Monday, December 18, 2017

Lord Peter

Lord Peter
by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a collection of all the short stories concerning the cases of eccentric amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.  

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read-aloud with Donald.  We skipped the essay and parody at the end.  Maybe some other time...)

On the whole, this collection of short-story mysteries was quite enjoyable!  As always, some of the short stories are better than others, but I don't think there were any without any redeeming qualities. I appreciate the old-fashioned charm of the setting (Britain between the wars), the quirkiness of the star detective, the cleverness in general, and the author's obvious respect for the intelligence of her reader.

Of the novels, we've only read Whose Body? so far, and I hesitate to admit that it didn't make as positive of an impression as these short stories did.  (Maybe it was bad timing and deserves a re-read...)  However, I'm optimistic about the rest of the series and certainly look forward to reading more about Peter Wimsey in years to come.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie and Jeeves do their best to help, and occasionally hinder, love-struck Bingo Little as he falls head over heels and back again. Honoria Glossop, Mabel the waitress, and gold-toothed revolutionary Charlotte Corday Rowbotham are just a few of the women to cast their spells over Bingo. Meanwhile Bertie must keep the quick-tempered, aspiring actor Bassington-Bassington from the stage at Aunt Agatha's fiery behest, deal with the energetic Claude and Eustace, and win on the girls' Egg and Spoon Race and money lost to the Great Sermon Handicap! Luckily, of course, there is Jeeves: intelligent, loyal, and capable of extricating Bertie from the tightest of tight spots.

My Reaction:
This is a shared read and a re-read. Donald and I have read this together once before-- though to be honest, most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories blur together in my memory, and I have trouble telling one from another. Fortunately, that doesn't matter. Neither repetitive plots and "motifs" nor re-readings can dull the luster of Wodehousian wit.

Rather than a true novel, this is a set of short stories; there's no long-arc plot to speak of, but each "episode" is enjoyable and cozily, comfortably easy to get into. There are even recurring characters (beyond Jeeves and Wooster themselves, who are of course in every story), which helps it feel like an almost-novel.

While this is probably not the very best Jeeves book (or the best introduction to the series of novels and short stories), it's undeniably a fun, happy read.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Potted and Pruned

Potted and Pruned: Living a Gardening Life
by Carol Michel

Carol Michel, author of the award-winning blog May Dreams Gardens, has penned a delightful book of gardening stories recounting her years speed weeding, scolding plants for their poor manners, experiencing the magic of a clover lawn, searching for elusive "rare in cultivation" plants, narrowly avoiding tussles in the garden center, formally evicting drought from her garden, and offering advice for those new to gardening. 
Is it possible to be utterly charming and wickedly funny at the same time? Yes, and avid gardeners will find themselves nodding along and laughing out loud as they turn the pages, recognizing their own quirks reflected back to them in Michel's words. Whether it's the chapter about the four phases of houseplant care or the gardener's unique interpretations of time, measurements, and quantities, one can't help but point and say, "That's me!" and then read a snippet or paragraph aloud to one's friend or significant other. 
Through 36 light-hearted essays, readers are treated to a glimpse behind the gate at May Dreams Gardens and the philosophies and musings of its caretaker. There's take-home wisdom for gardeners new and experienced between the pages.

My Reaction:
This isn't primarily a book of gardening advice and instruction (though there are some useful tips, here and there), but rather a friendly conversation from one gardener to another about the highs and lows of coaxing plants to grow where we want them. Anyone who gardens and spends a fair amount of time thinking, talking, or day-dreaming about gardening will recognize him- or herself in these essays. It's an inside joke. It's vegetable soup for the gardener's soul.

Certain essays appealed to me more than others, of course, and I wish the book had been longer-- but the good news is that if you enjoy these essays, the author has a gardening blog with a whole blog archive to read through.

Random Tidbits:
--"Now the idea of completely getting rid of the ditch lilies in my garden, as much of a nuisance as they are, seems to me like getting rid of a cherished family memory. So I keep them and contain them as best I can."

I think most of us who grow orange daylilies feel pretty much like that about them... They're more family mementos than plants!

--"The vegetable garden also tells stories of family gatherings where okra and eggplant picked that same day were then battered and fried and served at suppertime. When I'm out in my vegetable garden, I still hear the congenial arguments among my uncles about whether tomatoes should be sugared or salted."

--"I begin flinging mulch from one bed to another and hope by some miracle it will actually cause now full-grown weeds to wither and die while the plants I planted will flourish.  Since this is rarely the case, I drag out a variety of weeding tools and begin the battle."

...That sounds (all too) familiar!

--"However, every gardener knows or soon learns that stolen seeds, cuttings, or even plants will not grow in the thief's garden."

That's funny, because I've heard the exact opposite-- namely, that "stolen" seeds and cuttings grow best. It's probably related to the belief that you shouldn't say "thank you" when someone gives you a plant or a cutting, because if you do, the plant won't grow. That said, I wouldn't dream of stealing plants from a private garden-- or even taking cuttings without permission.  Plants that have clearly been abandoned or thrown away, on the other hand, seem like "fair game" (though of course it depends on the circumstances).

--"Then one day, it happens. Motivation disappears. It's hot. There are mosquitoes. Motivation doesn't like heat and mosquitoes. Motivation gets discouraged, too, because not everything turned out as we thought it would. Motivation likes pretty flowers, but runs and hides at the sight of weeds."

--"Every gardener, at some point, should learn when it is appropriate to scream in the garden and when it is better to cuss."

--This book taught me about the Pomodoro Technique (not sure I'll use it, but it's interesting).

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
by Laird Barron

Over the course of two award-winning collections and a critically acclaimed novel, The Croning, Laird Barron has arisen as one of the strongest and most original literary voices in modern horror and the dark fantastic. Melding supernatural horror with hardboiled noir, espionage, and a scientific backbone, Barron’s stories have garnered critical acclaim and have been reprinted in numerous year’s best anthologies and nominated for multiple awards, including the Crawford, International Horror Guild, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards. 
Barron returns with his third collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Collecting interlinking tales of sublime cosmic horror, including “Blackwood’s Baby”, “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven”, and “The Men from Porlock”, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All delivers enough spine-chilling horror to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

My Reaction:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge right away that I stopped reading after 70%, skimmed the next story ("Vastation"), and stopped even skimming after that. Technically, this is a DNF (did not finish).

I tend to think I'll enjoy short stories more than I actually do. Short stories simply don't (typically) offer the kind of character development and longer-arc story-telling that I like best, and they are frequently (unsatisfyingly) open-ended. There are exceptions, and I'm tempted by short story collections that sound promising-- but even when I enjoy them, I find them more work to read than a novel and requiring more motivation to finish. This collection was no exception.

Still, even as a person who wants to like short stories but often struggles with them, I can say something positive about these. First, I appreciate that at least I could more or less understand what was happening in (most of) them. (Parts of the first story were a little disorienting, though, and "Vastation" was definitely out there.) Sometimes it seems that short story writers take pride in being incomprehensible, laboring under the misconception that if the reader has any grasp of what is happening (much less why), it's a sign that the author lacks that ineffable something.

I also found more of these stories to have true conclusions than I've come to expect from modern short stories. Conclusions! A satisfying sense that the story has come to an intentional end rather than just keeling over in mid-stride! Amazing!

Actually, it's funny that I keep seeing reviewers complaining-- or maybe simply commenting-- that these stories lack cut-and-dried conclusions. Maybe I'm remembering incorrectly, but I have the impression that I knew basically where most of the stories/characters were headed, at the end.  (Not-quite-a-spoiler alert: Usually, death or a fate worse than.) In any case, that I at least felt there was a sense of conclusion was good enough for me, I guess!

Then there's the writing itself, which is skillful. It's not quite to my personal taste, but I'd say it's well-crafted (if rather self-conscious).

Now for the negatives. I've already admitted that I'm probably just not the ideal reader for most modern short stories. Well, that's not the only reason I found myself unwilling to keep reading. Unfortunately, I find this style of horror ineffective. I'm not sure whether it's more properly called "cosmic horror" or "the weird"-- or even "Lovecraftian horror"-- but it just doesn't usually work on me.  Some of "the weird" that I've come across (in my limited forays into the genre) have given me distinct moments of "The Creeps", but it's certainly not my go-to genre for all my spine-chilling, goosefleshing needs. At some point, I just find these stories of Infinite Weirdness... boring.

As others have noted, it's impossible to care what happens to most of these characters-- with the exception of "The Redfield Girls". However, unlikable, unsympathetic characters seem to be rather more common than not in this type of story. (Rather like those horror movies that apparently desire you to hate the characters so much that you won't mind seeing them finished off one by one.)

There was also a bit more gore than I like.  I can deal with some of it-- especially if it seems necessary for the story/book, but gross-out/body horror-- while it does gross me well and truly out-- is not what I'm looking for in horror. I'm that weirdo who finds all the gratuitously grody zombie close-ups/zombo-cameos in The Walking Dead uninteresting, if not outright annoying.  ("Look, we get it: Zombies be decomposin'. Now, can we get back to the survival story?!") These stories aren't even that extreme, in the realm of gross horror, but it was gross enough often enough that I noticed I was skimming to sidestep the blood and guts.  Blugh.

...So, anyway... If you love cosmic horror, you should give these stories a try. If you're left cold by the unknowable Blah-Blah-Blah drifting in from some dark corner of the universe (like some sort of scary, gargantuan, blood-feasting jellyfish), maybe it's not worth the effort.

I see that many reviewers particularly enjoyed the last two stories, which I skipped, so I may go back and read them, if/when the mood returns. However, unless there's something unexpected in those last two tales, whatever it is that inspires such adulation from this author's many fans will remain a mystery to me!

I'm rounding up to a 3, but really, this is more of a 2.5 for me.

Monday, September 4, 2017


by Georgette Heyer

(Edited) Blurb:
Daughter of a modest country clergyman, Arabella Tallant is on her way to London when her carriage breaks down outside the hunting lodge of the wealthy Mr. Robert Beaumaris. Her pride stung when she overhears a remark of her host's, Arabella pretends to be an heiress, a pretense that deeply amuses the jaded Nonpareil. To counter her white lie, Beaumaris launches her into high society and thereby subjects her to all kinds of fortune hunters and other embarrassments-- but it may turn out that the joke is on him...

My Reaction:
I do believe this is my favorite of the Heyer Regency romances I've read, so far! I enjoyed it immensely and would wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of clean, witty historical romance.

The romantic leads are charming together-- and they are together on page after page, which is so much more entertaining than those romances where the hero and heroine seem to barely see one another, much less converse!

Another positive is that the cast of characters includes a cute mutt. (If it weren't already a five-star read, an extra star would be merited, just on the basis of the dog.) Though there is a slightly less interesting section where we follow the heroine's brother's doings a little too closely for my liking, at least it's relevant to the story-- not as potentially annoying as the rambunctious much-younger brothers that sometimes crop up in Heyer's romances.

What more is there to say?  This is a light, happy, delightful read that demonstrates just how good the genre can be, in the hands of a talented author.

Specific Tidbits:
One of the joys of Heyer's Regency novels is puzzling over the amusing, sometimes obscure slang/language of the period.  (Someone who reads more "Regencies" than I do may not be as dumbfounded as I sometimes am!)

Here follows a sampling from Arabella:
-- cestus  (an ancient battle glove-- though in the book, it was an ornament/item of jewelry)
-- Job's comforter (one who aggravates distress under the guise of giving comfort)
-- mumchance (not speaking/unable to speak)
-- loo-mask (half-mask worn during 18th-century masquerades)
-- tiffany (thin, transparent gauze of silk or cotton muslin)
-- lustring sack (an item of clothing more easily image-searched than described)
-- Paphians (...prostitutes?)
-- honey-fall (an unexpected piece of good luck)
-- gull-groper (a money-lender)
-- the Florida Gardens (Cromwell's gardens?-- I just thought they sounded interesting...)
-- Pandean pipes (pan flute)
-- Blue Ruin (gin of inferior quality)

The whole conversation between Arabella and Mr. Scunthorpe (regarding Bertram's whereabouts) is hilarious and filled with slang-fueled misunderstanding.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Death in Berlin

Death in Berlin
by M.M. Kaye

Miranda Brand is visiting Germany for what is supposed to be a month's vacation. But from the moment that Brigadier Brindley relates the story about a fortune in lost diamonds--  a story in which Miranda herself figures in an unusual way--  the vacation atmosphere becomes transformed into something more ominous. And when murder strikes on the night train to Berlin, Miranda finds herself unwillingly involved in a complex chain of events that will soon throw her own life into peril. Set against a background of war-scarred Berlin in the early 1950s, M. M. Kaye's Death in Berlin is a consummate mystery from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

My Reaction:
While it was not without fault, I enjoyed reading Death in Berlin.  This was my second read from the "Death in..."series, the first being Death in Kashmir, and though it seems that most reviewers prefer Kashmir, I think I found Berlin more interesting, for some reason.  (That may be due to something as simple-- yet elusive-- as "the right book at the right time".)

Based on what I've read so far (and comments from other readers), Kaye has a formula for her mysteries, and she sticks to it.  Murder(s) and suspense in a foreign (usually exotic) setting.  Very young Englishwoman on holiday.  Handsome man (often in position of authority/law enforcement) comes along/works the murder case, and the two fall in love along the way-- but with as little fuss and romance as possible.  This book was no different, though post-WWII Germany is less exotic than her typical choice of setting.

So, formulaic?  YES-- spelled out in flashing red light.  Still enjoyable?  Again, yes.

It seems that many found this a plodding read, but I thought it moved along at a decent clip.  However, I do agree that some of the characters could've been better defined and developed.  It took a while for me to differentiate between the Leslies and the Merediths (I think that was the name...), for instance.

The mystery kept me guessing through most of the book, and even though the romance element of these mysteries is always usually somewhat disappointing, at least I actually liked the male lead, this time-- much more appealing than the hero in Kashmir.  Miranda herself, I didn't particularly care for in the beginning-- a bit too young and fresh, perhaps-- but by the end of the book, she was fine.  Unobjectionable, at least.

All in all, a pleasant read for the genre.

Random Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--I appreciated the "cool, calm, and collected" Simon.  The romance did move at break-neck speed-- jumping from a few significant looks and a soft gesture of affection to a proposal in the blink of an eye-- but at least Simon was likable.

--Part of the reason I didn't love Miranda at first is probably the gratuitous physical comparisons between herself and the older Stella.  Did these authors think that their audience was made up of only the very youngest women-- or did they think that a thirty- or forty-something lady would like reading such comparisons?  Maybe I was just feeling particularly sensitive about my age when I read the first chapters...

--Subsequent revelations explain most of it away, but Miranda's early reflections on Mademoiselle are so uncharitable that Miranda herself comes across as an unsympathetic character, for a while.

--Ah, one of my pet peeves!  "'It's me,' said Miranda with a fine disregard for grammar."  Mm-hmm, yes, dear.  We know you know your grammar.  Very well done!  Have a cookie.

--"...Sally, whose reading seemed to be entirely of the escapist variety..."  A bit catty, Miranda.  And especially amusing considering what kind of book this is!  You wouldn't be judging your own readers, would you, Ms. Kaye?  How much of my reading is "allowed" to be escapist fluff before I'm relegated to the bubble-head class of woman?  Book snobbery!! ;o)

--It does seem a little bit of a stretch that Stella would be so willing to kill Miranda-- and it's always hard to believe when a character has seemed mostly normal and been able to hide their insanity and/or wickedness successfully for so many years.  However, it seems a necessary evil for this type of book.  There's not much of a mystery if characters behave normally or aren't good at hiding their true nature.

--I'm seeing another trend in the "Death in..." books I've read so far...  If I remember that when I start the next one, I'll be particularly suspicious of the protagonist's good friends.

--"I think I'll get some knitting.  It's a nice, soothing occupation."  Yes, there is something infinitely soothing about simple knitting or crochet!

Half Way Home

Half Way Home
by Hugh Howey

Five hundred of us were sent to colonize this planet. Only fifty or so survived.

We woke up fifteen years too early, we had only half our training, and they expected us to not only survive... They expected us to conquer this place.

The problem is: it isn't safe here.

We aren't even safe from each other.

My Reaction:
(This was a DNF-- Did Not Finish.  First, I tried this as a shared read with Donald, selected on a whim because it was a temporary freebie.  We got bored and abandoned it, but I decided to continue on my own, thinking it might be better suited for reading alone.  I didn't get very far before giving up in disgust and skimming the last two chapters.)

The premise was promising, and it started out pretty well, but before long it felt as though the author stepped aside and let someone else pick up where he'd left off.  The quality of the writing went downhill, and I was endlessly irritated by the author's sledgehammer-weight "social issues" overtones.  Prepare for a heavy-handed message of "religion is bad/dangerous (and believers are insufferable and stupid)".  Oh, and you'll thrill to the totally-not-done-to-death cliche of the evil corporations that care about nothing but profit.  There's also a very odd focus on a character's sexuality (see spoiler section below).  That's not really what I expect (or want) to be the focus of a book that's ostensibly a sci-fi tale of survival in a hostile environment!

Amusingly (?), there's also a bit toward the end that is rather scathingly anti-abortion (see section below for direct quote), which I imagine would displease many of the same readers who thoroughly enjoyed the other "messages" in the book... Sure, in this book the ones being aborted are 15-year-olds-- so obviously it's wrong-wrong-wrong-- but we mustn't have the word "abortion" being sullied by association.  Didn't the author get the memo that it's not cool to question the morality of abortion?

I didn't realize this was supposed to be YA literature until after I'd started reading it-- and to be honest, I probably wouldn't have chosen it, if I'd known.  Some YA lit is great, but there's just so much dross to wade through to find the good ones-- unless you have a reliable recommendation to steer you aright.  (Of course, that's not true for just YA...)

I enjoyed the author's Wool series (though even those I felt were uneven in quality-- strong in premise, somewhat weaker in execution), but this was not nearly as interesting (beyond the "intro" section).  When I read his novella, The Hurricane, I had a similar sense of disappointment-- though that at least I managed to finish reading.  (That, too, was written for a YA audience; make of that what you will.)  Too bad... I wouldn't recommend this.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--The narrator is homosexual, and in the first quarter of the book that I read before skipping to the end, he seemed to struggle to come to terms with this fact.  It just kept cropping up, which felt weird and uncomfortable-- and frankly, completely out of place, given what I thought the focus of the book was going to be (i.e. a fight for survival on an alien planet).

Then, to make things even stranger, it's revealed at the end of the book that all the psychologists for the various colonization groups have been carefully selected to be homosexual (because apparently it's as easy as looking for some handy dandy gay gene).  Each psychologist is the only gay colonist in his/her group.  Since they won't be able to have a romantic relationship with another colonist, these psychologists will be completely impartial and clear-eyed (or something).  Enforced celibacy/monkhood.  Um, okay...  Yeah, it's not like people can form platonic bonds strong enough to make them emotionally involved, biased, or whatever else.

--"Note the pit in the earth where Geiger counters register the death of five hundred potential humans.  And know that you killed more than just them in your ruthless calculations.  You killed every generation that may have come after, if only you'd given them a chance."

If this sentiment is true when applied to 15-year-old colonists-in-goo, why isn't it true when applied to a fetus/unborn child?  Believe what you will.  Speak and vote for what you want-- but be honest with yourself about the results of what you're advocating.  (No wonder some readers get in a twist over this aspect of the book!)

--One review I've skimmed indicates that there are caterpillar-type creatures with golden poop.  As in, their "droppings" are literally made of gold.  (insert blank expression here)  If that's true... I no longer feel the slightest twinge of regret for giving this a one-star rating.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


by J.B. Priestley

(Edited) Blurb:
Philip and Margaret Waverton and their friend Roger Penderel are driving through the mountains of Wales when a torrential downpour washes away the road and forces them to seek shelter for the night. They take refuge in an ancient, crumbling mansion inhabited by the strange and sinister Femm family and their brutish servant Morgan.
Determined to make the best of the circumstances, the benighted travellers drink, talk, and play games to pass the time while the storm rages outside. But as the night progresses and tensions rise, dangerous and unexpected secrets emerge. 
Which is more deadly: the apocalyptic storm outside the house or the unknown horrors that await within? And will any of them survive the night?

My Reaction:
Benighted is quite well-written and timeless in many ways.  It tends toward philosophy, psychology, and introspection more than I was expecting, and as a result, it is also relatively slow-moving, though it's such a short novel, that's less of an issue than it might have been.  Sometimes characters act in maddening ways-- repeatedly splitting up, for instance.  (There's one example of this that I found particularly annoying, but it's a major spoiler, so I'll put that behind a spoiler warning, further down the page.)

Much of the novel is atmospheric, mysterious, and otherworldly-- but when the chief "menace" is revealed, I found it something of a let-down.  I'm not sure what else it could/should have been, instead, but nevertheless, I was slightly disappointed.

Overall, this is a more serious, nuanced book than you often find in the genre and period.  Recommended for fans of mysterious light horror with a psychological bent.  I'd probably give this 3.5 stars, but since half-stars aren't available, I'm rounding up to four.

--The way the men sometimes try to protect the women may ruffle some modern feathers.  I personally find it very irritating when Penderel locks the two women into another room.  Of course I realize that he's trying to save them-- and maybe he does protect them by doing so-- but they're grown women.  Surely they should have as much right as men would to decide for themselves what they want to do.

Also, one of my pet peeves is when characters act as though a woman (or even a child, for that matter!) can't contribute to the fight against the Bad Guy.  Two strong, healthy young women could probably have helped Penderel fight Saul-- cracked him over the head with something, while the two were struggling-- something!  Penderel might not have died, if he'd just let the women help him.  That type of thing frustrates me to no end!

Oh, and since the chief danger from Saul was that he might set fire to the house, what if Penderel hadn't been able to stop Saul?  I guess he assumed that by that time the two other men would come along and stop him, but if it hadn't worked out, the women would've been locked in that room, doomed to burn to death.  (And that's why you don't lock the women into a room while you face the Bad Guy all by yourself!)

--Though there was definite foreshadowing, the ending came as something of a surprise to me.  It was certainly more somber than I was expecting.  The whole book was grimmer than I would ever have guessed.

--This isn't technically a spoiler, but I'll tack it here at the end, anyway.  I adore the original cover art-- the black and white depiction of a house looming in a rainstorm.  It's so evocative-- so beautifully simple and effective.  The font choice, too.  Very representative of the art of its time.  (So much nicer than modern stuff, to be completely honest.)  Actually, I like the cover better than the book itself.  Five diamond-studded stars.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Naomi's Room

Naomi's Room
by Jonathan Aycliffe

Charles and Laura are a young, happily married couple inhabiting the privileged world of Cambridge academia. Brimming with excitement, Charles sets off with his daughter Naomi on a Christmas Eve shopping trip to London. But, by the end of the day, all Charles and his wife have left are cups of tea and police sympathy. For Naomi, their beautiful, angelic only child, has disappeared. Days later her murdered body is discovered.
But is she dead?
In a howling, bumping story of past and present day hell, Jonathan Aycliffe's haunting psychological masterpiece is guaranteed to make you sink to untold depths of teeth-shaking terror.

My Reaction:  
I have come to the conclusion that I am a picky reader.  I make what are probably unreasonable demands of authors.  Reading this book reminded me of one of those tightropes I expect a good author to walk.

I've complained (more than once) that so much ghostly horror doesn't even try to explain itself-- and when there are "explanations", they are often disappointingly weak and thin.  Usually, this leaves me unsatisfied with a book-- but now I'm about to complain that this book provides too much explanation!  Impossible to please.  I guess I want something to go on-- to feel that I more or less know what the author intended-- but not a too-clearly spelled-out and delineated specter.

The first half of the book is wonderfully atmospheric and creepy-- full of promise.  Then the narrator finds a diary, and things start to go downhill...  Evidently it is possible to simultaneously go into too much explicit detail and yet leave one or two of the biggest questions unanswered.

Ah well, despite shortcomings, I "enjoyed" reading this, if you can say you enjoyed something that made you shudder, squirm, and occasionally feel guilty that you were even reading it...

If you don't mind a slight pall of depression and darkness hanging around after you turn the last page, give it a try!  Aycliffe is still one of the best modern authors of atmospheric horror I've yet come across-- though I believe this book has more graphic violence than any of his other novels I've read so far.

Recommended for fans of ghost stories that blend psychological and physical horror-- but you may want to give it a pass if you're particularly sensitive to violence against children in works of fiction.

Specific Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
--Liddley's "origin" leaves me scratching my head and thinking, "Is that all?  Dude needed to get over himself..."  We're probably supposed to find it especially awful that Liddley started out as just an ordinary man-- even a good man who wanted to spare his patients unnecessary suffering.  That a good man could end up being so evil is frightening, of course, but I find it difficult to believe (in a ghost story, where above all else one demands plausibility, darnit!)-- particularly when the things that drove him to it seem so... insignificant and ordinary.  He didn't love his wife, then felt betrayed by his mistress?  Well, boo-hoo and cry me a river.  I guess we're supposed to be appeased by the convenient explanation that he had dabbled too far into the arcane (plus he contracted syphilis and may have been driven mad by that-- though I think insanity doesn't manifest for years)... Maybe I just don't like the idea that a good person could go so bad-- not just everyday kinds of bad, but beyond the pale.

--The cover I've linked for this book is awful.  It has nothing to do with the book at all-- except maybe the watching eyes...  Who is that woman supposed to be?  It's not Naomi, obviously.  It looks nothing like the description of the narrator's wife, either.  And those eyes, while somewhat more related to the novel, are hilariously close-set!  (This author has at least one other mass market cover in a similar style, with similarly close-set eyes behind a woman with no relationship to the story.)  Embarrassingly bad!

--"The act of forgetting has itself become the trigger for memory.  Some things are like that, they lodge in your mind for ever.  Trying to forget just makes it worse."

--"...I harboured a belief in an essential current of goodness running through things, I saw a shape, a pattern to the whole, even if life in its particulars seemed at times shapeless or inchoate, even if children died in pain.  It was, I suppose, a religious sense of the world, though I did not formulate it in theological terms.  A sterner theology, a dogma, might have seen me through what happened.  But my innocence was not made of such iron stuff, nor so well defended.  It was half-formulated, lax, too much in tune with the time and too little with the experience of generations."

--The idea of law enforcement officers who work on the case dying mysteriously (murdered, coming down with serious illness) after coming into such close contact with the affected family-- it's familiar, to the point that I think the author might've used the same device in one of his other books.  (Not that it's unheard-of in other works, of course.  I can think of several other examples, off the top of my head-- such as in The Grudge)  I find this especially eerie.  Someone just doing his job happens to get this assignment, and then he's somehow cursed.  (Creeeeeeepy!)

--The title of the book is a bit of a stretch-- not the title I would've chosen.  It's explained near the end (Naomi's "new room" is the attic torture chamber, where she says she's allowed to play any time she likes), but it's weak and misleading.  Obviously, the reader expects there to be some special significance to Naomi's original bedroom-- and I can't see that there's any point in that little deception.

--The last bit of the book is reminiscent of The Shining-- the movie, not the book, which I've never read.  The loving family man "possessed", turned into a violent, sadistic monster who turns on those he's meant to protect.

--"They will fit into my old trunk, the one I bought when I was an undergraduate.  I never thought then that I would have such a use for it."

--The next candidate, the prospective buyer, a "medical man" (like Liddley was) is a Galsworthy-- an old family for the area.  Liddley's wife's maiden name was Galsworthy.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Shivering Sands

The Shivering Sands
by Victoria Holt

Ancient ruins. Family scandal. Forbidden love.
Caroline knows something is wrong. Her sister Roma has gone missing, and no one can tell her why. The only option is to go where Roma was last seen—an estate with a deadly history...
The Stacy family has lived off the Dover coast for generations, carefully navigating the treacherous quicksands nearby. But the sands aren't Caroline's biggest threat. Everyone here has a secret, especially enigmatic young heir Napier Stacy. No matter where Caroline turns, the ground she walks is dangerous. And the closer she comes to unraveling the truth, the closer she comes to sharing her sister's fate...

My Reaction: 
I have a certain fondness for gothic novels, though sadly there are a great many unsatisfying and/or ridiculous books in that genre.  I suppose I'll keep muddling through them, lured on by the hope that the next one will be better than the last.

As these novels go, this one seems about average.  Not remotely literary, but perfectly readable, it's peopled with strange characters who have mysterious pasts and behave in suspicious ways (and have frustratingly repetitive conversations).  The heroine isn't a complete idiot, yet neither is she particularly astute.  The romance, unfortunately, is just blah-- an unappealing love interest and no perceptible chemistry-- but I've come to almost expect that of gothic romances/thrillers.  Rarely is the romance up to snuff.  As for the mystery, you'll probably have it figured out by the end, if you're paying attention and "playing along at home".  Add to the mix a hefty dollop of implausibility and a sprinkling of melodrama-- and there you have it!

None of the parts are remarkable (or remarkably palatable), but taken altogether, they combine to make a pulpy gothic mystery-romance-thriller that can be enjoyable, if read in the right frame of mind, under the right circumstances.  (Under the hunter's moon, when the flowers of the rare Baloola tree are in bloom and the wind is in the east...)  I thought it was... okay.

I keep wishing I liked Victoria Holt's novels better, because she wrote so many...  Some of them I've actively disliked; others are okayish-- but I've yet to read one that I absolutely loved.  They're passable, but there's just a spark of magic that's missing.  If I remember, the next one I'll try will be The India Fan, due to favorable reviews.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--It was the title that lured me, as I have always been fascinated by the idea of quicksand.  The fact that it is the title is a blatant clue to the solution of a couple of the mysteries (though there's a twist).

--The setting is Victorian England-- for some reason I want to say it's around the 1880s-- but there are anachronisms/improbabilities galore (imho). Examples below:

* It wouldn't have been likely that a woman would have pursued a career in music, yet we have Caroline and Napier's mother who have apparently given up chances at brilliant careers as pianists.  Then there's Roma's career as an archaeologist.  One or two such trail-blazing woman would've been enough for one novel.  Three is just silly.

* Characters use phrases that don't seem correct for the time period.

* Mrs. Lincroft has the girls (most of whose ages are never definitively stated-- somewhere between 12/13 and 16) reading Jane Eyre as a school assignment.  Jane Eyre was written for an adult audience.  Unless I'm seriously mistaken, in Victorian times, JE (though a bestseller) would've been considered far too mature and scandalous-- even immoral-- for teen girls to read.  If the setting is the 1880s, things might have settled down a bit since its publication in 1847, but I still doubt that it would've been deemed fitting reading material for impressionable young ladies.  Too much passion, too many unsettling ideas about the equality of the classes and the sexes.  It might have been read on the sly, but I hardly think it likely that a housekeeper acting as a temporary teacher/governess would have made it assigned reading.

* Admittedly, Allegra is supposed to be a handful, but a young lady of the time wouldn't have been allowed to discuss things like illegitimacy so openly.

* Ah, another unlikely "career"-- "Alice says she wants to write stories like Wilkie Collins. ... She could be an actress, too."  Writing novels for publication wasn't something a young woman was likely to do, at the time, and acting... If I'm not mistaken, it was very rare for respectable women to be professional actresses during the Victorian period.  Not to say it never happened, but it wouldn't have been encouraged.

* One of the girls speculates that Edith may have run away to London to be a governess.  Keep in mind that Edith is pregnant when she disappears.  I think it was very rare that employers would want to hire a pregnant young woman to work in their home-- particularly as a governess!  (What a fantasy world!)

--"Did I think one could dismiss the Muse and then summon her back when one felt like seeing her again?  How right he was.  I had had my chance, thrown it away and now would never be anything but a competent pianist."

Maybe it's because I'm not an artistic genius, but straight-faced references to a "muse" (particularly a capitalized "Muse"!) induce strenuous eye-rolling.  Besides, I think it's nonsense that a truly gifted musician (or any type of artist) can so easily throw away their "chance".  Will you get rusty if you stop practicing and learning?  Sure, but what's to stop you from getting it back, if you make a serious, concerted effort?  It might be more difficult to get going again than if you hadn't stopped, because you've lost momentum, but that's true for everything and everyone in life-- not just the tortured "artistes".

--Caroline rationalizes that locals wouldn't have noticed her among all the archaeologists who'd been around during the dig, but I still think it's very unlikely that only one person (the lady with the little shop) would have recognized her when she returned-- especially since, when she does return, the vicar's wife makes such to-do over how small the village is and what an excitement it is when someone new comes along.  It's a little thing, maybe, but it kept nagging at me as I read.

--Alice is a great example of those characters who, by the end of the book, are proven to be totally bonkers (insisting she was "a sort of a goddess"?), yet somehow manage to fool everyone by seeming completely normal up until the very end.  Of course, when you live in Lovat Stacy, where practically every other character seems suspicious or downright oddball, appearing completely normal is its own kind of red flag...!  It doesn't seem realistic that the other girls would've been too cowed to say something to someone, but whatever.  I guess that sort of thing does happen, but it's frustrating to read about, because it's just so darn stupid.

--Sybil Stacy is a creepy character who gave me strong flashbacks to Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole book.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Winding Stair

The Winding Stair
by Jane Aiken Hodge

When the invitation came, Juana Brett was delighted. A chance to escape from the grey darkness of England. A chance to visit her happy childhood home at the Castle of the Rock, and above all the opportunity to escape the petty tyranny of her stepmother and reconnect with other family members. However, her visit to Portugal became unexpectedly dangerous-- and unexpectedly romantic...

My Reaction:
Despite a tedious start (the part set in England, which I found dull), the bulk of this novel was enjoyable.  The pace picks up a bit once the heroine relocates to Portugal, and though I'd have thought the subject (Portugal during the Napoleonic wars) unlikely to enthrall me, the historical/political aspects were handled more deftly than expected.  I wound up liking the book much more than I'd have thought, judging only from the first few pages.

If I have any complaint, it would be that my interest flagged, ever so slightly, once the romance was more or less "settled", though there was still a good deal of story to go.  Also, I was rather disappointed that we never got a fuller explanation of one character in particular (see spoiler section below).

For an old-fashioned historical romance/gothic suspense, I found this pretty good.  Don't expect brilliance or mold-breaking-- and you just might learn a thing or two about the history of Portugal (especially if, like me, you go in with an appalling ignorance of the country).

If half-stars were possible, I'd give this 3.5, but I'm unwilling to round up, this time.

Specifics with SPOILERS:
--The misogyny of the Sons of the Star was so over the top!  Combined with the clunky ceremonial flourishes, it made them seem ridiculous.  Still deadly, of course, but also just silly.

--If the Sons of the Star as a group are ridiculously anti-woman, Vasco is even more cartoonish.  It's one thing for a powerful (and egomaniacal) man of the past to think women are of inferior understanding and ability-- that I can readily believe-- but Vasco takes it to such an insane level-- far beyond the slightly amused (albeit infuriating) indifference you might expect from someone whose views have never been challenged.

His lack of respect for women is coupled with an apparent physical abhorrence for women.  It's not just Juana whom he finds repellent; he seems to have a pathological disgust of all women: "We'll need a pompous wedding ... and an heir, of course, or, better still, a couple of brats, but after that... Well, you know what I think-- what we all think of women, Brothers."  Yeah, it's safe to say that Vasco has Issues...

Strange that Vasco was able to mask his disgust for Juana until he had abducted her...  Prior to the abduction, though she knew she didn't love him, she was still affected by his rather violent embraces to the point that she seriously considered the possibility of marrying him.  Afterwards, he's still playing the role of a besotted lover, but for some reason it's no longer effective.  I guess we're meant to chalk it up to Juana's inexperience with men-- but his abrupt inability to play the obsessed suitor is weak.  He's the consummate actor until he's suddenly not.

--The author tantalizes the reader with the mystery surrounding Aunt Elvira.  First, what happened to her?  Second, though she usually seems slightly mad (or at least very eccentric), she has moments of clarity that lead one to question whether the madness is an act.  I was certain there was more to her backstory that would be revealed in the end, but that all came to nothing.  A bit disappointing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall
by Elizabeth Hand

When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to work on their second album, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.
Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?

My Reaction:
This novella is strong on atmosphere, but a little weak on story-- particularly when it comes time for a conclusion.  That seems to be a common trait for "these kinds of stories", and it's something I can overlook, to some degree-- but the ending left me more confused than satisfyingly chilled.

The atmosphere and a few creepy-crawly moments might merit four stars.  The ending was disappointingly inconclusive, though, so it ends up at three stars.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Some reviewers don't like the long-after-the-fact interview format.  It does take away some of the suspense, since you know that the interviewees will all survive their time at Wylding Hall, but it was still pretty tense at the right moments.  There were times when I didn't really need to have the same information repeated by the different characters, though I must grudgingly admit that it lends a certain verisimilitude to the interview format/framework.

--Two or three of the male characters seemed to blend together for me.  I eventually could keep Jonno separate, but Will and Ashton might just as well have been blended into one character, as far as I was concerned.  One of them (Ashton) is supposed to be the skeptic of the group, I guess, but neither of them were distinct enough.  That's a quibble, though.  Most of the other characters were easy to keep straight.

--This book introduced me to the "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance".  Amazing that such a bizarre custom could survive all these hundreds of years!  The power of tradition!

--There are a handful of creepy incidents scattered through the book, but I never felt that they came together satisfactorily.  Sadly, there was no moment of even semi-revelation.  The closest we get to it is Will saying this: "The photos I saw in the pub-- the hunting of the wren-- the song Julian unearthed and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet... It all adds up, doesn't it?"

...Um, no, actually.  It doesn't add up for me, at least.  Maybe I'm being dense, but-- huh?  I'd appreciate a little more to go on, here.  Is the girl the embodiment of the wrens the village hunt?  Or are the hunted wrens some type of sacrifice to keep her at bay?

Much was made of Julian's dabbling in "magick" and his obsession with different kinds of time.  His odd watch is finally found in a place where it shouldn't possibly have been able to be-- and one of his friends sees Julian and "the girl", years later, in another country, looking as though he hasn't aged a day since his disappearance.  Spooky... But what does it mean?  How does it fit in with the weird ghost/fairy-girl and the wrens?  Did he finally figure out a way to stop time or switch into a different time mode?

Did Julian somehow conjure the girl out of hiding-- intentionally or not?  She's clearly drawn to him-- both when she practically throws herself at him in the pub and when she zooms up to him in the photo shoot.  Is the girl the one responsible for the strange things that happened at Wylding Hall (such as doors that mysteriously lock and unlock on their own, never-ending hallways, etc.)?  And what in the world is the story behind the pile of wrens with missing beaks?!  (Let me guess.  The village-caught wrens are sacrifices to keep her away, and the beak is her favorite part?  Ok, only joking, but seriously-- what does it meeeaaannn?)

All those creepy, spooky, eerie moments are so thinly connected that I can't quite see what's intended.  It may all add up for some readers, but apparently my trusty spookulator is out of order, because I can't seem to crunch these numbers.

This was an enjoyable, quick read, even if I can't do the calculus.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Miss Buncle Married

Miss Buncle Married
by D.E. Stevenson

In this charming follow-up to Miss Buncle's Book, readers will follow Barbara Buncle's journey into married life in a new town filled with fascinating neighbors...who may become the subjects of Barbara's next novel! Miss Buncle may have settled down, but she's already discovered that married life has done nothing to prevent her from getting into humorous mix-ups and hilarious hijinx. Readers will continue to fall in love with Barbara as she hilariously navigates an exciting new beginning.

My Reaction (with SPOILERS):
Though the first book in this series, Miss Buncle's Book, was not remotely scintillating, I enjoyed it enough to give four out of five stars.  It was an overall pleasant reading experience.  Unfortunately, this sequel merits something more like 2.5 stars (though I may round up to 3).

The problem is that it simply doesn't feel fully developed.  The characters don't captivate, the plot (what little of it there is) drags its feet, and too much of the supposed humor falls flat.

There are a few bright spots.  For some reason, I loved the part about finding and fixing up the house, though I'm sure that was a dull section for many.  The neighbor's children were probably the most readable characters in the book-- more readable than Barbara herself, for that matter.  They were usually rather annoying, but at least they were interesting!

Sadly, those few bright spots couldn't hope to illuminate the whole novel, and I was glad to reach the last page.


The last few pages particularly irked me.  I could sense that particular plot development coming, though I hoped I'd be proven wrong.  As another reviewer has put it, the author solves the problem of Barbara's books agitating her neighbors by having her not write any more books.  ...Okay-- except, she also wants us to believe that Barbara apparently loves writing her books, so it's not exactly a satisfying conclusion.

Actually, I thought I remembered from the first book that Barbara writes out of necessity rather than a love of the craft.  She certainly starts writing her first book merely as a way to make some much-needed money.  However, in this book, she waxes poetic (by Barbara's standards) on the incomparable thrill of the creative hunt-- only to decide by the end of the book that she's done with writing.  Because she's pregnant, which apparently means that she'll be too busy to write ever again for as long as she lives.

Why try to make us believe that Barbara finds some exquisite joy in her writing, only to have her give it up by the end of the book?  That's just sad.  Women can have children and still write-- even if they may take breaks during the busiest years.  The author herself did so!  I get the impression that Stevenson simply couldn't come up with a cogent solution to Barbara's problem (her lack of imagination and her inability to write a book without alienating the entire community), so she stuck us with a lame excuse.

Even more aggravating are Barbara's thoughts on marriage and pregnancy...

""I'm going to do something much, much cleverer,' she repeated.  'Anybody could write a book.  I'm going to have a baby.'"  (Some might argue it's the other way 'round, Barb... After all, far more people have babies than write books!)

"She looked back and saw the faults and failings in that ignorant, gauche spinster, Barbara Buncle, and felt her superiority in seeing them so clearly.  She looked back, smugly and patronizingly, upon her virgin self.  She was now one of the vast regiment of Married Women, no longer barred from their councils by the stigma of virginity."  (...Ugh.  How perfectly obnoxious.)

"...a small young creature which would be utterly and absolutely dependent upon her, a new human being to cherish and control."  (Control?  ...Oh-kaaaaay....)

Anyway, I'm glad to be done, and at this point, I don't know if I'll ever feel like reading the next book in the series.  ...Probably not; based on reviews, I doubt it would be an enjoyable experience.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Provincial Lady in Wartime

The Provincial Lady in Wartime
by E.M. Delafield

My Blurb:
In this, the final of the Provincial Lady's amusing diary-format publications, England has just entered World War II.  Popular topics of discussion include gas masks, evacuees from London, fuel rationing, blackout, and speculations as to how long the war might last.  The Provincial Lady is keen to contribute to the war effort, but the best she can do for the moment is volunteer for Canteen service... (Covers only the period of the Phoney War and was published in 1940.)

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read-aloud.)

Though I am fond of the Provincial Lady, I'd recommend this primarily for two groups of readers-- serious P.L. fans/completists and those interested in firsthand accounts of the English home front during the early part of WWII.  It's about on par with The Provincial Lady in America, with neither being as good as the first two books in the series.  There's a good deal of repetition, and nothing much happens.  It has its amusing moments, but they seem fewer than I remember from the first book or two.

That said, from a historical point of view, it's fascinating to get a "real-time" glimpse into what people were thinking, saying, and doing during the first few months of WWII, when they were essentially marking time, waiting for the war to begin in earnest.  Obviously, they had no way of knowing what the future held-- something that is easy to gloss over when reading a traditional, textbook history, always aware of the eventual outcome.  Though the book keeps a fairly light, humorous tone, the P.L. and her friends and family must have been under a terrible burden of stress and worry.  (I was saddened to learn from another person's review that the author's life took a tragic turn not long after this was published; she lost her son, was taken ill, and didn't live to see the end of the war.)

So-- This was well worth reading, but I imagine that if I ever feel like a re-read, I'll content myself with the first two!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I Let You Go

I Let You Go
by Clare Mackintosh


In a split second, Jenna Gray's world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating . . .

My Reaction:
After reading the author's second book (I See You), I kept reading reviews that compared it to this one, and most were to the effect that I Let You Go was much better.  I'd probably agree that the first novel is the stronger of the two, but I didn't see that much of a disparity between them.  I Let You Go is more serious/less potboilery, but I didn't enjoy it more than I See You.  If anything, I had a harder time working my way through it and was happier to reach its end.  

The afterword reveals the author's very personal connection to certain components of her novel, which makes me feel a little guilty for my reaction to it-- but ultimately, it doesn't change the fact that for me, this was a only a three-star novel.  It's readable, but I didn't enjoy the reading... I found it cliched and (for the most part) depressing.  

As for the "twists"... 
SPOILERS follow!

Something was clearly being held back about Jenna, but I didn't guess that she was in the car, so I count that as a successful twist.  

I was significantly less impressed by the second twist-- that Ian was Jacob's father.  Too far-fetched.  Just silly, really.  

As for the weird last few lines of the novel, where we are given wiggle-room to speculate that Ian somehow (impossibly) survived his fall from the cliff and was stalking Jenna again... Grant me permission to roll my eyes?  In some books, that type of cheesy ending is fine-- expected, even-- but for a book that has been more or less realistic and serious, it didn't fit in at all.  If the intention was only to illustrate that Jenna still bears the psychological scars of her abusive relationship and will always be looking over her shoulder-- well, ok, but it should've been handled differently, I think.  

Getting back to the bulk of the novel, I sometimes ran out of patience with both of our main characters.  

First, Ray.  He's a likable-enough guy, but were his personal dramas (constant friction with his wife and son, pressure to get a promotion, temptation to dally with a pretty co-worker) really necessary to the novel?  I mean, there were times when his parts of the book were more interesting than Jenna's, but he was also just a little too clueless for a detective.  (And his name.  Ray Stevens.  Really?)   

As for Jenna... For the last quarter or more of the book, she filled me with frustration.  I realize that many abused women behave in ways that seem inexplicable to those who haven't been through that type of treatment, but that doesn't make it easier to understand or empathize with.  Her unwillingness to tell the police that it was her awful, abusive husband who was behind the wheel during the hit and run... I just can't wrap my mind around that.  It doesn't make sense, and I can't believe an otherwise intelligent woman would be that brainwashed, even though I know it probably does happen.  (But... even to that extent?  It still beggars belief.)  

Speaking of Jenna's abuse, I understand that we "needed" to see how abhorrent Ian was, but at some point he became a caricature of the Abusive Bad Guy.  He was so exaggerated that he didn't seem real.  (Maybe I'm just naive.)

Oh, and what kind of police detectives would send Jenna home without a police escort when her evil husband was still on the loose?  Insane!  

Everything taken together, it was a decent read, but not a favorite.  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Egg and I

The Egg and I
by Betty MacDonald

My Blurb:
In the late 1920s/early 1930s, a very young wife supports her husband in his dream of running a chicken ranch in a very rural part of the Pacific Northwest.  This humorous memoir recounts the trials and errors of building a life on the isolated ranch, interactions with outlandish neighbors, and assorted musings on the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. 

My Reaction:
I found The Egg and I to be thoroughly readable, often interesting, and frequently amusing (though only rarely laugh-out-loud funny).  It is true that her some of her stereotypes jar on modern sensibilities, but it may help to remember that the author and her work are products of their time, which should alleviate at least some of the insult.  (How would any of us fare, if judged by the standards of certain other eras?  In one way or another, I'm sure we'd fail to measure up.)  Indeed, the copy I read had what amounted to a disclaimer or apology as a foreword, written by MacDonald's children on behalf of the woman herself.  If their mother had still been alive, they assured the reader, her views would have changed with the times.

Because this is a memoir (and one written twenty years down the road from when the events took place), I find myself wondering how accurate certain portrayals are.  For instance, her husband sounds absolutely awful to me (despite the fact that we are told repeatedly that he's handsome and handy and a natural at chicken-ranching)-- so perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise to learn after reading that she eventually divorced him.  (I'm much more surprised that after she re-married, she and her second husband also took up chicken ranching!  I would've thought she'd had enough of that lifestyle.)

Then there are the neighbors and the Indians... I have no doubt that at least most of the specific incidents she relates were based in truth, but... wow.  That sums it up: WOW.  No wonder some of her neighbors sued her after the book and the film came out!  I did wonder how she dared publish some of those depictions, if these people were still her "friends" and neighbors.  It explains a lot that she had since moved away.

While reading, I had the passing fancy that it would be even more interesting (to me, personally) to read a similar account of rural life in my own little section of the country, back in the 20s/30s, when my great-grandparents would've been carving out lives of their own from this wilderness, with its own set of challenges, beauties, and bounties.  Then I paused and had second thoughts.  I don't know that I'd like to read this author's version of the area and the people...

My biggest surprise was at the foul language (of certain secondary characters) and the distastefulness of some of the topics addressed.  I knew little about the book, going in-- just that it was a funny book about chicken "farming" and that it had been made into a movie in the 40s.  I guess I foolishly assumed that the book would have the same flavor (and comparative innocence) as your typical humorous 40s film.  I was certainly not expecting so much cursing (though it's mild compared to what you can easily encounter today)-- not to mention things like "laying up" (extramarital affairs), abortion, syphilis, alcoholism, etc.  Of course those things existed back then, but I wasn't expecting to encounter them in a humorous memoir of the period.

Though parts of the book were amusing, it also had many moments of bleakness, unhappiness, and disgust.  I found it an odd mix.  It also seemed to end rather abruptly.  Since it's a memoir and not a tightly-plotted novel, that may be par for the course-- but it felt abrupt, all the same.

I wouldn't mind reading some of the author's other memoirs, at some point-- especially Onions in the Stew.  At least I now know what to expect!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Jerome K. Jerome

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a ‘T’. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks—not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.’s small fox-terrier Montmorency.
Three Men in a Boat was an instant success when it appeared in 1889, and, with its benign escapism, authorial discursions and wonderful evocation of the late-Victorian ‘clerking classes’, it hilariously captured the spirit of its age.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared re-read-aloud with Donald.)

This is either the second or the third time I've read Three Men in a Boat, but though I remembered thinking it was hilarious, I didn't recall any specific details of the "adventure".  This time around, I was surprised by the unevenness of the book.

Jerome K. Jerome (at least in my acquaintance with his works) has a tendency to go off on tangents.  Sometimes these tangents are highly amusing.  (It's amazing how consistent human nature is over the centuries!)  Other times, the tangent is poetic or historical or "travel-guide-esque" and of less interest to the casual reader-- and there's one section in particular that seems completely out of place with the rest of the book.  (It's not too far from the end, and I think you'll recognize it when you see it.)

Fortunately, in this instance, the amusing bits outweigh the dull paragraphs, so I can still recommend it-- and its sequel Three Men on the Bummel (which, as I recall, is not as good as TMiaB, but still an interesting read).  However, because of those dull passages that kept cropping up, I think I'll have to give this four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Quiet Life in the Country

A Quiet Life in the Country
by T. E. Kinsey

Lady Emily Hardcastle is an eccentric widow with a secret past. Florence Armstrong, her maid and confidante, is an expert in martial arts. The year is 1908 and they’ve just moved from London to the country, hoping for a quiet life.
But it is not long before Lady Hardcastle is forced out of her self-imposed retirement. There’s a dead body in the woods, and the police are on the wrong scent. Lady Hardcastle makes some enquiries of her own, and it seems she knows a surprising amount about crime investigation…
As Lady Hardcastle and Flo delve deeper into rural rivalries and resentment, they uncover a web of intrigue that extends far beyond the village. With almost no one free from suspicion, they can be certain of only one fact: there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald, selected mainly because it was a temporary freebie from Amazon.)

While it didn't hit my personal sweet spot, this book might appeal to fans of uncomplicated cozy mysteries set in England-- particularly if they like historical novels and unconventional (some might say anachronistic) heroines.  (It's set a decade or so too early to be a "between-the-wars" cozy mystery, incidentally.)

The humor missed the mark for me, and the whole thing felt in need of editing.  (There were too many things mentioned in passing that didn't really add to the story-- how characters got from point A to point B, etc.)

We're clearly supposed to come to love the two main characters, but I felt completely unengaged, emotionally.  Their quirkiness and unique friendship (bridging the gap between the classes!!) failed to be quite as interesting (to me) as I think it was meant to be-- maybe because we are "told-- not shown" how it came about.  The fact that its very uniqueness is pointed out to us repeatedly doesn't help, either...

The blurb creates the impression that there's something mysterious about Lady Hardcastle's and Flo's own histories-- and yet (in this first book, at least), when it's explained, it's a bit of let-down.  Without venturing into spoiler territory, I felt that the two women must have some interesting (albeit unlikely) stories to tell, but we only get the bare-bones version-- and silly little teasing references to what sounded like more exciting tales than the one I was currently reading!  Maybe their shared background is something that could be fleshed out in subsequent books, but the series didn't get off to a very promising start in this respect (or many others, I'm afraid).

The mysteries and solutions didn't strike me as particularly clever, either, unfortunately...

All in all, lackluster.  For the right reader, this could be the beginning of a pleasant series, but it's not suited to my tastes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

On the Night of the Seventh Moon

On the Night of the Seventh Moon
by Victoria Holt

According to ancient Black Forest legend, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, Loke, the God of Mischief, is at large in the world. It is a night for festivity and joyful celebration. It is a night for singing and dancing. And it is a night for love. 
Helena Trant was enchanted by everything she found in the Black Forest -- especially its legends. But then, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, she started to live one of them, and the enchantment turned suddenly into a terrifying nightmare . . .

My Reaction:
My (admittedly limited) experiences with Victoria Holt have been very uneven.  The first book (The Silk Vendetta) did not impress me, but Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendorric were both enjoyable.  On the Night of the Seventh Moon falls somewhere between the dull Silk Vendetta and the more interesting "Cornish Gothics"--  nothing anywhere near approximating "brilliant", but also not quite as plodding as Silk Vendetta.

Though I suppose I'll award it three out of five stars, the third is rather grudgingly given, as I found myself disliking most of the characters and (more often than not) wishing the book would just hurry up and come to its conclusion.  It felt long, which means it was boring me instead of whisking me away from reality, as a good book should do.

Unfortunately, the romance is very thin, and the "hero" is a handsome, lust-filled cardboard cut-out-- not very interesting.  The heroine, Helena, isn't much better.  You get to know her more as a character than you do Maximilian, I suppose, but-- but-- she's just so darn stupid!  There are so many times that Helena should pick up on things, but she just won't/can't...  Toward the end of the story, the Count says to her, "You are not your usual clever self today."  Well, that was a delicious bit of unintentional comedy!

I'll probably continue to read Holt, as the mood strikes me, but I'm wary.  The quality varies wildly from one book to the next.  This one, for me, was closer to the "dud" end of the scale.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Different times and all that, but it's just so gross when the male characters in a so-called romance are trashy philanderers who have fathered children with multiple women.  When Frau Graben fills Helena in on all the dirty details of the Count's history with women, it's clear that Maximilian has a similarly icky past.  ("My dear Miss Trant, he[the Count]'s only following the tradition.  They've always been for the women.  They see them, they fancy them and there's no holding them back.  If there are results they don't mind and nor do the women.") Maximilian apparently hasn't been quite so cruel or duplicitous in his dealings with women, but it's still not appealing in a hero.

--After all the drama about how Maximilian couldn't just publicly declare his marriage to Helena because it could ignite a war between the principalities (or whatever the heck they were-- forgive my lack of knowledge of or interest in German history)-- after all that, the extremely delicate situation is handled neatly and tidily in a single paragraph.  "The Prince of Klarenbock, to whom Maximilian had told the whole story during his visit there, behaved magnanimously."  ...Well, how convenient.  The supposedly serious threat of the people revolting against Maximilian goes "poof", too.  Everything is hunky-dory, because there was a war with France-- and war heals all wounds (or something).

--Even richer, Maximilian's fancy fake wife gets tossed into a convent to atone for her sins, while her son with Maximilian is raised in the big, happy family Maximilian and Helena create.  Ah yes, I'm sure that was never the least little bit awkward, and I'm positive that the son who had been raised for (eight?) years to believe he was "royalty" was now perfectly fine with his new position as an illegitimate son whose father never really loved his mother-- while said mother is apparently whisked out of his life without so much as a backward glance.  Good times.

Okay, I'll grant you that much of the tension would be washed away by the fact that Maximilian's position is no longer nearly so powerful, by the end of the book.  There's not so much of a grand inheritance or position of power to bicker (or hatch murderous plots) over-- otherwise, I would've predicted trouble from Dagobert, who also becomes a part of Helena's Perfect Family (along with Liesel).

...But still, even in the humblest of homes, wouldn't there be a certain amount of bitterness in such a truly weird "blended family"?  "Mom always liked you best" on steroids!

Thursday, February 9, 2017


by Evelyn Waugh

Lord Copper, newspaper magnate and proprietor of the Daily Beast, has always prided himself on his intuitive flair for spotting ace reporters. That is not to say he has not made the odd blunder, however, and may in a moment of weakness make another. Acting on a dinner party tip from Mrs. Algernon Stitch, Lord Copper feels convinced that he has hit on just the chap to cover a promising war in the African Republic of Ishmaelia. So begins Scoop, Waugh's exuberant comedy of mistaken identity and brilliantly irreverent satire of the hectic pursuit of hot news.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald.)

Though of course I'd come across references to Waugh from time to time, I didn't know much about him, and I'd never read anything of his until this.  We elected to read Scoop because I saw Waugh's name on an "if you like that, try this" list of authors-- and because I just happened to have picked up a copy in a library book sale, sometime.

That list of author suggestions I mentioned before indicated that Waugh would be good reading for fans of P.G. Wodehouse.  I suppose I agree that fans of one of these authors might enjoy the other, but though Waugh feels somewhat more literary than Wodehouse, I never quite warmed to these characters, and the laughs weren't nearly so numerous as I've had from Wodehouse at his best.

This is definitely a "product of its time" novel, with language to match.  Many modern readers will find aspects of the novel unpalatable.  I hesitate to admit it, but there were also times when I felt that certain things were flying right over my head...

In short, I was not exactly captivated.  I'd certainly give Waugh another try, but he's no Wodehouse-- and to be completely honest, I much prefer E.F. Benson's style to what I saw in Scoop, too.  However, maybe some of his other works would be more to my taste.  Brideshead Revisted, perhaps?

Friday, January 27, 2017


by Georgette Heyer

(Edited) Blurb:
When Frederica brings her younger siblings to London determined to secure a brilliant marriage for her beautiful sister, she seeks out their distant cousin the Marquis of Alverstoke.
Normally wary of his family, which includes two overbearing sisters and innumerable favor-seekers, Lord Alverstoke does his best to keep his distance.  But with his enterprising-- and altogether entertaining-- country cousins getting into one scrape after another right on his doorstep, before he knows it the Marquis finds himself dangerously embroiled...

My Reaction:
On the whole, this is quite an enjoyable read-- particularly for fans of the Regency period.  I liked it very much, but never quite loved it.  I'm not sure what was lacking for me... I mean, I could nitpick a few things (see section below), but essentially, it's a good, happy-making read.  It just doesn't merit heart-shaped googly-eyes for me...

But on the positive side, it's warm and pleasant and amusing.  This is a cozy, comforting little world where you can rest your weary nerves in safe assurance that nothing truly awful will happen.  *sigh of contentment*  Isn't it nice that such books exist, when you need them?

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I don't love it when a book that purports to be a romance (or just any book for adults) is heavily populated with child-characters.  I find it takes too much of the focus off of the parts of the plot that I actually care about, and all too often, the children are written in such a way that they annoy me greatly.  To be fair, the younger characters in this book (Jessamy and Felix) are much better than average; they feel like they are an organic part of the story-- not just characters shoehorned in from ulterior motives.  Still, I did sometimes get bored of them and wish that the book might have spent a little less time on their exploits and scrapes.

(To continue from above...) However, if there had been less time spent on Jessamy and Felix, that would've meant more time with Alverstoke and Frederica, and while I liked them pretty well as a couple, for most of the book I wasn't clamoring for more of their interactions.  It was quite a restrained romance, let's say.  Their occasional banter was... fine... but it didn't set my heart aflutter, unfortunately.

That said, this romance feels more realistic and likely than most I've come across.  (That may be why it's not quite so thrilling to read about!)  I do like that in the proposal scene, Frederica is not initially completely sure if what she feels for Alverstoke is love.  It's not the fantastical, over-the-top emotion she has witnessed in her younger sister's attachments, but she realizes that this calmer affection and deep comfort with one another is love-- a more mature, steady, reliable connection than the flash-whiz-bang, sometimes crazed infatuation of youth.

--Alverstoke is another hero who can't for the life of him stop referring to the heroine (his romantic interest) as a "child".  Even "my child", sometimes.  That is one of my pet peeves.  Yuck.  Authors, just don't do it.

--The language of Heyer's Regencies is so often amusing!  Moonling, for instance.

--If you want to laugh, look up some period illustrations of the "Pedestrian Curricle" (of the type that Jessamy uses).  The fancy gentlemen with their legs stretched out, toes pointed--!  A "Pedestrian Curricle" was basically an early, inferior version of the bicycle.  Lacking a chain and pedals, it was powered by the rider pushing along the ground/pavement with his feet.  Kind of like a Flintstone's version of a bicycle.

--I recall being confused when, reading another book, I came across a character who reacted to a genuine, appreciated compliment by "bridling".  At the time, I thought perhaps it was an error on the part of the author, because I'd only ever seen the word used to describe someone reacting with annoyance or anger.  However, this book provides another instance of that usage-- "bridling with pleasure".  Apparently that is indeed "a thing", though I persist in the opinion that it sounds wrong.

--Restorative Pork Jelly!  It made me laugh, as intended, but I also found it interesting, in light of the modern trendiness (in certain circles, at least) of bone broth.  Not that bone broth and pork jelly are the same, but they definitely have some qualities in common.