Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bryony and Roses

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.

But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?

Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

My Reaction:
Yes, this is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast"-- and the author acknowledges in a note at the beginning that she read and loved Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, an earlier B&tB retelling, which I read for the first time fairly recently (within the past year).

I imagine that-- with the exception of the lesser-known tales-- most of us read these fairy tale retellings because we love the original story.  (Otherwise, why bother, right?)  Maybe we want to see the story from a fresh perspective; maybe we just want to reread an old favorite without knowing exactly what will happen-- and when and how and why.  Usually the author puts a new twist on the old story (with varying levels of success), but for the most part, you go in knowing the gist of the story (unless there are very drastic deviations from the source material).

There's a fine line authors walk between either simply regurgitating the traditional story in a predictable, pointless paraphrasing of the tale or changing things to the point that it confuses, disappoints, or alienates many readers who, again, are probably reading the book because they like the original version.  Bryony and Roses does a decent job of walking that line.

This is B&tB from a more humorous perspective, compared to Rose Daughter.  (However, it's not exactly a perfect match for my personal sense of humor...)  Though definitely set in magical Fairy-Tale Land, it has a much more modern sensibility than I was expecting.  It also has a faster pace than Rose Daughter-- a definite improvement, imho-- and it feels like there's more interaction between heroine and hero-- another plus.  Though I still didn't feel quite enough intense, building chemistry between the two, at least there was an effort.

The female protagonist (Bryony) is an essentially practical character who stands up for and takes care of herself, but she also has her share of flaws and weaknesses.  (No Mary Sues here.)  Don't read Bryony and Roses expecting major character development, though; the story happens to and around Bryony and the Beast, but it doesn't change them much, beyond their feelings for one another.

Unfortunately, there were several things that annoyed me or made me roll my eyes (which I'll address in the "Specifics" section).  While I liked it well enough, I didn't love this book, I'm sad to say.  It's probably a 3 to 3.5 (out of 5) for me.  I'd probably rank it higher than Rose Daughter, because though that retelling had some beautifully written passages, it also put me to sleep with its slogging pace and a dearth of interaction between Beauty and the Beast.  Going on my memory of McKinley's Beauty, I'd still rate that one the best of the three, but that may be an unfair comparison, since I'm viewing Beauty through the rosy-tinted lens of nostalgia.  (I plan to reread it, one of these days, after I've had time to work up an appetite for more B&tB...)

I'd recommend Bryony and Roses to readers who can't get enough B&tB or fans of fairy-tale retellings with more modern-seeming heroines.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  I'm a gardener, like the author and her heroine, so I probably found that aspect of the book more interesting than would a non-gardener.  That said, some of the gardening bits were just odd or silly or irritating.  For instance, why did she just have to take home pieces of all the plants from her garden at the manor house, even though they all came from plants that she still had in her old garden?  (Seems like a lot of effort for nothing, to be honest.)  Oh, and her ridiculous decision to stop and pull weeds (or whatever) before going inside, when she finally got back home!!

--  It's an interesting angle, to make the rose the "bad guy" of the book.  I don't know that it works particularly well, imho, but it's interesting... And the thornier ones can definitely be mean when you're trying to prune them.

--  The decision to do away with the father character is another interesting choice.  He does bog down the story, sometimes.  In this version, Beauty/Bryony is responsible for her own fate, which is an improvement.

--  There were quite a few instances of crudeness in this book that felt out of place-- and all too often, they were played for juvenile humor.  It starts with Fumblefoot pooping on the floor of the manor house, but it only gets worse from there.  Bryony pees herself the first time she sees the Beast, and as if that's not bad enough, it's referred to again later on (because I guess once wasn't enough).  Then there's the whole thing about how she's not a virgin.  Um, ok.  Good for you?  It seems a really odd thing to include in this story.  Why did it need mentioning at all?  Then there was more "light cursing" than expected... I mean, compared to the last novel I finished (You, by Caroline Kepnes) this was all the tamest of the tame, but still, not what I was expecting.

--  Bryony goes too quickly from wetting her pants in terror to speaking jokingly/sarcastically with the Beast.  A slower transition would've been nice.  As it was, the Beast isn't really very scary at all, and even though Bryony says she's still afraid of him, for a while, it certainly doesn't show in the way she speaks!

--  Far too often, when I was supposed to be laughing at Bryony's wit and humor, I ended up rolling my eyes instead.  And when Bryony describes the Beast to Holly: "And-- and-- he's funny.  Like we are.  Sarcastic."  Just ugh.  You're really not that funny, Bryony.  Not to all of us, at least.

--  When Bryony returns to the manor house, she somehow ends up in a nightgown, in bed with the "man" from her dreams.  Which is pretty weird, since she was fully dressed before that... But ok, whatever.  So she needs to get dressed to go fight the rose and find the Beast.  Well, despite the desperate circumstances, she decides to dress under the sheets because she doesn't want the roses at the window to see her naked.  ...???  Yes, that's very important.  Mustn't have the evil, sentient rose seeing you naked when you're about to fight for your life.  (Bryony's priorities are kind of messed up, is what I'm saying here.)

--  When I read Rose Daughter, I was not altogether pleased with the fact that the Beast kept his beast-form.  Here's part of what I wrote then, and it applies to this book, too (since once again the Beast remains a beast):
I have mixed feelings about this twist. On the one hand, it always felt odd for Beauty to finally realize she loves the Beast, only to have him change into a complete stranger (physically, at least). However, the whole point of the story is that she loves him for his personality/heart/spirit/soul, no matter what his appearance. (You can't judge a book by its cover, etc.) Also, in the original tale, the Beast is only a Beast because he's being "punished"/taught a lesson for his bad past behavior. The fact that Beauty loves him demonstrates that he's grown as a person, and his change for the better is rewarded by the breaking of the spell.  In this version, he hasn't really done anything very wrong, so he's not being punished...
At least in Bryony and Roses there's a more legitimate reason why the Beast needs to keep his beastly body-- he's lived so long as a beast that if he changes back to his frailer human form, he will die almost instantly.  I mean, yeah, it's still just an excuse to keep him a beast, but it's an improvement over the explanations offered in Rose Daughter.

Also, in this version, I guess the Beast is (kind of) being punished for his behavior-- for not loving the sacred birch tree that nursed him back to health-- but it's not quite on the same level as in the classic version, where he's punished (albeit very harshly) for something worse than just failing to love some bizarre magical tree.

--  In the note at the end, the author thanks her editor, who had her remove "about sixty percent of the dashes".  So even if we obviously would have our differences on a number of topics, we have dash addiction in common...  And gardening, of course, though I don't hate roses, even if I do live in a hot, humid climate.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


by Caroline Kepnes

When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.
There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.
As Joe invisibly and obsessively takes control of Beck’s life, he orchestrates a series of events to ensure Beck finds herself in his waiting arms. Moving from stalker to boyfriend, Joe transforms himself into Beck’s perfect man, all while quietly removing the obstacles that stand in their way—even if it means murder.

My Reaction:
I saw a recommendation of You as a real page-turner and was intrigued by the premise, though it is not the type of thing I usually read.  Modern setting.  Way too much casual cursing-- left, right, and center.  Fairly graphic sex (including some gross-me-out stuff).  Sometimes depressing; frequently dark-- yet often humorous, too.  Oh, and did I mention it's told from the point of view of a murderous stalker addressing the object of his creepy passion?

Yes, it's quite a departure from my typical fare, but I found it compulsively readable.  I wouldn't want to read only dark novels about some psycho's all-consuming obsession with another weird person-- in fact, I'm eager for something completely different, now, to cleanse the palate-- but an occasional foray into this type of modern thriller is undeniably... invigorating.

While skimming a few reviews of this series (yes, this is the first of at least two novels about Joe Goldberg, and apparently the author is selling the story to Showtime, which is very interesting...), I saw someone describe it as Dexter meets House of Cards.  I agree that there are elements of both, though Joe makes Dexter seem like a well-balanced, upstanding citizen, by comparison!  (He's certainly much more likable, as a character.)  The sleaziness of most of the characters does remind me of House of Cards, though. (g)

Speaking of sleazy characters, I know I'm not the only one who found herself disliking Beck at least as much as Joe.  Not to say that she deserves to be stalked, but she spends most of the book being unlikable and irritating; she only gets worse as the story progresses.  Joe, on the other hand... I found my opinion of him shifting and wavering through the whole book.  One minute, he disgusts you.  The next, you're feeling a little sorry for him-- maybe even hoping something goes right for him (though you always know that he's not a good guy)-- only to find yourself angry or disgusted again, before you've even turned the page.

If you can look past the violence and vulgarity (and honestly, I found the vulgarity more off-putting than the violence, though perhaps I shouldn't admit it-- but there's just so much more of it), there's an interesting story there.  It's not the kind of thing I could recommend without caveat... It will leave you feeling dirty by association-- numerous times.  It's not a "best thing I've ever read" book, but it keeps the pages turning, and it makes you think about social media/privacy and how vulnerable people are to those who will balk at nothing to get what they want.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  Joe's low opinion of the Kindle was of course interesting to me, as a Kindle user.  Apparently e-readers are bringing about the downfall of civilization (or something) because you can be reading any piece-of-garbage novel you like without anyone being any the wiser.  You don't have to be silently judged by the snooty cashier at the local bookstore.  Your embarrassing fondness for trashy books is safely hidden from the rest of the world.  For all they know, you're reading Shakespeare on the bus, but in reality it's a worthless modern equivalent of the penny dreadful!

--  Because so much of the book relies on current technology and social media, I found myself wondering how well the book will hold up as the years pass.  However, I read so little contemporary literature that I can't really compare it to other books.  Maybe this is the the norm, these days-- frequent references to Twitter and Facebook and MacBook Air and iPhones, etc.  Maybe it's not any different than books from previous decades referring to typewriters, for instance, though the the potential for "datedness" does seem heavier, in this case.

--  " wrote about old actors because of the photography books in your apartment, so many pictures of places you can't go because they aren't there anymore.  You're a romantic, searching for a Coney Island minus the drug dealers and the gum wrappers and an innocent California where real cowboys and fake cowboys traded stories over tin cups of coffee they called joe.  You want to go places you can't go."  Well, I think that's true for a lot of us-- particularly those of us who love old books or movies.  We're not necessarily all yearning for "innocent California", but maybe some other idealized place and time that never even really existed outside of nostalgia and someone's imagination.

--  "Don't put that out in the universe."  I hate the trend of people talking/writing about "the universe", like it's this conscious being-- like it's a cooler substitute for the old-fashioned, démodé God-- typically used by people who scoff at the idea of God and scorn Christians as either simpletons or secret/not-so-secret bigots.

--  Beck prefers e-mail to texting because "e-mails last forever" whereas "texts go away".  ...?  Is e-mail really more permanent than a text?  I'm not really a texter, so I wouldn't know, but the whole thing struck me as funny-- the idea of e-mail (of all things) being permanent or lasting forever!  I'm old enough that e-mail feels pretty darn ephemeral, itself.

--  It's impossible to take Benji seriously.  He's such a caricature!  Completely lacking in even a smidgen of realism, imho.

--  "In my defense, I love the book in a postmodern kind of way where I've always sensed that it contains something that I relate to.  I think it's the kind of book that echoes my beliefs and my sentiments and I've always related well to people who have read the book and I've written about the book.  You know, I majored in comp lit and it's possible, it's very possible to read a book without reading it in the traditional, straightforward manner.  You can read about a book, Joe.  Do you know what I mean?  Do you understand?"   ...I could never condone Benji's murder, but a good solid punch in the face?  It's possible.  It's very possible.

--  I have to laugh at the idea that Joe is some sort of criminal mastermind.  Sure, the guy's no fool.  He's creative.  He's wily.  He thinks on his feet.  But he's also exceptionally lucky.  Perhaps his biggest piece of luck is the fact that he has incredibly convenient access to a soundproof cage in the locked basement of the bookstore where he works-- and of which he has almost complete control.

--  How amusing that Stephen King and Lena Dunham both gave positive quotes/reviews, since both are mentioned in the book-- especially King.  (The King-references and -praise just won't stop:  "I mean, I love Stephen King books," you say.  "But that's different because his work is so well-crafted.  The Shining is f****ing literature, you know?")

--  What is it about Beck that attracts obsessive admirers?  Peach and Nicky and Joe himself.  It seems unlikely.  I see fellow readers commenting that Beck doesn't seem like anything that special-- so why is Joe so fixated?  Well, I don't know if Kepnes was trying to make this point (probably not, in fact), but I imagine the average person who winds up with a stalker isn't anything particularly "special", really.  The strangeness lies in the stalker, not the stalked.  However, when you've got a serious stalker and two other obsessed admirers on the list... Yeah, either there's something about Beck that's actively attracting these types (her desperate neediness?  her "always-on" exhibitionism?) or it's just too unlikely to be taken seriously (=lazy writing?).

--  Here's Joe's explanation for the above: "And I know you so well, Beck.  You are charisma, you are sick, and for some reason you are a magnet for weak, spineless people like Peach, like Benji, like Nicky."  (He conveniently leaves himself off the list, of course.)  So Beck is supposed to be charisma incarnate?  Well, I don't know what to say except that that didn't come across the page very well-- not to me, at least.  Not a charismatic character, to say the least!  Maybe her so-called charisma is one of Joe's delusions...  But that still leaves the mystery of why Beck is surrounded by obsessives.

--  Some of the things Beck writes to her friends about!  And the way she writes... (She obviously told Peach about her "encounter" with Joe in the dressing room, and then there are more general eye-roll-inducing things like "I am soooo bad at boundaries.  Why are you always so smart?!")  Is that the norm?  Am I the weirdo, that I'd never dream of telling a mere friend all my very most private "stuff"?  Even by high school I was past the "tell all" stage of friendship.  I guess some of us are just way, way, way more private than others...

--  I think one of the most disturbing moments in the book is when Joe, on his road-trip home, shortly after killing Peach and sinking her body in the ocean, casually mentions that her phone has a lot of good music.  He's blithely listening to music on the phone of the woman he just finished callously murdering.  That is the epitome of cold.

--  Ugh.  Dr. Nicky gives me the creeps.  To be honest, I disliked him from his first line:  "Let's figure out what the f**k is wrong with you, shall we?"  Ugh.  Very professional way to talk to a patient the first time you meet them.  It's supposed to be shorthand for "hey, look how cool and laid-back I am!" but no, I'm not impressed.  And that's only the beginning.  Not a big fan of "Dr. Nicky", to say the least.

--  Knitters will definitely get a kick out of the fact that Joe is freaking out that Karen Minty's mother is knitting him a sweater.  Ha!  The sweater curse in action!  (Though of course, as we all know, the sweater's not really to blame here.  This "relationship" was never going to work out.)

--  "'I've never been so present in my life.' I kiss the top of your head and you're my articulate little bunny."  Oh, gag! "Never been so present in my life"?  *unimpressed face*  And "articulate little bunny"?  *violent eye-roll*

--  So... Dickens festivals, where there's "face painting and flutes, costumes and cupcakes"-- that's "why the terrorists hate us"?  ...The sad thing is, there are idiots who actually think that way.  That may be the most offensive thing in the book.  (Ok, not really, but it irked me greatly.)

--  Beck finds Joe's hidden box of his mementos/"trophies" of her and sneers, "You have a box of my sh-t."  And of course she doesn't mean that literally, except that he's saved one her used tampons, and so maybe "literally" isn't completely off the table... (g)

--  I don't know if we're supposed to find this funny or not, but the fact that Joe accidentally left the Pitch Perfect DVD on the menu/intro screen, outside the cage, where Beck can't turn it off or hit "play"-- that just really made me laugh.  I know, I know.  It could amount to psychological torture, probably, being forced to listen to the same loop of sound for hours, but it was just so ridiculous!

--  If I have any shame for not caring particularly much about Beck, that flies out the window when she admits to Joe that she only dallied with (the disgusting) Dr. Nicky because she wanted the power trip of knowing that he wanted her more than anyone else in his life-- wanted him to leave his wife-- wanted to mess up his kids' lives (like her own life was messed up when her own father left her and her mother).  Good. Grief.  What a total and absolute b***h!

--  But even though I kind of hate her, I still manage to feel sorry for Beck when she's killed... And even though Joe's the pyscho who killed her (and three other people), I still experience fleeting moments of pity for him, too, as he mourns the loss of her while he plants her body where it will throw suspicion on Nicky...  Of course, he loses little time (three months, is it?) before setting his sights on his next target for obsession.

--  I think it's interesting that the author (according to the info at the end of the book) is a native of Cape Cod (not that different from Nantucket?).  She provides her Twitter handle, which is rather amusing, too... And after skimming this interview, I find myself thinking that we probably wouldn't get along very well, in person...  (Casual cursing, "Thank you, universe", and so on.)  Fortunately, I don't have to get along with the authors of the books I read.  (Whew!  Thank goodness.  Or should I say, "Thank you, universe!"?)

Friday, March 18, 2016

"Mr. Tilly's Séance"

"Mr. Tilly's Séance"
by E.F. Benson

Mr. Tilly decides that a little thing like his sudden, unforeseen death won't keep him from keeping his appointment to attend a séance.

My Reaction:
This is one of Benson's more comic tales of the supernatural-- nothing particularly spooky about this story, though the very beginning is rather gruesome.  Benson pokes light fun at some of the more ridiculous aspects of spiritualism and mediums, though he also seems to be making excuses for it-- offering explanations for its frauds and dearth of concrete evidence.  Not a favorite of mine, but more enjoyable than the previous story in the collection ("In the Tube").

Random Thoughts:
--While I have no serious problem with séances in fiction (especially when played for laughs), spiritualism in general makes me uncomfortable-- especially when it is dressed up as something respectable or remotely honest.  It cheapens true spirituality and religion by pretending to be associated with them, and under the guise of helping the suffering and the seeking, instead leads them astray.  At best, it wastes their time and energies by encouraging a focus on the wrong things.  At worst, it's an outright scam.

--I had to laugh at the book disguised behind "an old cover called 'Elegant Extracts'", because it reminded me of another faux "Elegant Extracts" in Miss Mapp's garden room.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"In the Tube"

"In the Tube"
by E.F. Benson

A man tells his friend an eerie tale beginning with his vision of an event that had not yet taken place-- a suicide in a tube station.

My Reaction:
Hmm... Well, to be fair, I started this one as a shared read with Donald, when we were at loose ends, one day.  We never finished the story-- moved on to more interesting fare and never looked back.

Months passed before I was inspired to picked it back up (again, as a stop-gap measure when I finished my "main read" in the middle of a treadmill session and hadn't settled on what to read next).  Remembering that the story (so far) hadn't been outstanding, I didn't care to start from the beginning again, so perhaps I missed the full effect, after such a long intermission.  However, I think I remember enough of the first part of the story to give a reaction to the whole.  That reaction is... this is not one of my favorites of Benson's spooky tales.

It's not bad, by any means, but not a favorite.  There's much philosophizing and pondering on the nature of time.  When should we count an action as "settled" or "done"?  When it physically takes place?  When the person involved makes the decision to act?  Or when the person takes the first step on the path that will eventually lead to an inevitable conclusion?  What is time?  How much do we mere humans know of it?  Could it be that time is only an illusion?  So on and so forth.

"I have talked to a soul in the hell of remorse, which is the only possible hell."

Thursday, March 10, 2016

No Wind of Blame

No Wind of Blame
by Georgette Heyer

(Edited) Blurb:
Tragedy befalls the Carter family following an eventful visit from a Russian prince and a scandalous blackmail letter. The murder of Wally Carter is a bewildering mystery worthy of the analytical Inspector Hemingway's unnerving talent for solving fiendish problems.

My Reaction:
Two stars seems too low... Let's be generous and round up to three.

Of Heyer's mysteries that I've read so far, this was not a stand-out.  A serviceable way to pass some time, but nothing amazing or even particularly interesting.  Apart from Vicky (and sometimes Ermyntrude, who reminded me a bit of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice), I found most of the characters fairly dull.  It didn't help that I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and at least part of the "method" early on, which left too much time for waiting for the police and detectives to catch on to the obvious parts and figure out the particulars that I hadn't been able to solve on my own.

I definitely would not recommend this as a starting point for this author's mysteries, but if you're a devoted Heyer mystery fan, it might be worth a read.  Just don't expect too much of it, and you won't be disappointed.  (Exceedingly faint praise, I know...)

--  "Not but what I don't care for trousers myself.  Time and again when I've seen some fat creature waddling about in them, I've thought to myself, well, my girl, if you could see your own bottom you'd soon change into a skirt."  

--  "The way the Palings' shoot has been allowed to deteriorate since Fanshawe's death is a scandal.  You'll find the birds as wild as be-damned-- if you see any birds at all."  I'll be the first to admit that I know precious little about English "shooting", but apparently I know even less than I thought.  Are (or were) the birds usually not wild, then, in a well-kept "shoot"?  Because if they're somewhat domesticated, that seems even less "sporting" than I'd imagined... 

--  The character who was "under God Control" was an odd specimen.  

--  When the Prince suggests that a young man seems dull, Vicky responds (seriously), "Oh no!  He writes poetry.  Not the rhyming sort, either."

--  Early in the book, there are a few incidents of crassness the likes of which I don't remember coming across in Heyer's other mysteries.  Possibly I'm just being forgetful... Nothing R-rated, but references to sordid behavior that has taken place well off the page.  If nothing else, it makes it hard to care anything at all about the murder victim.  (Which is often the case in these books, of course.  If we had to care much about the victim, we wouldn't be able to focus on and enjoy the mystery and the other characters.)

--  One character (an especially dull chatterbox) is described as having "a slightly depressing habit of making yards of crochet-lace in her spare time" (which yielded the crochet tablecloth she was using to cover a table).  As someone who enjoys crocheting-- including the occasional lace doily-- I found this rather harsh.  What, may I ask, is so depressing about crocheting lace in one's spare time?  Pray, what should a person do in her spare time, to avoid being "slightly depressing"?  ~huff~ 

--  Maybe the author had a personal dislike of all textile handcrafts.  "Mary sat down with a tea-cloth which she was embroidering, an occupation, which, however meritorious in itself, the Prince found depressing."

--  Ermyntrude learns that Scotland Yard is to be called in... "Am I never to be left in peace?  Haven't I had enough to worry me?  I wish to God Wally had never been shot!"  (And I laughed and laughed.)