Stuff and Nonsense: October 2011


Gothic Reading Challenge: Stories of the Macabre

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul."

I’ve been listening to Ralph Cosham read Richard Adams’s Watership Down and he’s doing such a bang-up job that I started looking for other works read by him. Poe’s Stories of the Macabre seemed a good place to start -- being short and appropriately seasonal.

Stories of the Macabre comprises six of Poe's classic horror stories and two of his poems:
  • “The Bells” -- Oh, those bells! They’ll drive you mad, they will.
  • “The Cask of Amontillado” -- Man takes revenge upon a friend who has insulted him by bricking said friend up in a wall.
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” -- Man kills his landlord who has a blind eye, because the eye is driving him crazy. Police investigate, madness ensues.
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” -- Out of friendship, Man visits a crumbling house beset by madness and disease. Someone gets buried alive.
  • “The Raven” -- Man is visited by a raven while mourning the loss of his beloved Lenore. Man descends into madness.
  • “The Black Cat” -- Alcoholic Man sinks into depravity, commits murder, and is haunted by Basement Cat.
  • “Berenice” -- Man, affianced to his cousin, becomes inappropriately fixated on her teeth and removes them from her corpse (which, it turns out, is not actually corpse).
  • “The Man That Was Used Up” -- Man meets the famous Brevet Brigadier General, who is more than the sum of his parts. Or is he? (Not a horror story, actually, but a satire)
Cosham’s superb reading is full of enthusiasm and emotion -- there is absolutely no doubting the wild madness or cold, calculating, wickedness that possesses our protagonists. Indeed, the mad little laugh he gives during “The Tell-Tale Heart” sent chills down my spine and the calm, rational tone he uses while reading “The Black Cat” made my flesh crawl.

And, on a mostly related note, I give you a scene from Edgar Allan Pooh's "The Tell-Tale Heart:"

Stories of the Macabre written by Edgar Allan Poe & read by Ralph Cosham (Commuters Library, 2002)


A Proper Companion by Candice Hern

Emily Townsend, an impoverished gentlewoman, serves as a paid companion to the sarcastic and meddlesome Dowager Countess of Bradleigh. The countess is extremely distressed to learn her grandson, Robert, the current Earl of Bradleigh, is affianced to a young lady with a dreadful, toad-eating mama. Lady Bradleigh would rather see him marry Emily than this chit -- but how to convince him of that and, worse, how to break the engagement without impugning anyone’s honor?

A pleasant, if predictable, read with likable characters and a few genuinely funny bits. A Proper Companion didn’t leave me desperate to raid my public library for more by Hern, but I didn’t regret the time spent with it, either.

A Proper Companion by Candice Hern (Amazon Digital Services, Kindle Edition)


Marvellous Maid Manga: Shirley, Volume 1 by Kaoru Mori

A compilation of short stories about housemaids in Victorian England. Mori apologies a lot for the quality of her art -- she was just starting out when she drew these stories and the illustrations supposedly show more enthusiasm than skill, but I thought they were just fine. I just wish the stories had been longer and that there were more of them!

My favorite story would have to be the first part of Shirley's story -- "Chapter One: The Beginning" -- where she is taken on as a housemaid by an overworked cafe owner. It's a very sweet, simple story and I was utterly charmed by the characters. I also quite enjoyed "Me and Nellie and One Afternoon" and "Mary Banks," but my enjoyment was marred by their brevity. Perhaps, one day, they might be spun out into longer stories?

Shirley, Volume 1 by Kaoru Mori (CMX Manga, 2008)


The Diamond Key by Barbara Metzger

“I say you are a very nice man, Lord Ingall, for a rake.”

Lady Victoria Keyes, the belle of the London Season, is being measured for a new gown when the dressmaker’s catches fire. Trapped, she vows she’ll marry the man who rescues her and “settle for a country cottage, a cradle to rock, and a caring husband.” Of course, the man who rescues her is no mere fireman! No, indeed! She is rescued by Wynn, the disreputable Viscount Ingall, recently returned to England after having been banished from Society six years before for (allegedly) killed another toff in a duel over a woman.

While Wynn is happy to play the gentleman and rescue Torrie from impending doom, he’s already up to his badly-tied neck cloth in troubles of his own. No need to add marriage to the mix, but why don’t they be friends? Friends! Of course, he falls in love. She falls in love. There are misunderstandings. A dash of disaster. And then Happily Ever After.

The Diamond Key is a fluffy bit of fun. While the story does at times feels contrived and hurried along, Metzger’s protagonists are amusing ones and her many secondary characters seem fully fleshed. There’s a lot of humor to the story with just enough derring-do to keep it from being too sweet. Speaking of sweet, there is no sex in The Diamond Key. While one of the secondary characters is a barque of frailty, another character is clearly bedding her husband’s valet, and many female characters are enciente, none of the characters have sex on page. It’s a refreshing change and I, for one, look forward to more sex-free Regency romances (my imagination can supply those sexy scenes more satisfyingly on its own).

The Diamond Key by Barbara Metzger (Signet Regency Romance, 2003)


Mad for Manwha: Bride of the Water God Vol 1 & 2

While at ConnectiCon 2011, I picked up the first two volumes of Bride of the Water God, a Korean sunjeong manhwa, by Mi-Kyung Yun. I'd never read any manhwa -- didn't even know Korean comics were available in English in the United States -- but I'm always willing to try something new.

Bride of the Water God, Volume 1 by Mi-Kyung Yun (Dark Horse Comics, 2007)

Soah is sacrificed by her village as a Bride of the Water God, Habaek, in hope that he will end the terrible draught that afflicts them. She is put out to sea and eventually finds herself in the lands of the gods where she discovers that her groom is no terrible monster but a little boy. A seriously adorable, "oh don't you just want to tousle his hair!" squeetastic little boy. Unfortunately, Habaek is also very rude and temperamental.

While getting to know her husband, Soah meets many of the other gods that inhabit the land, we learn a secret about the Water God which is not revealed to Soah, a possible future love triangle is hinted at, and Habaek's mother comes to visit.

Bride of the Water God, Volume 2 by Mi-Kyung Yun (Dark Horse Comics, 2007)

Soah's life becomes more complicated as she tries to figure out the link between Habaek and his "older cousin," Mui, and can't seem to accept the obvious answer. Also, we learn an important secret about Soah, Habaek is poisoned with an aphrodisiac which causes him to mistake Soah for his first mortal bride, Nakbin, and the other gods pop in and out, scheming amongst themselves and manipulating Soah as if she were a pawn in a very complicated game.

I flew through these two volumes and immediately ordered the next three -- there are eight volumes out, with the ninth released later this month and the tenth in January. I can't wait to see where this series goes. There's plenty to like as each volume has been packed with intrigue, romance, and overtones of classic stories like "Eros and Psyche" and "Tristan and Iseult."

Even if the story weren't good, I could happily read Bride of the Water God just for the gorgeous illustrations. Seriously, the art is fantastic -- the amount of detail given to the backgrounds and costumes is stunning, each character is visually distinctive (I sometimes have a hard time telling characters apart in B&W comics, but not with Bride), and the books, in general, are just packaged in an appealing way. They're fun to read and also look like something I wouldn't be embarrassed to press on reluctant readers.


Graphically Challenged

Last week, after I posted about how we lack shelf space to accommodate our multitudinous manga/GN collection, I was struck by the embarrassing realization that I have only read about two-thirds of the manga/GNs we own. Some of it's a series problem -- I start reading a series and, even after I fall behind, keep purchasing the new volumes for "someday." Some of it is very much an author problem -- I'll buy anything if it has Gail Simone or Alison Bechdel's name on it. But, mostly, it's a magpie problem --- we snap up whatever looks interesting, because who knows when or where we might see it again.

So these things are bought, brought into our home, and shelved. I have every intention of reading them, but am easily distracted by all the books I see at work. That new manga can wait, I tell myself, while I read this doorstop Booklist thinks is the bomb. And then I never do read that new manga!

To catch up with our collection, I've decided to read at least one manga/GN a week until I run out (and with my birthday and Christmas coming, I guess I won't run out anytime soon!). Yes, it's a reading challenge. Yes, I've been a miserable failure at my other 2011 reading challenges, but this is a personal challenge and the books are a mere six feet from my reading chair -- I might actually stick to it.

Also, to tidy my blog a bit, I've condensed the "manga," "manhwa," and "graphic novel" labels down into one label -- "comic books." I reckon if you're interested in one of those things, you'll be interested in the others, so why not group them together?


Wordless Wednesday: Single-Stream Recycling

Old recycling bins (anything not paper)

Single-stream recycling bin
Yay for single-stream recycling & my brand new bin!


Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage by Kieran Kramer

“Miss Jones,” he whispered aloud, “you’re a damned nuisance.”

Jilly Jones ran away from a bad marriage and started a new life running a bookshop on Dreare Street -- a foggy, depressing corner of Regency London the locals say is cursed. Her business is struggling and matters are not helped by the unending drunken parties thrown by her immediate neighbor, Captain Stephen Arrow, fresh out of the Royal Navy and looking to kick up his heels.

Captain Arrow's distant family comes to visit and to escape the attention of a machinating mama, he pretends to have an understanding with Jilly. Soon Arrow realizes he wants more than a pretend relationship. Unfortunately, Jilly's husband turns up ...

Overall, a silly read. Enjoyable if you can suspend your disbelief and accept the characters and situation as they are. I struggled with that as many of the plot twists (and their outcomes) were immediately obvious -- I knew who owned everyone's leases before the matter of the leases even came up! And it seemed clear there would have to be something dodgy about Jilly's marriage in order to free her up for Arrow. I wanted her husband die or be packed off to Australia or something suitably dramatic, but knew that Cloudy was not that kind of book.

I think that's my biggest quibble with this romance -- it kept building up to what could have been extremely dramatic moments and fell flat each time.

(Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage is the third in Keiran's "The Impossible Bachelors" series).

Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage by Kieran Kramer (St. Martin's, 2011)


Looking for a Little Romance

A few weeks ago, I attended the free Booklist webinar, “Ready for Romance? New Novels and Hot Trends.” It was a fun webinar led by knowledgeable people and I came away with a tidy list of books to borrow from my library system as soon as possible. Unfortunately, a bunch of them won’t be published until 2012, but I did manage to get my hands on a few:
  • Wickedly Charming by Kristine Grayson
  • Ever wonder what happened after Happily Ever After? In Grayson’s universe, Cinderella’s Prince Charming is divorced and running a bookshop while Snow White’s stepmother combats a smear campaign begun by the Grimm Brothers.
  • Lord & Lady Spy by Shana Glen
  • It’s a Regency version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith! Be still, my passionate heart.
  • The Dragon & The Pearl by Jeannie Lin
  • Former Emperor's consort Ling Suyin, famed for her beauty and wit, lives in quiet seclusion until she is courteously kidnapped by a possibly treasonous warlord and entangled in a web of intrigue ... and forbidden romance.
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage by Kieran Kramer
  • Jilly Jones ran away from a bad marriage and started a new life for herself running a successful bookshop in London. She thinks she’s happy alone ... until she meets a dashing military man who finds her so infuriating that you know they’re going to end up in bed together as soon as possible.
Lord & Lady Spy cover irks me a little -- where are her underskirts & stockings?
No pic of Wickedly Charming because it's an e-book. 

When I read romance, it’s usually the historical kind. I blame my allegiance to historical romance on all those Barbara Metzger and Harlequin Historicals I read as a highly impressionable twelve-year-old. I’d like to read more widely, but my success rate with non-historicals is low unless I’m reading someone like Jennifer Crusie or Rachel Gibson.

Help me, O Internetz. What’s non-historical romance might I like? I don’t want:
  • Aliens
  • Paranormal
  • Religion
  • Sheikhs
  • Sports
  • Violent sex
  • Westerns
Unless the book is also really, really (intentionally) funny.


Day 30: Favorite Coffee Table Book

For a long time now, I've dreamed of growing a Shakespeare garden planted with flowers and herbs from the works of William Shakespeare -- poppies, pansies, primroses, violets, carnations, cowslips, roses, rosemary, rue, daffodils, irises, columbine, marigolds, etc. Alas, creating such a garden takes more energy, time, and money than currently available to me so I make do with the fabulous coffee table book, Shakespeare's Flowers by Frances Owens.

Shakespeare's Flowers consists of not much more than single or double page spreads of beautifully photographed flowers accompanied by a relevant Shakespearean quotations. "Nay, by my faith, I think you are more withholding to the night than to fern seed for your walking invisible" from Henry IV, Part I next to an exquisite closeup of a tightly coiled fiddlehead fern, for example. It's all beautifully put together and I can't see anyone not oohing and ahhing.

Here's flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.

-- The Winter's Tale (4.4.122-7)


Day 29: Book You’re Currently Reading

Today, I am reading Mercedes Lackey's One Good Knight, the second fantasy novel in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, following The Fairy Godmother. If you're at all familiar with fairy tale cliches (referred to in these novels as The Tradition), you won't need to have read The Fairy Godmother to understand what's supposed to happen in One Good Knight -- there's a Princess (the daughter of a Wicked Queen) who is supposed to be sacrificed to a Dragon, but is rescued by a Champion, etc.

I say "supposed to" as the Five Hundred Kingdom novels are all fractured fairy tales and The Tradition is frequently undermined or manipulated by characters who won't accept their particular Happy Ending.


Day 28: Last Book You Read

The last book I read was Kady Cross's The Strange Case of Finley Jayne, a free ebook downloaded off Amazon. This is a prequel to Cross's The Steampunk Chronicles and, if it is anything to go by, the entire series must be pretty fantastic.

Finley isn't your average Victorian miss -- stronger than humanly possible, she sometimes feels possessed by a dark force that drives her to do bad or imprudent things. This, of course, has made it a bit hard to keep hold down respectable jobs and she is surprised to get an offer from a wealthy upperclass woman to become her daughter's paid companion. The woman is concerned as her daughter has recently become engaged to a man who may not harbor the best of intentions toward his intended.

The Strange Case of Finley Jayne is a highly entertaining combination of steamworks and Society, pretty dresses and mad science, frothy romance and bloody-minded murder.


Day 27: Favorite Fiction Book

Wouldn’t this be a repeat of “Day 1: What is your favorite book?” A repeat doesn’t sound very interesting so how about I talk about my favorite manga, instead?

The manga series, Emma by Kaoru Mori, follows the adventures of a young orphaned Victorian housemaid who falls in love with the eldest son of a very starchy upper class family. It's a fantastic story (think Upstairs, Downstairs with a heavy dose of Dickens and Bronte) told extremely well with such detailed and historically accurate illustrations that I could spend many happy hours just looking at the pictures.

Emma has been made into an anime and you can watch the first season on YouTube. It's a lot of fun!

(Was stricken with horror tonight to discover I had never purchased the final volume -- Volume 10 -- and it is out of print. They're all out of print. The publisher, CMX, was owned by DC and DC closed CMX down in 2010, because it wasn't a big enough money maker. Well, mother flippin' fish sticks, DC! How much of my money do you want?)


Day 26: Favorite Nonfiction Book

Well, I’m very fond of Pillsbury's Slow Cooker Recipes. When it was first published, I borrowed it from my library so much it might as well have been out on permanent loan to me! As this really wasn’t fair to other library users, I eventually did the right thing and bought myself a copy.

While I've bought or borrowed tons of cookbooks since then, Slow Cooker Recipes remains one of my favorites. Its recipes are fairly pedestrian and that's fine by me. While I love looking at newer, trendier slow cooker books that utilize more exotic ingredients and additional cooking methods, they're not books I really want to cook from. To me, slow cooking is a time saver and I should have to do as little prep work as possible before turning on my slow cooker -- I don't want to do any precooking and I should never find myself driving around town in a mad quest for a difficult-to-find ingredient. The dishes that come out of my slow cooker don't need to be fancy or particularly photogenic, they just need to taste good and be ready when I want to eat. Pillsbury's Slow Cooker Recipes gives me that.

My copy of Slow Cooker Recipes is seven years old now, but I still cook from it regularly and I expect to keep cooking from it until it falls apart.


Day 25: Favorite Book You Read in School

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

I really liked The Scarlet Letter, but I’d read it on my own and enjoyed it long before we were assigned it in Sophomore English. Sophomore English had ways of ruining perfectly good novels – I still can’t look at The Great Gatsby with anything less than loathing even though I know my reaction has very little to do with the novel and everything to do with my high school English department’s teaching style. There were things we needed to learn and Love of Literature was not one of them

But I digress. Fifteen-year-old me thought The Scarlet Letter was terribly, tragically beautiful. I read it twice through for my own pleasure and was ecstatic when it was assigned in class. Even the essay I had to write about symbolism and meaning in The Scarlet Letter did not kill my liking of it.


Day 24: Book That Contains Your Favorite Scene

"Sing the starlight song," Almanzo asked, and Laura sang again, softly,

In the starlight, in the starlight,
At the daylight's dewy close,
When the nightingale is singing
His last love song to the rose;
In the calm clear night of summer
When the breezes softly play,
From the glitter of our dwelling
We will softly steal away.
Where the silv'ry waters murmur
By the margin of the sea,
In the starlight, in the starlight,
We will wander gay and free."

Again silence came and was unbroken while Barnum of his own accord turned north toward the house. Then Laura said, "I've sung for you, now I'll give you a penny for your thoughts."

"I was wondering ..." Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura's hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned hand closed gently over it. He had never done that before. "Your hand is so small," he said. Another pause. Then quickly, "I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring."

"That would depend on who offered it to me," Laura told him.

"If I should?" Almanzo asked.

"Then it would depend on the ring," Laura answered and drew her hand away.

These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 23

It might not look like much if you haven’t read the Little House books, but trust me when I say this is one swoon-worthy scene. For years now, Almanzo had been courting Laura but she had been so frustratingly naïve about the whole thing -- during her first teaching job, he comes way out into the sticks in the dead of a bitter winter to fetch her home every weekend and she excuses his behavior as a favor to her Pa!

Err, no, Laura. No.

Cherry Jones does a brilliant job reading this scene in the audio version of These Happy Golden Years – there’s hesitancy to Almanzo’s voice and a hitch in Laura’s that really brings it home.

(Oh, I know, I am hopelessly off track with this challenge and today is much closer to being “Day 42” than it is “Day 24,” but what can I say? I am a bad, bad blogger).