Saturday, July 22, 2017

Goodbye....and Hello

Don't get all excited -- it's not what you think.

I'm moving this blog with a little help from my friends:



Follow me to my new blogging home: Time Enough At Last on Wordpress

Anyone have any thoughts or suggestions about moving old posts? I would like to have everything all in one place, but it seems like a lot of work to move stuff. Maybe there's an easy way? Your comments are welcome.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

DMI2017, Week 28: "Pit Stop" by John Floyd

Another week, and the Seven of Clubs is keeping me in the pages of Mississippi Noir, but honestly I feel like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch with it, so I'm good. (Bonus points for catching the reference there.)


And just for fun, here's a different take on the obligatory playing card image for this week:


This week's story, "Pit Stop," is told from the viewpoint of Anna McDowell, a young mother traveling with her two young children. They're on their way to Nashville to visit Anna's sister-in-law and they make a pit stop at a quickie mart. While there, they are accosted by a carjacker, but Anna has the wits and the self-defense skills to outsmart and overcome her attacker. The policeman who comes to get the information about the attack turns out to know Anna from years before, and he makes a cryptic remark: "Lightning can strike twice in the same place." Anna's daughter Deborah is intrigued by this remark and wants to know what it's about.

Anna tells a story about a Saturday during her college years, when she drove from Jackson, Mississippi to Starkville in order to attend a football game. She was traveling with her boyfriend Woody, but it was an uneasy trip because there was a serial killer (nicknamed the Night Stalker) on the loose. Worse, all the killings had taken place on the highway on which Anna and Woody were traveling. Before leaving Jackson, they see a policeman friend of theirs, Jack, who convinces them to take a hitchhiker named Mary with them. Mary turns out to be a nun (at least, she says she's a nun), and Anna is uneasy about this as well, because no one knows if the Night Stalker is a man or a woman. Maybe it's Mary...


During the trip the three of them happen to stop at the same quickie mart at which the story starts, and a series of unsettling events begins to take place. Mary suddenly disappears, but leaves behind a bracelet that she said she never took off. Woody tells Anna something that she knows is a lie, but is he purposely trying to lie, or just misinformed? Woody travels along this highway often for his job, and he's big and strong -- is he perhaps the Night Stalker?

I'm definitely not giving away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is a well-written story with lots of twists and turns. Of course Anna and Woody do meet up with the Night Stalker on their trip, and the explanation of who it is, is suitably satisfying. The story-within-a-story also gets wrapped up in a satisfactory way.

Rating: 5 stars, for the excellent writing and plotting.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

High Summer Readathon Plans


As she does every year, Michelle at Seasons of Reading is hosting the High Summer Readathon beginning today and running for the next two weeks, culminating in a 48-hour Christmas in July readathon the last weekend of the overall readathon. Well, this sort of thing is completely irresistible to me, so of course I signed up.

High summer means different things to different people, I suppose. Where I live, it means the onslaught of near-100% humidity, mosquitoes, and hurricane season. Other places it means the weather is finally getting nice. Here's how Matthew Arnold put it (from the poem "Thyrsis"):

Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees,
And the full moon, and the white evening-star.


And here's even more summery Arnold goodness, from "The Scholar-Gipsy":

Here will I sit and wait,
While to my ear from uplands far away
The bleating of the folded flocks is borne,
With distant cries of reapers in the corn—
All the live murmur of a summer's day.



When you've said that, you need say no more!

But enough of that -- what am I reading during this readathon?
  • I will be finishing Sense and Sensibility for the Jane Austen Read-All-Along at James Reads Books;
  • I will be finishing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for my Classics Club list;
  • If I finish those two (which will be a feat), I'll use a random number generator to pick another title off my Classics Club list, since I am quite a bit behind on it.
  • For the Christmas in July weekend, I plan to read:
    • The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James (just four stories, so this should be entirely manageable)
    • And something from my obscenely long TBR list on my Kindle: Christmas is Murder by C.S. Challinor
I'll keep you posted on my progress!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

DMI2017, Week 27: "Moonface" by Andrew Paul

    

For this week's short story, the Six of Clubs served up a mildly disturbing story by Andrew Paul, from the collection Mississippi Noir. Seems as if I'm having something of a run on stories from this collection, as often happens with Deal Me In, but I certainly don't mind because most of the stories in this collection are quite good.

The story's action centers on a man nicknamed "Moonface" by the kids at the school where he works on the cafeteria serving line. His real name is Yitzhak Cohen, and he's a Holocaust survivor. They call him "Moonface" because of the ugly circular scars visible all over his body. The unnamed narrator of the story, a high school kid, has multiple run-ins with Moonface, because as it turns out they both have their eyes on Nicole, a senior cheerleader.

After one too many humiliations at the hands of both Moonface and Nicole, the narrator decides that Moonface needs to go. He makes his way to Moonface's trailer on the edge of town, with no real plan in mind, and finds out that he has already lost Nicole -- Moonface and Nicole are clearly in an intimate relationship, one which her father then finds out about. So now there's ANOTHER person who has it in for Moonface, and the story spirals downward from there. As it turns out, the narrator does indeed play a pivotal role in getting rid of Moonface, but not at all in the way that he might have envisioned.

Rating: 5 stars; this is one of those stories that gradually sucks you in and begins raising the suspense as you watch the characters make one bad decision after another. An excellent read!

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

DMI2017, Week 26: "Quitters, Inc." by Stephen King

This week the Six of Spades brought me another oldie but goodie from the pages of Night Shift.

  

Richard Morrison is a typical American businessman -- he smokes, drinks, and eats too much. One day he meets an old friend, Jimmy McCann, in an airport bar, and Jimmy looks great. He has stopped smoking, and he tells Morrison that it's due to the help of a fantastic place called "Quitters, Inc." They guarantee to help you quit smoking, and although he's skeptical, Morrison takes one of their cards from Jimmy. The only problem is, Jimmy can't talk about what Quitters, Inc. does to be so successful.

The business card resurfaces a month or so later, and Morrison decides to pay the offices of Quitters, Inc. a visit. He's introduced to a case manager named Vic Donatti. He tells Morrison that they employ no special techniques to help people quit smoking -- that they are pragmatists. What Morrison finds out only too late is, the pragmatic approach involves things like electric shocks, administered to his wife first, and then him, whenever he slips up and smokes a cigarette. And they'll know, because they will have him under constant surveillance. Further infractions would involve his son being visited by thugs to rough him up. And if Morrison gains weight as a result of stopping smoking (as most people do)? Well, Quitters Inc. has a pragmatic approach to solving that as well. At the risk of a spoiler, I chose the image of the Six of Spades above as a clue to what that approach might be.

Rating: 5 stars; "Quitters, Inc." is an entertaining but highly creepy story that shows King's ability to effortlessly weave an engrossing tale.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

John Dies at the End by David Wong

I haven't done a regular book review in some time here. Some weeks, it's all I can do to post a Deal Me In short story review. (And recent history asserts that even THAT was too much for several weeks in a row.) Recently I've been posting short reviews of books I've read on Goodreads, and that was OK for a while. But now I feel the need to write something longer on books.

It's unfortunate, however, that the book I choose to resurrect regular book reviews with is this one, mainly because it's a very hard book to describe to someone else. It's no understatement to say that John Dies at the End is one of the most unusual books I've read in a very long time. Evidently it has quite a cult following, and a movie has been made from the book. (It's on my Netflix queue, so I'm eager to see if it makes a little more sense than the book.) But I have to admit that it seemed a little uneven to me, and it would probably benefit from a rereading, if I had that kind of time (which I don't).


So how to summarize this book? Well, for starters, David Wong is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin, who is the executive editor at Cracked.com, which is your first clue about what kind of book this might be. Read his Wikipedia page for the interesting back story of how all this came to be.

The action of the story takes place in [Undisclosed]. (This is what it's called throughout the book.) There's a pair of protagonists, John and Dave, and they have some special powers that allow them to do all kinds of things, not the least of which is to see and interact with creatures and other entities from other dimensions -- what we might otherwise call monsters, although as the events of the book play out, that word is way too simplistic for these things. John and Dave have these powers due to a drug-like substance called "soy sauce." It appears out of nowhere in small metal canisters that are cold to the touch even in the middle of summer, and when you take it, it changes you in all kinds of strange ways.

"Soy sauce," NOT "soy sauce."

Oh, and there's also a dog, Molly, that figures prominently in the plot, but she has an annoying habit of exploding, among other things. In fact, many of the characters in this story keep dying in odd and interesting ways, but they keep coming back. There's also issues with time and the order of events in this story, which doesn't surprise the reader once it's made clear that more that one dimension is involved. But I have to say that it can be very confusing at times.

Molly can even drive.

The upshot of the plot, without giving too much away, is that there is a being from another dimension who goes by the name of Korrok, and who is very interested in taking over the beings and worlds in this dimension. To do this, he sends all kinds of monsters to achieve this purpose, as well as taking control over ordinary people, turning them into various monsters.

Even though my brief synopsis sounds truly like the hottest of hot messes, this is a pretty funny book, even if the humor is often black humor. And it's definitely not like anything else I've ever read. I have to admit that the author was very inventive with what could have otherwise been an ordinary story. And along the way, he manages to work in some pretty interesting philosophical questions that arise from the events of the story.

My major problem with the book is that I feel like it began well -- funny and weird and intriguing -- and ended pretty well (with some major revelations that I simply didn't see coming) -- but the middle part of the book seemed disjointed, or even sort of like filler. This is why I think I might like to read the book again, to see if I just missed something in the middle that would make more sense now that I know the basic arc of the story.

Rating: 4 stars; I'm glad I read this unique book, even though (spoiler) John does NOT die at the end.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

DMI2017, Week 25: "On the Hill" by Elizabeth Spencer

This week I successfully got back on my Deal Me In reading schedule, pretty much. The deck of cards dealt me the Four of Hearts, which sends me back to my list of Mississippi authors (in honor of the Mississippi bicentennial) and a story by Elizabeth Spencer. I read another story by Spencer earlier this year ("A Southern Landscape," Week 12), and this story, "On the Hill," was very different from that one. I suddenly realized that she has the distinction of occupying two spots on my roster of Mississippi authors, along with Faulkner and Welty. That was not by design -- I think it was more about what was available to me in terms of reading resources, although I did buy Starting Over, the collection in which we find this story, specifically for Deal Me In this year.

  

The title of this story refers to the location of the house of Barry and Jan Daugherty, recent transplants to the small town of Eltonville. They are a bit aloof and more than a little mysterious, but everyone who's anyone in town loves to attend their elegant dinner parties.

Eva Rooke and her husband Dick are some of the Daughertys' guests, and Eva especially begins to be sucked into something of an obsession about figuring out who the Daughertys really are. This is because she sees certain things that make her wonder just what exactly is going on. One day she sees Barry coming out of the Holy Brotherhood of Jesus church, a strange cult on the edge of town. On another day, the Daughertys' son Riley shows up at Eva's front door after school, saying that his mom has gone away and he can't get in his house. Upon investigation, Eva discovers that Jan is inside the house, apparently drunk and passed out. The story gets more and more enigmatic from there, with Eva never really figuring out what the Daughertys were all about, even long after they suddenly move away.

Rating: 4 stars; I liked this story even though I feel like I didn't really understand it. I am still relatively new to Spencer's writing, and I enjoy her style. In this story, she also did an excellent job of pulling the reader into Eva's thoughts, curiosity, and confusion about the Daughertys. I still plan to read more of her work.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

DMI2017: More Catching Up (Weeks 21-24)

This group of four stories brings me up to the end of last week, so I am officially caught up now. And it's definitely a mixed bag of stories!


Week 21: "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty
Card: Two of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
How have I missed this story all these years? I know that it has been widely anthologized and whenever one mentions Welty, this story usually comes up. In addition to being a famous author, Welty was also known for her photography, and supposedly this story was inspired by one of her photographs showing a woman ironing in the back of a post office. This is a truly funny story of sibling rivalry and the ways in which it can cause family relationships to go all to hell. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, but I definitely saw glimpses of the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son in this story. But more than anything else, I just wallowed in the Southern cadences and turns of phrase that Welty uses all throughout the story.

Rating: 5 stars, no contest!


Week 22: "The Apprentice" by Larry Brown
Card: Seven of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: Big Bad Love
When I put together my list of Mississippi authors for my Hearts suit, I'm ashamed to say that I didn't actually know many beyond the obvious ones like Welty, Faulkner, and Wright. So I started googling and came up with a pretty long list of authors born or raised or living in Mississippi, and Larry Brown was on that list. He passed away in 2004, but in his lifetime he was a pretty notable author and won many awards, including the Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, as well as the Southern Book Award for Fiction. He hailed from Oxford, Mississippi and became known for his gritty, down-to-earth stories and novels.

This story, "The Apprentice," was actually pretty funny, but with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. Lonnie and Judy are a married couple who, according to Lonnie, at least, were happy until Judy decides she's going to become a writer. She writes all the time, which is actually OK with Lonnie, except that he begins to read some of her stuff and it's completely awful. (Her story "The Hunchwoman of Cincinnati" is what finally leads him to realize that she's a terrible writer.) The problem is, if he tells Judy the truth about her writing, she becomes unhinged; if he lies and says it's great stuff, then they have amazing sex. So he's in-between the classic rock and hard place.

Rating: 5 stars; I really liked Brown's tone and style, and I am very eager to read more of his stuff.


Week 23: "How To Become a Mars Overlord" by Catheryanne Valente
Card: Queen of Diamonds (Science fiction/Fantasy)
Collection: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
This was one of those stories that I really wanted to like. The premise is irresistible: the "story" (really more of a humorous essay) consists essentially of instructions on how to become a Mars overlord, with examples of those who have gone before you. It's true that there's only one Mars in our solar system, but apparently every solar system in the Universe contains a Mars-like planet, just ripe for the taking by any enterprising overlord. The sections of the essay include: "Welcome, Aspiring Potentates!", "Query: Why Mars?", "Step One: Get to Mars," and "Step Two: Become an Overlord."

Rating: 3 stars; I wanted to like this story, but I didn't really because it was not a story. The title was the best part. The essay consisted of tale after tale of Mars overlords and what they were like and what they did to conquer their Mars, and in the end I just found it all very confusing.


Week 24: "My Dear, My One True Love" by Lee Durkee
Card: Ten of Clubs (Mystery/Detective set in Mississippi)
Collection: Mississippi Noir
This is another story that's not a story (have I missed something somewhere in the rules of modern fiction?) but it's entertaining nonetheless. It's an ode to the crazy woman. It begins: They have the most beautiful eyes, crazy women do, differing tints and gleams, true, but always that pinprick of wilding incandescence, the swamp gas rising. Of course, relationships with crazy women don't end well. And with no risk of a spoiler, here's the end of the story: Life goes on in this manner until someone gets led away in handcuffs or we find ourselves late at night once again shoveling away under the Mississippi stars, my dear, my one true love.

Rating: 4 stars; even though it's not really a story in my opinion, it was well-written and humorous, always pluses to me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

DMI2017: Catching Up (Weeks 17-20)

Funnily enough, I think it was just about this time of year, two years ago, that my Deal Me In reading plan went belly-up. What is it about the summer that is so fatal to DMI? Maybe it's just me, but I bet I'm not alone in this. For me, vacation and time away from my normal environments generally result in less reading, not more. And over the last two months, I've been gone from home about half of that time.

So now I am faced with playing some catch-up because I'm determined not to let my DMI roster die another ignominious death -- even cats have only a limited number of lives, and who knows if DMI is the same way?

I've decided that the best way to deal with my backlog is to do mini-reviews of the stories I'm behind on, eventually bringing my roster back to a state of currency. So here goes!


Week 17: "Combustible" by Ace Atkins
Card: Queen of Clubs
Collection: Mississippi Noir
Shelby is a high-school freshman who is trying to run away from home. Her stepfather is abusive and her mother (and pretty much everyone else) is turning a blind eye to the abuse. Lucky for Shelby, there's a leaking gas valve under her house that might just solve her problem.

Rating: 5 stars for plot and atmosphere


Week 18: "Jerusalem's Lot" by Stephen King
Card: Two of Spades (Stephen King old and new)
Collection: Night Shift
An oldie but a goodie, written in epistolary style. Charles Boone comes into possession of Chapelwaite, his family's historic estate. But of course weird things start to creep into the tale, such as things moving around inside the walls of the house (rats, surely). And there are local legends of sinister goings-on at a nearby abandoned town called Jerusalem's Lot. Charles discovers that one of his ancestors played a pivotal role in some strange events at Jerusalem's Lot, and not only that, but this ancestor may still be around almost a hundred years later.

Rating: 5 stars, mostly for the expert way King replicates the tone and style of an 18th or 19th century epistolary novel.


Week 19: "Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction" by Jo Walton
Card: Jack of Diamonds (Science fiction/Fantasy)
Collection: Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
This is a very short, entertaining story of alternate reality, where World War II turned out very differently. Germany and Japan are still aggressive world powers, and the U.S. is still mired in the Great Depression. Short vignettes tell the story of the desperation experienced by various individuals, with longer vignettes depicting the story of Linda Evans, a waitress working a dead-end job. One day she encounters an opportunity to improve her lot, but it would involve betraying her employers, who might be Jewish. The title of the story comes from newspaper headlines and story excerpts interspersed throughout the story. Some of the headlines are ads for science fiction books written by names such as Asimov and Heinlein.

Rating: 3 stars; I liked this story and found it pretty creative -- but then again I'm a sucker for tales of alternate history. However, I didn't quite "get" the story, and I felt that it wasn't actually a complete story, not really going anywhere.


Week 20: "Man of All Work" by Richard Wright
Card: Five of Hearts (Mississippi authors)
Collection: Eight Men
An interesting story from one of the more widely-known authors in the pantheon of Mississippi writers. Carl and Lucy are a black couple with two small children, and they are worried about being behind on their house payments. There's no prospect of things getting better anytime soon, because Lucy is on bed rest after the birth of their second child, and Carl can't find work despite being skilled as a cook. Against Lucy's wishes, Carl decides to dress up in her clothes and apply for a job as a maid with a white family. What starts out as a light, amusing, and intriguing premise for a story suddenly turns dark and complex as Wright skillfully explores deeper issues of race, class, and sex.

Rating: 5 stars; this was a fascinating and compelling story, delivering much more to think about than I thought it would at first glance. Plus, it's written entirely in dialogue, so that's another interesting angle.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

DMI2017, Week 16: "Circe" by Eudora Welty

This week the Queen of Hearts came up in my card deck. Hearts is the suit chosen for Mississippi writers, in honor of the state’s bicentennial this year. It seems fitting that I matched this particular card with the story “Circe” by Eudora Welty (from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty). This story is a captivating retelling of the story of the witch Circe and her encounter with Odysseus, as told in Homer’s Odyssey.

 

The basic story is this: Circe lures Odysseus’ men off their ship and entices them to drink a potion that turns them into pigs. One of the men escapes, however, and warns Odysseus of the impending trap if he comes to rescue his men. He is further warned by Athena (via Hermes, the messenger) to protect himself from Circe with the magically protective herb moly. He does, and after rescuing his men, he sleeps with Circe and ends up staying for a year with her.


Welty stays true to the story as initially told by Homer, but what makes this story so intriguing is, of course, her use of language and the way she covers the events of the story. The entire story is told from Circe’s point of view, so that we get the other side of the story, as it were. For example, I was taken by this passage, which occurs after Circe realizes that Odysseus is not going to succumb to her spell:

Before I’d believe it, I ran back to my broth. I had thought it perfect – I’d allowed no other woman to come near it. I tasted, and it was perfect – swimming with oysters from my reef and flecks of golden pork, redolent with leaves of bay and basil and rosemary, with the glass of island wine tossed in at the last: it has been my infallible recipe. Circe’s broth: all the gods have heard of it and envied it. No, the fault had to be in the drinker. If a man remained, unable to leave that magnificent body of his, then enchantment had met with a hero. Oh, I know those prophecies as well as the back of my hand – only nothing is here to warn me when it is now.

This story was truly a treat. I don’t think it’s one of Welty’s better-known stories, but it certainly is worth the read, and deserves five stars for the writing.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, April 17, 2017

DMI2017, Week 15: "Darkness Box" by Ursula K. Le Guin

This week I was led back to Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by the selection of the Three of Diamonds. However, the resulting story choice, “Darkness Box,” is anything but a masterpiece, in my opinion. I had high hopes for this story because, even though I have never read anything by Ursula Le Guin, I knew of her status as one of the most famous living science fiction and fantasy writers. However, this story did not do her justice, I’m afraid (or let’s say, I hope!).

 

The story opens as a little boy, Dicky, finds a box that has washed up on the shore. Dicky’s mother, a witch, asks what is in the box. “Darkness,” he replies, and she tells him to be careful with it.

Meanwhile, in another part of the land, Prince Rikard is fighting off his rebellious brother’s forces, and none too successfully. Retreating back to his father’s castle, he passes by the witch’s hut, and meets up with her. She calls for Dicky who offers the box to the Prince, but the Prince refuses it, saying all “seagifts” belong to the king. So he takes the darkness box to his father, who is horrified by the gift. It turns out that the box belonged to him once, and he threw it into the sea to get rid of it. He won’t take the box back, and warns his son to keep it locked and never open it. It is no spoiler to tell you that the Prince does open it, but the effects of the box are not exactly what one expects.

This was not a horrible story, but it’s not one to which I’ll return. I will note that, according to the copyright information in the anthology, this story was first published in 1963, which appears to be near the beginning of the time Le Guin began publishing her stories. So perhaps it is a youthful effort that is not terribly representative of her larger body of work. It’s a story that rates only three stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

DMI2017, Week 14: "Chicken Little" by Cory Doctorow

The Ten of Diamonds was the card for this week, and it introduced me to a most intriguing story by Cory Doctorow from the collection 21st Century Science Fiction.

 

We all know the story of Chicken Little and "the sky is falling." It's one of those folk tales whose origins have been lost in the mists of time. What is most interesting is how the basic premise of the story (don't overreact to insignificant events and fall into paranoia and hysteria) has been reworked and reimagined over the centuries.

This story is a fine example of a futuristic scenario in which mass eradication of fear and uncertainty (via pharmaceutical means) is finally a possibility -- but of course the fundamental question is, is this ethical? Is this even good for the human species, understanding that much of our evolution and development has been shaped by that very same fear and uncertainty?


The story's protagonist, Leon, has begun work at an ad agency called Ate. This agency, like many others, seeks to cater to ultra-wealthy individuals who have achieved a version of immortality. As their bodies fail, they move into vats, and are kept alive by the latest scientific developments and hundreds if not thousands of employees who become their "bodies." Still perfectly conscious, they continue to conduct business in this way and become even more wealthy and powerful. So if an ad agency such as Ate can sell even one thing to these individuals, its reputation (and income) is set for life.

This is what has happened to Ate. Long ago, the agency made a sale to one vat person, and the income from that sale has kept the agency going for a long time, and not just with bare-bones accommodations. Ate's offices are in a lavish, state-of-the-art complex and no need of its employees is ever denied. They don't actually have to ever make another sale, that's how good the first one was. The employees do whatever they want to, and are free to pursue any kind of lead that might lead to another sale. And if they could make one more sale, it would cement the agency's existence forever, So this has become the holy grail of the agency, and many employees have come and gone in what has turned out to be a fruitless pursuit. When a person such as one of the vat people needs literally nothing, what can you possibly sell them? So Leon's goal, as is the goal of everyone at Ate, is to figure out what that could be.

One day Leon meets with Ria, an envoy of one of the vat people. She represents Buhle, who went to his vat at 103, the youngest age ever for one of these individuals. It was apparently due to some kind of "accident," and as the story unfolds, this accident becomes critical to the climax of the story. Also, as it turns out, Leon is actually being courted by Buhle, who knows of his past history and also has an idea of what Leon can sell him. During his grad school days, Leon hit upon a new type of drug that allows humans to make cold, rational calculations about events. Taking this drug, no one would ever buy a lottery ticket, for example, because they would know instantly that their chances of actually winning were almost zero. Buhle's idea is that the drug would release humanity from its fear and uncertainty and usher in a new era of optimism and progress. But Leon's resistance to his own creation is that it would also take away many of the things that make human existence so ultimately rewarding in the first place.

I don't want to give any more of the story away, of course, but there are many, many layers to this excellent story which makes it well worth reading. It's definitely a five-star story.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, March 31, 2017

DMI2017, Week 13: "Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal

This week's card, the Eight of Diamonds, leads us to a very short and intriguing story from the collection Twenty-First Century Science Fiction.


"Evil Robot Monkey" is one of those stories that gets into my Deal Me In roster solely due to its title. Who could resist wanting to know what that title means? However, having finished the story, I am still not sure.


The story centers on Sly, a chimpanzee who has been altered with some kind of brain transplant that makes him hyper-aware of his interactions with humans. In fact, the story is told from his point of view, showing that he very much has what we would recognize as human consciousness. He even creates beautiful pottery on a pottery wheel in his enclosure. But there's the rub -- he's a fully conscious animal in what appears to be a zoo. One day he's startled by a group of schoolchildren and ruins the pottery he's working on. He flies into a rage and acts out, scaring and embarrassing the children and their teacher, who complains about the "evil robot monkey."

One of Sly's keepers, Vern, is sent to talk to Sly (through sign language) and explain that he has to be disciplined for his behavior, which involves taking away the clay for his pottery. Their conversation reveals that Vern actually "gets" Sly, unlike most people, which makes Sly trust Vern and accept the punishment. But between them, they figure out a way to get around the punishment so Sly can still make pottery.

In the brief introduction to "Evil Robot Monkey," the collection's editors make the statement that this story is "a reminder that it's possible to tell a fully-realized SF story in fewer than a thousand words." That may be true in general, and this story is definitely short, being just a couple of pages long, but I am not sure it succeeds in being a fully-realized story. It's an interesting story, but it seems very bare bones and left way too many unanswered questions for me, with the result that it feels very incomplete. However, it's well-written so it gets four stars from me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, March 27, 2017

DMI2017, Week 12: "A Southern Landscape" by Elizabeth Spencer

This week we embark on my reading list of Mississippi authors, thanks to the Ten of Hearts. I don't have any particular anthology from which to pull these stories -- instead, I made my list of authors and cobbled together some of their stories from various sources. (It gave me a good excuse to buy more anthologies, in a few cases.)

  


This week's story, "A Southern Landscape," comes from the anthology Growing Up in the South, and was the first story by Elizabeth Spencer that I've ever read. After this one, I think I need another anthology for my library! Spencer is possibly best known for her novella "The Light in the Piazza," which has been the basis for both a movie and a Broadway musical.

"A Southern Landscape" focuses on the story of Marilee Summerall, a teenaged girl who lives in the small town of Port Claiborne, Mississippi. Interestingly, the Port Claiborne of the story is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the real-life town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, which I visited a few years back. It's a beautiful, historic town that, despite figuring prominently in the Civil War as the site of a battle that was probably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in Mississippi, was remarkably preserved throughout the war. Reportedly, this is because Ulysses S. Grant himself said that the town was too beautiful to burn, so it wasn't. In the story, Spencer makes mention of the famous golden hand pointing to Heaven atop the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church, and some of the action of the story takes place at the nearby ruins of Windsor.

The famous Golden Hand on the top of the
First Presbyterian Church steeple in Port Gibson, MS

The iconic ruins of Windsor

These sights and many others make up the "southern landscape" referred to in the title, a landscape not only in reality but of the heart and soul as well. Spencer's beautiful, evocative writing makes this clear:

Coming down the highway from Vicksburg, you come to Port Claiborne, and to get to our house you turn off to the right on State Highway No. 202 and follow along the prettiest road. It's just about the way it always was -- worn deep down like a tunnel and thick with shade in summer. In spring, it's so full of sweet heavy odors, they make you drunk, you can't think of anything -- you feel you will faint or go right out of yourself. In fall, there is the rustle of leaves under your tires and the smell of them, all sad and Indian-like. Then in the winter, there are only dust and bare limbs, and mud when it rains, and everything is like an old dirt-dauber's nest up in the corner.

So set against this landscape we have Marilee's story and her brief infatuation with Foster Hamilton, a boy a few years older than her. She calls him "Benjy" after the "big, overgrown idiot" character in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury -- not because he's necessarily so big or overgrown, but he does often behave like an idiot. Mainly, Foster likes to drink, and it gets him into some awkward and embarrassing situations. The biggest situation occurs when Foster takes Marilee to her senior dance, and he's already two sheets to the wind, They leave the dance after about ten minutes because he's teetering "like a baby that has caught on to what walking is, and knows that now is the time to do it, but hasn't had quite enough practice," Outside, Foster falls into a ditch because he is so drunk, and Marilee has to drive him around in his car (not actually knowing how to drive before that night) until it gets late enough to go home without anyone being suspicious that the evening didn't go exactly as planned.

There's much more to enjoy in this pretty humorous story, especially Spencer's writing and her many Southern turns of phrase. The story is written in Marilee's voice, so it feels exactly like she is sitting down with you on the front porch and telling this story. It's worth five stars for sure.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

DMI2017, Week 11: "God's Gonna Trouble the Water" by Dominiqua Dickey

This week the Five of Clubs took me back to the collection Mississippi Noir and a gut-wrenching story by Dominiqua Dickey.

 

The story takes place in Grenada, Mississippi, a small town in north Mississippi, in 1936. Most people are well aware of Mississippi's long and difficult racial history, and that history infuses this story in a powerful way. The story begins as the main character, Elnora Harden, gets a panicked visit from Cissy, her young cousin. Cissy has lost her baby Hattie, who has actually been taken by her father, Graham Lee. The problem here is that Cissy is African-American and Graham Lee is white, and this is 1936 Mississippi. 'Nuff said about the million and one ways that sets this plot spinning.

Cissy and Graham Lee are under the impression that no one in the town knows about their romance and child, when of course everyone does. So when Hattie goes missing, it's not hard for Elnora to recruit help, mainly from Graham Lee's uncle, Rayford. To complicate matters even further, it's clear that he and Elnora have some kind of history, but it's not exactly clear what that history might be.

Elnora and Rayford finally find Hattie after a desperate search in a raging storm. She's found safe, but Graham Lee and Cissy are making plans to leave town, to find somewhere that they can be a family without judgment from others, and they ask Elnora to take care of the baby until they can come get her. She does of course, and this makes a happy ending for Hattie, but no one else in the story gets their happy ending. And after all, it is noir.

This would be an interesting and dramatic story all by itself, but it is made ten times more so by the background events, namely that much of the action takes place in a terrible storm that sets the mood perfectly. The storm also plays a major role in the climax and denouement of the story. At one point, one of the characters says of the storm, "It ain't letting up," and that could certainly describe Elnora and her actions as well.

The title of the story speaks volumes to the plot, and it is a reference to an old spiritual, "Wade in the Water," about the children of Israel being led out of Egypt by Moses. Here's an interesting take on the song:


This was a long and sometimes complex story due in part to all of the relationships (both stated and implied) between the characters, but I enjoyed it immensely. It definitely rates five stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

DMI2017, Week10: "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King

This week I had another blast from the past with another story from the Stephen King collection Night Shift, chosen for me by the Five of Spades.

  


Burt and Vicky Robeson have a marriage in trouble. They're ostensibly in the middle of a road trip to see Vicky's brother, but in reality they are trying to save their marriage by being cooped up in a car together for 1500 miles plus. And it's not going terribly well when they leave the turnpike and get lost somewhere in Nebraska, "three hundred miles of corn," as Burt quips.

But lest we get too mired in the Robesons' marital problems, King almost immediately turns up the heat. While arguing about the road map with Vicky, Burt hits something in the road that he hopes is a dog. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a young man whose throat has been cut. Although they are definitely freaked out at this point, Burt and Vicky decide to take the boy's body to the nearest town and alert the local police.

Here's where the weirdness begins, however. The nearest town is called Gatlin, and immediately upon arriving there, Burt and Vicky know something is very wrong. For one thing, it appears deserted, and not just recently deserted -- like 10 or 15 years deserted. Prices on gas pumps are way out of date, and a calendar Burt and Vicky find in a diner reads August 1964. And yet, on the way into town they heard a local radio preacher broadcasting, and the sign on the town church has a sermon title dated the Sunday before. So there ARE people in Gatlin, but something is off for sure.

When Burt goes into the church, leaving Vicky alone outside in the car (his second mistake, right after the one where he stops in Gatlin), he rapidly understands what is wrong. The town is in the clutches of a religious cult that worships someone -- or something -- that lives in the cornfields surrounding the town. And judging from a book he finds in the church, this cult makes regular sacrifices to this something, with the result that there is no one in the town older than 19. Everyone else has been murdered or sacrificed.

And now things really heat up, as a flock of murderous children (the Children of the Corn in the story's title) descend upon the car outside the church and try to kill Vicky. Burt tries to help her but is chased into the cornfields, where he eventually comes across some very disturbing things, including the something that lives out there.

This is a suspenseful, horrifying story that is classic King in every way. The story was the basis of a 1984 movie by the same name, and which spawned eight sequels according to Wikipedia. I haven't seen any of them, but the original movie is readily available on YouTube, as well as the trailer:


Anyway, I highly recommend this story and it's well worth five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, March 3, 2017

DMI2017, Week 9: "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" by William Boyle

Nine weeks in, the Three of Clubs takes me to a new collection for the first time. Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, is a collection of noir stories set in various places in Mississippi. It's a volume in the Akashic Noir series, which was previously unknown to me. This series started in 2004 with the publication of Brooklyn Noir, with stories all set in and around Brooklyn. The series has expanded to dozens of titles at this point, covering cities and locations all over the globe. Methinks it's excellent fodder for future iterations of Deal Me In!

  

This week's story, "Most Things Haven't Worked Out," takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It's a small city in north Mississippi, just south of the border with Tennessee. The protagonist, a 15-year-old named Jalen, is a loner and outcast who spends a lot of his time watching movies at the library. But one day an employee from the nearby Audubon Center (a real location in Holly Springs) comes to the library and gives a presentation on birds. This is Miss Mary, who becomes the object of Jalen's fascination. Part of the fascination is the fact that she has moved to Mississippi from New York, a magical place in Jalen's mind. Mary befriends Jalen and invites him to the Center for a day of fun activities, just the two of them. He takes her up on the offer and they spend the day together, talking about their lives and experiences. It turns out that Mary is something of an outcast and loner as well -- she has moved to Mississippi for a reason, and it wasn't a good one, evidently.

It's not long before we begin to get an inkling of what that reason was. Mary's mother, Edna, suddenly shows up, and she's not happy. She has tracked Mary all the way from New York, so we learn that Mary is in hiding from something bad. Mostly that something bad is Edna -- she's a rough character who killed Mary's father for insurance money. But then Mary took the money and made off with it to Mississippi. She tells Edna she has buried it on the Audubon Center's property somewhere, so Edna embarks on a mission to "convince" Mary to tell her where the money is hidden. Mostly this involves torturing Jalen, who is suddenly caught up in the middle of all this darkness.

The story spirals downward, of course, being a noir story, and there's no redemption for anyone except possibly Mary, who does finally get away with her money. But it becomes clear that this episode was the beginning of the end for Jalen, as the title of the story suggests. So even though this was a good story, it was still pretty depressing. However, for the excellent writing and the way the author sucks the reader into the story, I'm happy to give it five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

DMI2017, Week 8: "The Boogeyman" by Stephen King

I have been reading Stephen King since I was a teenager, and in all that time, one of my very favorite stories of his was "The Boogeyman" from his collection Night Shift. So when I made my Deal Me In list for this year, and decided to have a suit dedicated to King, I knew that this story had to go at the top of the list. This week the Ace of Spades delivered the story up to me. Since I haven't read it in literally decades, however, I was curious to know if the story had stood the test of time, or if it was one of those stories that just speaks to one at a particular time of life, for whatever reason.


I am very happy to say that "The Boogeyman" is still one of the creepiest stories I have ever read, as evidenced by my racing pulse and faster breathing while I re-read it.

The story is simple and straightforward enough, and therein lies its power. The protagonist, Lester Billings, is talking to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Harper. He begins by telling the doctor that he has killed his three kids, but not literally. He has simply caused their deaths by leaving them to the devices of a creature that lives in his house -- the boogeyman, of course. Lester is a no-nonsense, blue-collar kind of guy who is very concerned that his kids not grow up to be sissies, so when they start crying and screaming in the middle of the night about "the boogeyman," he doesn't take them seriously. In fact, he doubles down and practices some tough love in leaving them in their beds. But the kids die, one by one, and each dies in a way that is completely plausible in the grand scheme of things. However, Lester eventually comes to believe in the boogeyman after his second child dies, and even has proof of sorts, but he continues to refuse to intervene, now acting out of cowardice and fear rather than bullheadedness.

I can't say any more about the story for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that the ending of this story is startling enough to have seared itself into my brain long years ago when I first read it, and it had pretty much the same effect the second time around. It's a fun, extremely characteristic Stephen King story, worth all five stars I can give it.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

DMI2017, Week 7: "The Triumph of Vice" by W.S. Gilbert

This week the Two of Diamonds is responsible for taking us back into the realm of fantasy, courtesy of Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.


  

"The Triumph of Vice" was another of those stories that I really wanted to like, mainly on the strength of my knowledge of the author. W.S. Gilbert was a British dramatist and poet, perhaps best known for being half of the comic opera powerhouse "Gilbert and Sullivan." To this day nothing makes me laugh harder than a well-mounted production of pretty much any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the Mikado being my favorite I suppose. So it was with high hopes that I came to this story, and although it has its moments where you can plainly see Gilbert's unique brand of humor coming through, it was just a mediocre story in my opinion.

The story takes place in the improbably-named province of Tackelschlosstein, where lives the Baron von Klauffenbach and his daughter Lady Bertha. Although they own a grand castle, they are otherwise penniless and are forced to take in a lodger, which is where the Count von Krappentrapp comes into the story. He falls in love with Bertha, but unforunately he is short and squat, while she is tall and statuesque, and she considers the Count quite beneath her as a suitor. He proposes to her but she rejects him completely based on his appearance.

One day a gnome by the name of "Prince Pooh" presents himself to the Count and asks for his help in wedding Bertha, in exchange for untold riches. There's only one problem: the Prince can transform himself into a tall, handsome man worthy of Bertha's attention, but the spell lasts only a short time before he slowly begins to shrink back into his gnomish form, whenever he washes himself. He had tried getting married twice before, but the engagement in both cases went on too long (as he says, "One is obliged, you know, to wash one's face during courtship") and resulted in the brides-to-be calling everything off when they realized who they were actually marrying. So he needs the Count's help in introducing him to Bertha and paving the way for the most rapid marriage possible.

The marriage occurs, and although the newlyweds are happy, Bertha is quite irritated at the Prince's practice of washing his face only once a week. According to Gilbert, "Bertha was a clean girl for a German," and she's determined that the Prince should raise his level of hygiene as well. So she does things like hiding his umbrella when he goes out, in the hopes that he might get rained on. Things begin to come to a head one day when Bertha realizes, to her horror, that she and the Prince are both shrinking, and it's all over but the shouting one day when the Prince falls in the river and has to stay there for about two hours before he's rescued. When he emerges from the river, he's barely recognizable.

Now humbled, Bertha consults the Count (who is now much taller than she is) and asks his help in getting rid of the Prince. This he does, in a very fairy-tale sort of way, and Bertha and the Count marry and live happily ever after.

This was a decently amusing story in its way, but I was expecting quite a bit more from Mr. Gilbert, so I will give it only three stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

DMI2017, Week 6: "Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert

This week, the King of Diamonds takes us over to the science fiction side of this suit with a story selected from 21st Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Hayden.

  

The story "Bread and Bombs" is one of those that innocently and unassumingly works its way down into your psyche and festers there. Events in this story take place in the unnamed narrator's childhood, but are being described years after, when the narrator is an adult and understands things very differently. This gives the entire story a kind of foreshadowing that feeds directly into its overall unsettling atmosphere.

The setting of the story is post-apocalyptic. Something terrible has happened (we get bits and pieces of details as the story progresses), the country is at war, and everything has changed. I know that is the vaguest sentence possible, but it reflects the way the author unfolds the details of the story. Nothing is told head-on, and the reader learns more by what is not said than by what is said. For example, the narrator's father reminisces about a time when people could travel anywhere they wanted to on airplanes. Airplanes still make appearances in the story, but when they fly overhead, everyone panics, puts on helmets, and runs for cover. So it's clear that the skies are no longer safe. Things like snow are no longer safe as well, due to some kind of biological warfare going on. The narrator learns of a nearby family who got sick and died just because they loved playing in the snow. More humorously, the narrator's father also reminisces about having six different kinds of cereal at one time, "coated in sugar, can you imagine?" And when the cereal got stale, they had the luxury of just throwing it out. Thus we also get the idea that regular food is suspect in this story, as well as just being hard to get.


So naturally, it's into this new and paranoid world that outsiders come. A refugee family with two little girls moves into an abandoned house just up the street from the narrator. The first reaction is fear and distrust, as the narrator's mother says things like, "I don't want you going to their house," (understandable and normal, perhaps) and "Don't eat anything they offer you" (maybe not so normal). Most of the neighborhood children are fascinated by the two girls, because of course they look and are dressed differently than anyone else, they don't go to school, the younger of the two girls cries all the time ("because of the war and all the suffering," her older sister says), and because the two girls ride up and down the street in a cart pulled by a goat. At one point the narrator tries to make a friendly overture to the girls by offering them a loaf of bread, but they recoil from it in horror -- it turns out that, in their country, warfare was conducted using bombs disguised as loaves of bread (hence the title of the story). But in spite of the fascination, the neighborhood children generally keep their distance from the girls -- all except for the narrator's friend, Bobby, who plays with the girls, rides in their cart, and gets pretty close to them, all to the consternation of the entire neighborhood, adults included. Some of the adults are accused of being prejudiced, and in fact the refugee family is widely distrusted simply because they came from the country that "started it," in the words of the narrator's mother.

The adults call town meetings to discuss what should be done with the refugee family. The children have their own kind of meeting about the outsiders as well, but theirs turns dark very quickly, with talk of matches, stick piles, and locked doors. The climax of the story comes in the most disturbing way possible, with almost everything left to the imagination of the reader.

I thought this was an excellent story, interesting in its own right, but made even more interesting by the skillful way the author understated even the more horrific details of the story. It definitely deserves five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.