Sunday, October 26, 2014

Uncle Fred in the Springtime

Uncle Fred in the Springtime
by P.G. Wodehouse

Publisher's Blurb:
Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, Fifth Earl of Ickenham, better known as Uncle Fred, is back “to spread sweetness and light” wherever he goes. At the request of Lord Emsworth, Uncle Fred journeys to Blandings Castle to steal the Empress of Blandings before the ill-tempered, egg-throwing Duke of Dunstable can lay claim to her. Disguised as the eminent nerve specialist Sir Roderick Glossop, and with his distressed nephew Pongo in tow, Uncle Fred must not only steal a pig but also reunite a young couple and diagnose various members of the upper class with imaginary mental illnesses, all before his domineering wife realizes he’s escaped their country estate.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald.  No specific notes.)

Plenty of laughs, as always!

We agreed that some of the relationships/characters in this book were a bit confusing.  So many dukes, lords, and earls!  (And for us-- simple, modern folk from the U.S. and Sweden-- the distinction between an earl and a duke is negligible, at best.)  So many nieces, nephews, and sons!  We could have used some sort of diagram or chart to keep them sorted.  Of course, keeping track of exact relationships isn't necessary to enjoyment of the wit and humor, and we managed to work things out even without a helpful character list.  ;o)

I think I found this slightly less sparkling and hilarious than some of Wodehouse's other books.  I'm not sure why... It just struck me as less laugh-out-loud and glowing than I remember some of the others being... But still a nice read!

Recommended to Wodehouse fans, but I wouldn't suggest it as an introduction to the author.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Be Buried in the Rain

Be Buried in the Rain
by Barbara Michaels

Publisher's Blurb:
The Past Holds Terrors... 
That Can't Be Forgotten

There are secrets buried at Maidenwood--dark secrets that span generations. Medical student Julie Newcomb, who once spent four miserable childhood years at this rundown Virginia plantation, would rather not resurrect ancient memories, or face her own fears.

Yet Julie cannot refuse her relatives' plea that she spend her summer caring for the bedridden--but still malevolent--family patriarch. Reluctantly, Julie agrees, praying that life at Maidenwood will not be as bleak as before. From the first, though, Julie finds Maidenwood a haunted place, not merely echoing with grim reminders, but filled with dark secrets that will become part of her life even today.

My Reaction:
For the genre, this was pretty good reading.  A lightweight distraction from everyday life.

It seems I can't get through a single Barbara Michaels book without being irritated by something-- this time it was mostly some characters cast from the "stereotypically ignorant, backward, religious Southerner" mold (or maybe more the protagonist's tiresome stereotyping of so many fellow characters)-- but perhaps a little irritation isn't such a bad thing in a book.  It keeps me on my toes.  Besides, if I don't have something to gripe about, what can I put in these book reviews?!  ;o)

But to return to seriousness-- Maybe I was just in the right mood, but I enjoyed the book.  Very readable.  The mystery's not the strongest.  I had most of it figured out and get the feeling that I should've guessed the rest, too.  This was an entertaining read that I'd happily recommend to fellow fans of modern(ish) gothic romance/mystery.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Published in 1985.  I wonder if younger readers of this book-- the ones who don't remember life without cell phones-- would have a different reading experience than someone my age... I was a kid in 1985.  I never experienced the 80s as a teen, much less as an adult, but I very clearly remember a time when cell phones were not ubiquitous-- before "Internet" was a household word.  I don't know that such a slight variance in age makes as much difference as countless other factors (gender, personality, etc.).  After all, I read and enjoy books published a century or two before I was born.  Still, my experience of those books must be very different from that of contemporary readers.  ...Just an interesting thing to ponder, every once in a while...

--  Joe Danner.  Should I find him an offensive stereotype (ignorant, not-very-bright, former wife-beater turned religious nut)?  I'm not sure if I should, but... I kinda do.  Not that there aren't people like that... (Everywhere, one might add.  Not just in Virginia or the South as a region.)

--  This author's typical heroine seems to have a chip on her shoulder about "women's rights".  This one wasn't the worst case I've seen, but it's still a whiny old song that grinds on my nerves with every chorus.  Julie doesn't want to take care of her horrible grandmother.  She resents the fact that she's expected to fall into line, while her cousin (who will inherit the whole shebang, apparently) is exempt from unpleasant family tasks because he's a man, and men don't have to do that sort of thing.  Well... Don't do it, then.  But no, she "has" to, because her mother will do it, if she doesn't... Ugh.  That's your mother's choice.  (Julie's mother isn't a particularly sympathetic character.  Let her take care of her awful mother, if she feels a female relative must be there.  Fairly heartless to send her daughter to do the job she herself can't stomach...)

--  Julie doesn't win any points by suggesting that the people in the area wouldn't be in favor of women's rights, because they're "rednecks".  *eyeroll*

--  You can count on Barbara Michaels to sneak a little Egyptology into the book.  (It had to be a little game she played with her most faithful readers.  There's something in every book!)  This time it was pathologists who "were able to perform histological sections" on Egyptian mummies.  (They found that the mummies had parasitic worms, back when they weren't quite so mummified. Yuck.)  Oh!  There was also something about someone at the age of eighty seeming "older than the Pyramids" to an eighteen-year-old.

--  "The decay of the house was something they couldn't blame on the damn Yankees.  It had survived the 'War Between the States', as they called it in these parts."  *more eyerolling*

--  When Julie's trying to figure out how she can get a ride home from town:  "Mrs Danner squeaked, 'There's Will Smith, Mr. Danner.  He obliges for some of the ladies.'  'Be quiet, woman.  Will's a drunk and a fornicator.  No decent female would get in that car of his.'"  Ha ha ha... I know "Will Smith" isn't that unusual of a name, but it still gave me a laugh.

--  Julie offers Alan a McDonald's french fry, but he declines.  "'That stuff is poison to your system.  I'd rather starve.'" Have some people always been obnoxious about fast food?  I guess so... 

--  I gather that despite the four years she spent on the old homestead, Julie's supposed to be a city girl.  She carries a stick to ward off rabid possums and rabbits.  Yes, Virginia is crawling with rabid possums, I'm sure.  Based on my own experience in the wilds of the American South, Julie needs to be more concerned about snakes than rabies, of all things.

--  People gave Alan trouble about working on Saturday and Sunday, because one or the other (depending on who's asked) is the Sabbath?  I find that doubtful.  Even if some people didn't exactly approve of people working on the Sabbath, how many would be kooky enough confront a stranger who was working in a field in the middle of nowhere?  Especially in the mid-1980s.  (Did Barbara Michaels have any actual experience in the South?  Did she believe all this crap?)

--  Someone sends Alan a letter: "'You are sinning against God's Holy Word when you dig up dead bodies.  If you don't stop you will be struck by His Rath.'"  *SIGH*  (Reading through my notes is making me wonder if I liked this book so much, after all... I wish the author would've eased up on the "religious nutcase" stereotyping!)

--  "I had wondered how a woman veterinarian could establish a practice in an area like this, where macho traditions prevailed and most of a vet's practice involved farm animals."  (Ouch!  I sprained an eye with all that rolling!)

--  For all her "pro-woman"/"ooh, I'm soooo enlightened" talk, Julie doesn't treat Mrs. Danner very kindly.  (After the incident with the attempted poisoning of the dog, I don't blame her, but this was before that.)  She talks down to her.  Mrs. Danner is not very intelligent.  She's also poor, low-class, bullied by her husband, and (because of that husband) estranged from her children.  Basically, she's not in a very good position, any way you look at it.  Taking all that into consideration, Julie's way of addressing her is not only insulting but at least bordering on cruel.  So much for Julie's being such an open-minded social radical, I guess!

--  I found it amusing that Julie turned out to be so great at "reconstruction" (think Bones), without any serious training or experience.  Maybe we're supposed to gather that her success was really just Melissa's spirit guiding her hands...

--  Martha has people reading to her for hours every day.  It's the mid-1980s.  Why not get her a TV-- a radio-- a set of books-on-tape?!  I'm sure it was addressed early on, but I don't recall.  Probably Martha just doesn't want those things.  Well, I'm a meanie, because if I was cursed with an evil witch who hated me instead of normal, affectionate grandmothers, I'd probably just refuse to read to her every day.  She could make do with TV, radio, etc.  ~shrug~  I must be an awful person.

--  "It's funny how defenseless you feel in your bare feet."  So true!

--  Ok.  My credulity is stretched.  Not by the ghosty parts of the book.  (Well, ok, those aren't realistic, either, of course...)  Julie's mother is too proud to have Julie live with her while she's getting back on her feet after Julie's father leaves them.  Instead, she sends Julie home to the mother she herself can't stand.  Julie is emotionally and physically abused.  Julie blocks out most of those memories-- four years of her youth!-- and it only comes back (in chunks) once she's back in the old house.  Is it possible?  I guess.  But what kind of mother would send her daughter to a place she must have known was awful?  I find it unlikely that Julie would've blocked out all those memories, too.  But whatever...

--  Similarly, Alan is a grown man by the time he meets Martha-- completely in love with Julie (and in a physical relationship with her, no less)-- and yet Martha somehow convinces him that he's essentially worthless and that Julie doesn't really want anything to do with him because of his lowly origins.  ...Yeah.  I'm skeptical.  Martha must've had magical powers...

--  I have to admit that I'd kind of forgotten who Melissa was, until the "exciting conclusion".  The part of the story where she was mentioned didn't make much of an impression, I guess.

--  I'd figured out that Matt was the one intent on destroying the reconstruction.  That was pretty obvious, from the way he reacted to it-- plus it was clear from the beginning that something was up with him.  What I was wrong about, though, was the identity of the skeleton.  I was sure it would turn out to be either the Danner girl or some other girl that Matt had fooled around with and gotten pregnant.  She would've been imprisoned in that little room and eventually she and the infant would've been murdered-- either by Matt or by Martha.  Martha was clearly in on the secret, too.  Well, it wasn't that far off, I guess.

--  The explanation of how Ms. Hornbeak found the Maydon's Hundred graveyard because she was so dim-witted-- just like Julie's ancestor, which meant they were on the same wavelength-- while Alan was just so darned brilliant that he over-complicated things... Hm.

--  The twist at the end is creeeeeepy!  Martha's been going out, burning the clothes and reburying the bodies/skeletal remains every year, on the anniversary of the murders-- every since she killed her sister and niece/nephew?  And the only reason they were found at all, this time, was that Martha had suffered her stroke and as a consequence was unable to go and put them back out of sight before someone else stumbled across them?  Oooooooooh... ~shiver~

--  So, for the sake of that ending... and Elvis the dog... and Alan (whom I liked better than many of the author's romantic heroes)... I guess I can forgive the annoying stereotypes.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Ape"

"The Ape"
by E.F. Benson


An Englishman on a tour of Egypt purchases an ancient fragment of sculpture, never guessing that in so doing, he has just taken the first step down a dark and frightening road.

My Reaction:
I liked it!  Maybe waiting so long between Benson's creepy stories has whetted my appetite, but in any case, I enjoyed it.  

Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--  The story opens with a long description of the setting-- in particular, a detailed rendering of an Egyptian sunset and twilight.  It took me a minute to get into the right mode, but once I did, I found it very effectively written.  I could see it.  I get the impression that readers are "supposed" to be bored by descriptions of nature in fiction-- especially sunsets.  If they're done well, though, I love them.  (L.M. Montgomery is a great author for those fond of beautifully rendered settings.)

--  There are a few stereotypes that probably won't sit well with modern sensibilities. 

--  Early in the story, the little scrap of pottery shaped like a monkey puts me in mind of "The Monkey's Paw", but the similarities are limited.  "The Monkey's Paw" is more intimately horrible-- and a better story, to be honest-- but the sense of evil in "The Ape" is on a much larger scale.

--  Fun Fact:  If you do a web-search for "Tahumet" (the name of the ape demon), "Tagamet" (the heartburn medicine) is suggested.  Safe to say that "Tahumet" was Benson's own creation, then, I guess, and not a real part of Egyptian mythology.

--  Possibly the strangest part of the story for me (even stranger than the AMAZING coincidence of Hugh finding one half of the extremely rare ape talisman, then purchasing the second half from a vendor that same day) is the thing that reminds him of his humanity and saves his soul. 

...So, he has this mended talisman.  He's decided to use it against the woman who has so cruelly led him along and the man that she actually loves.  The apes have brought the two people before him.  All sorts of terrible ideas are dancing through his mind-- but then the woman looks toward him, and her hair has fallen loose during the struggle-- "fallen down and streamed over her shoulders".  "And at that, the sight of a woman's hair unbound, the remnant of his manhood, all that was not submerged in the foulness of his supreme apehood, made one tremendous appeal to him, like some final convulsion of the dying"-- and he decides to have mercy and break the talisman and the spell.  I had no idea that the sight of a woman's hair unbound was so powerful...  I doubt it would prove as effective, these days, when we walk around with it unbound all the time.  ;o)  (It reminds me of old-school Church of God-type stuff.  One of my great-grandmothers believed that women should keep their hair long.  She always did, and wore it up in a bun.  Of course, if I'm not mistaken, she also believed that women shouldn't wear pants...  It was a different time, as they say!)

--  When Hugh breaks the talisman, the couple he's just released seem to be aware only of the "earthquake" and the fact that the horses have fled.  They don't appear to remember being herded by the apes or seeing Hugh on his throne, leaving the reader to puzzle out for him or herself exactly what has just happened.  How much was real?  How much imagined?

Right before this story, there was a "title page" for a short story titled "The Passenger", but no story... I'm not sure if it was a mistake in the e-book or not.  Possibly "The Passenger" is included later in the e-book, and the editor(s) neglected to remove the extra title page.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Silk Vendetta

The Silk Vendetta
by Victoria Holt

Publisher's Blurb:
As long as she can remember, the exquisite Lenore Cleremont has lived at The Silk House, the luxurious English country estate of the wealthy Sallonger family. Neither a slave nor a servant, she has grown into a young woman who has shown promise as a dress designer. But she has also won the heart of the two charismatic Sallonger sons. Then tragedy strikes. And Lenore finds herself playing a central role in a drama that threatens to destroy everything she holds dear...

My Reaction:
This was my first experience reading Victoria Holt.  Growing up, I somehow got the impression that her novels fell into the category of "trashy romance"-- but then I saw her listed with other "gothic romance" authors I enjoy, so it seemed worth a try.  My verdict, based on this one book, is that it's definitely not "trashy" romance.  Most of the time, innuendo is as far as things go.  There's one scene that may shock some readers-- but in general, very little happens "on screen".

That said, I wasn't especially impressed.  I'll read some reviews and try to determine whether this book is representative of the bulk of her work before I decide if I'll try another, at some point.  I wish I'd liked it better, because Holt was such a prolific author; this could've added dozens of books to my "Sounds Interesting" list.

It's not that the book was bad... (Here we go again!  It's my standard damning with faint praise...)  It was readable, but aside from a few parts, it wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped.  Very predictable, with weak "mysteries" dragged out over the whole book.  A couple of times, characters made annoying and illogical choices that just don't make sense.  As a whole, it was fairly bland and repetitive.  The book felt long, and that's the sign of either a bad book or (at least) a bad pairing of book and reader.  I suspect that Victoria Holt simply may not be for me.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  I can never decide whether or not I like Lenore!  I think I liked her in the beginning, but once she became an adult, I was ambivalent.  Well, it's often tiresome when a heroine has every man lusting after her...

--  As if it wasn't predictable enough when something big was going to happen, the narrator frequently felt the need to "warn" the reader.  "Little did I dream that my happiness was soon to come to an end" kind of thing.  (Not a direct quote, but you get the point.)

--  Oh boy.  One of Lenore's suitors has a career in politics.  *YAWN*  "At a by-election I recently became Member of Parliament for Swaddingham," he tells her.  She responds, "How interesting."  Ha ha ha.  Yeah, it's so interesting.  Lenore actually does find it interesting, as we are told again and again.  A life as a politician (or politician's wife)?  Oh, that sounds so "interesting"!  We're supposed to believe that Lenore takes an interest in Drake's conversation of politics, but she rarely has anything more to say about it than that it's "interesting" or "fascinating".  *eyeroll*  She doesn't seem to know any more about politics than Julia, who very obviously pretends to find it "interesting" in a bid to ensnare Drake in her charms. 

--  "'This happy pair will soon be going off to their honeymoon in Florence.  Why does everyone go to Italy for their honeymoon?'"  Well, I kind of agree with Julia on this one.  I guess Florence was a popular place at the time for honeymooning.  I'm sure it has its attractions, but it does seem dull and unimaginative to go where everyone else (of a certain station) goes for a honeymoon...

--  Katie comments that someone they've met in a park (who turns out to be her French grandfather, of course) talks "funny".  Lenore replies that "that was because he was a foreigner".  Only... Katie's great-grandmother lives with them, and she has the same French accent.  It seems unlikely that such a child would say that a Frenchman "talked funny".  Wouldn't she comment instead on the fact that he sounds like her great-grandmother?  A little thing, but it irritated me.  (Maybe I was just in a grumpy mood that night. (g))

--  "That was such a happy morning."  ...And so we the readers prepare for more trouble!

--  So, Lenore's wealthy, successful father who abandoned her mother (who died in childbirth) and never made an effort to find his orphaned child until now, when she's a widow with a child of her own, offers to assist her with the financial aspect of opening a Paris branch of her salon.  Lenore's first response is to look at him "in astonishment".  No!  What a startling idea!  Whoever could have predicted such a thing?!  She then has to be talked (and talked, and guilt-tripped) into accepting his help, even though she is now on friendly terms with him.  Because Lenore is a saint or something.  I don't know.  What I do know is that she's getting on my nerves.

--  Ok, here's one of those irritating, irrational decisions.  Drake cares for Lenore and has every reason to suppose that she returns his affection.  Then Julia hints/lies that Lenore's mysterious French benefactor (i.e. her long-lost father) is some sort of lover, and that she's fooling around with him in exchange for his investment in the Paris salon.  And so this supposedly calm, intelligent, level-headed man is so distraught that he dines with Julia and allows himself to become so drunk that he wakes up in her bed (after which she of course pretends she's pregnant to force him into marriage).  Yes, that makes sense.  It wouldn't be more normal for him to ask Lenore what's going on-- or ask anyone other than Julia, who has blatantly butted in multiple times during his courtship of Lenore.

--  What purpose did the Aldringham ghost serve?  It was patently obvious that Julia was behind her convenient "appearance", so it lent no spookiness.  Are we supposed to believe that that is why Drake decided to put off his proposal?  He never mentions it as a motivating factor...  It seems fairly pointless.  

--  If it weren't for that whole mess with Julia, I'd infinitely prefer Drake to the Compte.  I mean, yes, he's a politician, but no-one's perfect... ;o)  I was disappointed by that twist in the plot.  ...Also by the existence of Katie, since she seemed to add so little to the story, imho.  I don't love romances in which the heroine (or hero, for that matter) has a child. 

--  Speaking of Katie, we're told that she's an observant, intelligent child, but I don't see it.  I recall being eleven (Katie's age toward the end of the book), and some of the things she says don't ring true for a bright child of that age.

For instance, after joking with the Compte about his being a giant or an ogre or a cannibal, Katie is discussing him with Lenore: "'He's not a giant,' said Katie.  'But he's better than a giant.  He makes me laugh.  I like him, don't you, Mama?'  I was silent.  She looked disappointed.  'He doesn't really eat people.  That was only a joke.'" 

Then later on, Katie tells the Countess about the oubliette in the castle, and the Countess jokingly wishes that the salon had one so that she could lock away a particularly difficult customer.  Katie very helpfully explains, "If you leave them there they will die."   ...Um, yep.  Very astute, Katie.

After Julia makes her absurd drunken scene at her party, "Katie was too observant not to have noticed that something was wrong.  'What did Aunt Julia do?' she asked.  I pretended to look puzzled.  'It was something,' she went on.  'People's mouths go straight when they talk about it as though they think it was wrong and are rather pleased about it.'"  ...Their mouths go straight?  *eyeroll*

I think the problem is that Holt wanted to make Katie adorable, but eleven-year-olds just don't say things like that, and I doubt that eleven-year-olds of the past did, either.  Possibly Holt hadn't spent much time around children, when she wrote this novel. (And had forgotten what it was like to be eleven, too, apparently.)

--  Some of the descriptions of the Compte ("ironic, amused and sardonic eyes", "dark, rather saturnine good looks") make me think he was meant to be a version of Mr. Rochester.  ...However, there is no comparison.

--  Oh my gosh!  The repetition!  Ugh.  I hate repetition.  If the story's very complicated-- if it's been twenty long chapters since something happened-- ok, maybe you need to remind us of it.  But it should be done as lightly and elegantly as possible, not just repeated almost word-for-word.  And no offense, but this book was not that convoluted.  It's pretty obvious what's going on-- not that much to sidetrack you.  It was not necessary to repeat parts of it again and again. 

--  At one point late in the book, Lenore tell us that she "did not trust Charles.  There were secrets in his eyes.  I knew that he would have no compunction in destroying me."  Well, duh!  Have you met Charles before?!  Oh, wait.  That's right.  You grew up in the same house with him.  He tried to force unwanted attentions on you at that party, and when you refused him, he was so angry that he later locked you in a cold, scary mausoleum.  Then he seemed like he was about to rape you on the spot where your husband (his brother) had died... Oh, and then there was the time that he tried to blackmail you into sleeping with him, threatening to destroy your reputation (and Drake's) and hurt your daughter with lies, if you refused.  Yeah, it's certainly a new and frightening development that Charles (of all people) might stoop so low as to try to implicate you and Drake in the murder of his sister.  *eyeroll-to-end-all-eyerolls*

--  Though I found most of the "mystery" elements of the book sadly lacking, I have to admit that I hadn't completely worked out the "main mystery".  I knew that Charles had stolen the method for Sallon Silk.  (Obviously.)  I knew that someone had murdered Phillip.  But I mistakenly suspected that Charles had had Phillip killed in order to prevent Phillip from revealing the theft (assuming he'd discovered it or was about to do so).  Not quite right (as became clear when Lenore's uncle seemed so shocked to discover that it was not Phillip who had "invented" Sallon Silk). 

--  The second character decision that makes no sense to me relates to that mystery.  When it became obvious that one of the brothers had stolen the "formula" for Sallon Silk, why did the St. Allengdre family not pursue legal action against him-- Phillip, since that's who they suspected of the theft?  Maybe it wouldn't be a simple thing to do, but why not try?!  It was certainly worth the investment of time and money, since Sallon Silk was so revolutionary.  If it (along with the seduction and suicide of Heloise) was worth murdering for, why would it not be worth legal action?

...Maybe that's the answer, right there.  If they brought legal action, they couldn't as easily take blood revenge.  The legal proceedings would reveal motive, and maybe people would think twice about Phillip's death... Anyway, it still strikes me as a very odd course of action to choose, even aside from the moral question.

--Well, that's it.  I'll be interested to see how Victoria Holt fans rank this novel against the others.  Is it worth trying another, at some point?

Edited to Add:
I've read a few reviews, now, and some even go so far as to say that this is one of her better books.  Hm... Not encouraging.