Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Mrs Amworth"

"Mrs Amworth"
by E.F. Benson

A middle-aged Englishwoman returns home after spending years in India.  Despite all appearances to the contrary, one of her neighbors is convinced that there's something sinister about the newcomer.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
Though it's not remotely bone-chilling (from my jaded, modern perspective), this tale of an unusual vampire had a few shivery moments.

--  "'I was only telling our host how vampirism was not extinct yet.  I was saying that there was an outbreak of it in India only a few years ago.'  There was a more than perceptible pause, and I saw that, if Urcombe was observing her, she on her side was observing him with fixed eye and parted mouth.  Then her jolly laugh invaded that rather tense silence.  'Oh, what a shame!' she said.  'Your'e not going to curdle my blood at all.'"

--  The image of Mrs Amworth "fluttering" outside the windows, "like some terrible bat, trying to gain admittance"-- is simultaneously repellent and so ridiculous as to be humorous.  I keep picturing those "Red Bull gives you wings" commercials...

--  The thought of Mrs Amworth going to visit her victim with the gift of a bowl of jelly is subtly stomach-turning. 

--  "She drew her hand across her mouth as if wiping it, and broke into a chuckle of such laughter as made my hair stir on my head.  Then she leaped on to the grave, holding her hands high above her head, and inch by inch disappeared into the earth."

There were also a few of those humorous touches that one comes to expect from Benson...

--  "The general peace, however, is sadly broken on Saturdays and Sundays, for we lie on one of the main roads between London and Brighton and our quiet street becomes a race-course for flying motor-cars and bicycles.  A notice just outside the village begging them to go slowly only seems to encourage them to accelerate their speed, for the road lies open and straight, and there is really no reason why they should do otherwise.  By way of protest, therefore, the ladies of Maxley cover their noses and mouths with their handkerchiefs as they see a motor-car approaching, though, as the street is asphalted, they need not really take these precautions against dust."

--  "Besides, teaching is very bad for a man who knows himself to be a learner: you only need to be a self-conceited ass to teach."

--  "In the matter of age, she frankly volunteered the information that she was forty-five; but her briskness, her activity, her unravaged skin, her coal-black hair, made it difficult to believe that she was not adopting an unusual device, and adding ten years on to her age instead of subtracting them."

(It's always amusing-- and sad!-- to see how "mature" characters are described in these old books and stories.  In Tish, women who were 50+ were described as elderly, if I recall correctly.  Here, we have amazement that a 45-year-old woman should be "brisk" and active!  The 45 and 50 of the modern, Western world, with its plentiful food, advanced medicine, and relatively easy lifestyle is a far cry from the 45 and 50 of the 1920s-40s-- but it's easy to forget.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"The Psychical Mallards"

"The Psychical Mallards"
by E.F. Benson

The son of a respectable and exquisitely typical English couple causes deep disappointment when he displays his undesirably supernatural abilities.

My Reaction:
What a very strange story!

The touches of humor lull you into a sense of complacency, but one episode in the tale was rather shocking.  (You'll know it when you read it...)

I wouldn't care to read a whole book in this exact tone, but as a short story, satire makes a change from the usual fare.

Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--  "Together with clairvoyance he developed a power of clair-audience, and by day and night heard voices which were quite inaudible to his elders and betters."  That doesn't sound pleasant.  A bit schizophrenic, in fact. 

--  "Hysterico-ideo-exteriorizative".  Woah.  "Ideo-plasticity".  Sounds gross.  "Cryptomnesia (or recalling what he had once known but completely forgotten)". 

--  "knee-hole table".  Now that I look it up, of course I recognize it at once.  Strange-sounding name, though.

--  "'Teleo-kinesis,' muttered Mr. Mallard.  'My knee-hole table has been behaving like a three-year-old.'  Mrs. Mallard had the same wholesale dislike of occult phenomena as her husband.  "Oh, how tiresome!" she said.  "But, thank goodness, the table has gone back.  So upsetting for the housemaid to find all the furniture moved about.  Dr. Farmer told me that we mustn't be surprised if something of the sort happened.  He is a very naughty boy.'"

--  Tim has gone unconscious and floated up a few feet into the air... "Then some opposing current took possession of him, and after he had bumped once or twice against the panes of the second window, Mr. Mallard had the good sense to open it, and Tim floated in again.  He circled 'round the room as if in a slow eddy, and then came to rest on the top of the knee-hole table.  'Levitation, drat it!' moaned Mr. Mallard.  'Dr. Farmer---'  Tim shook himself, upset an ink-bottle, and rubbed his eyes.  'Oh, bother!' he said to his father.  'What have I been doing now?  Hallo, I'm sitting in a pool of ink!  Why on earth didn't you stop me, one of you?'"

--  "I hold all psychical phenomena in contempt and abhorrence as being wholly un-English."

--  "Dinner on Christmas Day, for instance, was a very sorry banquet, for Tim had hardly begun on his turkey before he went into a profound trance, and plum pudding could not be served till nearly ten o'clock."

--   Miriam Starlight.  With a name like that, you're destined for something strange-- unlike a guy named "Tim Mallard".

--  I enjoyed a knowing nod when it was mentioned (in passing) that Tim and Miriam spent their honeymoon in Rye-- which is the sea- and riverside village where Benson himself lived for many years. 

--  "Being a classical scholar he had no great grasp of mathematics..."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Silent in the Grave

Silent in the Grave
by Deanna Raybourn

(Edited) Blurb:
These ominous words are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests. 

Prepared to accept that Edward's death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring her husband's murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward's demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

My Reaction:
(I took away a slightly spoilery bit of the publisher's blurb.)

Interesting-enough story (though the solution to the mystery was pretty predictable).  Decent writing.  Distinct characters.

A little too Thoroughly Modern Marches (i.e. characters who don't behave at all in accordance with norms of Victorian society).  A bit too graphic (for my tastes, in this genre) in some of the gory details.  "Issues"/Political Correctness.  A romance that could have been more romantic with Mr. Too-Good-to-be-True (except in a few very important ways...).  Unexpected (and completely unnecessary, uninteresting) Magical Abilities.

Despite the fact that my list of negatives outweighs the positives, the book was just entertaining enough that I'll probably give the second book a try, then go from there...  (This is the first in a series-- one that I was under the mistaken impression ended with the fourth installment, but now I see that it's on-going.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.)

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  Some of the reviews I've read have been spot-on regarding Brisbane.  Yes, he's an even more romanticized version of Sherlock Holmes!  Yes, he's Mr. Can-Do-Everything! (Except, he's not really that great at being a detective.  Which is his job, so...)  I wasn't at all surprised when he turned out to have gypsy blood (was anyone surprised?), but I have to confess that his mystical powers came as something of a shock.  I didn't especially like him to begin with, but the migraine episode won me over somewhat.  However, the subsequent nonsense with boxing and violins and the Very Touching Story of his relationship with Fleur... Yuck.  Heaping "the Sight" on top of all that was just too, too much.

--  I liked Julia fairly well, though I found it amusing that someone who's supposed to be so original, so unique, so intelligent and logical could be so dense at times.  Heck, most of the time!  (And she can barely even unlock the front door at the end of the book!!  I know that a "fine lady" of that time would never have had cause to mess around with locks much-- because someone else would've done it for her-- but that still struck me as amusing.)  Though to be fair, even the Great and Powerful Brisbane isn't always so good at sleuthing.

--  It was very obvious that Edward was a homosexual, and I knew well in advance that Simon must be the murderer (because who else?), but for a while I thought that perhaps he was in love with Julia himself and had killed Edward out of jealousy/revenge for Edward's poor treatment of her.  ...I would actually have preferred that motive, by far.  As it is, what with the footman (or whatever he was) and Julia's own sister, there's just way too much homosexuality in this book to feel realistic.  I mean, really.  It's just not that common-- particularly in Victorian England, where it wasn't remotely socially acceptable (despite Portia and Jane's fantasy world where everyone they know was perfectly fine with it). 

--  That brings me to one of my biggest annoyances while reading this novel.  For historical fiction, it's far too modern.  Anachronistic characters are so "enlightened" (in every way) that they simply don't fit into their Victorian world.  I guess the author thought she could get away with that by making the Marches such a group of iconoclasts, but I found it annoying.  Look, if I want to read tales of mystery and derring-do with politically correct characters, there are plenty of books with modern settings peopled by modern characters with modern sensibilities.  If, on the other hand, I go out of my way to choose something set in the distant past, I'm attempting to escape the modern world for a few hours.  I'd rather have the setting reflect the intended period more accurately.  Trust me, we can handle unenlightened characters.  We can find them entertaining and even admirable without condoning every single thing they believe or do.

--  I was very amused that Julia's well-educated father chides the family lawyer to speak plain English when the poor man says nothing more convoluted than this: "I have here the last will and testament of your late husband, Sir Edward Grey."  ...Yeah, speak plain English, man!  All this highfalutin' talk of "last wills and testaments"!  Such lawyer talk!

--  I don't like the implied extensiveness of Brisbane's "experience" (if you know what I mean).  It's funny that it never bothered me as much in Jane Eyre.  Not that I liked it there, either, but it never seemed as distasteful as it did in this book.  Especially Fleur... It seems strange that he's maintained such a close, personal relationship with her, for all these years.  I wouldn't be comfortable with that situation, myself, if I were in Julia's shoes.  It's kind of creepy.  Would a male character be expected to be ok with that, if the roles were reversed and it was the female love interest who was still actively involved in a very close friendship with a former lover?

--  Oh, joy.  There's nothing I love so well in a romantic mystery set in Victorian England as anti-Semitism (and racism and classism), homosexuality, horrifying symptoms of poisoning by arsenic, beaucoup de syphilis, prostitution, lots and lots of talk about condoms, and a dissertation on why it's okay for the heroine's brother to perform illegal abortions.  ...Yeah, not what I thought I was signing up for, when I started this novel.

--  So.  When you have a romantic mystery, you expect some romance, right?  It's a fair assumption.  Many reviewers feel no chemistry between the leads.  I wouldn't go that far.  I think there is some tension between the two, but it's of the annoying sort that comes and goes, starts and stops-- and never comes to anything.  The Big Kiss Scene is skipped right over-- not even described in detail-- and to be honest, what we do hear (cut, bleeding lips?! a bruise on her back?!) is far from thrilling.  There's a tease of more to come in the next book, but this one closes on a low note. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

After the End

After the End
by Amy Plum

(Somewhat Spoilery) Publisher's Blurb:
She’s searching for answers to her past. They’re hunting her to save their future.
World War III has left the world ravaged by nuclear radiation. A lucky few escaped to the Alaskan wilderness. They've survived for the last thirty years by living off the land, being one with nature, and hiding from whoever else might still be out there.

At least, this is what Juneau has been told her entire life.

When Juneau returns from a hunting trip to discover that everyone in her clan has vanished, she sets off to find them. Leaving the boundaries of their land for the very first time, she learns something horrifying: There never was a war. Cities were never destroyed. The world is intact. Everything was a lie.

Now Juneau is adrift in a modern-day world she never knew existed. But while she's trying to find a way to rescue her friends and family, someone else is looking for her. Someone who knows the extraordinary truth about the secrets of her past.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
I think I'm just a little burned out on paranormal YA as a genre.  That's not to say I won't read it again, but come on!  It sometimes seems that's almost the only type of YA being written, these days.  (Well... That and dystopian YA.)  I understand why authors gravitate toward it.  It's popular (and sometimes translates into movie deals); authors want to attract readers and make money.  I just wonder when the next "big thing" will come along...

Maybe part of the problem, this time, was that I wasn't expecting a paranormal element.  The blurb sounded like something different, so it came as an unpleasant surprise that Juneau can "do magic".   After a certain point, I was sick of Yara this, Yara that-- and I found myself rolling my eyes at every "Oh, Gaia!"  (Oh, please!)

To be honest, I was also put off by a quotation at the beginning of the book.  The collective unconscious?  Um, no thanks.  The professor of the creative writing class I took in college had his students buy and read a book on that subject.  I've had my fill.

The book seemed to improve toward the very end (or maybe I was just excited because I knew it was almost over, ha!), but good grief, what a cliff-hanger of an ending!  Since I'm not sure I care enough to bother with the second book (of how many?), I'm not thrilled about the cliff-hanger.  But who are we kidding?  We know what's going to happen.  Miles will pull through, and now he'll have the same abilities that Juneau has (though probably not immediately at the same level, since she's special).  They'll eventually find her clan and blah blah blah, happily ever after.  The rest of the story is up in the air, but there's never a second of doubt that Miles will survive that gunshot wound. 

...I just didn't care for it, and once I knew it wasn't my style and that it was the first in a series, I didn't invest in the characters, because I'm probably never going to finish the series.  (The second book is due out next month-- May 2015-- I think.) 

I wouldn't mind knowing what exactly was going on with Juneau's clan.  Did her mentor betray them?  (And did they kill their own dogs when they bugged out?)  Is their special connection to the Yara due to the "medicine" they've taken?  (What kind of scientists test that sort of thing on themselves, anyway?)  Will they share the fountain of youth with the rest of the world?  How is that going to work out?  (Just imagine the population explosion if people don't die from disease or old age.  If people continue to have children at the usual rate...)  But the alternative-- keeping their virtually eternal youth a secret for themselves...

However, I still don't know that I care enough to slog through another two (or more?) books to learn the answers. 

Final note:  I listened to the audiobook version.  Rarely do I like books as well in audio format as I do in text-- but every now and then I do like having something other than music to listen to and think about while I'm cooking, cleaning, or crafting.  Sometimes the audio format is just fine (though still, I repeat, never as good as reading the words with my own eyes).  Other times... This was one of those other times.  I didn't like the way the female narrator emphasized things.  It did nothing to help me like Juneau.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train: A Novel
by Paula Hawkins

Publisher's Blurb:
A debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people's lives.

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

A compulsively readable, emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller that draws comparisons to Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, or Before I Go to Sleep, this is an electrifying debut embraced by readers across markets and categories.

My Reaction:
I guess I "enjoyed" this book full of characters I either hated or felt frustrated with.  I enjoyed it in the sense that I wanted to see what they'd do next-- wanted to know how it would all unravel.  Though parts of it became painfully repetitive (Rachel's self-destructive behavior), the story held my interest; however, the last five percent or so felt weak and unrealistic.  A bit too much of that element of the Bond villain who's suddenly so willing to waste time going into details when there's really no need to do so.  I figured out whodunnit fairly well in advance, but because it felt too obvious, I wouldn't have been surprised if there had been a twist.  Nope; I was right this time!

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  Rachel is an interesting character to watch develop-- or maybe I should say that the way she's presented is interesting.  But at a certain point I got so frustrated with her!  The helpless repetition of the same sick patterns!  I guess I've never known someone with such an addiction, and if this is what it's really like, I'm afraid I wouldn't have the patience to deal with it for very long...

--  There were very, very few completely decent and likeable characters here.  Rachel's roommate, Cathy, is one (even if she's only a very marginal presence).  I don't see how she put up with that nonsense.  I guess the red-haired mystery man on the train was a decent(ish) guy, even if he seems to be too fond of drink.  (Hey, if he wasn't baby-snatching, cheating, lying, murdering, or battering, he's automatically in contention for the Citizen of the Book Award!)  Then there's Kamal... I'd like him better if he hadn't been so allured by Megan-- but at least he didn't give in to temptation.

--  "If he thinks I'm going to sit around crying over him, he's got another think coming."  This looked so strange to me!  I've always thought the saying was "got another thing coming".  "Another think" makes sense, now that I've seen it, but still-- looks wrong.  From the little I've read online, it seems that it may be a regional/dialectal variation.  No telling which one is "correct" (or came first).

--  Another language observation:  A few times, the baby/toddler is said to "grizzle".  It's obviously descriptive of the fussing noises that a baby makes before s/he begins to all-out cry-- but it's a new one on me.

--  As annoying as Rachel can be, she's practically a saint compared to most of her fellow characters!  Megan has her trampy, cheating ways... (Obviously she doesn't deserve to be murdered for her sins, but gosh, what a disgusting woman-- and rather stupid to boot.)  Scott is a bully with violent tendencies... Tom is a psychopath, a pathological liar, an abuser, and-- oh, right, a murderer.  And Anna... Good grief, what an absolute b***h!  Her frequent digs about Rachel's weight...  Ugh, I kind of hate Anna. (Not crazy about her kid, either, to be honest.  Stop the darn grizzling, Evie.)

--  At about the point that Tom comes home to find Rachel and Anna talking, the book takes a turn for the worse.  It feels so unrealistic.  Anna seems to swing back and forth between sanity and thinking that she and Tom can somehow salvage their "perfect" life from this wreckage.  Tom's sudden willingness to dish out the whole story is very convenient-- and some of the things he says!  "Now, now, Rach. ... Let's not do anything stupid."  ...Is that from The Compendium of Cliched Things Villains Say?  Oh, and don't get me started on the corkscrew.  The ol' eyes got a good rolling out of that one.  Especially when Anna was screwing it in a little further.  I don't know... I guess it was more unusual than an old-fashioned knife would've been.  It's certainly gruesome enough. 

--  Based on the reader reviews I've skimmed, this book appears to elicit a broad range of reactions.  I don't think it's the best book ever written, but neither did I loathe it.  It's fine for what it is-- a page-turner.  I didn't come away from it a changed woman.  No catharsis.  No weeping and wailing.  No mirror held up to my very inmost soul.  Just a story to pass some time.  That's fine.  I don't actually want to be spiritually altered by every (any?) book I read. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet
by Maureen Johnson

The thrilling third installment to the Edgar-nominated, bestselling series.

Rory and her friends are reeling from a series of sudden and tragic events. While racked with grief, Rory tries to determine if she acted in time to save a member of the squad. If she did, how do you find a ghost? Also, Rory’s classmate Charlotte has been kidnapped by Jane and her nefarious organization. Evidence is uncovered of a forty-year-old cult, ten missing teenagers, and a likely mass murder. Everything indicates that Charlotte’s in danger, and it seems that something much bigger and much more terrible is coming.

Time is running out as Rory fights to find her friends and the ghost squad struggles to stop Jane from unleashing her spectral nightmare on the entire city. In the process, they'll discover the existence of an organization that underpins London itself—and Rory will learn that someone she trusts has been keeping a tremendous secret.

My Reaction:
This series continues to be enjoyable-- better than the average modern YA I've read.  I do find that I've forgotten a lot of what happened in the first two books, though, and I begin to wonder how long this series will be.  This is the third, and there clearly will be at least a fourth.  I certainly don't mind longer series, but I hate the long wait between installments!

ETA:  I've since read other reviews that indicate there will be four books in the series (in addition to a prequel novella about Stephen).

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  At the end of the last book, I was confident that Stephen would eventually be returned to the physical world, somehow, but in the meantime, I figured they'd find his ghost and there would be a lot of awkward (Pushing Daisies-style) "I love you, but I can't touch you or you'll disappear forever" angst.  I'm honestly not sure whether or not I'd have preferred that to the reality... As it was, Stephen wasn't in most of the book at all... (And yes, a big reason I'm reading is for the Rory/Stephen relationship.)

--  Speaking of relationships, I was a little disappointed when Jerome came back into the story.  I mean, Jerome's a nice enough guy, but I didn't want to see a prolonged love triangle.

--  Evidence of how much I've forgotten:  I didn't remember anything specific about Charlotte, except that she was missing.  I thought she might've been the best-friend room-mate.  Apparently not.  The best-friend room-mate was Jazza.  And while it makes sense for Rory to want to see and talk to her at the end of this book, by that time, she's nearly a stranger to the reader (if the reader hasn't read the first two books since soon after their original publication dates).  Alistair (the library ghost) made much more of an impression, apparently, because I completely remembered him...

--  While a few things Rory says about the U.S. (and Louisiana in particular) make me raise my eyebrows, I really enjoy the fact that she's from the South.  For the most part, I have no objection to her comments on life in the Deep South.  She definitely gets some things right!

--  Rory can still make me laugh!

--  "Boo wheeled around and widened her eyes so suddenly and so extremely that I thought they might come out of their sockets.  Because that can happen.  I  mean, I know it happens to dogs.  One of our neighbors at home had a pug whose eyes used to come out every once in a while, and they'd put them back in.  They called him Popeye."  Yes, I know of a dog whose eye popped out, too.  If aesthetic preferences hadn't already precluded my choosing a "pop-eye" dog, the horrifying thought of eyes coming loose would do it.  ~shudder~

--  I guess the cemetery Rory visits is so old that it's like a national/regional park or something, but it still seems odd to have to pay to go into a cemetery!

--  "I felt weirdly jealous at the thought of Freddie getting to talk to Stephen online for weeks.  He was probably one of those people who found it easier to talk that way.  It had been that way for Jerome and me, when we'd been separated.  We actually got closer when we could only be online."  Well, I met my husband online, so yeah, no surprise that I completely agree with that.

--  "In four days in December of 1952, the London fog killed twelve thousand people."  I had to look that up.  It's hard to imagine, but apparently true. 

--  "There was a Home n' Deck near my town (we don't get a Home Depot; we're not that fancy)."  Bwa-ha-ha!

--  When Rory goes to find Stephen in that weird limbo-world, they find themselves at her house in Louisiana, where it's a hot, sunny day.  Stephen speculates that growing up in such a warm place might shape your personality.  Maybe it explains Rory's "pathological" optimism.  Interesting idea-- and I don't doubt that climate can affect an overall national identity or mood-- but there are plenty of pessimists and realists in hot climates-- and optimistic people live in cold regions, too.  So no, I'm not really buying it.  (g)

--  "Next steps involve making things more official.  New identities.  Training.  And perhaps most important, what we tell your family."  So Rory's only seventeen, right?  She's not "allowed" to leave England (I think...) because she's now "a stone"-- nor does she want to leave, I'm sure.  But if I'm not mistaken, don't her parents still have the ultimate say?  As is usually the case in these YA fantasies, her parents have been in the background the whole time-- far in the background, in this book.  Rory needs freedom from them to have her adventures, and I get that, but in some ways, her distance from her family feels less realistic than the whole ghost thing!

--  So now to wait for the next one.  No telling when that will be out... Well, I only hope I'll still remember enough of the first three books to recognize the characters.  Oh, who am I kidding?!  I only really care about Rory and Stephen, anyway.  ;o)