Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Reading progress update: I've read 8%.

Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

‘In that case,’ said Wimsey, ‘you had better go to the coroner – no, of course, you don’t keep coroners in these parts. The Procurator-Fiscal is the lad. You’d better go to the Fiscal and tell him the man’s been murdered.’

‘Murdered?’ said the Sergeant.

‘Yes,’ said Wimsey, ‘och, ay; likewise hoots! Murrrderrrd is the word.’

Bwahahaha... Just what I needed. This is delightful.

Reading progress update: I've read 3%.

Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

Into this fishing and painting community, Lord Peter Wimsey was received on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, though English and an ‘incomer’, gave no cause of offence. The Southron is tolerated in Scotland on the understanding that he does not throw his weight about, and from this peculiarly English vice Lord Peter was laudably free. True, his accent was affected and his behaviour undignified to a degree, but he had been weighed in the balance over many seasons and pronounced harmless, and when he indulged in any startling eccentricity, the matter was dismissed with a shrug and a tolerant, ‘Christ, it’s only his lordship.’

Wimsey was in the bar of the McClellan Arms on the evening that the unfortunate dispute broke out between Campbell and Waters. Campbell, the landscape painter, had had maybe one or two more wee ones than was absolutely necessary, especially for a man with red hair, and their effect had been to make him even more militantly Scottish than usual. He embarked on a long eulogy of what the Jocks had done in the Great War, only interrupting his tale to inform Waters in parenthesis that all the English were of mongrel ancestry and unable even to pronounce their own bluidy language.

Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners except dagoes and niggers, but, like all Englishmen, he did not like to hear them praise themselves. To boast loudly in public of one’s own country seemed to him indecent – like enlarging on the physical perfections of one’s own wife in a smoking room. He listened with that tolerant, petrified smile which the foreigner takes, and indeed quite correctly takes, to indicate a self-satisfaction so impervious that it will not even trouble to justify itself.


LoL. We join the party on the edge of a bar fight. The scene is set!

The Expendable Man

The Expendable Man - Dorothy Hughes

Venner departed with the hate still ugly in his eyes, with more hate for an innocent Hugh than for a guilty. The Venners would not be changed in their generation.

I'm not going to provide many plot details for this book as I found it hugely beneficial to know next to nothing about this book. 

Every reveal, every additional detail that Hughes affords the reader changed the context of the story and how I read this. She did this masterfully. 


It is very much a story of telling you the facts, then changing one little thing, and suddenly the same facts appear different, more complex, more ... prone to consequence. 


Suddenly we get to understand why Hugh, our MC, is eager to keep his head down, does not want to engage, does not want to stand up for himself. It's because he can't. The Expendable Man tells a story of oppression (in more ways than one as we learn throughout the story) taking place in broad daylight. 


I was angry for Hugh, for his helplessness. And, yet, there are glimpses of hope in this book, too. These glimpses might just be individual characters but they were there and if we have learned anything it is that it only takes a few good people to inspire others.

Halloween Bingo - Cozy Mystery

Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

I will probably finish up The Expendable Man tonight. 


After that, I will need something light and comforting. There is nothing more comforting to me than a Golden Age Mystery and, luckily, Moonlight Madness and Murder by Death confirmed that the Lord Peter Wimsey books are cozy reads.


Bingo Question - Lord Peter Wimsey

Have His Carcase - Dorothy L. Sayers

A question about Bingo categories:


1. Do the Wimsey novels qualify as Cozy Mystery?


2. How about Wimsey/Vane for Romantic Suspense? A stretch too far?



Reading Update: Intro, Chapters 3 to 6 and Cholera

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer   Wright

Any movement toward sanitization is usually also a step forward in combatting disease. London during the mid-nineteenth century was wildly overcrowded. Its population of 2.5 million made it the largest city in the world at that time. (That’s roughly the size of Chicago today.) One census described a single room where five families were living, each in their own area. They claimed they were doing well with four families (and four corners) until someone took in a lodger in the middle. And then there was the livestock that people kept inside their houses. We’re not talking about livestock in the sense of “a few people had some chickens.” We’re talking cows in the attics. They’d be levered up by pulley and kept in the attic as long as they had milk to give. (If I had such a cow, I would name her Bertha Mason.) It wasn’t always even one or two cows; there might be as many as thirty cows in what were known as “cow houses.”


"Bertha Mason". Hahahaha. 


Ok, so this is not the most brilliant of books to learn anything from about diseases or history, but it does still make me smile. Even if the author's asides are quite partisan and I would wish for a lot more discussion of many of the points she mentions or tries to make, there are enough quirky bits in this book to engage my interest.


I can see, tho, that some of the author's points, which are driven by own convictions, rather than by factual discussion can come across quite flippant - even if I do agree with the ultimate point, I would not seek advice from this book on how to support any  particular argument for or against something.  


I meant to write updates on the previous chapters but didn't really find anything to say other than: 


1. The Dancing Plague should not have been listed as a "plague".


2. Syphilis - that chapter was interesting. I had never considered that the topic of Syphilis was silenced by convention, nor what effect this had on the spread of the disease. 

Wright's mention of Salvarsan reminded me of Karen Blixen's / Isak Dinesen's mention of her own treatments with it in Out of Africa (a horrible book overall, but worth it for the historical and social snippets).


3. Tuberculosis - I liked her run-down of how the disease has been portrayed in art and literature. I, too, remember thinking, when watching La Traviata for the first time, that Violetta would no doubt not be able to sing a quarter of the notes she does in that final scene.

Also, TB is still tangible enough, still recent enough, to get a sense of connection with the sufferers (my grandad had at one point), which is part of Wright's point about wanting people to realise that all of these illnesses she mentions are real and affected - and still do affect - real people. 


Now, back to Cholera...



Halloween Bingo - Amateur Sleuth

The Expendable Man - Dorothy Hughes

I'm just under half-way in this extraordinary novel and have finally been able to figure out which Bingo square this will work for.


I am allocating this one to Amateur Sleuth. It would also work for the Suspense square.


Reading Update: Intro, Chapters 1 & 2 - The Antonine Plague and The Bubonic Plague

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer   Wright

I'm a little bit behind with writing updates for this book. I must say that I have been enjoying what I have read so far, tho "enjoying" is not the right word when talking about the epidemics that caused millions and millions of deaths.


It is kind of a fun thought experiment to ponder what would have been if the fall of the Roman Empire had not been brought about by a smallpox (probably) epidemic, or if the superstitions of the Dark Ages had engrained themselves into societies as much as they did. If people would have found other reasons to persecute minorities such as the Jews and others to blame for ... something, anything really.

At the same time, would feudalism have seen the (few) changes it did because of the shift in powers from landowners to peasants, that rare source power that worked the land?


I've really been enjoying Wright's writing from the start of the book. She had me in the introduction with her witty asides that seemed to encapsulate so much more than a smirk-inducing quip:

"Whether a civilization fares well during a crisis has a great deal to do with how the ordinary, nonscientist citizen responds. A lot of the measures taken against the plagues discussed in this book will seem stunningly obvious. You should not, for instance, decide diseased people are sinners and burn them at a literal or metaphorical stake, because it is both morally monstrous and entirely ineffective.

Everyone would probably theoretically agree with this statement. But then a new plague crops up, and we make precisely the same mistakes we should have learned from three hundred years ago."


In Chapter 1, Wright tells us about life in Ancient Rome and about its the lack of sanitation. As much as I like the idea of travelling in time and meeting some of the characters of the time, the pong of the streets - with their occasional rivers of excrement - must have been horrendous. It's not new information for me. I remember pondering about that when visiting Pompeii as a teen, but the reaction is still the same: 


Why did the Romans come up with such excellent ideas as led piping, central heating, raised sidewalks and the accompanying stepping stones, but didn't bother with the removing the basic roots of the filth they were trying to either wash off or avoid?


  What I did miss in this chapter - imagery of naked Germanic tribesman going to war with the Romans notwithstanding - 

was a bit more of investigation of which kind of epidemic the Antonine Plague was. Wright writes that this is still subject to discussion among historians, but I would have liked to see more sources of references and descriptions (I know, I'm weird) here. From the descriptions she does give, it does sound like the symptoms of smallpox, if this is so clear, then why is there still a debate about it?



In Chapter 2, Wright discusses the Bubonic Plague. Mostly made made famous by the lads from Monty Python:


 What comes across as fun in the movies, must have been absolutely horrific in real life.

There are stories about how common it was for people to leave bread and water at a sick relative’s bedside, tell them they were going out to fetch supplies, and then abandoning them. The dying could be seen through the city plaintively rapping at their windows, hoping someone would come to ease their suffering.

The fourteenth-century historian Gabriel de Mussis remarks upon how, as people died, they still begged for their families to come to them: “Come here, I’m thirsty, bring me a drink of water. I’m still alive. Don’t be frightened. Perhaps I won’t die. Please hold me tight, hug my wasted body. You ought to be holding me in your arms.” De Mussis describes the streets ringing with the cries of dying children who had been locked out of their homes, and who wondered: “Father, why have you abandoned me? Do you forget I am your child? O, Mother, where have you gone? Why are you now so cruel to me when yesterday you were so kind? You fed me at your breast and carried me within your womb for nine months.”

This section knocked me sideways. It is easy to read about the plague in statistics and in terms of a series of events, but Wright's quotations of sources recording their own impressions of the time provide that extra insight into the fears and thoughts of the the people at the time. 


One of the fun elements of Wright's writing is her balancing the serious parts with more trivial bit of other information. I liked her diversion into the National Onion Associations FAQs:


"Even today the National Onion Association has to explain in its Frequently Asked Questions that placing chopped onions around your house will not prevent diseases. It is so strange and, I guess, quite selfless of the organization to do that."


Who knew onion broth was not a cure-all?


(Thinking about it, I feel like I'm missing out on a topical Sunday Soup post here...) 


One thing about her story about Nostradamus' reason for success in curing or preventing different outbreaks of the plague, made me question the accuracy of her writing, tho: 


If Nostradamus' success with the rose pills came down to including vitamin c into a poor diet, where in the recipe does the vitamin C come from?


Take some sawdust or shavings of cypress-wood, as green as you can find, one ounce; iris of Florence, six ounces; cloves, three ounces; sweet calamus [cane palm], three drams; aloes-wood six drams. Grind everything to powder and take care to keep it all airtight. Next, take some furled red roses, three or four hundred, clean, fresh, and culled before dewfall. Crush them to powder in a marble mortar, using a wooden pestle. Then add some half-unfurled roses to the above powder and pound. And shape into pills.


I already look forward to the next section about the Dancing Plague.



October - Michael Rowe

Mikey climbed into the Honda and turned the key in the ignition. He revved the engine, tossing mud up into the air as the car peeled out of the clearing and onto the road back to Auburn. He glanced down at the dashboard clock. It was one o’clock in the morning on the last day of September—or rather, the first day of October—and he had just bashed out the brains of an innocent, defenseless animal in order to cast a spell he’d found on the Internet to make the bullies in town suffer for having hurt him. Mikey felt he would vomit. He pulled the car to the side of the road and leaned out of the driver’s side door just as his stomach began to heave. All of this for nothing, he thought sickly, retching into the mud. I killed a living thing for nothing. Yeah, I’m a real sorcerer, aren’t I? I am Mikey Childress. Fear me. Christ almighty, what have I turned into? On the ride home it occurred to him that the best thing to do would be to drive off one of the cliffs and crash his mother’s car into a ravine. It would solve a lot of problems. At the same time, he suspected, he probably didn’t even have the courage for that.

This quote to me very represents the very best part of the book: the almost tangible despair and inner turmoil in the main character, whose life has been shaped by bullies of all kinds. 


With respect to the portrayal of bullying and the impact it can have on a person, October was great. 

What didn't work for me was the execution. The story felt rushed, most of the characters were a bit two dimensional, the plot and characters choices felt at many time ludicrous, and there were some other writing choices that made me either groan, roll my eyes, or want to heave.


Sure, this was a novella and had limitations of length to contend with, but to me the story just felt rushed and trying to do too much.


Not for me.

Halloween Bingo - Modern Masters of Horror

October - Michael Rowe

I'm still working reading away on my plan to get the hard-boiled horror out of the way first, so I can spend the rest of the game with categories that are more to my liking. 


Saying that, I do love McDowell and would not have changed out yesterday's reading of The Amulet for anything, and I also enjoy expanding my reading boundaries ... or more accurately phrased when it comes to the Horror genre ... tie my comfort zone boundaries up with duck tape, throw them in the back of the car, take them to a cliff, set fire to them, kick them over the edge to challenge the the sea gods to a duell. 


Anyway. My next one is another recommendation by Char and I am reading it for the Modern Masters of Horror square. It would also fit Terror in a Small Town, Genre: Horror, Supernatural.


(I've taken inspiration from Moonlight's pumpkin spice latte yesterday, but without pumpkin spice at hand I've opted for cinnamon.) 


The Amulet

The Amulet - Michael McDowell, Poppy Z Brite

Jo stared at Sarah uncomprehendingly. She was not sure whether to believe her or not. It sounded like a story that Sarah was making up as she went along. “Then how come—” Sarah smiled then.


Oh, I think what we have here is a first - a pulp slasher story that I actually enjoyed!


This is not one of McDowell's best: there were large parts that I found repetitive but I know that they were necessary to show the extent to which the amulet's evil has spread throughout the small town of Pine Cone. Or has it? Has the evil always been there? Was the amulet really the source of the evil or was the source closer to home? 


Parts of this story very really boring, which is why I'm docking it a couple of stars in my rating, but I love what McDowell was trying to do with the story: we have a 70s horror novel that starts with a young man being trained for combat in Vietnam being horribly injured during a training exercise near his home town in Alabama, whose main industry is a rifle factory, producing the very same rifle that caused the injury. What follows is a series of killings that seem to start with the man who denied the young man a safe job and exemption from military service, and then the killing just doesn't stop. 


There are lots of questions in this but the main ones: are any of the inhabitants of really Pine Cone innocent? And where does evil grow from?


I liked this, but it just doesn't measure up to the other books I have read by the author.

Reading progress update: I've read 84%.

The Amulet - Michael McDowell, Poppy Z Brite

Ok, I'm no longer interested in what happens to the townspeople, but I am on tenterhooks to find out how this ends for Sarah and her friend Becca, who are trying to track down the amulet and stop the killings.


Also, I hope Sarah's MIL will get her comeuppance.


Body Count: 16

Maimed: 1

Body count of deaths before the story sets in: 2+


The 2018 Mt. TBR Project - End of August Update

With August behind us, I have lots of updates one the Mt. TBR Project. With Halloween Bingo looming, I had dedicated the month of August to reading exclusively (as far as possible) from the physical Mt. TBR. And this worked a treat.


I have also made some executive decisions: Mythos (Fry) and Words are My Matter (Le Guin) will be amnestied from the TBR pile. I'm not going to start Mythos until the Holmes buddy read (we use the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry) is finished which will not be before the end of the year. So, no point in keeping Mythos on the pile that is to be read in 2018. Similarly, the Le Guin collection is a book I know I will love and keep. It can live in its forever-spot on my shelf right away.


And because I read a couple of books from my physical shelves that aren't part of the Mt. TBR Project, I get to swap them for two books that are - which is an option I will keep until December.


Let's get to the  shrinkage without any further delay:


End of August Mt. TBR: 


End of July Mt. TBR: 


End of June Mt. TBR:


End of May Mt. TBR:


End of April Mt. TBR: 


End of March Mt. TBR:


End of February Mt. TBR:


End of January Mt. TBR:


Start of the Year Mt. TBR:


The Stats:


Books read this month: 23

Mt. TBR Books read this month: 19 (2 DNFs)


Women / Men / Team*: 54% / 44% / 2%

Fiction / Non-fiction*: 73% / 28%

% of original Mt. TBR read: 97%

% of live Mt. TBR read**: 80% 


Available swaps (not made yet): 2


(* - of all books read since 01 January 2018)

(** - live Mt. TBR includes new purchases added throughout the year)  


Link to the original Mt. TBR (2018) post.

Link to the original Mt TBR (2018) Reading List.


Rules - same as previously - are that I picked a stack of physical books off my shelves at home which I would try to read over the course of the year. Any new purchases are added to the pile. If I pick another physical book of my shelves, I get to take one off the pile and put it on the shelf - as a substitute.

Reading progress update: I've read 47%.

The Amulet - Michael McDowell, Poppy Z Brite

The plot is becoming a little repetitive now. Still good, but not as gripping as at the start. 


By the way, McDowell also plays with the reader in this one - one of the main characters keeps changing the story about how her husband died. It is quite funny.


Body Count: 11

Maimed: 1


With respect to Bingo categories, this would qualify for:


Southern Gothic, Slasher, Terror in a Small Town, Relics & Curiosities, Murder Most Foul, Amateur Sleuth, Genre: Horror, Classic Horror.

Reading progress update: I've read 32%.

The Amulet - Michael McDowell, Poppy Z Brite

Holy crap.


Body count: 9

Maimed: 1


There are certainly were gruesome scenes in this one, but it is too slashery to be taken seriously. Thankfully. Otherwise, I might have bailed. I mean, consider this for selecting a murder weapon (I have obscured the character's name for spoilers):


[xxx] sat herself again at the dresser, thoughtfully removed the band from the implements she was carrying, and then slowly laid them out on the shelf of the dresser. There were two meat forks, a couple of knives, one of them sharp, the ice pick used by Gussie earlier that morning, a long teaspoon, a small eggbeater, a spatula, and a can opener. She stared at them all for a moment or two, and then touched them one by one, testing the tines and the points of the pieces.


Also, jewellery will never be the same.


[xxx] didn’t know why she was so hesitant about trying the amulet on; probably it was because it had belonged to a woman who had burned to death only the previous night. When Mary had handed it to her that morning, she had thought at first it might simply be a child’s bauble, and during the activities that afternoon at the church, she had forgotten about it entirely. But now that she looked at it again, she saw that it had obviously belonged to Rachel Coppage, and not to one of the little girls. That morning, also, she had not seen a catch in the chain; she wondered if she would be able to pull the thing over her head. But when she looked down at the amulet now, the chain was separated. She picked it up, and examined the ends of the length of gold; it still appeared that there was no catch at all, simply two unconnected links. This puzzled her, for she could not determine how it had got broken.

Reading progress update: I've read 17%.

The Amulet - Michael McDowell, Poppy Z Brite

Uh-oh. The Amulet is in play ... 


Rachel Coppage opened the wooden front door to her husband, and talked to him through the screen.

“What you got, Larry?”

Standing a few feet away from her, he held the piece up for her to see. She opened the screen a little, so as not to let in flies, reached round, and snatched the necklace from his grasp.

“Where’d you get it?” she asked.

“Present for you,” he smiled.

Rachel looked at Larry sarcastically. “Where’d you get it?” she repeated.

“Dean Howell’s mama gave it to me.”

Rachel said, “Larry, you can’t wear a necklace, look like a hippie. You and me and all five kids would be laughed right out of town.”

“Rachel,” said Larry patiently, “I said this was for you. A present for you. Miz Howell said for me to give it to you.”

Rachel was a good wife in many respects, but she had a habit of chafing her husband. She looked closely at the pendant, traced her finger round the circle of gold.

“Jo Howell hasn’t spoke to me since 1958 when my daddy bought their farm when old man Howell died so funny."

Currently reading

The Red Power Murders by Thomas King
Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan
Progress: 163/327pages
Teller Of Tales: The Life Of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower
Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 79%