but in this case, the science is dwelt on repeatedly, so it's harder to just "let it go"...  

I suppose that I Am Legend was groundbreaking for its time (the 1950s), but as a modern reader, I didn't feel as impressed as I'd hoped I would.  It does seem more literary than the run-of-the-mill modern horror story, though, and if you're interested in this type of novel, I'd suggest reading it.  It's a short, quick read, in any case-- and by the end, it's given you a different perspective on post-apocalyptic plagues / vampires / zombies. 

A few spoilery bits:

•  Ach!  The dog!  That's the most painful part of the movie, I think, and the book's treatment of the subject was just as bad.  Not the dog!  C'mon, man.  (Why is it that pet death scenes are frequently more wrenching than those alluding to dead people?  I hardly felt a twinge over Neville's wife and daughter.  Maybe it's the way they're presented... The author dwells on the dog in such depth.  We "see" the action firsthand, too, whereas the scenes with his wife are all flashbacks-- and are more dread- and horror-filled than emotional.  Or maybe it's just easier to connect with a helpless animal character-- which we associate with our own pets past and present-- than with the generic wife/kid...)

•  I mentioned it before, but Neville's hypersensitive "sensuality" really gave me the creeps and made it hard for me to sympathize with him at times.  Ok, so the guy has... "needs"... and it had been half a year or so, but still.  Ick.  He feels the urge to go out and "be with" a (monstrous, non-sparkly) vampire woman, knowing that all they want is to drink his blood?  Ewww. 

•  The science, again.  It makes no sense to me...  What did I miss?  How was there this "new society" of living infected without Neville realizing it?  If they're sophisticated enough to begin to form this new society-- or even before that, when they were just wandering around singly or in bands-- why were none of them sophisticated enough to communicate with Neville (during the night-- I realize that they were in a coma state during the day)?  Where were they all those years?  How did they go from wandering around like zombies at night to magically forming a new social order?  All this happened just a short drive from Neville's home, apparently.  I don't know... I guess you're just not supposed to question it.  "It happened, ok?  Deal with it." I try, but it's not easy. 

•  I took note of other things that irritated me or seemed unlikely, but at this point, with this type of novel, what's the point?  So there's a huge pit in town where they burn the dead... and the fire seems to keep going for years after everyone is either dead or in a daytime coma.  Well, sure.  I guess fires just go on burning forever, unless someone actively puts them out.  Fuel schmuel!  Who needs fuel for fire?!  (The only possible explanation is that Neville himself is keeping it going.  True, he throws a few bodies on it now and then, but I get the impression that it's supposed to be going constantly, even if it's been days since he threw anything in the pit.  I don't think that's likely.)

•  I wish someone with too much time on his hands would count the number of times the author wrote that someone's (usually Neville's since he's almost the only character) "throat moved".  Used sparingly, it's an interesting way to convey that someone is experiencing this or that emotion, but good grief, was it ever a crutch in this book!  Neville is sad?  His throat moves.  Neville is hesitant?  His throat moves.  Neville experiences any emotion you can possibly imagine?  Trust me, his throat is moving. 

•  Oh, and the end.  By the end, Neville is resigned to his fate.  He's tired of fighting to live-- and goodness knows, he's questioned that fight to stay alive all through the book.  He accepts that he has become the abnormality-- the anomaly-- in a changed world.  It is a depressing conclusion, of course-- much more so than that of the movie, so I imagine most people prefer the movie's end.  I'm still not sure how I feel... If he's really the only "normal" person left on earth (or the part of it he'll be able to reach), maybe it's just as well that he does die, but I always find that a difficult way to end a story, even when I don't particularly love the character in question.  The old "never give in" part of me doesn't like it.

Anyway, I've read it.  Now I want something different for my next read.  Lets' have more than one character, for starters.  ;o)  And maybe no vampire plagues, this time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The After House

The After House, by Mary Roberts Rhinehart

Out of money and in need of recuperation after an illness, a young doctor takes a job aboard a luxurious yacht as steward.  Unfortunately, there is trouble on the Ella, and before long, brutal murder throws everyone on board under suspicion.

This book is in the public domain; you can find free digital copies in several places online.

The book started out slowly (IMHO), but after a while, the action picked up and I was reading eagerly, curious to discover the identity of the murderer.  When all was finally revealed... I found it to be a bit of a letdown.  But hey, it was a freebie, so I won't complain too much.  Certainly not a great novel, though, and not even a really good mystery.

In more detail:
•  This thing shows its age (and the stereotypes and prejudices of its day) more clearly than most books of its time... or indeed many books much older.  There are offensive racial terms, and the (two, maybe?) black characters are caricatures of a stereotype-- cowardly, weak, untrustworthy-- but they're not the only ones to suffer that treatment.  There's classism and sexism, too.  People instinctively sense that Leslie is not a common sailor.  The ship's crew are superstitious and basically inferior to Leslie and "the family".  The women are to be protected even against their own wills.  "Oleson the Swede" is described thusly:  "Oleson... was a slow-thinking Swede..."  (I am more alert to the typical "slow-witted Swede" stereotype, now that I'm married to a Swedish man.  (g)  I tend to laugh at it, but really!  According to a lot of authors, Swedes are almost all very open-faced, trustworthy, trusting-- like a child, almost!-- good-humored, strong-bodied, and friendly... but definitely not the brightest in the bunch.  ...Probably these authors are just jealous.  Can't make the Swedish characters perfect, after all. ;o))

•  This text is another fine example of how poorly edited so many ebooks are.  It's really a shame.  Punctuation all over the place (or conspicuously absent where required)-- typos.  I tend not to think too much about it-- I guess you get used to it-- but sometimes there are typos that are confusing or even amusing (Burns = Bums).  It takes you out of the story.

•  There's some fairly horrific stuff in this story.  I was startled by it, at first.  Wasn't expecting it.

•  The nautical terminology is mostly unfamiliar to me, which made it somewhat difficult to picture the layout of the boat.  I think there may have been a diagram of the boat in the print copy.  Still, it doesn't seem to be necessary to comprehend everything, by the end of the book.

•  I wonder if this author was a prohibitionist.  There was a lot of negative attention to drinking and alcohol in general.

•  When the ship makes it to port, the family (and guests) are released after examination, but the others are all taken to jail "to make sure of their presence at the trial".  I wonder if that's a realistic representation of what would have happened under those circumstances.  If so, it's fairly shocking.

•  By the time we get to the "courtroom drama" portion of the story, we are hearing some of this testimony/evidence for at least the third time.  Talk about padding!

•  "Elsa" and "Ella" are so similar!  It was a poor choice to put them in the same story, even if one of them is a boat and the other a woman.  (g)  Makes you wonder what authors are thinking, sometimes.  (See also re: Tolkien's Sauron and Saruman.)

•  During the trial, it is mentioned in passing that Mrs. Johns always carries a revolver and, in fact, is carrying one even now.  In the courtroom?  Wow.  Different times, huh?

•  This author loves to call forward to future events in her work.  It's too blatant to be called foreshadowing... or even telegraphing... and I'm too lazy to look up the correct literary term.

•  You will never be allowed to forget that Our Hero is tall-- over six feet, or "six feet and a fraction".  I find men who "have" to constantly refer to their superior height rather sad.  Is that all they have going for them, that they need to remind us of it so often? 

Spoilery comments:

•  I was convinced the murderer would turn out to be a murderess.  All that talk about protecting the women-- guarding the woman-- and then it would turn out that the murderer had been hidden among them all along!  But no.  (I was disappointed, honestly.)

•  I was surprised by the murderer's identity-- but not really in a very good way.  It felt like a cheating solution.  By the explanation given, just about anyone could have been written to be the murderer, it seemed, since he was apparently barking mad, and yet able to behave and function like a normal person for years.

•  I hate it when the solution to the mystery is that there's an insane person committing the crimes-- yet s/he behaves perfectly normally before and after the crime... And then we are then asked to think of the criminal as apparently beyond reproach (because he's insane and can't help himself), yet he had the wherewithal to hide the ax (and then steal and throw it overboard)... and stash his "robe"... and basically hide his actions, which seems very much like the behavior of someone who has enough sanity to realize that Murder Is Wrong.  (Ugh.  It irritates me.)

•  Are we to believe that in all of his years aboard other ships, the murderer never drew suspicion?  What, was this his first killing spree?  It seems unlikely, and if not, wouldn't someone eventually notice that, hey, this guy has a bad habit of being aboard ships where people are murdered/go missing.

•  Is it just me, or is this kind of funny? "----- was a madman, a homicidal maniac of the worst type."  ...Ha!  Oh, so not just one of those not-so-bad homicidal maniacs, but one of the worst type.  Yeah, you don't want to meet up with one of those.

•  I disliked Mr. Turner (and the womenfolk for shielding him when they had no way of knowing whether or not he was innocent), but it was obvious he didn't do it.  He was too suspicious to have been the murderer.  (g)  At least, he was too suspicious to have done it in a novel.  In real life, he would have been the murderer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
(aka "The Last Survivors, Book 1")

Publisher's blurb:
I guess I always felt even if the world came to an end, McDonald’s still would be open.
High school sophomore Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to Earth, the way “one marble hits another.” The result is catastrophic. How can her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis are wiping out the coasts, earthquakes are rocking the continents, and volcanic ash is blocking out the sun? As August turns dark and wintry in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

Told in a year’s worth of journal entries, this heart-pounding story chronicles Miranda’s struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all—hope—in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world. An extraordinary series debut!

The only good thing I can say about this book?  You look at food differently while you're reading this novel.  (Meat, bread, fresh produce, chocolate, pizza-- pretty much whatever we want, we can get it, and we tend to take that for granted, even though we know we shouldn't.)  You put down the book, remember that you are fortunate enough to still live in the "normal" world, then shudder at the thought that you might not always be so lucky (probably not because an asteroid nudges the moon, but for any number of other reasons).

Specifics (with SPOILERS):

•  "Mom's" political opinions irritated me and took me right out of the story.  Maybe they were meant to lend a sense of verisimilitude to the story, but... ugh.

"...There was no CNN.  'Maybe I'm wrong,' Mom said. 'Maybe the world really is coming to an end.' 'Should I try Fox News?' I asked.  Mom shuddered. 'We're not that desperate,' she said."

"And then, out of nowhere, was the president.  Mom hates him like she hates Fox News, but she sat there transfixed."

After the president speaks (from his ranch in Texas, so hmm, I wonder which president we're supposed to think of...), "Mom" mutters that he's an idiot, and she calls him an idiot again, later in the story.  She also says that she thinks the president doesn't specify how exactly things might get worse because he "didn't want to tell us because he was an evil jerk."  Such a charming woman!  Always assuming the best of everyone!  (Everyone laughs whenever "Mom" berates the president because it's so "normal-sounding" for her to be doing so.  Oh, that Mom!  She sure does hate the president, doesn't she?!  Hee hee.  It's so funny when Mom insults the Prez.)

"'I wish I trusted the president,' Mom said. 'I just can't imagine him handling this.'"  (UGH. PLEASE JUST SHUT UP,  YOU ANNOYING WOMAN.)

Now, I'm not going to say that a character can't or shouldn't think a president is idiotic (because I've thought-- and continue to think-- even worse than that about some politicians), but honestly, it took away from my enjoyment of the book and made me somewhat less sympathetic toward "Mom"/Laura almost right from the start.  I would like to read some modern novels in which the main, "good" characters are conservatives-- or at least characters with no specified political leaning who don't make stupid, predictable jokes about how awful Fox News is or how idiotic Bush is/was.  Please?  Are there any mainstream authors out there open to that possibility?

•  "Mom" (and Miranda) irritated me again when they go on the shopping spree and this happens: "'Miranda, you're going to canned vegetables and fruits.  You know what we like.' 'Mom, we don't eat canned vegetables,' I said. 'We do now,' she said."  Oh!  Well aren't weren't they the Fancy-Pants Family!  Don't eat canned vegetables, eh?  Not ever?  Maybe I'm revealing myself to be an awfully unhealthy, undiscerning person, but-- what?  The never eat canned vegetables??  I can understand preferring fresh for taste and (to some degree) healthiness, but good grief.  Don't they keep a can or two in the pantry for convenience's sake or "emergencies"?   (What?  You've never had an emergency that required a can of corn or green beans?  Consider yourself lucky.  ...Ok, I guess I haven't, either, but you get the point.) 

•  "'Get Progresso,' Mom said.  'They don't need water.'"  Ooh, nice free plug for Progresso, there.  Not that Progresso's the only soup brand that doesn't need water, but whatever...

•  "In a million years, I never thought we'd be drinking canned juice..."  I don't drink juice, period.  (Well, hardly ever.)  Never had it from a can, that I can recall, and it probably wouldn't be my preference, either.  But it still seems like Miranda feels very strongly about juice in cans, doesn't it?  Never in a million years, you guys.  I mean, seriously.  Juice.  In a can.  It's just... not right, ya know?  ;o)

•  I tried to look past it, but after the first half-dozen mentions of "wagons", I nearly exploded.  Who calls them "wagons"?  (People from PA, I guess-- according to the book, at least.)  Here, they are either "buggies" or "shopping carts". 

•  "We finally found a clothes store that was open... It was the kind of store we never go to ordinarily, small and not well lit, and everything looked dingy."  --and-- "I know Lisa and she'd never want a baby of hers to wear the clothes that store was selling."   I know this sort of thing is meant to highlight how the characters/their world changes... but honestly, it mostly just makes me annoyed with them.  In some ways, they (or at least some of them) are smart and practical right from the start, but in other ways, they're disgustingly shallow and dim-witted.  I like them all better once the natural disasters have... well, humbled and sharpened them somewhat-- made them more cognizant of the important things and less obsessed with celebrity and image. 

•  On the other hand... It drove me crazy how much of the time they seem to sit around and mope.  Yes, it's understandable to a certain degree.  They're low on energy because they're not eating enough, and they're low in spirits because they don't know when or even if conditions will improve.  But sitting and moping isn't going to help anything.  They should distract themselves with life-enriching activities-- music (singing, maybe playing an instrument, if they have access to any), reading aloud together, drawing, writing (something other than a depressing journal), games (which they do mention from time to time)... making their surroundings as cozy and comfortable as possible.  I'd be crocheting-- or quilting together spare fabric into blankets or something.  Finally, they do start making some changes in that direction, but it feels like a lot of time is lost just being miserable.  And most of the time, "Mom's" solution is studying textbooks.  Learning is good, but I don't think I'd put all my focus on that.  (Maybe I'm just burned out on education in general, but textbooks wouldn't be my first thought for mental or spiritual engagement, under the circumstances.  So many of them are so poorly written, for one thing... You can learn just as much from a good-- non-textbook-- work of non-fiction.)

•  Had to laugh when they found "a manual can opener and an egg beater and the sorts of things kitchens had in the olden days".  Ooh, antiques!   Sheesh.  We have a (admittedly, rarely used) manual can opener in a kitchen drawer.  I guess we're still living in the Stone Age...

•  I laughed again when "Mom" finally thought about baking bread.  Good grief.  Is that really the same character who had the foresight to stockpile nonperishable food, toiletries, etc.?  I mean, really.  How hard is it to think about bread?  You look in the pantry (as she'd surely been doing all along), you see the flour, and you think to yourself, "Hm... What can I make with the flour, I wonder?  Eh, nothing comes to mind.  Guess I'll just have to think some more about that one.  Maybe the answer will come to me in a vision."

•  When they're eating their pb&j sandwiches, "Mom says if we keep eating like this we'll end up fat and malnourished."  That "Mom" is such a killjoy.  Seriously.  I don't like the Mom character much, most of the time.   And since when is a pb&j sandwich that unhealthy, anyway?  I wouldn't recommend eating it for every meal, but plenty of kids grow up on the stuff.

•  This book ranks right up there with Farmer Boy for inducing hunger!  But whereas Farmer Boy does it through all the descriptions of delicious meals, this one does it more through the fact that the characters never have enough to eat.  It reminds me a little of The Long Winter in that respect, as well as a couple others.  (Everything comes back of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (g))  Another "Little House" reminder was the beef broth eaten with oyster crackers.  I knew good and well that LIW mentions oyster crackers at least once-- and looking it up, I see that Pa lived on oyster crackers in Little House on Plum Creek when he was stranded during a blizzard.)

•  "I sort of dread Peter's visits... It feels like all he knows how to talk about are illness and death."  I know people like that...

•  Why weren't "Mom" and Miranda helping with the firewood, when they were both able?  There shouldn't have been that much that they needed to (or even could) do around the house.  Women are not incapable of chopping or hauling wood. 

•  Unless I missed something, she never explains how they have water after their electricity goes out.  They're not on city water, I think, since wells are mentioned.  I know you can hook up a hand pump to a well, but I  don't recall her mentioning that...

•  Under similar circumstances, I doubt they would even try to reopen the schools as they did in this book.  I certainly wouldn't want my (theoretical) kids to go.  Even if things got back to normal, eventually, missing a year of school wouldn't be the... well, the end of the world. (g)  I'd focus on teaching my kids practical survival skills and leave the frills for later-- except for any subjects they found especially interesting and wanted to go on studying at home.

•  The scene where they burn the hair in the woodstove was-- ew.  Isn't hair supposed to really stink when you burn it?  But that brought up an interesting point that I don't think was addressed in the book.  Namely, what do they do with all their garbage?  Of course they'd probably burn the boxes and paper containers, but they're living off mostly canned food for months, so what do they do with all those cans?  There's no garbage pick-up, of course, and we don't hear about a homemade landfill or accumulating piles of bags.  I'm just curious...

•  Certain aspects of the book remind me of The Diary of Anne Frank, though of course there are also huge differences between the two-- the largest being that one is a work of fiction and the other not.  I found myself wondering if Miranda had ever read it.

•  I've never heard of anyone eating tulip bulbs.  It doesn't sound very appealing, but the family's reaction-- Miranda describes it as being "almost as though Mom had sauteed Gorton"-- seems a bit extreme.  Really?  It's a plant from the yard.  It's not that different from any normal garden vegetable. 

•  I gave an internal groan when Megan (the too-adamant Christian character) was introduced.  That's one part of the book I could've done without.  I mean, sure, there are people like that who go to cultish churches and are willing to kill themselves because they blindly follow false prophets, but why is it so often necessary to include them in this type of story?  At this point, it's not ground-breaking.  It's more of a cliché than anything else.  Why not have a normal Christian?  Do these authors not realize that such people exist?  A normal Christian?  Nah, that's too boring.  Instead we get Matt, of whom Miranda writes "I think he's a Buddhist these days".  (I guess he's experimenting with different religions, since he's a college student.  That's what stereotypical college students do, right?)

•  Related issue:  Oh boy, we get a brief encounter with a nutsy, hypocritical preacher-man.  What a surprising, creative decision to include him!  He eats the food his faithful give him, yet he insinuates to his parishioners that it is God's will that they starve themselves to death.  Yeah, that's what most preachers are like.  Very accurate portrayal. 

•  It's impossible not to wonder how/why some of the disasters in the book took place.  I guess that's not really the point of the story; it's not as important why these things are happening as it is how the family adapts to survive them.  But still.  You've got to wonder how/why the "tsunamis" get worse over time... and why the moon's closer proximity to the Earth would cause terrible thunderstorms the next day... and whether the moon would actually cause earthquakes (of all things) and volcano eruptions where there haven't been any in recorded history...  Even if you buy the premise that there are more mosquitoes around because of increased rainfall, warm weather, and lack of pest control, would there necessarily be an increased breakout of the West Nile virus?  I don't know... I just kept finding myself stopping and wondering how much of this has any basis whatsoever in reality.  But I tried not to focus too much on that.  (Tried.)

•  I guess I understand why "Dad" left the family to go with Lisa and find her parents... but I don't think it was the right call.  I think he and Lisa should've stayed with the rest of his family (though I doubt that would've worked out very well on a daily basis).  He has a bigger obligation to protect and feed his underage kids than he does to indulge his pregnant wife's wishes to find her parents.  The parents should understand that a pregnant woman wouldn't be wise to come looking for them, anyway. 

•  With all the repeated talk of people moving to the South and Southwest for better conditions, I was waiting for news of a fresh catastrophe in one or both of those places.  I suspect we'll hear more about that in the second or third novel. 

•  The chocolate chip scene.  Miranda acts kind of crazy, sometimes, but clearly she inherited from her mother.  That scene made me feel sick.

•  I was sorry when Mrs. Nesbitt died-- and also when Peter died, even though it feels like we hardly knew him. 

•  When they drank cocoa made from the ash-snow, I was surprised.  Didn't they still have some clean water left, at that point?  I'd use that until I had no other resort but the ashy water.  I think there can be some pretty nasty things in volcanic ash-- not the sort of thing you want to drink-- and boiling it probably won't help much, since, um, you can't kill toxic chemicals like you can bacteria. (Heh.)

•  I guess Horton still has food at the end of the book.  Shouldn't they have been eating his food for a while, once they realized most of them were probably going to starve?  I mean, I'm sure it's not very tasty for people-- and then you're left maybe having to "do something" about Horton, if there's not enough food to sustain him... but if it comes down to eating cat food and possibly having to kill your pet to keep him from suffering starvation versus starving yourself or your family... I'm sorry, but people have to come before pets. 

•  Later on, when Miranda sees the emaciated remains of dead pets, I wonder why people didn't catch and kill the pets-- possibly even to eat-- rather than let them starve or freeze to death.  I'd have a very hard time killing my own pets (if I could even manage it under those circumstances), but leaving them out to starve... that seems much more cruel than giving them a quick, relatively painless death.

•  I guess we're supposed to believe they've done everything they could, but I can't help but feel that the family didn't do much scavenging before things got so desperate that they had no energy to do so.  They could have tried fishing at the pond... digging up the roots of any edible wild plants... even digging up insects (before the ground froze).  Maybe there was nothing left, anywhere, but I find that hard to believe. 


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"

"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" 
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James
This was a somewhat odd story-- not the creepiest, but certainly unusual and featuring an eerie setting.  Much of the story felt more like a tale of treasure-hunting than something belonging in a collection of ghost stories.  There was more time devoted to (descriptions of) searching for clues and unraveling cryptic messages than to the creepy element of the story, it seemed.  So, not my favorite.

And that was it-- the last story in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary!  Even though the quality of the stories varied (the best, in my opinion, being "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "Count Magnus", and "The Ash-Tree"), I was impressed, overall.  I can't stress enough that these are old-fashioned ghost stories written in an old, literary style, and as such, they won't be everyone's cup of tea.  But hey, they're free, so why not give them a try?

I'll probably take a break from short stories for a while, but I'm happy to  note that there's another collection by M.R. James titled More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.  Sign me up!

"Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad"

"Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" 
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James

I hadn't gotten very far at all before I realized that I recognized the story-- and that, in fact, it hadn't been more than a year (I think...) since I read it in an anthology of ghost stories.  Still, such are my immense powers of forgetfulness that I was able to enjoy reading it again with only a few vague plot points "spoiled".

I'm under the impression that this may be one of James' most famous works, and it's clear why.  This is a good old-fashioned ghost story-- just the right combination of shuddery horror and humor.  You'll be smiling or chuckling one moment, only to find your skin crawling by what happens a page or two later.

I forgot that I meant to mention that this story had more references to golfing, including this one, which made me laugh:
 "But I'm afraid you would find it rather dull; you don't play golf, do you?"

"No, thank Heaven!" said rude Mr. Rogers. 
I think at least three of the stories in this collection refer to golf, but I can't tell if that's because the author liked or disliked the sport.  

Monday, March 5, 2012


Devilish, by Maureen Johnson
(audiobook version)

Publisher's blurb:
The only thing that makes St Teresa's Preparatory School for Girls bearable for Jane is her best friend Ally. But when Ally changes into a whole different person literally overnight the fall of their senior year, Jane's suddenly alone - and very confused. Turns out, Ally has sold her soul in exchange for popularity - to a devil masquerading as a sophomore at St Teresa's! Now it's up to Jane to put it all on the line to save her friend from this ponytail-wearing, cupcake-nibbling demon...without losing her own soul in the process.

I wanted to try something else by this author, since the sequel to The Name of the Star won't be out for months.  Unfortunately, I didn't like this book nearly as much.  It wasn't a bad book for its intended audience (YA), but it just wasn't that engaging, in my opinion.  The plot was only so-so, and I didn't feel particularly invested in any of the characters.  It almost feels like we've been thrown into the middle of a book, at the beginning-- or the second book of a series.  It's hard to care about Jane and Ally's friendship (not to mention their relationships with Elton) when we hardly get to see them interacting as friends. 

It didn't help that, almost immediately, I decided that this audiobook reader is not a favorite of mine.  Admittedly, I'm picky about readers.  This one hit two of my pet peeves:

First, there are several Irish-accented characters (because apparently it's a requirement of Catholic schools that most of the staff be Irish), and this reader's fake Irish accent... was kind of embarrassing, honestly.  Nerve-grating.

Second, it bothers me when a reader's intonation is off, and this one was off practically all the time, in my estimation.  I guess that sort of thing can be subjective, but there were times when her emphasis was unquestionably wrong.  Apart from the times that the emphasis was just plain wrong, it often felt like she was trying to make every sentence-- every phrase-- stand out, not realizing that when they all stand out, none of them do.  No-one wants to listen to hours of monotone, but this woman took it to the other extreme.  She italicized every other word, which is too much even for a teenage character.

So.  Like most things I read these days, it wasn't without any redeeming qualities, but neither was it an instant favorite.  I suspect a YA reader would be more impressed than I was, though.  I'm not sure The Name of the Star was really any better than Devilish, but for whatever reason, I enjoyed it more. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Count Magnus"

"Count Magnus"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James

Another effective short story.  This one and "The Ash-Tree" are my favorites in the collection, thus far.  A sense of drawn-out dread-- just enough gruesome detail-- and not too many participants in the action.

This one was set in Sweden.  (See previous entry to learn why that is significant.)  I was of course interested to read the place names-- but the names of the Swedish characters, when given, seemed odd.  First, there's the family named "De la Gardie".  I guess they came to Sweden from France, because that's certainly not a very Swedish name.  Then there are "Anders Bjornsen" and "Hans Thorbjorn".  Donald (my source of information regarding Sweden ;o)) confirmed my suspicion that "Bjornsen" is not a Swedish spelling.  (It's more Norwegian, apparently.)  And "Thorbjorn", while a genuine Swedish name, is not a surname.

Also, I laughed at this bit:  "Swedes are habitually slow, perhaps, in answering, or perhaps the landlord was an exception."  Anyway, it was still fun to read a short story set in Sweden.  It was even set in a region/landscape I have visited-- the same one where Läckö Slott (a castle) is located.

My husband has informed me that the family that expanded Läckö Slott actually was named De la Gardie!  (Even if it doesn't sound Swedish, apparently. (g))  And the man responsible for many of the expansions was... Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie.  Interesting!  M. R. James obviously took a lot of his inspiration from real life-- as far as settings and people's names go, if nothing else.  ;o)

If you're really interested in the subject, I suggest taking a look at this page:  Who was Count Magnus?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Number 13"

"Number 13" 
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James

Another interesting, classic idea for a ghost story.  Again we (eventually) have multiple witnesses.  Maybe the fact that more than one person is there is supposed to make it even creepier.  There's no possibility (within the world of the short story) that it's just the delusion of one man.  Most of the time, though, having multiple witnesses doesn't do much for my enjoyment of a scary story.  (One notable exception-- The Haunting of Hill House.)  This story reminded me of 1408, though apart from the fact that they both take place in a hotel... they have nothing in common.

I was interested in the Danish setting (because of my Swedish husband and the fact that I have at least one Danish ancestor).  The stereotypes are definitely there.  The narrator doesn't for a moment suspect criminal activity-- after all, this is Denmark!-- but though the Danes are presented as generally cheerful and friendly, when the moment for action comes, the Englishman has to step in as leader.  (g)  Without him, the Danes are first too fearful to act-- and then liable to rush foolishly into a dangerous situation.  Not so with the levelheaded Englishman, of course.

"The Ash-Tree"

"The Ash-Tree"
from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James

This seemed like the best-written of the stories, so far (in my opinion, at least).  The pacing felt better.  There wasn't such a rush to conclusion.  As with the others, the creep factor was certainly perceptible-- but this time the story ended with a shuddersome revelation, rather than spilling the beans paragraphs earlier and weakening the effect.  Very nice!

One odd coincidence, though-- that the old vicar's descendent should happen to visit on the precise day that he did.  (g)  Oh well, it's just a scary story; it needn't be realistic in small details, because it's certainly not realistic overall!

Incidentally, we have an ash tree planted not far from the house-- not on the side by our bedroom, but near one of the spare rooms that could eventually be a bedroom/guestroom.  It's a good thing we're not Irish, I guess. ;o)