Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Winding Stair


The Winding Stair
by Jane Aiken Hodge


Blurb:
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


Blurb:
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


Blurb:
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.


SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!





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

Blurb:

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


Blurb:
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


Blurb:
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


Blurb:
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

Scoop

Scoop
by Evelyn Waugh


Blurb:
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

Frederica

Frederica 
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.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dark New World

Dark New World
by Henry Gene Foster and J.J. Holden


Blurb:
Society crumbles after an EMP attack, and the terrifying nightmare has only just begun…

Three people from different walks of life each experience the end of America. Cassy is a 33-year-old prepper and single mother, away on business. Ethan is a hacker and conspiracy nut living underground. Frank is a family man out camping with friends and family. When a devastating EMP attack in the middle of the night destroys America’s infrastructure, they are propelled on an unforgettable journey across an ocean of chaos to reach safety… Safety from an unknown invader and from once-fellow Americans now hungry and desperate. Dark New World is a prepper story of survival and the fight to retain humanity in the face of an apocalyptic event.


My Reaction:
(I listened to the audiobook version of this title.)

Hm... I found myself rolling my eyes and scoffing far too often, while listening to this short novel.  I can't do more than round it up to three stars, unfortunately.

The blurb describes this as a "prepper story of survival", and that's about right.  The heroes/heroines are preppers, and the whole thing feels like it's very strongly aimed at preppers-- which is fine.  I mean, if you're writing a book for preppers, I suppose this is what you get.  It does feel a little cartoonish at times, though... It's like someone took a long list of things a prepper might think about when planning for a disaster scenario, then went down it and checked them off, one by one.  (...And yet this book doesn't go into great detail about how to be a prepper.  In my opinion, that doesn't really belong in a work of fiction, anyway.  This is more of a prepper-themed adventure.)

At first, it's refreshing to have characters who are prepared (for once) for the disaster at hand.  I enjoy the "planning and taking calculated action" portions of post-apocalypse/doomsday stories, myself, and this has a lot of that.  However, planning can get dull after a while-- and to keep the drama high, our primary heroine, Cassy, has to find herself in some bad situations, some of which she (as a prepper/survivalist) should probably have been able to avoid.  

Cassy-- well, pretty much all of the characters, to be honest, started to get on my nerves after a while.  Too many of them were stereotyped, for one thing.  Yes, sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason, but I can only handle so many of them in one dose.  (Oh my gosh, that teenage girl!  So annoying!)

There were times when I felt I was almost being lectured or preached at-- or at least bombarded with heavy-handed "lessons", which is unpalatable.

I also have some issues with the timeline and pacing.

First: Maybe it's naive, but I don't think that society would break down quite so quickly as it seems to do in this book-- or at least not so completely in such a short space of time.  I do think it would/could happen at some point, but friendly next-door neighbors threatening to shoot one another in only one or two days?  ...I find it doubtful.

Second:  (Spoilers to follow!)  The story sped up at the end to the point that I had a hard time keeping track of what was happening to whom, because the perspective shifted so frequently.  I'm still not entirely sure what happened to injure Cassy and how she ended up in the bunker.  Of course, part of the problem is that I was doing yard work while I listened and may have been distracted for a few moments-- but I still think the pacing was a bit off in the last section of the book.

Readers may be disappointed that there's not a completely satisfying conclusion at the end of this first installment of the series.  At least all the main characters have come together, but there's still a long way to go before they reach relative safety-- and you have to continue with the next book to see if/how they make it to Cassy's farm.  Based on a little peeking, the series will have at least four books-- maybe more-- and it sounds like each one leads directly into the next.  Very serialized.  At the moment, I doubt I'll bother with the second book.  The premise of the series still interests me, but I found too many of the characters too annoying to want to spend much more time listening to or about them...


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trouble for Lucia

Trouble for Lucia
by E.F. Benson


(Edited) Blurb:
After her election to the preeminent position of mayor of Tilling, it seems Lucia's lofty ambitions are at last fulfilled-- but there are always new horizons to conquer, with accompanying perils and pitfalls.  The tearooms quiver with delicious gossip as she flexes her mayoral might.  Will Lucia finally dare too far and take a humiliating tumble from the pinnacle of her career?  
This is the last of Benson's Lucia novels, a delicious study of outrageous snobbery.


My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald.  We've been working our way through the Lucia series together.  I've read all of them once before, on my own.)

I'm not sure what it is about this series, but I love it.  This is not my favorite of the series, but I still enjoyed it very much, on the whole, and as the final book of the six, it's certainly well worth reading.

I've seen the Lucia books described as shallow and populated with mean-spirited characters.  True, they're not challenging masterpieces-- nor stepping stones on the path to true enlightenment-- and the characters are certainly only too eager to gossip about one another, but there is something intensely human and pleasant about this series!  Nothing of any importance ever happens, and that, apparently, is just fine with me.  It's enough that it entertains me and warms my heart.

The book (and with it, the series) comes to an end rather abruptly, with little warning.  But perhaps that's as it should be.  There's no big climax, because that's just not how these stories work.  I like to imagine the funny, gossipy circle of "friends" continuing on in more or less the same way, forever.

I'm sad to come to the conclusion of the series again... They are such cozy books!  There have been several more volumes written by a few different authors.  The little I've read about them suggests that they're a mixed bag.  Some sound awful (to be honest), but others might be worth a read.  ...The more I think of it, though, the more I wonder if it might be better to stick with the originals, after all.  Maybe I'll try the "continuations" someday, but probably not immediately.


Monday, January 2, 2017

I See You

I See You
by Clare Macintosh

Blurb:
You do the same thing every day.
You know exactly where you're going.
You're not alone.
When Zoe Walker sees her photo in the classifieds section of a London newspaper, she is determined to find out why it's there. There's no explanation: just a website, a grainy image and a phone number. She takes it home to her family, who are convinced it's just someone who looks like Zoe. But the next day the advert shows a photo of a different woman, and another the day after that.
Is it a mistake? A coincidence? Or is someone keeping track of every move they make...?


My Reaction:
(I listened to the audiobook version.)

I See You moves along at a fairly brisk pace (though there are parts that could've been edited down), and if it's formulaic and a bit of a stretch when it comes to believability, I still think this crime thriller has reasonable entertainment value.

I found some of the characters (Zoe's kids, mainly) annoying, at times, and after a while the narrator's voice patterns for certain characters (particularly the daughter) grated on my nerves-- but on the whole, I enjoyed the listening experience.

Taken for what it is-- a mass-market thriller-- it is perfectly readable.  Nothing amazing, but a solid three stars for me.


Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- I always have a hard time believing in "bad guys" who have successfully hidden their evil natures from their close friends and family for years.  We've all heard stories about serial killers (and less violent psychopaths) who manage to blend into society for decades, but (perhaps naively) I still have a hard time accepting that there are no red flags... In any case, it seems very strange and unlikely to me that friends and family wouldn't have noticed something "off" about either Melissa or Zoe's son, whose name I simply cannot recall (a side effect of my only hearing his name instead of seeing it in print).

-- Zoe really has rotten luck.  Not only is her next-door neighbor/best friend a well-disguised loon, but her own son turns out to be even worse-- eager to mete out death to his mother and sister!

-- I'm afraid I had to roll my eyes over Melissa's motivation against Zoe.  She complains that Zoe's a self-centered whiner who doesn't now how good she has it (two kids, left an ex-husband who still loves her, lives with an adoring boyfriend)-- but a fair chunk of her anger seems to be over the fact that she (Melissa) never had kids of her own.  ...Yeah, wishing you'd had kids can be enough to turn you into a willing accomplice to rape and murder, apparently.

-- How many reprobate men are there in London, anyway?  I mean, I'd like to think that there aren't that many men who'd be interested in availing themselves of the services of such a creepy website.   The whole set-up seems very unlikely.  These clients aren't getting a whole lot of value for the money, considering that searching for, selecting, and stalking the victim isn't exactly boring busywork, from a predator's perspective.  Even a busy murderer-on-the-go probably wants to choose his own "special projects" from as deep a pool as possible (unless he's more of an opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment type monster-in-human-form, in which case, the website still wouldn't seem particularly useful).

-- In skimming reviews, I keep seeing the author's first book mentioned, usually in favorable comparison to this one (as in, "after how great that was, this was a let-down"), so I'll be adding that other novel to my to-read list-- because even with its faults, this was an entertaining listen.  If the debut novel is something more unusual, consider my interest piqued.