Friday, April 26, 2013

Behold, Here's Poison

Behold, Here's Poison
by Georgette Heyer

Publisher's Blurb:
Experience Georgette Heyer's sparkling dialogue in one of her most popular mysteries.

It's no ordinary morning at the Poplars - the master is found dead in his bed and it turns out that his high blood pressure was not the cause of death. Heyer uses her attention to detail and brilliant characterizations to concoct a baffling crime for which every single member of the quarrelsome family has a motive, and none, of course, has an alibi. Heyer's sparkling dialogue is a master class in British wit, sarcasm and the intricacies of life above and below stairs.

My Reaction:
I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read, though it didn't start off so promising...  The characters initially seem so horrible and unlikeable that it's clear Heyer doesn't even want us to like them-- yet.  Gradually, they grow on you.  (Or, well, at least they grew on me, and I've seen other reviewers make similar observations.)  By the end of the book, I actually liked most of them, to varying degrees-- particularly Randall.  (What can I say?  It's what Heyer wanted, obviously.  Why not be obliging?) 

Is it Great Literature?  No.  The mystery isn't unfathomable.  It's not difficult to guess certain plot points-- especially if you're really trying.  But if you can look past that, and if you're willing to like the characters (faults and all), it's not a bad book.  It's actually just they type of book that I like most, right now.  Something well-written enough that it doesn't irritate me with incompetence-- engaging enough to serve as an escape route from reality-- not at all pretentious, being more concerned with telling a story than proving anything to anyone-- and just generally entertaining.  

Random Tidbits (Including SPOILERS): 
--  The story opens from the perspective of a servant girl, who refers (in thought) to the "girls" (servants) at the neighboring house as "a lazy lot of sluts".  That old-fashioned usage of the word (to mean "slovenly") is always a bit startling.  It just comes out of nowhere-- and you can't help but at first think of what it means today.  Of course, language is a living thing, changing day by day.  It makes you wonder what words we write today that will make future readers take a startled pause before reminding themselves that, oh, that's right, they used to use that word to mean that.

--  The young males start out a bit oddly (imho).  Guy is an avant-garde interior designer.  Which, ok... Not unheard-of.  But then there's Randall, who is seemingly obsessed with clothes and offers his female cousins fashion advice-- and worse still, criticizes their perceived fashion faux pas.  Not a promising candidate for a romantic lead (assuming the romance is to involve a woman, I mean)...

--  Joss-sticks.  Evidently they're those incense sticks.  Never heard that term before, but then again, I never use incense.  I'm more of a wax cube and scented candle girl, myself.

--  "'They tell me you always look for nicotine in the mouth.  Liver and kidneys too.  It's a mystery to me why anyone wants to be a doctor.'"  Ha!  I so totally agree!   Not the life for me.  No idea if I'd have had the skill, but I certainly lack the inclination.

--  Which brings me to nicotine used as poison.  I wonder if this was more of a "thing" in the first half of the twentieth century, because I've come across it in an Agatha Christie mystery, too, but don't remember hearing of/seeing it anywhere else...

--  Someone refers to Harriett as a "regular cough-drop". Obviously this is not a compliment.  I wonder if it meant the same thing as saying that someone was "a pill"?

--  How amusing that the word "recondite" means "little known; obscure" when the word itself feels fairly obscure.

--  "'I won't be treated as a cypher in my own house!'"  Yes, I had to look that one up, too.  (Sure, the context makes it fairly clear, but I was curious.)

--  Apparently "seccotine" is a type of glue.  I was sure it would turn out to be another word for "antibiotic cream"... but come to think of it, maybe this was set before the invention of antibiotic cream...  (g) Oh well.  We can't guess 'em all.

--  One of the few times I felt truly annoyed during this book was when it became clear that Henry Lupton is cheating on his wife (Gertrude) and has been doing so for many years-- living a double life, in fact.  Gertrude may not be a very nice person to live with, but it absolutely sickens me (maybe because I suspect that I'm not always the easiest to live with, either) that we're apparently supposed to accept Henry's pathetic, repeated excuse that his wife "doesn't suffer through it".  So Henry doesn't want to hurt his daughters and grandchild-- or Gertrude-- by breaking up the family with a divorce... Well, are those his only options?  Either keep his mistress set up in Town, and visit her whenever possible, keeping his family in the dark-- or subject his family to the pain of divorce?  Um, no, Henry.  You had a third option-- that being, exercise a little self-control and live with the consequences of your decision to marry Gertrude.  You could have decided to make the most of your life after a possibly poor choice of wife.  Stand up to Gertrude, if she's bullying you.  Are you a man or a mouse, etc., etc.?  (Maybe she'd respect you more if you exhibited the existence of a backbone.)  Tell her you're not happy.  Otherwise, you need to get a divorce.  How dare you act like some poor put-upon fellow who's simply making the best of a bad situation?  How dare you say that your years-long affair doesn't hurt anyone?!  ARGH! (I find this attitude completely infuriating, in case you couldn't tell.)

--  Taking the car to have it "decarbonised".  What in the...?  Is that something people only had to do in the past?  Is that what the "Techron" stuff they put in gas is supposed to automatically do?  As you can see, I'm an expert on anything with an engine. 

--  By at latest the halfway point, I was very suspicious of the kindly neighbor-- and after that, it just felt like a given that he'd be the guilty party.  I had no idea why he did it, though.  I don't think it was possible to "figure out" his complete motive based on clues, unless you just made the correct wild guess. 

--  So, a "busy" is a policeman?  Weird.  What, like "busybody"?  I can't think what else it could have come from...

--  The use of the word "dope" to mean medicine is also funny.  "Have you given her some dope?"

--  The concept of a "medicine glass" is new to me.  We always used spoons-- or possibly little plastic cups or phials that came with the medicine.

--  "persiflage"

--  Funny how no-one in the house seems concerned for their own personal safety after two people-- family members, no less-- have been poisoned under that very roof.  I think it would at least cross my mind that I might wish to be elsewhere, or at least take extra care about what I put in my mouth (food, medicine) until the murderer was identified.

-- Of course, as soon as I made that note, the butler and the cook hand in notices of resignation because they are feeling "Unsettled".  (g)

--  Yes, the little joke in the assumed name "Hyde" definitely occurred to me, too.  And I'd already guessed who Hyde was (as well as the identity of his "brother"), long before it was "revealed".  I hardly feel like bragging about it, though, as I suspect it was obvious to many readers, early on.

--  I know some readers don't like romance mixed in with their mysteries-- and in some cases I might agree-- but this time, I found it one of the better parts of the book.  Maybe I ought to try one of Heyer's romances.  They are her chief claim to fame, after all.

-- I must take issue with the final statement in the publisher's blurb.  That bit about "the intricacies of life above and below stairs"?  Um, no.  There is precious, precious little about "below stairs".  (It wasn't really necessary to the story, so that's not a criticism.)  Why did the blurb-writer feel the need to indicate something that's just not true?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Willows

The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood

Two men who are traveling along the Danube by canoe (in the early 1900s, one presumes) decide to camp for the night on an eroding island in a peculiar swampland covered in scrubby willow bushes.  They soon realize that there is something sinister about this mysterious place, and they begin to doubt they will be allowed to leave it alive...

My Reaction:
I enjoyed it!  There were some slow spots... places where the story seemed to bog down, slightly... but nowhere near as much as in The Damned, which is the only other thing by this author that I've read.  (Yet.  I'll definitely be putting him on my mental "Read More" list.)  If you love long short stories or novellas (not sure how to classify this...) with tons of eerie atmosphere but not a lot of gore, this is for you.  The setting is powerful and ominous.  I think it's of the type that will stay with you long after you've finished reading.  From the very start, there's an uneasy feeling, and the goosebumps get to come out to play on at least a few occasions. 

I really love these old-fashioned "ghost stories" (to use the term loosely).  They usually manage to be extremely disquieting without resorting to graphic descriptions of blood and guts, which suits me fine. 

More Specific Comments:
(Warning:  May contain spoilers!)

--  Apparently "sumpfe" means "marshes" in German.  I'm sure that little tidbit will come in handy, at some point in the future.  ;o)

--  The willow wilderness-- a beautifully wild, desolate, forbidding landscape-- reminds me somewhat of the Everglades.  It and the river are definitely characters in their own right-- and the narrator even says something to that effect. (" length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.")

--  I'm unfamiliar with the part of the world where this is set, so the place names meant nothing to me. Fortunately, none of it really matters.  It could be set anywhere, really.

--  I was of course amused when the narrator's traveling companion turns out to be someone he always refers to as "the Swede".  Evidently they've been on "many similar journeys" together, yet he still calls him "the Swede".  The Swede is initially described as being "devoid of imagination".  It's a familiar stereotype of Scandinavians in literature of this era, and pausing to think about that, the word "phlegmatic" supplied itself in my mind.  Sure enough, later on in the story, that very word pops up.  To be fair, however, the Swede turns out to break out of the narrator's early pigeon-holing.

--  Of the Danube:  "...uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed."  Odd.  A quick Internet search isn't turning up anything about this, and I've never heard of it before...

--  I was struck by the narrator's perception of the "otherworldly" aspects of the willow swamp.  The sound of the wind on the water makes him think of "the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving along through space", for instance.  Then there are passages like this one: "And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements.  They made me think of a host of being from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves."  The Swede refers more than once to a "fourth dimension".  The combined effect was that it seemed as likely as anything else that the Things tormenting the travelers might be some sort of extra-terrestrial beings.  (Of course, it's never really explained what they are; the reader is free to speculate.)

--  "I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed."

-- The incident of the otter?  Totally surreal and creepy-- especially when they discuss it later in the story.

--  "'But you're quite right about one thing,' he added, before the subject passed, 'and that is that we're wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens.'"  ~shiver~  But really, who hasn't had that thought or feeling before?  It's superstitious.  It's illogical.  But it's still there...  The old "jinx". 

--  "Even the tourists would have been welcome."  Ha ha, very funny.

-- Interesting that using "located" instead of "found" (as in "have not found us") was supposed to be an American turn of speech.  

--  I have to admit, when the Swede starts talking about how "our thoughts make spirals in their world", he kinda lost me... Um, what?  And you know this... how?  

--  "'It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape.  Above all, don't think for what you think happens!'"  Creepy...

--  Sand-shoe.  I wondered if those might be sandals of some sort, but it turns out that they're canvas shoes with rubber soles.  So... Keds?

--  "...moving all over upon its surface--  'coiling upon itself like smoke'"... Shuddery.  Reminded me of the Smoke Monster on LOST... and the smoke-coil ghost in Ammie, Come Home

--  It seems this is a book I loaded from Project Gutenberg instead of Amazon (though there's a free copy there, too).  Eighty-four percent of the ebook was the actual text.  The last 16% was Project Gutenberg mumbo-jumbo.  Not a big deal, but a bit of a shock when you think you have several pages of story left-- and then it's just... over. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Summer Loving

Summer Loving
by Rivka Spicer

Elise Waterford is a struggling writer, working as a columnist for a tiny local paper, when an article she wrote about the perils of internet dating lands on the desk of Taylor Stone, editor of the most influential magazine in Europe. Impressed with her style, he offers her a challenge she can't refuse: 6 guys, 6 weeks. . . can she turn around their hapless internet dating history and blog for the magazine while she does it? Confused by her deliciously dishy boss and swept off her feet by the local librarian, Elise sets out on an emotional journey with her projects, only to discover that the path to love is dark and sometimes painful. Who is the mysterious Mr X leaving love letters on her blog? Who knew that life in the city could be so complicated? Sometimes it's not about who's out there, it's about who's looking.  Packed with humour, emotion and lots of cake, this is a book for anyone that's ever looked for love and been surprised where they found it.

My Reaction:
I haven't read that many "Romance Novels" (as opposed to "novels in which romance plays a part")-- especially not lately-- but I thought I might try to work a few in between other books.  Light reading, a change of pace, etc.  This was a freebie on Amazon, and the approach (Internet dating, blogging, secret admirer) sounded interesting, so I gave it a try.  It was alright, and for someone who really enjoys romance as a genre, it could be worth a read, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it. 

Some of my complaints feel unfair because they fall into the "Hey, it's Romance; what did you expect?" category.  Others feel unfair because they point out ways in which the book runs counter to what you expect from Romance, which should maybe count as a good thing (because the author's not afraid to try something different).  What it really came down to for me was that I didn't find it riveting, and I got annoyed with the main character and how everyone loooves her.  (Hello, "What did you expect from Romance?" category!)  I only finished the book because I was over halfway through when I was seriously tempted to pull a DNF, and at that point, I just wanted to see how it would end.  Was the conclusion worth the time and effort of finishing?  Eh, it was ok.  (I wish I could be more flattering.  I always feel a bit guilty putting down a book that I've gotten for free.)

More Specific Comments (Including SPOILERS):
-- The setting was Scotland and England, which was interesting.  Well, actually a lot of what I read is set in England, but this was set in modern Scotland and England, so that was different.  The author herself is British, too, I believe, so it was authentic.  (g)  I was interested that something in the book was described as looking like a million dollars.  (...Since they don't use dollars over there, obviously.)  The cultural/lingual divide provided fodder for a few more comments, as well...

--  ...such as this one.  I think I've read/heard that "the f-word" is considered less... shocking? taboo? whatever... in Britain than in the U.S.  In any case, it's used quite a bit in portions of this book, which was surprising, since there wasn't a ton of swearing, otherwise.  (Yes, I'm an awful prude for even noticing.  For fellow prudes, this is not one of your "pure" romances, either-- though to be fair, the "pre-marital activities" are not described in much detail at all.  There are no "shades of grey" here.)

--  Lots of people say "excellent" lots of times.  (That word, spoken/written alone, always reminds me of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.  In case you were wondering.)  Query: Is "excellent" the new "brilliant" in UK-speak? 

--  I was disappointed that the blogging and Internet dating aspects of the story turned out to be less interesting than I'd hoped.  The blog entries were mostly blah, and I found it completely unbelievable that her writing (as evidenced by those blog entries) would've been enough to catch the eye of a big-time magazine editor, much less turn Elise into an Internet sensation. (But maybe I'm just being mean...)

As for the Internet dating... Her "projects" all had some deep, dark secret that was holding them back from being Dating Material.  This is where I should probably applaud the attempt to diverge from the typical Romance formula.  Instead, I found it vaguely depressing... boring to read about... and completely unrealistic.  Sorry, I just couldn't buy it that 1) her cases all just happened to have Deep-Seated Issues, or that 2) Elise could magically see through to the root of the matter and set them on the Path to Recovery so quickly and easily, or that 3) they were all so open to her (sometimes silly) methods.  It was just far too easy, despite all the "this is just the first step in a long process" stuff. 

It felt like the author wanted to tackle a few (love-related) Serious Issues, but decided to do so within the confines of a romance novel.  The problem (for me) is that the two don't really meld together very well.  Either I want to read an Issues novel (except, no, I hardly ever want to read an Issues novel, so I avoid them like the plague)-- or I want a fairly lightweight romance where the hero and heroine interact a great deal.  I don't want to read a book where the two story types struggle against one another to the detriment of both.  It makes for a less satisfying read, unfortunately. The result was that the Issues felt rushed, too-convenient, and ultimately fake, while the romance got the short end of the stick.  I'd much rather have gotten more time with Elise and Taylor and less of the "projects".

--  Elise on the subject of the difficulties of being an author:  "It's so hard.  You really have to be exceptional and back then I wasn't.  I got one book published but after a brief spell on the bestseller lists it vanished into total obscurity."  I'm no expert on the subject-- and maybe this is realistic-- but if that's really how it works, I'm surprised.  How often does someone make it to the bestseller list and then vanish into total obscurity?!  I thought that once you'd made it to the bestseller list, however briefly, you'd have a pretty darn good chance of getting your next book published.  Maybe not...

--  Where are my commas?  I want my commas!

--  The people in this book (Elise, Nathan, his friends/family) become very intimate with astonishing rapidity.  Friendships and romances seem to take hold overnight.  Similarly, sometimes it seems like they'll laugh at anything.  Everything's hilarious!  Oh, what good times!  Either it's not realistic, or the people in my life are very, very sad and dull... and take more than a day to become BFFs.

--  "On a scale of one to amazeballs it rates around the level of awesomesauce."  Please excuse me while I indulge in a slang-OD-induced gag or two.  Phew!  Sorry, it's probably just me.  I am extremely sensitive to modern slang.  Makes me ill.

--  "Gurning".  Apparently it's a British word for "making faces".  Never come across it before this.

--  Into the category of "Romance: What did you expect?"... I don't see what's so special about Elise.  I mean, yes, she seems like a nice girl, and she should have no problem making friends, attracting men, and having a normal career, but the way the other characters go on and on about her!  For instance, Dave finds her "intimidating" because she's "so bright and articulate".  Really?  Then she writes things like, "It scares me because my gift is to bring out the best in people."  How many people do you know who talk about "their gift"?  I think we all have talents or "gifts", but it irks me when someone calls his/her own talent "a gift".  (Yep; I probably am just a big ol' meanie.)  She also writes: "I didn't expect to see so many facets of myself in these men, especially Jim.  He was so horrible, so abrasive.  It scared me on a very deep level that I could so easily have turned out that way if I hadn't had help right when I needed it most."  Oh, horrors!

--  Elise's go-to comforts are tea and baths.  I can't relate.  (Not a bath person.  Not a tea person, either.)  This just made me laugh right out loud:  "'I came in to find her crying in the bath surrounded by empty chocolate wrappers.  This feature is really taking it out of her.'" Srsly, LOL.

--  "If he hadn't been so lonely in his life he wouldn't have been internet dating in the first place."  Gee, way to make anyone who's ever done Internet dating look pathetic and desperate.  Internet dating is no more an indication of being "so lonely" than any other kind of dating, people.

--  Oh my gosh, the confrontation scene between Taylor and his brother (Anton?)!  It was so ridiculous!  (I shouldn't complain; it thoroughly enlivened an otherwise dull treadmill session.)

"'Taylor you sounded infatuated, like a teenager with a crush.  But she's not of our world. Look at her.'"  ... "'You need to be courting someone from your own class who would fit in with the social circles we move in.'" ..."'You cannot date this woman.  Look at her.  Look at her!'  His lip curled in a sneer. 'She probably buys her clothes at the supermarket and this is who you want to be seen with in the society pages?'"... "'You wait until I tell father about this!'"  

See what I mean?!  And then, after Taylor has defended her honor by punching his brother in the nose, he tells Elise, "'And don't pay any attention to those awful things he said.  It's not about what's on the outside, it's about what's on the inside.  You're one of the most amazing people I know.'"  Well, gee, thanks, Taylor!  Thanks for talking to me like I'm a Kindergartener-- and thanks even more for suggesting that my "outside" is somehow lacking, since you're only concerned with what's on the inside.

The whole thing is just so... Wow.

-- "Kerb".  Vaguely familiar alt. spelling of "curb".

--  Someone else in another review commented on the fact that Taylor apparently never tried calling Elise on his own.  He only had his secretaries put through the calls (which they never did).  I hadn't thought about that, but it's true.  If a man were really interested in a woman, he wouldn't be satisfied to just leave it at that.  He'd be trying to call her on his own time, from home, which would've ruined the plot.  So we just pretend it's perfectly normal that he never tried dialing her number himself.  (g)

-- Ok, so Elise doesn't want a life in the limelight...  Or something.  I can understand being a bit freaked out by sudden celebrity, but the way she reacts, it's almost as though she's a criminal on the run.  She acts like there's much more at stake than some inconvenience and reporters asking her nosy questions (that she is free to completely ignore).  I guess she gets over her fear of fame by the end of the book, because marrying Taylor certainly isn't going to make it possible for her to keep her anonymity.

--  "'He's old enough and ugly enough to make his own decisions.'"  That's an odd phrase.  I think it's the first time I've ever come across that "ugly enough" part.  "Old enough", yes.  "Ugly enough"... No, I won't be adding it to my lingual repertoire.  ;o)

--  Mr. X was obvious.  It's hard to believe that Elise couldn't guess who he was.  She's supposed to be an intelligent woman, after all.

--  It felt like you were supposed to root for Taylor to win Elise's heart-- and yet we got very limited interaction between the two, and for most of the book, Elise seemed to be in a pretty happy relationship with Nate... which felt weird, honestly.  Rooting for her to leave this perfectly nice guy so she can be with the one she met first... Wondering how the author will "get rid of him" in short order without making the book tragic... I felt guilty.

I must admit that I preferred Taylor (though that's not saying much, in this case), but I still felt bad for Nathan.  What did he do to deserve being thrown over at the last minute?  He was too possessive?  Well, I'd say that a lot of women want men to be a little possessive.  (Not to the point that it's abusive, of course-- but come on, you want your guy to be a little jealous of your attention/affections, right?  You want to feel that you matter.  If he's completely laissez-faire, it's a bit cold and depressing.)  And as it turned out, he wasn't really wrong to be suspicious.  She was being more emotionally intimate with Mr. X (telling him about her marriage and cheating spouse/friends) than she was with him.  Now, he wasn't completely open with her, either-- and again, Taylor seemed more interesting-- but it seemed like he was treated a little badly, just chucked out of the story with very little explanation or closure. 

Incidentally, I'm pretty sure Nathan was revealed to be magically wealthy just so no-one could accuse Elise of being a gold-digger, later on.  Dumping a poor librarian for a wealthy media mogul?  Tsk-tsk.  You ought to be ashamed of yourself, young lady!  Dumping a temporarily poor librarian who will inherit lots of money in a few years for a wealthy media mogul?  Acceptable behavior.

- - - - - - -

And that's it.  I think I've exorcised the demons... aired the dirty laundry... had my say about every little thing I made a note of in this book.  Whew.  On to the next one!

P.S.  I started reading this one soon after Donald and I started reading P.G. Wodehouse's Summer Lightning, and did so without immediately noticing the similarity in titles.  Maybe my subconscious nudged me in this novel's direction as a joke.  (It has an odd sense of humor.)