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Jeopardy: Represent Boston!

I never did write up my ever-so-exciting experience at the Jeopardy audition in Boston in May, did I? The hotel was a kind of miserable experience, but the rest of it was fun – especially the audition itself, of course. Jimmy from the Clue Crew (also known as one of the people with the best jobs on earth) happened to be in the area, and stopped in while we were getting our Polaroids taken, so that was exciting.

Somewhere I have the list I made of my fellow auditioners’ names. After the first audition I regretted not having made better notes about my comrades in quiz, so I tried to get everyone this time. I do need to track that down. I didn’t need it tonight, though, because – well, I missed the first segment, just got home during the first commercial break, and was puttering a little as Alex was introducing tonight’s contestants – and my head shot up when he came to the young man at the center podium, John Campbell, a romance novelist from Weymouth. Because he was one of my fellow auditioners on May 12.

It’s kind of stupid how excited I got.

And – spoiler after the picture
Screenshot - 10_15_2014 , 7_58_35 PM
– he kicked butt. I could only be happier if it was me.

Glenn, running the audition, pushed him to say what name he writes under, and he declined to answer; if I recall correctly he said “I have to hold something back for the show” – another good reason to be glad he’s coming back. I support my fellow Boston auditioners – his books? I’d buy ‘em.

Go, John, go. I can now say I “know” a Jeopardy champ; let’s make it a multi-day champ.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Jeopardy!

 

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*blows dust off blog* The Attenbury Emeralds, Jill Paton Walsh

I’ll refrain from saying “I’m back” or anything like that; who knows what tomorrow will bring? My life has changed in oh, so many ways; I will also refrain from quoting “Tomorrow” in addition to “Yesterday”, and just say … topsy-turvydom does not make for good writing conditions. But I had this half-written, so…

I was pointed to an article about Jill Paton Walsh’s writing process for her DLS rip-offs – er, pastiches – – er, sequels, and it made me angry realize I hadn’t written a review of this thing.

On the phone from her home in Cambridge, the author, age 76, also said that this is likely to be her only flashback Wimsey novel. “I honestly don’t think Peter is that interesting without Harriet – the only exception being The Nine Tailors, which is such a good book it doesn’t really matter whether he’s got a consort or not.”

Not. That. Interesting.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the person with whom the legacy resides. Does anyone have a handkerchief I might borrow, because I think I’m going to cry.

(Nota bene: I cry when I’m angry, too.)

Okay, so what is this thing? It’s a posthumous sequel, taking notes DLS made before she abandoned Peter for Dante and working them up into a complete novel.

As I was writing that sentence I had a sudden vision of this:

Despite Good Intentions, a Fresco in Spain Is Ruined

Despite Good Intentions, a Fresco in Spain Is Ruined

I remember when the first one, Thrones, Dominations, was announced – I was excited. Of course I was. (I was a little excited when I learned that there would be new Star Trek movies coming out – before I learned, the hard way, that JJ Abrams is the sort of man who likes blowing things up. Like planets. And fandoms.) I love Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. But of course I wasn’t totally stupid, so I was worried, too; the online community I was part of at the time lamented that JPW wasn’t any of the people they would have chosen to try to fill DLS’s pumps. And in the end T,D wasn’t good… It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t good. I think I actually kind of liked Presumption of Death, I’ll admit it.

It’s this book that makes me thing of that poor, poor fresco’s “restoration”.

I made a lot of notes as I read, to the extent that I was driven to say “It’s not a good sign that I’m compelled to make notes at almost every percent marker so far.” I wasn’t exaggerating. I won’t squish all of those down into this review; suffice to say there were a lot of problems, and my notes started to reflect a few patterns.

One was this: “This is exactly like those tv episodes they put out now and then to save money and pad out a season or for a holiday or something – what are they called, clip shows? – where you’ve got a bunch of characters sitting around and reminiscing and the screen goes wavy and voila: there’s a scene from an old episode. Only I haven’t seen this tv series. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book presented like a clip show before.”

They are called clip shows, and … this wasn’t done to save money, but … I don’t know. I’m at a loss as to why exactly this device would be used here – but watch any bad example on television, and you’ll find the similarities are uncanny. It doesn’t work in novel form.

The first, and one of the most annoying things I made note of was that this was not the story I was expecting. I guess I had read “Attenbury Emerald” and thought “Yay, the story behind the tale in The Nine Tailors.” Um. No. My bad, actually; that would be the Wilbraham Emeralds. Oops. For some reason I had my mind set that that was Peter’s first case. Hmph. All right, but still, it leaves me with a question I noted in media res: “Attenbury asked me to see to Osmanthus’s little business with the jewels.” Why? Here’s Peter, young (31), not experienced with gemstones, not an intimate of the family, certainly not a known detective and probably not particularly known for his brains, given his usual behavior – and Attenbury lets him take charge?

Something I found both sad and funny was Harriet’s I-assume-unintended (?) role in the book: what I called a preemptive audience surrogate. Several of the things that raised my eyebrows, about which I was bound to make snarky comment, were – hilariously – addressed by Harriet. ‘I observe that you have a problem familiar to novelists. A large cast list to be introduced to the audience, and no reason why they should wish to know or remember any of it until the story starts.’ (This was irritatingly true – and needed different punctuation.) ‘It was no moonstone, you mean,’ said Harriet. (Though the story was beginning to sound AWFULLY familiar.) “Unless you have been making half of this up, you have an extraordinary memory. How long ago is all this?””Thirty years….” (Always a problem when someone is supposed to be telling a story within a book, especially when it’s the story of something that happened a long time ago: when the tale-teller uses what appear to be word-for-word quotes, rather than saying what a person would actually say when telling a story, something more like “So then we wandered back to the house, and he told me about the conversation he had had with her, and I had the feeling he was hiding something when he said she wouldn’t tell him about that day”.) Time after time JPW anticipated my snarky remarks by basically inserting them into Harriet’s mouth. The question being, why didn’t she just avoid the issues in question in the first place? It wasn’t cute; it was annoying. Also annoying was that this was almost Harriet’s only role in the book: Greek chorus.

Bunter seemed out of kilter for much of the book. Not that any of the characterizations were as authentic as I’ve seen in some fan fict– not by a long mark – but Bunter in particular was as off as a haddock in the noonday sun. The rest of the characters were either unique to JPW (excepting notes from DLS which we peons haven’t seen) or felt like caricatures, but Bunter just hurt. There were grammatical errors – and Bunter would as soon appear in his boxers as abuse the English language. At one point he makes a comment about blood and guts – in front of Harriet – and doesn’t excuse himself. I can*not* see that happening.

This is going to sound elitist, or … I don’t know, I’m sure someone will manage to find it objectionable – but the reading level, or the comprehension level in the JPW books is always much lower than anything DLS wrote. As I understand it, DLS didn’t give half a flying fig whether her readers could read French – or Greek – or Latin – or could understand half the allusions she larded into her writing. She wrote it as she wanted, she did not dumb it down, and while I have been known to feel stupid while reading DLS I utterly respect her choice not to pander to the lowest common denominator. JPW… either panders, or is not able to aim higher. Which is fine; faking it would be obvious, and a huge mistake. Some of the Jane Austen sequels or *shudder* rewrites have proved exactly how disastrous it can be to invite direct comparison between the writing of one of the greats and someone trying to fill their shoes.

Not that JPW isn’t already doing so by trying to write Lord Peter novels in the first place. But perhaps it could be considered a mitigating factor that she doesn’t try to ape DLS’s style.

Some of the instances of the non-DLSness of the style:

“”The Attenbury emeralds were a parure – a complete set of jewels.”
– A) Harriet would have known that.
– B) DLS’s audience would have known that.
– C) DLS wouldn’t have given half a damn if (B) or not, she wouldn’t have explained it.”

“All the girls like pearls’, I said foolishly.” – My note: I take it this isn’t a quote from anything, which I expected it to be, but just use of the rhyme. I’ve understood most (all, I think) of the allusions and quotes so far … Which, when it’s supposed to be Lord Peter, is not a good thing. ‘But a man may smile and smile and be a villain, and all that.’ – Referenced twice. And ‘Alas, my love, you do me wrong’ forsooth.

There are some unfortunate errors or awkwardnesses sprinkled throughout the book. Example: the hideous Mrs. Duberris castigates Peter for “footling around”; only a couple of pages later, he passes a remark about going to “footle around a bit”.

Peter says ‘I thought Attenbury would bust a gasket.’ I wasn’t able to pin down an etymology for the phrase, to see if it’s period-appropriate, but to me it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t feel like something Peter would say. Just like some of what was put into Bunter’s mouth. Completely off.

Peter: “She married one of her trainers, rather late – she must have been in her mid-thirties before she tied the knot.” Er, wasn’t Harriet about that when she married Peter?

The worst, the very worst error came at about 7%. “Lord Wimsey”. Multiple offenses. My monocle popped right out.

No, actually, and in all seriousness, possibly the worst offense in the book came at about 24%. “I think, you know, it was the earliest example of that nausea you know all too well….”
‘For how long,’ said Harriet sternly, ‘did you go to bed?’

Okay, now, here too. Peter’s revulsion at sending someone to his death, yes. But pulling up a thorough rotter who deserves to serve time? I don’t buy into that troubling him. And as for Harriet being “stern” about it… No. Never.

One last quote, and then I’ll wrap this up: “To her great annoyance, Harriet felt herself blushing slightly. ‘I don’t compare with Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christie, or Dorothy Sayers,’ she said reproachfully…” This could, perhaps, be author insertion rather than audience insertion. But, sadly, the author doesn’t seem to feel that way, nor DLS’s estate.

There’s already another JPW “LPW” out. Will I read it? *sigh* Probably. But it’s starting to feel like when I was seventeen, and a new Trekkie looking for more fuel for the geeky fire, and snapped up every Star Trek novel there was. It took me years and probably fifty books to realize that the vast majority of it all was complete and utter garbage. I am beginning to be of the opinion that no one should ever be given the rights to touch another person’s toys. They tend only to break them.

 
10 Comments

Posted by on October 10, 2014 in books, mystery

 

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“Robin Williams can’t be dead.”

I’m far from the only one feeling that way.

RW RIP

(CNN) — Most of the shock that resounds after hearing that Robin Williams died Monday comes from its utter implausibility. How could Robin Williams, of all people, just stop breathing, moving and, most of all, talking?

It’s as though we’ve been told the moon spun out of orbit or that water no longer boiled, or froze, at the proper temperature. If Robin Williams is dead, then light no longer refracts, atoms no longer bond and gravity has gone out of business.

Yes. It’s that implausible.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 11, 2014 in memorial

 

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Breaking news is never good…

Well, sometimes it is, but then I get a little annoyed – you broke into whatever I was watching to tell me that? Tonight they broke into Jeopardy, which resulted in, first, a flash of irritation (for obvious reasons), and then the thought “Oh crap, we’re at war again.”

That’s the good news – we’re not (really) (technically) at war again.

But the bad news … Ah, God, the bad news.

Screenshot - 8_11_2014 , 10_45_40 PM

All I can keep saying is … it doesn’t make any sense that the world no longer has him in it. I can’t wrap my mind around it.

The movie of his that means the most to me, the one that simultaneously saved and shattered my adolescence, which told the story of what a remarkable teacher could be when I hadn’t had a teacher who gave a damn since the second grade … Dead Poets Society. I saw that movie probably more often than was healthy, and I haven’t seen it in years. I fully expect to be watching it in the very near future, and sobbing like a heart-broken child.

But I’ll stand on a desk to do it.

Not from the film in question – but I think we could all use a smile…

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” What will your verse be?
*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Keating:  “O Captain! My Captain!” Who knows where that comes from? Anybody.  Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now, this class, you can either call me Mr. Keating, or, if you’re slightly more daring, “O Captain! My Captain.”  Now let me dispel a few rumors, so they don’t fester into facts. Yes, I, too, attended Hellton and have survived. And no, at that time, I was not the mental giant you see before you. I was the intellectual equivalent of a ninety-eight-pound weakling. I would go to the beach, and people would kick copies of Byron in my face. Now, Mr. … Pitts? That’s rather unfortunate name. Mr. Pitts, where are you?  Mr. Pitts, will you open your hymnal to page 542? Read the first stanza of the poem you find there.
Pitts: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”?
Keating: Yes. That’s the one. Somewhat appropriate, isn’t it?
Pitts: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
         Old time is still a-flying:
         And this same flowers that smiles today,
         Tomorrow will be dying.
Keating: Thank you, Mr. Pitts. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The Latin term for that sentiment is “Carpe diem“. Now who knows what that means?
Meeks: Carpe diem. That’s “seize the day.”
Keating: Very good, Mr–
Meeks:  Meeks.
Keating:  Meeks. Another unusual name. Seize the day. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  Why does the writer use these lines?
Charlie: Because he’s in a hurry.
Keating:  No! Ding! Thank you for playing anyway.  Because we are food for worms, lads.  Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is, one day, gonna stop breathing, turn cold, and die. I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You’ve walked past them many times, but I don’t think you’ve really looked at them.  They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts, full of hormones just like you. Invincible just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.  Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see, gentlemen, those boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in.  Listen. Do you hear it?  Carpe.  Hear it? Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

Neil: Mr. Keating! Mr. Keating! Sir? (Keating keeps walking, whistling the 1812 Overture)
Charlie: Say something.
Neil: O Captain! My Captain!  (Keating stops and turns)
Keating: Gentlemen!

Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world
for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset.
And though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Keating: Why do I stand up here? Anybody?
Charlie: To feel taller.
Keating: No! (hits bell on desk with foot) Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see, the world looks very different from up here. You don’t believe me? Come see for yourself. Come on. Come on!  Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try! Now, when you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think.  Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out! Don’t just walk off the edge like lemmings. Look around you. There! There you go, Mr. Priske. Thank you! Yes! Dare to strike out and find new ground. Now, in addition to your essays, I would like you to compose a poem of your own, an original work. (the class groans; Keating flickers lights off and on a few times with an operatic “la ha ha hum!” ) That’s right! You have to deliver it aloud in front of the class on Monday.  Bonne chance, gentlemen.   Mr. Anderson?  (Todd is just about to take his turn stepping off the desk – he stops, catching his balance as he looks up) Don’t think that I don’t know that this assignment scares the hell out of you, you mole.  (turns light off as he leaves, Todd still stranded, horrified, upon the desk)

Cameron: That page has been ripped out, sir.

Todd: O Captain! My Captain!
Mr. Nolan: Sit down, Mr. Anderson! Do you hear me? Sit down! Sit down! This is your final warning, Anderson. How dare you? Do you hear me?
Knox: O Captain! My Captain!
Mr. Nolan:  Mr. Overstreet, I warn you! Sit down! Sit down! Sit down. All of you. I want you seated. Sit down. Leave, Mr. Keating. All of you, down. I want you seated. Do you hear me? Sit down!
Keating: Thank you, boys. Thank you.

Deleted scene
Keating: All right, who’s up first?
Todd: I have something.
Keating: Mr. Anderson.
Knox: That thing you’ve been writing!
Todd: Yeah, that “thing”.
Keating: I’ll take my old seat.
(Meeks goes to stand beside Todd with a lamp, as he takes out a piece of paper and unfolds it)
Todd: In between the verses, all of you say “And still we sleep”.
Charlie (?): And still we what?
Todd: And still we sleep.
We’re dreaming of tomorrow, and tomorrow isn’t coming
We’re dreaming of the glory that we don’t really want
We’re dreaming of a new day when the new day’s there already
And we’re running from the battle when it’s one that must be fought.
All: And still we sleep.
Todd: We’re listening for the calling, but never really heeding
Hoping for the future when the future’s only plans
Dreaming of the wisdom that we’re dodging daily
And praying for a savior when salvation’s in our hands
All: And still we sleep.
Todd: And still we dream, and still we fear, and still we pray, and still we sleep.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on August 11, 2014 in memorial

 

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This blog may go quiet again when I go to the slammer

Life is interesting, isn’t it? And you know how the Chinese look at the adjective “interesting…”

July = a very bad month for me and technology. First of all, three…? weeks ago today on my way home from work my old Buick died. It felt like the passenger side front tire blew out, so I took it into the nearest parking lot – but the tire was fine. Uh oh, I thought, and popped the hood; I know nothing about engines, but given what I felt I thought maybe I’d see something obvious, a cap off or a break or disconnection somewhere. Nope. I pulled out my phone to call home and/or AAA… dead. Oh… bother.

The nearest shop open was a tobacco shop (which stank to highest heaven), and the man behind the counter allowed me (very reluctantly) to call home; I didn’t dare try calling AAA. No one with a car was home, so … I walked. It was only about a mile, but I, my friends, am not a walker, and I barely made it.

When I could breathe again I called AAA – only to find I’ve used up my three service calls this year. Stupid Buick. Stupid snow the stupid Buick got stuck in. Stupid Buick battery. But it would only be about $35 … but I would need to be with the car to pay the tow truck. There’s a tale in the towing – isn’t there always a tale? – but suffice to say that after a rigamarole the car was towed to the mechanic I trust (whose shop is four miles away; Triple-A towing covers three free. I owed something like $4.21. (Tax.) I only had a ten on me. Did the driver have change? You just sit there and think about how silly that question is), and I, happily, was set up to borrow my sister’s old car, which will be my niece’s when she eventually learns to drive. Conveniently, she has not done so yet, and in fact the car had been sitting around a bit lately, so – yay.

My mechanic may be trusted, but he’s hard to get hold of, and he very much does not work weekends (including Fridays). So it was a few days later that I got the news: the Buick, he is dead.

*moment of silence*

We hated each other for over a year, that car and I, but it got me where I need to go, usually. Oh well.

I decided I wasn’t going to make the same mistake, buying the cheapest possible thing which would only stave off disaster for a couple of years. When I had my Jeopardy! audition this past May (I never wrote that up, did I? Oops) I had it all planned out. They always asked what each person would do with the money they won, and I wanted something to say other than “pay the mortgage” (woo hoo) or “travel” (what EVERYone says, including me the first time) – and it finally came to me. “I’m driving a ’99 Buick,” I would answer; “I want to buy a car built in this millennium.”

Obligatory dealer photo

Obligatory dealer photo

I did better than that – I got one built in this decade. Well, depending on how you look at it, I suppose; technically I guess 2010 belongs to the first decade. Darn. Still. It’s a Ford Fusion … hands up, those who knew there were Fusions that weren’t hybrids? *counts* Humph. I didn’t know that. I especially felt a little stupid because during the test drive I asked about how emissions work with a hybrid – is it still the same frequency of a normal car, or – ? The dealer guy sort of got a funny look on his face, and said “Oh, we’ll take care of emissions before you pick up the car.” Okay. That’s not an answer, but okay. It wasn’t till the next day that I somehow figured it out, and looked again at the listing – no mention of hybrid. And it’s not. Oh well.

It was yet another long and bumpy road to work out the details of obtaining the car (which means car payments and twice the insurance payment, so I may rediscover ramen noodles over the next couple of years), clean out and okay the sale-for-scrap of the Buick, and start to find a new normal. Which only lasted a couple of days, because I had to bring the new car back on Monday to go through emissions again.(I don’t know why – I’ve kind of stopped asking why by now)… and because the service-engine-soon light came on. Oh, and I noticed a panel popped partway out by the front left wheel. They gave me a loaner for the meantime. The reason I’m still driving the loaner this weekend is that an O2 sensor needed replacing (slightly ironic, given I work for a medical oxygen supplier). The sensor took a day or so to come in. Then the mechanic’s wife was sick and that was another day. Then the car had to go back to emissions, because it couldn’t go till the sensor was replaced. Then it failed, and honestly somewhere in that phone call the guy’s voice became the teacher’s from Charlie Brown.

The dealer guy said I should have it Monday. He didn’t sound confident. I know I’m not. But at least he called me today; I’ve had to call them every other time  – why, coincidentally, since they got my money.

The other Bad Technology story is much shorter; my wireless router died shortly after the Buick, and nearly every penny I had access to went to the Ford down payment. But today was payday, so – look! The internet! Neat.

Now about the title of this post… I’m curious if anyone out there has had a similar incident. I come home for lunch every day to walk the dog, and when I came in today my mother told me that the Internal Revenue Service had called. My eyebrows went up. They had left a number, but Mom didn’t get it written down, so I checked the phone and called the number that had called here. An Indian voice responded “Internal Revenue Service, this is Frank.” It was a terrible connection, so I hung up and called back – and got Frank again. He seemed disapproving that I had hung up. He informed me that I needed to provide my lawyer’s information, because I was being charged with tax fraud and something else I didn’t catch because the accent was so heavy. I was mildly surprised; he got grumpier the more I reacted, and demanded to know if I wanted him to read the affadavit. I said of course I did, and he warned me not to interrupt him – which was a challenge as he went on for some time about how much trouble I was in, involving fines and fees and a marshall probably on his way to my door that moment and my license and passport being suspended for ten years and *insert Charlie Brown teacher voice here*… Again, the accent was pretty heavy. When he finally shut up, I asked how I was supposed to know this was legitimate; he replied nastily that when they came to arrest me I could ask all the questions I wanted, and I’d want to have my lawyer present. I laughed – couldn’t help it. He hung up.

I’ll admit it – while he was going on and on in fairly realistic bureaucracy-ese about how my credit would be destroyed and and I’d lose all my assets (not the car!!) and so on and on, I sat here thinking “But … I mean, the clothes we donated to Goodwill might have only been worth about $50 when I claimed $75, but it’s not like they’d know, or it would make a difference…” And wondering if somehow my last employer managed to do something evil about my unemployment … And “Frank” didn’t get to the point of telling me to send money (or if he did I didn’t understand him.) But it was all so stupid, and hard to swallow, and while I’ll also admit I didn’t quite dare cuss out “Frank from the IRS” (you don’t want to piss off the real IRS), I couldn’t keep from laughing in the end. When I got back to an internet connection – work, that is – I took a few minutes I really didn’t have and hunted for a way to report the call to the Real IRS. It ended up taking about half an hour, two phone calls to local branches who don’t provide off-season customer service, a call to the IRS 800-number that led in circles, and finally a link to a different site where I could start a report. See, now, a runaround – that’s how you know you’re actually working with a government agency. Some guy answering his own phone after only a couple of rings? Clearly a fake.

Here’s the kicker: I thought I’d Nancy Drew it a little and call the number back from my cell phone, act scared and try to get an address to send a certified check to; I was going to come up with some cock and bull story about why I wouldn’t want to make a payment electronically. So I did: 202-506-9717. Which now reaches a message stating that the MagicJack number I had called has not been assigned to a subscriber yet… How very strange! I never would have thought the IRS would use something like MagicJack! Anyway, I only hope I get put into some minimum security Club Fed sort of place – but if this blog goes quiet again you’ll know I’m serving my sentence. For tax fraud and something or other.

Home-sweet-home-to-be

 
9 Comments

Posted by on August 1, 2014 in OT

 

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Alchemy of Desire … could’ve been so good

This was a preview copy from Netgalley, thank you. (This is actually quite an old review that never got here, somehow.)

10438535I have a habit (bad? Maybe) of requesting advanced readers’ copies of books or such, downloading them in ebook format, and then forgetting everything their blurbs said about them. So it wasn’t until I opened the epub of The Alchemy of Desire that I realized that it was from Carina Press, which I afterward discovered is a sort of PNR subdivision of … Harlequin. Oh dear. I mean, yes, the title should be a dead giveaway that it’s a romance, but somehow it wasn’t (the man on the cover is fully clothed!) (I quite like the cover, actually), and I braced myself.

And the beginning was good. So good. It was an alternate-19th century urban fantasy set in New Orleans post-Civil War. And this was not Ken Burns’s Civil War; the main issue of the war seems to have been neither slavery nor states’ rights but a fight between those who can wield magic (Wielders) “the Confederacy“ and those who can’t and use steampunk machinery instead (Machinists): the Union. (The Machinists’ Union? Really? What local?) I loved the beginning. There was a lot of good stuff there, despite some typos I hope were corrected for a paper edition.

Then the story left New Orleans.

Damn.

There was so much scope in that setup – it was deep and rife with possibility. I didn’t expect that. Finding it unexpectedly makes it even more of a shame that the possibilities were unexplored.

The two brothers at the heart of the story, Diah and Cager, are forced into going off to hunt the White Buffalo, and for this they need a guide. And the only guide willing to have them is Oni, a half-Lakota woman who is a bundle of secrets and Issues. She’s not taken terribly seriously, at least by the elder and more obnoxious of the two brothers, Cager, because she’s a woman and because she’s a half-breed. She’s an illegal, unlicensed Wielder (like Cager; Diah is an Alchemist – hence the title). She’s a shapeshifter. And she has no intention of taking them to kill the White Buffalo, because the White Buffalo is sacred to her tribe. Oh, and she killed a guy who tried to rape her, and begins almost at once to fall in love with the younger brother, Diah after an initial reaction which seems paranormal but is never explained.

(The brothers’ names are actually nicknames for Jebediah and Micajuh or some such, which is a stretch. I was pronouncing “Diah” as “dee-ah” in my head, because otherwise it’s somewhere between “die” and, I’m sorry, “diarrhea”, but if it’s short for Jebediah it probably is “die”. And “Cager” is just … odd.)

From the moment the trio of the two brothers and their Sacajawea set foot on a boat to begin their journey after the White Buffalo, the Harlequin roots begin to show. There is a great deal of teasing and frustration and timely – or untimely – interruptions, and bulges and pools of wetness. Unfortunately, the latter two items are verbatim; I began to wish for Oni’s sake that Depends had been invented in the 1860’s sometime.

There were parts of this that were a lot of fun. As I said, the setting and storyline of the beginning was dandy. The setting up of Alchemists/Machinists and Wielders is something I wanted more about. (Pity – it seems to be a standalone.) Once the focus moved west and to the R of PNR, it quickly became less interesting to me. I shouldn’t complain, because it does after all say on the tin that it is what it is, and what it is isn’t bad. But if this had been a steampunk Western with an integral romance instead of a Western romance with elements of steampunk it could have been something really special.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in books

 

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Austenland – Shannon Hale

9462728I might have given this another star if I had rated it sooner, after finishing it but before a night’s sleep. It was cute (charming, even), and nicely written (except for a few typos, like “snuggly” for “snugly”). I liked Jane and her list of “boyfriends”, some of whom weren’t, and her bemused adventures in Austenland. I liked the characters in general. I liked the concept of a sort of an exclusive Jane Austen theme park, I liked the flow of the book.

Austenland has a lot of the advantages of a time travel novel without such drawbacks as (for the characters) a lack of modern conveniences or (for the writer) such a wide array of anachronistic pitfalls. The reader can enjoy an Austen-esque novel without having to suppress a modern POV. The characters can enjoy (or not) the atmosphere of an immersive Regency environment, while still being able to take hot showers and sleep on modern mattresses. And anything that crops up which does not belong in a Regency setting is actually kind of a good thing; the characters, even the actors, aren’t necessarily going to be 100% flawless, and some anachronisms are built into the place. (For example, paint in tubes (not “pain in tubes”, as I keep typing, which is a whole other kettle of fish) was not invented until 1841, over thirty years after the setting for Austenland – but am I complaining? Nope.) So, well done.

But a deeper realization of the concept is disturbing. Austenland is a place where women (exclusively women?) spend a great deal of money to wear a corset and an Empire waist and pretend with all their might they are strolling through a Jane Austen novel. But by the end it becomes clear that the majority of women who come into the experience are married, looking for … something. And that something may include soulful gazes and genteel flirting, or it might include a non-Regency level of necking, and indeed seems to be supposed to include a proposal of marriage.

248483“We do not run a brothel here, miss,” says the proprietor of Austenland near the end of the book, and no, technically, I guess not … But someone’s comment about “a locked hotel room with [one of the Austenland actors] spread out on the bed” comes shortly after, so given everything, I am tempted to disagree. Does Austenland dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out for sex? Not as such. But it does dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out to pretend deep devotion and affection, and that’s just sad.

That lack of diversion annoyed me, a little. How is it that the patrons haven’t complained about that, and indeed how is it that that hasn’t been planned for? 21st century people need more stimulation than those living in the actual early 19th century; why aren’t the actors playing the hosts trained to keep the evenings a little more lively? Even an occasional game of charades might have been helpful. Drawing should have been encouraged among the guests, not something that Jane had to have help to get back into. If I planned to try opening (or writing about) a Jane Austen Experience I would do my damnedest to be a little more creative in the recreational activities available to clientele – boredom is deadly. (Perhaps literally, judging from the description for book 2.) Boredom is something a good hostess would not allow. Also, boredom could lead to … unauthorized activities.

Another ball might have been helpful.

And I can’t help finding it odd, very odd, that while most things down to clients’ underwear is strictly a la mode for the time period, there is a combination of oil lamps and electricity in the house. Why both in the same room? Why not either make life easier on everyone and go all flame-like light bulbs, or go all-in for authenticity and make them light candles and lamps (and make the servants clean and fill the latter)? Why allow showers, but not something as subtle as air conditioning? Granted, it’s England, which is rarely as hot in summer as more southerly climes, but if the clientele is generally rich and spoiled they are going to be as used to air conditioning – and heat in the winter; is that out too, or is Austenland strictly summery? – as they are to breathing oxygen; I was very surprised there wasn’t at least air conditioning in guests’ rooms, or in the ballroom for the final ball. I get allowing makeup – these women are out for flirtation (at least), so they are not going to be seen without their cosmetics. So why not allow modern undies instead of bloomers?

I think my rating slid downward a bit because, overnight, the froth and giddiness of the (really very sweet) ending wore off, and the patheticness at the heart of the program. Austenland isn’t something like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, intended as pure entertainment for fans of the books – – and that’s kind of what I was hoping it was. I’d love to see that, in reality or fiction. No, though, it seems it’s not really designed to entertain, given from the amount of sheer boredom everyone experiences in the Regency-authentic evenings. It’s designed to make rich women feel loved by a handsome man from another age for a few weeks. That’s horrifying. It’s degrading to the women, even if they’re doing it to themselves (and why on earth would Jane’s great-aunt think this was such a great idea?). More, of course, it’s degrading to those men in tight breeches … “Back to work.” In slightly other circumstances, they’d be called gigolos, no? Ew.

Really, the whole concept doesn’t do Jane Austen any favors, either. So, yeah. Four stars because it was a fun read on the surface; downgraded to three because thinking too much about the whole thing makes me a little queasy.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2014 in books, Chick lit

 

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Anatomy of Ghosts – Andrew Taylor

8947952This is the tale of a chain of events, a sort of horrible Rube Goldberg device in which the drowning death of the young son of bookbinder John Holdsworth leads directly to the dissolution of Holdsworth’s business and loss of his home and suicide (or at least death) of his wife. His wife’s depression and mania for trying to contact the spirit world – and of course the spirit of her son – leads directly to Holdsworth’s somewhat obsessive, somewhat vindictive authorship of “The Anatomy of Ghosts”, uncompromisingly refuting the existence of spirits and the legitimacy of the mediums who take advantage of the bereaved by claiming to contact their dead. The publication of the book leads directly to a visit to Holdsworth’s shabby rooms by a mysterious man with a mysterious commission – and that is, in a way, where the story begins again. The commission is from Lady Anne Oldershaw, whose son has evidently been driven mad by the sight of a spirit on the grounds of Cambridge, and Holdsworth is bidden to come and bust, or hunt, the ghost. He doesn’t have many options, and so to Cambridge he goes.

I’m not sure what it is about this book that didn’t sit well with me. It’s well-written, and I didn’t make note of anything specific about the plot or characters or setting, or writing in general, which put my teeth on edge; the closest I can come to explaining is that it was like driving a car with a small clog in some hose somewhere, or one tire slightly off balance – just a bit off. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, but (except where it was supposed to) it never amounted to outright dislike. The story is set in 1786, and Taylor seems to have a good feel for the period. He creates a properly creepy setting for the rituals the proto-frat house holds; he does a nice job of drawing some properly sinister characters and some well-rounded weak characters (that looks odd: weak in nature, not in depiction), and some characters who can’t quite be trusted, however prominent they are in the narration. But even though it all does follow, event after circumstance after happening, there is just something askew about the storytelling I can’t put my finger on, especially at a bit of a remove.

Bad? No. Something I’ll reread, or which will send me off after other books by Andrew Taylor? No.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in books, historical fiction, mystery

 

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This looks familiar, strangely familiar…

6629551This felt so very much like … well, several books I’ve read before, but especially Silent in the Grave: Both were in the first person. In both, a Victorian lady is widowed, doesn’t mind very much, finds out much later poor old hubby, Philip, Viscount Ashton, was murdered, and conducts investigation alongside husband’s friend (with whom there are sparks) while stressing constantly about what to wear and when can I get out of mourning for heaven’s sake it’s not like I loved him. In both, I wound up with a deep impatience for, if not outright dislike of, the heroine.

Emily’s first reaction to news of her husband’s death is relief. He wasn’t a bad fellow, but she only married him to get away from her mother’s constant nagging, and hey – a couple of years wearing ugly mourning colours, and now she’s free and clear and can do what she wants. Yay. Unfortunately, as time goes by, Emily succumbs to her husband’s friends’ opinions of him, and begins to fall morbidly in love with his memory, the ideal image of the man she never bothered to get to know. He genuinely loved her; that’s enough to start her falling. Too late.

In her fervor of self-flagellation for being unable to face Philip’s friends and family, she begins to throw herself into his passions. Well, two of them; she still can’t abide his beloved hunting (which would have been quite a can of worms if he had lived), but she plunges into the study of ancient Greek and the appreciation of ancient Greek art. In about five minutes she begins to uncover what must be a forgery ring, and, fearing her husband might have been involved, investigates.

18903941She is shaken, trying very hard to reconcile this criminal activity with her green worship of him. Then the book catches up to my prediction (based on the classic soap opera warning “did you see the body?”) and she is told Ashton might still be alive, despite his best friend’s insistence that he was there and watched the man die. She is thrilled, determined to move heaven and earth to find him and nurse him lovingly back to health. A little ways into that process, I had an intuition that he couldn’t be alive after all – and I was right. I’ve said it before: if I can predict how your book is going to turn out, you’ve done something wrong. And so he is revealed to yes, be dead, and in fact, have been murdered, and she basically shrugs her shoulders and swans off to revel some more in her romantic ideal of the widow who, see? Really did love her husband after all (if too late).

Excerpts from Ashton’s journal never really pull their own weight; they are mostly inconsequential, unrelated to the chapters they proceed, and never echo what Emily thinks about them. Though I suppose I should be happy the author spared me the long and boring passages about hunting, still, on the flip side there was remarkably little about the wedding night. Which isn’t said out of prurience, but just because Emily was sort of looking forward to what he wrote.

And the ending … the wrapup of the story was satisfying enough, but once everything was explained away there were still far too many pages left. And it just kept going. All through the book Ashton’s friend (whatsit) had been encouraging Emily to go to Greece, to the villa in Santorini Ashton had prepared for her. I had rather expected that to be the next book – it would be perfect, I thought, to build it up, maybe have her planning the trip as this book ended, and then set the second book in the series on the island.

Nope.

820943The book was quite readable, which is why I did read it through. But it was disjointed. As a friend pointed out in her review, there was a great deal attempted, and not really succeeded at. And one major thing keeping this book from a higher rating was the completely incomprehensible handling of the forger. He is stunningly gifted, and has no problem selling copies of ancient work: he makes no pretense that they are the real thing, after all, and what his buyer does with the work once it’s his isn’t the artist’s problem. Which … is a nice way to look at it, if you can manage it, but isn’t very realistic. Up to that point it reminded me very strongly of the case of the artist Alceo Dossena and his buyer, his dealer, Alfredo Fasoli. Dossena claimed ignorance of the ultimate dispositions of his work, too, but he wasn’t quite so cheerful about the fact that while he got a pittance for the art his dealer would sell it on, as original, for thousands. He sued. This guy? He has absolutely no problem with the fact that his name is still unknown, that the scores of hours of work and talent invested in every piece is being attributed to others, and – least likely – has no problem with living on the edge of poverty while his dealer is raking it in. Worst, though, is the fact that this one forger handles several different media, no problem. Sculpture? Got it. Black figure urn? No problem. And so on. I went to art school; I’ve always been interested in art forgery and I’ve read a bit about it. I know full well that artists are more than capable of great things in more than one medium – but the likelihood that a man would be so very, very good at pottery AND sculpture as to have his work pass for the best of the best among the ancients, including Praxiteles, is incredibly small. For him to be so gifted and still not be able to make a living for himself without being completely unscrupulous… maybe it’s not unrealistic, but it seemed so.

Suddenly, about three quarters of the way through the book, Emily develops a very lawyerly turn of mind, knowing instinctively finer points of what is and is not strictly legal and what will and will not convict a man. The reformation of a female main character from fluffy-headed clotheshorse at the beginning to strong and capable independent woman by the end is no new thing in fiction, but (or maybe “and so”) it has to be handled well to be really believable. I’m not so sure about Emily.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2014 in books, mystery

 

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A Discovery of Witches

Odd – I read this quite a while (tried to), but I apparently didn’t post the review here. So here we go.

I don’t know. I just don’t know. This is one of those books where a connecf099b0417f9626702a412da206a3164ftion with the writing seems to be thisclose … but not quite made. The buildup has been excruciating; I would much have preferred even just a little more forward motion in the plot to what I have instead: an awareness of how much spandex the main character owns and the tale of every time she’s gone rowing.

I get it. I do. Diana Bishop is from a very old family of witches in a world where there are, including witches, three types of “creatures”, the other two being vampires and daemons. Witches are pretty much what you think and are born so, and vampires are pretty much what you think (except, no fangs? Then how…?) and are made, and daemons … are weird brilliant creatures which pop up unexpectedly in otherwise completely human families, start showing signs of what they are in puberty (of course), and, if they’re lucky, find out what they are before they self-destruct. Okay.

Diana, however, is different. This is not just because her parents were both very powerful witches (the term being unisex), or because she’s a Bishop, a family associated with witchcraft since Salem. She’s different because she blames magic for the deaths of her parents when she was very young, and as a result has determined never to use her own considerable power. Never mind that it’s not something that can be punished (“My parents died because of you! Bad magic! Bad! I’ll teach you!”) or that can really be contained (she finds herself making just-this-once exceptions, or simply using it unintentionally several times a year – she keeps obsessive count). Never mind that having spurned training she has basically turned herself into a loose cannon and a danger to herself and others (powerful but untrained? Never good). Never mind that every. Single. Non. Human. Around. tries to tell her what she’s trying to do is a Very Bad Idea, and no matter how much she protests she’s not using her power (much) they won’t leave her alone. She won’t use magic, and that’s that, darn it. Well, just this time, but never again! Well… no, really, that last time was it!

Frankly, she’s driving me up a wall.

I’m all for occasional irrational behavior in fictional characters. It helps them feel more real, and which makes them interesting. Makes them human. (Ironically.) However, if the character in question is a main character (and in fact the person with whom the reader is sharing headspace), and the irrational behavior is so irrational as to actually be just stupid, it may still be realistic but it stops being interesting and becomes frustrating.

And see, it’s the whole “humans vs. creatures” thing I’m not entertained by. I know; in Harry Potter it was all wizards and poor blind helpless powerless muggles, but somehow reading Rowling made the reader feel like part of the wizarding world. I doubt there are too many Potterites who haven’t, even if just in the back of their minds, pondered which House they belonged in (Ravenclaw; maybe Hufflepuff) (ETA: Pottermore sorted me into Hufflepuff. Go Badgers!) or what their patronus would look like (a beagle, or maybe a horse). You’re not a muggle while you’re reading Harry Potter. Here, though, I feel very ordinarily human, and it’s not a good feeling. We’re so dull, and pointless, and stupid. (Silly? Sure it is. But however silly it may be, it isn’t fun.)

It’s not fair to this book that so many books written (mostly, I think) later but encountered sooner feature vampires who must learn to control their appetites around the squishy and vulnerable and delicious women they come to care about as something other than dinner – but the fact remains that there is Matthew, every sense at attention as Diana realizes she has a tiny bleeding cut. How strangely familiar.

I made it to 43%, and … honestly, as Diana learns that she’s not just powerful but just about all-powerful and continues to use abilities she didn’t even know she had with no harm to herself or others … I have too much else I’d rather be reading. Maybe someday I’ll come back to this. Probably not, though.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2014 in books, fantasy

 

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