Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Driver's Seat

The Driver's Seat
by Muriel Spark

Lise is thin, neither good-looking nor bad-looking. One day she walks out of her office, acquires a gaudy new outfit, adopts a girlier tone of voice, and heads to the airport to fly south. On the plane she takes a seat between two men. One is delighted with her company, the other is deeply perturbed. So begins an unnerving journey into the darker recesses of human nature.

My Reaction:
This is one seriously odd little book.  I enjoyed reading it-- for me, it has a flavor similar to the works of Shirley Jackson, only darker--  but please, don't ask me to explain it.  Bits and pieces can be untangled into some semblance of sense, but as a whole... Well, there's much that remains a mystery.

It's eerie, surreal, and unsettling, with a perverse vein of humor running right through it.

After turning the final page, you'll probably find most of your questions still unanswered, but if you're okay with that (and with moments of horror and ugliness), it's a quick, fascinating read.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- It's clear from the very beginning that something's not quite right about Lise.  She takes offense at innocuous comments, makes off-kilter statements, blithely lies for no apparent reason, laughs too long and too loudly at inappropriate moments, and just generally gives off an intense vibe of volatility-- an undercurrent of instability.  And yet many of the other characters she encounters are also strange.  Bill, the macrobiotics guy, for instance. He's just plain creepy-crawly gross!  Even the kindly Mrs. Fiedke makes some oddball remarks and seems to have trouble with her memory.  My point: Yes, Lise is cuckoo, but apparently she lives in a world thickly populated by bizarre characters.

-- Mentions of Sweden/Scandinavia always interest me:  "...I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.  You are safer when they don't.  I've been told the Scandinavian airlines are fairly reliable in that respect."

-- Then there's Mrs. Fiedke's strange, satirical commentary on the modern man: "'They are demanding equal rights with us,' says Mrs Fiedke.  'That's why I never vote with the Liberals.  Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I'm not talking about the ones who were born like that.  I mean, the ones that can't help it should be put on an island.  It's the others I'm talking about.  There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you.  They would take their hat off.  But they want their equality today.  All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn't have made them different from us to the naked eye.  They don't want to be all dressed alike any more.  Which is only a move against us.  You couldn't run an army like that, let alone the male sex.  With all due respect to Mr Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand.'"  (If Mrs. Fiedke was that upset by the men of the 70s, what would she have thought of the off-putting "metrosexual" movement?  Or is that even still "a thing", anymore?)

She goes on: "'Fur coats and flowered poplin shirts on their backs.  ...  If we don't look lively,' she says, 'they will be taking over the homes and the children, and sitting about having chats while we go and fight to defend them and work to keep them.  They won't be content with equal rights only.  Next thing they'll want the upper hand, mark my words.  Diamond earrings, I've read in the paper.'"

-- I'm not sure why Lise hides her passport in the taxi.  Is she trying to obscure her identity to give her murderer more of a head start in his get-away?  (Would that even help?)  That's the sort of thing that made me think she was looking for a victim of her own-- someone she was planning to murder-- except that we learn fairly early on that she herself ends up dead.  I thought she had specific reasons for drawing attention to herself-- choosing such garish, clashing clothes, for example-- but in the end, none of it really makes sense to me...

-- Lise's comments along the lines of "I won't be needing these now" are casually chilling.  Her carefully selected souvenirs for "Papa" and "Olga"-- labelled with her lipstick-- tragic!  She's not at all a sympathetic character, but though we never meet him, I feel pity for her father.

-- Giving him her book-- because, of course, she has no further use for it-- Lise tells the hotel porter "it's a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a message: never talk to the sort of girls that you wouldn't leave lying about in your drawing-room for the servants to pick up"... Whatever that means!

-- The biggest unanswered question (in this "whydunnit") is WHY Lise wants to be murdered.  I didn't pick up on a single clue.  She seems to have a decent (if unexciting) life.  On the surface, she's an ordinary, boring woman.  Why did she decide to actively seek out such an especially violent end?

-- My next-biggest question is how Lise instantly recognized the man on the plane (Richard) as "her type".  I suppose I shouldn't care how she scents him out so easily-- it's not as though the rest of the novella is particularly ultra-realistic!-- but I can't help wondering about it.

-- Does Lise have any last-minute regrets?  For one thing, Richard ignores one of her more important instructions ("You can have it afterwards.  Tie my feet and kill, that's all."), and for another, she screams at the end, "evidently perceiving how final is finality".

-- Yes, this is a truly weird book.  It's not the sort of thing I'd want to read exclusively, but a little now and then serves as a reinvigorating tonic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Case Is Closed

The Case Is Closed
by Patricia Wentworth

(Edited) Blurb:
The Everton murder case has long been closed. The culprit has been charged with the murder of his uncle and has served a year of his sentence already. Or has he? 
The evidence against Geoffrey Grey is convincing but his wife believes in his innocence. And so does her young cousin, Hilary, who decides to solve the mystery herself. 
But when Hilary turns in desperation to her ex-fiance for help, he calls upon the services of Miss Silver to help solve another mystery, which she does in her own original style.

My Reaction:
This is The-Read-That-Almost-Wasn't.  It started out as a "shared read" with Donald, but after slogging through pages of tedious legal transcripts, I decided to throw in the towel.  Apparently Miss Silver mysteries are a no-go for shared reads.  (Back to one of our old standbys, E.F. Benson's Lucia series!)

However, I hoped that maybe the story would flow better as a traditional, one-person read, so I picked it up where we'd left off.  It's better as a read-alone book, but it took some dedication to slog through the first half of it, and while I'm rating it a three on the relative strength of the second half, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to any but the most serious fans of the genre and the star detective (Miss Silver).

This mystery suffers from that flaw so common to its genre-- the "let me repeat that for you one more time" approach to writing.  Were Golden Age mystery authors paid by the word, or did they really think so poorly of the reading public that they believed we needed to read the same information-- almost verbatim-- five or six times in order for it to soak through our thick skulls?  Whatever the reasoning, it's insulting and-- perhaps worse-- mentally painful to go over the same ground so many times.  I understand the need to impart "the Evidence", but good grief!  There are limits to my patience.  The repetition was excruciating.  Also, by far most of the action comes in the second half of the novel.  I wonder how many readers give it up as a lost cause because nothing happens for so many pages...

Sad to say, I found the romantic couple uninteresting, uninspiring and generally unsympathetic for most of the book.  (Also, why choose two names that are so similar at first glance-- Hilary and Henry?)

It seemed fairly obvious who the murderer must be, early in the book.  The trick was uncovering the "how".  Though it wasn't particularly innovative, at least the mystery and the fates of the characters kept me interested enough to continue reading.

This is the second in the "Miss Silver" series, and we still have Miss Silver herself in only a small percentage of the pages.  A preview of the next novel offers hope that she'll be more of a presence in the third, which will be nice-- if and when I ever get around to reading it.  At this point, I'm not sure what I think of Miss Silver, I've seen so little of her.  All I know is that she's a dignified, plain, mousy-looking older gentlewoman who is nearly constantly knitting-- and who somehow possesses the skills necessary to work as a very discreet private investigator.  I don't believe we've gotten many hints, yet, about how she works (beyond her ubiquitous notebooks) or what makes her tick.  A few words indicating that would be far more welcome and engaging than the third and fourth repeats of The Evidence.

The hope of discovering more about Miss Silver is probably strong enough to convince me to read the next novel in the series-- but only just.

Specific Tidbits:
--The protagonist, Hilary, relies too heavily on the word "dreep".  Her frequent verdicts that this woman or that woman is a dreep don't improve her in my estimation.  Maybe her pet word is meant to create a "character" or indicated her "type", but whatever the intention behind its repetition, I found it annoying.

--Hilary says that Marion and Geoff were talking about red hair:  "Marion said she hated it, and that she'd never have married Geoff if she'd known that it was in the family-- because of not having gingery babies, you know.  They were chaffing, of course."  Chaffing is teasing, so it isn't meant to be taken seriously, but it did take me aback for a moment.  I'd always thought that whole "gingerism" thing was just some strange joke, but maybe for some people it's not.  (There seem to be as many people who prefer red hair as those who actively dislike it.)

--Another incidence:
"'Very good-looking young men never make good husbands.  My own dear husband--' A long excursus on the virtues of the late Professor, who had certainly not been renowned for his beauty.  As Hilary put it afterwards-- 'A pet lamb, darling, but exactly like a ginger monkey.'"

--I think the best bit of the book was the part where Hilary is trying to make it home through the fog.  If more of the book had been like that, I could give a more glowing review!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Ross Poldark

Ross Poldark
by Winston Graham

Tired from a grim war in America, Ross Poldark returns to his land and his family. But the joyful homecoming he has anticipated turns sour, for his father is dead, his estate is derelict and the girl he loves is engaged to his cousin. 
But his sympathy for the destitute miners and farmers of the district leads him to rescue a half-starved urchin girl from a fairground brawl and take her home - an act which alters the whole course of his life . . .

My Reaction:
I decided to try this series after enjoying the first season (and to a lesser degree, the second) of the new BBC adaptation of the novels.  The TV version was fairly faithful to this first book, which is good-- but perhaps this means that the books are less interesting to read after having watched the program...

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  It's capably written and reasonably engaging, but it wasn't a page-turner.  (Again, I'm not sure how much of that is due to the fact that I knew the story after watching the show.)

Some of my reservations have more to do with my personal tastes than with the quality of the book itself.  I suspect that sagas may not be my perfect type of reading.  The fairly wide cast of characters should probably be a good thing, for instance, but I think I could do very well without many of them-- especially if it meant more time with my favorites.  Certain story-lines simply don't interest me as much as others.

Then there's the "soap opera" effect. The story meanders along, and there's not much of a resolution, even at the end of the book. To a degree, that's not surprising, given that it's only the first in a long series of installments-- but I don't like it when major plot points are left just hanging there until the next book. Worse, I get the sense that there may never be an honest conclusion...

As far as the "romance" element of this first book goes, I found it a bit lacking, unfortunately...  Actually, I think the TV series was more "romantically satisfying" than this book, though even the show has its very rough patches.  That said, there are a few scenes (watching the pilchard-fishing, for example) where the romance shines.  I wish there were more of them, but it seems that the bulk of this series is not especially romantic.  For reading material with a true focus on romance, it's better to look elsewhere.

On the positive side, there are some beautiful descriptions and interesting moments of introspection, and a couple of the characters (Demelza and Verity) may make up for the ones I can't bring myself to care about. Maybe if I read further than the TV series has gone, I might find it more compelling, since I won't know exactly what's coming before it has a chance to happen. (The problem is that it looks like I'd have to make it to at least the fifth volume to get ahead of the TV show, at this point!) I'll probably give the next in the series a try before making the decision that I'm satisfied just watching the TV program and leaving the books alone.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I've mentioned this in reviews of other books, but I still don't like it when a hero calls the heroine a "child".  It's not at all appealing.  What woman-- even a very young one-- wants "her man" to think of her as a child?!  Then Ross is jokingly (?) calling Demelza "bud" at the end of the book (which I sincerely hope won't carry over into the next novel)!  Yuck.

--I wish there were less "medical stuff".  It's not that there's an absolute ton of it, but there's still been more than I like.  (However, I know that I may well be in the minority, on this point.  Some people seem to have an appetite for these things; personally, I find it the stuff of nightmares.)

--The novel ends without Demelza telling Ross that she's pregnant?!  That's weird... I assume the next novel practically begins with that scene, but still...  That's one heck of a thing to leave hanging and not even remotely resolved!

--It's pointless to insist that characters in historical fiction have modern sensibilities and viewpoints-- seriously, why read historical fiction at all?!-- but Demelza's subservience was wearing thin for me, by the end of the book.  What put a particularly bad taste in my mouth was her statement that "if you love someone ... tesn't a few bruises on the back that are going to count.  It's whether that other one loves you in return.  If he do, then he can only hurt your body.  He can't hurt your heart".  Um, no.  If my husband hit me and bruised me, I can guarantee that it would hurt my heart, too, and I would take it as a sign that he didn't truly love me-- certainly not as a man should love his wife.  The figurative bruises on my heart would last long after the literal bruises of the body had faded and healed.  That kind of thing is not pleasant reading, in my humble opinion.  It's terribly frustrating in a heroine!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Butterfly Garden

The Butterfly Garden
by Dot Hutchison

Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden. 
In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.
When the garden is discovered, a survivor is brought in for questioning. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are tasked with piecing together one of the most stomach-churning cases of their careers. But the girl, known only as Maya, proves to be a puzzle herself.
As her story twists and turns, slowly shedding light on life in the Butterfly Garden, Maya reveals old grudges, new saviors, and horrific tales of a man who’d go to any length to hold beauty captive. But the more she shares, the more the agents have to wonder what she’s still hiding...

My Reaction:
I chose to read this because the title, cover, and description seemed promising-- and because it was a freebie (through Prime Reading).  While it was certainly readable, even interesting in a few parts, there was much head-shaking, derisive snorting, and eye-rolling.

I'm not surprised that the author considers herself "mostly" an author of YA fiction, because this felt like a for-adults story written in YA style.  Even though the novel deals with serious, adult themes and situations, the writing feels... immature.  A little silly, to be brutally honest.  Corny, in spots.  It's there in the way some of the characters talk-- the way they behave.  Cardboard-cutout characters kowtowing to the dictates of stereotype.  And at the center of it all, the practically-perfect (but damaged-- but oh, so special!) modern heroine.

A thousand "little things" aside, there are two major biggies that left me in eye-roll mode at the novel's end.  I can't go into them without spoiling the story, so I'll save them for the next section.

Suffice it to say that I wasn't terribly impressed.  This was okay in the sense that it's something to read, if you enjoy the genre and love the typical "modern YA" style-- and can look past some fairly intense silliness and irrational behavior-- but I never stopped feeling that there were better books I could've been reading.  It's merely a way to pass some time-- and probably feel the occasional urge to hurl the book across the room, which is not recommended if you're reading it in e-book form.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--One of the "biggies" referenced above:  Why, oh why didn't the girls gang up on the Gardener?!  I mean, seriously.  I know they're afraid of him-- and there's the brainwashed Lorraine to deal with (and Avery, if they timed it really poorly)-- but come on!  The stakes are high enough to merit some risks.  Wait until he's distracted with one of the girls, then sneak up behind him and whack him over the head.  Get him on the floor and kick/hit/whatever-is-necessary him until he agrees to give up the code to open the door.  It's not that hard, really, and at least a few of those girls were tough enough that they should've been able to stomach such unladylike violence.  (Heck, just give me a minute to lace up my sneakers, then let me at 'im-- and he hasn't even hurt me, unless you count the mental anguish of reading about His Creepiness in this book...)

It would have been different if the "Butterflies" were constantly drugged, locked up, or chained, but they had so much freedom to move around (most of the time)-- not to mention a few personal items that could've been used as weapons.  The bare fact that they could freely congregate and that the Gardener never carried/used weapons on them in the Garden was enough leeway to allow them to stage an uprising.  It's unbelievable that they wouldn't have at least tried.

--Second "biggie":  What was that ridiculous twist ending?!  It wasn't just unnecessary; it was actively bad.  It brought the book down a notch, in my reckoning.  Just so, so silly.  Sophia is supposed to be a sympathetic character, and yet she didn't do anything-- didn't even try to help the girls she left behind.

So the police might not believe you... So what?!  You still try.  So you're pregnant and worried about the fate of your child... Well, that makes no sense!  How would the Gardener ever have gotten custody of that child without admitting to the whole world (including his precious, delicate wife) that he'd at least had a fling with Sophia?!  (Not going to happen.)

If nothing else, she could've given an anonymous tip.  I don't believe she could have been completely unaware of the location of the Garden; she would have had some idea of how she'd had to move to get back home-- at least enough to give a tip in the right direction.

It boils down to lazy writing and/or a pathetic, spineless character.  Makes zero sense.

--The lesser annoyances are too numerous to list in entirety, but here's a taste:  The Gardener's ability to tattoo so skillfully seems unlikely.  The torturous good cop/bad cop thing was painful to read!  The only thing sillier than the florid names the Gardener chose for the Butterflies are Maya's chosen name (Inara) and given name (Samira Grantaire).  Too much of the story turns out to have been pointless.  The big reveal at the end was... Well, there really wasn't much of a big reveal, unless you count the twist, which was a monumental let-down.

--Despite occasional reminders that life in the Garden is tough (what with the captivity and rape and the knowledge that you'll be killed at 21, if not before), so many of the Butterflies seem to act as though they're living in a sorority house, with games and crafts/hobbies and girl-talk.  It's one thing to keep hope alive and make the best of things; this feels like something else-- something incredibly weird and unrealistic.

--Maya/Inara's backstory is so maudlin and melodramatic-- just one long sob-story, like a very poorly-written soap opera.  I suppose some people's lives truly are exactly that awful, but it seems very unlikely that everyone in her young life would be so crappy.  (Except for the perfect young neighbors, of course.)

--In the end, I ran out of ability to suspend my disbelief.  There are limits.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"The Death Warrant"

"The Death Warrant"
from The E.F. Benson Megapack
by E.F. Benson

After learning that he has an incurable disease, a man shares his musings on the approach of death.

My Reaction:
I would not call this a short story-- and certainly not a "horror story"-- but I'm having difficulty deciding how it should be classified...  In any case, it makes a startlingly abrupt change from the previous story in the collection, which was lighthearted and humorous, despite its war-time setting.

Maybe it's as much a reflection of my current mood as the quality of the writing, but reading these few pages brought some tears to my eyes (as I walked along on the treadmill!).

It feels very intimate, immediate, and honest-- much more powerful than the stilted language of Benson's "scientific paranormal" short stories.  It's hard to believe they were written by the same person!

Some might think the style is a little Victorian-- slightly more florid than necessary-- but it touched me more than I had expected.

Merlin's Keep

Merlin's Keep
by Madeleine Brent

(Edited) Blurb:
They called her Jani, but she once had another name-- and a past she never knew.
From far-off Tibet to England's rich countryside, this marvelously enchanting novel unfolds the incredible saga of a lovely young half-caste whose strange destiny pulls her into a world of love and terror-- all while a mysterious power moves slowly toward her, threatening her sanity... and her life.

My Reaction:
This was another very good read from Madeleine Brent.  The protagonist, Jani, is an appealing, capable girl (and later, woman) who demonstrates admirable loyalty and strength of character.  She may be a little too good to be true, but she remains likeable throughout the book.

Though it is billed as a romance-- and though Jani's romance is certainly a big part of the story-- I found that aspect less satisfying than in Moonraker's Bride (by the same author).  I'm not sure what was lacking... Maybe it just needed more scenes of the two interacting before the "declaration"...  So, the love story could've been improved upon, but in general, Jani's relationships are well-drawn and strong-- particularly her touching bond with Sembur.

The book has its minor flaws, but for the most part, I enjoyed the experience and look forward to reading more from the author (and I'm still completely impressed that he, as a man, was capable of writing female voices so convincingly).  However, I do think I'll try to wait a while before reading another Madeleine Brent novel, because they do seem to follow a definite pattern.  The author struck on a formula that works-- hits most of the right notes for me, at least-- but if read back-to-back, one might feel a little too similar to the next.

--The featured cover on Goodreads is misleading.  If you read Merlin's Keep on the basis of a steamy cover, you'll be disappointed.  While there is romance, pretty much everything happens behind closed doors.  The bigger misfortune would be if potential readers are put off by the suggestion that it's a bodice-ripper, because this book is not a "trashy romance", by any stretch.

--Coincidences?  Oh yes, they're here in droves, as in Moonraker's Bride.  Though actually, maybe it's less coincidence in Merlin's Keep than "fate" and mysticism.

--I could have gone through my whole life not knowing that sometimes when a cow gives birth, her uterus comes out, too, and must be pushed back inside-- but thanks to this book, I am now cursed with that nightmarish image.  Thank you so very, very much, book.  Ah, what a wonderful world!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Mrs. Andrews's Control"

"Mrs. Andrews's Control"
from The E.F. Benson Megapack
by E.F. Benson

A middle-aged couple dabble with the psychical, including automatic writing.  (This is more a humorous character study than a tale of horror.)

My Reaction:
The earliest known date of publication for this short story is September 1915.  In it, Benson plays with some ideas that he used in his Mapp and Lucia series of novels, which were published between 1920 and 1939.

Devotees of the Mapp and Lucia series will certainly recognize the playful gibes at dieting fads and fashionable "games" of a psychical nature-- specifically crystal-ball-gazing and automatic writing.   Benson pokes gentle fun without malice, and it's an amusing few pages.

References to WWI ("the German war") will be of particular interest to history buffs.

Bride of Pendorric

Bride of Pendorric
by Victoria Holt

(Edited) Blurb:
When Favel Farrington met Roc Pendorric on the Italian island where she lived with her father, they fell deeply in love, and there was no reason to suspect that they would not live happily ever after. When he took her home to Pendorric, the ancient family home on the Cornish cliffs, no family could have welcomed her more warmly than Roc's sister, her husband, and their twin daughters. In fact everyone in the house and the village was eager to meet "the bride of Pendorric". 
At first the phrase amused Favel. Then she found herself looking more and more often at the portraits of two other Brides of Pendorric who had died young and tragically-- one of them Roc's own mother. The very stones of Pendorric seemed to be waiting for her to slip; the courtyard seemed to have eyes. And was there speculation even in the eyes of the young twins, who watched her constantly? Did she imagine it, or was Roc curiously attentive to other women at Pendorric-- and did his absence grow more frequent? Surely no legend, no evil out of the past could threaten their happiness. Surely Roc's love for her had not been pretense. 
At last, in a terrifying moment, Favel can no longer dismiss as accident the strange things that are happening to her at Pendorric. She must confront the very real dangers of the present.

My Reaction:
I found this an enjoyable romantic gothic mystery and would recommend it to other fans of the genre-- while it's not particularly outstanding or literary, it's a pleasing work of "light suspense"-- excellent escapism.

This is yet another "gothic romance/mystery" that is less about the romance than the mystery/suspense.  The hero is distant-- both figuratively and literally!  Though the heroine tells us how much she loves him, it's not really clear why, and if you blink you'll miss their courtship.  (She seems to have an obsession with his satyr-like pointy ears, which was good for a few laughs.  Though Bride of Pendorric was published years before its premiere, I still find myself wondering if Favel ever watched Star Trek...)

Favel isn't always smart as a whip-- but she is young and inexperienced, so we can make some allowances.  On the plus side, there are three sets of twins-- two of them identical-- which was fun.

Certain aspects of the various mysteries were fairly obvious, yet I could never be completely sure exactly how everything would be explained, so it held my interest.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, even if it is just a silly little piece of gothic fluff.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- I sometimes feel a bit hypocritical when remarking on strange character names, since I myself have a slightly strange name (for a woman).  In this case, however, I don't think it can be helped; there are so many strange names in this book!  Favel, Petroc (oops, I typed "Petrol" and had to correct it!), Roc, Morwenna/Wenna, Hyson, Lowella, and Barbarina.  That's a lot of odd names, right there.

--There seem to be a lot of gothic romance-mysteries set in Cornwall.  Either that, or I just happen to be finding a lot of them, lately.  There's often a strong emphasis on the beauty of the gardens in these novels, because the Cornish climate is milder than that of most of England (I gather).  I enjoy the little snippets about the gardens.

--In a list of other great houses along the coast, the author sneaked in "Mount Mellyn" and "Mount Widden", a reference to one of her earlier novels.  (I prefer Bride of Pendorric to Mistress of Mellyn, incidentally.)

--At first, I couldn't quite pinpoint when the action is set.  It must've been a contemporary setting, back when the novel was published, in the early 1960s.

-- Looking back with the knowledge that Lord Polhorgan is Favel's grandfather and that Roc knew it before he'd even met her, it seems strange that he should have spoken so disparagingly of him to her.  I don't remember his exact words, but I have the impression that he was fairly negative toward the old man.  He knew all along that Favel would probably eventually learn of the relationship, so why wouldn't he try to be more neutral?

--Is there another definition of "bridling" that I've never come across before?  Favel congratulates Mrs. Dawson on the success of the ball at Polhorgan.  Mrs. Dawson is described as "bridling", but she sounds happy-- and when she passes on the compliment to Mr. Dawson, we are told that "he was as pleased was his wife".  ...So either there's an alternate meaning or...

--Roc's defensiveness when Favel finally questions him about his relationships with a few women in the neighborhood is particularly unappealing.  He practically accuses her of jealousy-- but what normal woman wouldn't be concerned, under the circumstances?  This is not the kind of behavior I like in heroes, but then, Roc is pretty much a failure as a romantic hero, unfortunately.

--I've written before that I have a weakness for diaries in novels.  That's still true, but sometimes they're a crutch-- an easy way for the author to quickly dump information that could otherwise be tricky or time-consuming to work into the story.  In the case of the diary that Favel finds and reads near the end of this novel, it is extremely convenient.

--At some point, it started to drive me crazy, the way the author so frequently trailed off before the last word or two of a sentence.  It began to get... annoying!  But I only started to notice it toward the last quarter or so of the book, I think.  It could've been... so much worse!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"The Case of Frank Hampden"

"The Case of Frank Hampden" 
from The E.F. Benson Megapack
by E.F. Benson

A doctor suspects that his young cousin suffers from a type of possession.

My Reaction:
This is one of Benson's "scientific-spiritual" tales.  Though they're often based on interesting ideas, they tend not to be my favorites, and this was no exception.  The germ of the story reminded me a little of the movie Fallen (which I'm pretty sure I've referenced in other book reviews, because it made a strong impression on me), but this short story is not even in the same galaxy, as far as the sense of fear or horror goes.  There are a few creepy moments, but nothing to keep you up at night.

Silly Tidbit:
There are a couple instances of spiritual manifestation, and I found it particularly amusing that even the evil spirit is so concerned with decency that it appears "swathed" in some sort of spiritual (ectoplasmic?) version of clothing-- "some misty and opaque vesture".  It's funny enough that the spirit should necessarily take the shape of the body it inhabited, but that it should even be provided with clothing was the icing on the cake!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Whispers in the Dark

Whispers in the Dark
by Jonathan Aycliffe

At the end of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Metcalf is a child of good fortune: a prosperous father, a loving mother, and a loved brother all cocoon her from the fears of the outside world. But then her father dies… and she is plunged into poverty and the workhouse becomes her miserable home. 
Yet Charlotte escapes, determined to find her lost brother, and her search brings her to Barras Hall, home of unknown relations where fine clothes, good food and wealth seem to promise her all she desires. But at night the horror begins – of sound and sense, surpassing all earthy terror. And Charlotte finds that daytime comfort comes at a price...and she must fulfill her terrible destiny.

My Reaction:
Don't expect an especially "literary" book, but come prepared for a spine-tingling Gothic chiller.  If you're hoping for a few shivers, you're likely to find them here.  Is it predictable?  Well, yes, but it made me shudder, all the same.

This is my second read of this author, the first being The Vanishment, and I hope to read the others, in time.  Aycliffe has a writing style that is (generally speaking) effortless to read, which makes the pages fly.

Having said that, the beginning of Whispers in the Dark is a little slow, and Charlotte's trials and tribulations before she arrives at Barras Hall are at times a trifle too melodramatic for my tastes-- but the pace soon picks up.

This tale is creepy, dark, and atmospheric.  There's not much gore, for those of us who abhor "body horror" or physical horror in general; instead, an abundance of eerie moments provide just the right level of fairly genteel creepiness.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I do like a story told in journal/diary format.  This one really takes that trick and runs with it!  Frames within frames!  We start out with correspondence between a vicar and the son of a doctor who had an elderly patient (Charlotte) with a most unusual personal history.  The son sends all relevant papers to his friend, the vicar-- chief among them, Charlotte's memoir/journal.  Now, within that journal, we are treated to two other journals/diaries (Caroline's and James Ayrton's), which Charlotte somehow remembers word for word after all these years.  (Yes, I know.  No fair, making fun of a format I've just professed to enjoy!)

--There are things we never learn for certain:

----What exactly happened to Antonia's fiance?  He's buried on the family grounds-- but not in the family cemetery, if I remember correctly.  Why?
----Was Caroline really Anthony's daughter?
----Did Antonia and Anthony's incestuous relationship start before or after Antonia's fiance's death?
----How much did the servants really know, and why did they go along with the Ayrtons' evil ways?  (We know that the housekeeper knew a lot, if not all.  Why on earth did she stay after her own son was killed?  To be closer to him, in some strange way?)
----What happened to poor Jasper?  (Ok, I guess we know; I just wish he'd survived... Poor doggy.)
----When Charlotte sees the housekeeper leaving the locked room, she thinks she sees her carrying some blood-stained cloths, which suggests that the Ayrtons are holding someone (Arthur?) prisoner in the room.  However, we later learn that Arthur's been in the folly the whole time.  So where did those bloodied cloths come from?  Did Charlotte just imagine they were blood-stained?
----What drives Antonia to burn down the house?  (Guilt?  Fear?  Emotional exhaustion?  Insanity?  What made her do it then, instead of any of the other times they'd been involved in the murder of an innocent?)
----What happens to the children that are sacrificed at the folly?  There is repeated reference to "hunger", but it's never completely clear what sort of hunger they're meant to satisfy, and there are a few suggestions that there may be a sexual component to the "destiny" of those sacrificed.
----And probably more besides...

--The darkest element of the novel would have to be the repeated insistence that there is no hope of peace in the afterlife.  Anthony tells Charlotte, "They are all in hell.  That is all there is, Charlotte.  All there has ever been."  She tells him she cannot believe that, but clearly she has come to a different conclusion by the time she writes her journal.

As if that's not bad enough, people who hear her story or visit the former site of Barras Hall are also "infected" by its horror.  Her doctor, for whom she records the tragic events of her past, goes into decline and dies not long after reading her journal.  Religious men who had been strong in their faith find themselves irrevocably shaken after involvement with Barras Hall.  One goes so far as to kill himself.

--There's one thing above all others that I simply can't understand about this book, and that is this: Why would Charlotte ever have willingly had children, knowing (and believing in) the curse that flows through her bloodline?  Her husband, we know, would also have been familiar with at least some of her frightening past.  Wouldn't they have discussed it and come to the conclusion that they should not have children of their own?  Why not adopt, instead?  Or would she have decided that adopting children would still confer the curse upon them?  Maybe she figured that if she didn't tell them about their family history-- if they never knew it and never visited the family land-- they would live normal lives and be no more doomed than anyone else.  (I assume she believes that all people are doomed to an eternity in hell.  That certainly seems to be the implication, though it doesn't fit with Mrs. Manners' typical messages from beyond the grave.  Those, we are told, are usually words of comfort and reassurance that all is well.)  However, still, that doesn't explain why she would have children.  It seems a very selfish decision, and it simply doesn't make sense to me.  (Of course, the real reason for it is that it makes an ominous ending for the novel, with Charlotte's grandson on the verge of rebuilding the cursed hall and unwittingly exposing more people to the evils that still haunt the surrounding land.)

--Some of the covers of Aycliffe's paperbacks are atrocious!  There's one cover for this book that depicts a young woman in anachronistic garb standing between two of the closest-set eyes you ever did see.  Amusingly, there's another of his books with a very similar cover.  A different woman in different clothes, but still standing between hilariously close-set eyes.  Crazy...

Monday, September 19, 2016

What's So Funny?

What's So Funny?
by Donald E. Westlake

In his classic caper novels, Donald E. Westlake turns the world of crime and criminals upside down. The bad get better, the good slide a bit, and Lord help anyone caught between a thief named John Dortmunder and the current object of his intentions. Now Westlake's seasoned but often scoreless crook must take on an impossible crime, one he doesn't want and doesn't believe in. But a little blackmail goes a long way in... WHAT'S SO FUNNY? 
All it takes is a few underhanded moves by a tough ex-cop named Eppick to pull Dortmunder into a game he never wanted to play. With no choice, he musters his always-game gang and they set out on a perilous treasure hunt for a long-lost gold and jewel-studded chess set once intended as a birthday gift for the last Romanov czar, which unfortunately reached Russia after that party was over.
From the moment Dortmunder reaches for his first pawn, he faces insurmountable odds. The purloined past of this precious set is destined to confound any strategy he finds on the board. Success is not inevitable with John Dortmunder leading the attack, but he's nothing if not persistent, and some gambit or other might just stumble into a winning move.

My Reaction:
This was a "shared read" with my husband.  (When we choose a book to read together, we tend to select humor, which seems to contend best with the vagaries of the shared read, which are mainly delays between reading sessions and variations in the length of time spent reading, each time.)

This is only the second Dortmunder novel I've read, so far.  The first was Drowned Hopes, which I seem to remember being better than this, though it felt a bit long.  The handful of reviews I've glanced through suggest that this, one of the last novels in the Dortmunder series, is not one of Westlake's best, and that the early-to-middle novels of the series are better, in general, than the later books.  I'll try to keep that in mind, the next time we're in the mood for a caper.

Positive:  It's funny (at least in parts) and the gang's all here (which probably means more to you if you've read a few more of these novels than I have).

Negative:  It felt like it took a while to really get going.  Once it did, I enjoyed it, but the lead-up to any significant action was dragged out too long.

I'd give it 3.5 stars, but I'm not moved to round up to 4, this time.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I was a little disappointed we didn't get a more definite ending for... what's-her-name, the grand-daughter.  So, did Mrs. W. really run away with the young woman's boyfriend, or will she simply help him get a job?  Even if the relationship between Mrs. W. and the cartoonist boyfriend is purely platonic, it seems tricky for the young woman to keep her great job with Mrs. W. and maintain a relationship with the boyfriend, if he gets a job in a distant city.  It was an oddly open ending.

--The chess set's ending was funny and appropriate, I guess, though I found it frustrating.  However, it doesn't seem especially realistic to me-- all because of Eppick's police connections.  Dortmunder's crew could probably give Eppick a good description of the vehicle, if not the exact tag number.

There aren't that many fancy-schmancy giant Cadillacs with MD tags in NYC, surely, so it should have been easy enough for Eppick (with a little help from his buddies still on the force) to find out that the Cadillac had been recovered.  A little more follow-up, and they'd find the chess set itself.  Sure, they'd have to make up some story to get the set from the old-folks' home... Maybe just say it was stolen and has sentimental value, but they'd be happy to donate a nice set or two to replace it (or maybe just make a generous donation to the home).  ...But I guess it's more entertaining to think of a solid-gold chess set being used by an unsuspecting bunch of old folks in their "golden years".

Friday, September 9, 2016

Grey Mask: A Miss Silver Mystery

Grey Mask: A Miss Silver Mystery
by Patricia Wentworth

After Charles was jilted at the altar by Margaret, he discovers that she is mixed up in a vicious kidnapping plot masterminded by a sinister figure in a grey mask. Charles turns to Miss Silver to uncover the strange truth behind Margaret's complicity, and the identity of the terrifying and mysterious individual behind the grey mask.

My Reaction:
I believe this was my first time reading anything by Patricia Wentworth, but I'm sure it won't be the last.  Though it was disappointingly thin on Miss Silver (the sleuth in Wentworth's thirty-two mystery novels), I found the book enjoyable-- a pleasant read in the "Golden Age" style.  I'll just look forward to learning more about the unusual Miss Silver in the next book or two...

There were some things that didn't make complete sense to me, but in the end, I simply didn't care.  It kept me entertained, which was all I asked.

Yes, Margot Standing is frightfully silly, but I found her much more amusing than annoying (to read about; she'd be awful to encounter in real life)-- you'll probably figure out the identity of Grey Mask before the "unmasking"-- and you may scratch your head at the conveniently bizarre behavior of some of the characters (not just telling one another things, mainly)-- but it's not bad for an author's first mystery.  There's every reason to hope that the books improved as the series continued.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer

A fateful mistake... 
When Elinor Rochdale boards the wrong coach, she ends up not at her prospective employer's home but at the estate of Eustace Cheviot, a dissipated and ruined young man on the verge of death.
A momentous decision...
His cousin, Lord Carlyon, persuades Elinor to marry Eustace as a simple business arrangement. By morning, Elinor is a rich widow, but finds herself embroiled with an international spy ring, housebreakers, uninvited guests, and murder. And Carlyon won't let her leave...

My Reaction:
If you're a fan of Regency romances (even those which are very light on the romance) and mild mysteries, this could be just for you.  I found it a pleasant read for the most part, but nothing out of the ordinary.  The romance is very light, and parts of the story quite implausible, but it was still entertaining.

I was surprised that the story wasn't more centered on the title character's point of view.  Multiple times, the story leaves her behind, and she's not even in the room where the action is set.

...I don't have much to say about the book, and that's a reflection of its "lightness".  It didn't leave a strong impression, one way or the other.  Sometimes that's just the right kind of literature, though.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Death in Kashmir

Death in Kashmir
by M.M. Kaye

When young Sarah Parrish takes a skiing vacation to Gulmarg, a resort nestled in the mountains above the fabled Vale of Kashmir, she anticipates an entertaining but uneventful stay. But when she discovers that the deaths of two in her party are the result of foul play, she finds herself entrusted with a mission of unforeseen importance. And when she leaves the ski slopes for the Waterwitch, a private houseboat on the placid shores of the Dal Lake near Srinagar, she discovers to her horror that the killer will stop at nothing to prevent Sarah from piecing the puzzle together.

My Reaction:
This book is in much the same vein as Mary Stewart's "travel mysteries".  True to the formula, a young and beautiful British heroine visiting a foreign country finds herself embroiled in a suspenseful mystery, with the additional thread of a light romance.  Both also possess the charm of a retro setting.  (This particular book is set in India in the late 1940s, soon after WWII and right before the British left the country.)

I've enjoyed several of Stewart's novels, and my introduction to Kaye was also satisfactory.  So far, I think I prefer Stewart, but they are fairly close, in my estimation.  Both are good choices for light dramatic fiction with strong settings, a little suspense, and a sprinkle of romance.

I have a few quibbles, which I'll address below, but on the whole, it's a reasonably enjoyable read for the genre.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Pluses:  Some of the descriptions of Kashmir were lovely.  (It's a part of the world I haven't seen much about before, so I had to look up some photos.)  The novel got off to a strong start.  I learned a little more about the history of India (and the British Empire)-- something I've never really spent much time thinking or learning about before, to be honest.  The "whodunit" aspect kept me guessing until the end.

--The romance element of most of these books leaves me uninterested, and such was definitely the case here.  I just couldn't bring myself to care about Sarah and Charles as a couple-- found myself bored or, worse, rolling my eyes a few times...  A little too much insta-love?

--Maybe part of my problem with the romance is that I just didn't love Sarah as much as we're supposed to... She's okay, but maybe a little too self-satisfied with her own loveliness.  And Charles... Well, we don't really know him, do we, beyond the fact that he's smitten with Sarah.

--"Girls who are spectacled never get their necks tickled"?  Wonderful.  That's one thing I truly do like about the modern day.  Glasses are no longer (for many people, at least) an instant negative.  Glasses can actually be considered nice-looking-- at least not a horrible affliction that renders women universally unattractive.  I hope that doesn't change anytime soon.

--Sarah sometimes doesn't seem as smart as she's supposed to be (for instance, as in the case of the bead curtain, which felt immediately clear as soon as the line of poetry turned up).  There were numerous times that she felt too slow on the up-take.  Of course, the hero is just as slow, sometimes, which is strange, considering that he's a spy/international man of mystery/secret agent man.  I guess the author was trying to give the reader a chance to figure things out for herself, first, but there are limits.

--Sarah's (and at times even Charles') lack of urgency in finding Janet's hidden message frustrated me.  I guess it had to be drawn out somewhat (though maybe not quite so much), but surely there could've been unavoidable interruptions.  Instead, it feels like Sarah's just too lazy and self-indulgent to bother looking.  She dines with friends, goes to sleep early, shops, etc. when she could have been looking for that message.  Annoying!!

--I was certain that Meril would turn out to be one of the bad guys.  Certainly didn't see Hugo coming.  He felt "safe", as a close associate of Sarah's-- but I guess that if his own wife didn't suspect, it's not impossible that Sarah's connections to him (whatever they were, for I can't really recall) could also have been hoodwinked.

--It was an unusual experience to read about a villain who is devoted to "the Party"-- a Red-- a Communist.  These days, we're trained to laugh at such things.  Earlier generations were ridiculous to see Communism as a threat, and any suggestion of the very real evils of Communism?  Scoff-worthy.

--"The big struggle is to come, and it is going to be far more bitter: because it will be between ideologies and not nations."  The struggle between ideologies continues, though the ideologies in question may change or go by different names...

--There's a scene where Sarah starts laughing hysterically soon after finding a body, and Charles slaps her across the face to snap her out of it.  I have always found that practice (fairly common during a certain era of literature and film) to be bizarre.  What's wrong with just letting the person continue laughing until s/he stops on his/her own?  (I can think of few circumstances under which hysterical laughing could cause anyone physical harm...)  The mental image of the hero slapping the heroine is distasteful.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

More Short Stories

I just found this review of a short story accidentally left in draft mode.  It's another from the LibriVox collection-- Short Ghost and Horror Collection 010-- that I was listening to about a year ago.

"The People of the Pit"
by Abraham Merritt

A tale of the weird in the Lovecraftian tradition.  (Or at least I believe it's Lovecraftian... Honestly, that genre is not my expertise.  It seems that Merritt and Lovecraft were contemporaries, but I suppose an author's works can be "Lovecraftian" even if s/he wrote before Lovecraft lived-- if you use the term to mean than there's a similarity in themes and atmosphere more than that one was inspired by the other.)

The most effective element of the story (in my ever-so-humble of opinions) was the escaped man's physical deformity from prolonged crawling and the instinctive creeping motions he continued to make-- beyond his own control. 

...With that said, I wonder how often Lovecraftian horror is actually scary.  I'm not sure why, but the little of it I've read generally doesn't give me the same creepy feeling that I more frequently experience when reading other types of horror.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe invisible slugs with lights for heads are just too far-fetched to terrify so practical a reader as myself. ;o) 

Maybe I just haven't read the right things, yet.
I don't dislike this style of story-- and it can be unsettling-- but it's rarely ever outright scary (again, in my limited experience).

Friday, August 5, 2016

Harvest Home

Harvest Home
by Thomas Tryon

It was almost as if time had not touched the village of Cornwall Coombe. The quiet, peaceful place was straight out of a bygone era, with well-cared-for Colonial houses and a white-steepled church fronting a broad Common.  Ned and Beth Constantine chanced upon the hamlet and immediately fell in love with it. This was exactly the haven they had dreamed of-- or so they thought. 
For Ned and his family, Cornwall Coombe was to become a place of ultimate horror.

My Reaction:
While not without its faults (slow-moving until the last third of the book, somewhat predictable to modern readers), Harvest Home kept me curious and interested until the very last page.  Some of the descriptive prose is lovely (though that's also part of what slows the pace), in stark contrast to... certain other aspects of the novel (which I'll get into in the spoiler section).  I never really cared for the main character, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the book.  

Note: This is definitely an adult horror novel that I would not recommend to either younger fans of the genre or those offended by sexual content.  

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--For a book written in the early 70's, this has held up pretty well.  (Possibly the biggest age-related distraction for me was the protagonist's own name-- Ned.  It's such an old-sounding name for a youngish man!  It was startling, every time his name was mentioned.)  Because the setting is so rural, antiquated, and unusual-- a throwback even when the book was written-- there weren't that many references to "current events", pop culture, or outdated technology, aside from the oft-mentioned "books-on-record".  Even the whole "back to the earth" movement that Ned refers to has had a little of a modern revival.  Today's version isn't exactly the same, but it's close enough to remind the reader that there's nothing new under the sun.  

--On the other hand, there were major plot elements that seemed very predictable to me, as a modern reader, and I wonder if they might not have been quite so obvious to a reader in the 1970's.  Were these plot points less expected back then, perhaps?  It was immediately clear to me that the residents of Cornwall Coombe were involved in some strange beliefs related to the corn.  Fertility rites?  Blood sacrifice?  Oh, how shocking.  Who could ever have foreseen these mind-shattering developments?  I'm not sure how different the reading experience would've been, as an average reader of 40+ years ago.  

--However, while certain things were predictable, there were others that kept me uncertain and guessing.  Even though I knew she might turn out "bad", I still liked the Widow Fortune at times and wasn't positive how the character would develop.  (Thinking back, of course, she had to know; she knew everything that happened in the community.  Still, for a while, I was hopeful that it wasn't a whole-town lunacy.)  Though it was clear that Gracie Everdeen hadn't committed suicide, I never guessed precisely why she was murdered.  The red herring of the odious Soakes family did its job effectively, too.  While I knew something involving sacrifice was coming up, I wasn't sure exactly how it would all play out-- who would take which role-- and I have to admit that I'm surprised the author chose as dark an ending as he did.  

--I had a hard time placing Kate's age.  If it's ever precisely mentioned, I've forgotten it.  I suppose she's meant to be an odd character, with her psychosomatic illness and all, but even so... On the one hand, she's old enough to be flirting mildly with Worthy and hoping he'll ask her on a date.  Yet she sulks like a toddler, dances around on the lawn shouting something about "moon madness", and calls her parents "daddy" and "mummy".  (It seems fairly common for a girl to call her father "daddy" even as an adult, but I don't believe I've seen anyone call her mother "mummy/mommy" past the single digits.)

--Though I never cared particularly much for Ned, his bizarre behavior around Tamar is especially off-putting.  He puts himself into odd situations with her-- and just about every time he sees her, he ends up repeatedly referring (in his internal monologue) to certain aspects of her body.  Her red fingernails, red lips-- and especially her breasts.  It's blatant enough to become distracting and outright annoying.  (I mean, good grief, dude!  We get it-- as a woman, she has boobs.  Try to focus on something else!)  

So, having drunk too much, Ned puts him into an awkward position inside Tamar's house, where he proceeds to drink some more (like the idiot that he is).  He's practically ogling her, she puts the moves on him, and of course, because he's a jerk, he responds.  He manages to pull himself away before anything too serious has happened, but come on!  He went into her house, drank when he should've known better, and let her kiss him/kissed her back.  And then, when his wife realizes what he's been up to and confronts him?  "Even in my innocence, I felt a flood of guilt."  Ha!  In his innocence?!  You're not that innocent, Ned.  

Then there's the scene between Ned and Tamar at the river.  What was that all about?  Completely bizarre and unpleasantly creepy.  First of all, he ends up skinny-dipping through the most contrived of circumstances-- and when Tamar comes along, instead of leaving, he stays, even though he suspects that she murdered a woman several years ago.  The entire scene is by turns disgusting and unintentionally hilarious.  As hateful as Tamar is, there's no possible excuse for Ned's unhinged behavior.  At best, he's cheating on his wife after he specifically promised not to have anything more to do with Tamar.  At worst, he's kinda-sorta raping Tamar.  Except she "wants it" (of course *eyeroll*), so it's not so much rape as it is violent "hate sex".  The whole thing is incredibly disturbing and misogynistic.  

--After the (ob)scene at the river, Ned goes home and tries to pretend that all is normal.  He notices that Beth, his wife, is staring at him.  "Something was terribly wrong, I could tell.  Her face was pale; she needed lipstick."  ...What the...?  Seriously, I'm not one of those women who looks to find misogyny everywhere, but this?  You come home from cheating on your wife and when you notice she's pale, your first thought is that she needs lipstick?  Heaven forbid that she not be optimally pleasing to the eye at all times.  (This kind of crap makes me not care what happens to him later on, to be honest...)

--"I stood up and looked around the room.  It suddenly seemed different-- not a room we had made, part of our house, but-- simply a room.  I glanced at Beth; she seemed different too, somehow.  A stranger-wife."  ...Yes, it must be she who has changed.  Couldn't possibly be a reflection of a change in yourself.  Because "kind-of raping" a woman/cheating on your spouse surely wouldn't change you in any way or affect the way you see the world around you.  (I mean, yes, he's right that Beth has changed, but Ned needs to acknowledge that he himself has undergone a few changes, too.)

--Poor Worthy.  He might be the only character I really liked in this whole darn book-- and even he was a let-down.  Why couldn't he just have sneaked out of town without all the unnecessary displays/outbursts?  Why did he confide in anyone, knowing the risks?  It wasn't smart.

--Ned is amazingly dim-witted.  It became almost a joke in the last quarter of the book.  He was always so shocked!  so dismayed!  so surprised! by things that, at some point, should cease to be quite so unexpected, given what he knows has already happened.  

Yeah, sure, he knows that Tamar killed Gracie.  He knows that the women were responsible for cutting out the peddler's tongue and sewing his mouth shut. --But surely they wouldn't hurt Worthy...  

Oh no, the townspeople killed Worthy!  
Ok, so they've killed Worthy, but for sure they won't hurt Justin...  

Egads!  They're going to kill Justin!!  Ok, so they're going to kill Justin ("they would poison him, undoubtedly", because these people have shown such reluctance to cause physical pain to their previous victims, right?)-- but first he has to "make the corn" (nudge nudge, wink wink) with the Corn Maiden.  "Then the Corn Maiden was brought to him and I realized what must follow.  Together, in front of the others, they were to make the corn!"  But, but-- that's abhorrent!  What, right there in front of all the other women?! ~shudder~  I mean, it's one thing to engage in ritual human sacrifice, but exhibitionism?  You hold it right there, missy.  That's going too far.  (In case it's not clear, exhibitionism isn't okay with me, but at that point, once you know they're going to kill the man, how can that be so shocking?)  

--The phallus-worship of these Cornwall Coombe women... If there were ever any doubt, that alone would make it clear that the author was a man.  (And evidently he was gay, whatever implications that might have...)  Tamar goes bananas (*smirk*) over Ned's "reaction", by the river.  I thought that was ridiculous enough-- but then at Harvest Home all the women are completely ecstatic over the "display" of that stud, Justin Hooke.  On the one hand, I laugh at how silly it all sounds.  On the other hand, I try not to barf.  I'm too embarrassed to share the worst offenders, but enjoy these milder excerpts: "object of their adoration"... "cries of torment, their frenzy now insupportable"... "a wild pantomime of devotion, an obscene reverence to the maleness of the Harvest Lord"... Yeah, dream on, guys.    

--The weird chanting of the women gradually disintegrating/working its way back through time to some strange, forgotten tongue must have been inspired by Lovecraft.  

--There was one real shocker... I thought the person hanging back out of sight would turn out to be his daughter and that he'd be horrified to find her a witness to this ceremony.  It never occurred to me that the woman in the veil-- the Corn Maiden-- would actually be Beth.  I guess seeing his kinda-sorta beloved wife makin' the ol' corn with handsome Justin finally sends Ned over the edge, based on his crazy pagan/religious experience in which he awakens to the presence of Mother Earth.  

--I had to laugh at Ned's painful obliviousness when it came to the Dodds (the next-door neighbors).  Robert drops some heavy hints about the terrible consequences of attempting to witness Harvest Home, but Ned still doesn't get it-- still thinks Maggie will be sympathetic to his cause.  When she tells Ned he's a fool, I can't help but agree!

--As I mentioned earlier, the ending is darker than I would've expected.  I figured Ned would get away, but that maybe his wife and daughter would refuse to come with him. Speaking of Beth and Kate, they "converted" awfully quickly!  I guess some people do fall in with cults in a short space of time.  Neither of them had any other strong religious beliefs to supplant... Beth had a gaping hole in her life where her mother should have been and which the townswomen filled.  They also saved her daughter's life and promised to help her have another child, which she desperately wanted.  In Kate's case, she's young and impressionable, she sees her mother going along with it all, and the Widow Fortune saves her life and seems to (somehow) make it possible for her to do things she wants, like horse-riding.  

--And in closing, there's a character named Corny Penrose.  ...I know this community revolves around corn, but really?  Corny?  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Crying Child

The Crying Child
by Barbara Michaels

From the moment she arrived on King's Island, Joanne McMullen knew that her sister's grief over losing her child had driven her dangerously close to madness. But when Joanne heard the same child's voice that her sister had heard wailing in the woods, she knew something terrible was happening!

My Reaction:
This is typical Barbara Michaels "cozy gothic" fare.  There's a beautiful old mansion, some mildly spooky occurrences (with a mystery to unravel), and a side-story romance (which in most cases is very sparsely sketched).  If you like her other gothic novels, you'll probably like this, too.  It seems about on par with the several others I've already read.

I found it rather blandly enjoyable, but there were also some of the same irritations I almost always find in this author's works.  The overtly old-school feminist angle gets old, for instance.  (More on the annoyances below, in the spoiler section.)

So... It was okay.  Neither bad nor great.  I'll probably keep reading these books, every so often, because some of them are better than others (and maybe my mood and other factors come into play, too).  If you want something to (more or less) pleasantly pass a little time without requiring much concentration or emotional investment, this will do.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--At least in this book there wasn't a heavy reliance on the word "chauvinist", but there were still things like this:  "I just stood there and thought of that poor woman; only a girl, really, when she got involved with Hezekiah.  Yet she wasn't so much his victim as she was a victim of the times, times which condemned women to a single role in society and damned them for eternity if they accepted the role without the magic scrap of paper which legitimized it.  If there could be such a thing as a psychotic ghost, she was it-- caught in the vicious trap of the guilt her culture had brainwashed her into accepting."  Not to say that there's no truth to any of that, but it's so heavy-handed!  I came here looking for an escape, not a lecture on the bad old days...

--These books so often have such an odd attitude toward religion.  It annoys me when the same character who has witnessed and acknowledged and accepted paranormal phenomena still acts like Christianity (or any religion, probably) is suspect and not to be taken too seriously.  Um, so ghosts/spiritual manifestations are completely real, but the Bible just isn't plausible?  ...Okay, then.  Silly of me to have expected a little more open-mindedness from characters who've just gone through a series of events that challenged so many other preconceived notions.

--One of the two openly religious characters says things like this:  "I'm not saying our kind of faith was a purely good thing.  It can be awfully narrow and cruel."  *eyeroll*  No obnoxious stereotyping here, no siree.

--"I don't know what you think about the soul, or survival after death, or anything like that; the important thing is what Mary believes.  I know how she feels because I have the same weaknesses."

...Weaknesses?  Is she saying it's a weakness to believe in any sort of afterlife?  Why is that "weak", exactly?  Seems like an odd choice of words, no matter what you believe.

--"Somebody started praying.  It was me.  The prayer was a hodgepodge, bits of the 'Our Father' and 'Hail Mary' and miscellaneous lines from the ritual.  I'm not claiming that the words themselves had any particular value.  Maybe the multiplication table would have been just as effective-- anything mechanical, learned by rote, to focus the mind and wrench it back to independent thought."

Keep in mind, this takes place during the dramatic climax of the novel, when the characters come face to face with not one, but two ghostly presences-- and yet our heroine still has to carefully question the possibility that her instinctive reaching back to her religious upbringing was really any more helpful than reciting something from math class would have been.  ...Well, alright, if you say so, lady-- but why the insistence on questioning or undercutting religious belief every time it comes up in the story?

--"'Take the Book with you,' Mrs. Willard said calmly.  I had an insane desire to laugh.  'What good is that going to do?' I demanded."  ...I'm not saying that I think a Bible is likely to protect anyone from ghosts (which I don't believe in, anyway, but that's another issue)-- but that was kind of rude, wasn't it?  And honestly, how in the world would Jo know if the Bible is any protection or not?!  Ugh!  Just shut up, Jo.

--This was strange:  "She was thoroughly doped; her face had an almost oriental tranquility, but she was thinking rationally."  ...What?  I assume we're meant to think of statues of Buddha, but "an almost oriental tranquility" still seems a weird turn of phrase.

--"There have been no manifestations since that night.  Opinions differ as to what did the trick. ... I am convinced that my courage and sensitivity in communicating with "Miss Smith" gave her the strength to [blah blah blah]."  Ha ha ha!!  Such modesty!

--The closest they come to a consensus is Jed's belief that in order to dismiss the wandering spirits, "all we had to do was find out the truth".  Very convenient.  But why did these spirits care so much that a mere handful of people finally learn the truth?  Because, honestly, people already did know the truth, back when the original events took place.  Maybe not many people knew back then, but it's not like the story has been spread far and wide at the end of the book, either.  Talk about a facile explanation!

--Maybe the most obvious sign that this is an older book is all the cigarettes.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tough Plants for Southern Gardens

Tough Plants for Southern Gardens: Low Care, No Care, Tried and True Winners
by Felder Rushing

Tough Plants for Southern Gardens is written for novice and accomplished gardener alike, and for all gardeners who value their leisure time. They also value the appearance of their home and appreciate the benefits of well-placed landscaping; however, they do not want to devote too much time to keeping it beautiful.

My Reaction:
As someone who only began to take her garden seriously within the past few years, I still have a lot to learn-- but one thing I picked up pretty quickly is that some plants are much easier to keep alive than others, and gardening is much more enjoyable when the bulk of your garden is made up of these "easy plants".  I've also learned to value the wisdom and experience of those who garden in my own part of the world, so I try to get my information from as local a source as possible.  As the title suggests, the focus of this book is tough plants ("easy plants") for the southern United States-- perfect (for me, a relatively lazy gardener who lives in Alabama)!

This doesn't have to be a cover-to-cover read, though it can be.  It's thoroughly readable-- somewhat less chatty and informal than Passalong Plants (also co-authored by Felder Rushing), but more useful for quick reference.  It's great for dipping into for a few minutes here and there, and the index makes it simple to find a specific plant right away.

Divided into sections of types of plants, this book covers everything from fool-proof annuals and dependable perennials to easy-care trees and shrubs (and everything in between, as the saying goes).

Each plant was selected on the basis of its "toughness" and suitability for the Southern garden.  Most featured plants get one full page including a photo, common name, Latin name, sunlight requirement, description of the flower (if applicable) and plant as a whole, soil/water needs, best propagation method(s), and "interesting kinds", which suggests specific, named varieties or cultivars (helpful for narrowing the field when making a wish list).  There's also a small snippet of chit-chat about each plant, as well as one "tip" per entry-- some are about that plant, others are more tangentially related, but all are either informative or entertaining.

At the beginning of each section, there's a list of plants that are "Best for Beginners" and another that can be "Kinda Tricky" (probably self-explanatory).  Then at the end of each section, there's a page or three of short blurbs about "Other Good Grasses" or "Other Great Garden Bulbs"-- plants that didn't quite make the "best of" list (for whatever reason), but which are also promising candidates for the Southern garden.

As much as I like this book, I do have one quibble.  "The South" is a large area covering several states and USDA hardiness zones.  The region is frequently divided into four gardening sub-regions: Upper South, Middle South, Lower South, and Coastal South-- and that's not even including the Tropical South, which is mostly confined to southern Florida.

The Upper South gets more of a real winter than the Coastal South (where I live), which means its gardeners can successfully grow plants (some bulbs and fruits, for instance) that need a little winter chill.  Those same plants don't perform well this far south.  On the other hand, I can grow delicate, subtropical plants outdoors.  They may die back to the ground, but they reliably return with spring.  Someone growing them on the northern edge of "the South" will have to dig them up every year or grow them in containers that can be moved into shelter for the winter.

Now, it is just a quibble, but just because a plant is included in this book doesn't mean it will be ideal for your garden.  A little further research might be in order before you start your plant wish list, just to be on the safe side.  (Besides, isn't researching plants part of the fun?).  You may have a Southern garden, and the plant in question may be "tough" in some Southern gardens, but there's still the potential for plant failure and disappointment.  Of course, you don't need to compare regions to witness the fickleness of Mother Nature's green children.  Your next-door neighbor may rave about a plant that refuses to "do" for you.

To be fair, the author acknowledges all this, right there in the beginning!  In gardening, there are no guarantees, even with so-called tough plants, but this book does give you a good shot at success, and I do believe that by far most of these plants will perform well through most of the region.  I whole-heartedly recommend it-- particularly to beginning gardeners or anyone who's interested in learning more about plants that really want to grow in the hot and humid South.

After the People Lights Have Gone Off

After the People Lights Have Gone Off
by Stephen Graham Jones

This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday. Included are two original stories, several rarities and out of print tales, as well as a few "best of the year" inclusions. Stephen Graham Jones is a master storyteller. What does happen after the people lights have gone off? Crack the spine and find out.

My Reaction:
I was drawn to this book by its eerie title and cover art (the twilight scene of a woman facing a house with a lit upstairs window), so I decided to give it a try.  Modern short stories can be hit or miss with me, and this was my first experience with this author, but it had a lot of positive reviews.

Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that this author's style just isn't right for me.  I've read four of the stories, and while each had some promising moments, the pay-off isn't there (again, for me).  I think part of the problem is that the endings are (usually) too ambiguous for my tastes.  I don't expect everything to be spelled out in a horror short story, but I could use a few more dots to help with the connecting.

I'm not enjoying it much, so it's time to declare this a DNF (Did Not Finish) and move on to something else.

(I may go back and read the title story, though, as that's what drew me to the collection in the first place-- and because I've seen some reviewers who seemed to think it was the strongest of the bunch.  If I find I have more to say after reading it, I'll come back and edit this entry.  Otherwise...)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

A very young woman's first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate... An estate haunted by a beckoning evil. 
Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows-- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls... 
But worse-- much worse-- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.
For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.

My Reaction:
Reading reviews for Peter Straub's Ghost Story, I saw repeated references to The Turn of the Screw, which reminded me that I'd never read it, so I decided to finally read the (classic) novella.  (Having now read it, I can easily see why other readers said Straub borrowed heavily from Henry James.  Yes, he really, really did!)

After a few moments of déjà vu, I soon realized that I must have watched a film adaptation, at some point, but I'd forgotten more than I remembered of the story-- and this was certainly my first time reading it.

And now, having read it, I wish I could say that I'd enjoyed it very much, but honesty compels me to admit that I found much of it a terrible slog.  The plot was interesting-- though so subtle in some key points that I suspect many modern readers, unfamiliar with some of the coded hints, might not understand just how awful the villains are/were-- but all too often the story is buried under a heavy, suffocating layer of convoluted prose.  There are a few sentences that require careful parsing to even understand!  Admittedly, I don't read many "classics" these days, so maybe part of the problem is that I'm out of practice with more serious literature.  However, I read classics for fun in middle school, so I do think that some of it comes down to peculiarities of James' own style, which apparently isn't to my liking.

This will not be on my list of favorites-- not one I'll re-read or recommend willy-nilly-- but I still am glad I've finally read it.  Certain moments and aspects of it are powerful.