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...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ender's Game

Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card

Publisher's Blurb:
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race's next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn't make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender's skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender's two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
This was a read-along with Donald, selected on a whim.  Only after we were well into the book did we learn that a film adaptation of the book is coming out next month (though it's possible that I'd heard something about it a while ago and forgotten).  

I suggested we read this because I'd heard it described as a "sci-fi classic"-- and the young protagonist made it seem more approachable.  It was certainly alright, but honestly, if I'd been reading this on my own, I don't know if I'd have stayed with it to the end.  Though I wanted to see what would happen to Ender, I found the descriptions of battle games and tactics a little dull.  I think Donald liked the book more than I did, over all.  Not that I didn't like it... I just feel a little ambivalent.

I must confess that I didn't predict the "big twist"-- that while Ender and his team thought they were training on a simulator, they were actually conducting live invasions (commanding the movements of battleships already in place).  However, rather than feeling thrilled by their "insta-victory"-- the destruction the Buggers' home planet and the removal of the great threat-- I found it a bit of a let-down.  There was no build-up of "this is it" tension-- no personal risk... I guess that was kind of the point of Ender's not knowing the truth until afterward-- and maybe it was even meant to negate the popular representation in fiction of war as an exciting-- even exhilarating-- experience.  (The remainder of the book definitely does so.)

The same goes for the post-Bugger conflict on Earth and the tying up of the Locke/Demosthenes plot.  It would probably have been boring to read about those things in much detail, but I couldn't help feeling we were cheated of all detail.

I don't know...
I'm probably just too hard to please, and maybe this isn't my ideal genre...

I was annoyed by Ender's reaction to the news that he had defeated the Buggers-- especially since at that time, he had no reason to suppose that they weren't planning another strike against Earth.  Does that make me an awful person?  Am I Peter (minus the ambition or wish for world domination, apparently)?  If I were actually faced with the decision-- given the power-- maybe I would feel more hesitation, but right now, at this moment, I think I'd be the kind to willingly pull the trigger, even if it meant annihilating an entire other world, if I believed it was the only way to ensure the survival of my own-- considering that the inhabitants of this other world had already attacked us twice, showing not the slightest bit of mercy.  (And... they look like bugs.  I'm sorry, but bug-people?  Really?  Now if they were puppy-people...) 

Then there was the end... I was interested by the idea of colonizing the Bugger planets-- the practicalities of it and the gradual development of societies so far removed from whatever was happening back on Earth.  (Makes you wonder how early colonists in America felt about Europe, back before the world got so small...)

It was going well enough (though very sparsely written)-- and then Ender found the "baby-queen-pupa-thing" and magically he could "communicate" with it/them/the Buggers as a collective-- see its memories, know its past, its intentions, its hopes for the future.  Gee, it sure would've been nice if his bug-telepathy ability had worked over greater distances!  Only... Evidently the bugs could pick up on his dreams across that distance... So... Why couldn't they send him "calming thoughts", "we-mean-you-no-harm" vibes, "we're sorry, so sorry" visions-- or something?  (Was this explained, at all?  Not that I noticed.)

Anyway.  In any case, we're supposed to suddenly somehow sympathize with the Buggers?  They didn't understand us, because we couldn't communicate telepathically (or whatever it was they were doing).  O-kay... But obviously we were an advanced, relatively intelligent race.  And even if we weren't-- if we were "the lonely animals who cannot dream each other's dreams"-- would that make it alright for them to come and try to kill us?  (Hint: The correct answer is "no".)

When the hive-queen saw the human attack coming, she felt "sadness, a sense of resignation"-- "They did not forgive us, she thought.  We will surely die."  ...You know what?  YES, we're going to defend ourselves against a perceived threat.  How were humans supposed to "forgive" when they had no way of knowing that you weren't just regrouping before launching an even bigger attack?  Ugh.  Yeah, yeah, to forgive is divine... I know.  But don't ask me to feel sorry for an alien race of bug-people who attacked Earth twice and then decided that they wished they had left us alone. 

...And then, to top it all off, in addition to "rescuing" the pupa and carefully looking for a world where the Buggers can start afresh, Ender cultivates some sort of Bugger-based "religion":  "On Earth it remained a religion among many religions.  But for those who traveled the great cave of space and lived their lives in the hive-queen's tunnels and harvested the hive-queen's fields, it was the only religion."  ...Um, no.  (I am so intolerant!)

So... Clearly, the book ended on a low point for me.  (g)

I liked Ender better before he found Bugger-religion!  I preferred him as a vulnerable, isolated little killing machine who magically won every single game he ever played. 

"The Residence at Whitminster"

"The Residence at Whitminster"
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". 


When a strange youth is sent to Whitminster for tutelage, he brings something dark with him-- and that darkness will linger for more than a century.  

My Reaction:
First, a reaction to the brief foreword to the entire collection of stories.  James writes deprecatingly of his tales (and the wisdom of publishing sequels in general), but finishes up with this:  "So not a great deal is risked, perhaps, and perhaps also some one's Christmas may be the cheerfuller for a storybook which, I think, only once mentions the war."  

I found this interesting because it brings home so strongly the time in which this book was published. It's easy to forget when these stories were written.  James' short stories are so often set further in the past (or feel somehow timeless) that it came as a bit of a shock to realize that he must have written much (if not all) of this collection during World War I.  It also emphasizes how all-encompassing WWI felt for those who'd lived through it.  Of course we know, abstractly, that all "major" wars were much on people's minds as they were fought, but with our long, relatively low-casualty, drawn-out modern conflicts, in which daily life continues much as it always has (unless you personally know someone who's fighting), we may not realize (or always remember) just how consuming war can be to the average civilian.  That little comment-- "only once mentions the war"-- speaks volumes of the exhaustion people must have felt at the close of WWI-- how eager they were to put it behind them and at least temporarily forget the pain and loss.  So many of them truly believed that they had just endured through "the war to end all wars"-- and they'd paid so steep a price, who could blame them?  When you remember how brief their hard-won peace would be, you're thankful that they had no inkling of what lay ahead.  (If you're feeling fatalistic, it also makes you wonder what the next decade or two has in store for us-- whether future generations will someday say of us, "if they'd only known"...)   

Gee, but I'm cheerful this morning!  
All the result of a particularly delightful combination of lovely "digestive issues" and being woken in the very small hours by a bratty dog.  But it's Friday, and it's not World War I at the moment, so we won't complain too much.  

Hm.  So.  I was going to give a reaction to this story, wasn't I?  

It was fine.  There are creepy moments, certainly.  Shall I list some of them?

--  We learn that the young lord coming to stay at Whitminster is named Saul.  Never a good sign. Why would you name your kid "Saul"?  What, was that the only thing left at the Name Store, the day he was born?

--  When news comes that young Frank is on the verge of death, the others run to his bedside.  But not Saul:  "Lord Saul stopped for a moment where he was.  Molly, the maid, saw him bend over and put both hands to his face.  If it were the last words she had to speak, she said afterwards, he was striving to keep back a fit of laughing."  (That gives me a shiver.  Nothing supernatural about it-- and all the more frightening because of that!)

--  The sawflies.  Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck.  ...Yuck.  I have no great fondness for bugs, as a group.  A large number of insects congregating mysteriously in a room gives me a major case of the creeps.  

--  The description-- or rather the thought-- of walking through a dark room at night and feeling a book "twitched" out of my hand.  ~shiver~  ...Oh, and then being mauled by a giant bug.  (Nooooo!)

--  The description of a maid coming out of "the sawfly room":  "Why, her cap and her hair, you couldn't see the colour of it, I do assure you, and all clustering round her eyes, too."  (Aaaaack!!  No, no, no-- not clustering around her eyes, I beg of you!)  

--  The ghostly face pressed up against the villager's window!  The thought of being watched-- or at least visually sought-- by something sinister... So, so creepy.  

There were other eerie/scary moments, but the ones listed above stood out for me. 

Chief Complaint:
James' obsession with framing his stories as "documented" or "discovered" does tend to weaken them, I think.  He loves telling us that he found this part of the story in such-and-such a place-- and garnered that part of the story from another source.  "I rather guess these thoughts of his than find written authority for them," he admits, at one point.  Look, man.  We know the story is fictional, and that's okay.  You don't have to dress it up with all the trappings of legitimacy, ok?  

Weird Word o' the Day:  "mickle"
...As in "a talisman of mickle might".  It is just familiar enough that I know I've seen/heard it before, but it's not a word I see everyday.  It's kind of catchy, though... "mickle might"...

Take your humor where you find it:
"...Dr. Henry Oldys, whose name may be known to some of my readers as that of the author of a row of volumes labelled Oldys's Works, which occupy a place that must be honoured, since it is so rarely touched, upon the shelves of many a substantial library."  Oh, snap!  (As they say...)  Dr. Oldys just got served!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sons of the Wolf

Sons of the Wolf
by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
Ada and Harriet don't know what to expect when they meet their new guardian, Mr. Wolfson. Here is a strangely magnetic, darkly amusing man confined to a wheelchair and flanked by a pair of fierce, dangerous dogs—an enigmatic benefactor, at once welcoming and intimidating. Even more unsettling to the girls are Wolfson's two sons, Julian and Francis. One of them is warm and good-natured, the other is pure malevolence. But young Harriet is about to discover a frightening truth: that evil runs rampant throughout their mysterious new home, Abbey Manor, and the surrounding moors—especially when the moon comes out . . .

My Reaction:
Nineteenth-century England!  The mystery of the moors!  Local legends of werewolves!  Spoooooky!

Well, not really that spooky at all, actually.  The story's formulaic and therefore predictable.  The title and blurb (and to a lesser degree, even the cover) are somewhat misleading; if you're expecting a supernatural element, you'll be disappointed.  But somehow I still found it enjoyable.  This isn't one of the author's strongest books, in my humble opinion, but it's not bad, if you like the genre. (And I do, it seems...)  Whatever its weaknesses, the story kept me interested, and it was always easy to slip into the book and forget the real world for a while.  I love authors who can consistently provide that kind of escape!

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  The fairly frequent "dog/canine/wolf" references made me laugh.  For instance, early in the book, Julian's smile "is so melancholy in its charm that it makes [Harriet] want to pat his head".  Like a dog, you mean?

--  Harriet's name.  I can't see/read/hear the name "Harriet" without thinking of Harriet Olesen-- specifically as portrayed in the TV version of Little House on the Prairie.  (g) ...I probably need not add that it is not one of my favorite names.  Ranks right up there with "Hortense" and "Agatha"... and "Ursula".  Not that there's anything wrong with any of those names (I feel obligated to add).  They're just not my personal favorites.

-- "'I know you well enough, I believe, to sense that the silly nothings of a woman's day do not amuse you.  You prefer activities that have some meaning, some use.'  'I could embroider you a pair of slippers,' I said daringly, 'with pansies or a sprig of mignonette.'  He threw back his head and laughed resoundingly.  'That's precisely what I mean.  Embroidery, sketching, music-- activities for empty-headed dolls of young ladies.'"  Why so harsh?  What's wrong with embroidery, sketching, and music as pass-times?

--  I was beginning to think this would be the single Barbara Michaels novel without some slight reference to Egypt, mummies, etc.-- but no!  "I must be more desperate for society than I realized, so to anticipate seeing a band of dusty, disreputable Egyptians!" ...and then the old gypsy woman says that her crystal ball was given to her "by the pharaohs long ago".  Incidentally, I've never heard of gypsies being from Egypt... Ok, gave it a quick look-up.  Interesting history... It seems that at some point(s) in the past, Europeans thought gypsies were from Egypt-- and that lead to the word "gypsy", in fact-- but these days, it is believed (maybe even proven) that they originated in India.

--  It's always funny (in an exasperating way) when these supposedly intelligent, "strong-minded" heroines fail to see what is right before their eyes.  When Wolfson tells Harriet some of his evil plans, why would she still assume that the wicked son who'll possibly force himself on Ada would be Francis instead of Julian?  It makes no sense!  If Francis was the one working with Wolfson, why would there have been such animosity between the two?  To be fair, there was animosity among all three of the men, but it did seem to focus on Francis. 

--  I was honestly shocked that David didn't turn out to be the young gentleman that Wolfson had stolen from.  Maybe he was too old for it to be him... and I'm not sure how it would have been explained, but I felt confident that he'd turn out to be "eligible".  Though the whole Ada/David aspect of the story bored me, I was happily surprised that Ada was "allowed" to marry a common stable boy and that they were going to be farmers.

-- I did try not to nitpick too much, but the diary format, while it worked pretty well for most of the book, felt a little unnatural once the situation became urgent and things were happening quickly.  Writing about what she sees at one window... then hurrying to the other... Why would she waste precious time pausing to write about all that?  

--  Though I enjoyed it as a whole, there were a few embarrassing moments in this book.  Some of the things Wolfson says to Harriet (about her charms-- especially compared to Ada's)... ~cringe~  Also, I think this was the closest thing to an actual bodice-ripper that I've ever read.  (g)  I mean, the bodice of Harriet's dress is literally ripped by the villain.  It made me laugh a little, I'm afraid.  Nothing "serious" happens, of course, and there's not much more than a few kisses and innuendos-- but a bodice was actually ripped!  I was stunned.

-- What with the wheelchair-bound "master of the house" (and villain) and the strained father-son relationship, this book reminded me a little of Nine Coaches Waiting.  That was the better book of the two, I think. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Publisher's Blurb:
Meet Frank Cauldhame. Just sixteen, and unconventional to say the least:

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.  It was just a stage I was going through.

My Reaction:
My reaction?  Occasional moments of "squirm", "well, yuck", and "please stop" sprinkled over long periods of "resounding meh". 

I began reading the book knowing that it was going to be "dark"-- more than dark, probably disturbing.  I wasn't sure how I was going to react to that.  I thought I might decide to stop reading.  As it turns out, I reached the end of the book by skimming a few sections.  Sometimes I skimmed paragraphs because the story was getting to me (or rather, I was afraid it was about to do so), but at other times, I skimmed because nothing interesting was happening.

Parts of the book-- or maybe I should say aspects of the book-- are well-written (never pleasant to read, but well-crafted), but it is far from a masterpiece, in my humble opinion.

It's not really scary, by the way.  Much more "disgusting" than "terrifying".  I'm not sure how much of what Frank believes about his family is true (because he gets most of his information from such an unreliable source), but I kept wondering why nearly everyone in his family seems to be (or have been) extremely lacking in mental stability.  I know these things "run in families"-- but some of these family members were only related by marriage, so... Anyway, just wondering.

Most of the story felt like it was building for a big, explosive (*coughcorditecough*) ending, but the actual "bombshell moment" was... just weird.  I didn't see it coming, but I wasn't really wowed by it, either.  

I won't go into greater detail, because... well, I don't want to!  I finished the book because I wanted to know what happened-- and now that I do, I'm ready to wash my hands of it and find something that doesn't leave me feeling filthy.

I think this book has (temporarily?) cured my wish to peek into this genre, so at least some good came of it.  ;o)

One more thing... Frank's murders all have an air of unreality-- or at least unlikelihood.  First, he just happens to find a venomous snake.  Second, he just happens to find an unexploded bomb.  Third, he builds a kite big enough to sweep a little girl into the air and out to sea. I suppose it's all possible, but it seems like luck was really, really on his side.

...In some ways-- apart from how downright disgusting he often is--  Frank is much less terrifying a character than Rhoda from The Bad Seed.  Now that seems like a realistic portrait of a child psychopath!  Much more highly recommended than this novel. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Envious Casca

Envious Casca
by Georgette Heyer

Publisher's Blurb:
'Tis the season-to be dead...

A holiday party takes on a sinister aspect when the colorful assortment of guests discovers there is a killer in their midst. The owner of the substantial estate, that old Scrooge Nathaniel Herriard, is found stabbed in the back. While the delicate matter of inheritance could be the key to this crime, the real conundrum is how any of the suspects could have entered a locked room to commit the foul deed.

For Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, the investigation is complicated by the fact that every guest is hiding something-throwing all of their testimony into question and casting suspicion far and wide. The clever and daring crime will mystify readers, yet the answer is in plain sight all along...

My Reaction:
I found this to be just what I'd expected from one of Georgette Heyer's mysteries-- a light, entertaining murder mystery with some nice comic touches and the requisite "on-the-side" love story.  Though I didn't know the "how" until just about when it was revealed, I figured out the "who" and "why" fairly early in the book, but that didn't ruin the reading experience.  Many of the characters aren't especially likeable-- but that just makes it easier to enjoy the biting things they say to one another. 

Random Specifics  (with the occasional SPOILER):
--  I had no idea what the title meant, so when the book ended with no explanation, I had to look it up.  And I read Julius Ceasar in high school, too!  Oh well.

--  I didn't realize this was set at Christmastime. (Obviously hadn't read the blurb.)  It was a bit jarring, at first.  (I'm longing for autumn to finally settle in for good-- far too early to think of Christmas celebrations, yet!)

--  "Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by a wornout convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather."

--  A few different times through the book, a character's manner of speech was described as "vulgar"-- and sometimes I don't quite see the vulgarity...  For example, someone makes an obvious statement, and:  "'You don't say!' remarked Miss Clare vulgarly."  What was so vulgar about that?  (Incidentally, the word "vulgar" itself feels vulgar-- just plain gross-- to me.)

--  "It was not Nathaniel's custom to keep late hours, nor was he the kind of person who altered his habits to suit the convenience of his guests."

--  "She supposed adolescent boys were kittle-cattle: people said they were."  Had to look up "kittle-cattle".  Capricious, touchy, etc.

--  Those darned "steps" (step-ladder) are mentioned so frequently that you just know they're going to figure into the murder, somehow-- though I admit I suspected something much more straightforward, such as that someone would "accidentally" leave them where Nathaniel would be sure to trip over them and break his neck.   Ditto The Life of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (or whatever it was called).  ...The part about its repeated mention being significant, I mean-- not that someone would trip over it and die.  ;o)

--  "At no time fond of being read to..."  Ha!  I don't love being read to, either.  I'm coming to enjoy audio books a little more than I used to, but I still find that my mind tends to wander.  It's funny, because as a child I loved it when our teachers would read to us for a while after lunch... and I really enjoy reading aloud, myself, if the book is good.  I just have a hard time focusing when someone else is reading, these days.  I prefer to see the words on the page. 

--  When Mathilda spills tea on her dress and Stephen tosses her his handkerchief, Valerie says "tea stains things absolutely fatally".  Mathilda responds that it won't stain if you rub hard enough, and proceeds to do so, to which Valerie replies that she was thinking of Stephen's hanky.  I laughed and laughed.  ...Maybe you had to be there...

--  Hey, Mathilda's a plain heroine-type-character!  (The nearest thing to a heroine in this book, at least.)  Of course, she devotes a great deal of attention to her dress, to overcome her lack of beauty, but still.  I appreciate an unbeautiful character-- especially when she's not an object of pity.

--  Maybe it was partially just that I was reading on the treadmill and could have been woozy from the exercise ;o), but the whole "play-reading" scene was hilarious.  The best part of the book, by far. 

--  Before the reading of the play: "Stephen held out a plate of small cakes. 'Take one.  Always fortify yourself against coming ordeals.'"

--   Nathaniel: "'I can judge your play without your assistance.  Seen more good, bad, and indifferent plays in my time than you've ever dreamt of.'  He rounded suddenly on Roydon. 'What category does yours come into?'"

--  "'I don't write problems,' said Roydon, in rather too high a voice. 'And enjoyment is the last thing I expect anyone to feel!  If I've succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.'  'A noble ideal,' commented Stephen. 'But you shouldn't say it as though you thought it unattainable.  Not polite.'"

--  Roydon is setting the scene for the first act... "'The carpet is threadbare, and the wallpaper, which is flowered in a design of roses in trellis-work tied up with blue ribbons, is stained in several places.'  'Stained with what?' asked Stephen.  Roydon, who had never considered this point, glared at him, and said: 'Does it matter?'  'Not to me, but if it's blood you ought to say so, and then my betrothed can make an excuse to go away.  She's squeamish.'  'Well, it isn't!  I don't write that kind of play.  The wallpaper is just stained.'  'I expect it was from damp,' suggested Maud.  'It sounds as though it would be a damp sort of place.'  Stephen turned his mocking gaze upon her, and said: 'You shouldn't say that, Aunt. After all, we haven't heard enough to judge yet.'"

--  More scene-setting:  "'A tawdry doll leans drunkenly on the dressing-table; and a pair of soiled pink corsets are flung across the only armchair.'  He looked round in a challenging kind of way as he enunciated this, and appeared to wait for comment.  'Ah yes, I see!' said Joseph, with a deprecating glance at the assembled company. 'You wish to convey an atmosphere of sordidness.'  'Quite, quite!' said Mottisfont, coughing.  'And let us admit freely that you have succeeded,' said Stephen cordially.  'I always think there's something frightfully sordid about corsets, don't you?' said Valerie.  'Those satin ones, I mean, with millions of bones and laces and things.  Of course, nowadays one simply wears an elastic belt, if one wears anything at all, which generally one doesn't.'  'You'll come to it, my girl,' prophesied Mathilda."

-- Still setting the scene:  "'Lucetta May is discovered, seated before her dressing table.  She is wearing a shoddy pink negligee, which imperfectly conceals--'  'Careful!' Stephen warned him. 'It is grimy round the edge, and the lace is torn!' said Roydon defiantly."

--  Maud, after interrupting by wandering around the room in search of her knitting, asks Roydon to continue reading.  "'So interesting!  It quite takes one back.'  Stephen, who had joined Mathilda in the search for the knitting, remarked, sotto voce, that he had always wondered where Joe had picked Maude up, and now he knew."  (The play is set in a brothel, I think... or at least the main character is a prostitute.)

--  I don't get why everyone is so dead set against playing games in this book... No-one is interested in charades or... something called "clumps".   More than once, I was thinking, "Hey, that sounds like fun!"-- but no, the "cool people" in the books all act as though the thought of playing a game (other than billiards) is horrible.  I just don't get the (apparently common) dislike of party games in general.  What else are you going to do, when you're compelled to spend a significant length of time in a room with a group of people?  Sit around and talk the whole time?  Chit-chat is fine for a little while, but eventually it becomes boring.  (Maybe I'm just not good at it...)  At least games mix things up a little. 

--  More about the play read-aloud: "'This Roydon fellow seems to have read the thing aloud to him yesterday afternoon, and Nat lost his temper over it, and there was a general sort of row.  Well, I'm a fair-minded man, and, after all, you can't be surprised, can you?  I mean, coming down to stay with a man, and then reading stuff aloud to him!  Never heard of such a thing!'"

--  The man from Scotland Yard bemoans the fact that "with all these thrillers that get written nowadays by people who ought to know better than to go putting ideas into criminals' heads, there's no chance of any murderer forgetting to wipe off his finger-prints.  Sickening, I call it."  Funny, when you consider that the person writing this was herself one of those "people who ought to know better".  So they were saying things like that even back then?  I seem to remember similar complaints about C.S.I., back in its earlier years...

--  "'I always go to church on Christmas Day,' replied Maud.  'And on Sundays, too.'  'One had not realised that there were still people who did!' said Roydon, with the air of one interested in the habits of aborigines."

--  "'You must forgive a mother's foolish heart if I say that I can't help wishing that this hadn't happened!'  'I know, and I understand,' said Joseph earnestly.  'If only my Val had not been in the house!' said Mrs. Dean, apparently stating her only objection to the murder."

-- "Musquash"-- muskrat, or muskrat fur, evidently.

--  "Oustiti"-- a tool for locking or unlocking a door from the outside (without the key).  Context clues made this one obvious, but it was still a new (and odd) word for me.

-- "'Of course, there must not be anything rowdy, but I know some very good paper-games which I know you young people will enjoy.'  This suggestion smote everyone dumb with dismay.  Paula was the first to recover the power of speech, and said, with her customary forthrightness: 'I abominate paper-games!'  'Lots of people say that to begin with,' said Mrs. Dean, 'but they always join in in the end.'"  I'm not sure what a "paper-game" is... but judging by the reactions, it's something truly awful.

--  "'Did your nerve fail you?' he asked.  'Badly.  She behaves like a professional hostess at a hydro.'"  I see that "hydro" is British slang for "an establishment offering hydropathic treatment (as for weight loss)"-- or a health spa.  Hm.

--  "'Let it be understood, Stephen, that if there are to be Quiet Games I shall go to bed with a headache!'"  Wow, these people really loathe party games...

--  "'You talk as though Black Maria was at the door, but I maintain that the police haven't got enough evidence even to detain you.'"  "Black Maria" is slang for the police van used to transport prisoners.  (Learning lots of new words/terms today!)

--  "But Sturry, when informed that Inspector Hemingway had need, for unspecified reasons, of a ladder, was not helpful.  He said that he regretted there was nothing of that nature in the house.  His tone did not imply regret, but rather an unexplained contempt of ladders."  Ah, the uptight, snobbish butler!  Where would light drawing-room mysteries be without him?  Comedy gold!

--  The moment when Mathilda's recounting her version of events one final time-- and realizes that even as she laughed when Nathaniel slammed his bedroom door, he had already been struck a deathblow... Her horror in that knowledge gives us the most emotional, grim moment in the book.  These types of mysteries don't usually dwell too much on the fact that, um, someone was just murdered in their vicinity--  the loss of the victim--  recognition of mortality-- "ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"-- etc.  I guess they can't, without becoming much more serious in tone.  Still, a little human sympathy and acknowledgement of the loss of (fictional) life is nice.  I appreciated it. 

-- The actual murder itself struck me as incredibly improbable.  Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems tricky to aim the knife so that you can be reasonably sure that the victim won't notice he's been stabbed (even if he does suffer from lumbago) and/or visibly bleed before he gets to his room, notice that fact, and call out for help, which isn't very far away.  Even if you've "researched" the subject, it's not the kind of thing you can easily practice.  Basically, it seems like Joseph was running unnecessary risks.
--  I suppose that having Joseph apprehended "off stage" keeps things light, but it feels a little of a let-down...

-- What is up with Maud?  She's such a strange character!