Sunday, December 29, 2013


by Stella Gibbons

Gladys and Annie Barnes are impoverished sisters who have seen better times. They live in a modest cottage in the backstreets of Highgate with Mr Fisher, a mild but eccentric old man living secretively in the attic above them. Their quiet lives are thrown into confusion when a new landlord takes over, a dreaded and unscrupulous 'rackman'. He installs his wife in part of the cottages in the hope that there she will recover from an unspecified malady. With a mounting sense of fear, Gladys and Annie become convinced she is possessed by an evil spirit...

My Reaction:
This is a very strange book, difficult to describe or categorize-- humor rubbing shoulders with horror.  Except for a few passages, it was not a page-turner for me, but though it took me a while to work my way through it, I found it intriguing.  I wouldn't recommend this book to just anyone, as I think it would bore most-- also, I think I am unlikely to want to reread it (in the near future? ever?)-- but I'm glad I've read it once.  This is an interesting story about an unusual collection of characters.  The characters are the stars of the show.

Random Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Though I've never read the author's most famous work (Cold Comfort Farm), I've seen a film adaptation, and based on that, it's safe to say that this is a less biting work.  There is humor, but it is not stringent-- and we have multifaceted, realistic characters instead of caricatures. 

--  "rackman"... It must have been contemporary slang, something like a "racket" man, I guess.  Obviously a rackman was a shady character involved in possibly criminal (and definitely unsavory) dealings.

--  I found it difficult to picture precisely the layout of Rose Cottage/Lily Cottage.  I've got something in my mind's eye, but I'm not sure how accurate it is.  I guess it was just a three-story house in which rooms (or attics) are available for rent, with a common entry-room (the kitchen? I couldn't ever really place the kitchen...) and staircase. 

--  I'm not sure where the title came from.  It (and the Vintage Classics cover) attracted me, but neither seem to have much to do with the book. (g)  There did seem to be many scenes set at night, though...

--  "By mutual though silent consent, they said no more about the threat [of being turned out on the streets]; awful, to them, as that of any looming hydrogen holocaust."  When is this set?  I know it's well after WWII.  I think it works out to about the same time that it was published (which was 1967). 

--  At one point, there is a reference to a time "before the 1914 war", which led me to wonder if the British don't/didn't call them "World War I" and "World War II"-- and at what point Americans commonly gave them those names.  Obviously before WWII, they wouldn't have called it "WWI".  (I think "the Great War" was the usual name for it.)  ...Anyway, nothing to do with the story-- just something I wondered about...

--  "At Belsize House, she had always been called Barnes.  Housemaid.  Not tall enough for a parlourmaid."  Ha!  I knew that height was important for some male servants (footmen? butlers?), but this is the first I've heard of height being a factor for maids.  Such a strange system!

--  "...the exhausting business of commercialized Christmas only three weeks away..."  So tell me-- have people always lamented the "commercialization" of Christmas?  One begins to wonder...

--  "For she had, as usual, and certainly with more reason than she would have had twenty years ago, been anticipating murder."  ...Yes, well, this was the 1960s, so is it even more reasonable to anticipate murder, today?  Depends on where you live, what you do, and when you do it, of course...

--  "Mrs. Corbett, as was usual with Mrs. Corbett, had noticed nothing."

--  "'You always tempt us.  I put on six ounces last week.  Oh well-- perhaps just this once.'  'Six ounces!  You'll have to "watch out", as they say.'  'I don't know why you all bother about it, fussing over ounces.  Harry likes me well-covered.'  Three of the old women said nothing.  The one they called Madge was the last of them whose husband was alive, and she was full of triumph because of the simple fact.  Every incident, every detail concerned with her hair-dressing, her clothes, her make-up, was referred to it."

-- "bestend-of-neck"-- Apparently, it's a cut of meat.

--  "Gladys minced up the remains of the previous day's bestend-of-neck (New Zealand) in the clumsy forty-year-old mincer, and, with the addition of two potatoes, well salted and mashed with half a gill of milk left from their breakfast, produced a shepherd's pie that was just not quite enough for two.  But the Bovril had provided a passable foundation, and, with six staleish brussels sprouts added, there was in fact a lunch.  Gladys could cook.  She loved her food, and she had a most un-English talent for making something tasty out of scraps that most women would have thrown away.  It is not too much to say that she and Annie would have died years ago from some illness invited by malnutrition if they had not been carefully fed.  'Quite nice, these sprouts,' commented Annie, sitting up in bed with her lunch spread out on the old papier mâché tray with its spray of Japanese flowers. 'When did you get 'em, Glad?' 'Saturday-- or was it Monday?  I got a half.  Pull the leaves off.  Make 'em small, I hate those great lumps of sprouts.  These're all right inside, even if they are old.  Like me,' and Gladys went off into a great cackle, in which Annie more primly joined."

--  Regarding the snippet above:  Ah, the cheerfully impoverished!  But seriously, there's something so bittersweet and... cozy, really, about so many poor-but-getting-by characters.  I enjoy reading about them, and I'm not sure how I should feel about that!  Should I be ashamed to take pleasure in these things, when I'm living the well-fed life of the modern middle class?  I remember having the same feeling of coziness as a child, reading about the dirt-poor Ingalls family (so excited to get a penny for Christmas!  or a peppermint stick!  or a little cake made from white flour and sugar!)... or the poverty-stricken town that grudgingly shared the ingredients to make Stone Soup... or the poor old man and woman in Socks for Supper.  It must not be an unusual sensation.  Why do we like these stories?  It would be different if they were really suffering or starving.  It's the fact that they are making do, living very carefully, but "getting by"... the simplicity of the characters' wants.  You can't help but admire the frugality and resolve to be more consciously grateful for what you have-- more careful to make the best use of it.  ...And maybe it stirs a charitable impulse, too...

--  Gladys and Annie buy their gas (for heat) and electricity through a pay-as-you-go system, it seems.  They drop coins into boxes to start it up again-- like a pay phone.  So very strange!  I wonder how common that was, at the time.

--  "There was no sound or movement in the room beyond those slight ones made by the burning of electricity, which give a false impression of life."  Yes-- and even more so now, with the humming of computers and larger appliances.  You don't notice it until the power's out; everything's so much quieter!

--  "...photographs of eupeptic beauties in furs..."   Eupeptic!  What a word!  "Of, relating to, or having good digestion"-- or "cheerful".  (g) You decide.

--  "'I shouldn't wonder if it wasn't that tinned pudding, say what you like it's not natural.'"  Then there are fish-sticks!  I was so surprised to see fish-sticks mentioned!  The modern age...  I get the impression that Gibbons shares Gladys' opinion of all these "prepared" foods.

--  Then there are the references to plastic.  There are quite a few of them, and generally, they feel like a negative commentary on the times.  Plastic decorations for the home... Plastic balls for the Christmas tree... Plastic shoes.  It feels cheap.  Signs of a world that is changing-- and not for the better.

--  "...the cheap wood of the furniture, shaped into debased contemporary curves, had its usual chemical sheen."

--  "Her mind was busy with the story she had been reading; a suspense-story about multiple murder and hidden love in the Deep South of America."  How amusing!  She's reading about this exotic Deep South of America, and here I am in the Deep South, reading about the equally exotic (fictional) goings-on in England.

--  "Her face was beginning to fill out; a pear-shaped German face with white large cheeks and a narrow brow and small eyes blue as flax."  Hm... Never heard of German faces being pear-shaped.

--  The possession element of the story is very odd.  Not at all what you'd expect from a book that is firmly planted in a modern, everyday world.  It's not really horror, but there are definitely a few creepy moments.  They mostly come in the form of strange phrases mixed into Mrs. Pearson's dialogue.  There's the "I will put my feet on the pavement" line... Then there's the bit about how she wants "just to enjoy my house... my house that I can touch and taste and smell..." 

--  "'...if I hadn't such a mistrust of the psychiatric brotherhood I'd try and pass the whole thing on to one of them.'  'I'm inclined to agree with you-- but don't you give them credit for anything?' asked Gerald.  'Arrogance,' said Mr Geddes tartly. 'Plenty of credit for that.  They're the new Sanhedrin.  You show me a wardful of happy, or even resigned and contented people allegedly cured by psychiatrists and-- I'll give credit where it's due.  To Almighty God.'"  . . .  "'It's lack of time that's the trouble,' Mr Geddes went on. 'Each patient really needs the entire interest of one person concentrated entirely on him or herself.  It just can't be done.  It's cruel to pretend it can.  They find themselves clinically pigeon-holed when they need to be loved ... a perfect demonstration of "I asked for bread, and ye gave me a stone".'"

--  (Bedridden) Mrs. Pearson points to some cakes she's offering to a guest, then asks to be excused for pointing.  I don't understand why pointing at an object-- particularly in one's own home-- would be considered bad manners.  I understand (in theory) why it might be bad manners to point at a person-- especially out on the street.  It might look as though you're talking about the person--  saying who knows what about him/her-- and it could embarrass the person, but this example seems a bit extreme.  I don't see the harm in pointing at a plate of cakes.  ~shrug~  (But then again, I'm not Miss Manners.)

--  The kindness and sympathy everyone seems to feel toward Erika surprised me a little, and I wondered how realistic it was.  (Of course, at the time, I thought the book might be set in the 50s, whereas now I think it was set in the mid-to-late 1960s.)  I know she's a poor orphan who was born well after the war and in no way to blame for it, but still... She's German, and it wasn't that long after the war, and... Well, I wouldn't have expected outright displays of hatred, but neither did I expect such easy, unquestioning acceptance.  I wonder how soon this type of reaction was the norm...

--  There are four dogs (pugs? I can't recall) named (oh so creatively) A., Bee, Cee, and Dee. 

--  Peggy annoys me.  Perpetually bored.  Above regular people.  Self-absorbed.  Uninterested in anyone else.  ...Then later on we get her back-story, and yet, still, I don't like her.  Are we supposed to sympathize with her?  I can't!  She's a wanna-be home-wrecker!  The man she's cavorting with (Fred) is even worse, since he's the one with a wife (and children?) to think of, but there's enough disgust to go around.

--  All that said... Though I dislike Peggy and Arnold, individually, I can't help but like them together, and I wouldn't have minded reading more about them.

--  "She was twenty-two.  Not, thought Arnold, a great age."  Ha!  I've heard people say that the teens aren't a great age-- not years you want to repeat-- but pity for the early twenties is less common.  Interesting, coming from an older author... Gives me hope for the years to come.  ;o)

--  "...his heart shook against his rib-cage as if it were an animal bounding from side to side and trying to get out; he had never been so aware of it, and he felt, too, what power it had, how he relied upon it, how it sent the blood that kept him alive running along his veins."  It's an odd sensation, the realization of your ultimate vulnerability.  If one little bit of the clockwork comes to a halt, you die.  In the meantime, what magic keeps it going?  Nothin' like mortality!

--  Poor Mr. Fisher.  Such a sad yet dignified character.  I'm not sure I "understand" his murder.  It's so random.  Just in the wrong place at the wrong time?  (Well, kind of.  It was a risk he consciously took, because he thought he might be able to save another man's life-- make a difference.)  Such senseless violence... It happens, but... well, it is so senseless that it's baffling.  Why?  Not even greed for a motive-- just violence for its own sake. 

--  Mr. Fisher's anti-war letters struck me as a bit odd... Perfect for Gerald to find them-- right up his alley-- but personally... I don't know.  Maybe it was more poignant when the book was written, with the ever-present fear of the atom bomb.  Or maybe it's just me... In any case, life's not that simple.  As long as there are evil people in the world (and I don't see any improvement in human nature), someone has to be prepared to defend against them.  That sometimes escalates into war.  Innocent people die, and there is much needless loss.  But what is the alternative?  To surrender to those who are willing to kill or otherwise use force to get their way?  Cowering under the tyrant's watch for generations?  Is that kind of life any better than war, really?  No, I'd rather fight.

--  "(The occupants, already late for a television programme specializing in scenes of violence, preferred to indulge their taste without risk of involvement, and ignored the girl lying in the road and the man stooping over her.)"  Not a very high opinion of TV or those who watch it...

--  "Mrs Lysaght was sitting in her drawing-room, a week later.  It was ten minutes past eleven, and she was sipping her coffee and reflecting that Gretl did not make it as well as a Continental girl should.  Gretl was sitting in the kitchen, sipping hers and reflecting with complacence that it tasted just like that served in the London coffee bars."

--  While Gerald waits for Mr. Geddes to come help him with the possessed Mrs. Pearson, he tries to fix his mind on holy things, but... "He began to experience nothing but a detached curiosity.  His moral sense told him that it was evil; yet he could feel nothing else, and the cold, crawling out from somewhere beyond the warmth of the summer evening, slowly burned into his flesh inside his clothes and began to seep inwards, in the form of this passionless curiosity, threatening his spirit."  ...I recognize that feeling, or something like it.

--  I was surprised when Mrs. Pearson died (even though we're obviously meant to understand that her soul has been saved)-- and even more shocked when her husband made good on his earlier promises and proceeded to "follow" her.  ...I'm still shocked by that turn of events. 

--  The strangest aspect of the book, in my opinion, would have to be the curiously cold parent/child relationships between the Pearsons and Peggy.  I guess Mrs. Pearson's been battling this "illness" for practically all of Peggy's life, and Mr. Pearson has been obsessed with his wife... and as a result, Peggy was mostly self-reliant from a young age.  I understand that not all families are very close, but this one is so distant!  Mr. Pearson doesn't even consider his daughter before killing himself-- and Peggy doesn't bother to tell her mother that she's married and going out of the country for goodness-knows-how-long!  Weird...  Her strange relationship with her parents might explain some of Peggy's problems and "personality quirks".  Maybe her future with Arnold will be happier...

--  After the strange, sad story of the Pearsons, at least the ending is cozy.  Gladys and Annie get their happy ending-- a nice place to live in the country-- a real home with family, where they'll be cherished for their remaining years.  The picture of them slowly driving home through a friendly village in a pretty, twilit countryside... So soft and warm and lovely.  Who could ask for anything better?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet
by C. S. Lewis

Publisher's Blurb:
The first novel in C.S. Lewis's classic sci-fi trilogy which tells the adventure of Dr Ransom who is kidnapped and transported to Mars In the first novel of C.S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet's treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the 'silent planet' - Earth - whose tragic story is known throughout the universe...

My Reaction: 
For me, this was merely "alright".  I'm not hugely excited about the sci-fi genre to begin with, admittedly.  The allegorical component was interesting-- by far the most interesting aspect of the novel-- but in the end, it wasn't enough to really captivate me.  I mostly just wanted to finish the book so I could feel free to move on to something else.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't very good, either.  Not enough happened!  Some readers may be sustained by allegory alone, but evidently I am not among them.

This is the first in a trilogy, but I have no immediate plans to read the second and third volumes.  Maybe someday, but certainly not right now. 

(This was a "shared read" with Donald, so I have no more specific comments.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Moonspinners

The Moonspinners
by Mary Stewart

Publisher's Blurb:
Impetuous and attractive, Nicola Ferris has just arrived in Crete for a holiday when she sees an egret fly out of a lemon grove. On impulse, she follows the bird’s path into the White Mountains. There she discovers a young Englishman who, hiding out in the hills and less than pleased to have been discovered, sends Nicola packing with the order to keep out of his affairs. This, of course, Nicola is unable to do, and before long events lead to a stunning climax among the fishing boats of Agios Georgios Bay.

My Reaction:
I enjoyed it!  Classic escapism set in a more innocent time.  I'd recommend it to other fans of light suspense (with an even lighter element of romance).

Specific Tidbits (with SPOILERS): 
--  I didn't realize this was set in Greece until I started reading it (yeah, I don't always read blurbs if I'm familiar with the author), and I have to admit that I was a little bit skeptical at first, but Stewart seems to be a master of settings.  As in Nine Coaches Waiting, she sets a scene so appealing and right that you can't help but be tantalized.  It's almost as good as visiting in person.  (And I'm not one who usually idealizes the generic Mediterranean-- too dry, too hot-- so this is a feat.  ;o))

--  "They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly naive kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue."  Well, I guess there are worse ways to be stereotyped.  (g)  I don't think I qualify as particularly "American" in this way, though.  Not that warm, I'm afraid-- or at least I don't feel that I project warmth all the time, especially outside my very, very limited inner circle... Which may include only Donald and the dogs? :o/  Definitely not extroverted.  Naively kindly?  I'm not sure about that one, but probably not...

--  "'The accommodation's very simple, but it's perfectly clean, and-- wait for it-- the food is excellent.'"  Huh.  Did people say "wait for it" like this in the 1960s?  I didn't realize it went back that far-- thought it was more of a modern annoyance...

--  "Outside the better hotels and the more expensive restaurants, food in Greece-- even the voice of love has to confess it-- is seldom excellent.  It tends to a certain monotony, and it knows no variation of hot and cold; all is lukewarm.  Yet here was a Dane, a well-rounded, well-found Dane (and the Danes have possibly the best food in Europe), recommending the food in a Greek village taverna."  Always interesting to read these little tidbits.  I wonder how biased they are, though, because I was under the impression that British cuisine wasn't much to brag about, itself... Of course, I'm no judge of "sophisticated" food.  I know if something tastes good to me, or not... and that's about it.

--  The book overflows with flowers and trees.  Judas-trees.  Rock-roses.  Tamarisk trees.  Ice-daisies.  Pellitory-of-the-wall.  Iris.  Anemones.  All the scented herbs-- like verbena.  Dittany.  Marjoram.  Lemon trees.  It sounds beautiful.

-- Interesting that (very briefly) the heroine pretends not to understand Greek.  Same thing happened (but for a longer time) in Nine Coaches Waiting-- though of course in that case the heroine was pretending ignorance of French.

--  The story behind the title was unexpected.  I'm not sure what I thought the name would be based on, but not that.  I wonder if it's a real legend or if the author just made it up...  The imagery of spun moonlight was interesting (maybe especially to someone whose current "hobbies of choice" are crochet and knitting). 

--  "I hesitated, then, with a hazy memory of some adventure novel I had read, bent down and sniffed at the wound."  Simultaneously funny and gross.

--  Lammergeier.  I'd never heard of it before.  A striking bird-- and yes, much more attractive than our ugly vultures.  When we were in Sweden this summer, we happened to discuss whether or not vultures live there.  Donald said they don't, but apparently vultures do live in southern Europe.  I wonder where and why their range ends.  I have no idea if the vultures we have around here can survive in the northern U.S. or Canada... (Looked it up.  Some of them can live further north during the summer only.)

--  I'm still a little confused by Tony's reference to "the dear old Vicarage"-- having to settle so far from it out of consideration for his health.  Since it was capitalized, I assumed that it was some sort of pet name for England.  Later on, however, Nicola refers to Tony's father as "the Vicar" (again with a capital V!), and Tony is obviously caught off guard, then seems to try to cover it up (because his father is not really a vicar, obviously).  Or is his confusion due to the fact that he's forgotten his earlier reference to the "Vicarage"?  So... Is "the dear old Vicarage" an accepted (maybe old-fashioned) nickname for England-- or not? 

--  Tony seems a bit fey.  Always calling people "dear".  Thin and light on his feet, with an eye for decor.  "Tony came running down the steps to meet us, as lightly as something out of the chorus of The Sleeping Beauty."  Rather stereotypical.  And then Frances starts calling him Little Lord Fauntleroy!  Ha!  Then she says, "'He looks a pretty urban type to settle here, even for a short spell... unless the beaux yeux of the owner have got something to do with it.  He came with him from London, didn't he?'"  Yes, exactly what I was thinking, Frances.  And yet, at the end, Tony leaves a message for Nicola in which he remarks favorably on the tight-fitting pants-- excuse me, "trousers"-- she has borrowed from young Colin!  Flirting or strictly "you go, girl!"-style fashion commentary?  ("You look fabulous, dahling!")

--  "'Here, life is simple, and hard, especially for women.  I had forgotten, in the time I have been away.  One forgets that these women accept it... And if one of them is fool enough to marry a Mussulman, who uses his religion as an excuse for..."  ...Interesting.  This type of comment would be unacceptable in the eyes of many modern writers (and readers).

--  The description of "light-fishing" was interesting.  I wonder how similar that is the the "gigging" that people around here sometimes do. ""Nice and primitive, eh?  But terrific sport-- like all primitive pastimes.'" 

--  When neither Frances nor Nicola knows how to drive the boat:  "'Let's face it, this is one of the occasions where being a woman has its limitations.'" ...and... "'I'm sorry, but we'll have to accept our female limitations and wait till morning.'"  Female limitations?  More like the limitations of anyone who doesn't know how to drive a boat.  Men aren't born knowing how to maneuver water-craft, either.

--  Despite a couple of objectionable "only women" moments, like the one above, most of the time, the heroine is delightfully self-reliant and reasonably intelligent.  It makes a nice change of pace from the slow-witted, too-thick-headed-to-be-true fictional creatures you so often come across in books.  

--  Rexine?  It's a British word, apparently.  "A strong coated cloth usually imitating leather and used especially for bookbinding." (I get the vague impression that I may have come across this word before-- possibly in the only other book of this author's that I've read.  I guess I didn't catalog it properly in the old noodle.)

--  A couple of times, I was struck by a reference to something that happened "yesterday"-- stopped reading-- and thought to myself, "That happened only yesterday?!" This is one of those cases where the entire book takes place over a relatively brief span of time.  Two days?  Maybe three?  

--  At one point, Mark protests that Nicola should drink the rest of the wine: "'No, really, I'm getting almost used to water.'"   Such hardship!  What a hero!  Which brings me to the fact that...

--  ...I prefer Lambis.  I really wish Nicola would've "ended up" with Lambis instead of Mark.  I mean, I didn't expect it to happen.  At a certain point, it's very clear that Lambis is a background "local color" character, and we're supposed to sympathize with Nicola's infatuation with Mark.  ...But... Mark is kind of boring and "typical".  :o/  Meh.  He's ok, but Lambis would've been a more interesting choice.  I mean, really!  Why would a young Englishwoman go to all the trouble of living and working and vacationing in Greece if she's just going to settle down with the first wounded Englishman she stumbles upon in the wilds of Crete?  Snooze!

--  Mark quotes a line of Keats and Colin grins at Lambis' puzzled look.  "'Don't listen to Mark.  That was just Keats.  Go on, Lambis, this one's a classic, say "What are Keats?"'"  

--  "'That's the difference between the fleshpots of Soho and the empty fish-nets of Agios Georgios, dear.'"  Which reminds me:  "Fleshpots"-- what a disgusting-sounding word. 

--  Poor Sofia:  "Her face looked like yellowed wax smeared thinly over a skull, all teeth and eye-sockets."  Good grief.  At first, I wondered if Sophia was supposed to be ill, but I guess not... She was just malnourished and had had a particularly difficult life.  

--  The "insta-love"-- what a great, descriptive term, by the way-- between Mark and Nicola is a bit of a stretch (especially since they spend so little time together) but I've seen worse.  At least there was no hanky panky on Mark's sickbed two hours after their first meeting.  (g)

--  A bit annoying that Tony gets away scot-free... But I guess he wasn't a serious villain-- and, well, actually, it's much more interesting that he does get away.  He certainly seems like the type of person who is always looking out for Number One.  I can definitely buy it that he was smart and sneaky enough to get away with some of the loot.  

--  "It seemed obvious that the actual acts of violence which Stratos had committed meant little, in themselves, to these men, and it might have gone differently with us if we had killed Stratos himself, whatever he had done in the course of his own private feud.  But the death of Josef the Turk-- and a Turk from Chania, at that-- was (one gathered) quite a different thing.  And in the matter of poor Sofia Alexiaki, who would have enough to bear when her brother's story came to light, it could be seen as the mercy of heaven that now, at last, as a widow, she could once more be a free woman, and a Christian.  She could even-- Christ be praised-- make her Communion this very Easter Sunday..."

--  Mark tells Nicola that Frances threw a rock at Stratos during the dramatic scene near the end of the book. "'Did she?  Good for her!  Did she hit him?'  'Did you ever know a female hit anything?  That she aimed at, I mean?  She hit me,' said Mark."  Oh, that Mark!  He's so dreamy!  Ugh, shut up, Mark.  

--  Kara Bugaz:  A lagoon of the Caspian Sea, in the northwestern corner of Turkmenistan.  It has a salinity of approximately 35%, which is about the same as that of the Dead Sea, based on what I've just read.  I wonder why Tony chose that particular spot to mention as his (supposed) destination...  Definitely an exotic location!

-- There was a Disney film adaptation (starring Hayley Mills) that came out soon after the book was published.  I'll have to see if I can manage to watch it, now, out of pure curiosity.  I don't expect it to be quite as good as the book, though. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley
by P.D. James

Publisher's Blurb:
In their six years of marriage, Elizabeth and Darcy have forged a peaceful, happy life for their family at Pemberley, Darcy’s impressive estate. Her father is a regular visitor; her sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; the marriage prospects for Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, are favorable. And preparations for their annual autumn ball are proceeding apace. But on the eve of the ball, chaos descends. Lydia Wickham, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister who, with her husband, has been barred from the estate, arrives in a hysterical state—shrieking that Wickham has been murdered.  Plunged into frightening mystery and a lurid murder trial, the lives of Pemberley’s owners and servants alike may never be the same.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS): 
(This was a "shared read" with Donald, so no detailed notes.)

I like Pride and Prejudice, and I also like mysteries (though this was my first experience reading P.D. James), so there was every reason to hope that this would be a good read.  Unfortunately, it fell far short of expectations.  There were occasional amusing moments, but they were few and far between-- and mostly relied upon retelling of scenes from P&P.  I also found the mystery element  to be somehow lacking.  Donald successfully predicted the murderer-- but when the confession was read, I simply couldn't believe that was all there was to it.  So boring!  What a disappointment!

--  My chief complaint?  Far, far too much rehashing of the same information.  There's often a certain degree of that in mysteries, it seems, but this was among the worst offenders I've yet to read.  Attention mystery authors: It's deadly dull to read the same "evidence" repeatedly.  If there's nothing significant to add-- if there's no new twist or spin to put on it-- please refrain from the ol' copy and paste. 

--  Donald commented at one point that Darcy was too perfect/had no human flaws.  Ha!  I felt much the same about Elizabeth.  Neither of them felt especially real or interesting.  Mere cardboard cut-outs!  I know it was a different time, with different standards, but they seemed to put far too much personal importance on the outcome of the trial-- not so much for Wickham's or Lydia's sakes than because of the reflected "smirch" upon Pemberley!  (Ugh.  Pemberley.  Look, I like the place as much as the next reader, but the Pemberley-idolatry in this book was a bit much.)

--  Of course, Wickham continues to be a disgusting pig.  And Lydia... I've never liked Lydia (and I don't imagine many readers do), but though she's a thoughtless, vain, selfish little tart of a woman, I do give her enough credit to believe that she would genuinely care about her husband (in her way), and I'm angry at Wickham for cheating on her.  I suppose it's not out of character for him to do so, but still... It makes me mad. 

-- The last part of the book had me mentally gagging, at times.  I came away with the impression that the author wanted to address (and explain) certain aspects of various characters' behavior in P&P-- things that apparently didn't ring true for her.

One of them-- yes, I could agree with.  That would be the interesting idea that Wickham and Mrs. Younge are half-siblings.  It's been a while since I read the original book, but from what I can remember, it does seem a little strange that Mrs. Younge would be so willing to "put herself out" for Wickham's sake.  Why risk her position as "companion" just to help Wickham further his plans for elopement with Georgiana?  I assume she was to be compensated by Wickham-- but the suggestion that they might have been related is an interesting explanation.  (The only thing I don't like about it is that Wickham's father would've been a cad, in that case, and I prefer to believe that Darcy's family's high regard for him was deserved.) 

The other explanations?  The only one I can still remember is the "explaining away" of Darcy's rudeness to Elizabeth in P&P-- his first proposal and his letter after her refusal.  The desperate linking of it to his great-grandfather's reclusive lifestyle-- and the insistence that Darcy must Do His Duty for Pemberley.  So you see, dear Reader, Darcy was kind of justified.  Now we finally know why he is as he is-- or was as he was, since he's reformed, now.  He is now truly Perfect with a capital P.  ...Uh, no.  Darcy behaved badly because he was proud.  I don't need to know why; he just was.  He's a human being with flaws-- just as Elizabeth was prejudiced against him because she, too, is imperfect.  That's what makes the book wonderful!  The humor-- the fun-poking-- the perfect matching of two imperfect characters.  It's the name of the book, for goodness' sake!

Also, why are Elizabeth and Darcy still talking about these things (the engagement and refusal, etc.) all these years later, as though in the years they've been married, they've never had the chance or inclination to talk it all to death, numerous times over?  It's odd.  Elizabeth would already know all these things.  Seriously, if I were Elizabeth in that scene, I'd have been rolling my eyes-- possibly wondering if Darcy is losing his marbles (since we now know there's an "eccentric" streak in the family)-- and biting my tongue to keep from interrupting him and steering the conversation to something a little fresher.

--  I have had to go back and fix this whole blog post, because I kept calling Wickham "Willoughby".  Oops.  (g)

--  I don't consider myself a Jane Austen purist, but it has to be said that Pride and Prejudice is a hundred times more amusing and pleasant reading than this book.  However, I'll probably eventually try something else by P.D. James, because I understand that this is not her best effort. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

DNF: Becoming Jane Eyre

Becoming Jane Eyre
by Sheila Kohler

Publisher's Blurb:
The year is 1846. In a cold parsonage on the gloomy Yorkshire moors, a family seems cursed with disaster. A mother and two children dead. A father sick, without fortune, and hardened by the loss of his two most beloved family members. A son destroyed by alcohol and opiates. And three strong, intelligent young women, reduced to poverty and spinsterhood, with nothing to save them from their fate. Nothing, that is, except their remarkable literary talent.

So unfolds the story of the Brontë sisters. At its center are Charlotte and the writing of Jane Eyre. Delicately unraveling the connections between one of fiction's most indelible heroines and the remarkable woman who created her, Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre will appeal to fans of historical fiction and, of course, the millions of readers who adore Jane Eyre.
My Reaction: 
In a hurry to find entertainment for some time on the treadmill, I grabbed this library book sale purchase from a bookcase.  The first chapter was enough to tell me that it's not for me, though I did skim a little through the book and read the last several pages just to confirm that it didn't get better.

I didn't like the weird choice of "present continuous" tense.

I didn't like the switching back and forth between Charlotte's and her father's point of view.  (It's Becoming Jane Eyre.  I don't want Charlotte's father's p.o.v.!)

I didn't like the inclusion of medical crap or the memories of Charlotte's mother's agonizingly slow death.  Please, no.  Not now, not ever. 

I just... didn't like anything about it, really.

This one will be going into the donation box, immediately.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Black Rainbow

Black Rainbow
by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
Megan O'Neill sees it hanging in the sky above the towers of Grayhaven Manor -- a beautiful yet sinister black rainbow, a warning to the estate's new governess to stay away. Yet the warmth and kindness of the Mandeville family banish her fears -- and her hypnotic obsession for her handsome, mysterious new employer blinds her to the darkness within. But desire always has its price. And the shocking secrets enclosed in Grayhaven's walls threaten to pull Megan into the terrifying shadows, never to emerge again.

My Reaction:
This is certainly one of the weaker of the Barbara Michaels novels I've read to date.  Main characters I couldn't bring myself to like (except for one of them)... Irritating behavior... Characters and episodes that never really led to anything substantial in the plot... Incredible thickheadedness... Yeah, not a favorite.

Random (SPOILERY) Tidbits: 
Fair Warning:  This goes on forever.  Apparently I had a lot to say...
--  The author went to the trouble of writing a foreword justifying the inclusion of a Siamese cat in a story that takes place years before the first cat of that breed was documented to have entered the country.  Based on that, I expected the cat to play a significant role, but it doesn't.  At all.  It could easily have been any old cat-- a tabby, a calico, a black tomcat-- and it only figures in the story twice that I can recall.  Totally pointless.  I guess the author just wanted to have a Siamese cat in one of her books!  After all, she does own up to being "an admirer of cats, particularly Siamese".  Not surprising, considering how often cats appear in her books.  Fits right in with the interest in Egyptology, too.  (g)  Myself, I'd rather see more dogs, speaking of which...

--  "The conventional theory that dogs are more inclined than cats to devote their love to a single person is far from accurate; most dogs are genial, undiscriminating idiots, slobberingly grateful for attention from any passerby."  Ugh, cat person.  ;o)  There are some "one-(wo)man" dogs out there, and much more common are dogs that recognize and prefer a select group of people.  I don't know as much about cats, but I can easily imagine that, since they are usually more stand-offish in general, they'd be even more likely to bond with a limited number of people.  But why in heck describe a dog as an "undiscriminating idiot" if it's friendly with most people?  That's just obnoxious. 

--  "Scientists assert that [the black rainbow] is a wholly natural phenomenon-- child of storm cloud and full moon, as its bright sister of day is the offspring of sunlight and rain." ... "The rainbow's hues ranged from palest silver-gray to a black deeper than the moonlit vault of the sky-- an ominous portent..."  A brief "looking up" hasn't turned up any photos of a "black rainbow"-- just an anecdote or two.  Incidentally, the titular black rainbow has nearly nothing to do with the story.  I guess you could say that it's a bad omen for the future (at least the next couple of years) of the two characters who witness it, but that's about it...

--  Funny how even though this book was set in Victorian times, while Michaels' novels are generally set in the eras in which they were written (late 60s up to... the 80s? or is it even into the 90s?), she still manages to have a feminist for a heroine.  (More on that later.)

--  Funny how the character that seems set up to be the heroine at the beginning of the book is actually the weakest, most annoying character in the story.  Well, ok, maybe I exaggerate-- but I do not like Megan.  So much so that... I kind of hate the name "Megan", now.  (I'll admit, I was already slightly prejudiced against it, based on some of the Megans I've come across "in the flesh".)  Megan feels an odd name for the time, too, though that may be only my imagination... Certainly it's not quite so incongruous as a young Victorian lady named, say, Taylor or Jayden. 

--  Megan's scheming to win Edmund's attention could be amusing to read-- but it is less interesting when you consider that her interest in him seems to be based on... I don't know, lust at first sight, I guess.  We learn very little about Edmund (especially in the first chunk of the book), so it's hard to understand why, exactly, she's so infatuated with him. 

--  Lina is supposed to be three, I think, at the beginning of the book.  Well, all I can say is that some of her "speeches" seem pretty advanced for a child of that age!  The discussion of whether to use "tu" or "vous" when she speaks French, for instance.  Nope, don't really believe a normal three-year-old (and we have no reason to believe she's a genius) would speak that way.

--  Still on the subject of Lina, she's one of those characters that hardly seem necessary.  The story needed a child for Megan to be governess to, but apart from that... what does she really contribute?  She's one of those child characters that seem extremely bratty and annoying, yet somehow everyone can't help but love her.  *eyeroll*  And then, as soon as Megan is married, she is promptly shuttled out of the story, to be mentioned in passing possibly two times for the rest of the book.  Hm.

--  Example of Lina's brattiness:  "She returned to Lina's room to find the place in chaos.  Every frock the child owned was strewn on the bed or the floor, and Lina was sitting in the middle of the hearth rug, howling with rage, while Rose, the nurserymaid, stared helplessly at her.  'She says she's got nothing to wear,' Rose reported."  UGH.  This, at the age of three?  Spare me a description of darling, thoroughly-spoilt Lina when she's fourteen or fifteen, please.  

--  The similarities to Jane Eyre!  First, we have a young governess with no (real) family in the world.  Her charge is rumored to be the illegitimate child of her employer.  The governess falls in love with the master of the house.  Her chief adversary for his affections is a young gentlewoman who is tall, dark, and a fine horsewoman.  (Georgina is a more evil version of Blanche Ingram.)  Of course, there are many, many more dissimilarities.  For one thing, Jane Eyre would never have said to herself, "No.  I won't give him up.  She shan't have him.  Not without a fight."  Also, Jane was not Catholic... or a radiant beauty... or a simpleton when it came to men.  (g)

--  In Jane Eyre, I don't really believe that Adèle is Rochester's child, but she easily could have been, since he admits that he had a romantic relationship with her mother.  I don't like that aspect of the character, but I find it fairly easy to overlook in the character.  Meanwhile, Megan's dismissal of Edmund's possible sins makes me disgusted with him and annoyed with her!  When the stand-in for Blanche insinuates that Edmund is Lina's father, Megan is not surprised by the suggestion.  "She had already begun to suspect that Edmund might be Lina's father.  It was very wrong of him, of course.  But gentlemen had those inclinations, especially when they were young and high-spirited.  The girl had probably led him on.  And how good, how noble of him, to give the poor nameless little creature a home and an affectionate family.  Such things happened-- but to refer to them was tasteless in the extreme."

--  Edmund's description of how his experiences in the world have changed him don't seem like something a real man would ever say.  Write, possibly, but never give spontaneous utterance to.  "'The boy who went to battle in his crimson tunic and gold braid died on the dusty heights of Sevastopol-- or perhaps it was in the hold of the ship that brought him home.  Half-dead with fever himself, he heard the death rattle in the throats of men who lay all around him."

--  Megan's almost enough to make a feminist of anyone... She longs to go to Edmund and "comfort him with the submissive tenderness Jane had withheld".  Submissive?  Gross.  Oh, and Megan has "important qualities" such as "uncritical adoration".  Gag.

--  What was up with religion in this book?  I'm not sure what point the author was trying to make... When Jane's locked up, she has a couple of weird moments regarding prayer and God.  --And earlier in the book, Megan realizes that "for the first time in years she had neglected to say her prayers. She dispatched a drowsy, wordless thanks to the unseen Powers who were working to help her; what she failed to realize was that, for once, she had not given those Powers a name." ...Uh, oh-kaaaay... So... Is this some sort of statement about a preference for some "ancient-modern Great Spirit" instead of the "traditional" God?  Or is it supposed to be anti-Catholic/"Mother Mary"?  ...Or... what?  I don't understand the point, because it's really never fully elaborated, that I can remember.

-- Oh gosh.  Megan's "gray hair" scene.  Gag gag gag.  She's primping and preening before the looking-glass, when... "Suddenly she let out a gasp and leaned forward, staring in dismay at the gleaming coil between her fingers.  Was it-- no, it could not be!-- a gray hair?  After an agonized examination she concluded, with a sigh of poignant relief, that she had been mistaken."  Thank heaven!  Everyone knows that life is officially over once you get a gray hair.  You are no longer physically attractive to men and are, in fact, an outcast from society.  *sigh*  I know she's young.  (Nineteen.)  But I did find the occasional weird crimped grey hair at about that age, or soon afterward.  I probably take this kind of thing too seriously-- the way it's written here, I feel the author may be encouraging us to laugh at Megan's extreme reaction to even a possible gray hair-- but as a young-ish woman who has a sprinkling of greys (which I will continue to cover with dye for years to come, I imagine), it's downright offensive.  (And it makes me dislike Megan even more than I already did.)

--  If Megan's infatuation with Edmund is never explained (beyond the fact that he's rich and she thinks he's hawt), her relationship with Sam is even stranger.  The longest description we have of the guy (and from Megan's perspective, too) is littered with words like "bovine", "slow-thinking", "heavy shoulders hunched", "big bull", "heavy sullenness",  "kind-hearted animal".  He hardly speaks, and we know little of him.  Sure, what we know is all good-- or supposed to be good, at least-- but he's barely even there, and Megan hardly interacts with him at all.  They speak a couple of times (at most), and then he proposes to her.  She refuses, and he forces a kiss on her.  ("He pulled her roughly to him and kissed her on the mouth.  His lips were hard and chapped.  The painful grip of his hands was no embrace, but an angry assault.  He let her go as suddenly as he had taken her.  She stumbled back, one hand nursing her bruised lips, the other groping for support.")  Um, no, I don't like that.  A "misunderstanding" kiss is fine.  I can deal with an "I have no hope of ever winning your love but I can't resist stealing just one kiss" kiss.  But when the woman has just refused you and even told you that she's engaged to another man, you do not give her a forceful, bruising kiss.  It is not appreciated-- and certainly not a gentlemanly way to behave toward a woman you purportedly love.

--  Incidentally, why does Sam even want Megan?  It must be based on her beauty alone, because they've hardly interacted at all.  

--  Of course there's the obligatory (in this case, oblique) reference to Egypt.  When they explore the long-closed basements, Megan feels "like an intruder in an ancient tomb or a sanctuary where mere humans were not allowed to go."

--  Edmund goes from a nonentity to a despicable monster in very short order.  He's so evil that it's a bit cartoonish.  How could practical, intelligent, clear-headed Jane-- even as his doting sister-- have taken so long to see his true nature?  I'm skeptical... Of course, Megan's even worse about making excuses for him and turning a blind eye to his suspicious behavior.

--  Much is made of the fact that Edmund stops paying for upkeep of the cottages he rents to his mill workers.  But when this is brought to the reader's attention, Edmund has been "in control" for less than a year, I think... Maybe a little over a year, then, to be generous.  The point is, how much up-keep do these cottages need?!  Things shouldn't be falling apart so quickly, unless there was some extremely unusual English hurricane that the author failed to mention.

--  At one point, Jane has a headache:  "That was what happened if you were foolish enough to pour over columns of crabbed figures by lamplight."  This is not the first time I've seen this mistake in this author's works.  There was at least one other book where the same mistake was made multiple times. Sorry to be a stickler, but it annoys me.  Incidentally, later in the book, the correct word is used, so maybe it's only a typo.

--  Is this the author's take on North and South?  (If so, that's unfortunate, because it pales by comparison with the miniseries.  ...I've never read the book, I must admit.)  All the stuff about mills and labor rights and unions... Oh boy, a social justice plot...  'Scuse me while I snooze. 

--  So... The village people are on their way to the manor house one night, possibly with the intention of killing the scapegoat/witch/Megan-- and Sam says this:  "I don't excuse them, but they've suffered so much and are so afraid, they aren't thinking straight."  Oh, well, never mind, then.  Grah!!!  Yeah, I know they've been mistreated-- and now there's this terrible drought... But the guy who supposedly loves Megan speaks this way about the angry horde that is possibly considering taking her life?  Good grief!  Donald, if you're reading this, I want to let it be known that if an angry horde of ill-educated villagers ever decide that I'm a witch and that they must kill me to bring back the crops (or something), I will not look upon it favorably if you say, "I don't excuse them, but (fill in the blank)".  No.  There is no acceptable "but" under those circumstances.  If you aren't with me, you're against me, etc., etc., and I will be mad at you forever.  So just don't do it, okay?  Thanks, and I'll return the favor, if they're coming after you instead.  ;o)

--  Oh, yay.  A pregnancy and a birth scene.  My favorite. (How did you know?)  Descriptions of a woman's agony during childbirth?  Just what I always wanted.  (My opinion of the book immediately falls by another 10%.)

--  For an intelligent woman, Jane handles her brother very stupidly.  "'You cannot succeed, Edmund.  I can stop you, and I will.  Never doubt that.'" Whereupon Edmund spins around, villain-style (all he lacks is the black cape and mustache-twirling) and asks what she means.  . . .Um, oops.   Blah blah blah, he tells her she can't do that, and she brilliantly responds, "'I will do it!  How can you prevent me?'" Really, Jane?  You're going to practically dare him to stop you?  It should come as no suprise that she ends up locked in a tower.

--  No, I'm serious.  Edmund locks Jane in an actual tower-- holds her prisoner for days.

--  Jane's feminism... I certainly don't mind that she has an independent spirit, but at some point she sort of... goes off the deep end, imho.  "That as the real root of her helplessness.  She was a woman.  She had been slow to comprehend this because her father has never treated her as an inferior.  To all intents and purposes, however, she was a member of a lower class, almost a lower species of humanity-- without legal rights, without control over her surroundings or even her own body.  If she accused Edmund of swearing away a man's life and of imprisoning her against her will, he would simply say she had lost her mind; and the great male-dominated outside world would support his cause and accept his word.  She hated them-- all of them-- curse their smug, complacent, narrow minds!  Even her father had done her no service when he allowed her privileges she could never claim as rights.  And Edmund had been a sweet, lovable human being before he turned into a man. ... The realization born that day was never to leave her.  It would become one of her most deeply held convictions."  Yikes.  I know that for most of history, women were liable to be viewed as property (and even if they were loved and treated with respect, ultimately, they were at the mercy of the men in their lives)-- and trust me, I'm glad that's changed (in certain parts of the world, at least)-- but this rabidity is not appealing.

--  More of the same:  "'There is a difference between outright, honest slavery and the kind of ownership men have over women.  Not all women suffer the injustices I have mentioned, but if they have freedom of choice it is a freedom bestowed on them by the men who own them-- a privilege, not a right.  And how limited those privileges are!  All professions and trades are closed to us, except the lowest and most degrading... We have no possessions, not even the clothing on our backs-- they belong to the man who owns us.'"

--  After reading several of her books, I have to wonder what this author was like in person.  Maybe she was more outspoken in writing than in person (some of us are)-- and it's likely at least partly a reflection of the popular opinions of more highly educated women of her generation-- but I'm not sure I'd have wanted to engage her on certain subjects, including feminism.  (Britta the Needlessly Defiant, anyone?)

--  The story picks up a bit once Jane realizes that Edmund is scheming to kill Megan, but it's too little too late.

--  The weird room discovered in the basement?  Totally pointless.  Evidently this was a tie-in to another book, where the house has been deconstructed, transported across the ocean, and carefully reconstructed in the United States.  In that book, the basement room was more central to the plot.  But for the purposes of this book, it could very easily have been left out altogether.

--  And so, in closing, not a favorite.  I doubt I'll care to read this one again. 

Monday, November 4, 2013


by Sarah Rees Brennan

Publisher's Blurb:
It’s time to choose sides… In this second book in the Lynburn Legacy, the sorcerous roots of Sorry-in-the-Vale have been exposed. No one in the town is safe, and a decision must be made: pay the sorcerers' blood sacrifice, or fight. Will the townspeople (magical and not) become "owned" by the sorcerers who believe it is their right to rule? If Kami Glass has anything to say about it, evil will not win. Despite having given up her own piece of magic, she is determined to do everything she can to make a difference. And whether they want to or not, her circle of friends (and potential boyfriends) will not be able to help but go along with her unusual tactics.

My Reaction: 
I enjoyed this book less than the first, but considering that it's the second book of a (modern) trilogy, I'm not surprised.  I'm sure everything will work out by the end of the third.  (If not... Well, I don't feel particularly emotionally invested in most of these characters, to tell the truth.)

That said, I still plan to read the third volume (assuming I notice when it's finally published). 

Random Specific Tidbits (with potential SPOILERS):
--  I believe I mentioned, when writing about the first book in the series, that it was "funny" (but not surprising) that Kami's parents seemed to let her come and go as she pleased.  (And let's not even get into Angela's parents!  They've yet to make an appearance, as far as I can recall... But at least their behavior has been explained.  Kami's family is supposed to be more loving and involved.)  Well, it's even more apparent in this book.  There are a couple of times when Kami kinda-sorta has to answer to her parents, but for the most part, it's as though she's free to do whatever she likes.  Ok, it's a YA novel and YA readers like more independent characters-- and it's not exactly a realistic setting (what with the magic and sorcerers and all), but still...

--  "'A journalist has to make editorial decisions.  Nobody can report everything.  If you try, you'll only end up giving people false impressions.  ...  So one must judiciously edit reality in order to convey to people the, if you will, soul of the truth.  The true truth.'"  ...Ah-ha.  So that's what they're doing...

--  Chocolate pasta?  I'd never heard of it before this, and to be honest, it sounds disgusting.  (In the author's defense, the only character who likes it, apparently, is a little boy.)

--  Kami pulls her "trusty notebook" out of her bra.  I've heard of women keeping things (money, keys) in their bras, but it's just mystifying to me.  Why would you do that, except in the direst of purse-and-pocketless circumstances?  It sounds uncomfortable... and kind of weird, honestly.  Maybe I can't understand because I'm not "ample" enough-- but bras fit pretty snugly, and there's not a whole lot of room in there for extra baggage.  I would imagine that stuffing a notebook in your bra could create an odd-looking bulge.  But whatever.  Maybe it's just me. 

--  Characters behaving crazily-- forced unrealistic misunderstandings and missed opportunities to connect with one another-- UGH!  Maybe some of it is necessary to prolong the story, but at some point, it begins to feel less like "necessity" and more like "lazy writing" or "lack of creative ideas".

--  Why are characters constantly going off without jackets?  It's winter in England, people.  You're gonna want a jacket, mkay?  Wear a bleeping jacket!  But no.  We need Kami cold and shivery so that Jared or Ash can loan her their leather jackets... Or we need Jared walking around in a thin short-sleeved t-shirt so that the delicious contrast between freezing and cozying up can be emphasized. 

--  Related note:  Kami has a real thing for grabbing a fistful of a guy's t-shirt while she's kissing him, doesn't she?

--  There are a few racy scenes in this book-- more than in the first.  Honestly, the Holly/Jared scene was annoying and kind of embarrassing to read-- especially in a YA novel.  (I guess I'm a prude, but if I had a young teen, I wouldn't want her reading that kind of thing.  It's just a bit too much.)  Kissing/hugging/longing scenes?  Fine, but when you have two teens tearing clothes off one another on a bed, it's too much, in my humble opinion.  (Not to mention that the two teens in question don't even know one another very well-- don't even think they're in love.) There's already a lot of temptation-- and sometimes peer pressure-- to "get physical" at that age.  Do we really want to add fuel to the fire and make it look like acceptable behavior?  I wouldn't want to encourage my own hypothetical teenagers to behave that way.

-- Another thing I might not want my imaginary young teen reading?  All the "alternative sexuality" stuff.  Ok, ok. We get it!  You have made your point, author.  Now can we please move on?  As an aside, it struck me as a little funny that Rusty thinks homosexuality and bisexuality are fine, but apparently does have limits:  "...I love my sister.  Not in an 'I love my sister and I want to make out with her' way, that would be terrible and disturbing..."  I mean, don't get me wrong-- I agree that loving his sister romantically would be disturbing-- but it's kind of funny that he's so willing to flippantly "judge" that kind of abnormal relationship in almost the same breath that he explains to Holly that "being able to love more than one kind of person, in any kind of way, doesn't mean there's something wrong with you."  I just wonder where Rusty stands on the sticky issue of poly-amorous relationships, etc.  ;o) Where does the all-knowing Rusty draw the line?  ...My point is, why is it ok to "judge"(/find personally distasteful or unacceptable) one kind of relationship but not another?  I'm tired of people acting like you're some kind of monster if you don't happen to agree with their personal system of what's ok and what's not. 

--  At one point, Kami is thinking about "how little actual allure" she seems to have for guys (which is of course ridiculous, seeing as several guys seem to find her attractive, but whatever).  She follows it up by imagining people saying that she's "about as sexy as a teapot".  Which... I found pretty annoying.  Even if it were true (which again, it obviously is not), so what?  I mean to say, good grief!  Goodness knows teen girls as a whole already expend way too much energy worrying about how attractive they are.  So... yes, maybe it's realistic to have Kami worrying about it, too... but... Augh!  Do we really want to harp on this subject?  Its one thing to have a character worry about it in passing, but this type of thought has come up repeatedly in this series.  I don't know how I'd like to see it handled... Maybe someone-- Kami herself-- saying/deciding that there are more important things in life than seeming "sexy"-- especially seeing as she's a teenager and would be better off waiting until she's older, anyway... This just irks me.  A lot. 

--  Kami's supposed "mojo" on the phone with Henry feels unrealistic.  He must've just been very easily persuaded.  But then again, Kami's always been a little too good to be true-- or rather, we're meant to believe that she's that good.  The actual result is that she doesn't feel especially real.  (I'm also less than impressed with her supposed "journalistic abilities".)

-- The whole "magic" plot feels very thin indeed.  The novel's focus is much more on the frustrating relationships than the supposedly life-or-death fight between the magical forces of good and evil.  I don't really mind the emphasis being on the relationships-- except when characters are being too slow-witted/thickheaded for belief.  Oh, or when too much of the story focuses on relationships that, frankly, didn't interest me that much.  (Yeah, I'm talking about Angie and Holly.  Sorry, not my cup of tea.)

--  When Lillian kidnaps Ten-- but before Kami knows that he's actually been taken captive by the evil Rob, who may intend him for a human sacrifice-- Kami freaks out maybe a little too much, I think.  I mean, obviously Lillian was wrong-wrong-wrong to take him against his will, and he shouldn't be forced to become a source, but it feels odd that it's suddenly soooo awful to be a source.  Maybe it's not pleasant-- especially if you aren't doing it willingly-- but her reaction feels overblown to me.  (Maybe the author wanted/needed it to feel Very Dramatic at that moment?)  Besides, Kami or someone else could have told him that the connection was up to him, and he could sever it at will, unless I'm remembering incorrectly.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos
by John Wyndham

In the sleepy English village of Midwich, a mysterious silver object appears and all the inhabitants fall unconscious. A day later the object is gone and everyone awakens unharmed – except that all the women in the village are discovered to be pregnant. 

My Reaction: 
(First: I read this with Donald, and as is usually the case with "shared books", I didn't take notes-- so this may be sparse.  We'll see how much I remember...)

Did I like it?  ...Yes, on the whole, it was interesting.  However, I did find the book to be more reliant on philosophical discussions than I'd expected-- and while a little of that is ok, at some point it begins to lose its appeal.  When something does actually happen, most of the time it doesn't unfold "live" before the narrator.  Instead, it comes to us through yet another filter or two, well after the action has winded back down again.  Very civilized-- almost clinical-- but not quite so exciting to read.

A Few Random Points  (with SPOILERS):
--  I was struck by the way the male characters discuss the women of the village (and the way those female characters behave, in some instances).  It's obviously a product of its time (late 1950s), but still... (This is where notes would have come in handy.)  Maybe I'm just overly sensitive to it, as a woman, but it irked me a few times.  (I don't think Donald noticed it/gave it a second thought, incidentally.  He certainly didn't feel aggravated by it, and seemed a little surprised when I was.  Hmph! (g))   

--  I was annoyed... irritated... somethinged by the idea that most of the women would feel some type of (at least temporary) connection to the Children they bore, even when they knew that the Children had been "implanted"/forced upon them and were in no way "flesh of their flesh".  Maybe it's just another example of my failure to be the Perfect Ideal Woman, but no.  I don't think I would feel any lingering fondness or maternal instinct, in that circumstance.  The Children were nothing more than parasites. 

--  I suppose the idea of aliens with collective intelligence is appealing to authors.  We just finished reading Ender's Game, in which the Buggers (another alien species) also share some kind of hive mind. 

--  I spent most of the book thinking about how I would go about destroying the Children and wondering why why WHY the people in the book wouldn't just go ahead and get it over with.  Early on, I decided that you'd sneak the real people (i.e. non-aliens) out of town-- probably at night-- with as little talk/previous arrangement as possible, and then bomb/missile the place.  So... basically what the Russians did, only with an attempt to save as many human lives as possible.  Another possibility would be to poison them, assuming they're susceptible to the same poisons we are and that they all eat at the same time.  Yeah, I know the people in the book couldn't take such decisive action very quickly, or there'd be no story to tell-- but it frustrated me greatly to have to sit through long discussions of how people are so civilized now that they would be appalled at the thought of killing a "minority population"-- couldn't go through with it-- couldn't stomach it-- etc.  I guess I'm not that civilized-- nor would I want to be.  No, you need not apologize for killing off an invading alien species.  I wouldn't apologize for killing off an invading non-alien threat, either, for that matter. 

--  Obviously the Children have to be "dealt with" by the end of the book.  At some point, it becomes equally obvious that Zellaby will be the one to do so, even though he supposedly doesn't hate or even really resent them.  Actually, I was a little impatient with myself for not realizing he would be the one to do so, right away.  His advancing age is referred to so frequently!  He's so logical and practical!  Clearly he was designed for self-sacrifice.

--  I'm curious about the film adaptations of this novel.  Apparently the original was better than the remake.  (What a shocker.)  Both were titled Village of the Damned, which sounds much more "over-the-top horror" than The Midwich Cuckoos.  Speaking of the title, I don't believe there is ever an outright explanation of why the Children are referred to as cuckoos.  If you know what cuckoos do, then the comparison is obvious, but I have a feeling there are plenty of people walking around these days who would only think of either cuckoo-clocks or "crazy people".  ("I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!!")  In fact, they'd probably suspect you of trying to make a joke at their expense if you told them that a cuckoo is a real bird. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Two Doctors"

"Two Doctors"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James 

This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919.   I'm blogging about them "as I go". 


This is a tale of two doctors.  (Given the title, I trust that this comes as no surprise.)  One is a good, straightforward, God-fearing doctor.  The other... is not.

My Reaction:
Eh... I wasn't particularly impressed.  This was another that could've used a little more tidying up in spots.

The basic plot is clear enough, I guess... Here's my interpretation:  There are two doctors in one town, and it seems that they were getting along well enough until the long-faithful servant of one suddenly leaves his master (for reasons that are never fully explained, unless I missed something) and winds up in the service of the other doctor.  The first doctor also begins losing some of his patients to the second doctor-- all because of his own peculiarities, it would seem, though of course he holds his "rival" responsible.  Meanwhile, the first doctor has been dabbling in the spirit world and has apparently bartered his soul for unusual powers-- specifically, the ability to move objects without touching them (psychokinesis).  After tormenting his "rival" with a recurring nightmare (the description of which is the best part of a lackluster story), the first doctor eventually (somehow) murders the man by cocooning him in sheets and suffocating him with his own pillow, using his psychokinetic abilities, presumably, since the bedroom was securely locked at the time. 

I found this to be one of the weakest of the M.R. James stories I've read to date. 

A Couple of Things:
--  "It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting."  So true!  The most interesting such thing I've ever come across in a book was an old recipe for tomato ketchup-- and technically, that wasn't a paper shut up in a book, but a note on one of the flyleaves. 

--  I confess that the last little bit of the story left me scratching my head.  I thought I understood that it wasn't a body that was missing (since it wasn't a case of a "resurrection man"), but for whatever reason, I failed to make the connection between a ransacked mausoleum and the dead doctor's luxurious sheets.  Listening to the appropriate episode of "A Podcast to the Curious" explains the inclusion of that tidbit-- but it also opens up a whole new can of worms.  How did he make sure the other man bought those sheets?  Why did he need to have those sheets on the bed... because... didn't he kill the other man by psychokinesis, which you'd think would work with any old sheets/pillow?  Or was the man killed by some other means?  ("Haunted sheets"!  Ha!)  It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  I see why this story is among the least favorite for so many M.R.J. fans.

--  This was the last of the stories in this collection.  I seem to remember enjoying the other two M.R. James collections I've read (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary: Part Two) more, over all, than this one-- but that could just be me looking at the past through rose-colored lenses.  Still, since they're are available (digitally) for free online, there's no reason not to read them all, if you're interested. 

"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance"

"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James 

This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919.   I'm blogging about them "as I go". 


A man is forced to abandon his plans for a cozy family Christmas when an uncle he hardly knows vanishes without a trace.  Following the obligatory creepiness, the uncle's disappearance is finally explained.  Well, sort of. 

My Reaction: 
A weak title and a rather weak story to match-- particularly by M.R. James' usual standards.  It's certainly one of the odder ones, with loose ends left flapping in the breeze-- or are they red herrings left flopping on the shore?  I'm not completely sure what to make of it, to be honest.  I've "looked it up" online, hoping someone might have picked up on something I missed and offered some insight.  The most likely-looking thing I've found is this podcast, but based on the comments (because I've yet to give it a listen), it seems that everyone's a little puzzled by this one.  I guess it's left open to interpretation-- and unfortunately, when I read, I prefer connecting dots to doodling at random. 

A "Punch and Judy" show plays a key role in this story, which may have something to do with why I didn't love it.  I am completely mystified by the appeal of Punch and Judy (though I'm sure the fact that I'm American and had no exposure to it as a child doesn't help).  It's baffling!  It seems like a more primitive, less graphic version of "The Itchy & Scratchy Show".  I suppose a lot of "old-fashioned" (and to some degree even more modern) cartoons work on a similar level-- especially the old Warner Brothers cartoons... Wiley Coyote vs. the Roadrunner... Sylvester vs. Tweety Bird... Bugs Bunny vs. Everyone Else... Tom and Jerry... Of course, those were never my favorite characters, either.  I was definitely more of a Disney girl, back in the day. (g) I think I usually felt bad for Donald Duck when he was assailed by bees, ostriches, chipmunks, etc... Oh, and I definitely didn't like it when the incredibly irritating Chip 'n' Dale tormented poor Pluto... Ok, even old Disney cartoons followed the formula.  It's everywhere!

Though I didn't love the story as a whole, the dream sequence was, I'll admit, quite effective.  Or in other words, creepy-crawly as all get-out.  I read this while walking on the treadmill, all alone in the house, and it definitely gave me one of those "well, isn't that creepy-- now I think I'll just casually glance over my shoulder to make sure all's as it should be" moments.  

I've now listened to the podcast (up to the point when the interview with the film-maker begins), and I found it very entertaining.  I'll certainly look into their other episodes-- at least the ones about the M.R.J. stories I've read.  

I agree with them that the basic gist of the story seems fairly straightforward-- that the uncle was murdered (somehow) by the Punch and Judy "players"-- that the uncle sent the creeptastic dream to his nephew as a clue/warning/call for justice-- and that the uncle finally came back for revenge against the men who'd murdered him, crushing one and chasing the other to his own death.  I suppose we'll just have to make our best guesses as to why they murdered the uncle, how (exactly) he was murdered (hanging, mauled by the dog, etc.), why they returned to the town in such short order, why the dog was important, what was up with the cheese (g), and so on.  

At least this strange story led me to an interesting podcast!

Monday, October 21, 2013

"An Episode of Cathedral History"

"An Episode of Cathedral History"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James 

This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919.   I'm blogging about them "as I go". 


During the renovation of a cathedral, an unusual discovery is made beneath the altar.

My Reaction:
Pretty good!

Specific Notes:
--  Part of the renovation called for the removal of... I don't know... a wall or screen or something.  (I couldn't picture some of the architectural details/elements referenced in this story, since I grew up going to a plain, not-very-old, American, Protestant building we simply called a "church"-- not a fancy-schmancy European "cathedral". (g))  Anyway, they were going to remove something, and not everyone was thrilled at the prospect:  "Some were of opinion that they should catch their deaths of cold in the return-stalls, unprotected by a screen from the draughts in the nave:  others objected to being exposed to the view of persons in the choir aisles, especially, they said, during the sermons, when they found it helpful to listen in a posture which was liable to misconstruction."

--  The incident of the woman sitting on the altar-tomb and later discovering that a portion of her skirt has (mysteriously) been torn away?  That time when the workers can't fill the hole in the tomb cover, because it keeps getting blown out?  How about when the kid sticks a thin roll of paper into the crack in the tomb and suddenly finds that it's either caught on something or being held by someone in the tomb?  And then when he manages to pull it out, finds the other end torn, wet, and blackened?    Creepy, all of 'em. 

--  The dog!  'It was about this time, Worby thought, that his little dog began to wear an anxious expression when the hour for it to be put out into the shed in the back yard approached.  (For his mother had ordained that it must not sleep in the house.)  One evening, he said, when he was just going to pick it up and carry it out, it looked at him "like a Christian, and waved its 'and, I was going to say-- well, you know 'ow they do carry on sometimes, and the end of it was I put it under my coat, and 'uddled it upstairs-- and I'm afraid I as good as deceived my poor mother on the subject.  After that the dog acted very artful with 'iding itself under the bed for half-an-hour or more before bed-time came, and we worked it so as my mother never found out what we'd done."  ...And then when there are eerie sounds in the night, "'that dog seemed to know it was coming; he'd creep out, he would, and snuggled into the bed and cuddle right up to me shivering, and when the crying come he'd be like a wild thing, shoving his head under my arm...'"  Poor little doggy... Bless that fictional character for sneaking the (fictional) dog into his room for the night!

--  Worby calls the mysterious night-time sound "the crying".  ~shiver~  The adults try to explain it away as cats, but Worby describes it as being "'ungry-like, as if it was calling after some one that wouldn't come.'"

-- Worby makes a point of mentioning that, though a particular spot is especially conducive to echos, the creepy, otherworldly "crying never made no sign of an echo at all".  This seems to stir up some vague memory of a legend that the sounds/voices of certain evil beings (demons? witches?) cannot echo, because nature, being the work of God, shuns them.  (Or did I just imagine hearing or reading that?)  Anyway, James must've had some reason for mentioning the lack of an echo...

--  The Latin engraving-- "IBI CUBAVIT LAMIA"-- apparently means "There shall be the lair of the night monster".

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Diary of Mr. Poynter"

"The Diary of Mr. Poynter"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James 

This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919.   I'm blogging about them "as I go". 


A fabric sample fallen out of an old diary seems like "just the thing" for some new curtains and inspires a man to have the pattern reproduced-- but there's something sinister in those sinuous lines... A.k.a. "The Legend of the Pernicious Print"-- or "The Tale of the Creepy Curtains"-- or "How Old Is Cousin Itt, Anyway?"  ;o)

My Reaction:
It's not one of my favorite ghost stories by this author, but not at all bad.  However, I did find the creepy moment perhaps a little too brief to justify the long build-up.  Also, the "explanation" didn't explain much-- but I'm used to that.  

Random Notes:
-- "It may be a disappointment to you to learn that Rendcomb Manor was new; that I cannot help."  Yes, a great disappointment.  What kind of ghost story takes place in a new house, darnit?!

--  "I am glad to say that all that was most valuable in it [the burnt house] had been saved, and that it was fully insured."  I suppose we, the Readers, are supposed to be antiquarians, ourselves, and therefore very concerned about any valuable antiques that might have been destroyed in the fire.  The mention of insurance is also a nice touch.  This will clearly be a completely logical, everyday sort of ghost story.  There will be nothing bizarre, like a hair-ghost that is carried through the medium of a fabric pattern design.  Nope.  No siree!

--  Mr. Denton's aunt, upon seeing his "new old" books-- the very ones that he bid on when he was supposed to be researching chintzes (the nerve!):  "Disgusting.  What did you give for them, I should like to know?  Over Ten Pounds?  James, it is really sinful.  Well, if you have money to throw away on this kind of thing, there can be no reason why you should not subscribe-- and subscribe handsomely-- to my anti-Vivisection League."  

--  The comic-relief tradesman who agrees to reproduce the printed fabric for the curtains: "I quite understand your wish to keep it exclusive: lends it a catchit, does it not, to the suite?"  

--  And then the artist's suggestion that there's something sinister about the design...  (What? You mean that perfectly harmless design that is reminiscent of human hair may not be good and wholesome?  Shame on you, sir!  There's nothing creepy about it-- at all!)--  The creepiest moment of them all:  "Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something.  But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. It was in the attitude of one that had crept along the floor on its belly, and it was, so far as could be collected, a human figure. But of the face which was now rising to within a few inches of his own no feature was discernible, only hair.  Shapeless as it was, there was about it so horrible an air of menace that as he bounded from his chair and rushed from the room he heard himself moaning with fear: and doubtless he did right to fly."  

--  The door in the middle of the "long passage"-- intended to cut down on noise and a draught--  is perhaps unintentionally creepy.  In and of itself, I mean. Obviously it's meant to hold Denton up long enough for the hair-ghost to catch up to him and touch his back, which is certainly shudder-worthy.  But even the door itself, in such an odd place, is unsettling.  I don't know why, exactly, but if a long corridor is a little creepy, a long corridor bisected with a door seems even creepier.  

--  I happened upon an interesting blog review of the story that reminded me that while hair seems like an odd choice for an apparition, by Western standards, it's not quite so rare in Asia.  Think back to the use/importance of hair in some of the recent remakes of Asian horror films-- The Grudge and Dark Water, for instance.  Of course, the West has contributed Cousin Itt...