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The Insanity of Murder – Felicity Young (Netgalley)

24737460I did not have high expectations for this book (received from Netgalley for an honest review, with thanks), I have to admit. But I had already picked up the previous in the series as an Amazon deal, and I thought I’d try this. It sounded promising: in the aftermath of a bombing in London comes investigation into disappearances at a women’s “rest home”.

I love period mysteries – except when I hate them. The writing and setting have to be exceptional in order for one to stand out. There have been an awful lot of semi-cozy mysteries set in this rough time period featuring plucky young women who are either nobly not working or working very pluckily in jobs women don’t commonly do. I can’t criticize the fact that Miss Felicity Young of turn of the century London is a coroner, as she’s based on the author’s ancestor. Improbable as I might find her position, it’s based in fact, and that’s that.

What I really dragged my heels over, which for all I know is also based in fact but which I also found improbable, was Constable Singh. I find it difficult to swallow that at this time period (1913, based on events) an Indian gentleman complete unto turban would even be able to secure a place in the police department, much less be given any level of command: “Singh’s in charge with Hensman as his assistant.” To be sure, he does not have an easy time of it; my hunch, though, is that it would have been much worse, if it was at all.

The highly irregular relationship between Felicity and CDI Pike …I get it, and I’m okay with it. But not when his daughter is in the house. For these two to leave her practicing music on the ground floor and go up to her bedroom and lock the door and … no. This is not acceptable. This is a recipe for disaster, is what it is.

Here be spoilers for a historical event – skip the next paragraph if you want to be surprised by what happens at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

130529143504-suffragette-emily-davison-epsom-derby-horizontal-large-galleryThe incident of Emily Wilding Davison’s suicide came up in the book, and steam began to puff gently from my ears. I was at a full boil by the end of the chapter. There is, and was in the book, apparently some dissent over whether she intended to let herself be run over by the king’s horse that day, or whether it was supposed to be just a “brave” demonstration. Apparently, according to the Guardian, she was trying to tie a suffragette banner to the horse’s bridle. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/20…) What a moron. A racehorse running at full speed. I’m sorry, if you’re stupid enough to walk out onto a racetrack filled with steel-shod horses running at 35 mph+, you’re asking for what happens to you. It’s like committing suicide by cop, or stepping in front of a train – I don’t care what your motivation is, forcing someone else to be the means of your death is one of the more heinous things any human being can do. Kill yourself in some spectacular manner – more power to you. Involve others, or destroy property? You’ve lost any sympathy I might have ever had. For this woman to take the risk of not only killing herself but killing the jockey, the horse, and any jockeys and horses coming up behind (there were at least two, from the pictures)… was this supposed to inspire support for the Cause? How could they think that it would inspire anything but utter loathing?

The horse did a somersault, on top of the jockey. I am not trying to be amusing when I point out that horses are not meant to somersault. Nor do jockeys benefit from being landed on by horses.

Take my reaction to this event, and multiply it by a factor of 10 to get my reaction to setting a bomb to make a point. This isn’t activism. This is terrorism. It’s perfectly black and white in my mind: like riots after a police shooting or crashing a plane into a building, this is unconscionable. No one person or group of people has any right to destroy the lives or livelihoods of anyone else, for any reason. Lovely, fine, you’re setting your explosive device in a place you expect to be deserted. That’s peachy. However, the … ladies placing the bomb seem to have neglected to actually watch the location, or do any research, because they managed to kill a night watchman. In addition, they managed to mangle dozens of bodies waiting in that building for burial – forcing dozens of families to endure a hideous experience very shortly after the already awful experience of losing a loved one.

I hope this book wasn’t intended in any way to inspire respect and pride for the suffragette movement. In me it inspired loathing and contempt, and made me ashamed for my gender. I think my disgust for the idiots setting the bomb in this book became diluted as events flowed on and went in another direction. Writing this has brought that disgust back to full strength. I want them in prison, and then hanged. Spoiler: this is not likely to happen. The idea that our main character’s sister is one of the idiots setting said bomb – and that she’s ever so sorry about the death but really it’s all for a good cause and the reader will certainly understand and dear Dody will cover it all up and make downloadevery use of her influence on her detective … No.

The rest of the story that arises from the sister’s involvement in the bombing and her installation in a women’s “rest home”, where nefarious doings are being done, feels like a whole different book.

Comma splices bug me to a possibly unreasonable degree. “Indeed, she had not chosen autopsy surgery, more like it had chosen her.” Stop that. There’s no earthly reason that couldn’t be two sentences – or one, joined with a semi-colon or a dash. “The law was like a pendulum, sometimes she swung towards the truth and sometimes she swung in the opposite direction.” STOP IT.

I was going to say that I didn’t love or hate this book, and that I previously picked up one of the other books in the series in an Amazon cheapie deal and would consider getting the rest if they were put under my nose in the same way. This has, unfortunately, been one of those times when thinking about the book and stitching my notes and my thoughts on those notes into a review has made me reevaluate my rating. My irritation (and anger) with the characters (from fornication in very nearly the presence of one’s daughter to blowing people up in order to get the vote), and my irritation with what I can only see as sloppy writing, have come to outweigh any liking I had for the book. I will probably, eventually, read the other book I unfortunately bought; I don’t see myself buying any more.

There’s one line I made a note of, and I’m still curious: “After blowing on her gloves to provide extra grip…” How does blowing on one’s gloves help with grip?

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in books

 

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Brainiac – Ken Jennings

8525803I had fun with Brainiac. I had just gotten the call to go for this year’s Jeopardy! audition, and, being me, was in a fever of preparation. (As a few of us were waiting for things to begin, one or two people said “Gosh, I never studied or anything, did *you*??” Yes. Yes I did.)(No, it didn’t help.) So Brainiac seemed like a logical next step.

(Fair warning: I will probably not continue to properly use the exclamation point in “Jeopardy!”. It annoys me. If I get on and win I will use the “!” constantly, believe me, but till then I just don’t want to deal with the autocorrect.)

There’s more to this book than “I got famous appearing on Jeopardy”. It’s partly that; it’s partly memoir; it’s partly an informal history of trivia and trivia competition, and surprisingly filled with drama, humor, and pathos as such.

I do love reading other people’s paths to Jeopardy, because up to a certain point it’s identical to mine. No matter where it happens, whether Glenn or Maggie is in charge, it’s basically the same thing: a group of people ranging from mildly to wildly geeky together in a room with three Jeopardy professionals voluntarily taking a test that many would flee from. I like Ken Jennings. I like his story. I like his story-telling. Heck, if I wasn’t utterly consumed with jealousy I might have given this five stars.

Kidding.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in biography, books, Jeopardy!

 

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The Georgian Menagerie – Christopher Plumb (Netgalley)

25557516It must have been fun to live in a time when people believed in dragons. Elephants, you see “waded into pools of water when they wanted to give birth; a male would stand by the pool to guard the mother from their mortal enemy, the dragon.” How marvelous.

Unfortunately, that seems like one of the only fun aspects of life in the Georgian period – especially for animals. In the “long eighteenth century”, there was very little empathy or sentimentality expended on fellow human beings, much less animals (except where the sentimentality ran deeper than the Thames), and as is to be expected when reading about this period there were passages that will make your hair curl. Remember, this is the time period of John James Audubon, whose name has become synonymous with conservation, but whose paintings are all (I believe all) of birds he killed and posed.

But he was setting out his nets in the wilds of America. This book explores the impact of non-native animals introduced into Europe, and especially England – and particularly London. I wouldn’t have thought there would be enough to fill a book – but I underestimated the potential. By combing through historical records of all sorts, including journals and letters, newspapers and wills and criminal files, Christopher Plumb has compiled a kind of mind-boggling array of creatures that made their way – living or dead – to and through London.

As pets, as exhibits, as subjects for study, as food, and as other commodities, exotic animals could be big business. They could also let their 800px-Menagerie.tourniaireinvestors down in a big way; between the fragility of health of creatures being taken from the tropics to London and the cutthroat tactics involved in the trade, fortunes could vanish in what seemed like the blink of an elephant’s eye. Some animals became fashionable – I felt a little silly at having to readjust my thinking about parrots and canaries, because obviously they are not native to England (canaries being named for their islands of origin), because they became so common. (“Dennis O’Kelly …died of gout in 1787. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine made more mention of his parrot than of his own life.”) (“Wigton tried to prove the ownership of the bird by putting his hand in the cage and tickling the bird; the bird bit him and made a croaking sound just as Wigton said it would.”)

The problem with this sort of history is that because the data being mined is scattered and fragmented and rather random, there is rarely a beginning and a middle and an end to the stories being told. Example: after a close-up encounter with, I believe, a leopard (somehow I failed to make a note of the animal), “the boy, ‘in a gore of blood’, was sent to Guy’s Hospital for surgery.” We are never told if he survived; the records might not have done so, if there ever were any.

506px-Menagerie.alpi.elefantenStill, even as a collection of facts and anecdotes, this is fascinating. Gruesome in places (the fate of the elephant kept at the Exeter Exchange is horrifying) and repulsive in places (the whole section on bears. And civets. I mean – snuff? Snuff??), but always fascinating. (About the former, a quote: “the little elephant that had been coaxed up two flights of stairs and put in his den was now, some 16 years later, a big angry elephant”. A full-grown elephant on the third floor of a city building. Yeah. You know that’s not going to end well.)

The writing was erudite and served very well to stitch together the patchwork of the history, with the author’s sense of humor cropping out in places. (“Its taste, God forbid, was described as ‘subacrid’ or ‘bitterish’.” Again, I stupidly didn’t make a note on the highlight, but I have a horrible feeling that quote came from the civet section…) The only thing that stood out as less than enjoyable was the constant use of the phrase “the middling sort” in place of something like “the middle class”.

I highly recommend this to writers of fiction set in the period. Where the historical record is a a bit scanty, there’s endless room for the historical novelist to play.

This was received from Netgalley, free for an honest review. Thank you!

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2015 in books, history, non-fiction

 

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The Sound of Murder – Cindy Brown (Netgalley)

25747963There’s a line from Shakespeare that occasionally runs through my head at appropriate intervals: “I am amazed, and know not what to say.” (Midsummer, Act 3, scene 2) This book was one of those about which, six seconds after I hit “request”, I thought “Oh, that was a bad idea.” Despite some of the reviews I wind up writing, I really don’t choose books in order to bash them. I want to like books. I want to love books. And, after all – a mystery set around a production of a musical combining The Sound of Music with Cabaret? Come on. At the moment I hit that “request” button I was thinking “Oh, fun!” That too-late thought was “Wait… that can’t be good…”

It was good. It was so good. And it was so much fun.

I kept making comparisons to a non-Netgalley freebie I read last year. I disliked that book intensely. The funny thing is that The Sound of Murder shares a lot of superficial features with that book. Both are first-person narrated cozies. Both main characters work part time for relatives who are private investigators. Both are young and attractive and, while not stupid, not Mensa material, either.

But here’s the thing. I disliked that main character, intensely. I loved Ivy Meadows, silly stage name and all. The former physically resembled Marilyn Monroe, and I should have done a search through the book to see how many times that was mentioned. The latter doesn’t believe she’s gorgeous (but has great legs and knows it). The former was a nurse playing detective; her actual career got no attention in the book at all, and she made a hash of her attempt at investigation. The latter wants to be a investigator, and is happily confident that she’s good at it – but she also wants to be an actress, and is confident in her talent there too. And she’s aware of the conflict there. The former galumphed through her days complaining about how she was treated and – oh, everything. The latter danced. Literally.

She had flaws; she was aware of her flaws; she worked with her flaws. She treated everyone with respect – even the people she wanted to throttle. Where I wanted to stab the other heroine with a stiletto heel, I wanted Ivy to knock it out of the park.

I can almost hear someone out there saying “Okay, you liked it, but five stars? Really?” Yup. I could read this sort of thing all day, every day. The writing was completely enjoyable. The book was completely enjoyable. The mystery aspect was a fresh one, to me. Is it a serial killer, or is it a rash of suicides? I’ve never seen this demographic of victim, exactly, nor this sort of solution. It wasn’t filled with gritty realism, this book – but it was genuine. I bought into it whole-heartedly. All of the characters were nicely drawn. The settings were vivid; I’ve read so many cozies where the place the characters live and work is nothing more than a name. And the twinned milieus of P.I. office and dinner theatre were so nice. I do love a theatre backdrop. In short, it did everything I want a book to do, and a few more things, and then sang a few songs.

6248ddbfe34700ec06d6ddae9d6d32baSpeaking of which, that mash-up of Cabaret and the Sound of Music? Hilarious. With a side of really sweet. And you can sing the songs. Score. (I can’t help but mention here that I once wrote a mash-up Lord of the Rings and The Sound of Music. I know whereof I speak.)

And there was a dog. Nowadays it’s hard for me to read about dogs (or hear about people’s dogs. Or see dog food commercials). But I loved this dog.

“I never had a pet—too messy, my mom said. The depth of feeling people had for their dogs and cats had always baffled me. Sure, animals were cute and fuzzy, but c’mon, weren’t they just substitutes for real relationships? After half an hour of unconditional love from an animal who barely knew me, I now understood how real that connection could be. Lassie had sat with me and cuddled me and looked at me worriedly while I cried. The pug had wormed his curly little butt right into my heart.”

Been there. Done that. Miss it more than I can say.

The first book in the series features a production of a circus-themed Macbeth. I am amazed – but I do know what to say. I’m saying I want it.

This was a novel received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review – for which I give sincere thanks (and an honest review).

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2015 in books

 

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For the Queen – Carolyn Hart via Netgalley

Carolyn Hart has been on my List of Favorite Authors for … ever. I’ve been reading the adventures of Annie and Max and Death on Demand for, yes, ever. They are quick and easy reads. Guilty pleasures, in a way; almost a waste of reading time that could be spent on more substantial books. But enough fun to read that I’ve never much cared.

They’ve also been kind of useful, especially in those halcyon pre-Goodreads days, in building wishlists. Because the basic setting of the series is a mystery bookshop, author names and book titles are dropped like ticker tape after a moon landing.

13 Aug 1969 --- An avalanche of confetti rains down upon a cheering crowd and the three astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission in New York City. On July 20th, astronauts Mike Collins, Edward "Buzz" Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the moon. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

13 Aug 1969 — An avalanche of confetti rains down upon a cheering crowd and the three astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission in New York City. On July 20th, astronauts Mike Collins, Edward “Buzz” Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the moon. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

They are rained down indiscriminately, though, grimdark thrillers cheek by jowl with mysteries every bit as cozy as this DoD series, classics alongside new releases, so as to-be-read lists go it takes some homework. In this 66-page story there are over a dozen books mentioned. It can be a little overwhelming.

It has been a long time since I visited the series, though; I can’t remember when my last DoD read was. Before I was keeping track on Goodreads, at least … wow. Good grief, the series has doubled in length since I picked one up. I’m gobsmacked.

So “From the Queen” on Netgalley (free in exchange for an honest review) was an easy request to make. A monetarily struggling fellow shop owner, Ellen Gallagher, comes to Annie one evening hoping for help with a book she has received as a bequest – a beautifully kept first edition copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot Investigates, inscribed by the author to the Queen. Of England. Annie gently corrects her friend’s guess that it might be worth a few dollars: it’s going to be worth beaucoup de dollars.

“Just think, the Queen held that book in her hands.” And Agatha Christie, too.

Just sayin’.

And here’s where the story elevated itself a bit for me. It went from “basic and kind 25821796of fluffy cozy” to… well, that with a thin layer of social commentary, which I don’t think was all in my head. The difference this book, or rather the sale of this book, will make to Ellen is … everything. Now she has trouble paying her bills, does without, lies awake at night worrying, is always afraid that some unforeseen catastrophe will put her on the streets. You know how they say money doesn’t buy happiness? Pfft. “If it turns out to be so, I don’t have to be afraid any more. I don’t have to be afraid …” Money brings security, which makes happiness more likely. Money allows one to do things for others, which brings happiness. Money means education is more easily obtained, and more and better health care can be paid for, and that one doesn’t ever need to lie awake at night worrying about what can and can’t be paid that month, or whether something absolutely must be paid at another creditor’s expense. Relief and alleviation of worry pretty much leads to happiness, I think. So the adage? Busted, as Adam Savage might say.

Anyway. The book is stolen, and I wound up yelling at the Kindle for the circumstances. It was improbable… but such is the way of cozies. Also improbable is the thinking of the thief. “She’ll never be able to prove I haven’t had a similar book for some time.” Similar … to a first edition of Poirot Investigates inscribed by Dame Agatha to Queen Elizabeth? Oh, sure. There’s bound to be more than one. But, you see, the suspension of disbelief required for this series is so high that little quibbles like these skate on by. After all, this is a series in which a woman makes a comfortable living running a small book shop (unlikely), specifically a mystery book shop (less likely), on a sparsely populated island that relies on seasonal tourism (so unlikely). So what’s a little more illogic?

“Petty crime was not much of a problem on a sea island accessible only by ferry. Crime happened, the occasional burglary in rural areas, stolen hubcaps and cell phones when the island teemed with vacationers in the summer, but burglaries on the boardwalk shops were rare.” Well, burglaries and petty crime may be rare; murders, though … Murders have led to a 25+ book series.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in books

 

11/22/63: Stephen King, Craig Wasson

A few years back, my image of Stephen King was entirely made up of killer clowns and rabid dogs and possessed cars (there’s a thought: Christine as a killer clown car…), the grandpappy of a genre I had absolutely no interest in. I’d read a whole two King novels, one of them because I was forced, and never felt the need to explore further.

Idiot.

I still haven’t read much of his (all those books full of treasure – what a wonderful thought!), but what I have read has made me into a still-astonished fangirl. I mean, I never would have believed that Stephen King could make me cry at work – not “Oh God there’s something under my desk I think it’s a clown” crying but genuinely moved tears. But there I was, surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I listened via Audible. More than once.

He does beautiful, surprising things with words.

“My honors kids were juniors… but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ‘Oo! Don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred!’”

“…Chased my headlights down Highway 77…”

“No wonder she looked like you could staple a string to the back of her dress and fly her like a kite.”

And:

It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery glass we call life. Behind it, below it, and around it: chaos. Storms. Men with hammers, men with knives. Men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss – surrounding a single lighted stage, where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

This is writing I want to wrap myself up in forever.

(I made a note of one exquisite line, and I still have to follow up on it: “Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” And I commented that that should be on the King family arms. And then I started wanting very badly to design the King coat of arms. When I find my pencils…)

I feel a bit ashamed of the fact that I’m so surprised at the warm loveliness of some of this. “Of course it went splendidly, as cream pie fights always do.” My God, that whole chapter was a joy that left me a little giddy as a reader and a little awed as a writer.

I love “The Land of Ago”. I adore “Little by slowly”, and am incorporating it into my vocabulary.

And this made, makes me very happy:
“What might that be, Miss Caltrop?” I asked. “Because I’ve got ice cream in here and I’d like to get home before it melts.”
She gave me a chilly smile that could have kept my French vanilla firm for hours.

“That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class: we can be seduced by a good story, even at the least opportune moments.” He is of my people.

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel as well? Why does it have to bite?”

It’s beautiful – and it’s terrifying. There’s no killer clown here, no dog foaming at the mouth, no vampires. Instead there’s something called the Jimla, which in its mystery and in its explanation is deeply unsettling. And there’s a broom, which isn’t what you expect, but which is at least as awful. The writing can have a rather pure simplicity to it – and it just goes to show that you don’t need all that much to create terror if you do it right. “Something was moving around upstairs.” *shudder*

And it’s not just a masterful way with words: his plotting is equally beautiful. The long long buildup makes actually finally getting to 11/22/63 rather like the first day of summer vacation after a long, long school year. It’s not often that the main event of a book is so very far into a long book, and yet suspense is maintained throughout. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives,” said Al Templeton, and it actually gave me chills. Because, come on: this is a cause worthy of Don Quixote. Whatever negatives can be brought against Kennedy, there’s such an aura of mythical unfulfilled promise about him that the whole premise of the book is irresistible, to Jake as well as the reader. Who knows? If Kennedy had lived, we might not have become tangled in Vietnam. We might have had a fuller, longer space program. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might not have been assassinated. Race relations might have improved faster, more thoroughly. Who knows? He was young, smart … promising. Who knows…

In the long, slow, gorgeous buildup of the book, Stephen King demonstrates that not only is he quite the expert on torturing his characters … he is also very good at torturing his readers. I don’t know when I’ve seen quite so much foreshadowing and “had I but known”: “Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.” He uses this device a lot – but he’s so damned good at it, at making the outcome nothing you ever expected no matter how many hints he gave and how much you thought he was telegraphing, that what might elsewhere be an aggravation is, here, just another way of keeping up the suspense.

Al, who went first through time and taught Jake the little he has to work with, explained to him that time is obdurate. (That not-so-common word gets a workout in this book – it’s great.) The timeline as we know it fights any attempts to make changes. But, I thought, maybe all of the delays were to put Al just where he needed to be, not to try to stop him. I sigh for my innocence…

One thing I do wonder a bit is why Jake’s full concentration was on getting rid of Lee Harvey Oswald, the wretched waif, via the one method. He never seems to have considered other possibilities, which might have been a bit simpler and perhaps more foolproof. He also never seems to consider that if he had taken out Oswald earlier it would have prevented the second daughter’s conception. See “butterflies’ wings”, below.

One fun thing about listening to this while at work was that with the computer right in front of me the whole time I could jump online and look things up right away. (During one such search I came upon a website purporting to show John Connally shooting Kennedy from the middle seat. I … no.) And looking into a certain boxing match, I found this quote: ”Tiger was not the kind of guy to get zonked by an opponent who was way past his prime. Certainly not in 1963.”. And I can only say … that’s kind of the point.

And of course being online anyway meant that whenever the characters were listening to it I could queue up “In the Mood” too. I started it up while listening to George and Sadie’s first dance – and it was one of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. There are times, like being forced to listen to some of the rancid expulsions from the work radio station, that I would give up environmental advances, women’s lib, and medical achievements for this alone:

The flapping of butterflies’ wings, that time-honored trope of time travel fiction, is here in full force. Jake avers that he does his best to avoid any extra flapping – but, in what may be the only real flaw I can think of, what Jake doesn’t seem to think of immediately is that his taking this apartment and that, this job and that, even this car and that, kept others from taking them. That’s a pretty significant flap. This doesn’t do to dwell on… In fact, this is the tale of an intelligent man – book smart, street stupid – who goes back in time with next to no preparation and doesn’t do too badly – until he really, really does. At one point I became so irritated with Jake’s ineptitude and what happened to him because of it that images of a scathing review and greyed-out stars in the rating area danced in my mind – and then it hit me. Of course he’s inept. Exactly how ept would anyone, any English teacher from 2011, from Maine or anywhere else, with exactly no time to prepare and no history of any of the kind of behavior George Amberson is forced into – how “ept” could anyone like that be in an alien time and – eventually – place? Of course Jake is inept. That’s kind of the point.

I’m so glad I opted for the Audible edition of this. The narrator, Craig Wasson, often sounds like Jimmy Stewart, which somehow was utterly perfect. Also, there are a lot of creepy things in the world, and one of them is a voice like Jimmy Stewart’s voicing Stephen Kingisms. The janitor’s father – Dunning – sounds like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (I’m sure I’m missing a connection there.) And there were some pretty darn good Kennedy and Cronkite impersonations, as needed. Also? Chaz is awesome, cuz.

I seem to say this a lot lately, but – I learned a bit from 11/22/63. (For one thing, the mental lapse I’ve always suffered in trying to remember that date is now conquered, with the added bonus that I will always now know the birthday of the cousin who was born the day Kennedy was shot.) I didn’t expect the anti-Kennedy faction to be also anti-racist (in a paternalistic, no-really-segregation-is-better-for-everyone sort of way). I didn’t anticipate the inevitability of the fact that there were over 200 death threats against Kennedy on that Texas trip – a very relevant fact. I trust King’s portraits of the historical figures – and his sympathetic portrait of Marina takes away some of my usual unease at real people appearing as characters in novels (especially those still living, or with direct relatives still living). I couldn’t possibly have cared less how King portrayed the “waif” – and the almost reluctant (and very limited) sympathy which he also received, and which King forced me to also feel, caught me off guard.

In the end, the main thing I take away from this sprawling saga of time travel and love and fear is a deep affection for King’s characters. Harry Dunning. Al Templeton. Sadie Dunhill. George Amberson/Jake Epping. “Deke” Simmons, Ellen Dockerty, the kids. Even the Oswalds. I won’t forget them in a hurry. Ever. I’m probably going to apologize to Stephen King in every review I write of his books, because I was an ignorant twit when I dismissed his writing for all those years. Mea culpa.

There’s a film adaptation coming! A series on Hulu – and filming started on June 9, 2015. Dang. Guess I’ll need to subscribe to Hulu.

“Bonus content” for this blog post … one of my very favorite character descriptions, ever, at all:

…That was it, you see: Sadie wasn’t clumsy, she was accident-prone. It was amusing until you realized what it really was – a kind of haunting. She was the girl, she told me later, who got the hem of her dress caught in a car door when she and her date arrived at the senior prom, and managed to tear her skirt right off as they headed for the gym. She was the woman around whom water fountains malfunctioned, giving her a faceful. The woman who was apt to set an entire book of matches on fire when she lit a cigarette, burning her fingers or singeing her hair. The woman whose bra strap broke during parents’ night, or who discovered huge runs in her stockings before school assemblies at which she was scheduled to speak. She was careful to mind her head going through doors, as all sensible tall folks learned to be, but people had a tendency to open them incautiously in her face just as she was approaching them. She’d been stuck in elevators on three occasions, once for two hours, and the year before, in a Savanna department store, the recently installed escalator had gobbled one of her shoes.

I have a little bit of the same curse, though happily less harmful. Buttons come undone, hair fasteners slide, jewelry goes askew or breaks or goes missing. Earphones pop out (like they just did). I will now think of Sadie every time my shoelaces come untied or my earring falls out.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in books, fantasy

 

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Searchlights and Shadows – Martin Turnbull, Lance Roger Axt

“This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.”

Isn’t it interesting how, despite (despite?) the Hays Code, racism, McCarthyism, homophobia and faux marriages, and a studio system which can harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres… still, Classic Hollywood was far and away, miles and miles, and many times better than contemporary Hollywood. I love the actors of this era and the films they starred in, so – especially taking in the WWII Homefront aspect – this book had a lot going for it.

I learned a great deal – Ogden Nash worked on The Wizard of Oz? Bette Davis declared complete integration for the Hollywood Canteen (actually, I learned everything I know about the Hollywood Canteen from this book, and loved it). Orson Welles in this period was dating a semi-literate stripper. I learned that Errol Flynn was tried for statutory rape (I’m still surprised I’d never heard of that), and everything about Alla Nazimova.

On the other hand, Bette Davis also had conversations with the fictional main characters, Errol Flynn had an affair with one of the fictional main characters, and Alla Nazimova was like a mother to the fictional main characters. Aaannd yes, here’s the complaint I often come out with about books like this: Well, here. Here’s the thing. My family has a tradition of mock-claiming celebrities with our name – Cousin Rod, Aunt Martha, Uncle Jimmy, etc. James Stewart barely rated a mention in this (wrong studio)(no – he was MGM. How odd), but if my name was, say, Novarro, or Welles, or Mayer, or Flynn… I would be a good deal less tolerant of this book. I have to admit the backstage-Hollywood perspective was fun… I also have to admit I was a little squeamish about it. I might have preferred that all the characters were like the inserted fictional actors that starred in the fictional “William Tell”… I know, I’ll stop now.

The writing was alternately fun and exasperating. I loved the line “That bitch will take a powder so goddam fast you’ll be tasting Max Factor clear through to next week.” It still makes me smile as I write this. There was a metaphor involving a bank robber that was kind of awesome. There was very heavy use of simile and metaphor – and not all of it was this successful. There were a number of misplaced modifiers and suchlike, and sentences like “I suppose she won’t be the first staff member we’ll lose” which … I don’t think that means what you meant it to mean.

My response to: “It’s taking all of my will power not to lean over and kiss the cotton-pickin’ dickens out of you” – was “take me, I’m yours”. / sarcasm.

The celebrity characters, as I mentioned, made me a bit uneasy. I was never sure where the line was between “this happened” and “made up by the author” (and then of course when you factor in “this was a fiction created by the studio” it just gets a little hairy). The main characters were strong; I understand how those who started with the first book could feel that these folks were good friends. I’m not sure I adored them enough to go back and start from the beginning, though. For one thing – not a definitive thing, not a deal-breaking thing, just a thing I didn’t like – I kept raising my eyebrows as Gwendoline wandered the world taking notes, not admiring the clothing she comes across and planning to use it as inspiration so much as … planning on ripping it off. Moral ambiguities I can work with; I didn’t much care who the characters slept with, or who had what black market dealings. But this was disturbing.

The narration was equally alternately fun and exasperating. Characters were given distinctive voices that kept them identifiable – and, I’m happy to say, the stars were not read with an eye (ear) toward impersonation. For those with distinctive mannerisms, Mr. Axt hinted rather than going full-on Rich Little, and it worked beautifully. However, there were some pronunciation issues that did not work. “Brassiere” was pronounced “brasserie”; director George Cukor’s name is consistently mispronounced “cookur” (see: www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/….. it’s “Bowdlerizers” and not “Bowlderizers”; and, dammit, the word is NOT pronounced mischievIous. (ETA: Mr. Axt let me know in an email that when a character mispronounces the word “epitome”, it is the character’s ignorance and not the narrator’s, as I expected.)

So: fun, but I don’t expect to continue with the series.

One last eyebrow-raiser, proving perhaps that either monks led a very different lifestyle in 40’s Hollywood, or the author’s control of language might not be exactly what he thought it was: “For the longest time, Marcus doubted he was any good at this “boyfriend” business, and had almost resigned himself to a monk-like life with the occasional encounter.”

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2015 in books, historical fiction

 

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The Eye of the World: Robert Jordan

228665The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long, long ago – while I was manning a pharmacy cash register on my first job, so long ago that cigarettes were about $10 a carton and candy bars were a quarter and some newspapers were a dime and I really shouldn’t be dating myself like this … that long ago, I happened to look at the tiny rack of paperbacks the store boasted, and saw a big fat book with a Darrell K. Sweet cover. Especially when younger I always gravitated toward chunksters, and especially chunkster fantasies, so I pounced, and unwittingly started out on a journey which, some 24 years later, had still yet to end, for me at least.

I loved it. I loved it to pieces (literally; the covers on paperback chunksters don’t tend to fare well). And whatever happened with the rest of the series, whatever my impatience or frustration or other brand of aggravation, I still love it. I’ve read EotW several times, since my tendency is to start over at the beginning every time a new book comes out in a series, and it has held up. I am still impressed by the skill with which a huge story is handled, how characters are introduced and kept individual and distinct in the reader’s mind, how cultures are kept individual and distinct, and with the tantalizing glimpses at the distant past. I love the story of Rand al’Thor, the ordinary country boy who discovers he is far from ordinary, and who has to deal with the million ramifications of what he actually is. Whatever else I may – will – say about Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time series, I will never detract from the sheer brilliance of the concept and of its initial execution.

I am not quite sure what prompted me to embark on this journey when I did last year – partly, I think, exhaustion at having so much of 8153988my reading dictated by Netgalley and suchlike. I picked up book one at the beginning of the year, and made my way – ploughing, at times – through the series over the next nine months, with only a handful of side-trips. This played merry hell with my reading challenge for the year – at one point I was about 40 books behind. There were a lot of factors in that … but probably the biggest one was that Robert Jordan never did “short”. Or “succinct”.

So, back at the beginning of 2014, I read Eye of the World for – what, the tenth time in 24 years? And it has held up. It was the first reread in many years (ten?), which had the added benefit of letting me forget a lot while still being extremely familiar with plot and characters. My overall impression? Despite the very first Nynaeve braid tug, and the very first Nynaeve sniff (if you don’t know what I mean, stay tuned for reviews of the succeeding books) … Yes. Yes, this is why I kept going with the series despite all the hurdles, despite the deterioration in later years, despite the huge chunks of time and chunks of pages involved. Because there, in that first book, the characters – all shiny and new, young and innocent – are well drawn. Because the settings are vivid without being a distraction. Because the world-building is in my opinion nothing less than spectacular. Because it’s still just plain exciting: can Moiraine and Lan be trusted? Can anyone? Holy crap, those Trollocs are scary – and despite quite a few similarities to Nazgul the Myrddraal make them look like fuzzy puppies. EotW still ranks high in the genre for me.

The rest … varies. Wildly.

Oh! And, unless my memory is playing tricks on me, this first book is the source of what I have, on occasion, taken as my theme song:

I’m down at the bottom of the well
It’s night, and the rain is coming down
The sides are falling in and there’s no rope to climb
I’m down at the bottom of the well.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in books, fantasy, Favorites

 

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It’s Kind of a Cute Story – Rolly Crump (et al)

It's Kind of a Cute StoryIt’s Kind of a Cute Story by Rolly Crump

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, that was a disappointment. I was looking forward to some great background history for the studio and for Disney World and Disney Land, and some day-in-the-life stories about the animators. And there was some of that. But there was at least as much in this about other parts of Crump’s career … and if I’d had to read the word “propeller” one more time I might just have screamed.

Fortunately, I didn’t hold Walt Disney himself up on any kind of pedestal (I kind of just expect anyone I would like to admire to have a lot of qualities that dampen that admiration). Rolly Crump didn’t really do him any damage, but he didn’t boost him up on one of those plinths, either. Though one moment in the book made both my eyebrows go up: He quotes WED as saying, “No underprivileged children are ever going to have to pay to come into Disneyland”. Well, apparently Disney didn’t put that in his will or something, because as best I can find it certainly isn’t true nowadays. And that’s sad.

My opinion of animators in general and Crump in particular took a hard hit in this book. I should be perversely glad about that. See, I went to art school. The day I found out that Disney sent recruiters to the school was the day I suddenly, finally had a very clear vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I blew out at some point in there, which in its way was just as well, I suppose, considering good old-fashioned hand-drawn animation didn’t last much longer. That doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that I now work in an office pushing paper from one place to another. Not any better at all. And this line at the beginning of the book made me whimper: “I started at WED in 1980 during a hiring frenzy that sucked up any half-talent available”. What a disgusting thing to say.

Despite the evidence of every single cel in every single Disney film I can think of, Crump seems to mean that “half-talent” crap – er, crack. “Sure, they were all animators, but on their own time, they were real artists.” With that kind of attitude toward the ART of animation, what, pray, exactly was he doing there? Surely there were other places to make a buck with a little artistic ability and a vast capacity to make propellers. (Pity Sikorsky wasn’t hiring at the time. Wrong coast, I guess.)

rcHis own art, displayed in photos throughout the book, is, shall we say, not entirely to my taste. There is certainly skill and ability … but I’m not sure what audience he thought he was playing to with this book when he sprinkles in his paintings featuring exposed breasts, a hand flipping the bird, drug promotion … and, equally bad in my eyes, at least one misplaced apostrophe. (I’m just going to insert this quote and let it sit there: “’We’re going to have a bunch of girls on stage, and we’re going to project tattoos onto them. But I need to paint one of the girls up. Could you help me with that?’ I didn’t really have any idea what he meant by ‘paint her up’ but it was some extra cash, so who was I to say no?”)

Actually, a fair amount of the work of his that I’ve seen features boobs. Oh, then there’s “…I had that book by Alexander Calder. One of the things he had in there was a photo of a wire sculpture of Josephine Baker. I was fascinated by it. Maybe it was the fact that he gave her such enormous breasts made out of corkscrews.” I’ll just let that one sit there, too.

His discussion of the design work he did on the Haunted Mansion and other areas of the park – and post-Disney, for that matter – irked me:

– “Those wall sconces of arms holding torches are right out of my designs.” No, actually, they’re right out of Cocteau. Still, steal from the best.
– “The flowers near the entrance to Tomorrowland that I helped design the pattern of.” – badly worded caption to a photo. The pattern in the photo is a bullseye.
– “’This stuff is really weird, Rolly,’ [Walt] said to me”. Yes. Yes, it is. I find it fascinating that given the content and style of so much of the work there is no mention of drug use in the book.
– “Originally, a sea captain was going to be part of the story for the Haunted Mansion. He was drowned at sea … We made a full scale mock-up of what we thought his study would look like … you could see the ocean off in the distance, with the waves breaking on the shoreline. We had the lonely cry of a coyote in there, too.” A coyote??? For a mansion owned by a sea captain, from which you could see the ocean, and supposedly based on a house in New Orleans?
– “Since it was an animal park, I gave them all an African theme” – But …. There are animals elsewhere in the world…

Other things irked me as well, such as: “There was one electrician that I worked really well with during my time at Disneyland. Unfortunately, his name escapes me, but he had been there almost since the Park opened.” ‘S okay, it’s not like you’re writing a book or anything. And there was surprisingly little mention of family. A good ways in he mentioned something built by his son Chris – and to the best of my recollection this was the first mention of offspring, and never a mention of a wife. Or other partner. Though given the attitude toward women exemplified in his artwork, perhaps I’m glad about that part.

This one reminded me of another sort-of-memoir I read last year, by/about a WWII airman … that was an awkwardly-written, error-laden book apparently written by a second person who retained the subject’s exact phrasing, for the most part, even when utterly eye-shattering, a book which I took to be all about the war when in fact that comprised perhaps half the tale. This is also an awkwardly-written, error-laden book apparently ghost-written by a second person (Jeff Heimbuch) who etc., a book which I took to be all about Disney when in fact that comprised perhaps half the tale. I was a bit nonplussed when suddenly at 57% Rolly was no longer with Disney… My fault, I know, for not reading the description with more attention, but the Disney aspect is rather put to the fore there. As little as I enjoyed the stories at Disney, I enjoyed the stories not at Disney a bit less. (Oh, and now Jacques and Philippe Cousteau are also now tarnished in my eyes, thanks.)

It’s kind of a cute story … Well, no. Sexist, mildly racist, self-aggrandizing, disjointed, propeller-laden … but not cute. Note to self: stop trying to find out how the sausage is made.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2015 in biography, books

 

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Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women: Edith M. Ziegler, Sally Martin

The required disclaimer: “This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.” And thanks!

What a fascinating subject. I was a little familiar with the transportation of male convicts, particularly to Australia; I was a little familiar with efforts toward colonial population expansion like Les Filles du Roi. This made me realize how little I knew about those topics, and how even less about female transportation.

There are some potentially tremendous stories are, but listening to this reminded me strongly of reading a biography of Shakespeare: we know next to nothing, and what we do know consists of a) facts gleaned from impressive research into court records, wills, and contemporary letters and journals; and b) conjecture based on what is known about the subject, what is known about others, and on what was the usual case, weaving a book out of slender threads whether there are enough threads to support a whole book or not. Here, though, those potentially amazing stories are of a necessity passed by with the merest mention, presumably to a lack of data: either it doesn’t exist or Ms. Ziegler didn’t go down the rabbit holes. Case in point: the female convict/servant who “passed for a soldier at Culloden”. That is a monster of a plot bunny. (How interesting that tempting avenues of research branching off from the main topic and tempting plot ideas that crop up in the midst of other things are both named after rabbits.)

This book, and one I’ve read since in a similar vein, makes me better understand both the allure of and criticisms against a non-fiction author like Erik Larson, who spins the facts he scrapes together into a coherent narrative tapestry. This is wonderful to read: he is a very good storyteller. But it leaves an uneasy aftertaste: it’s a story more than a history. It’s easy to read his works and not pay attention to the frequent use of “must have been” and “could have been” and so on, and – without reading the acknowledgements – not realize that when Mr. Larson mentions that his primary subject saw a gull fly over one morning it is not because it is known that that person saw a gull fly over on that particular morning, but because when Mr. Larson went to that location for research he saw a gull fly over.

That sort of thing does not occur in this sort of history. This is pure Joe Friday “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. So, on the one hand, it’s fascinating and trustworthy… and, on the other hand, a bit tedious. It becomes a matter of quantity substituting for quality, in terms of depth; there are hundreds of records of trials, convictions, transportations, ads for runaways, wills, and so on that can be referenced and from which can be drawn inferences, but very few instances where one woman’s story can be traced from start to finish. Why did one woman steal a sheet? Who knows? Was rape as prevalent as my slightly queasy gut feels? Who knows? “Irish convicts came mostly from the county of Leinster” – why? Who knows? I wish there had been a way for the author to have followed up with household accounts and other owners’ paperwork for more information.

This is not in any way meant to denigrate Ms. Ziegler’s efforts. There is a tremendous amount of research here, and the necessity of dealing with common names, aliases (one woman had at least three), non-survival of records after 300 years and the lack of records in the first place. But something like this underscores the inevitable shortcomings of this sort of book:

“It would be interesting to know the fate of a black London woman named Elizabeth Jones who was indicted in 1735 for stealing a few items of clothing with an assessed total value of ten pence. She was convicted and sentenced in April, and transported to Maryland on the John in December of that year.” That’s a rather frequent phrase throughout, “It would be interesting to know” – including how the women (and men) fared during the Revolution, which is rather a big one: convicts, originally British, but cast out by Britain; where do loyalties fall? (Again: plot bunnies.)

The narrator gave this a pleasant, neutral reading… but it’s unfortunate, given the subject matter, that “gaol” (as in “Hertford Gaol”) is mispronounced as “goal”.

So, to sum up: this is a rather dry treatment of a fascinating subject, and had I worlds enough and time there could be any number of ideas for novels in there. I’m very glad to have had the chance to give it a listen.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in books, non-fiction

 

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