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!