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...)