Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell

Publisher's Blurb:
Zombies have infested a fallen America. A young girl named Temple is on the run. Haunted by her past and pursued by a killer, Temple is surrounded by death and danger, hoping to be set free.

For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can't remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her on a personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks.

My Reaction:
I had a mixed reaction to this book.  It was very well written-- much more elegantly (if not realistically) presented than your average zombie novel.  I admired the strength of our young heroine, Temple, and was always interested in what would happen next.  And yet... Something was missing.  Emotion... I didn't have an emotional response.  For whatever reason, it left me, if not quite cold, at least a little cool.  As a result, I have to give a half-hearted review.

Caveats aside, I would recommend the book to fans of zombie/post-apocalyptic fiction who are looking for something less pulpy, more literary.  Though in some ways it seems like YA literature, some of the rough language and themes (not to mention the violence) make it inappropriate for younger readers.  Best for only the oldest teens and up, imho. 

Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--  I liked Temple best in the very first section of the book and somewhat less as the story went on.  (Not a good sign...)

--  Temple drags out some odd words for a girl who apparently has had so little formal education.  (She's street smart, but illiterate.)

--  It's always interesting to see how characters in a zombie novel label the zombies.  (Seems like they very rarely call them "zombies".)  In this book, we have "slugs", "meatskins", "creepers", and "gobblers".

--  Temple was born into the zombie-infested world.  She doesn't know anything else, and so she's more at home in the new landscape than are adults who remember how things used to be.  She's exasperated with people who sigh over the past and creep through the present with fear and loathing-- or act like they expect the world to somehow change back, if only they wait long enough.  She, instead, is the ultimate pragmatist.  The world is what it is; she's alive now, and she accepts her reality with no qualms.  That's a fascinating perspective, and one I don't think I've seen addressed in other zombie books. 

--  Not a huge fan of the present tense in fiction.  Eventually, I got used to it, but I still don't love it.  Similarly, not impressed by the lack of quotation marks. I mean, why?  It just makes the book more difficult to read.  (Of course, I think e.e. cummings was pretty ridiculous for eschewing capital letters.  My tolerance for nonsense is low.)

--  The Biblical references... Not sure I have much to say about them.  Ta-da.  They were there. 

--  "In her own experience, she's learned that happiness and sadness find their own level no matter what's biting you, mosquitoes or meatskins."

--  I was amazed to read reviews that faulted Temple for killing Abraham Todd.  She could've called for help, yes, but she's a teen-aged girl, he's a grown man, she's in an unfamiliar place, and help might not have come in time, if at all.  Also, she didn't try to kill him.  He suffocated while she was fighting him-- after he first tried to force himself on her, then tried to slice her open when she punched him in the groin.  It's not like she planned to kill him, but you know what?  I wouldn't feel particularly upset with her if she had killed him on purpose.  Think of all the other poor girls or women he might have abused in the future.  This is the post-apocalyptic world, guys.  There's not a judge sitting in the courthouse waiting to sentence him to time in jail.  You try to rape or kill someone, you get what's coming to you.

--  All that said... "She shakes her head.  I liked this place too."  ...Scary girl.

--  When Temple and Maury stop at the gate of Belle Isle, the manservant/butler comes out to speak to them... Temple rather presumptuously invites herself inside: "...How about lettin us come in and get some rest?  We're just travelin through, and it looks like you got some hospitality to spare."  The servant politely replies that this is a private residence.  Temple's having none of that: "Private residence?  Where you from anyway?  ... There ain't no private residences anymore, mister.  There's just places where slugs are and places where they ain't."  ...This does nothing to endear Temple to me.  Look, honey, it may be the zombie-apocalypse and all, but maybe you ought to take a lesson in manners and diplomacy.  ...And no such thing as a private residence?  There's no way you'd be getting in my house after that.  Heels, dug in.  Umbrage, taken. 

--  There are plenty of gaps in our understanding of this version of the world.  For example, who's keeping the electricity going (in places)? 

--  Am I bothered by Temple's habit of calling Maury "dummy", before she knows his name?  Well, I don't love it, but I don't think it's intended to be mean-spirited.

--  As soon as we read that "their poor father isn't well at the moment", there might as well be a big sign in flashing lights, reading "He's a zombie"...

--  There was a momentarily confusing typo-- "Mrs. Grierson and her son look at her", when surely it should be "grandson" (because, yep, her son is zombie-ing around in the basement).  All said, though, there were very few typos or errors of that kind.

--  Somehow Temple knows that she "can't have babies", but we never learn how she knows that, or what happened to prevent it.

--  Ok.  The whole Moses Todd storyline.  ...I guess we're not supposed to overthink it, because it's simply crucial that these characters should behave as they do, for the story to flow to its eventual conclusion.  But.  I'm not good at letting these things go.

Moses chases Temple down and tells her that he intends to kill her in revenge for the death of his brother (the wicked Abraham).  Temple of course explains that Abraham had been threatening her, but Moses has already guessed as much-- and it doesn't change his perspective:  "That boy was my flesh and blood, idiot or no.  Yeah, he wasn't a good man.  But that don't make no difference.  And you know it."  *eyeroll* ...I guess there are (still) people like that, but... I just find them hard to believe.  You know your brother was a good-for-nothing abuser and you still blame this girl for killing him in self-defense?  To the point that you'd kill her for revenge?  I don't get that level of blind family loyalty.  I love my family, but if I knew that a sibling had died as a result of trying to hurt someone else, unprovoked, I couldn't blame the other person for fighting back. 

...I think the problem is that Moses seems reasonable in so many ways.  He's not an evil person.  He intends to take Millie back to her people (um, before he kills her in a fit of vengeful rage), and he takes over the care of Maury for Temple's sake.  And yet in this one area of his life, he's just insane.  He knows his brother was asking for something bad to happen to him-- he grows fond of Temple, admires her-- but he can't just let it go and move on with his life...   It is frustrating.

Similarly, I'm frustrated by Temple's unwillingness to... "do away with" Moses, once it becomes clear that he's obsessed with killing her.  Maybe it's noble of her to refuse to kill him when he's bound to a chair, but... the man is promising to come after her and finish her off!  "You ain't done nothing to me," she says, to which he replies, "Not yet.  But I give you another guarantee-- my word as a man under the gray heaven of death.  The next time I see you, I sure am gonna kill you."

Of course, it turns out that because she refuses to kill Moses at that moment, he's alive later to save her from another enemy.  (Because that's how these things usually turn out.)  And then when she and Maury are escaping from this new mutual enemy, she leaves Moses behind in his prison cell-- but not before slipping him a weapon so he'll have a fighting chance.  And again, all this as he's still promising to kill her as soon as he can.  (Argh!)

In the end, though Moses doesn't strike the fatal blow, he might as well have.  Millie kills Temple, and Millie wouldn't have been there if Moses hadn't brought her along.  And Temple wouldn't have run out into Millie's line of fire if she hadn't been fleeing Moses, trying to draw him away from Maury.

It feels like we're supposed to respect Temple's integrity, but instead, I find the whole situation difficult to believe.  I guess I'm a worse person than Temple, because I think I'd have killed Moses, if he insisted that he would (eventually) kill me if I didn't kill him first.

--  The mutant hillbilly section of the book was... odd.  It doesn't make much sense.  Seems like it was put in just to add another layer of horror and to give Moses a chance to (temporarily) save Temple-- and for Temple to go into "psycho kill mode", followed by giving Moses another chance to escape and come after her.  (~grumble~)  Anyway, it was weird.  When I say that it felt too far-fetched and science-fictional to fit smoothly into a zombie novel, I hope I make my point.

--  Temple and Maury share a boxcar with some refugees who are "huddled and helpless", looking at her "through eyes that seem to predict death".  "Temple hates them instinctively."  She may be right, but it doesn't make her very sympathetic to the reader. 

...And I guess that's about it.  I wanted a happy ending for Temple, just on principle, but in the end, I still didn't get that painful lump in my throat that I never fail to get for Old Dan and Little Ann (Where the Red Fern Grows).  Temple holds everyone out at arm's length, and it's hard to be emotionally invested in a character like that. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Drowned Hopes

Drowned Hopes 
by Donald E. Westlake

Publisher's Blurb:
An old cellmate asks Dortmunder for help robbing a reservoir.

In his day, Tom was a hard man. He came up with Dillinger in the 1930s, and pulled a lot of high-profile jobs before the state put him away. They meant it to be for good, but after twenty-three years the prisons are too crowded for seventy-year-old bank robbers, and so they let the old man go. Finally free, he heads straight for John Dortmunder’s house.
Long ago, Tom buried $700,000, and now he needs help digging it up. While he was inside, the government dammed a nearby river, creating a reservoir and putting fifty feet of water on top of his money. He wants to blow the dam, drown the villagers, and move to Acapulco. If Dortmunder wants a clean conscience to go along with his share, he needs to find a nice way to get the money before Tom’s nasty instincts get the best of both of them.

My Reaction:
(This was a "shared read" with Donald-- my first time reading a Westlake novel.  Donald had listened to a couple audiobook versions of other "Dortmunder" novels, so we chose this based on those experiences.  As always, a shared read means no nit-picking witty, insightful, and detailed reactions.)

We laughed a lot during the reading.  That's a good sign in a comedic "crime caper" novel.  I could easily imagine this book being turned into a film.  (And that's a compliment, in this case.)

I think we both agree that the book was a little on the long side (400+ pages) for reading together, which always slows down a reading even further.  There were parts that probably could've been edited out.  Personally, I felt my interest wander whenever we got paragraphs of descriptions of the particulars of "how stuff works"-- or how the zany gang was physically arranging things.  Yeah, I don't really care about that sort of thing, and I don't have much success in visualizing it, honestly.  I'd much rather read dialogue than descriptions of objects being maneuvered.  Fortunately, those boring bits were fairly few and far between.

The characters (according to Donald) are mostly the same recurring cast from the rest of the Dortmunder series, but apart from one or two references to previous books, I didn't feel like I was stepping into the middle of a story without knowing the background.

Drowned Hopes was first published in 1990.  Now, I remember 1990-- or parts of it-- quite well, so it pains me to realize that a novel published that year should seem slightly dated at times.  Not in any way that is detrimental to the enjoyment of reading it, but yes, dated.  (It's like when I watch a re-run of Seinfeld, laugh at some outdated piece of technology or hairstyle-- or Jerry's "mom jeans".  I think, "But it hasn't been that long since this show was on..."  And then I do the math and realize that, yes, it has been 25 years since the first episode aired, and gosh, I'm not getting any younger, either.  Yikes.)

So, final word:  The story was amusing-- very funny in parts-- and certainly good enough that I'd read more by the author.  (But maybe further down the road, because it felt like this one took quite a while to finish, and I'm ready for something different.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


from Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman

A strange tale of a German (I guess?  or is he Austrian?) nobleman and the ominous patch of "No Man's Water" in the lake near his home.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
I don't know what to make of this story.  It's amorphous, with a plot that drifts along like the shifting thread of a dream.  At various points, I thought maybe it was about to start making sense, but no.  It never truly did.  I have to say, I'm not particularly impressed.  Maybe I'm missing something that would elevate it to greatness, but if it's that subtle, it may not be for me.  Call me lazy, but I don't want to work that hard for my "pleasure reading". 

That said, there were some interesting passages and frightening nightmare-moments.  The sensation of the depth and darkness of the water... The sudden loss of the oars... That horrific image of the woman...

I'm taking a break from this short story collection.  Maybe if I come back to it later, I'll enjoy it more.

Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
-- I am entirely befuddled by Elmo's relationship with Viktor.  "...In Viktor for the first time he had found a friend who actually enhanced (instead of slightly spoiling and diminishing) the experience of boating on the lake, more often than not at night.  Viktor, who was olive-skinned and black-haired, sometimes dressed as a girl for this purpose, and it was as if Elmo had mysteriously, albeit but momentarily, acquired the sister he had so much lacked."  ...Um, what?  I'll admit that I'm conventional in this respect (in that I like men to look like men), but why was Viktor dressing as a girl?

--  "...The hand that the relaxed Victor was gently trailing through the water was, with all quiet around, suddenly bitten half away." ... "One of the doctors with whom Elmo spoke expressed the medical view that the entity which had inflicted the terrible injury had also infected the entire physiology of the victim with some bacillus, perhaps unknown, which had in a measure unbalanced his judgement."

--  "...the imminence of spring, the worst quarter of the year for the sensitive, the period of most suicides, the season of greatest sadness..."  Is that true?  It sounds vaguely familiar... Ok, I looked it up, and it is supported by research-- but of course no-one's sure what's behind the phenomenon.  I enjoy spring itself, but not as much as autumn, because I know it will soon be summer (my least favorite season)-- but I was under the impression that most people enjoy and look forward to summer nearly as much-- if not more-- than spring. Of course, if you're suicidal, you're not experiencing things the way "most people" are, anyway...

--  "'We are most of us two people, your Highness. ... And the two people within us seldom communicate.  Even when both are present together in consciousness, there is little communication.  Neither can confront the other without discomfort.  ... Life, as we know it, could hardly continue if men did not soon slay the dreamer inside them.  There are the children to think of; the mothers who breed them and thus enable our race to endure; the economy; the ordered life of society. ... If any man examines his inner truth with both eyes wide open, and his inner eye wide open also, he will be overcome with terror at what he finds.'"  ...and... "'Women have no inner life that is decisively apart.  With women the inner life merges ever with the totality.  That is why women seem to men either deceitful and elusive, or moralistic and uninteresting.  Women have no problem comparable with the problem of merely being a man.'"  *snort*  Yeah.  Whatever. 

-- So, out there on the lake, in No Man's Water, men are supposed to "encounter the image within them", right?  So... Elmo's image within himself is a lady with "large eyes and a large mouth", which is "open, showing white and pointed teeth, as many teeth as a strange fish"-- not smiling.  ...What in the heck am I supposed to make of that?  Was it Elmo's "inner image" that bit off part of Viktor's hand?  Why did he see the inner image that night/morning when he was about to kill himself?  What does it have to do with Elvira?

--  "The few remains were far beyond identification.  The body had been gnashed and gnawed and ripped, so that even the bones were mostly sliced away and splintered.  And, of course, there was no proper head.  All had in truth to be guesswork. 'There's nothing in that coffin,' men mouthed to each other when, in a few days' time, the hour came for the noble ceremony."  ...So did Elmo's "inner image" somehow gnaw his body, splinter his bones, and eat/destroy his head?

Meh, I give up.  It doesn't make sense to me-- not even the bizarre sort of "sense" that strange/horror stories generally do. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Real Road to the Church"

"The Real Road to the Church"
from Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman

A tired, withdrawn, aging-but-not-old woman learns that her residence is located in a spiritually significant place.  Though she scoffs at first-- after all, she's been living there a year and has yet to see or hear anything strange-- she soon begins to wonder if the tale is more than mere mystical gossip.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
I don't know what to say about this story...

I gather that all of these stories will be lacking in easy, straightforward explanation; there is even a quote at the beginning of the book to that effect.  (“In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation."--Sacheverell Sitwell)   I think I may be hard (impossible?) to please, as far as "explanations" go.   If there's none at all-- and if I feel unsure what conclusion to draw-- I often feel cheated.  On the other hand, if the explanation is too detailed and precise, I label that a flaw.  It's rare that an author walks the line to my pure satisfaction, though I will usually enjoy some aspects of a story, despite faults.

...Anyway, we're probably not meant to expect much in the way of explanations, but sometimes that leaves me with nothing to say...

So... In the end, Rosa sees her soul, looking as her body looks now-- no younger, no older-- being borne by the men she's "loved and left" in years past, then passed over to a new group of "porters".  Rosa's soul tells her that they will see one another again, "one day", and that until then, Rosa should "forget and live".  Rosa goes back inside with intentions of packing the next day and re-entering the world (in this case, London).  "It was impossible to know where she would go thereafter."

Somehow, parting from her soul was her way of letting go of the past and preparing herself to move on-- to continue living instead of hiding away from the world for the rest of her days.  I get the idea of letting go of the past, forgetting mistakes and regrets.  I can see why that might lead some readers to describe this story as having a hopeful, relatively upbeat ending-- EXCEPT.  Except for the fact that Rosa's now separated from her soul... ?  I mean, how can you be you without your soul?  Seeing your soul depart seems pretty creepy and ominous to me-- decidedly not uplifting, if you're still alive.  I mean, how would that even work, assuming you believe in the existence of the soul?  It's just a head-scratcher for me. 

Not a fave. 

--  "Conventions are, indeed, all that shield us from the shivering void, though often they do so but poorly and desperately."

--  As always, the mention of Sweden causes a perking of the ears... "At one period, Rosa had lived in Stockholm with an actual Swede (far and away the worst year of her life-- or more than a year: it had all ended in her breakdown), but the language of Sweden (and never would she forget the pitch of it) seemed to have nothing whatever in common with the language of Mrs Du Quesne and her friends." ... and later... "...that big, fat Oskar had been actually killed, Scandinavian-style, in a fight, and a fight that was at least partly about her."  I had no idea it was the Scandinavian style to be killed in a fight over a woman!  This is all very interesting.

-- "He always professed a special concern with such things, and could certainly talk without end about them, though perhaps without much meaning either."

--  "She had always found life to move by contraries, usually pretty ones, though sometimes not; and, as often before when she had been depressed, now found herself surprised that she looked as well as she did.  She had long ago learned that it was when she had been feeling more confident that the sight of her appearance came always as something of a shock.  Life evens things up or down; in small matters and in large (even though Rosa would have hesitated to distinguish between the two)."

--  "She had long ago made a decision to defer talking to herself for as long as she could."  (Ah, one of my pet peeves!  The popular insinuation that speaking aloud when there's no-one to hear but yourself is somehow undesirable.  What's the problem with soliloquies, pray tell?  I like 'em.)

--  "'...Mrs. Hughes, your whole life has been a quest for perfection.  You have always been concerned only with perfection, and as in this world there is no perfection, you are sad.  Sadness can be a very special-- shall I say, concession?'"  ...Hm.  No offense to Mrs. Hughes/Rosa, but is drifting from man to man for most of your adult life really a "quest for perfection"?  I guess you could argue that she was searching for the perfect man, but...

-- "'We control nothing of importance that happens to us.'" A fatalist, eh?

Friday, June 13, 2014

"The Swords"

"The Swords"
from Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman

When a young man working as a traveling salesman happens upon a shabby tent on the edge of a small fair, he finds a bizarre and life-altering show already in progress.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
The subtitle of this collection is "strange stories", and you couldn't ask for more accuracy.  Strange, indeed! 

The author provides no outright explanation or summing up of the weird events described in this story (and which I won't bother detailing).  I expected the revelation that "Madonna" is a mannequin of some sort-- a dummy-- a life-size doll stuffed with sawdust or somesuch.  A lifeless thing that has been spelled or built into a faithful imitation of a woman.  Something that can be ordered around without back-talk, wounded without bleeding, dressed up (or undressed) and used with no risk of recrimination.  Maybe that's what we're meant to infer, but it's left entirely up to us to draw what conclusions we will.  No tidy ending, here.

(Incidentally, "Madonna" reminds me very much of certain characters in a Swedish drama that Donald and I have been watching-- Äkta Människor (Real Humans).  The program is set in an alternate reality in which "hubots"-- extremely lifelike and highly functioning robots that look and sound like humans-- exist alongside the "real humans", fulfilling their every wish on command.  Of course, there are complications...)

Apart from the bizarre sideshow and the narrator's even stranger private interactions with "Madonna" (can't help it; must put her name in quotation marks; blame it on Madonna the singer), the most striking thing in the story is the constant and unfailing undercurrent-- no, it's not subtle enough to be an undercurrent-- flood of sordid details.  The world of this story is filthy-- both literally and figuratively.  From the uncle who sends his young nephew to stay in seamy hotels (possibly run by said uncle's former "lady friends") to the description of our narrator vomiting into an old-fashioned, flowered washstand basin, it's one nasty image or insinuation after another.  (The one exception that comes to mind is the "roundabout"-- carousel-- which is "pretty... with snow-queen and icing sugar effects in the centre; and different colored sleighs going round", run by an equally pretty girl.)  Otherwise, the world is "dingy", "off-color", "chipped", "broken or defective", and populated almost completely by the vulgar and the unsavory.

Curious about other readers' interpretations of the story-- and I haven't found much, so far, at least partially because I'm avoiding spoilers for the rest of the collection-- I came across a horror cinema blogger's thoughts on the subject.  He describes "The Swords" as "a melancholy but pointed social criticism of the way men use and violate women as if they were bloodless, fleshy objects. It illustrates how this attitude is enculturated through communal forces, and also how such an attitude's grim results-- loveless, violent, queasy, and crushingly lonely-- may dispirit or shame a young male like the story's protagonist, but only for a brief beginner's moment: 'After the first six women, say, or seven, or eight,' the narrator tells us, 'the rest come much of a muchness.'"

Interesting take... Unsettling oddity of a story.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


by Ben H. Winters

Publisher's Blurb:
FOR RENT: Top two floors of beautifully renovated brownstone, 1300 sq. ft., 2BR 2BA, eat-in kitchen, one block to parks and playgrounds. No broker’s fee.

Susan and Alex Wendt have found their dream apartment.

Sure, the landlady is a little eccentric. And the elderly handyman drops some cryptic remarks about the basement. But the rent is so low, it’s too good to pass up.

Big mistake. Susan soon discovers that her new home is crawling with bedbugs . . . or is it? She awakens every morning with fresh bites, but neither Alex nor their daughter Emma has a single welt. An exterminator searches the property and turns up nothing. The landlady insists her building is clean. Susan fears she’s going mad—until a more sinister explanation presents itself: she may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from Hell.

My Reaction:
I wanted something creepy, and this book delivered.  (There's a lot of what I believe is termed "body horror".  Also bugs, if it wasn't obvious from the title.  Both of those things are on my "Icky List", but it wasn't too much for me, this time.)  The story kept me guessing; I was switching back and forth between favored explanations until the end.  It's nothing ground-breaking, but there's a reason formulas exist: They work. There are (at least) a couple of issues that could have used more resolution, but that often seems to be the case, in this genre.  There is no easy explanation, sometimes, so the author leaves us to fill in the blanks for ourselves.  (I usually just shrug and move on to the next book.  Well, after writing a nitpicking review, that is.)

Not a favorite-- won't be reading it again-- but fine for what it is.

Random Bits and Pieces (with SPOILERS): 
--  All the references to modern/current technology/brands/whatever caught my attention at once.  There was a cluster of three of them in two sentences, right off the bat.  First paragraphs of the book.  It was so blatant that I decided to make a list of all I noticed.  I think some people like that kind of thing-- makes them feel like they're there-- like what they're reading really happened.  I don't know... Sometimes a little of that is fine, but when they're crammed in together too closely, I find it distracting, and it seems like it will "date" the book in very short order.
Anyway, here's my list:
~"Craigslist ad"
~"folders from Corcoran"
~"bright-pink Maclaren stroller"
~"sleek miniature laser printer"
~"big black Phil and Ted's double stroller"
~Design Within Reach
~"full set of Henckels Twin Select cooking knives"
~"the Altoids tin in which she kept her Ambien"
~"ancient Pearl Jam T-shirt"
~"H&M jean jacket"
~"the Leonard Lopate Show"
~"Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch"
~Time Warner
~"tight American Apparel T-shirt"
~"an Elephant and Piggie book called I Love My New Toy"
~"Dora the Explorer brush"  (and backpack, I think...)
~1010 WINS
~They Might Be Giants
~"Hell's Kitchen"
~"a Bob Dylan T-shirt"
~Dashing Diva
~Google (Googled)
~d.b.a. (a bar?)
~"The Weir" (a play)
~"Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard's house, in Park Slope"
~"Tom Kitt, one of the guys who wrote 'Next to Normal'"
~Bed Bath & Beyond
~"the all-knowing Wikipedia"
~"the New York Times"
~"Old Navy camisole"
~"The 'Top Chef' season finale"
~Barnes & Noble
~"Sesame Street
~"Elmo's falsetto giggle"
~Wonder Pets
~Maytag repairman (not especially "current", I'll grant you...)
~"cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs"

--  I know that it's not quite the same thing as focusing on his "art photography" full time, but why can't Alex still flex his creative muscles by taking artistic photos in his free time-- weekends, the occasional weeknight?  This couple feels very "all or nothing". 

--  This is an extremely nitpicky nitpick, but at one point Susan soothes Emma by smoothing "her pale hair", when I'm almost positive that Emma was described earlier in the book as having her father's dark hair.  It's a little thing, but still...

--  It is strange (imho) that Susan has to have someone to babysit Emma at least half of the day.  And then on the one day that the babysitter (nanny, whatever) calls in sick, it's like Susan can't handle being solely responsible for her little girl for a whole day!  She calls Alex to see if he can come home early!  I mean, I get that kids can be exhausting, but come on.  One day alone with one kid-- your own child-- is too much for you?  That's embarrassing.

--  I was seriously annoyed by Susan's freaked-out reaction to Emma's freaked-out reaction to being told that, hey, little missy, you're not allowed to open the creepy door to the basement.  Ugh.  "'Did you tell her not to go down there, or did you raise your voice at her?' she demanded of Louis."  UGH.  Maybe Susan should be taking care of her own darn kid instead of blaming the person who had to step up in her absence.  Now, Susan does have a right to be frustrated with the babysitter (whatever her name was... Marni?), because you can't turn your back on little kids.  (She might've run out into the street!)

--  Also annoying-- the way Susan talks to Emma.  All the pet names-- doll, love, etc.  Blech.   Yeah, you love your baby sooo SOOOO MUCH.  You love her so much that you can't bear to be saddled with her for a whole day, even though all you're doing in the meantime is pottering around home/town or running silly little errands that you could do with a child in tow.  (Yeah, I'm being judgmental.  Whatever.  It's my nit-pickin' book-blog.  You're darn well right I sit in judgement! Judge, jury, and executioner, honey.  ...Ok, enough sass for one bullet-point...)

-- So.  The blood stain on the pillowcase.  ...These people get really freaked out over a small blood stain on a pillowcase.  (Is it blood?  Could it be blood?  Omigosh, I think it's blood!!! The sky's a-fallin', Henny-Penny!)  Which makes me wonder... Should I be more concerned about such things?  Because if it were me, I'd notice it and probably shrug-- at most tsk-tsk a little over the fact that the pillowcase is now stained.  I'd figure that I must've opened up a small sore in the middle of the night, scratched it or something.  No big deal, right?  Well, apparently it is a big deal, and you should jump directly to the conclusion that you have the dreaded BEDBUGS. 

--  Do these people (including their preschool-age daughter) ever just spend a whole day at home?  It seems like they're always going somewhere (and not just the normal, routine places, like work or school).  Emma in particular seems to have a very full calendar for someone who's three-and-a-half.

--  I know that bedbugs were (are?) a big deal in NYC-- for a while there, at least-- and obviously no-one wants to get the things.  They have a reputation of being all but impossible to eradicate, once they get a foothold.  All that said, some of the characters' behavior seemed out of scale.  When Susan calls the mother of Emma's new friends, she actually asks if Susan's having "an insect problem"-- because they saw an exterminator's van outside her building-- and then basically cuts all ties with her.  ("'I'm sorry, Susan.  I just can't risk coming over-- the kids--'")  Well, ok, I guess you can argue that this woman barely knew Susan... But then later on, Susan calls her "good friend" to ask if she and Emma can spend a night or two at her place-- and again, it's like she has the Plague! ("'I... oh, Sue.  I can't get bedbugs.  I just can't.'")  Of course, nothing was stopping Susan from going to a hotel, at that point, if it really was to be only for a night or two. 

--  We're regularly treated to tidbits like this one:  "Alex turned to look at the clock, and Susan gnawed furtively at her nails, wrenching off a hunk of thumbnail and spitting it on the floor.  A pulse of pain shot up her thumb, and blood welled where the nail had been and drooled down over the knuckle.  Alex turned back and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek."  ~*woozy*~  I have a bit of a "thing" about finger (and toe) nails falling off/bending back/etc., so... Yuck.  Also, at this point I'm pretty convinced that Susan is going ca-razy.  The whole "furtive" aspect is creepy, too...

--  Ekbom's syndrome, a.k.a. "delusional parasitosis"  ~shiver~  Honestly, I think that's one of the scariest things in the book.  Something that could really happen to you, unlike being cursed with demonic "badbugs".  I also think that it would have been sufficiently horrific if Susan had been suffering from Ekbom's syndrome, without all the paranormal stuff.

-- When Susan fires the shot that kills Andrea (and breaks the curse), Alex is upstairs, having just discovered the body of the exterminator, Dana Kaufmann.  Alright.  What I find difficult to believe is that the body "had been entirely consumed"-- "in a span of five hours".  Maybe if there were vultures or coyotes or something that had access to their apartment.  But just bedbugs?  In five hours?  *skeptical face*

-- Funny that in the end, everything's coming up roses for the family.  They've bought a house of their own-- no more rented apartments, thank you very much!  Alex has taken the winter off to be with his family. (Both these things even though money was supposed to be so tight just months earlier, which is puzzling... What's changed?  They got more/higher-end business after the Tiffany photos?)  They've even bought a puppy!  It's the American Dream, alright, except that Susan still checks the bed linens for evidence of bedbugs.  

Unanswered Questions (SPOILERS):
--  How did the bedbugs/badbugs change Susan's painting?  Or was she actually changing it herself?  That's what I assumed was happening, during her "insane" period.  Well, either that or that Andrea was sneaking in and doing it at night, but Andrea would need to have significant artistic ability to do that...

--  Why did the bedbugs/badbugs focus on Susan, in particular?  Was she just the most vulnerable person in the family?   In a similar vein, why did Andrea go to such lengths (supposedly, though throwing her down the air shaft seems a bit risky, because necks do break) to keep Susan alive for the bed/badbugs, when she just killed the exterminator and the handyman?  Why not keep all of them alive?  Did the bedbugs not care about the other people being alive?  Was it just part of Andrea's insanity?  Maybe she didn't feel she had a choice but to kill the others, since they were strong.  She had to strike a fatal blow or risk their fighting back.

--  What a coincidence that Susan and Jessie followed the same pattern-- even the point of each of them attempting to kill her husband/fiance.  Too big to be a coincidence.  So what does it mean?

--  Susan finds Jessie's own severed finger, with its engagement ring still on it, in the corpse's pocket.  Clearly, she has to find it there so that she can explain the "pinging" they heard earlier in the book-- and so we can all shudder over the thought that Jessica was still alive while the new family was already living upstairs.  It's plenty creepy, but it doesn't make perfect sense to me.  What would stop Jessie from just putting the ring on another finger and continuing to signal for help? Wouldn't it have been more useful for (the insane) Andrea to simply take the ring away?  (All this assumes that there was nothing else within reach that Jessie could've used instead of the ring, too.)  I suppose having her finger cut off could've been sufficient deterrent to prevent Jessie from wanting to try to signal again, but I'm doubtful.  She knew she was going to die a torturous death down there.  Any risk would be worth taking.   ...Only other explanation that comes to mind is that Andrea somehow pinned down her arms or closed the bin more securely after cutting off the finger...

-- Susan determines that Andrea purposely planted the seed of "hotel" to make Susan suspect Alex of cheating on her and to drive her over the edge.  But... How does that make sense?  Am I forgetting something?  How would Andrea know about the hotel matchbook and Susan's momentary suspicions (from earlier in the book)?  And how would Andrea know that Susan had read that bizarre bedbug book, which was the thing that convinced her that the only way to escape the infestation was to kill the person who'd invited it?  ...It doesn't quite fit together logically.  Of course, this is a book that expects you to accept the concept of demonic bedbugs from Hell, so...

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Touch Not the Cat

Touch Not the Cat
by Mary Stewart

(Edited) Publisher's Blurb:
After the tragic death of her father, Bryony Ashley returns from abroad to find that his estate is to become the responsibility of her cousin Emory. Her family's estate with its load of debt is no longer her worry. Still, her father's final, dire warning about a terrible family curse haunts her days and her dreams. And there is something odd about her father's sudden death...

Bryony has inherited the Ashley 'Sight' and so has one of the Ashleys. Since childhood the two have communicated through thought patterns, though Bryony has no idea of his identity. Devastated, she believes that the mysterious stranger is her destiny... the lover-to-be who waits for her now at Ashley Court. Now she is determined to find him. But passion is not all that will greet Bryony upon her return -- for the crumbling walls of the old mansion guard dark secrets, tragic memories... and inescapable peril.
My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
I listened to the audiobook version, and as always under those circumstances, I find myself with less to say than if I'd read the words on the page.

Though it's not as good as The Moonspinners or Nine Coaches Waiting, I enjoyed the book!  It delivers just about everything you'd expect from gothic-mystery romantic-suspense.  It was a bit predictable that Rob would turn out to be Bryony's "lover"-- and of course there's a last-minute discovery that will be the saving of Ashley Court-- but still, enjoyable.

What I found less enjoyable were the snippets from Romeo and Juliet at the beginning of each chapter... and the flashbacks to the Ashley of the past (though I guess those were at least somewhat significant to the plot)... and Rob's "country" accent, as read in the audiobook version.  I eventually got used to it, but it's still not my favorite thing.  I found myself wondering if that accent was "written into his speech" in the book, or if the reader just gave her best effort at the accent, since it's mentioned that he has one.  I was even more irritated by the country accent of the woman in the flashbacks.  (Maybe I'm just an accent snob...)

I found it amusing, while glancing at a few other readers' reviews, that some are so utterly revolted by the thought of a first-cousin romance.  Now, when I think about actual first cousins I personally know getting married, it does seem odd, but for whatever reason, I've never had a problem with that in literature.  It wasn't that many generations ago that first-cousin marriages were very common occurrences.  Maybe it's all the old books and BritLit that I read, but I'm not troubled.  (Unlike the person who referred to it as "incest". (g))  Also, someone says that in the American version, the first cousins were changed to second cousins!  What a hoot!

Again, while browsing reviews, I saw people saying that the book is dated.  Well, at one point (near the end), Bryony says something like, "This is the 70s"!  Apart from that, I honestly didn't find myself thinking, "This feels so 70s!" If anything, it felt like it could've taken place any time after air travel became fairly commonplace (since Bryony takes a flight early in the book).  It was much less "dated-feeling" than many books I've read.  In fact, the one I'm reading now feels extremely dated-- and it was published within the past few years.  What makes it feel dated is the too-frequent references to specific brand names and current technology.  I didn't notice that Mary Stewart did that at all, in Touch Not the Cat

Sidenote:  The modern cover-- all black, except for a black cat walking into a purple and green spinning, glowing, magical/mystical vortex-- is very strange.  It seems more appropriate for science fiction-- or possibly fantasy.  Despite the telepathy, this book doesn't feel like either genre. 

Incidentally, I read just a few days ago that this author, Mary Stewart, had died.  She was in her 90s, I believe, so she had a long life.  I've only read a few of her books, but I look forward to enjoying more of them in the years to come. 

"The Monster in the Mirror"

"The Monster in the Mirror"
by M.J.A. Ware

Could there be a hidden room somewhere in your house? And just what would you find lurking there?

Nate, his little sister, and best buddy Dan, stumble upon a hidden room during a sleep-over. What they find inside is anything but friendly.

My Reaction:
I got this as a freebie on Amazon some time ago, and when I finished the last book, found it already loaded on the Kindle.  Convenient and short, so why not?  I hadn't remembered it was a short story for "younger readers", so my expectations were entirely off the mark.

I think a young YA (pre-teen? "tween"?) reader might enjoy this story.  For me, it was a little too short and rushed, and there were many things that could've been fleshed out to make it a stronger story.  However, I'm not the target audience...  The kernel of the story is interesting, though, and it's definitely creepy. 

I think the ebook includes a bonus story or two, but I don't think I'll bother. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy
by Margot Livesey

(Abbreviated) Publisher's Blurb:
Set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and '60s, The Flight of Gemma Hardy--a captivating homage to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre--is a sweeping saga that resurrects the timeless themes of the original but is destined to become a classic all its own.

My Reaction:
(SPOILERS for Jane Eyre)
(I abbreviated the blurb, because I think it gives away too many details of the story.)

Jane Eyre has been one of my favorite books since the time I first read it (as a teenager), and from the very first sentence of this novel ("We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year."), I recognized a retelling.  (Yes, yet again I started a book without reading the blurb... Or if I ever read it, it must've been so long ago that I'd forgotten the Brontë connection.  I chose the book based on its cover, title, and availability.) 

When you have particularly strong feelings about a book, you are likely to have similarly strong reactions to other books that are "inspired by" or "based on" it.  Sometimes you love the new book for the sake of that connection.  More often, however, I think you expect more of it, and it rarely lives up to the comparison.  That's certainly the case in this instance.  The "borrowing" of themes and plot twists was so blatant that it was impossible to forget or even ignore.  That invites constant comparison, and the newer book simply couldn't live up to the original.

Several times I found myself wishing I were reading Jane Eyre instead.  I like Jane more than Gemma.  Jane seems more intelligent and mature and admirable than Gemma.  Jane and Mr. Rochester have better chemistry (dialogue) than Gemma and Mr. Sinclair (who is barely even a character-- completely lacking Mr. Rochester's powerful personality).  Jane is almost a real person to me; Gemma remains a limited and only moderately sympathetic character.  Jane Eyre is a feast, while Gemma Hardy is airplane food.

Once I'd started the book, I wanted to see where it went-- how the author would "re-interpret" the plot points of Jane Eyre for a more modern setting-- and I made it through the book alright, but I never enjoyed it as much as I hoped, and I mostly just wanted it to end.  I might have liked it more if I hadn't been comparing it to something so infinitely superior, but of course that's impossible to know. 

Nitpicks (with SPOILERS for this book and Jane Eyre):
-- "Louise now had her own horse.  She had tried to convert me to her equine cult by lending me Black Beauty and National Velvet.  So long as I was reading I understood her enthusiasm, but as soon as I was in the presence of an actual horse, all teeth and hooves and dusty hair, I was once again baffled."  Aside from My Little Pony and various and sundry rainbow-haired cartoonish unicorns (some with wings!), I guess I also skipped right over that particular (supposed) female obsession.  I don't come from "horse people", so I guess that's part of it.  (We're dog people, instead, I suppose you could say.) 

-- The multiple references to Anne of Green Gables were nice.  Sadly, I'm not sure that Gemma and I would be kindred spirits...

--  I suppose it's part of the effort at modernization, but I can't say I like the seamy, nasty little touches that pop up in the story, now and again.  Things like Gemma stumbling upon the disgusting tableau of Drummond and some random boy having sex in the field of raspberry canes.  Or Mrs. Milne's obscene rant.  Or the man on the bus who steals from Gemma and attempts to molest her.  Gross.

--  Ross is a despicable character.  I suppose we're meant to feel at least a little sorry for her, but she doesn't make it easy.  However little I like her, though, the repeated description of her chipped tooth and "muddy brown eyes" feels unnecessarily rude and juvenile.  She's unlikeable enough without the catty remarks on her looks!  (Also, I can't help but wonder if other people think that my eyes are "muddy brown", too... Poor, awful Ross...)

--  The ghostly young man at Claypoole (the school Gemma attends) is an odd inclusion in the book.  Then there's that creepy snow-thing that visits her when she's locked in the sewing closet... And of course all the other supernatural things that come later in the book.  The touches of the supernatural in Jane Eyre are more elegantly executed.

--  New words for me:  gymkhanas.  dreich.  harled.

--  One of the things I most admire about Jane Eyre is her strength of character.  She is clearly influenced and guided by her deeply-held religious beliefs.  Gemma Hardy brings up the issue of God and Scripture a few times, but never with conviction-- always with uncertainty.  Gemma leaves Scripture out of her schedule for teaching Nell, and when one person asks if another believes in God, the answer is repeatedly along the lines of "I don't know"-- or even bleaker: "'No... I think some things just are, like puffins and volcanoes, and then humans invent other things.'"  Another reflection of the changing times?  (This book is set in the late 1950s to mid 1960s.)  It's not a reflection I like...  I do appreciate that at least there are some sympathetic religious characters to balance the terrible preacher (vicar?) at Claypoole.

--  Gemma seems naive for a nineteen year old in the swinging 1960s.  Sure, she's grown up in a restrictive environment, but still!  In some ways-- many-- even Jane Eyre seems worldlier, by comparison.

--  Gemma also (at times) seems too good to be true.  Like when she calls a bee "poor thing" after it stings her (because a bee dies after it uses its sting).  Excuse me while I roll my eyes.  It's a bee.  Good grief.  Does she also shed a tear for the poor yeast when she bakes bread? ;o)

--  Now, I don't like Coco, but I had to sympathize with her when she showed no interest in Gemma's rather know-it-all, "let me teach you" observations about male birds being the flashier of the species, as opposed to human beings, where the women are generally thought the more visually pleasing gender.  I mean, sure, that's interesting and all, but I think most people have heard it by the time they've reached adulthood.  Coco remarks that it would be "super" if they found a chalice, "whatever that is", around some ruins-- and Gemma is "about to explain that a chalice was a metal drinking cup, and also that any finds belonged to the government..."  That doesn't make Gemma sound like a fun companion, to tell the truth.

--  At some point-- the mention of the last great auk, I think-- I had had it with all the mentions of birds.  Grah!  We get it!  She's obsessed with birds!  There's a reference to birds (ok, flight) in the very title of the book.  WE KNOW.  Now can you please let up a little?

--  The first kiss after the admission of love was a bit too... hands-on for my taste.  Why not take it a little bit slower?  It made their whole relationship feel trashy.

--  "Please swear the one thing I want.  That you won't allow anything, any secret, to change your feelings for me."  ...Yeah, no red flags there!  Besides, I don't think it's possible to honestly make that promise.  You can swear that you will stay with someone through whatever comes, even if your feelings change.  You can swear that you'll try to keep your feelings the same, always, but feelings change.  It happens, even in loving, committed relationships.  We change over time, and our feelings change with us.  What matters is how you handle those changes.

-- King Solomon's Mines, by Rider Haggard.  Possibly interesting to read at some point.

-- Gemma's reason for running away from "New Thornfield" is weak.  I mean really weak.  Of course, I never really understood why Gemma and Mr. Sinclair were getting married in the first place.  They fall in love so fast that if you blink, you've missed it.  Jane and Mr. Rochester's strange courtship, on the other hand, is deliciously drawn out and dizzying.  ...Actually, that's one of my biggest problems with this re-telling.  Jane Eyre is a story about a woman's struggle to find her place in the world, but a crucial part of the book is her love story.  To call Gemma Hardy a love story would be a painful stretch, imho. 

--  "'...people say in pure maths you reach a point where you can't understand what the numbers are doing.  Classics seem safer.'  'Why should you suddenly not understand numbers?  That sounds like something male teachers say to girls.'"  *eyeroll*

--  Of course the two sisters from the original have turned into a lesbian couple in the modernization.  Obviously.  Adds so much to the story to do it that way.

--  When Gemma makes a passing reference to Nell and Coco on the night she drinks too much at the congratulatory supper with Hannah and Pauline, I had to really think to remember who Coco was.  It felt like such a long time since her little bit of the book!

--  Gemma's theft was shocking.  It felt completely out of character-- something that Jane Eyre would never have done.  Her sudden desperate need to find her family in Iceland seemed manufactured.  Despite her objections (basically, "they might have refused!"), she could have asked someone for a loan-- or to help her find her family while still living in Scotland.  That theft was unforgivable, and after that, I didn't particularly care what happened to her. 

--  Considering how much of a whirlwind romance Gemma and Mr. Sinclair's relationship was-- and how immature Gemma seems, in some respects-- I think it's probably for the best that the novel ends with her telling Mr. Sinclair that she wants to spend a little time as a single adult before she agrees to marry him. 

--  One thing that was never resolved-- the precious personal belongings that Gemma left with her old teacher.  Maybe once she's matured a bit, she'll have the courage to go back to his sister and explain the situation.  Surely the sister wouldn't be (as) angry, once she knew the facts.  (And really, it was at least as much Mr. Donaldson's fault as it was Gemma's.  After all, he-- an adult who might have foreseen some potential for scandal, since he'd had problems in the past-- gave her those addressed and stamped envelopes.  Of course, both of them were completely innocent of any wrong-doing and the ultimate blame goes to Gemma's awful aunt.) 

--  I imagine that few readers really like St. John Rivers, so it's no surprise that his copy in this book, Archie, is similarly difficult to like.  However, while St. John is cold and severe, at least we know that he is capable of love and warmth-- just not in response to Jane.  Archie, on the other hand, is... I don't know what he is.  In Jane Eyre, we understand why St. John wants to marry Jane.  He needs an intelligent, hard-working helpmeet for his proposed work as a missionary, and because of the traditions of the time, he's convinced that they must be married for this to work.  Why Archie would want to marry Gemma, on the other hand, is harder to comprehend.  Clearly he doesn't feel passionate love for her... Maybe he's just hoping for a friendly companion or feels that he's "supposed" to get married, and since they share some interests, she's as good an option as he's likely to find.  In any case, while I don't really like Archie that much, I feel a bit sorry for him.  I don't remember feeling sorry for St. John.  He wouldn't appreciate pity. 

-- That's it.  I've nothing more to say, except that I'm glad to have this one done.  (I feel I've been saying that about a lot of books, lately.  I need to be choosier, apparently.)