Monday, July 30, 2012


Quarantined, by Joe McKinney

Official Blurb (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers):
The citizens of San Antonio, Texas are threatened with extermination by a terrifying outbreak of the flu. Quarantined by the military to contain the virus, the city is in a desperate struggle to survive. Inside the quarantine walls, Detective Lily Harris is working burial statistics duty at the Scar, San Antonio's mass graveyard, when she finds a murder victim hidden amongst the plague dead. But Lily's investigation into the young woman's death soon takes a frightening turn as yet another strain of the deadly flu virus surfaces, and now Lily finds herself caught up in a conspiracy orchestrated by a corrupt local government intent on hiding the news from the world and fighting a population threatening to boil over into revolt. As the city erupts in violence, Lily is forced to do the unthinkable. With the clock ticking toward annihilation, Lily must lead her family through the quarantine walls and escape with news that just might save us all.

My Reaction:

The mystery aspect was a bit predictable and the "reveal" was rather rushed.  (Actually, if you've read the blurb, you pretty much know the gist of the whole story.)  In many ways, it felt like your typical police-procedural / crime novel-- but the setting (San Antonio, TX, under a quarantine after a deadly flu outbreak) is unusual.  (Well, I haven't seen a lot of quarantine-themed crime novels, but maybe they're a dime a dozen.)

Certain aspects of the book felt amateurish.   For instance, there was the mention of just about every character's height in feet and inches, and most characters weren't very well developed.  Some editing issues also cropped up repeatedly, such as question marks where periods ought to have been used and a few issues with verb tense.  The novel simply wasn't as layered and polished as it could have been.  I think some of the characters and plot-lines could have used a little more fleshing out, but it was a quick read with an interesting-enough premise, and two of the main characters (Lily and her partner, Chunk) grew on me sufficiently that I cared what happened to them.  It was a decent read for the genre (crime/thriller with a mild, realistic horror setting)-- just not outstanding.

More Particulars (Including SPOILERS):

--  Some readers seem to have found this book terrifying.  I didn't.  I was a bit grossed out by some of the more graphic descriptions of disease-- and if I think too much about the possibilities of the next pandemic, that scares me, certainly-- but I didn't find myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading... No nightmares or vaguely unsettled feeling.

--  The most emotional moment of the book for me was when Chunk decided not to escape the city.  I was a bit surprised, because up until then, I didn't think I really cared especially about any of the characters... but evidently I did!  I still think it's a bummer that he didn't leave...

--  I am picky about child characters.  Most often, I seem not to like them in modern novels or where they are not protagonists.  So, no surprise that I wasn't crazy about Connie.  She got on my nerves, honestly.  I kind of just wished she wasn't in the book at all, but considering that she was Lily's main motivation for wanting to escape (like it would be too selfish to want to escape for your own sake?!), I guess she had an important purpose in the story.

--  There are a lot of unanswered questions.  If the powers that be could quarantine H2N2, why will they be unable to do the same with the new, deadlier strains?  At the end, when Lily sends her story and evidence to the newspaper reporter, she writes that there's only about a month for him to act (before the grackles return to San Antonio and spread the new strains of the flu).  I don't know much about these things, but I do know that it takes a while to develop and manufacture vaccines.  What exactly could be done in just a month, beyond the very basics of preparation for a pandemic?  It seems like very short notice!

--  "Rumor has it that the government started building the pieces to the wall years before the epidemic in San Antonio-- not as a means to quarantine a city, but to keep the Mexicans from jumping the border."  Ha!  Yeah, right.  (What wild flights of fancy.)

--  Some of the humor was juvenile, to say the least.

--  Someone needs to learn the difference between "dominate" and "dominant".

--  For once, when politics were (briefly) mentioned, I didn't feel that the author was a flaming liberal with an agenda to not-so-subtly push through his/her work.  (Note to random passers-by:  Yes, I'm conservative, and I get tired of authors using "Republican" as code or shorthand for "evil".)

--  Getting tipsy (if not downright drunk) at a kid's birthday party?  Classy.  I get that the adults needed a break from the stress, too; I simply don't understand why that break almost always has to come in the form of alcohol, in so many books, movies, and TV shows.  It's bizarre (from my non-drinker's point of view). 

--  As I mentioned before, the mystery is very tidily and quickly resolved.  It felt less like Lily and Chunk solved the crime than that it just sort of solved itself.  Thank goodness for tell-all confessions, right?  Dr. Cole is an odd character-- the way he chuckles over the whole thing like it's some sort of joke... and yet it feels like we're almost supposed to applaud his selfless devotion to the Greater Good... It was weird.  But by that point, I really didn't care about the mystery.  I'd moved on to the escape plan and was waiting to see how that would work out.

Monday, July 23, 2012

We're Alive

We're Alive, created by Kc Wayland and Shane Salk

In post-(zombie)-apocalyptic Los Angeles, a small group of survivors fight to stay alive.  Follow along as they seek answers about exactly what happened and search for a safe place where life might be closer to the way they remember it.

My Opinions:
This is a little different, since it's not an audio book.  However, since I listened to all of it (as much as is currently available, that is) in a relatively short period, if felt a little like listening to an audio book... so I'm treating it (almost) as such, for the purposes of this blog.

I'm not sure what to call We're Alive.  A radio drama?  An audio drama?  Whatever label you prefer, it boasts a complete cast of voice actors and some top-notch sound effects (or foley work, at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all), so it's more like listening to the TV than an audio book-- but without the annoyance of possibly missing something important because you were looking at your crochet (or whatever else) instead of watching the screen.   I heard about the program through an audio book podcast (which I will be blogging about eventually, once I finish listening to the whole novel), and was pleasantly surprised.

The series started in 2009, so I had a couple of years' worth of past episodes/chapters (usually three episodes per chapter) to catch up on, which meant I could listen to as much as I wanted as I crocheted-- the result being that I gobbled chapters at a time.  Well, now I'm all caught up, and the next episode won't come out for another couple of weeks.  See, this is what I hate about getting hooked on TV shows.  With books (well, at least those that are stand-alone, or series that have been completed), at least you know that you can get to the conclusion... that there even is a conclusion.  On the other hand, TV shows and radio programs give you something to look forward to, I guess...

Things I Like:
  • Hey, it's a "zombie"-themed radio drama!  Neat!
  • The sound effects-- very nice!
  • Some of the characters... Sometimes.  (Some more than others.)
  • The whole "survivalist" element-- though I sometimes wish it went into more detail on that aspect of the story instead of... Well, I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll leave it at that. 
  • It's not that scary, so unless you're extremely susceptible, you don't have to worry about nightmares or feeling extra nervous if you're alone in the house at night.  (That said, I don't think it's especially kid-friendly.  At times, there's cursing, and some of it is dark/depressing.)
Thing I Didn't Like:
  • Some of the characters really get on my nerves.  Actually, most of them do, at some point or other, but some are just about always irritating me.  (Ohmygosh, Pegs!  And Lizzy, too, really.)
  • As is apparently the law for such dramas, the characters sometimes do Really Stupid Things.  
  • Some storylines have kind of fallen by the wayside, which is annoying-- especially when I just don't care as much about some of the other storylines that have come into play instead.  Lately, parts of it feel a little soap opera-y with all the coincidences, and I wonder if we'll ever get satisfactory answers.  (But this happens in most TV shows and lengthy books, so...)
  • Some of the voice actors are better than others, imho.  Some are over-the-top... Sometimes they read their lines and something just feels off-- which takes me out of the story for a moment as I think to myself how it "should" have been read.  For the most part, though, they do a good job
So, it's not perfect-- but very little is, and apparently I'm already hooked.

Another plus-- it's (at least currently) available for free.  (Though you can purchase it on CD-- and there's a button here and there on the website, if you'd like to make a donation.)  Check it out here

This has revealed to me a new world of possible entertainment.  I'll definitely be on the look-out for other radio dramas to keep my mind occupied while I crochet.  If I find some I like enough, I'll mention them here.  I do think they qualify nearly as much as "reading" as listening to an audiobook does.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mike and Psmith

Mike and Psmith, by P. G. Wodehouse

I have no "official" blurb to offer, but basically it's this:  Wodehouse takes on the classic English "school story" format.  Mike isn't happy about being forced (by his father's reaction to poor grades) to leave his old school, Wrykyn, for this new place, Sedleigh.  For one thing, he was to have been captain of the cricket team this year, at Wrykyn; for another, he suspects that Sedleigh's cricketing prospects will be awful.  But when he gains the friendship of the one-of-a-kind Psmith (another newcomer to the school), at least it's guaranteed that life at Sedleigh will be anything but dull.  Hijinx follow in due course. 

My Opinion:
(First things first-- this was another read with Donald.  It's a tradition, now.  Wodehouse is excellent read-aloud material.)  We skipped Mike at Wrykyn, because Donald read something to the effect that there was quite a bit of cricket in that one.  I don't think we missed much by doing so.  Reading about the cricket in Mike and Psmith was baffling (and boring) enough to tell me that more cricket would not be a good thing.  Also, Mike on his own is kind of a dull character.  He's too normal to be particularly interesting in a book.  In combination with other characters (Jellicoe, Psmith, or Downings), he's fine, but alone...  One must assume that there were other more amusing characters with whom he interacted in Mike at Wrykyn, but at present, one is content to leave that as an uninvestigated assumption. 

So.  Being Wodehouse, this has its share of humor and fun, but it's not on par with his books about Jeeves and Wooster.  Still, it's good-- relatively simple, but plenty of fun.  And though it took me a little while to warm up to the character, by the end, I was looking forward to reading more about Psmith, who sounds like a more intelligent (and fastidious) version of Bertie Wooster.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Brief Description:
A young woman describes the horrifying events that occur during the unplanned sojourn at her home of another young woman who is as mysterious as she is beautiful.

POSSIBLY UNNECESSARY SPOILER ALERT:  This is a vampire story that predates Dracula by about twenty-five years. 

My Reaction:
I haven't read Dracula since... high school? I'm probably ill-prepared to compare the two, but it seems impossible not to do so.  If I'd read Carmilla first, I might have liked it even more-- and it was still good-- but I think I preferred Dracula.  Maybe it comes down to sheer length; Carmilla is a novella, while Dracula benefits from more pages in which to spin the tale.

That aside, how was the book in itself?  Good classic horror-- but I found the effect blunted.  To those who read it when the story was new-- or to someone miraculously unfamiliar with vampire lore-- it must be more startling than it was to me.  There were a few creepy moments (that I suppose I shouldn't reveal in this review), but even most of those felt weak-- or at least, they could have been presented more powerfully, with more vivid description... or more detailed emotional response from the witnesses... or something.  It felt a bit flatter than I'd hoped.  Still, all in all, well worth a read for anyone interested in classic horror-- particularly that pertaining to vampires.

Random Observations:

--  I wasn't sure whether Styria was a real place, so I looked it up.  Apparently it's part of Austria. Funny that it's described as a "lonely and primitive place".  I don't know; maybe parts of Austria were "primitive" when this was written/set...

--  Le Fanu seems to have some "had I but known" tendencies.  Direct quote: "Heavens!  If I had but known all!"

--  Perhaps the most startling aspect of the book was the lesbian innuendo.  I know that female friendships at that time could be more passionate and clinging than is the norm, today, but this goes beyond that.  I mean, there are kisses from "hot lips", panting breaths, and the like-- but never anything more explicit than that.  Considering how surprising that was for me, I can only imagine how scandalous it must've been for Le Fanu's contemporary readers.  Did people have to read the book in private for fear of what the neighbors would think?  ;o)

--  The vampire in this book is presented-- interestingly-- as an intelligent "con man".  I would say that I find it difficult to reconcile that intelligence with what is otherwise presented as a remorseless, bloodthirsty monster, except for the fact that real-life monsters are sometimes quick-witted and excellent mimics of normalcy.

--  The word "vampire" doesn't show up until 82% into the novella, though "oupire" is used at least a couple times before that.  

--  According to the vampire mythology of this book, "a suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire" that then creates more vampires of the people it kills.  That's the first I've heard of any connection between vampires and suicide.  It struck me as odd. 

SPOILERy Comments:

--  I don't know if the hilarity was intentional or not, but I found it quite amusing when the traveling entertainer noticed Carmilla's fangs and offered to file them down for her.  HA!

--  Very interesting that Carmilla is so vehement that all can be explained by "nature" / science rather than a Creator, religion or spirits.  I'm used to the idea that vampires are repelled by crosses and other Christian symbols-- but the insistence on "nature" was new to me. 

--  Laura is really extraordinarily dimwitted at times.  I know that Le Fanu tries to explain it away with all that stuff about how isolated the schloss was and how little Laura had been able to mix with society-- so naive, so innocent, so young-- but still!  When someone says this to you:  "You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me, and hating me through death and after."  ...Well, maybe it's time to become a bit concerned about the person's sanity and intentions toward you.

--  Related to the above:  After the scene at the ancient estate-- after the General tries to kill Carmilla-- when it should be obvious to everyone that Carmilla is the same monster that caused the death of the General's niece-- Laura is still "dismayed" when she returns home to discover "that there were no tidings of Carmilla".  ...Sorry, Laura; you may be a nice person, but you're not that bright.

--  So here we get the idea that (some) vampires must follow special "rules"-- such as the one that they can only go by anagrams of their true names.  Mircalla becomes Carmilla or Millarca.  That seems a bit silly to me, honestly, but then again, why should it seem any sillier than much else in vampire mythology?   Incidentally, I recently saw a movie in which Dracula went by "Alucard"-- and thought that was pretty ridiculous, too.

--  I would have liked some explanation of Carmilla's "mother" and her servants.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Man in the Picture

The Man in the Picture, by Susan Hill

Publisher's Blurb:
An extraordinary ghost story from a modern master. In the apartment of Oliver's old professor at Cambridge, there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revelers at the Venice carnival. On this cold winter's night, the old professor has decided to reveal the painting's eerie secret. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.

By the renowned storyteller Susan Hill--whose first ghost story, The Woman in Black, has run for eighteen years as a play in London's West End--here is a new take on a form that is fully classical and, in Hill's able hands, newly vital. The Man in the Picture is a haunting tale of loss, love, and the very basest fear of our beings.

First off, (from the blurb above) "the very basest fear of our beings"?  Of our beings?  What does that even mean?  ...Anyway...

If you're young and/or new to ghost stories... If you're looking for something a little fluffy-- a quick, easy read...  If you don't want to be really scared... If you're not terribly picky and you enjoyed The Woman in Black and want more by the same author, by all means, give this a read.  It's so short, it won't take long.  It's fine for a little light ghostly entertainment, but it doesn't live up to its potential.  Either it could have been trimmed into something shorter or it could have been expanded upon-- fleshed out.  As it is, it felt like butter spread too thin over toast.  The story was a bit too predictable and repetitive to be great.  Still, parts of it were very nice, if you like this style of book (and I do).  The beginning held a lot of promise; the latter part of the book simply didn't deliver as strongly as I'd hoped.

More particulars:

--  This novella reminded me a little of "The Mezzotint" by M.R. James-- another ghost story with a sinister work of art.  (From what I recall, that short story was much creepier than this book, but I think the ending might have been a little weak in that one, too.)

--  I kept waiting for some explanation of / elaboration on the (apparently) particularly evil-looking man in the painting.  Did I miss something?

--  I wonder when this book is set.  The mention of cars and electricity early in the story let me know it wasn't Victorian ;o)-- but I was stunned near the end to see a mention of a mobile phone. 

--  Interesting that Hill mentions a character sitting "with crochet on her lap, her hands still", because I recall that one of the characters in The Woman in Black also crocheted.  (Interesting only to the crochet-obsessed, like myself.)

--  I know that characters almost have to behave stupidly in these books, but come on.  Why can't these people just tell their loved ones how they feel?  "Please, dear.  I have a really bad feeling about going to Venice.  Can we go to XYZ instead?"  And then insist on it!

--  Incidentally, thanks to this book and "Don't Look Now" (Daphne du Maurier), I now think of Venice as a very creepy sort of place.  (g)

DNF: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James

I know, I know.  I'm ashamed of myself, too-- so much so that I waited a month or two to decide whether I should even admit I'd started reading it at all.  What can I say?  I was curious.  I should've saved myself the trouble, though, because everything you've heard (about how awful it is) is 100% true.  The quality of the writing is terrible, and it's thoroughly horrid in several other ways-- and I can't understand why it's so popular!  A certain percentage will claim that they read it (and possibly even the two sequels) just to make fun of it-- then there are those of us who were just curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about-- but that still leaves a lot of people (women, mostly) who are reading them and honestly enjoying them.  It's baffling.  (To each their own, etc., etc., but still it is baffling.)

It was poorly written from the first page.  Unsurprisingly, it didn't get any better, so I skimmed ahead to the infamous contract.  That was enough to scare me into DNF territory, so I stopped.  (From what I've read, though, most of the scarier and ickier aspects of the contract never come into play... but I already felt dirty enough at that point.  Gross.)

I won't go into details, because goodness knows there are enough reviews out there, already (many of them  hilarious and infinitely more worth reading than the novel itself).  Unless you take some sick pleasure from torturing yourself with poorly written trash, I recommend skipping it. 

One thing I will say, though, is that if I hadn't known in advance that this started out as Twilight fan fiction, it probably never would've occurred to me, because the similarities are only superficial.  (Of course, I never saw the relationship between Edward and Bella as all that "emotionally abusive", so...)  While I would never describe the Twilight series as really good, well-written books, I did enjoy them (after a fashion)-- the first more so than the following three.  Compared to Fifty Shades, maybe you can make a case for Twilight as decent fiction.  ;o)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Séance

The Séance, by John Harwood

Publisher's Blurb:
A haunting tale of apparitions, a cursed manor house, and two generations of women determined to discover the truth, by the author of The Ghost Writer
"Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there . . ." Constance Langton grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for Constance’s sister, the child she lost.  Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance takes her to a séance: perhaps she will find comfort from beyond the grave. But the meeting has tragic consequences. Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest that will blight her life.
So begins The Séance, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late-Victorian England.

It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains—and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house and a mystery. Years before, a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a decaying mansion in the English countryside with a sinister reputation.  Now the Hall belongs to Constance. And she must descend into the darkness at the heart of theWraxford Mystery to find the truth, even at the cost of her life.

My Opinion:

This is a modern "Victorianesque" gothic novel, and for what it is, I found it enjoyable.  It had more of the feel of an older book than something published just a few years ago-- and coming from me, that is a true compliment.  I like that old style of writing-- find it comfortable and pleasant to sink into.  It's the coziest seat in your own home, while the slippery, straight-backed chair in the doctor's waiting-room is the typical modern style.  However, if you want something faster-paced, this may leave you bored.  (Even I thought it was a little slow getting started-- or at least, slow finding the real meat of the story and giving the impression that we were on the trail of the plot at last.)

The story is told in several parts, from the point of view of different characters (and during different periods of time).  It's a method of story-telling that I like, sometimes, but when you start the section in Eleanor's voice-- with no warning and (at first) no context for where she fits into the story, it requires some faith in the author to keep reading.  (Of course, by then you're already intrigued by Montague's first section of the book, so you're hooked.) 

I found the middle of the book-- and the mysterious Wraxford Hall-- the most interesting part.  The concluding section felt oddly rushed at times... Predictable and somehow unsatisfying in a few places, too.  But when I had read the last page, I decided that, overall, I'd enjoyed the experience, and I'm certainly interested in reading similar books.

If you like Susan Hill, do give John Harwood a try!

More Fractured Observations:

--  I've read another person's review that suggests that if you like Victorian-style gothic thrillers, you should read the original classics that were actually written in Victorian times-- not these modern attempts to capture the same feeling-- because the originals are, well, original, and the modern books are mere copies, weak by comparison.  Well, certainly, read the classics, but there's nothing wrong with a modern writer wanting to recapture that style.  It gives fans of the genre new books to look forward to.  (Living authors write new books; my favorite dead authors do not. (g)  The end.)

--  There's a mention of "the story of Peter Grimes in 'The Borough'", so now I need to look that up and see if it sounds worth a read.  (ETA:  Hm.  It's a poem, so probably not my thing.  I'd thought it might be a short story.)

--  Recurring themes of marital discord... daughters kept veritable prisoners to an aging parent... older daughters mistreated while younger ones are coddled and cherished...

--  I knew I'd read something recently(ish) with a scary character named Magnus.  Turns out it was a short story-- "Count Magnus", by M. R. James.  Magnus is such an odd-sounding name (says the woman named Michael)...

--  I wondered briefly if the name "Nell" was intended to remind the savvy reader of The Haunting of Hill House, since both stories involve purportedly haunted houses.  Whether intended or not, I was reminded-- and again, when Wraxford Hall was described as being mazelike and (due to sagging and bowing?) composed of "wrong" angles-- off-square, un-level, "not a straight line to be seen".  Much was made of Hill House being built with odd angles, so much so that doors had to be propped open so that they wouldn't close themselves.  But Hill House was designed to be thus, and was still in excellent repair, whereas Wraxford Hall's problems seem to be due to neglect...

--  Constance seems awfully swoony.  I know I've heard that women from that era were more prone to fainting because the corsets they wore restricted their breathing, but still! 

--  Toward the end, I was struck by The Villain's incredibly elaborate plans and felt that there must be easier ways to achieve the same results... but that's ok.  The Villain is not exactly normal in other ways, so why should The Villain take the most pedestrian, typical mode of action?

And that's that!
I'm picking up another Susan Hill, next.  Apparently I like this faux Victorian gothic thriller stuff, even if it's supposedly of inferior quality.  ;o)

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer

The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde

Publisher's Blurb:
In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in magic release form B1-7g. Then the magic started fading away. Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for soothsayers and sorcerers. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and even magic carpets are reduced to pizza delivery. So it's a surprise when the visions start. Not only do they predict the death of the Last Dragon at the hands of a dragonslayer, they also point to Jennifer, and say something is coming. Big Magic ...
Donald and I read this one together.  Actually, so far, all of Jasper Fforde's books that I've read have been read along with Donald.  That's worked well with some of them-- the Nursery Crimes series and Shades of Grey-- not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey, by the way!  (They have next to nothing in common, apart from the fact that both were written in English.)  We also read and enjoyed the first of his Thursday Next novels, but got mired somewhere in the second one.  (We've since decided that the Thursday Next series is probably better read alone.  The storyline can feel too complicated for casually reading aloud, since it takes so much longer for us to finish a book we read together than when we read individually.  ...Or maybe the second book in the series simply wasn't as interesting as the first.)  

But back to The Last Dragonslayer...   
This series is written with a YA audience in mind.  While that doesn't mean that it's not an enjoyable read for adults, also, it does seem to be less... everything than Fforde's other books.  A shorter story, a less involved plot, less character development... fewer laugh-out-loud moments.  Now, there were some funny parts-- and Fforde always seems to do a good job of creating interesting quirks in his alternate realities / parallel universes-- but I think I like the Shades of Grey and Nursery Crime series better.  Still, this could be ideal for a pre-teen who likes light/comic fantasy.  It would be a nice introduction to the genre, even though the teenaged protagonist (Jennifer Strange) feels less like a typical teenager than a capable and nearly autonomous adult.  (But hey, that's probably how preteens like to envision "teenagerhood", anyway, so...)

One last spoiler-ish comment:
Something I didn't like so much was the inclusion of the evil corporation ConStuff (Consolidated Useful Stuff).  It's just too easy and predictable of a target.  Meh.  Not my favorite aspect of the book, to say the least.