Friday, October 31, 2014

R.I.P. Deal Me In Lite: Stories by Tim Lebbon and Robert Sheckley

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. Edition: Week 9
"Pay the Ghost" by Tim Lebbon
"Warm" by Robert Sheckley

This is the final week of my Peril of the Short Story adventure, culminating in Halloween tonight. The final two stories from my list of thirteen were definitely a mixed bag, however. First, though, the cards:

These corresponded to two stories from two different anthologies:

"Warm" by Robert Sheckley
This story comes from the Arbor House anthology, but it was originally published in the old Galaxy magazine, one of the pulp science fiction magazines from the 1950's. It's a weird little story that is oddly effective, although it takes a little while for the reader to understand what is happening. 

The main character, Anders, is lying on his bed, waiting until it's time to go pick up his date, Judy, and take her out to a party. Suddenly he hears a voice in his head that says "Help me!" Surprisingly, Anders is not terribly concerned about this, and begins a conversation with the voice. The voice doesn't know where it is, but it can see with and through Anders, and it helps him to see the world differently as the evening progresses. With the coaching of the voice, which tells him when he is getting "warmer" or "colder" with his thinking (hence the title of the story), he becomes more and more distantly removed from the scenes around him. He begins to see other people as "articulated skeletons," "flesh machines," and even just collections of atoms. He eventually carries this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion (well, it seems logical in the story anyway) and gets in a real pickle, not to give away the end of the story. Suffice it to say, the ending is a real twist that I did not see coming, but it is entirely fitting.

"Pay the Ghost" by Tim Lebbon
This story, on the other hand, didn't do much for me -- which is a shame, really, because it's one of those stories that starts out very promisingly. And then somewhere along the way, it goes off the rails.

Lee and Kate lost their daughter, Moll, on Halloween a year before the story begins. She simply disappears from Lee's side that day after asking a very strange question: "Daddy, can we pay the ghost?" This is a question that Lee agonizes over, trying to figure it out over the weeks and months following Moll's disappearance. Predictably, Kate ends up leaving Lee, perhaps thinking that he was somehow responsible for losing Moll. Not so predictably, however, Kate now returns just a couple of days before Halloween rolls around this time, and she is completely changed. She's gaunt, sick, and half-crazed. But she claims she has found the man who is holding Moll captive. Apparently this man is holding Moll in a house along with other children. Kate convinces Lee to try and find the man and get Moll back. Lee has trouble finding the house, although he does stumble upon a burn pit near where Kate says the house is, and the pit is full of the charred remnants of bodies, and small bones. This is a tremendously disturbing image to both Lee and the reader. Soon it's clear that nothing is what it seems in this story, and the "man" holding Moll is not really a man, but something far more sinister. By this point, though, I was tremendously confused about the plot and the story just kind of fell apart for me. I wanted to like it, but... no. The ending is something of a twist, but in my book, a twist at the end only works if the reader thinks he or she understands what's happening up until that point, and I was adrift long before the ending of this story.

However, win, lose or draw, that's a wrap for both my Peril of the Short Story and my Peril the First ventures for this year's R.I.P. It was fun, and I plan to do it again next year!

Horns by Joe Hill

For the final selection in my R.I.P. Peril the First challenge, I read Horns by Joe Hill.  I chose this specifically as a counterpart to Joyland, hoping it would be an interesting father-son contrast.  I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting from this little experiment, but I can truthfully say that the talent of keeping a reader immersed in a page-turning story must be genetic, because Joe has it as much (or more, I think) than his dad.  Mrs. King is a writer as well, so we could even put together a writerly pedigree, I suppose.

The novel opens as the protagonist, Ignatius Martin Perrish ("Ig" for short, and I JUST NOW realized that his initials are "IMP" -- hmmmmmmm) awakens the morning after a drinking binge.  Ig is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the murder of his girlfriend Merrin Williams, and he would love to be able to forget about it and get over her.  Ig was accused of killing Merrin, but he was never charged in her murder for lack of evidence.

So imagine his surprise when he looks in the mirror and sees small horns beginning to grow out of his head.  And there's something else weird, too -- no one he meets actually sees the horns, or if they do, they forget about them immediately.  And they tell Ig things -- bad things -- that they want to do, and it's almost as if they are seeking his permission (or encouragement) to do them.  Ig is astounded and repulsed by this newfound power over others that he has, but he does eventually begin to use it, sometimes for "good" and sometimes for "evil" (I put those in quotes because the lines are masterfully blurred in this novel), and this alone makes for some very interesting situations.

The novel is a highly entertaining tale of Ig's efforts to both cope with his impending transformation and to find out who really killed Merrin and bring that person to justice (justice at Ig's hands, however).  And when he finds that person, he realizes that Merrin's killer is truly evil, and will require all of Ig's newly-acquired demonic "talents" to overcome.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  The biggest thing I liked about this story was that it was not at all predictable.  Given the premise, one might think the story would unfold in certain ways, but it never went where I thought it was going.  Plus, even though Ig is progressively turning into a demon throughout most of the book, Hill manages to make him one of the most appealing, sympathetic, and understandable characters I have run across lately.  The reader really ends up rooting for Ig pretty early in the book -- at least I did.  And the ending, once again, is not predictable in the slightest, but wholly satisfying nonetheless.

It has not escaped my attention that the movie version of this book, with Daniel Radcliffe as Ig, opens in theaters today.  I'm not a fan of movie theaters for about 23,547 reasons, but I might have to venture out to one sometime soon and see what they did with this book.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

R.I.P. Deal Me In Lite: Stories by China Mieville and Stephen Mark Rainey

Deal Me In Lite, R.I.P. edition, Week 8:
"Reports of Certain Events in London" by China Mieville
"Orchestra" by Stephen Mark Rainey

Here we are at the end of Week 8 of my special R.I.P. edition of Deal Me In Lite, and I am reading two stories again. The Mieville story comes from my McSweeney's anthology, and the Rainey story comes from the October Dreams anthology:

"Reports of Certain Events in London" by China Mieville:
I did not like this story as much as I thought I would. The premise is interesting but it's just too weird and I think it loses something trying to be so weird. Here's the premise: the author mistakenly receives a packet of documents in the mail, addressed to a Charles Melville. The documents are quite mysterious, and the bulk of the story consists of the text of the documents. They concern the members of a secret society whose function is to track and document sightings of "feral streets" -- streets from particular cities that suddenly show up in other cities, complete with their houses and everything. And it seems that these streets fight each other, and damage each other's buildings. The author put a lot of thought and creativity into the "reports," but unfortunately, they read like reports, and the "story" overall is dry and weird enough to be uninteresting to me. I can't recommend it.

"Orchestra" by Stephen Mark Rainey
This story was quite a bit better. The main character, Jacob Kravitz, is a feisty little Jewish man (his ethnicity turns out to be important for the story) who is the concertmaster for a community orchestra. The members of the orchestra are in a tizzy because their annual Halloween concert is coming up and the orchestra's conductor has gone missing. Luckily (or not, as it turns out), a man named John Hanger shows up and volunteers his services as conductor. Skeptical, Kravitz agrees to let him audition by conducting their next rehearsal, and the orchestra members are astounded by his incredible talent as a conductor, and the beautiful music he manages to extract from what is essentially an amateur orchestra. Hanger is hired as a replacement conductor, and the performance night eventually comes and is a huge success. After the concert, Hanger invites Kravitz to his apartment for a celebratory drink, and we finally find out the details about this mysterious man who, of course, has a hidden agenda. He is truly a conductor, but as the story races to its climax, we realize he makes a different kind of evil music with the souls of humans like Kravitz. As usual, I don't want to give the ending away because you really need to track down this story and read it. Suffice it to say, however, that the story has a chilling ending and is a perfect story for Halloween or any other time of year when you want a good, spooky story.

"Orchestra of the Apocalypse," retrieved from

"The Smile" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 17: "The Smile" by Ray Bradbury

This week I drew the 5 of spades -- and the picture is from a new "Zombie" deck of cards I bought last week. It's highly entertaining. Every number card has a different tip for surviving a zombie attack, and the face cards are zombies (of course). It's made by Bicycle, a company that has clearly figured out how to make people buy decks of cards they don't really need. Hey, it worked for me!

The 5 of spades corresponds to a little story by Ray Bradbury called "The Smile." The story is set on an early morning in a post-apocalyptic future. People are lining up in the town square, getting ready to spit at a piece of art which is eventually identified as the Mona Lisa. The populace is filled with hate and rage at the civilization that has brought them to their current situation, and they express this hate by holding "festivals" in which they deface and destroy all the items that represent the achievements of the past. Books are brought to be burned in vast bonfires (shades of Fahrenheit 451?), and a car is destroyed with sledgehammers in a "festival of science." Civilization is collapsing, and the populace is doing its best to help it along.

A young boy named Tom is participating in the festival today, and he's excited about doing so. However, when he finally gets to the painting, he finds that he can't spit -- he is captivated by its beauty. An announcement is made that instead of just spitting at it, the painting is to be given over to the crowd for destruction. This is merely a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on canvas, not wood, so the crowd falls to and soon rips the painting to shreds. Tom is caught up in the melee and grabs a small piece of the canvas. He doesn't look at it until much later that evening, after he has gone to bed. I won't tell you what is on the canvas (although I am sure you have guessed by this point), but it comforts young Tom and perhaps gives him hope for the future.

Not a tremendously awesome story, but I did like it.  It's well-written and worth your time.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Joyland by Stephen King

This is the fourth book I read as part of my R.I.P. Peril the First activity this fall.  Joyland has been on my TBR list for forever, but I didn't actually have a copy of the book until recently, when I picked up the paperback at a local drugstore.  It seemed fitting to buy it that way, because the whole point of the Hard Case Crimes books (of which this is a volume) is to hark back to the good old days of pulp paperbacks that one would pick up from a rack at the corner store.  (In fact, even in these days of electrons and Kindles, pretty much every time I go to the drugstore I swing by the paperback books display and run my eyes over the titles, because books.)

At its core, Joyland is the story of a string of unsolved murders, all of young women and all occurring at carnivals or amusement parks.  However, it also serves as a kind of coming-of-age story for the protagonist/narrator.  Devin Jones, a college kid, happens to be spending his summer and fall working at Joyland, a beachside amusement park along the lines of something like Coney Island.  And this amusement park has a gruesome event in its history: a young woman was found dead in the haunted house ride, hours after she had been on the ride with her date, a suspect who vanished into thin air.  Now, as park lore would have it, her ghost can be seen periodically on the ride.  As Devin works at the park through the summer and into the fall, he begins to be curious about the murder, and especially begins to wonder if her murderer might still be at the park, now working incognito alongside him.

Devin also begins to make friends with a little boy named Mike, and his mother, Annie Ross.  The Rosses live in a house on the beach, and Devin sees them every day as he walks to work.  Mike has muscular dystrophy and spends much of his time in a wheelchair, and Annie spends much of her time trying to (over)protect him from every little thing.  However, Mike is ready to live a little, because he knows his time is limited, so he recruits Devin to help his mother get over her over-protectiveness. Devin helps Mike learn how to fly a kite, and eventually works it out so Mike can get his own private after-hours tour of the amusement park.  An interesting twist is that Mike has ESP (as so many of King's characters do) and can communicate with the dead.  This leads to some interesting plot developments, including the climax of the book, which includes a murderer, a hostage, and an out-of-control ferris wheel.

As an aside, what is it about carnivals and amusement parks that both attracts and unnerves us?  Maybe it's the sense that, underneath the bright lights and happy music, there's a darker underbelly that can be menacing and dangerous.  I'm sure this was not Mr. King's intention, but the climax of this book and the deal with the ferris wheel put me in mind of one of the most terrifying scenes in all of Hitchcock's movies -- the horrific carousel scene in Strangers on a Train:

That scene makes my heart race every time I watch it, even though I know what is going to happen, and this book had many similar moments.  I enjoyed reading Joyland and I would highly recommend it!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Tantric Coconuts by Gregory Kincaid

Today I'm reviewing Tantric Coconuts, a novel by Gregory Kincaid.  I received a free digital reading edition of this book a few weeks ago, via Blogging for Books (see disclaimer at the end of the review).

I had high hopes for this novel.  But then I realized that this is not so much a novel as it is a treatise on spiritual awakening.  As such, I have no doubt that the author does a good job presenting the details of the main character's spiritual education (the main character, a lawyer named Ted Day, calls it “Spirit Tech").  However, the result of this emphasis on spiritual instruction renders the characters flat and lifeless – they come across as nothing but cardboard cutouts to help present the ideas that make up the bulk of the story.  When you take away all of that, what is left is a simplistic and not very compelling plot.

The novel starts out with promising and relatively eccentric characters, however: a lawyer, Ted Day, who takes his grandfather’s Winnebago out on a desperately-needed road trip to try and find himself; a young Native American woman, Angel Two Sparrow, who takes her aunt’s retrofitted bookmobile (nicknamed “Bertha”) out on the road to start her spiritual consulting business; and the aunt herself, Aunt Lilly, who is in prison for shooting her husband on the advice of a dream.  There’s also an intriguing premise: Ted and Angel get into a collision, and as part of their “settlement” over the damages to the Winnebago, Angel agrees to educate Ted in the basics of spirituality.  As they keep traveling, Ted and Angel make contact with several of Angel’s friends, all of whom are spiritual guides like her, and all eager to wax eloquent in the pages of the novel.  Most of the characters seem quite reluctant to actually do things of any consequence, however, preferring mostly to sit around and talk like they just stepped out of the pages of a philosophy book.  The reader keeps waiting for the plot to come back, and it never really does.  Ted does eventually get around to working up a defense for Aunt Lilly but it’s almost as an afterthought to the rest of the novel, and even though I am no lawyer, the defense seemed pretty flimsy to me.  It was clear that this plot element was being slotted in to serve the bigger “plot” of Ted’s spiritual education.

The book is well-written, and it has much to offer the reader who may be a seeker, looking to explore questions of religion and spirituality.  However, for the reader who wants a good, old-fashioned story with a plot and everything, there’s just not much of that here.

Disclaimer: I received a complementary digital copy of this book from the book's publisher via Blogging for Books ( for review purposes.  I did not receive any monetary compensation in return for the review.  All opinions expressed here are my own.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Wrapup Post

As I anticipated, I woke up this morning around 6 AM and had an hour to read some more as the finish for the readathon.  So I took that opportunity to read my R.I.P. Deal Me In Lite stories for the upcoming week.  They were (are): "Reports of Certain Events in London" by China Mieville, and "Orchestra" by Stephen Mark Rainey.  I'll be posting about these at more length during the upcoming week, of course, but I liked the Rainey story much better than the Mieville story.

So this brought my read-a-thon activity to a close.  I accomplished a lot more than I thought I would, so I would say all in all, my read-a-thon was a success.

Here's my end-of-the-event meme:

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you?  Oddly enough, it was along about hour 8 or 9 -- the middle of the afternoon.  I think it was probably just a normal middle-of-the-afternoon slump, and easily remedied with coffee and a snack.  I didn't stay up all night but if I had, I have no doubt that some of the higher-number hours would just about have killed me.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?  None of my books were super high-interest, although once I got into the Gaiman, it chugged along pretty well on the interest meter.  I noticed that a lot of people were reading graphic novels this year, and I expect those would work pretty well for those times where interest might be flagging.
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?  Nope, this was my first read-a-thon so I don't have many expectations that were not met.  Maybe next time. :-)
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?  The cheerleading and posting at the main website seemed to go off really flawlessly.  I'm sure there must have been quite a bit of hair-pulling and cussing behind the scenes, but it was not at all evident.
  5. How many books did you read?  Two, and two standalone short stories.
  6. What were the names of the books you read?  All Hallows' Eve by Vivian Vande Velde; The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; and the two short stories mentioned above.
  7. Which book did you enjoy most?  Definitely the Gaiman.
  8. Which did you enjoy least?  This doesn't really apply since I had only two books.  I really liked both of them.
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?  N/A
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?  Very likely.  I would love to be in the situation where I could actually try to read for the whole 24 hours -- maybe next time.  And next time, I might be willing to be a cheerleader.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 15

Progress: After supper, and after watching a couple of episodes of 24 season 5 (my guilty pleasure), I resumed reading the Gaiman.  And I did it -- I finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I'll be reviewing it properly in the next few days, but for now, all I can say is...


What a ride.  At first I was unsure of what to think about the story.  Everything seemed so weird and alien and not-quite-right.  But then (very quickly) the story heated up and it became one of those books that is hard to put down.  And it's also one of those stories that gets inside your heart and soul -- as I finished the story, I felt my chest getting tight and I was being overwhelmed with the beauty and bittersweetness of the ending.  I'm glad I read this book, and I hate that I put it off for so long.

Now what?

I did something today I didn't think I would do, at least not this early: I got through both of my books.  And it's just now 10 PM.  Granted, I am planning on being asleep for most of the remainder of the readathon (no staying up all night for this puppy, at least not this time around, maybe in the spring), but there's time to read a little more before bed this evening.  I think I may read a short story or two before bed, and then another short story in the morning, perhaps, before the end of the readathon at 7 AM.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 11

Progress: I am on page 107 of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  It started out kind of rough, and slow-going, and then it totally sucked me in.  I shouldn't have any problem finishing it this evening, but for now I am going to take a supper break and do some other things, perhaps.  Back to the reading later!

Dewey's Read-a-thon: "Show It Off" Mini Challenge

OK, this one spoke to me so I am participating.  One of the Mini Challenges for this current timeframe is Show It Off!  The idea is to show off a book from one's shelves that one is proud of, or it's the book(s) that one would grab in case of a fire.  I don't know about any of that, but my entry is this:

It's a 4-volume set of The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1900, that I picked up for a relative song in an antiquarian bookshop back when I lived in Nashville.  I would reckon I've had this set for 25 years or maybe a little more.  It's in good shape and even though I have thought several times about getting rid of it, I just can't.  Plus, I have actually read this edition -- it's not just taking up space on my shelf, looking pretty.  I have several signed editions of books that I also treasure, but for some reason this set has a special place on my bookshelves and in my heart.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 8

OK, I am back in the saddle again.  After lunch I started half-heartedly reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  I am not sure why I have been resisting starting this book, except that so many other people like it, I am afraid I am not going to.  And so far, I am on page 47 and it's... interesting.  Too early to say anything more about it, but it's not at all like I thought it was going to be.  I'm going to keep at it and see what develops.

In other news, I have been keeping up with everyone's progress and activity on all the mini-challenges, and Twitter, and Instagram -- and it's all a little overwhelming.  I haven't done anything with any of it myself, except maybe a little Twittering.  But it's all been fun so far!

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 5

Progress: I finished All Hallows' Eve.  A magnificent choice of book to start off my read-a-thon, if I do say so myself.  Most of the stories were pretty short, and reading them was like eating a fun-size chocolate bar out of the bowl of Halloween candy (which I conspicuously DON'T have around the house yet, because I have no sense OR self-control and would eat the whole darn thing in one sitting).

I'm going to take a break from reading right now and pick up again after lunch by starting the Neil Gaiman book.  Hope the read-a-thon is going great for everyone else!

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 4

Progress: None.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.

But I have an excuse!  I spent the hour working on my R.I.P. Deal Me In blog post for the week.  So it was still spent in books and writing about reading and books.  So it's all good!

I'm going to try to spend much of the fifth hour getting back into my book and hopefully finishing it before noon.  We'll see!

R.I.P. Deal Me In Lite: Stories by Oscar Wilde and Robert Philips

It's Week 7 of the R.I.P. version of Deal Me In Lite, and this week the synchronicity machine broke down -- I couldn't find a single similarity between the two stories I read.  Except: they're both good.

I drew the three and Queen of spades from my "Tragic Royalty" deck:

The Queen looks pretty evil, doesn't she?  That's because she IS.

(In the background you can see part of my short story collection shelf.  So many stories to read!  I'm already gearing up for next year's Deal Me In.)

The first story this week is "The Canterville Ghost," by Oscar Wilde.  I was familiar with Wilde's works such as "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray," but not so much with anything else.  This is a longish short story, but highly entertaining and pretty humorous as well. 

The story opens as the Otis family, an American family with typical American brashness (in the eyes of Wilde, at least), buys Canterville Chase, an old English estate complete with furnishings, land, and a resident ghost.  The family, being a modern American family, pooh-poohs the idea of a ghost, despite all the warnings to the contrary.  Their first encounter with the supernatural consists of a mysterious blood stain on the floor of the sitting-room which has never been able to be removed.  One of the family members whips out a tube of Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent, and promptly makes the stain disappear, to the consternation of the housekeeper.  And this sort of becomes the theme to the story.  There IS a ghost, and he tries his best to scare the family and make them believe in him -- and they DO eventually believe in him, but after a fashion: they begin to play tricks on him and try to thwart his every effort at haunting.  It's a truly amusing story (although I think Wilde goes on a little too long with the gag), and it eventually winds up to an interesting and satisfying conclusion.

The second story this week was "A Teacher's Rewards" by Robert Philips.  Old Miss Scofield, a retired schoolteacher, gets a visit from a former student, Raybe Simpson.  She doesn't remember him at first, although he certainly remembers her.  And unfortunately, she remembers him too... at the end, when it's too late.  This story is an interesting game of cat and mouse on the part of the author, where he leaks out one little detail after another, all of the details adding up to a more and more unsettling story.  As it turns out, Raybe is fresh out of prison, and while he was locked up, he got to wondering how he ended up there.  He decided it was his mistreatment as a child in Miss Scofield's class, from her and his classmates, so he has come to visit her and settle up some old scores.  This is an excellent story with a type of horror that gradually creeps up on the reader and produces a good old-fashioned shudder at the end.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 3

Progress: I'm on page 177 of All Hallows' Eve.  Really enjoying this book.  I forgot to mention in my last post that all the stories take place on Halloween.  I'm thinking I may break this book back out on Halloween night in case I want a little atmospheric reading.

So far, my favorite story in the collection has been "Pretending."  It's one of those stories where the protagonist (and the reader) is constantly kept off-guard, wondering what's real and what's not.  In the end, the pretenders are NOT what the reader has been assuming they are all along... because they're something MUCH WORSE.  A good, shivery story.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 2

Progress: Now on page 113 of All Hallows' Eve.  Still enjoying it -- these stories have quite a few murderous ghosts, which is a kind of interesting twist.  It's a YA book so all the protagonists are teenagers, but I don't mind that too much.

I made a little less progress this hour because I had to stop and eat breakfast.  At the breakfast table.  Breakfast that my sweet wife had made for me.  So the smart man stops his reading and goes to eat.

In the next hour, I might take a break from the short stories and start on the Neil Gaiman.  I love short stories, but sometimes I find it hard to read a bunch of them in a row -- the continuous jolt with changing characters and plots is a little irritating.  But so far, overall, I am enjoying my first Dewey's read-a-thon!

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 1

Progress: I've read 60 pages of All Hallows' Eve.  The stories are quick reads, as I anticipated, and they are super creepy.

Second cup of coffee now.  All is right with the world.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Opening Meme

It's 7 AM Central time, so here we go!  I have a trusty cup of coffee at my side (the brain simply doesn't do ANYTHING without coffee at this time of day), a comfy chair, and a book.  First up: All Hallows' Eve by Vivian Vande Velde.  I'm hoping it's a quick read -- we'll see.

So here's the opening meme:

1. What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

South Mississippi, just outside of Hattiesburg

2. Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- everybody RAVES about this book, so I might hate it.  (ha) But I want to read it!

3. Which snack are you most looking forward to?

I didn't really lay in any snacks for this, but I'm sure there will be some.  There's always some snacks when I'm reading, somehow....

4. Tell us a little something about yourself!

I have recently been getting back into paper books (rather obsessively, as is my fashion), after quite a long time of preferring nothing but ebooks.  But now I am finding a pleasant balance between the two.

5. If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

First Dewey's Readathon here, so I am a blank slate.  I think I am most looking forward to just the immersion in reading and finishing my two books in 24 hours, something I have never done.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"The Man Who Was Almost A Man" by Richard Wright

Deal Me In Lite, Week 16: "The Man Who Was Almost A Man" by Richard Wright

The seven of diamonds this week sends us down South (again) to a writer from my home state of Mississippi: Richard Wright.


I wrote about Wright a few days ago when I told the tale of my trip to Natchez.  Wright is, arguably, one of the most famous of many famous writers who called Mississippi home for even a short time.  And he is remembered in countless ways throughout the state.  Here, in south Mississippi, we have a wonderful public library in Hattiesburg, and outside is an "Authors' Walk," with plaques commemorating the state's most famous writers.  I went to the library today, just because, and as I walked down the sidewalk, who should I encounter but Mr. Wright!  Or at least, his plaque:

And yet, for as long as I have lived in Mississippi, I have never read any of Wright's work.  Until this week.  Go figure.

As this week's story opens, Dave, a teenaged black boy, is headed to the general store to look into buying a gun out of the Sears Roebuck catalog.  He thinks he needs a gun so the other field hands will treat him more like he deserves, more like a man.

OK, so is it just me, or does this immediately put one in mind of Chekhov's famous maxim, which goes something like this:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

Well, Wright eventually puts a gun in Dave's hands, but he gets it in a rather roundabout way.  Dave works on a farm, and all of his wages go directly to his mother.  So he has to beg his mother for two dollars to buy a second-hand gun, and the only reason she lets him have the money is that she plans for Dave's father to have the gun, I suppose for safekeeping until Dave is deemed old enough to handle it.  However, Dave hides the gun and tries to figure out a time and a place to fire it, although he is not sure he even knows how to shoot it, this being the first gun he has ever handled.

Right about now, while I was reading this story, my stomach began tying itself up in knots because I just knew this was going to end badly.  And it did, of course, with Dave taking the gun out with him in the field early the next morning.  He decides to try firing the gun, and accidentally shoots and kills the mule he is using to plow the field.  Ironically, the very act Dave thought would prove he was finally a man, ends up confirming in everyone's mind that he is still a dumb little kid who can't be trusted with something like a gun.

There's more to the story than this brief synopsis, of course, but I don't want to ruin it for you.  I liked this story a lot, but one thing that made it harder to read was the dialect that Wright used for the black characters' dialogue.  Dialect of any kind is notoriously hard to read.  However, this is really a minor quibble for a very interesting story.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dewey's Read-a-Thon is this Saturday!

In the book blogging world, possibly no event is bigger than Dewey's Read-a-Thon (link to the FAQ page on the official blog).  It's a twice-a-year 24-hour reading orgy, with prizes, mini-challenges, and cheerleaders (people who are assigned to visit your blog and cheer you on) and everything.  I have observed the goings-on each time they hold it, but have never jumped in and participated, mainly because I find it hard to do anything for 24 hours.  Plus, in the past, the date was never a convenient one for me.

This year, however?  It's this Saturday, October 18, and I'm jumping in with both feet.  One of the nice things about this read-a-thon is that it has no hard and fast rules about how one participates.  Of course, the ultimate goal and expectation is that people will stay up for 24 hours and read as much as they can in that timeframe.  But really, it's all about personal goals.  So participants have carte blanche to modify the rules to suit their own ends.  Some prizes are available only to people who partake of the full meal deal, of course, but there seems to be something in the read-a-thon for everyone.

So the other day, about 24 hours before signups closed, I signed up.  (Anyone can participate at any time, but to be guaranteed to get on the list for being visited by cheerleaders, prizes, etc., there was a signup deadline.  At last count, over 700 bloggers have signed up for the read-a-thon.)  But I am approaching the read-a-thon on a personal best level, at least this time around:

  1. I won't be staying up the full 24 hours.  I'm not sure I could have done that when I was young and foolish, so I'm pretty sure I can't do it now that I'm old and foolish.  Plus, I have a church job that requires me to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pretty early on Sunday mornings, so I need my beauty rest for that.  The read-a-thon starts on Saturday at 7 AM in my time zone, so I am envisioning that I will probably read most of the day, stay up reading as late as I can on Saturday night, and then get up early Sunday morning and finish off the read-a-thon before it ends at 7 AM.
  2. I'm not even sure I can put my life on hold enough to do nothing but read all day and all night on Saturday, so I am going to commit to reading as much as I can, but when I need to do something else, I am going to do it.  Baby steps!
  3. The conventional wisdom from bloggers who have done the read-a-thon for years is that the best approach is to choose short, captivating books that will keep you pressing ahead, and not heavy, boring, complex tomes that will bog you down.  Accordingly, I have chosen two books that should fit the bill:

All Hallows' Eve by Vivian Vande Velde
OK, I do realize this is pretty low-hanging fruit.  It's a book of YA short stories.  So it shouldn't make me even break a sweat.  However, it's the right time of year for this kind of reading, and I need something that will be an easy start.  I should be able to finish this book no matter what else I do during the read-a-thon, and that's kind of the whole idea.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I bought this book a few weeks ago on the strength of all the fantastic reviews it was getting, but I wasn't quite sure when I was going to read it.  Plus, I have never read any Gaiman before, so I wasn't sure if I would like it or not (despite the rave reviews).  BUT.... it's a small book (around 180 pages).  And it's supposed to be a really, really good story.  So I am adding this to the read-a-thon list also.  I might actually be able to finish it as well.

And that is that.  Two books.  No sense in shooting myself in the foot before I begin.  And if I read these two books in the space of 24 hours, that will be a first for me in my reader's life, so that will be something of an achievement all by itself.  And if I do by some miracle get through these two books and have gobs of spare time left, I bet I can find another book to read in the ever-growing TBR pile.

Is anyone else joining me in the read-a-thon?  If so, what are your plans and what are you reading?  If not, has anyone read these two books before (especially the Gaiman), and what did you think?

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Bookish Trip to Natchez

A week or so ago, I made a trip to Natchez, Mississippi (about three hours from where I live) to attend the wedding of one of my work colleagues.  It was a very festive occasion, as most weddings (hopefully) are -- a big church wedding at an Episcopal church, and during the ceremony I had my first experience with communion that involved a common cup of wine.  The microbiologist in me just about had a conniption fit and was prepared to sit this one out, but I reasoned my way through it:
  1. It was real wine, after all, and alcohol is no slouch at disinfecting things;
  2. The officiant wiped the rim of the chalice after every person drank from it;
  3. It was a silver chalice.  Silver is also highly antimicrobial.
So -- I had some wine.  It was pretty nasty.

While in Natchez, I decided to make a trip to a small independent bookstore while I was there, because books!  This was my second trip to the city, but the first time I was there, I didn't look up a bookstore.  That was a mistake, because Natchez has a real gem of a bookstore, called Turning Pages.  (Love the name!)

When you walk in the store, you are immediately greeted by shelves and shelves of books.  It's the most inviting sight ever.

You're looking at more or less the width of the bookstore in this shot.  It's cozy!

Also near the door was this display of Greg Iles' most recent book, Natchez Burning.  In case you don't know, Greg Iles is Natchez' resident famous author.  In fact, while chit-chatting with the cashier during my checkout, I found out that Mr. Iles was getting married that day also, somewhere in Natchez in a private ceremony.  Talk about synchronicity!

These were signed copies of the book, actually.  One made it home with me.

While the bookstore is not large, it's sufficiently welcoming and stocked so that one can spend quite some time there (and I did).  And I came home with this:

  1. The signed Greg Iles novel. I've never read any of his books, but I figured since I was in Natchez, I was morally obligated to buy this book. (ha)
  2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt -- I bought this because I read The Goldfinch this summer and loved it (which reminds me, I still need to write a review of it). 
  3. Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall.   No particular reason; it just looked like my kind of book.

On top of the stack is something I had not run across previously.  There you see three paperbacks which are samplers of upcoming books, put out by Penguin Books ("What the World is Reading") and their imprints Berkley Prime Crime, New American Library, and Obsidian Mysteries (the Mystery and Thriller Sampler).  These are essentially ARC samplers, and of course they were free.  And, of course, I took them home with me, because I don't have nearly enough books and I always need ideas for more.

If you're in the vicinity of Natchez (it's a wonderful place to spend a weekend, that's for sure), make sure you stop in at Turning Pages and say hello.  You will be glad you did!

By the way, here's a photo of a display at the Natchez Visitors' Center outlining the writers who hailed from Natchez.  Richard Wright is on there -- he's arguably the most famous writer who was born or lived in Natchez.  (He was actually born on a plantation near Natchez but spent the majority of his life somewhere else, most notably Chicago, New York, and Paris.)  Mr. Iles is on this exhibit as well, and although he was not born in Natchez, he was raised there and has since made it his home.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

R.I.P. Deal Me In Lite: Stories by H.G. Wells and E.F. Benson

It's the sixth week of my R.I.P. "Peril of the Short Story" version of Deal Me In Lite, and this week I start reading two stories each week in order to get to the magical number of 13 by the end of October.  And this turned out to be a very interesting event.  There's already a lot of serendipity built into the Deal Me In method of reading, but when you pick and read two stories together, you can achieve even greater levels of serendipity, as I found out this week.

So for this week I chose the Ace and two of spades from my "Tragic Royalty" deck of cards:

The Ace corresponded to "The Red Room" by H.G. Wells, and the two corresponded to "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" by E.F. Benson.  Both of these stories are available on the Internet, but I got them from an anthology I have owned for quite some time, Ghosts, edited by Marvin Kaye:

Yes, that is Edward Gorey artwork on the cover.  I found an image that shows the entire dust jacket because it's really wonderful and highly appropriate for this book.

Both of these stories involve a person who spends time in a haunted room -- but one spends time there on purpose (because they don't really believe it is haunted) and the other KNOWS the room is haunted and gets trapped there by accident.

In "The Red Room" by H.G. Wells, the narrator proposes to spend the night in a haunted room, the so-called "red room" of Lorraine Castle, in which braver souls than he have spent the night, and died there.  The servants, who are elderly and who have lived through the history of the house, do their best to dissuade the narrator from this foolhardy act, but he is determined to do it.  As he makes himself comfortable (if that word may be used here) in the room for the night, he tries to dispel the overwhelming gloominess and darkness of the room with candles that he lights and sets up in various nooks and crannies of the room.  Then the candles start going out, in various combinations.  Is it a draft?  Or something more sinister?  Eventually the candles all go out at once, and the fire goes out as well, and the narrator is thrown into a terrified panic.  He runs around frantically in the dark, trying to find the door of the room, and knocks himself out on a piece of furniture.  Not to spoil the story for you (because it's really not much of a story, although very well-written and interesting), the next morning the narrator comes to the conclusion that what really haunts the room is Fear itself.

This leads us to the synchronicity with the second story I read this week, "How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery," by E.F. Benson.  Let me just take a moment and make another plug, as I have before, for E.F. Benson as one of the more underrated modern British novelists (modern as in the early 20th century).  I have waxed eloquent about the pleasures of his Lucia novels elsewhere on this blog, and in my opinion this gem of a story is another example of his expert way with a tale.  I have never read much of his other work besides the Lucia novels, but apparently Benson is also well-regarded for his ghost stories, of which I believe he wrote several.  If they are anything like this one, I will have to hunt down the others and read them too.

In Benson's story, the Peveril family lives in a house that they know is haunted; in fact, they co-exist happily with several different family ghosts, and take a kind of pride and pleasure in interacting with their long-dead ancestors in this way.  This part of the story is actually pretty humorous, in Benson's typical understated, droll style.  However, there is one pair of ghosts that the family fears: the ghosts of twin babies that were brutally murdered by the ruthless Dick Peveril, so he could inherit the estate instead of them.  This murder, which involved throwing the babies into a fire, happened in the long gallery, and ever since then, the ghosts of the babies have haunted that room.  They appear only once or twice a year, and only in the dead of night, but the family is terrified of seeing them, because everyone who has ever seen their ghosts has died a horrible, gruesome death.  So every member of the family simply makes sure to stay out of the long gallery after dark, and they make sure their houseguests know this rule as well.

So this sets the stage for a New Year's Eve party where the family is hosting several guests, including Madge Dalrymple, who unfortunately twists her knee skating on the lake.  Madge decides to rest her leg by sitting in front of the fire in the long gallery.  She's warned not to forget about being in there after sunset, but of course you know what happens next.  Madge falls asleep over her book and wakes up right at dusk.  When she realizes what time it is, she becomes terrified, and of course the twin baby ghosts show up soon after.  What happens next, though, is an interesting twist on the traditional ghost story, and this ghost story actually turns out to have a happy ending.  It's not a sappy, tacked-on happy ending though -- it fits the tone and plot of the story perfectly.

I enjoyed both of these stories and would highly recommend both of them.  Look them up and let me know what you think!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Amazing Grace" by William Hoffman

Deal Me In Lite, Week 15: "Amazing Grace" by William Hoffman

This week we have the four of diamonds, and another story from the anthology Growing Up in the South.  It's an interesting tale told from the point of view of a young boy in West Virginia (not exactly what I regard as the South, speaking as a native Tennessean and a transplanted Mississippian, but I realize it is below the Mason-Dixon line, so we don't need to quibble).


Nana is the matriarch of the family and the narrator's grandmother.  One day she stops doing all of her customary activities such as baking bread and filling the kitchen with good smells, and goes out to the yard to simply sit under the Indian cigar-tree (a catalpa tree, in case you are curious what that is, like I was).  This is so uncharacteristic of her behavior that the family immediately knows something is wrong.  It turns out that she is upset that her son Henry, a successful businessman who moved away to Pittsburgh, had never been baptized in the river, a family tradition.

The family calls for Henry, and he comes back to the homestead along with his wife Dale Blue and his son Dawson.  Nana wants them all to be baptized in the river, and she enlists the help of the minster, Preacher Arbogast.  Henry is finally talked into it, but Dale Blue, who is clearly a city girl, needs quite a bit more convincing.  She initially agrees, but backs out when they get to the river and it appears that this is the social event of the season, complete with photographers.  It takes some conniving on Henry's part to soften her up, and how he finally manages to do it is pretty entertaining.

This story is very evocative of the speech and pace of the South.  The plot is not that compelling but the story is worth reading just for the language.  For example, here's a scene just after Henry comes to visit and he has brought his mother a grandfather's clock as a present:

Nana eyed the clock.  She had an oval face, and her hair was thin, wispy cotton.  She adjusted her glasses to peer at the clock.  Then she turned away.

"But don't you like it?" Dale Blue asked.  "Henry went to lots of trouble to bring it."

"All that clock tells me is my days are running out, and nobody's been to the river," Nana said.

She wouldn't look at the clock again.  The men carried it into the hall to set it up a second time, but she went to bed without glancing at it.  Uncle Henry and Dale Blue came to the kitchen where they sat around the table with my mother and daddy as well as Aunt Henrietta and Aunt Cornelia and their husbands Albert and Asa.

"She's sure low," Aunt Cornelia said while she poured iced tea from a glass pitcher, her arms brown from helping Uncle Asa in the hayfields.  "I've not seen her this far down since lightning hit the heifers."

"Spoiled is what she is," Dale Blue said.

Boy, eyes bugged at Dale Blue as if she was a snake on a rock.  She was in the family but not of it.  She colored, touched her frozen-custard hair, and shrugged.

"Honey, maybe you better let me do the talking here," Uncle Henry said.

"But she's pouting like a child," Dale Blue said.

"All the work she's done for this family she's got a right to pout until Moses makes sauerkraut out of little sour apples in December," Aunt Henrietta said.

And there's more where that came from -- this is a wonderful story that is in the same league as the best Southern writing.  It's well worth your time if you ever run across it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Harvest Home, by Thomas Tryon, has been on my Kindle TBR list FOREVER.  So when I was fishing around for ideas about the books to put on my R.I.P. Peril the First list, I knew I had to read this book.

Ned Constantine, his wife Beth, and their teenaged daughter Kate have just moved from New York to the sleepy little New England hamlet of Cornwall Coombe.  It's a place so traditional in its outlook that the villagers look askance on the use of something as basic as a tractor for getting their farming done.  And make no mistake, farming and their (only) crop, corn, is something they take VERY seriously in Cornwall Coombe.  Their entire year revolves around the planting and harvesting of the corn, with their major festivals which including Planting, Days of Seasoning, Tithing Day, the Corn Play, and the last and most mysterious, Harvest Home.

Even though this novel has what might now be regarded as something of a hackneyed plot (it might have been much more original when the book first came out in 1973, I don't know), Tryon successfully avoids making the characters too stereotypical, I think.  One of the major characters of the book is the Widow Fortune, who seems to be a creepy old lady when she first appears in the story, riding around in her horse and buggy, and wearing a little white cap (think Amish style).  Then, due to several important and plot-turning events, the reader gradually comes to trust her as a stern but ultimately kind-hearted and beneficent matriarch who watches over the welfare of everyone in the village.  Then.... the tables turn again.  OK, she IS a creepy old lady who is capable of pretty much anything.  She doesn't see herself this way, of course, but she's basically evil.

Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune in the made-for-TV movie version of the book (see below)

Other creepy events and pieces of information find their way into the narrative, gradually adding to the unease the reader keeps trying to push away.  The Constantines' next door neighbors are the Dodds -- Maggie and Robert.  Robert is blind, and the sound of his "books on tape" (although back in the 1970's it was more like "books on vinyl") floating in from the house next door is an ever-present background to the Constantines' lives.  One day Ned helps Robert put in his eyedrops and discovers that Robert is blind because his eyeballs are completely gone.  Hmmmm.......

Then there's the mystery of Gracie Everdeen, a villager who is now dead but whose grave is the only one outside the confines of the cemetery, as if she were being shunned even in death.  And no one really wants to talk about what happened to her, except that whatever she did brought on the last poor harvest, what the villagers call the "Great Waste."  Hmmmmm.........

And how about Missy Penrose, a creepy little girl who serves as the village's oracle, not only doing relatively innocent things like choosing baby names for expectant mothers, but also choosing the young man who will be the "Lord of the Harvest" for the coming seven years?  Oh, and she chooses the Lord of the Harvest by dipping her hands in the blood and entrails of a freshly-slaughtered sheep before walking around a circle of the young men and placing her bloody hands on the face of the one she chooses.  (Now you just can't tell me that's normal, I don't care who ya are.)  Hmmmmm.......

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  This novel is CREEPY.  And an excellent read!

The progression of events in this novel, a kind of slippery slope to the inevitable, is one of the main things that makes it so effective.  The reader watches as Ned goes from being enchanted with his new home of Cornwall Coombe, to being irritated at the old-fashioned ways and attitudes of the villagers, to being suspicious of what is actually going on behind the scenes, to the final stage of understanding the lengths to which the villagers will go to preserve their way of life.  It's like watching pretty much every horror film ever made, where you are yelling at the characters NOT to look behind that door, NOT to go down into the dark cellar, NOT to go find out what made that weird noise outside -- and secretly hoping that they WILL.

The book was adapted into a TV miniseries movie, "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home," in 1978.  The cast included Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune.  It's available in parts on YouTube, and I did watch a little bit of it after reading the novel.  It's supposed to be relatively faithful to the plot of the book (an increasing rarity these days) but the book has to be much more entertaining.  Plus, 1970's TV miniseries -- need I say more?

In short, if you are looking for a scary-ish, spooky, creepy autumnal read, you could do far worse than this book.  I highly recommend it!