Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DNF: The Singing River

The Singing River
by R.K. Ryals

Why I didn't finish:
What grabbed my interest in the blurb was the setting-- Pascagoula.  That's not terribly far from here, and I was curious to see how the author (a native of Mississippi) would present the region.  Also, there was mention of a legend ("the singing river") that I'd never really heard about.

Now, if I'd stayed with the book, I assume there would eventually have been more about the legend, but it was just taking too long getting there, and it became clear that the story was really more about family drama and "real life problems" than I'd expected or wanted. (Yes, you read that right.  I'm a shallow person who reads for pleasure and doesn't like too much "real life" creeping in.  What's your point?)

There were some nice local touches.  Butter beans.  Purple-hull peas.  A glass of milk and cornbread. (With the cornbread in the glass with the milk.  I've never eaten it, but I've heard about it.  I think it was more common a couple of generations ago.)  The incessant summertime noise of insects.  The heat and humidity.

But there were also things I didn't really love-- such as all the talk about "blue bloods", meaning "old money".  I don't think I've ever heard anyone seriously use that term, but these people bandied it about like it was in regular, daily use.  Maybe it is, in Pascagoula.  Not a couple of counties over, though-- or at least, not in my circle.

I could go into more reasons I wasn't compelled to finish, but what it comes down to is this:  I don't think it's an awful book, but it's not for me. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The Summer Before I Met You"

"The Summer Before I Met You"
by Sarah Rees Brennan

(This was another "prequel short story" for Unspoken.)

It's a repeat of the verdict on the other short story-- just alright.  If I'd read these stories before the novel, I'm not sure I would've been that enthusiastic about picking up the book, honestly.  It's not that they were bad... but they lack any significant interaction between Kami and Jared, and the fact that they're told from an "outsider's" point of view doesn't increase my interest, either. 

Well, it won't be long until the second book in the trilogy is out.  I have higher hopes for that. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"The Spring Before I Met You"

"The Spring Before I Met You"
by Sarah Rees Brennan

This is one of two "prequel short stories" that go along with Unspoken.  This one is about Jared, while the second is about Kami.  I don't know if you're "supposed" to read them before you read the novel... They come first, chronologically, but I'm not sure you'll really enjoy or even completely understand them if you haven't read Unspoken.

My reaction? 
Eh... It was alright.  I see why the author decided to tell the story through a new character's eyes-- an art teacher filling in for the absent guidance counselor at Jared's Californian high school, who gives us an idea of how he seems to an "outsider"-- but I really missed the internal conversations between Jared and Kami.  ...And it's sad.  Still, if you enjoyed the first book and are waiting for the next one, it's something to read...


Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, Book 1)
by Sarah Rees Brennan

(Modified) Blurb:
For as long as she can remember, Kami Glass has known and conversed with a boy named Jared-- but he's only been a voice in her head. This has made her an outsider in the sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, but she has learned ways to turn that to her advantage. Her life seems to be in order, until disturbing events begin to occur. There has been screaming in the woods and the manor overlooking the town has lit up for the first time in 10 years. . . . The Lynburn family, who ruled the town a generation ago and who all left without warning, have returned. Now Kami can see that the town she has known and loved all her life is hiding a multitude of secrets—and a murderer. The key to it all just might be the boy in her head. The boy she thought was imaginary is real, and definitely and deliciously dangerous.

My Reaction:
First-- Again, I've felt it necessary to modify the publisher's blurb, because it gave away too much in the very first words.  (Not that the reader doesn't know it right away, anyway, but still!  Good grief, blurb-writers! Exercise a little self-restraint!)

Good news:  I found the story entertaining and am looking forward to reading the second book in the trilogy.

Bad news:  This book definitely has one of those "setting up for the next book"/"Warning: Cliff(hanger)s ahead" endings.  If you're at all interested in the story, you'll want to read the next book right away-- and that's not always possible.  Such as, for instance, when the second book hasn't been published yet.  As luck would have it, I happened to time this reading so that I don't have too terribly long of a wait for Untold, the sequel.  But it makes me wonder if that one will have just as much of a cliffhanger ending-- and how long I'll have to wait for the third book in the trilogy (Unbroken, I think...) to come out.  In the meantime, there are two prequel short stories to read.  I'll probably read them while the story is still fresh in my mind. 

Random Specific Thoughts (Possibly of a SPOILERy Nature):
--  The bit about "Ring Around the Rosy" being "a happy children's rhyme about the plague"...  I thought that theory had been discredited.  (But maybe not?  Ah, who knows anything for sure?!)

--  Some of Jared and Kami's exchanges are legitimately funny, but at other times, they seem to find each other much more amusing than I do, at least.  Like when Jared tells Kami, while she's kissing Ash, that Ash wet the bed until he was five-- and it's so thigh-slappin' high-larious that she splutters out a laugh.  ...Maybe you had to be there?  Maybe it's a teen thing?  ...Or a not-me thing? 

--  By my standards, this was not a scary book, though it does have a fair amount of violence and disturbing images-- which is why I wouldn't suggest it for the youngest readers, even if it is YA-- but there were a couple of creepy moments, such as the bit with the hyakume-- "creature with a hundred eyes".

--  Toward the end of the book, something odd seemed to happen to the passage of time.  I couldn't get a good fix on what time it was supposed to be.  At first, I thought it was late night... but then it seemed to be early morning/dawn in very short order... and then what could only have been a couple of hours later (if that), there was something about dust motes shining "in the red light of the sinking sun"...

--  It's only natural-- because parents/authority figures prevent the young main characters from taking risks, and who wants to read about going to class, doing homework, babysitting, etc.?-- but it's funny how characters in these types of books and movies and TV shows never seem to have any normal, real life obligations.  Well, maybe a little in the beginning.  But by the end, nope.  And the parents, who are so concerned earlier in the book, are magically out of the picture by the end.  No frantic phone calls when she doesn't come home.  No going from door to door in search of a missing child.  I guess we're supposed to assume that they're distracted by something else... or that a plausible excuse (such as the classic sleepover at the best friend's house) has been supplied. 

--  This was written by one of the co-authors of Team Human, and there are some similarities between the two.  Both heroines are "sassy", no-nonsense kinds of girls-- though I liked Kami better than Mel.  Also, both heroines are of Asian descent (Chinese heritage for one, Japanese for the other).  And third, in both books, there is a secondary character who is eventually revealed to be "LGBT".  Which... is clearly done "on purpose", as a show of support.  It's just-- personal opinions and religious beliefs as much aside as possible-- the recent sudden proliferation of LGBT characters in media (fiction, TV shows, movies) is so disproportionate to their actual statistical representation in "real life" that it's... well, silly.  (It feels almost "trendy".)  It feels like if you don't have a gay character in your YA novel, you'll be thought somehow backward and possibly even morally suspect.

--  Angela's interest in Holly is obvious so early-on that it seems strange that Kami doesn't notice.  Yes, we sometimes think we know those we're closest to so well that we can be blinded by what we "know", but...

--  In the afterword/acknowledgments/whatever, the author thanked someone for coining the term "Sassy Gothic".  That does seem like a good descriptor for this genre.

--  From the same "note from the author":  "Thank you to all the Gothics I now love-- among others, all three Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, Madeleine Brent, and Jennifer Cruise."  A few new names to investigate!  (The last three, to be exact, since I just finished making the acquaintance of Mary Stewart.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting
by Mary Stewart

(Modified) Publisher's Blurb: 

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge's life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. After a strange accident threatens Linda's innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

My Reaction:
First, I slightly modified the publisher's blurb because I felt it gave away too much.  A snip here and there improves it, imho.  Luckily, I hadn't seen the blurb until just now.  It wasn't too revealing, but still... Blurb writers need to tread carefully!  There's a fine line between tantalizing the reader and blunting the pleasure of discovering things on your own.

This was my second try with this author.  The first was Rose Cottage, a month or so ago.  I abandoned it so quickly that I didn't even bother writing a DNF "review".  I've since peeked at reviews, trying to decide whether or not one of the characters was going to turn out to have stomach cancer or something similarly awful.  I'm sorry, but no.  I don't want (or need) to read about serious health problems.  I just don't.  I'm still not sure about that particular issue, but nothing I've seen has convinced me that this is one to read right away.  (Maybe someday, if I read everything else by the author and still want more...)

...So, about this book.  After that first bad experience with the author, I was a little nervous, but this turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.  There are enough clues and warnings scattered here and there to let you predict several major plot points-- yet I was still guessing about at least a couple of things until nearly the end.  It was a satisfying read-- light romantic suspense with a very well-written setting-- and I'm interested in trying more by Mary Stewart at some point in the future.

More Specifics (Including Spoilers):
-- This book felt a little difficult to place in time for me.  Of course there were cars-- and airplanes-- so I knew it wasn't too far back, but this-- "he was using-- not a wheel, but an atomic blast, to break a butterfly"-- stunned me slightly.  It was published in 1958, which was later than I'd have guessed, probably.

--  "He shot me a queer look out of those oyster eyes..."  What in the world are oyster eyes?!

--  I like Philippe.  An appealing, vulnerable child character-- not a brat to drive you up the wall.  And thank goodness, because he spends a fair amount of time "on stage"!

--  The Jane Eyre references were amusing, because I'd already noted some similarity there.  (Not that I'm expecting congratulations; they were pretty blatant.)  An unloved orphan in the care of a new governess-- herself an orphan...  A huge "castle" of a house run by a mysterious master with a sharp tongue... An accident on the road leading to the introduction of The Hero...

--  The language-based jokes were nice.  I was particularly amused by Philippe's trouble pronouncing "squirrel", since that is one of the words Donald used to struggle with.  ("Squirreller" was his version.)  I guess it is a tricky word.

--  Another mystery:  "'Darling, don't be so Sabine about it.  It was only a kiss, after all.'"

--  This is very spoilery, so... You've been warned.  So, as soon as the author makes a point of showing you that Philippe's nightly chocolate drink is made with a special sweetener (sucrose, was it?)-- not plain sugar-- you know there's a reason for it-- the most likely being poison.  And yes, of course you're right.  But what about this?  When Linda's trying desperately to figure out "what can they be planning to do [to Philippe] that includes me?  What the sweet hell can they be planning?"  ... Is it just me, or does that seem like a little inside joke between author and reader?  Sweet hell?  Poisoned sucrose?  Eh, maybe not, but it caught my eye. 

--  "I woke him quietly.  I used a trick I had read about somewhere in John Buchan-- a gentle pressure below the left ear.  It seemed to work."

--  Raoul grew on me, I have to confess. It took me a while (until the scene at Villa Mireille) to decide whether it would be Raoul or William.  Though William did seem like a long shot by that time, since he'd been much too far in the background for most of the book, it still seemed possible... And she did meet him first.  (It seems very common that the heroine ends up with whichever eligible bachelor she "happens" to have met first.)  And he was warm, "gentle", kind, etc.... But he was "safe".  Uh oh.  Safety is rarely appealing to these heroine types.  Now, if he merely makes her feel safe, that may be alright-- but if he himself is "safe", it's a bad sign.  ...Anyway, the romance element kept me guessing, too.

-- Still on the subject of romance, gee, these characters fall madly in love quickly!   Linda and Raoul, of course, but also poor William.  He seems the most practical of the bunch, but he's clearly interested in Linda from the very beginning.  (Poor guy.  She really does "use" him a bit, toward the end...)

--  Linda's frequent recall of poetry seemed a little strange to me, but then I'm not a big fan of poetry.  Maybe it's natural enough for someone who is...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim
by P.G. Wodehouse

My Not-Much-of-a-Blurb:
Young American Jimmy Crocker (a.k.a. "Piccadilly Jim") has been having a little too much of a good time in London, when he happens to meet the girl of his dreams.  The only problem?  He overhears her talking about how much she hates this man she once knew-- someone named Jimmy Crocker.  What's a fellow to do?  Assume a new identity and follow her home to New York City, of course!  

My Reaction:
I couldn't (easily) find a publisher's blurb for this book-- and when I started trying to write one of my own, I realized what a daunting task it is!  This story defies easy, concise introduction.  It's a tangled tale of characters pretending to be other characters-- mistaken identity-- kidnapping plots-- young love-- international spies--  high explosives-- and more!  Above all else, it's P.G. Wodehouse (albeit early Wodehouse), so there's plenty of lighthearted fun.

Highly recommended for people who know and love Wodehouse.  I wouldn't make it my first Wodehouse read, but certainly it's not one to miss entirely, if you enjoy the genre.  (Bonus: It's in the public domain, so it's available for free in a variety of places online.)

If I had to offer one complaint, it would be the difficult to read dialect/accent of Miss Trimble.  Some of Wodehouse's American accents are so heavy that they take a physical effort to read.  (This is probably more of an issue for me, because I'm generally reading aloud when I read Wodehouse.)  Also, there were one or two times when things were explained to another character that we, the readers, already knew.  I would've been happier if it had been handled differently.  But those two minor issues aside, it was a very fun book. 

Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness
by Agatha Christie

Everyone blamed Emily's accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her. On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously he didn't receive the letter until June 28th...by which time Emily was already dead...

My Reaction: 
I enjoyed it!  I listened to an audiobook version while I crocheted, and (though I had to rewind a few times when I'd been distracted by counting or referring to the pattern) found it a very pleasant combination of interests.  I'll need to do this again!

The audiobook version I listened to was read by Hugh Fraser.  I thought the name seemed familiar, and when I heard his voice, there was no question.  It's Captain Hastings from the TV adaptations!  (Or, well, the actor who plays Captain Hastings.)  He of course did an excellent job reading Captain Hastings' lines (and the whole story is told from Hastings' point of view), but I was especially impressed by his version of Poirot's voice.  The various ladies' voices were... Well, I never love it when male readers try to imitate women's voices, but these were at least "alright".  He was a very good reader, over all.  I'd be happy to listen to more of the Christie mysteries he's read. 

This was also my first time using my new mp3-player (a Sansa Clip+) to listen to an audiobook.  It did a good job, so no complaints there.

As for the story itself, it seemed to be less involved than some of Agatha Christie's mysteries, but it still kept me guessing through the whole thing.

I've seen the TV adaptation, but evidently it was long ago enough that I'd forgotten most of the story.  (See?  Once again my Swiss cheese memory comes to the rescue!)  I did recall that it involved a dog, though, and that was one of the reasons I selected it-- though it turns out that the dog gets less "screen time" than I'd expected.  Still, a nice touch for us dog-lovers.

SPOILERy Reaction:
I really didn't care for some of the characters.  (...Many of them.)  I can't remember their names (because it seems I need to see a name to remember it... visual learner?), but the brother and sister?  Yuck, both of them.  Each of them seriously considered killing their aunt for her money!  Sure, they didn't go through with it, but the "mere" fact that they took steps to research poison or even obtain it... ~shudder~  Would you ever invite either of them to a dinner party again, knowing that?  I thought not!  

Then there's Bella... I didn't exactly like her, but I did feel sorry for her.  Everyone was so judgmental and condescending toward her-- about her looks, her choice of a husband, her dull conversation, her fashion sense and inability to "pull off" a look.  Oh!  And constantly referring to her devotion to her children as though it were almost something to be ashamed of!  True, she might not be the most scintillating companion, if she could speak of nothing but her kids, but would they prefer a selfish, shallow mother too wrapped up in her own life to spare a thought for those so utterly dependent on her?  Message for the condescending characters:  Other people don't exist simply to look pretty and provide you with entertainment.  They have their own lives and interests.  Try to develop some of your own, and maybe you won't be so miserable.

This bit of the story really caught my attention, and I found someone on GoodReads who apparently also enjoyed it.  S/he had even typed it out, so I'm saved the trouble.  (Actually, I never would have.  It would've been far too much work to find it and transcribe it from audio.)

“I don’t know why dogs always go for postmen, I’m sure,” continued our guide.

“It’s a matter of reasoning,” said Poirot. “The dog, he argues from reason. He is intelligent; he makes his deductions according to his point of view. There are people who may enter the house and there are people who may not—that dog soon learns. Eh bien, who is the person who most persistently tries to gain admission, rattling on the door twice or three times a day—and who is never by any chance admitted? The postman. Clearly, then, an undesirable guest from the point of view of the master of the house. He is always sent about his business, but he persistently returns and tries again. Then a dog’s duty is clear, to aid in driving this undesirable man away, and to bite him if possible. A most reasonable proceeding.”

It makes sense!

Monday, August 12, 2013

"The Empty House"

"The Empty House"
by Algernon Blackwood

A young man and his elderly "maiden aunt" (who is interested in "psychical" phenomena) decide to investigate a haunted house together. 

My Reaction:
It's a spooky short story-- but it's "old-fashioned spooky", which means modern readers may find it a bit tame.  I thought it was alright, and now that I see that it goes along with a whole collection of short stories by the same author, I may try a few more.

One More SPOILERy Note:
I did feel that the story ended rather abruptly and was a little flat.  When it was written, maybe it would have been more than creepy enough, but reading it today, I thought it could've gone further.

I suspected, after they saw the ghostly woman in the scullery doorway, that the aunt had been somehow possessed with the victim's spirit.  Various things from that point on seemed to support my theory-- how quiet she was, how much braver she was than the nephew had expected (stunned/not herself, I thought), how her face momentarily looked like that of a young woman, etc.  (Of course, there were also things that made me doubt...)  I thought it would eventually be revealed, when they left the house, or right after the ghostly climax, that the aunt hadn't been herself through most of the night and didn't remember anything after the shock at the scullery door.

Later, when they heard/felt the two people running down the stairs and the one being thrown over the railing, I had a new ending in mind.  They'd walk downstairs. The man would see his aunt lying on the stone floor and realize that she hadn't really been beside him since they left the upstairs room.  He'd instead been accompanied by the victim-ghost (seeking protection, masculine attention) all that time, and had unknowingly left his fear-frozen aunt behind, at the mercy of the killer-ghost (who found her and threw her over the railing while re-enacting his crime).

...But that would've been too violent for the original audience, probably, and maybe it's not any better than the real ending.  I've just gotten used to twist endings in this kind of story.  You come to expect them, after a while.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Hurricane

The Hurricane
by Hugh Howey

Publisher's Blurb:
Daniel Stillman has 42 Facebook friends. His cell phone contains 18 contacts, two of them for pizza delivery. Six people follow him on Twitter. Four readers subscribe to his blog; he's pretty sure one of them followed him on accident.

And now a category 5 storm is about to wipe all this away.

In its wake will be left a single girl, a neighbor he never knew, and a new reprieve from the digital maelstrom of his life, a great silence like the eye of some terrific storm.

My Not-Really-a-Blurb:
Daniel, a lonely, awkward teenager has just begun his senior year when an unexpected monster of a storm brings his world, filled with technophiles, modern convenience, and high school drama, to a grinding halt.  After the hurricane moves through, he discovers that it's blown two people unexpectedly into his life-- a figure from the painful past-- and a refreshingly different "girl-next-door" who just may be the harbinger of a promising future.

My Reaction:
I'm not sure how to rate this book... if I even did "rate" books on a scale...  It's not at all what I expected, and I blame that at least partly on the misleading blurb.  (There are a couple different ones floating around out there, and neither of them are really good, imho.)  Based on the blurb, I was expecting much more of a tale of catastrophe.  It sounds like Daniel will be alone with this "single girl"... and that they'll have to rely on one another to survive-- for a while, at least.  Instead, his whole family is there with him, too, and while they have to conserve their resources, there's not much risk involved, once the storm is past. 

Speaking of the storm, it seems to come and go quickly, leaving at least half of the book after it... and me wondering how on earth the author's going to fill the rest of the pages.  Thing is, it's not a catastrophe/survival story-- not really.  There are a few elements of that, but it's much more a tale of coming-of-age.  It's from a male perspective, which could have been interesting, since most (all?) of the coming-of-age books I remember reading have been about girls.  But... meh.  I just didn't love it.  (I'll go into more detail about why, below.)

...Anyway, I think this book is pretty different from the author's other works-- certainly from the ones I've read.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone who's read Wool, for instance, and is looking for more of the same.  If, however, you like coming-of-age stories-- or you want a fairly realistic portrayal of a hurricane-- it's a pretty quick read.  And based on the ratings around the Internet, most people liked the book better than I did.

More Specific Reactions:
--  The book got off to a bad start, in my opinion.  I mean, gross.  I've heard what teenage boys (in particular) are like, and yes, I remember being a teen myself, but there's really no need to include a touching scene of a boy failing to flirt with a stranger via webcam and then "making do" with youtube and some tissues.  Yuck.  Is it realistic?  Maybe, but that doesn't mean I want to read about it.  The Wool series managed to never feel crude, so I was disappointed.

--  Nit-picking, but... Why were there members of the band in uniform, with instruments out by the buses, on the first day of school?  It felt like the author was just trying desperately to get the "high school" atmosphere.  When I was in Band, we only wore our uniforms for football games, parades, and competitions.  You tried them on early in the year, when they were handed out, to make sure they fit, but you certainly didn't go wandering around the school in them for no reason.  Second, sax players wouldn't likely be walking around the bus area with their saxophones out.  Unless they were staying after school for practice and headed to the practice field, their instruments would be safely stowed away in cases.

--  Hit me (repeatedly) over the head with the "EVERYONE'S OBSESSED WITH THEIR DIGITAL GADGETS AND TECHNOLOGY IS ISOLATING US FROM ONE ANOTHER" theme, why don'tcha?!  ;o)  But seriously.  YES, WE GET YOUR POINT.  The obviousness-- it's painful!

--  In some ways, this feels like it might've been aimed more at a YA audience.  In other ways-- Wow, crude humor and unnecessarily foul language. 

--  I'm obviously a terrible prude, but I found it hard to like Daniel, sometimes.  Well, when your first introduction to a character is as grody as it was in this book, it kind of puts you off him right away... Then he seems to have a split personality.  At times, he can be a nice, normal, sympathetic kid.  Then he talks to his best friend (or in his head) and you think, "Yuck.  You know what?  Sorry, but I just don't really like you."

--  "She wasn't gorgeous, not like a model, she was too short for that.  But when he pictured a girl dating his friend Roby, he imagined someone overweight with bad skin and thick glasses."  Ugh.  Really?  So a girl wearing glasses is gross, I guess.  Nice to know.  And if she's chubby or has a few pimples-- that's obviously a deal-breaker.  Oh, and if you're not "model-tall", you can't possibly qualify as "gorgeous".  Jerk.

--  What is this "rando" crap?  Is that really a word in use, these days?  This was the first I'd heard of it.

--  These teenagers are addicted to cursing.  Sure, I'll admit to cursing every now and then, but somehow, reading it seems worse... It's so casual!  Casual f-bombs.  ...I don't like it!  It makes me think less of a character and his/her creator. 

--  The party.  Are many high school parties really like this?  It seems to be what you always get in TV and film portrayals of teen parties, but is it at all realistic?  I never went to any big teen parties as a high schooler, so I have no idea.  If this is based at all in reality, I consider myself most fortunate to have avoided the misery!  I didn't drink in high school-- and I still don't, as a matter of fact.  Somehow, I'm perfectly fine with that.  (Prudy prudy prude.  Nyah! ;oP)

--  Well... One interesting point.  When I was in high school, we didn't have cell phones-- certainly not phones with the ability to take photos or video.  ...And when I think about the kinds of things that could have been captured for posterity if we had... Yeah, I'm very glad we didn't!  Cameras everywhere, at all times, in the hands of bullies and b*****s?  Um, no thanks.  School was tough enough without that!

--  The author seems to know something about hurricanes, which isn't surprising, since (if I recall correctly) he lives in Florida.  However he did have characters doing a few dumb things.  I suppose you could argue that it's realistic and that he knows better, but it makes you wonder...  The biggie to me was having them crack the windows to "equalize pressure" between indoors and out.  Nope, these days "they" say that it's useless, and it may do more harm than good.  Certainly it lets in wind and rain, which is bad enough!  He also had them using candles.  Now, I'll admit that we do that, too, in places, but you're not really supposed to use anything with an open flame.  It's a fire hazard, and if you have gas (as these characters do), there's the risk of a gas leak.  Later, they use a camp stove indoors.  Apparently it can be done without too much danger, but it seems unnecessary.  Just take it outside to be on the safe side.

--  "Unlike before, however, when the small trees had been moving, Daniel could now see the big ones swaying.  The little ones were snapped in half."  Mmm... Well, maybe.  It happens, and it depends on what he thinks are "big" and "little" trees, but in my experience, the smaller trees have a better survival rate than the big ones.  For one thing, they're not tall enough to catch some of the worst wind (which is higher up, away from wind-breaking terrain and objects).  For another, they're usually more pliable than large trees, so they'll just bend where a more rigid trunk will break-- or catch the wind and flop over, roots and all.

--  "Daniel dug in his bag for his Zune.  It was yet another humiliation in his life. ... He didn't even like pulling it out in public and had bought some white earbuds so it would look like an iPod if he kept it in his pocket."  Gosh, that's obnoxious.  Daniel needs to learn not to care so much about conforming to the norm.

--  Zola thinks it's "gross" when her step-dad asks to use one of Daniel's earbuds so he can also hear the radio.  ...Um, ok... Get over it, princess.

--  "Daniel noticed, in the sad and quiet exhaustion on his mother's face, how worn out she was."  Thanks to Ivan, I know that look-- and I know the feeling.  Looking out at the destruction the morning after, you're so exhausted, and it seems so unreal.  You're just numb... And then it slowly becomes real and-- ugh!-- there's so much work to do, just to get things back to some semblance of how they were.  It's not easy.  And we didn't even have real damage to the house!

--  "Zooming out, he had a sudden and terrific shift in perspective that made his mind reel.  Daniel thought about all the millions of Americans going about their days in other states, glancing perhaps at the weather, asking friends what that storm was named again, marveling at the size and shape of the thing on their functioning and powered TVs... and Daniel was in the middle of it all.  He was terrified for his life in the middle of someone else's idle curiosity."  Yes, that's an odd sensation, isn't it?  We've all had it, I'm sure-- and on a more personal level, too, when we're going through something difficult-- illness or grief-- and we realize (resentfully?  in surprise?) that to most other people, this is just an ordinary day-- or maybe even one of the best they've ever had.

-- I'm surprised Daniel is so excited over the taste of a tomato, even if it is homegrown and fresh from the garden.  He doesn't strike me as a veggie-lover.  But maybe I'm biased. While I can tolerate raw tomato on a sandwich or eaten a bit at a time with other, better-flavored food, I much prefer them cooked.  Homegrown or not.

--  Some other readers complained that the kids didn't talk like kids.  I didn't notice that issue much, to be honest.  (I was much more bothered by the heavy cursing when they were talking amongst themselves.)  However, it does sound a bit odd when Daniel introduces Anna and Edward to his brother and adds, "They were kind enough to bring us over."  How many 17-year-old guys would say that?

--  Anna says, "I was always sort of this tomgirl."  Um... Shouldn't that be "tomboy"? 

--  I just skipped over the chapter about moving the tree off the roof.  Not interesting to me.

--  "This girl's a category five, to be sure.  Insanely smart.  Pretty in a normal kind of way, not like cheerleader pretty or tall or exotic--"   Gah.  I know he's trying to be complimentary, but... It just rubs me the wrong way.  Why do you even need to qualify "how" she is pretty?  Why??  It. is. annoying.

--  That's all.  I'm happy to have this one done.  I was bored about half-way through, but decided to finish it, since it was so short.  Problem is, even a short book feels like a slow slog when you're not enjoying it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dark Matter

Dark Matter
by Michelle Paver

January, 1937. Twenty-eight-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Five men and eight huskies, cross the Barents Sea from Norway by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He has to decide, stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, the point of no return-- when the sea will freeze. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Something walks there in the dark.

My Reaction:
It's a quick read and pretty effective as a ghost story.  I've felt a certain oppression or pall, over the last day or so, while reading it.  Now, whether or not that's a good thing may be open to debate-- but it is a ghost story, after all.

I found the setting interesting and well-written.  Even before reading the "author's note" at the end, it was obvious to me that she had done extensive research of the arctic.  (It turns out that she's even been there in person at least a couple of times!)  I appreciate the realistic details.  If an author cares enough about his/her writing to put in the effort of researching, I'm more confident that the work is worth the time I'll spend reading it.

Specific, Spoilery Comments:
--  At one point, Jack is embarrassed by his own explanation of the company that employs him.  (I guess he thinks he sounds... too middle-class? ...too proud of the company, even though he's obviously not?)  Anyway, he accuses himself of sounding like Mr. Pooter.  I got the reference because sometime in the past couple years, we read Diary of a Nobody.  It's pretty funny, if you haven't read it-- but P.G. Wodehouse is better. ;o)

--  Jack is not an especially likeable protagonist.  He's extremely sensitive about his social position and lack of money-- which, alright, those are big things, and were possibly even bigger in 1930s London.  But he goes on about them a little too much and for too long.  It gets annoying.  Similarly annoying is his strong dislike of Algie (from the very beginning) and his insistence that he won't grow to like the dogs.  Everyone who's read a book before knows very well that by the end of the book, he'll have changed his tune (about the dogs-- not Algie). 

--  "Public school".  It's strange that "public school" in England seems to mean (or to have meant?) just about the opposite of what it means here.  Well, maybe not the opposite, exactly, but a public school seems to be what we'd call a private school.  You pay to attend them-- and often, you live on campus.  So maybe "boarding school" would be our equivalent...

--  There's a fair amount of British period slang in here-- especially toward the beginning of the book.  It helps to be familiar with some of it.  I seem to read quite a bit of British literature set "between the wars", so I made it through. ;o)  Seriously, though, I think it's possibly my favorite literary setting, at the moment...

-- Evidently this author is known for writing for a YA audience, and some readers thought that this book made that obvious.  ...Maybe in some respects.  It was written in a fairly straight-forward, simple style-- but for a diary-format book, I think that's best.  Also, much of the book had little or no cursing.  To me, that seemed appropriate for an educated, scientific, rather straitlaced man (particularly in the 1930s).  In fact, I was a little shocked when he started dropping f-bombs, but it probably fit the situation.  The only other possibility I can think of is that they thought the horror was too mild.  It could have been more intense at times, but it was plenty creepy and almost the whole book had a spooky, dark atmosphere, so... I was satisfied.  But then again, I don't love gory details. 

-- When Jack records that they've brought a set of Royal Doulton china ("donated by Algie's mama"), I had to laugh a little.  Did it have hand-painted periwinkles on it?  We'll never know... Perhaps the biggest mystery in the whole book!

--  The author clearly has spent a little time with Scandinavians.  When the Norwegian captain answers in the affirmative ("Ja"), she writes that "he said it in the Scandinavian way, on an in-breath, which makes it sound oddly like a gasp".  Yep.  They do that.  I think Donald may have gotten out of the habit, though.  At least, I don't notice it these days...

--  She also has the Norwegians pronouncing "j"/hard "g" as a "y".  "Yentlemen".  "Mister Yack". (This idiosyncrasy feels somewhat more widely-known than the "gasping yes", but it still made me smile.)

--  "I don't know where the crew sleeps, or even how many there are, as I can't tell them apart.  They're all splendid Nordic types with formidable beards and amazingly clean overalls."  Really?  He's English and they're Norwegian, and he can't tell them apart?  ...There's not that much difference between the "look" of the two nationalities, and the Scandinavians I've seen haven't been that homogenous in appearance.  Sure, there are some common traits among some people, but there's plenty of variety in facial structure, hair and eye color, etc.  It struck me as odd that Jack would think they all looked the same.  (And it's funny that it's ok to say that about "Nordic types", while saying the same thing about... some other "types" would be considered racist.)

--  There seems to be a train of thought in much of my reading, lately...  Starting with the fish-frog-men/demons in Shadow Over Innsmouth... Then Wait for What Will Come, with talk of mermen and sea demons... and Roman mosaic of odd sea creatures... and the whatever-it-was-supposed-to-be with a seal-like head/hair...  And finally to this, with the arctic sea creatures and the frequent mention of seals... and the watery ghost.  The sea has been an important element in all three of my last completed reads.  It doesn't mean anything, of course, and maybe it's a stretch, but it caught my attention and was certainly not consciously planned. 

--  "Blood pancakes"?  That sounds disgusting.  Of course, I also think "blood pudding" sounds icky.  Basically, just don't feed me anything with the word "blood" in the name.  And I'd rather not know if I'm eating livers, hearts, brains, tongues, etc.  Just call it "beef", "pork", "chicken", or whatever.  That's enough info for me. 

--  "Scree".  New word!

-- There are several mentions of paraffin being stinky, and I realized that I have no idea what paraffin smells like.  I think paraffin is the same thing as kerosene, so I'm sure I've smelled it before, but I can't remember it... If it's a bad smell, maybe I should just be grateful I don't remember.  

--  Jack remembers his mother painting the steps leading to their house, to make them look white or grey.  "Thinking of that now, it's heartbreaking.  To spend your life painting stones."  ...What's so heartbreaking about it?  You think it's futile, I suppose.  A pathetic waste of time and energy.  Well, sadly, most of us spend much our lives in futile pursuits.  That's just what life is.  If it made her happy to paint her stones, to give them a tidy appearance, I don't find that heartbreaking, at all. 

--  "What I don't like is the feeling I sometimes get that other things might exist around us, of which we know nothing."  Yes.  And what about that feeling that what we think we see isn't really what's there at all? The idea that our surroundings look nothing like what we see; what we see is a lie, and everything's actually all dark and grimy and awful, instead... Yuck.

--  I read one review that wished we'd gotten more time with the three men together-- or at least felt that we needed it to feel that the relationships among them were "real".  I agree.  Particularly Jack's feelings for Gus.  It was pretty clear early on that Jack's feelings were too intense to be mere friendship or even hero-worship.  Possibly pre-teen girls could have that kind of attachment-- such a powerful, emotional bond of friendship-- but I don't think grown men usually do.  At least, they don't express it that way, and I'd only expect to see it between men who'd gone through something extraordinary together... Soldiers after sharing months or years as prisoners of war, for example... Anyway, the less said about it, the better.  One of the weaker aspects of the book, in my opinion.

--  "...a memorandum book bound in blue American cloth" --  I'd never heard of "American cloth".  It's a "sturdy enameled oilcloth". 

--  Of course.  Out of the whole book, the part that comes closest to choking me up is when Jack's talking to his dog, reassuring him, promising him they won't be parted again.  *wateryeyes*  Why does that always happen?!

--  Before reading this, I'd never been particularly scared by the thought of the long night of the arctic winter, but I'd never really spent much time thinking of it, period.  While reading, it started spooking me.  I even got a feeling for the lesser horror-- dread, maybe, is a better word-- of the very short days of winter in the far north.  No wonder Swedes are so enamored of summer and the sun...

Just thought of something else I should've mentioned...  Because it's necessary for this type of story, I feel almost silly for bringing it up, but gosh, Jack was stupid for staying!  In the beginning of the book, it's part of the build-up of tension and dread.  The reader of course knows that something terrible is going to happen, and we get to "enjoy" the foolhardy insistence of the young men that they will go to this specific place, even though others try repeatedly to change their minds.  When Jack first decides to stay behind, I guess you can still argue that he's making a reasonable choice.  At that point, he thinks it's just a harmless "echo" (if I recall correctly), and when we weigh the pros and the cons from his perspective, it's possible to understand his decision.  But then things get worse and he still refuses help.  He won't ask the others to send the boat to pick him up.  He won't accept his "neighbor's" generous offer of rescue.  I get that he almost has to be stupidly stubborn for the story to continue, but it's frustrating.  When he refused to go with the kindly trapper, I kind of washed my hands of him.  Whatever happens to him after that point, he pretty much has asked for. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wait for What Will Come

Wait for What Will Come
by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
The last of an ancient Cornish clan, Carla Tregellas has inherited her historic ancestral home: a massive mansion looming high up on the jagged cliffs of Cornwall. From the moment Carla takes possession of the grand manor she feels right at home, warmly welcomed by everyone--  except the strange and secretive housekeeper, Mrs. Pendennis, who warns the new owner of the tragic, inevitable fate that will surely befall her if she does not depart at once. But Carla cannot leave, for the unseen bonds of a dark family curse are beginning to tighten . . . and a demon lover waits.

My Reaction:
It was... fine. Entertaining.  Or at least entertaining enough.

This author spins a pretty good tale-- the epitome of the light mystery/suspense/mildly romantic gothic romance.  She knows how to write the sort of novel that it is easy to keep reading.  However, there's generally not much to make you sit up in amazement.  If you've read one of these types of books, you've kind of read them all.  The setting and cast of characters may vary, but the gist of the stories all seem much the same.  I don't mind that, honestly.  I'm the sort of person who finds repetition comforting and can rewatch and reread the same few things in relatively short order without feeling bored.  As long as the book is pleasant to read, I don't always require something new and startling and mind-boggling. 

(Potentially SPOILERy) Specific Notes: 
--  Golly.  This was published in 1978!  It's older than I am.  ;o)  I sometimes forget that some of Barbara Michaels' novels were written in the 60s and 70s.  Some of them do have a certain... slightly dated feeling, in spots... but for whatever reason, I think of them as all being from the 80s. 

--  As far as I can remember-- based on the books I've read so far-- I seem to have a problem with most of Barbara Michaels' heroines.  She usually takes care to present them as thoroughly modern young women... and while I don't mind that, I do mind that her version of a modern young woman is really, really irritating.  This heroine, Carla, is a fine example of the annoying type.

--"In her youth" (though she's pretty young still!) Carla "had been a fiery radical, waving placards and demanding social justice".  Hm.  I'm not particularly  impressed by fiery young radicals.

--  When Carla meets what's-her-name... Elizabeth?... for the first time, she describes her as a "nonentity".  Well, ok, so maybe my own forgetfulness of the character's name suggests that she was right, but still!  It seemed that Carla was being pretty catty and judgmental of a woman she'd only just met.  Just because Elizabeth was poorly dressed and shy?!  Yeah, well maybe some people are just different from you.  It doesn't make them nonentities.  Ever think of that, you beast?  (Ahem.  I... I really didn't like Carla much.  I don't think I would've minded, truthfully, if the sea demon dude had come and taken her away... ;o))

--   Why in heck is every man of breeding age so infatuated with/interested in Carla?  She's supposed to be physically attractive, and I guess that's all it takes.  Seriously, though!  There's Michael (the dancer), his ugly American friend (as in physically ugly, not with arrogant "ugly American" habits) Tim, the White-Haired Vicar (aka John), and Goldenboy (Simon)... Oh! and the lawyer, Allen (or was it Allan?).  Even her dry, old lawyer in Boston seemed to be getting dazzled by her during their brief interview.  Well, they all fall for her with amazing speed.  One of them-- Allen, I think-- within hours of meeting her, can't keep his hands off her and tells her, "You're a remarkable woman, Carla."  Oh, barf!  First, how would you know?  You've only just met her!  Second, no, she's really not that remarkable.  (Of course, later we learn that Allen had ulterior motives, so...)

--  So, the hero's a dancer.  ...I'm sorry for stereotyping, but a male ballet dancer...  It's just not an ideal career for a hero-- not when he could have had any other career in the world.  It wasn't really important to the plot that he be a dancer.  I guess Michaels was trying to be interesting... different... a real stereotype-smasher.  (Or maybe she had a specific hunky, masculine dancer in mind.  I know they exist... It's just not my personal ideal. (g)  Yes, I'm dreadfully conventional.)  But seriously, why not just make him a male flight attendant and have done with it?

-- Later on, Carla wonders if Mrs. Pendennis "doesn't approve of [Michael's] profession.  A lot of ignorant people think male ballet dancers are queer, or effete, or just plain useless."  Ignorant people, eh?  Well, Ms. Judgypants, it's not a particularly masculine or "useful" job, is it?  It's also certainly no reason for a grandmother to treat her grandson coldly, but I'm pretty confident that wasn't the problem between them, anyway.

--  That reminds me... Did we ever learn why Michael's grandmother was so distant with him?  ...Or whether he was the father of Elizabeth's unborn child?  I assumed he wasn't, but if not, who was?  (Simon?)  I suppose that rumor might account for the coolness between Michael and his grandmother...  Or maybe she never had an abortion at all.  We know by the end of the book that Elizabeth is addicted to heroin, and that alone might have accounted for her problems.  I guess the only one who tells Carla about the supposed abortion was Allen himself.  Strange that it was never really addressed, though.  (Unless I missed it, somehow.) 

--  Carla-- who is not a ballet aficionado-- just happened to have read a review of one of Michael's performances.  Yow!  My willingness to pretend that this is likely is stretched painfully taut.

--  "I think archaeologists are rather too prone to claim an object has a religious function when they can't think of any other purpose for it."  I didn't notice any references to Egypt this time (maybe I simply missed it), but there was archaeology, at least.

--  Upon reading Caroline's (amazingly convenient) diary-- er, "record of her last year on earth"-- Carla notes that "the domestic details were rather interesting.  Caroline had had a normal, healthy feminine interest in fashion."  Ah, 'scuse me just a minute here, but aren't you the same character who was being all judgmental just a while back about people who thought male ballet dancers were likely to be "effete"?  ...And now you're talking about "normal, healthy feminine interest in fashion"?  Am I'm getting that right?  Uh-huh.  So... if I, as a woman, have no special interest in fashion and would rather wear jeans every day than skirts and dresses, is that somehow... unhealthy?  Abnormal?  ...Well?  Just trying to get things straight in my addlepated mind.  We ignorant people need help, sometimes, you know.  *smug smirk*  (I don't like this character.)

--  How weird that Carla, after miraculously stumbling upon this old diary (in her own bed-chamber, of all places), doesn't bother reading or at least skimming through it in short order!  No, she gives it a little look, then sets it aside for a couple of days!  I'd be reading the whole thing immediately.

--  One time I did like Carla-- or rather, liked the author-- was when she's listing all the eligible attractive bachelors (and enumerating their individual charms) and suddenly breaks off.  "It sounds like a soap opera, she thought irritably."  Ha!  Yes, it does.  Thank you for acknowledging it. 

--  Typos aren't that rare-- especially in the e-books I've been reading lately-- but I was surprised by a couple of errors in this book.  First, there's one place where something Carla says is attributed to "Caroline"-- the ancestress who's been dead for a couple hundred years.  Then there are two times that someone is said to have "poured" or be "pouring" over a book or set of records.  Eek.  That's a bad 'un, and to see it twice in the same book...

--  "The wind tugged at her skirt and tangled her lashes."  Wow.  She must have eyelashes to die for, if they're long enough to get tangled by the wind!

--  Alan  (so that's how he spelled it) tells Carla that his sister, Elizabeth, has had an abortion at some point in the past few years.  Carla is surprised by his manner after he brings it up.  "Alan had not struck her as a prude, but perhaps a man felt different about his sister..."  Alan then describes the supposed father of the child as his sister's "seducer" and "betrayer"-- and Carla is "taken aback" by the terminology.  "He sounded like an Old Testament Fundamentalist, or a Victorian father."  ...A bit later, she finds that she can't "quite empathize with Elizabeth's [mental] illness, not if it was really caused by what modern society regarded as a minor misdemeanor."   ...Well, really, Carla, who are you to determine what should and should not be sufficient cause for a mental breakdown?  Even if "modern society" is fine with abortion, there's nothing saying that feelings of guilt subsequent to having her own baby killed in utero couldn't possibly be enough to cause a woman's mental instability.  Just because you're "down wit dat" doesn't mean it's a perfectly natural process with no negative results. 

--  I know that all of these anti-Carla comments must make one wonder why I even kept reading the book, if it was so irritating, but I'm just having my revenge fun now that I'm done with the book.  While reading, I simply noted the absurdities and quickly moved on.  No brooding; very little grumbling. ;o)  So even though I really don't like Carla much, I was still able to enjoy the book.

--  Carla can't find a pair of gloves that fit, so she prunes the roses barehanded.  That alone is... well, kind of stupid.  Work gloves need not fit like... gloves... in order to be worn.  (I speak from experience.)  But then it gets weird.  She comes into the house with thorns still in her hands?!  "Michael insisted on operating.  She was squirming by the time he had extracted the last thorn and painted the hole with iodine." What kind of roses and thorns are these?  My roses (and briars) all have thorns that are plenty large enough to see and remove right away.  Who leaves thorns in their skin to remove later?!  You feel a thorn lodged in your skin?  Unless you're being chased by a wild animal, a serial killer, or a group of zombies, you should then stop what you're doing and remove it-- not leave it in to fester and cause unnecessary pain.  Duh!  (Gosh, this Carla character is an absolute idiot.  But she's a remarkable idiot.)

--  Simon apparently has (or had) a very dark side that he's kept hidden from everyone except Michael-- whom he used to beat up every day, when they were kids.  ...I guess it's possible.  We know there are criminals who manage to lead double lives for years, if not decades.  But if he wasn't able to hide it from Michael, when he was a kid, it seems strange that no-one else in town had a clue that he wasn't such a nice guy.  And why didn't Michael tell anyone about it-- either as a child or as an adult?  It's a little too convenient. 

--  Carla protests, when all is explained, "It's the most complicated thing I ever heard of."  The reply?  "He had a complicated mind."  Um, well... okay.  I guess that takes care of that

--  The story seems to end very quickly.  It's definitely a weaker ending than beginning.