Sunday, December 13, 2015

Miss Buncle's Book

Miss Buncle's Book
by D.E. Stevenson

Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara's bank account has seen better days. Maybe she could sell a novel ... if she knew any stories. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from her fellow residents of Silverstream, the little English village she knows inside and out. 
To her surprise, the novel is a smash. It's a good thing she wrote under a pseudonym, because the folks of Silverstream are in an uproar. But what really turns Miss Buncle's world around is this: what happens to the characters in her book starts happening to their real-life counterparts. Does life really imitate art?

My Reaction:
I'm giving this 4 stars out of five, based purely on my own enjoyment of the book.  It's not quite a 5-star book for me, nor even a "4.5-star rounded up to 5" book.

I found this book quite enjoyable-- a good old-fashioned tale about good old-fashioned people in a good old-fashioned Britain-between-the-Wars.  Most of it is fairly predictable, in my opinion, but that only contributes to its "comfort book" cred-- and it manages a pleasant freshness, despite the fact that it wasn't always particularly surprising.

This is a very cozy read.  There's humor, but it's softened by a degree of sweetness that never becomes downright sappy.  It's more realistic than P.G. Wodehouse (though also nowhere near as witty and hilarious).  It's less biting than E.F. Benson's Lucia series (and again not as funny).

I'd recommend Miss Buncle's Book as an antidote to the blues.  If you have a weakness for "between the Wars" Britain and that comforting village/small town vibe, this hits many of the right notes.  It would be a good choice for "hunkered down in bed/on the couch, feeling just a little ill" reading.  It's charming!  It's comfy-cozy!  It's the first in a trilogy (so if you love it, it doesn't have to be over, yet)!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pigs Have Wings

Pigs Have Wings
by P.G. Wodehouse

My Blurb:
Another day, another pig-napping plot (or two).  It's business as usual at Blandings Castle.  We have lovers torn asunder by interfering relatives, lack of funds, and unfortunate mix-ups-- espionage and intrigue in the high-stakes world of competitive pig-fattening-- and more.  Fortunately, Gally Threepwood is on the scene and equal to any challenge.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read, as per usual for Wodehouse.)

I enjoyed it, but if Goodreads enabled half-stars, I'd have rated this one as 4.5 stars.  Instead, I'm reminded of the many, many laughs and rounding it up to 5 stars.

Why the wish to dock a half-star?  Well, there was a certain... not quite staleness, but repetitiveness...  Of course, as anyone who's read more than a few of his books well knows, Wodehouse is repetitive.  In the essentials, one of his books is much like another-- particularly within the same series.  It's the sparkling presentation that makes him wonderful.  Maybe it's just my mood-- maybe I've read one too many in a given length of time-- or maybe this particular book is somehow lacking in comparison with some of the others.  For whatever reason, in this one, that repetitiveness was ever-so-slightly more noticeable than usual.

Another nit-pick is that Lord Emsworth felt like a different character, at times, from his usual self.  He seemed a little too "with it", at times.  Not his usual completely oblivious, head-in-the-pig-shaped-clouds self, if you know what I mean.

All in all, a very amusing read.  The last bit-- the "news clipping"-- was the cherry on top.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series

Binscombe Tales: The Complete Series
by John Whitbourn

Binscombe is a place where things go bump in the night and often in the daytime too. Here you will find stories to prick the imagination, quicken the pulse, and chill the blood. It is a place where waiting for a bus may take a lot longer than you think, where the rustle in the bushes is likely to be something considerably more secretive and more dangerous than a badger, where inanimate objects may have strong views of their own, and where past, present and future sometimes collide with unpredictable results.
To this inward-looking corner of England's Home Counties comes Mr Oakley, a newcomer in the village but one whose family name appears on some of the oldest gravestones. Mr Oakley believes in the comfort, convenience and security of the modern world and he fancies that the past is safely dead and buried. It is a world view that he will have repeatedly challenged by the mysterious Mr Disvan, who acts as his (and our) guide to the winding byways of the bizarre that thread through Binscombe life. Now that Mr Oakley has returned to his ancestral homeland, he will soon discover that reality is a relative concept, and the world outside Binscombe will never seem quite the same again.

My Reaction:
These tales are an immensely readable mixture of The Twilight Zone and English humor.  They can be read one or two at a time ("savored", as I believe some term it) or gobbled one right after the other (the way I've read them).  Each can stand on its own, but taken together, they work together to tell a larger story about Binscombe, Mr. Oakley, and Mr. Disvan.

I was introduced to Binscombe Tales by Julie at the Forgotten Classics podcast.  In fact, I've already blogged about her reading of the first tale in the book here: "Another Place".  I enjoyed that story so much that I put the book on my To Read list, and though not all of the tales are quite as good as that one (always the case with collections of short stories), it was an entertaining read.

Prepare for a few shudders, but there's nothing very graphically depicted.

There are occasional lapses in editing-- mainly punctuation issues and a few misspellings-- but not enough to be particularly irritating.

One thing to note: I bought the Kindle version of this book-- partly because it was significantly cheaper than the paper version ($9.99 vs $24.99 for paperback), partly because I simply prefer reading on my e-reader.  However, for some reason, the Kindle version is lacking the afterword that is included in the paper versions.  Based on reviews, that afterword is a lengthy essay that sounds like an interesting read.  I'm disappointed that it wasn't included in the ebook (but I guess I'll survive this deprivation, somehow).

"Warning": Because I wrote a little about each story (adding to it every so often as I read through the collection), this entry has turned out to be fairly long.

Specific Tales (with SPOILERS):

"Another Place" 
The book starts off strong with this tale of a man who wakes one day to find himself in... the other Binscombe.

Wonderful!  I could've read a whole novel based on this idea alone.

"Till Death Do Us Part"
One severely hen-pecked husband learns (to his dismay) that the marriage vows might be even more enduring than he expected...

Not quite a favorite of the bunch-- but hey, not bad, either!  My only-- spoilery!!-- specific remark is this:  What?!  They're going to contaminate the lake with a body?!  Gross!  I could never work up an appetite for fish caught in the lake, afterwards, if I were privy to that information...

"Only One Careful Owner"
A young couple think they've scored an excellent deal on their gently used car.  They soon come to realize that there's a slight catch.

A few very creepy moments.  I particularly enjoyed the neighbor who came into the pub to scold the couple for leaving their little girl out in the car to scream and cry. ~shiver~  On thing confuses me, though.  The car is mentioned specifically as a Ford Fiesta, so I looked it up.  Apparently the first year they came out was 1976, but the phantom radio broadcast is from 1968.  I wonder if this was done intentionally or if the author was simply mistaken in thinking that the Ford Fiesta had been around since the 60s.

"Waiting for a Bus"
This eerie story will make you think twice, the next time you're tempted to complain about a long wait for your ride.  ;o)

The bit at the end is great-- but I think what "bothers" me most about this story is how depressing it is.  Also, it provokes some deeper thought-- questions about whether my own life is so uneventful, unremarkable, and closed off from the rest of the world that I would make a good candidate for the bus stop...  "...[T]he active years of my life passed me by and were wasted in nothingness..."  Fairly motivating to get up and do something!

"All Roads Lead to Rome"
Disembodied whispers in the woods.  An archaeologist with closer ties to the ancient past than she might have expected.

Another "not favorite", but still an interesting tale.  I wonder if it was intentionally a commentary on women who can't seem to make a permanent break from abusive relationships... Ellie acknowledges that even though she's afraid of the "Voice", she also finds herself aroused by it, and in the end-- if Mr. Divan is correct-- she willingly goes back to her husband from a previous life.

"The Will to Live"
A tale of a man who's too busy to die.

I don't think I quite "got" the end of this one.  At least, it left me thinking, "And...?"  So it turns out that Terrence is Binscombe's MP-- member of parliament.  I guess it's meant to be a punchline.  While I agree that politicians are frequently awful people, this joke ended the story on a bit of a downbeat, from my perspective.

"Here Is My Resignation"
A brief vignette in which a man decides to have done with the workaday world.

Vaguely creepy.  I didn't grow up with tales of "scary fairies", and they've always seemed less interesting than other sinister creatures.  The description of the eyes peeping through the leaves is eerie, though... I can't quite understand why Mr. Pelling would want to go along with them, even if he was sick of his daily routine.  Then again, he described himself as a nihilist, so... Yeah, not quite on an even keel, I guess.

"A Video Nasty"
Two elderly sisters discover, to their dismay, that they have accidentally recorded something unusual with their VCR...

This one started out strong, but at some point it bogged down slightly.  Fortunately, it gained steam toward the end.  I think part of my problem with this story was that I sometimes found it difficult to sympathize with the obnoxiously Marxist sisters... Also, the bit where the "entity" talks just destroys the creepiness for me.  Still, plenty of good stuff here, aside from those quibbles!

"Binscombe Jihad"
A farm manager doesn't pay have proper respect for the history of the land, with dire consequences.

Mr. Disvan shows a much darker side of his character, here.  I understand people's anger at Mr. Wheldon for destroying ancient trees, tearing up old hedgerows, and-- especially-- killing pet dogs and cats that supposedly have wandered onto the farm.  Then there's the workman's death, but as Wheldon had no way of knowing the man would be killed, it seems unfair to heap all the blame for that on him.  Leaving the workman out of it and counting "just" the trees, hedgerows, pets, layoffs, etc. against him, it seems he's paying a pretty stiff price for his crimes!

After contributing to "The Concrete Fund", Mr. Oakley becomes obsessed with learning what it is, exactly.  (You'll never guess...)

This was an odd spin on the old legend of King Arthur.  It served as a reminder that there's much I don't know about the history of the British Isles.  I've read a few things about Arthur-- and seen a movie or two-- but exactly where he is supposed to have fallen in history?  No clue.  This version of King Arthur is a far, far cry from Disney's The Sword in the Stone!  Mr. Disvan's "prodigal son" speech to Mr. Oakley is shudder-worthy.  "Surely you now see that knowing what you do, there can be no question of your ever leaving."

"Reggie Suntan"
An unwelcome house-guest who refuses to leave plagues Reggie Suntan, so he visits his old hometown (Binscombe, of course) to seek the advice of Mr. Disvan.

The conclusion of this tale was quite amusing-- particularly the bit where Reggie Suntan puts the ghostly signature to practical use!

I believe it was in this story that Reggie and Mr. Oakley both were described as "heathens"-- meaning that they aren't spiritual/"believers".  My question is this: how can a Binscomite not believe in some sort of higher power?  It just strikes me as strange.  They're surrounded by things that defy rational explanation.  It seems like they'd be very likely to give religion some serious consideration, under those circumstances.

As a side note, I always find it intriguing when a person or character is described as "American-looking" (maybe because I was once described thus, myself).  Do Americans have a "look"?  Perhaps it's something like the common phenomenon in which people can't detect their own accent, but I'm skeptical.  I'm afraid it might not be a compliment, in any case... Although in this story, the "American-looking" woman was apparently attractive.  Was she "American-looking" because she wore leather pants?  ...Because, if so, jeans would actually be much more typically American. (g)

"His Holiness Commands"
A belligerent man unwittingly creates a passageway to yet another "version" of Binscombe, and we are treated to a lesson in how a different outcome in a single historical event could create a far-reaching ripple effect.

I had a good laugh over the "that tears it" joke.

Mr. Disvan seems happy to let the future care/guardianship of the rift in time and space sort of work itself out.  I would've thought Mr. Oakley would have understood that it would simply become another sacred duty passed down through the generations of Binscombe, like the small matter of the Concrete Fund.

No, my personal concern would be that the people on the Other Side might eventually get curious/forgetful and come investigating again.  Or conquering, as the case may be.  Of course, that particular alternative reality didn't seem to be especially technologically advanced (which is perhaps rather insulting to certain groups, but we'll let it pass)-- as evidenced by the use of gas lights instead of electric-- so even if they did come bursting through the brick walls, they wouldn't likely be any match for our own weaponry.

After avoiding their tragic deaths, a family thinks they're in the clear, but those of us who have seen any of the Final Destination movies could probably tell them otherwise.

Yep, another pretty good'un.
I think the creepiest part is Mr. Disvan's (and Maccabi's) complete lack of concern that he'll be causing the premature deaths of the few other people he happens to queue with.  I mean, I get that, as far as Maccabi's concerned, his children come before anyone else, but still... A bit cold, you know?

"No Truce With Kings"
Cromwell.  (I hope you know all about him, else you'll risk the disappointment of Mr. Disvan and the other Binscomites.)

Ok, I'll admit it: before reading this story, I didn't know much of anything about Oliver Cromwell.  I'm an American, you see, and my education focused on American history with limited forays into World History (that I can recall)-- and those were more concerned with the Renaissance, the two World Wars, etc.  I'm relatively certain Cromwell was mentioned, but it was only briefly, by comparison.

What I'm trying to explain here is that if I was ever taught about Cromwell, I've forgotten it by now.  As a result, I floundered through parts of this story.  I suppose the idea of a haunted, talking skull is intriguing enough for a weird tale, but some of the jokes and references went whizzing right over my head.

To be honest, the suggestion that Cromwell would "return" at some point in the future came a bit too close on the heels of the story about King Arthur (a.k.a. the Once and Future King).  The future's looking awfully busy for Britain, what with all these "returning" historical and/or mythical figures!

"Let the Train Take the Strain"
Mr. Oakley decides to try driving himself to work in hopes of avoiding the stress of train-commuting, only to discover that travelling on the motorway involves its own set of risks.

This one certainly has its creepy moments-- more so than some of the others (such as the Cromwell tale)-- but it left me with a question or two.

First, there's this insinuation that there are more "lost souls" on the shoulders of major roads than elsewhere-- a higher concentration of them, that is-- due to motor accidents resulting in sudden, violent deaths.  Alright... But by that logic, shouldn't there be even more spirits wandering the halls of hospitals, since many accident victims don't die on the spot (not to mention that accident victims of all sorts-- not just car crashes-- go to the hospital)?  ...Or is the logic that the ghosts stay where the "accident" happened rather than wherever the eventual death occurs?

...Anyway, that one I guess I can grudgingly accept, even though the story seems to inflate the number of people killed on any given stretch of busy roadway.  My bigger question is why these ghosts/spirits are so... "hungry", as one is described.  What kind of ghost is hungry?  That blood residue at the emergency phone... Was that person "just" attacked in a fit of ghostly rage?  Or are the ghosts literally hungry and feeding on the living who are stranded by the road?  I'm sure we're not meant to really know, in any case, but it's driving me crazy... I almost feel like part of the story was missing!

"Rollover Night"
Binscomites are treated to visions of the ancient past-- and the far-flung future.

My favorite part of this one would have to be the end.  (So much for "peace on earth" and "all is well"!)

The idea of a temporary window into the future is interesting, though perhaps essentially unappealing.  If it showed something awful, I'd be depressed to see it, but if the future I glimpsed seemed too wonderful and alluring, I wonder if it might make me dissatisfied with my own lot in life.

The bit with the ancient Egyptians, however, makes little sense to me... Why should they be visible at all, if they were spirits "living out" (for want of a better term) their afterlife in "the Beautiful West"?  Shouldn't the ancient past of Binscombe just be woods and meadows and animals until the first live people arrived there?  That confuses me-- the only possible result of expecting too much logic and sense from these types of stories!

"Yankee Go Home"
An American prodigal returns to the Binscombe fold, bearing news of an extraterrestrial nature.

This was one of the weaker tales, in my opinion.  Not bad, but not a favorite.   The ending left me a little cold.  (After all, Binscome's not that close to Sherwood Forest, is it?)  If nothing else, the story introduced me to the whole "Yankee Go Home" thing, which I'd never heard about, before.  (Anti-Americanism, yes; that particular phrase/song/slogan, no.)  ...Not that it's that helpful or pleasant to know... Let's try again: The description of the Mars photos was pleasantly eerie.

"Hello Dolly"
Mr. Oakley tries to chat up an attractive woman, with strange results.

I'm not sure I completely understand this one, but it is plenty creepy.  So... Is Linda really some sort of doll, herself?  (Somehow?)  The description of her appearance and her oddly childlike way of talking certainly seems to support that view (as do the references to "Living Doll").  Maybe contact with the scary secret-room Doll changed her.  As fruitless as it usually is to seek logic, reason, or solid answers in these types of stories, I can't seem to help myself.

"Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Most Men"
Mr. Oakley attends Binscombe's version of the Christmas midnight mass.

It's another instance of the "hungry ghosts".  This time we get a little more explanation, though.  They grow hungry-- "or empty as the centuries go by".

This story might lead one to wonder how common it is that drunks barge into churches to disturb late-night sermons/ceremonies.  You wouldn't think there would be much trouble with that sort of thing-- certainly not enough to "feed" a host of hungry ghosts, every single Christmas.

"Canterbury's Dilemma"
Mr. Oakley excites the interest of an unusual "recruitment officer".

Oakley really is a little slow on the up-take, sometimes, isn't he?   I found this tale amusing and interesting, though I'm a little puzzled as to why the God-fearing folk of Binscombe would be willing to risk interaction with Mr. Fersen.  Of course, the clergy didn't hang around, and maybe it was only unbelievers who attended the party... I can't recall.

On the subject of "unbelievers", I've wondered more than once, through these stories, how someone (Oakley for one, though he's not the only one) can be atheists with all the evidence before their eyes.  This tale brings that question right to the forefront, a couple of times.  I suspect that Mr. Oakley's "disbelief" is not quite so solid and unshakable as he likes to suggest.  The further we go through these stories, the more obvious it is that he struggles to maintain his supposed atheism.

"Every Little Breeze"
A former Binscomite lives with the volume turned up to eleven in an attempt to drown out something... unpleasant.

Creepy!  I guess the younger audience might not have direct experience with audiotape recorders, but for those of us old enough to remember fooling around with tape recorders, it's only too easy to imagine hearing ~~phantom voices~~ coming through in the background.  Even when the mystery sounds could be explained away (bleed-through from the other side of the tape, for instance), it could still elicit a few goosebumps-- particularly when heard in the dead of night...  Ah, the good old days!  Digital music files can't do that.  ;o)

Incidentally, this is the first time I've heard of "Raudive voices".
"We are watching you."  ~shiver~

"But After This, the Judgement"
Did you ever stop to consider what-- or who-- might be responsible for your favorite sport hero's most shining moment?  Maybe it's time you did...

Sports.  Rugby, to be precise.  (Insert ambivalent expression here.)  This wasn't a favorite.  Not bad, but not as original as some of the others.  Also, I've lost track now, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the first-- and maybe not even the second-- of these tales to center around a character who has made a deal with the Devil.  That (perceived, if not actual) repetitiveness coupled with the sports angle pushed it firmly into "not the best in the book" territory.

"It'll All be Over by Christmas"
Many Worlds Theorem, anyone?

I suppose the concept of "the multiverse" is interesting... Or rather, I do find it fascinating (for limited periods of time) to contemplate how the course of history might have been altered by diverse "tweaks".  One little (or not-so-little) change could have set us off on a vastly different trajectory.  Many of us wouldn't even be here.  In our places would be people who do not (maybe could not) exist in our own present day.

Then there's the idea that every possible version of the the world/history is being acted out/lived out simultaneously-- alternate realities/dimensions rolling together through space and time, parallel but unique... Now that I find absurd and completely unappealing.  If every permutation happens somewhere, no matter what we decide and do in our lives, what's the point of living and making decisions?  No thanks; not for me.

An interesting story, though.  The concept of an intersection ("overlap phenomena") between alternate worlds is great sci-fi fodder.  There could be an epic series of novels based on that.  (There probably already is-- and in our own world, too, not one of those other ones...)

"I Could a Tale Unfold"
Mr. Oakley learns that even inanimate objects have lives of their own, after a fashion.

I like the idea of "haunted objects" for creepy stories.  This particular haunted object, though... An accountant's desk in the service of local government?  Seems it would've been more likely to put Mr. Oakley into a state of drowsy stupor than to make him combative and devil-may-care.

Neither was I impressed by the talking of the desk.  But maybe that's just me.  I think that any time a creepy, non-human entity in a story/novel/movie physically speaks, it must be done very carefully, or it just feels ridiculous.  Of course, in this tale, we weren't supposed to be scared of the desk... I kind of wish we had been, though.  The desk's much put-upon attitude didn't win my sympathy.  (I'm a horrible person, clearly.)

"Oh, I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside (Within Reason)"
Prepare to think differently about "Kodak moments".

Most of us have probably thought, at some point or another, "If only I could freeze time and just live in this moment forever!" ...Well, this story might make us reconsider that wish.

The idea that one could become trapped inside a photograph is interesting. (Though it's not the first time I'm read something along those lines, it's usually been paintings rather than photos.)  There's just a dash of Groundhog Day, too (particularly with the self-replenishing food and booze and the fact that people can't die).  It puts a whole new spin on the phrase "capture your likeness"!  An engrossing tale.

"The More it Changes"
We are treated to a historical vignette in which we learn how Binscombe got its name.

Very interesting, and an excellent way to finish the collection, tying the very origins of Binscombe (well, at least how it got its name and part of its early population) back to our own Mr. Oakley.  I love it that Mr. Oakley's distant ancestor was the leader of the group of Saxon invaders that settled Binscombe.  And (of course) there's Mr. Disvan (though unnamed) at the end!  He was an old man even then!  Who/what is Mr. Disvan?  An alien?  An immortal?  I guess we'll never know...

- - - - - - -

A great set of stories.  I only wish there were more of them.  (I suppose the author doesn't intend to write more, either, since he apparently writes about story ideas he never got around to, in that afterword I haven't been able to read.)  I can definitely see myself revisiting these, at some point, and I'll recommend them to others.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Provincial Lady in America

The Provincial Lady in America
by E.M. Delafield

In this installment of the "Provincial Lady" series, the titular Lady visits America for a whirlwind tour and a number of speaking engagements.  On her itinerary are New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Washington, and (in Canada) Toronto.  The highs and lows of travel abroad are treated with her usual humorous touch-- and we American readers are obviously interested to learn what she thought of our national forbears.

My Reaction:
This was a shared read-- always great for comedic works like this one.

The general consensus (in the handful of reviews I've glanced over) seems to be that, while still pleasingly amusing and witty, this is not quite as amusing as the earlier Provincial Lady books.  I think I agree.

As for why this book is weaker, it's probably a number of small things in combination.  Certain aspects are repetitive, for one.  For another, the constant state of rush made me almost tired to read!  (I probably need a nap, though, and that may have something to do with it.)  The revolving door of characters didn't help, though that is an undeniable aspect of any whirlwind tour.  (Ironically, when the P.L. was reunited with a familiar face-- Mademoiselle-- I was mildly irritated, because I'm not always adept at translating her French, even though context clues make up for any uncertainty.)  Then there's the possibility that the author was running out of ideas and that the concept of the P.L. was getting slightly stale.

Quibbles aside, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Her casual observations of America and Americans were interesting-- her remarks on American hospitality and vitality.  Though she didn't visit the South in her travels, there were at least a few encounters with Southern characters.  Mostly all they did was insist that she must see the South and point out that people told them they hadn't lost their Southern accent even after so many years of living in the North.  (...So basically we're reduced to our accent! (g) Well, that's ok.  At least it wasn't insulting.)

In the end, I was as ready for her to get back home as she was, I think!  Whew!  Even arm chair travels are enough to exhaust me, these days...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"The Unrest-Cure" and "The Easter Egg"

"The Unrest-Cure"
"The Easter Egg"
by Saki

(These were chosen at almost-random from a collection of Saki's short stories, for "stop-gap" reading.)

"The Unrest-Cure" was by far the more amusing (and bizarre) of the two, though the last couple of lines of "The Easter Egg" were also good.

...I don't think I can write much about either without spoiling them (and I'm just not in the mood, either).  Both are quite short-- ideal for a quick read between books.  I must remember to read more Saki again soon.  He's one of those short story authors with a very familiar name and reputation, yet when I come right down to it, I don't think I've read more than two or three of his stories.

Equal Rites

Equal Rites
by Terry Pratchett

On Discworld, a dying wizard tries to pass on his powers to an eighth son of an eighth son, who is just at that moment being born. The fact that the son is actually a daughter is discovered just a little too late. The town witch insists on turning the baby into a perfectly normal witch, thus mending the magical damage of the wizard's mistake. But now the young girl will be forced to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Unseen University-- and attempt to save the world with one well-placed kick in some enchanted shins!

My Reaction:
(A "shared read".)

This was the first of the "Witches" sub-series of the Discworld novels-- and also the first in that series that we've read.

I give it a solid thumbs up rating.  Fantasy of the "light comic" variety.  It's not a genre I'd likely ever have started reading, left to my own devices.  The idea of fantasy in general still leaves me rather cold, with a few exceptions.  However, I find that I enjoy comic fantasy, and Pratchett is generally excellent read-aloud material.

There were a few times when my interest faded-- when there was too much description of action/not enough humor... Eks's long period of Borrowing... and the scene set on the vague world of the Things-- but most of it was thoroughly entertaining, and Granny Weatherwax is a likeable character I look forward to reading more about, when we continue the series.

Oh, and the whole "feminist" angle of the book... Though it's present, I didn't find it delivered from the teeth-grinding, hit-you-over-the-head approach.  I'm a woman (despite my traditionally masculine given name), but reading an explicitly, overtly feminist novel is not my idea of a good time, so that is a definite positive.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Man in Lower Ten

The Man in Lower Ten
by Mary Roberts Rhinehart

Lawrence Blakely, attorney-at-law, sets off by train to deliver valuable documents in a criminal case. His ride will be eventful. Along the way he'll encounter romance, treachery, a train wreck, even a murder in which he'll be implicated. Who's after Blakely and his papers -- why? The first detective novel to appear on national bestseller lists, THE MAN IN LOWER TEN is still a great read almost ninety years after its publication. It has all the thrills of a contemporary whodunit and a satiric edge that gently mocks the conventions of male detective fiction.

My Reaction:
This was a shared read, which maybe wasn't such a good idea.  I suspect that mysteries in general are not the best choice for shared reads, because it takes us too long to work our way through them, and in mysteries, you need to keep up the pace or you forget what's happening and lose interest.

The good:
It's a reasonably interesting, fairly concise tale.  Some of the characters are nicely done (mainly Hotchkiss and  McKnight).  The touches of humor worked well.  There are occasional things (horse-drawn buggies, ladies wearing hats/gloves, racial slang, and so on) that remind you of how old the book is (published in 1909), but we were surprised by how timeless and fresh most of it seemed.  It felt much more modern that I expected.

The not-as-good:
It felt slow to read.  We had a hard time keeping some of the (less-memorable) characters straight in our heads.  (Too many names without faces attached and vice versa?  I'm not sure why...)  I wasn't crazy about Alison West; actually, the whole romance plot fell a bit flat for me.  While the humor was good, I wished there was more of it-- but to be fair, the genre and plot must put a certain restraint on the comedic element.

All in all, a decent old-fashioned mystery, but not one I expect to remember particularly well or wish to re-read.

(This novel is in the public domain; Amazon offers a free Kindle copy, and I'm sure it's available elsewhere, too, in other formats.)

Stitches in Time

Stitches in Time
by Barbara Michaels

When an antique bridal quilt appears under mysterious circumstances at the vintage clothing shop where Rachel Grant works, she is fascinated. She has never been able to resist handmade textiles from the past, for she believes that through the ages, women wove protective magic into their fabrics in order to mark the important events of their lives: birth, marriage, and death. But there is more than good in the quilt's magic power. Day by day Rachel sees and feels the power growing, as she senses the quilt influencing her thoughts and actions. Much as Rachel's logical mind longs to deny the supernatural, the aura of evil coming from the quilt is terrifyingly real, and it seems to carry a sinister legacy into the lives of the people Rachel loves.

My Reaction:
Well, it's another for the "not favorite" column of this author's works.  I generally find Barbara Michaels very readable, even if I don't really like all that I'm reading, so though I grumbled and rolled my eyes and took notes for the sole purpose of griping in my review ('cause I'm mean like that), I have to grudgingly admit that she managed to pull me through yet another book.  I wanted to see what would happen-- whether or not my suspicions would be confirmed. (They were.)

I don't think I'd ever bother reading this again, but for one read-through, it was sufficiently interesting.  A word of warning, though: if you're thinking of reading this book primarily because you're enticed by the concept of a haunted quilt, don't expect the quilt to be center stage for very long.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Let's start with the good.  The quilt itself was intriguing, and I loved the descriptions of the motifs/blocks.  The fact that there was something "wrong" with every one of them-- something sinister hidden in the seemingly innocuous applique and embroidery-- was goose-bumpy and fascinating.  I wanted to read more about that, but the reader was only privy to a handful of the gruesome details.

The creepy touches I can recall are as follows:
--cupid with almost-hidden horns
--woman riding the horse has no eyes
--hound about to take a bite out of a horse's shank
--snake wound around the flower stems
--red eyes peering out from between flowering plants
--"greenish-black worm coiled in the heart" of a rose

Then there are all the "things" hidden under the appliques-- not to mention the quilt's "stuffing".  ~shudder~  That was all majorly creepy.

--I've read the two other novels in this loose trilogy, though I read the other two out of chronological order.  It's been a few years, since I read them both in 2012.  I don't remember the specifics of either book, so I wonder if the reading experience would be much different if one did have fresh memories of the first two books.  Someone in another review mentioned that Kara (formerly Karen) had changed a lot between the two books, and that the change wasn't for the better.  I can believe it; the attempt to make Kara "confident" instead makes her come off as far too abrasive for most of the book-- but then that seems to be the case for a fair number of Barbara Michaels' characters...

--For someone who was overweight herself, once, Kara has a lot of nerve:  "'Not that that deters chubbies from trying to squeeze themselves into a size three,' Kara had commented wryly."

--It's difficult to sympathize with a heroine who secretly kinda wants to steal the husband of her so-called friend (and employer).  Oh, she won't do it, of course, but in Secret Fantasyland, she'd like to have him for herself.  Yuck.

--Other characters remark on how "smart" or clever Rachel (our heroine) is, from time to time.  It's almost embarrassing, because... She doesn't really seem that intelligent.

--As a veteran reader of many Barbara Michaels novels, I came prepared for the nearly inevitable Battle of the Sexes and/or the joyless game of "Let's Look at Everything Through the Lens of Feminism".  I don't know why this issue held such perennial interest for her; possibly it was an unavoidable consequence of being a liberal, educated woman of "her generation".  Whatever the reason, the frequent references to feminism get old.  This book is chock-full of them-- as well as strangely dismissive, stereotypical crap about the male characters.  (Don't say you weren't warned.)

Just a sampling:
-"It was no betrayal of her feminist principles to admit she felt better knowing there was a man in the house..."  (Whatever you need to tell yourself, honey, but now we all know you're a traitor to The Cause.)
-"You're a sensible, adult female and a scholar..." (Why the emphasis on "female"?  Why not just leave it at sensible adult and scholar?
-"I respect courage and the principles of modern feminism, but this situation has nothing to do with either."
-Pat drives a truck (I think), and Ruth explains to Rachel: "It's a male fixation.  Makes them feel macho, one of the good old boys."
-"There won't be documentation [of the quilt]; women's work wasn't considered important enough to merit written records."
-"'Hell's bells, superstition is my specialty.  How could I have missed this sort of thing?'  'Because you're a man,' Kara said tolerantly.'"
-Adam asks, "Can a mere male join the circle?"
-Adam has thoughtfully started a stew to feed everyone-- he does nearly all the cooking in this book-- and Kara graciously remarks, "You'll make some woman a great wife."  ...Um, thanks?  I guess it's supposed to be a clever reversal of the kind of stuff I suspect the author thought women had been putting up with since the dawn of time-- but it feels really weird to me.

--Another pet issue in this particular novel is "Guns are Super Scary-- And They're EVERYWHERE, These Days".  I've compiled some of my favorite gun-related tidbits below.  Enjoy!

-"Maybe he had a gun.  Everybody had guns these days."
-"They[criminals]'ve all got guns these days..."
-"...she almost regretted her refusal to buy a gun.  Almost, but not really."
-"A loaded gun was an invitation to accident or manslaughter, and an unloaded weapon wasn't worth a damn."
-"What if he had had a gun?"
-"A liquor store hold-up gone awry, a semiautomatic rifle, a store full of holiday shoppers..."
-"If I'd had a gun I probably would have shot you!"
-"'Wait a minute.  Did you say he carries a gun?' ... 'Carrying it made him feel big and brave and macho.'"
-(Not a gun, but related...)  Someone's worried that a mystery package might contain a bomb, then suggests she was just being silly for suspecting a bomb, of all things. "'Not these days,' Tony said. 'You never know what people will think up next.'"  ...Yeah, way to bring calmness and rationality to the situation, Tony.
-Rachel's crazy ex has a gun, which he brings with him when he breaks into the house, and that same gun is very nearly used to murder Tony, later on.

--Fortunately, Cheryl and Tony's bratty kids are out of the story for most of the book, but they're there in the beginning.

Jerry tries to wriggle out of Rachel's arms, and instead of scolding him (or doing anything else a responsible parent might do to try to teach his kid not to be a complete brat), Tony warns that he's too heavy and that Rachel should put him down before he kicks her ("quite unintentionally"... yeah, sure, Tony)-- and proceeds to bribe the brat with another cookie.  (GAH!)

Then there's twelve-year-old Joe, who sounds like such a delight, lecturing every adult within talking-distance on the necessity of recycling "and the wickedness of using plastic trash bags".  (Cheryl's response?  "I only use the biodegradable kind, honey, you know that." I guess we know who runs that household!)

We also learn that Joe isn't allowed to be rude to his mother or use profanity in the presence of "ladies".  "Tony was strict about such things, and Joe tried to conform.  He did pretty well; if Rachel hadn't happened to overhear him talking to a buddy on the telephone, she'd have feared he was being repressed."  ...Uh, yeah, it's so repressive to expect a 12-year-old not to curse.  Thank goodness he had the outlet of his friends for his natural need to curse, since he wasn't allowed to do so in front of women.  Apparently it's unhealthy for pre-teen boys not to curse.  Amazing, the things you learn from books!

"...The only remaining job was to force the children to eat something before they hit the road.  It would be a matter of force, unquestionably; she heard the raised voices as she approached the family room.  Jerry was asking why they couldn't stop at a fast-food restaurant instead of eating stinky peanut butter sandwiches, and Megan was echoing him, although she never ate anything but peanut butter sandwiches."
...Gee, this is such great advertising for the joys of parenthood.  ~eyeroll~

--Kara wears a vintage mink coat she bought at an auction.  "'And don't give me any grief about animal rights, I get enough of that from Joe.'  A fond, reminiscent smile transformed her face.  'He's a slick debater, that kid.  He's got me so brainwashed I'd never buy a new fur coat even if I wanted to spend the money.  But these unfortunate minks passed on thirty years ago.  I told Joe I was honoring their memory by wearing the coat.'  'What did he say?' Rachel asked.  Kara laughed.  'That my arguments were specious and my attitude hypocritical. In those precise words! ... I keep telling him that vintage is very P.C.  We're the ultimate recyclers.'"

--This author has an irritating habit of calling attention to the fact that her characters' dialogue is breaking grammatical rules or conventions.  I've noticed it on numerous occasions, across several of her other books.  Maybe it's supposed to be cute or funny, but it's just annoying-- like she couldn't bear to let the characters speak naturally (grammar errors and all) without giving in to some OCD-ish compulsion to point it out.  "Hey, reader.  Look, I'm aware that this isn't grammatically correct.  Please don't think I'm unaware of every rule of English grammar!  I'm a highly educated woman, and I couldn't bear it if someone-- anyone-- thought for one instant that I hadn't included that error intentionally."

Examples in this book:
-"'However,' Tom added, 'thanks to you and Tony, we know what he looks like.'  'How do you know it's him?' Rachel asked.  The question wasn't well phrased, but Tom knew what she meant."
-"'Too costumey,' Rachel said ungrammatically."

--Ugh, snobbery.  Shopping at a mall for Christmas presents, Rachel "knew it wouldn't be easy to find appropriate gifts; the others were well-to-do people with excellent taste"-- unlike the rest of us commoners, I suppose.  Why are you even shopping at the mall, if you hate it so much?  Personally, I try to avoid malls--especially near Christmas-- because they're crowded and the merchandise is often overpriced (even if it doesn't come up to Rachel's standards), but I wonder where Rachel would expect it to be easy to find gifts for well-to-do people with excellent taste!  It seems to me the difficulty might arise from the fact that she barely knows these other characters.  Generic gifts are the best you can do, under those circumstances, and a generic gift from the mall is probably just as good as a generic gift from some high-end boutique.

--Adam asks if Rachel's mother is dead.  "It was like Adam to avoid the cowardly euphemisms-- deceased, gone, departed."  ...Excuse me, but how are those words cowardly?  If you don't know how someone else feels about those words-- and especially if you don't know how fresh the bereavement is-- it's difficult to know how to phrase things so as not to unintentionally inflict more pain.  But if you're not sure how someone else feels on the subject, it's respectful and caring to try to soften the language as much as possible.  For someone who's still grieving, the cold, hard, harsh finality of the word DEAD can be hard to hear, much less to say.  Dearest, darlingest, most detestable Rachel, I suggest you try not to be so judgmental of the sensitivities of others (especially given your own numerous "issues").  If you don't mind, you heartless so-and-so.  (...Ahem.  I don't like this character very much.)  Contrary to modern belief, needless bluntness is not a virtue.  If you're talking amongst friends, by all means, feel free to gabble on in any way you like-- "kicking the bucket", "croaking", etc.-- but when mixing with a more civilized crowd, it behooves you to not be such a raging harpy.  M'kay?  Glad we could clear the air.

--When we first meet Adam, he comes across as someone with some sort of developmental delay or maybe some type of autism.  Then something changes and he's like a totally different guy-- like a clone of Pat.  Then he changes yet again and settles into a more normal way of speaking.  The whole thing is puzzling.  Anyway, bizarre metamorphosis aside, Adam's the best character in the book.  I had a hard time visualizing him (come to think of it, he went through a drastic physical transformation, too), but once he had "settled in", he was by far the most likable character.  I didn't understand what he saw in Rachel.  I mean, he seemed to fall in love with her in about a day at a time when she was still fantasizing about her precious (married and boring) Toooooony.  That, however, is just another case of handy-dandy Insta-Love, and probably shouldn't even raise an eyebrow!

--Obligatory reference(s) to Egyptology:  Adam wants to watch a TV special about Unsolved Mysteries of History, including the Pyramids.  "The only mystery about the pyramids is why a lot of gullible fools think there is a mystery."  Plus there's a dress that is described as "an Egyptian model of Poiret's".

--One of the "tricks" GhostRachel plays is putting dye and Drano into a bottle marked as bleach.  Kara: "What's the joke?  Was it supposed to turn my hands a bright indelible orange or make me break out in warts?"  My question is this: Even if the bottle hadn't been tampered with, why would Kara have intentionally gotten bleach on her hands?  Shouldn't she have been using gloves, in any case?  (Gross. I hate the way skin feels after it's come into contact with bleach.)

--"My whole life is in that quilt.  All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces.  My hopes and fears, my loves and hates.  I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me."  ...Sometimes when I look at something I've made (crocheted, knitted, or sewed), I do remember little snatches of things-- what I was thinking about or listening to when I made it.  But I don't think I've ever felt that strong of a memory/identity-connection with a piece of handiwork.  ...And I don't think I'd want to, honestly.  It sounds uncomfortable.

--Why are so many of Barbara Michaels' novels set in the South when she seems to have had a problem with Southerners?  This book probably isn't the best example, but it's not the first time I've noticed this kind of crap in her writing.

The negatively stereotyped Southern caricature in this novel is Mrs. Wilson, the woman who inherited the quilts.  She isn't a particularly nice person, but the other characters are plain mean about her before they even have much of a reason to dislike her.  The way her accent is presented (and mockingly imitated) is downright insulting.  And of course she consistently makes grammatical errors, too.  After all, she's just an uneducated piece of white trash.

The oh-so sophisticated Kara makes fun of her lack of fashion sense, and when Kara and Rachel visit Mrs. Wilson in her home--!  Oh, Mrs. Wilson is so tacky!  She wears a sequinned, beaded dress and ~scandalized whisper~ fake jewelry!  Her home is "painfully neat"!  Her fireplace is gas! (I gather that the only acceptable fireplace is wood-burning.  Only a tasteless hick would put up with a gas fireplace, clearly.)  She complies with the boring bourgeois convention of putting family photos on the mantel!  "The single bookcase contained a few bestsellers and Readers' Digest condensed books plus a collection of collectors' plates featuring scenes from Gone With the Wind, and a two-foot-tall Scarlett O'Hara doll wearing the famous 'barbecue' dress."

 Now, look.  Do I read Readers' Digest condensed books?  No, I do not.  Do I enjoy collectors' plates and Scarlett O'Hara dolls?  Nope.  But why should anyone care if someone else does?!

"Rachel told herself not to be a snob.  Kara didn't bother concealing her feelings.  The curl of her lip relaxed only once, when she admired a massive silver candelabrum."

Wow, Kara sounds so nice!  I'd certainly love to have her come into my own home.  I wonder what she'd find to sneer about here... Too many cheap knick-knacks, maybe?  Furniture too mass-produced?  Books on the shelves not highbrow enough?  I know she wouldn't approve of my wardrobe, which consists mostly of jeans, tees, and supremely boring, non-vintage blouses.  Nor do I wear uncomfortable shoes.  No high heels for me, thankyouverymuch.  (Life's too short to suffer for fashion.  Besides, one never knows when the zombie apocalypse may break out.  It's best to be prepared to run.)

--"Crocheted doilies... someone might give you a few bucks for them, but it won't be me, they're a glut on the market."  (Besides, it's more fun to make your own.  Yes, that's right.  I crochet doilies.  Like an elderly grandmother.  :oP  And you know what else?  I display them.  In my house.  In 2015.  Don't be jealous; plenty of thread and crochet hooks to go around.)

--The gang is reading about Mrs. Wilson's great-great-grandmother (or whatever the relationship was), Mary Elizabeth: "'Her mother having died when she was twelve years of age, she assumed the manifold duties of a plantation mistress, supervising the food, clothing, and medical needs of family and servants.  Yet she found the time to become a skilled performer on harp and piano and a fine needlewoman--'  'All the womanly arts,' said Kara. 'I wonder if she ever read a book?'  'She probably didn't have time,' Adam said fairly."

Yes, Adam, very true, and thank you for pointing it out.  Also, Kara, it might interest you to know that not everyone enjoys reading books, for a variety of reasons.  I know it's hard to believe, but people aren't all exactly like you (not that you set such a high standard), and just because someone doesn't read much doesn't mean they're idiotic or worthless.

--Boo hoo, Kara wants kids-- her biological clock is ticking so loudly she can't sleep for the noise-- but she doesn't want to give up even a fraction of her fabulous career as a purchaser/refurbisher of vintage clothing.  (I guess she doesn't want kids that much, then, but nevermind...)  Anyway, that whole subplot was a zero-interest snoozefest.  Where's the problem?  Just set the husband straight (i.e. tell him you don't wanna quit working, but you just gotsta have a baby, pronto) and start trying-- and stop bothering the rest of us about it.  Really, was there any reader who didn't foresee that Kara would be "expecting" by the end of the book?  (~shudder~ Just what the world needs-- a miniature Kara running around being mean...)

--It was patently obvious for much of the book that, far from creating the quilt(s) herself, Mary Elizabeth had been the target of the quilter-- and from there, it didn't take much of a leap of logic to guess that the talented quilter was likely a slave.  No surprise on either front.

--The "scary" element of the book fizzles out in the end.  All through the book, we're supposed to feel creepy about the quilt.  Then there's the threat that Rachel supposedly poses to Cheryl (and possibly others).  Until the end, that is, when everything's just hunky-dory, because hey, none of those things Rachel did were actually really dangerous.  No, no!  Don't be ridiculous!  That massive bed canopy surely wouldn't have been likely to kill Cheryl (even though that was pretty much what the characters told us, earlier).  The glass in the cranberry sauce?  No biggie!  No-one would've taken more than a bite of it, and you could even see the chunks of glass, so that's fine.

One by one, they tick off the previously sinister things Rachel did while "overshadowed" and decide that they weren't really serious threats.  No, no, no.  Don't be ridiculous.  GhostRachel was just a frightened girl; she wouldn't have gone through with her plans to cause harm or death.  Besides, can you really blame her?  I mean, she was a slave-- she was sexually abused-- she was cast off by her lover-- and she was afraid of what would happen when Mary Elizabeth sold her to someone else.

Sympathy for OriginalRachel's plight, I can certainly understand.  What I'm not so crazy about is the diminution of the danger she put people in and the wickedness of her actions.  Basically, how dare you not sympathize with her witchcraft?  Not only are you expected to have sympathy for what she went through, you're supposed to absolve her of any wrongdoing.  You're a cruel, monstrous racist if you don't forgive all-- sweep it under a rug and forget it-- and never even hint that she wasn't an angel full of love and light.  ...We know she was essentially a good person because... she was handy with a needle, I guess.  Clearly anyone capable of such artistry couldn't be a bad person.

...Or at least that was the impression I got.  Everything she did was in self-defense.  She only behaved as any "threatened creature" would, and "terror produced unthinking violence".  ...Except... Okay, lashing out in fear, I can definitely understand.  The heat of the moment-- the hatred mingled with the terror?  Yes, it's comprehensible.

But this-- this masterpiece quilt!  Something like that would've taken weeks (if not months) to complete.  This wasn't a spur of the moment creation.  It took careful planning and dedication.  She had to procure the hair, nail-trimmings, etc.  She had to chant her magic words and think about exactly what she was saying and doing, in cold blood.  For goodness' sake, she had to go to a cemetery to get the soil for inside the quilt.  ...So, yeah.  Forgive me if I'm not a big fan of OriginalRachel.

Well, I'll say this for it:  it's a very neat and tidy ending.  They give the album quilt a respectful burial, the two remaining quilts will stay within the Circle as treasured mementos of this wonderful experience they've shared-- and all of the characters are sure that she's smiling down on them from Heaven, now.  Well, maybe.  They're not really sure Heaven exists, because they are Highly Educated People of Logic-- but if it does, that's where she is, for sure.

--A resounding "meh".

Monday, September 7, 2015

Rose Daughter

Rose Daughter
by Robin McKinley

Publisher's Blurb:
It is the heart of this place, and it is dying, says the Beast. And it is true; the center of the Beast's palace, the glittering glasshouse that brings Beauty both comfort and delight in her strange new environment, is filled with leafless brown rosebushes. But deep within this enchanted world, new life, at once subtle and strong, is about to awaken.
Twenty years ago, Robin McKinley dazzled readers with the power of her novel Beauty. Now this extraordinarily gifted novelist returns to the story of Beauty and the Beast with a fresh perspective, ingenuity, and mature insight. With Rose Daughter, she presents her finest and most deeply felt work--a compelling, richly imagined, and haunting exploration of the transformative power of love.

My Reaction:
I remember reading this author's earlier novelization of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale (Beauty)-- either in middle or high school.  Whenever it was, it left a very positive impression, so I was excited to read another re-telling of the tale, curious about what new spin she might put on things.  It's been so long since I read Beauty that I don't have many definite memories from it (time for a re-read, soon), so I can't make strong comparisons between that novel and this one-- but I'm almost positive that Beauty was far superior to Rose Daughter.

If you're only going to read one, I'd suggest Beauty.  If you're a huge fan of all things B&tB, maybe they're both worth a read.  (But don't go in expecting a tightly plotted page-turner or you'll be disappointed.)

Details (with SPOILERS):
-- My main complaint with this novel is that it drags.  (Some parts had me literally nodding off to sleep!)

There's not enough conflict-- not enough of a driving force.  A few times, there are suggestions that something "big" might be coming up (references to "the curse", for instance), but all too quickly, any hint of drama or excitement fades away.  There are no high stakes-- particularly after Beauty has been living in the Beast's castle for a couple of days.  By then, she knows she's not in any danger from him.  She misses her family, but... Well, honestly, that's kind of boring to read about, after a while.  Besides, she sees them in visions every night, so it's hard for the reader to miss them, even if Beauty does.  (I actually resented their constant intrusion into the story.  How are we and Beauty supposed to get to know the Beast when she spends most of her time either alone in the glasshouse or asleep, dreaming about her sisters?!)

When one of the heroine's biggest problems is finding a source for compost, you know the book's not quite edge-of-your-seat reading.  I mean, I'm keenly interested in gardening right now, and even I found myself tapping my foot with impatience, at some points.

There is never a real, solid enemy, or at least not one who lasts long enough to build up a feeling of dread.  There's the Beast, but of course he turns out to be harmless.  There's the young local nobleman (or whatever he is) who wants to marry Jeweltongue (and tries to cause trouble for her family because she rejects his offer)-- but we hardly see him, and he, too, is almost immediately said to be unable to inflict serious harm.  The most dangerous foe is the wicked sorcerer (Strix?), but apparently he's gone, too.  Even his vengeful spells hover in the distance; they never feel like a serious threat.

-- Then there's the romance (or lack thereof).  "Beauty and the Beast" should always (imho) be a romantic tale.  It's the essence of the story-- that love can exist against all odds.  Fear/hatred turning into understanding; compassion growing into companionship; friendship finally blossoming into love.   But for this startling reversal (from fear to love) to feel genuine, we need to see the characters together more than a handful of times.

This retelling was far to stingy with interactions between the Beast and Beauty.  I'd have happily traded in some of the "other stuff" (animals returning, gardening talk, dreams of her family, descriptions of the castle and Beauty's clothes) for more dialog between the Beast and Beauty.  As it is, it's not easy to care whether they end up together or not.  Beauty is a little too perfect, and as for the Beast, we hardly get to know him!  He doesn't feel real.

-- The author can write prettily.  Sometimes that's enough to hold my attention, but at other times, it feels like rambling.  No series of pretty pictures or fascinating symbols, no amount of interesting contemplation can make up for a lack of plot or dialog.

--  Beauty praises the spider's "most radiant and well-composed web".  Definite Easter egg-ish reference to Charlotte's Web, right?

--  I don't care for the fact that, in this version, the Beast hadn't really done anything to deserve being turned into a Beast.  He made the mistake of going too far in his (~yawn~) pursuit of "philosophy".  Oh, and he told a wicked sorcerer that he "believed magic to be a false discipline, leading only to disaster".   :o/  Another anticlimactic moment.

--  Almost the only suspenseful part of the book comes when Beauty (mysteriously) doesn't remember the Beast's warning about the rose and his impending death as a result of her prolonged absence.  When she finally remembers and manages to get back to the Beast's castle (after the detour to the garden at Rose Cottage), her forward momentum slows to an agonizing crawl.  Ugh!  That whole scene!  Endlessly wandering here and there!  It took forever to read.

-- When we finally get all the explanation that we're going to get, in the form of a disembodied voice in Beauty's head (...snore...), it leaves too much unexplained.  For instance, who was Beauty's mother?  Strix's daughter (or grand-daughter) by one of his mistresses?  ...So, the Beast exiled himself?

-- Then there's the book's biggest twist on the fairy tale:  Instead of returning to his human form upon Beauty's declaration of love, the Beast stays a beast.  It's Beauty's choice, ultimately, and she'd rather live a normal(ish), cozy, mortal life with the Beast in his beastly shape than live a much different, grander, stranger life with the Beast as a handsome, wealthy, powerful philosopher-sorcerer.

I have mixed feelings about this twist.  On the one hand, it always felt odd for Beauty to finally realize she loves the Beast, only to have him change into a complete stranger (physically, at least).  However, the whole point of the story is that she loves him for his personality/heart/spirit/soul, no matter what his appearance.  (You can't judge a book by its cover, etc.)  Also, in the original tale, the Beast is only a Beast because he's being "punished"/taught a lesson for his bad past behavior.  The fact that Beauty loves him demonstrates that he's grown as a person, and his change for the better is rewarded by the breaking of the spell.

In this version, he hasn't really done anything very wrong, so he's not being punished...

However, I'm confused as to why the Beast in his beastly form would behave differently from the Beast in human form.  Why would he be any different as a man than as a beast?  Couldn't he be wealthy and powerful and still be the same good "person" he would be as a beast living at Rose Cottage?  If not-- if his goodness/personality is somehow tied to his physical form... Doesn't that basically fly right in the face of the usual moral of the story?

Why couldn't the Beast return to his human form, but decide to give away all (or at least most) of his earthly possessions to those who needed them, then "disappear" to the relative obscurity of life at Rose Cottage?  Let's be honest; this was just a silly, convoluted excuse for Beauty to live happily ever after with the Beast in beast-form.  (...Is Beauty a furry? ~shudder~)

-- So, ok.  The Beast comes to Rose Cottage-- still in his beast shape-- and everyone is just okay with it?  ...But... I thought the reason he exiled himself was that he was so terrible to look upon.  No animals (except Fourpaws) could bear to be near him, and people weren't too crazy about him, either.  I guess we're supposed to accept the idea that Beauty's love has made him somehow less horrific-looking.  I'm not buying it.

--  The Beast is happily making plans for repairs he'll make to the house and bed (???), but I thought he lacked the dexterity even to eat "like a man".  Of course, though he can't wield knife and fork, he somehow manages to use a paintbrush for his amazing mural on the roof, so I guess consistency in this matter was deemed unnecessary.

--  The author's note includes a mention that the book "shot out onto the page in about six months", which apparently was an extraordinarily brief amount of time.  Interestingly, the author of the last "retelling" I read (Jane, by April Lindner), made a similar comment in a note to her readers.  It seems like a strange, almost boastful remark (one probably best left unwritten) that invites the less charitable among us to consider how much better the book might have been if speediness wasn't considered a virtue...  Only a thought!

-- Positives:  I liked the first part of the book fairly well.  The fact that the sisters actually do things is appealing.  As I mentioned before, I'm thinking a lot about gardening, these days, so I liked that element of the book.  The animals (particularly the dog and cat) are sweet additions to the cast.  Some of the prose and word pictures are quite pretty.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mapp and Lucia

Mapp and Lucia
by E.F. Benson

The fourth installment of the popular series-- a hilarious study of 1930s manner and pecking order-begins when Lucia Lucas rents a summer place-the home of Elizabeth Mapp-- in the English village of Tilling. Between Miss Mapp's penchant for spying on the neighbors and Lucia's fussy sidekick, Georgie, the stage is set for a battle of wits.

My Reaction:
We didn't wait to read the next Lucia book, after all-- just kept right on going.

Very enjoyable, though some of the first part (in Riseholme) seemed slightly slow going to me, compared to the rest of the book.  Maybe that's a reflection of the fact that the author himself was (by the time of the writing of this book) less enthusiastic about Riseholme, compared to Tilling.

The whole series has been even better on the second read-through than on the first.  Witty and funny, of course, but also cozy.  I find that I remember only small bits and pieces of incidents yet to come, and specific remembered episodes always seem to pop up sooner than I'd have expected.

Highly recommended to fans of British comedy set "between the wars".

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


by April Lindner

Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance.

But there's a mystery at Thornfield, and Jane's much-envied relationship with Nico is soon tested by an agonizing secret from his past. Torn between her feelings for Nico and his fateful secret, Jane must decide: Does being true to herself mean giving up on true love?

An irresistible romance interwoven with a darkly engrossing mystery, this contemporary retelling of the beloved classic Jane Eyre promises to enchant a new generation of readers.

My Reaction:
To be brief:  If you've never read Jane Eyre, do yourself a favor and read that instead.  If you have read it and enjoyed it... do yourself a favor and reread it instead.

Enough brevity!  Back to my wordy, wordy ways.
Alright, so some people evidently read Jane and liked it-- even loved it.  I don't understand why, but then again, people can be strange.

Okay, okay!  It wasn't the worst thing I've ever read, but it was not remotely a good read, in my estimation.  (This is the second JE modernization I've read.  The other was The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which I also disliked.  Maybe modernizations/adaptations aren't for me, though I did enjoy the movie Clueless...)

The premise-- Mr. Rochester as rock star-- never excited me, but the author's introduction gave me a little hope.  She sounded like someone who treasured and understood Jane's story, so maybe she could make this retelling work. Sadly, where Jane Eyre soars, Jane could only limp along with a broken wing.

In her introduction, Lindner writes that "the book practically wrote itself" and "whenever I got stuck, I would open up Jane Eyre for inspiration and ideas"... Well, maybe if it had been a little harder to write (necessitating more reworking and reflection and, you know, effort), the result would've been stronger.  As for going to the original for "inspiration and ideas"?  Puh-lease!  Most plot points are a direct copy from Jane Eyre-- with just a few tweaks to fit the modern setting-- and much of the dialogue is clearly lifted right off the pages of JE-- and again "modernized", which apparently translates to "dumbed down" and "coarsened".

I'll get into the nit-picking below, but the bottom line is that the book utterly failed to "enchant" me.  However, if this was aimed at the "YA" (Young Adult) market, I guess I'm not part of the "new generation of readers" referenced in the blurb, so maybe that explains it.

Far from adding anything new or interesting to the story, this version traded strong characters and powerful romance for weak, bland, washed-out replacements.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
Attn: SPOILERS for both Jane Eyre and Jane!

--I was really annoyed by Nico's totally unnecessary cursing.

--Copilot.  WHY? 

--Nico's and Jane's exchanges are so dull-- especially when compared to the conversations between Jane and Mr. Rochester.  I can sense the chemistry between the latter.  Not so with Jane and Nico.  Their attraction doesn't feel real.  You are told that they're in love, but you don't feel it or see it for yourself. 

--I don't think a single person ever drinks plain spring water-- let alone water from the tap-- in this book.  It's always "mineral water" or "sparkling water".  That isn't of the least importance to the story-- but I positively loathe the taste of mineral/sparkling water-- blech!-- so it's another reason to turn up my nose at the book as a whole. ;o)

--Why name Maddy's mother (the French "singing sensation") Celine?  Every time she was mentioned, I thought of Celine Dion.  I know she's Canadian, but still...  Why not choose some other "French-sounding" name that isn't already associated with a "singing sensation"?

--Jane tells Nico that she can't swim.  Nico is stunned.  "'Nobody ever taught you to swim?'  His eyes narrowed. 'That's criminal.'"  Ha!  Is it really that uncommon for someone to not know how to swim?  Calling it "criminal" to fail to teach a person to swim seems like taking it maybe a little too far...

--The swimming suit discussion (no suit? are you a nun? -- some nuns swim -- if you're on a hilltop, do you spin around and sing that the hills are alive with the sound of music? -- hee hee, oh Nico, you remind me of Captain von Trapp *heart-shaped googly eyes*) is awk-ward!  I blushed for the characters force-fed such cringe-worthy lines.

--Jane comes right out and asks Nico if he's been tested for STDs, after he regales her with tales of his scandalous past.  That could never happen.  Nope.  No way.  But it felt like the "responsible and/or modern and/or politically correct" thing to do-- and so it was done.  That happens several times over the course of the book.  Things that don't feel "right" for the story or the moment are shoehorned in anyway, because Oh-Em-Gee We Are So Modern Now.

--Nico has had a paternity test, which reveals that, "Mr. Rathburn, you are the father!"  I get the feeling that the author is convinced that in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is the father of Adele, too, and was secretly thrilled to be able to do away with any shadow of a doubt of the child's parentage in this retelling. 

--I've always enjoyed the house party section of Jane Eyre, but this book's version of it left me ice cold.  How disappointing that Rochester's bizarre/brilliant dress-up-like-a-gypsy-fortune-teller scheme was reduced to a snooze-fest involving nothing more exciting than a pack of tarot cards!

--Jane's nuclear family doesn't feel real.  They're just too awful.  Yes, there are families out there that are even worse-- more abusive-- but these characters are such an odd mixture of normal and terrible.  They feel like pure melodrama.  In Jane Eyre, the awful family made a little more sense.  The aunt (by marriage) resented her late husband's fondness for his niece, so she raised her children to look down on Jane and looked the other way when her son mistreated the girl.  That's horrible, but it feels more likely than that an entire family would so blatantly single out one child/sibling for emotional neglect.  I'm not saying it could never happen, but it must be a rare set of circumstances.

--The "declaration of love" scene (under the large tree) is hilariously bad.  "Even as I was giving you shit and you were standing up to me in that quiet, stubborn way you have, I had this feeling about you..."  Oh, swoon!  Why didn't my own husband accuse me of giving him shit as a prelude to the first "I love you"?  Some girls have all the luck!

--The lurve scene continues: "'But that's still not the same as wanting me because they know and understand me and like me even though I'm a flaming asshole,' he said. 'Jane, you get me.  And I think I get you.  Now can you f*****g well believe me?'"  Now, that's what I call romance!

--And then.  And then.  ...And then Jane and Nico "do it".  *giggle-snort*  It's like so totally perfect and romantic and everything like you wouldn't believe!  There's like this tumultuous, totes symbolic thunderstorm going on outside-- really romantic.  I mean, the old Jane Eyre wouldn't have done that, but whatevs.  Who gives a crap about that, right?  This is MODERN Jane, and modern Jane is hot to trot, you guys.  To sanctify the palpitating delight, we are carefully informed (the morning after) that Jane and Nico were "safe" (bien sûr).  Nico keeps a stash of what he calls "standard rock-star equipment" (~barf gurgle~) in every room.  (No, I'm serious.  That's what it says.  I'm looking at it right now.)  'Cause you never know when or where the urge to merge will completely overpower your better judgment or self-control, apparently.  Rock stars are so gosh-darn cool.

--I guffawed at the thought of Mr. Rochester insisting that Jane Eyre get breast implants.

--Nico's reasons for keeping Bibi locked in the third floor of his home were extremely weak.  As so many reviewers before me have noted, you can make the argument that Mr. Rochester's keeping Bertha Mason under lock and key at Thornfield Hall is an act of mercy.  At the time, mental illness was poorly understood, and there were no reputable places Bertha could have gone and received professional, compassionate care.

In the modern world, with limitless resources at his fingertips, Nico could have found a better place for Bibi-- not only for her sake, but to protect the lives of everyone else living under his roof (including his daughter).  Before her final escape, she had already proven herself several times to be dangerous and capable of slipping out from under the not-so-watchful eye of her drunken guard.  It simply doesn't make sense. 

...Well, maybe it makes sense from the perspective of wanting at all costs to keep this tragic scandal under wraps.  Damage control.

--I'm sure we're supposed to be touched by the fact that Nico still loves Bibi and has been hoping that she might stay on her meds and re-emerge as the woman he fell in love with.  ...Ok, fine... But I much prefer the Jane Eyre version where Bertha was already going insane before Rochester's scheming father and brother tricked him into marrying her for her fortune.  He married Bertha before he truly knew her, and when he realized who/what she was, he was repulsed.  He made a foolish, hasty decision that nearly wrecked his whole life, but at least his affections aren't divided between Jane and Bertha.  He treats Bertha with a certain degree of kindness (rather than sending her off to languish in Ferndean's unhealthy atmosphere), but he's not kinda-sorta in love with her.  Call me selfish, but if I were Jane, I wouldn't want to share a man with the memory of his (still-living, but now insane) first wife.

I mean, Nico even calls Bibi and Jane by the same pet name, "Angel".  That is just creepy.  No, thank you.

--The St. John family's disdain for the suburbs is so refreshing.  "'Too smug,' Diana said. 'Too safe.'"  Isn't that anti-suburb garbage passé, yet?

--"Diana was looking for some kind of work that was better paying and more satisfying than her waitressing job, but she'd been a philosophy major and couldn't quite decide what direction her life should take."  *eyeroll*

--River St. John.  Betcha can't guess which character he was in Jane Eyre! ;o)  His own sister describes him as "socially helpless" and "kind of an idiot savant", and he definitely gives off a weird vibe.  St. John Rivers, though kind of scary in his cold severity, never struck me as autistic, though, and I don't know what to make of River St. John.  He gives me the creeps, to tell the truth.  It's one thing to have strong religious convictions, but there's just something off about this character (imho).   His "physical" moments with Jane give me the shivers-- and I don't mean the good kind! ;oP

--"...people dying of AIDS because drug companies like Davidson-Worth only care about profiting on the misfortunes of others."  A bit judgmental, there, River.  I'm pretty sure drug companies have to make money to keep running-- to pay their bills and attract investors-- to spend big bucks on experimental new drugs that might be even better, but oftentimes fail to pan out.  It's not quite so cut and dried as all that, Mr. Self-Righteous.

--"Don't you know that the ultrarich are the enemy of everything you've been working for these past few months?"  ...What?  ...The wealthy are the outright enemies of the poor and the homeless?  Hm.  That's news to me.

--Jane Eyre is a tower of personal strength.  She is subject to powerful emotions and passions, but she ultimately controls the impulses that would overwhelm her high principles.  She refuses to give in to desires that would lower her in her own estimation (and in the eyes of God, because she's a deeply religious character).  She is the epitome of the mentally, emotionally, spiritually, morally strong woman.

...By comparison, this modern Jane seems like a piece of dandelion fluff borne on the wind, going wherever the breeze takes her.

--The description of the Nico documentary was laughable and cringe-inducing.  "If there was a Mount Rushmore of rock and roll, he'd be on it." ... "...plying his trademark red Stratocaster like a man possessed..."

--The police chief laments the fact that despite a tip (from a mentally ill woman) that Jane was working in a New Haven soup kitchen, they failed to locate her.  "'Damn.  And there you were the whole time.  I imagine Nico will see to it that heads roll.'  'Don't worry,' I told him. 'I'll see to it they don't.' I may have sounded more confident than I was, but Chief Pettigrew looked relieved."

...First, Jane's an adult.  She was perfectly within her rights to disappear from Nico's radar without permission.  Second, why should it be in Nico's power to send heads rolling because they failed to find Jane and deliver her to him?  Third, UGH, Jane is so obnoxious!  And of course the chief is incredibly relieved to have Rock-Star Love-Slave Queen Jane speaking on his behalf!  Whew!  Thank goodness she's agreed to calm him down and save the world from the Wrath of Nico!

--Nico's wounds, compared to Mr. Rochester's, are negligible.  At first you may feel a slight twinge of "Oh, but he needs his hands to play guitar!  He's an artist!  It's how he expresses himself!"  Any pity of that sort is promptly smacked down by the news that if Mr. Lazybones would apply himself to his physical therapy, he can recover some (if not most) of his range of motion.  The only other souvenir of his fiery heroics is a small scar on his forehead, mostly hidden by his hair.  ...Yeah, cry me a river, Nico.

--In Jane Eyre, while Jane is away from Rochester, she discovers that a long-lost uncle has bequeathed her a fortune.  (No, it's not the most likely occurrence, but what is likely about the novel?)  When she returns to him, she does so as a woman of means.  The disparity between the two characters is (somewhat) reduced.  She's not vastly wealthy, like Rochester, but she's comfortably off, and she doesn't need his financial support, from a practical point of view.  She goes back to him as a free, independent woman.  Also, she is fully able-bodied, while he is now struggling to adapt to life with near-blindness and the loss of one hand.  In some ways, their roles have been reversed.  Meanwhile, Modern Jane comes back to Nico with... just a job.  She's started saving up to go back to college and someone has apparently filled her in on the existence of Pell Grants, but that's not quite on the same level as Jane Eyre's inheritance... Then there are Nico's injuries from the fire, which have been toned down significantly from what Rochester suffered.  Not much of a role reversal...

--Ah, the poetry of Nico's conversation when he's finally reunited with his One True Love (now that his old lady's officially kicked the bucket):  "For f***'s sake!  Am I losing my mind now, too?" ...  "This can't be real. ... This has to be an acid flashback."

--Jane tells Nico:  "Something just snapped.  I realized what an idiot I'd been, running away from the one person I value more than anyone else in the whole world."  ...O-kay, then.  So basically a huge chunk of the book was for nothing.  Great.  You learned nothing.  You didn't leave Nico to remove yourself from temptation.  Preserving your values-- your self-respect?  Meh.  You could care less about stuff like that.  You're such an endless joy, Modern Jane!

--There's an odd scene right at the end where Nico convinces a scaredy-cat Jane to look down over the edge of the top of the building for... some reason.  Just to check out the view, I guess.  I harbored a brief, wild fantasy that they'd trip and go flying over the edge-- but it was not to be.

--So is Nico basically just a fantasy version of Bruce Springsteen, then?  (And in that case, I think we all know who Jane's actually based on, given that she bears no legitimate resemblance to Jane Eyre...)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Negotium Perambulans"

"Negotium Perambulans"
by E.F. Benson

In an isolated Cornish fishing village, there are forces of good and evil at work, and those who dare desecrate the holy have reason to fear the dark...

My Reaction:
This was an interesting one-- not especially scary, but a decent short story.  "The Thing" reminded me of vampires-- but not the sparkly kind, not the steamy kind, nor even the old-school kind that wear capes and turn into bats.  It reminded me of Lovecraft.  It reminded me of another of Benson's own works ("The Caterpillars").  (Benson must've had some sort of caterpillar phobia.  I have to admit, I find many of them repugnant, myself.  I certainly don't like to just stand and admire them.) 

In contrast, the parts about the narrator's youth in the village were pleasant reading.  They feel so genuine that I think they must be based at least partly on Benson's own experiences and memories.  The fact that I preferred this part of the story reminds me that (in my own estimation, at least) Benson is deservedly much more famous for his humorous tales of the everyday world than for his horror.  I'm enjoying some of these "scary tales", but none of them are nearly as downright satisfying as the Lucia series.

Non-Spoilery Quote:
--"One of the main reasons of my stopping here all these years was a feeling that I must not let the old house starve.  Houses starve, you know, if they are not lived in.  They die a lingering death; the spirit in them grows weaker and weaker, and at last fades out of them."