JAMAICA INN By Daphne du Maurier

This book, the first I have read by this author, was a delightful surprise. So much fun to read!

Mary Yellan is a very young woman who grew up on a farm in Cornwall sometime back when transport was by horses, 1820-ish one assumes. After her mothers death, obeying a deathbed promise, Mary sells the farm and goes to live with her Aunt Patience, a virtual stranger whom she has only met once.

I turns out that her Aunt, having married a grim violent man now lives in terror and isolation at the ill omened Jamaica Inn, the Inn that no member of the countryside dares to visit. Except some night, when every crook and ruffian crawls out of the countryside to drink there. Mary soon becomes sure that the Inn and her Uncle by marriage are involved in something dreadful and as a high-spirited young woman, is determined to investigate.

This was a lot of fun, the writing was pleasant, our leading lady was pretty good (much more a 1930’s woman than an 1820’s one, but that is fine) and the plot was rollicking. This novel has been made into radio plays and movies (which I did not watch as the trailer made me shudder) and the author is apparently really well known I don’t really know how I have come to miss her for so long. There are a couple of times where Mary does things that are pretty silly, the villein is well telegraphed and predictable. So while this qualifies as a historic thriller in it’s own way, it is the pleasure of the writing and the plot unfolding that will hold you, not a need to know.

While reading it, I kept wondering if this was du Maurier’s answer to Wuthering Heights, a book that I plan to re-read shortly. Here too are the gorgeous moors with our leading lady walking across them a great deal! Here too, is a violent a brooding man and a deserted house seeped in ruin. I will say though, that Jamaica Inn is far more enjoyable to read than the better known Bronte book.

THE LAST BATTLE By C. S. Lewis

This is the one Narnia book that I remember not especially liking, as a child. Reading it as an adult I can see why: It starts out hard and bitter with bad things happening to nice people and a horrid situation that seems beyond help. Re-reading it as an adult I also did not enjoy the beginning, partly for the same reasons, King Trinian is in a terrible situation and Narnia is under threat from bad people, both external and internal and it is hard reading. As an adult you have the added layer of ‘as a king, that is a really REALLY super dumb choice you are making’ and another bad choice, and ANOTHER bad choice. Because I want Trinian and Narnia to win and they won’t.

The lies and hardship, once I got into the story actually made for a pretty good, strong story especially after Jill and Eustace arrive from our world and I remembered the things I did like from my childhood and enjoyed them all over.

Then we got further into the story. This is where I often lost interest as a child, and, as an adult became very critical. Because this is where the author starts seriously pushing his Christian agenda and as a child who was unacquainted with Christianity it was really kind of weird. As an adult, it was often an ‘oh, really?’ kind of feeling. Now I did like the philosophical theme of ‘if you do good in the name of evil is it an evil deed?’ the discussion of the ethics of good and evil, though phrased in a way suitable for a child are intriguing. The concepts of worlds end, life after death and so forth are also worth reading for. Lewis’ idea of heaven was nice – I wish I had it in me to believe it too.

So at the end of the day this is a good book and it is a suited conclusion to the Narnia series, especially if Lewis had decided he was done with them and did not want to write any more of them. In my opinion, the earlier books have a much stronger storytelling and mythic appeal. I also thing that Lewis’ youthful atheism helped make them so. While the themes of good versus evil are endemic to all humanity, the ability to construct a myth that appeals to many different ethnicity and cultures (as the early books do) is extraordinary. So, while I know that Lewis revoked his atheism and became known as a strong Christian apologist I still feel that his early children’s books transcend the Christian theme. This book less so than the others, without a doubt, but still.

On a final note; The original illustrator, Pauline Baynes did the most amazing work, I still can never visualise Narnia as anything but an expansion of her stunning artwork.

PREY By Michael Crichton

3 1/2 stars
In this very enjoyable science fiction thriller, Jack is a stay at home dad while his wife Julia becomes and more more distant as she becomes involved in a company doing cutting edge work with nanotechnology. But Jack was not always a house husband, until he tried being a whistle-blower at his old computer company he headed a team that wrote computer code using routines from nature, specifically insect behavioural algorithms.

When something goes wrong with the coding in the experimental program Julia is working on, Jack is flown in to try and solve the problem. But the issues have gone far past the point that he was told about, there are rogue, self-sustaining, self-reproducing nanos acting as an insect swarm in the Nevada desert. They learn, they evolve, and they are using predator/prey algorithms. And as Jack finds out, it is humans that are the prey.

Having studied insect behaviour and evolution at university, I loved the fact that this fascinating group of animals gets such a great showing in this excellent science fiction. Crichton does an excellent job of integrating evolution into the test also, so that one can apply evolution to the behaviour and the evolution of the swarm. Also he managed to write the technology so that you don’t have to be a programer to enjoy it, in the same way I suspect you don’t have to be a biologist to follow the bio part. Now, if you are thinking ‘this sounds a lot like Jurassic park only with insects and nanotechnology instead of dinosaurs and genetics’ you are quite, right it is. It is also a lot of fun except for one bit in the middle which drove me spare. But for the rest it is a very well put together science fiction thriller. Great stuff!

There is a lot of suspense and it definitely is as much of a thriller in many ways as the author’s more famous dinosaur book, with the dire affects of human hubris and greed set against our heroes who are desperate to save – probably all of humanity.

Now as for the issues which really cut down my enjoyment in the middle of the book: Please do not read this spoiler unless you have already read the book. This plot hole seems to be one that has not bothered (or even been noticed by) any reader except for me and it was impossible to ignore once you saw it and really bothered me. This review is mostly for future me, who will not otherwise remember it, if you like sci-fi, animal/insect behaviour or strong biology based science fiction, read the book.

SPOILER

This was the glaring GLARING problem: The quandary facing our hero is that he knows he needs to destroy the swarm in the desert. He thinks they can only do that at night because the nanos lose power at night and it is too dangerous to go outside during the day. Why is it dangerous to go outside during the day? Because the swarm are constantly around the building, apparently trying to get in. So, Jack goes out and is chased into the building by the swarm, he is severely injured and barely makes it to the airlock in time, having been infected by the swarm. Once in the airlock he is decontaminated and taken to the infirmary.

Did you get that? Crichton seems to have missed it.

[pg 205] The airlock decontaminated the nanos in the swarm that come in with Jack. The swarm needs to be destroyed. The swarm is trying to get in. So, open a crack to the airlock, let them get in, like they are trying to do, then exterminate them, like you did with the ones that came in with Jack.

Since that was so blindingly obvious that Jack’s eight year old son could have come up with it, let along a whole herd of scientists, I had pretty limited tolerance for a lot of what followed. Jack goes out once and is nearly killed. So he goes out a second time [pg 232] gets decontaminated again, after taking the whole team of scientists out with him. Leaving, in charge of the building, the crazy guy who is obviously trying to sabotage the attempt to control the swarm. Two people die this time with three more injured seriously. Consequently, Jack goes outside again. Again leaving the untrustworthy one in charge of his only sanctuary, again taking the only reliable people with him. Again they decontaiminate after coming back in.

By now I wanted to scream and had a tolerance of about two pages before having to put the book down for a while.

pg 239 OMG!!!! The swarm are heading straight for us! OMG they might get into the airlock!!!!!! They want to get into the building!!!!! WE MUST KEEP THEM OUT AT ALL COSTS!!!!!!!!!!

me; *ahem*

Oh no! Not ANOTHER 100 books to read before you die….

These are the articles I am a sucker for, I can’t resist them and they have led to my 2020 personal reading challenge of “Deborah Does The Classics”.

Many readers can’t resist those lists though they rarely have any surprises in them. For me it is partly the competitive instinct: How did I score? How many of them have I read? And partly readers FOMO what if there is one on this list that I have never heard of and I miss out on it?

So when one appeared in my morning news feed I clicked, and was more annoyed than usual because now what ‘100 books to read before you die’ is, it is a marketing strategy.

https://reedsy.com/discovery/blog/best-books-to-read-in-a-lifetime

For a ‘100’ list it is pretty standard, cut and paste from somewhere else, I suspect. The intro, which almost certainly had less time put into it than I have already spent typing, tells me that “The average American, for instance, reads 12 books a year. Assuming that you’re over 25 years old, that would mean that you only have approximately 700 books — max — in your future.” A pathetic average that I assume was achieved by including people who are not actually literate. I am insulted on behalf of the American public, and I am not even American. My only response to the idiocy does not even come from a book, but rather from a movie:

Guardians Of The Galaxy Middle Finger GIFs | Tenor

Personally, I read well over 100 books a year, and have already read about half of that pathetic list. Some were a waste of time, others I have read over and over and plan to read yet again. Several I have no intention of ever reading unless I am stuck in a post apocalyptic landscape where book options are limited.

But even after one has finished being insulted by the slur on my ability as a reader and finished sneering at the mediocre list, there is more to be annoyed about. The hook in the article, the true marketing stratergy, is that it will recoment your next book if you do a quiz. Yes, of course I did the quiz, dont we all? Then it wanted my email and that is normally when I bail, but this time I gave it so they could ’email me my next read’.

Except, how naive to think that; no, what they email you is a confirmation that you click to sign up to their scummy lying site, if you hit the confirmation, you STILL don’t get your book recommendation. What you get is a ‘get started’ page and still no book recommendation. How Effed up is that as a marketing strategy?

Anyhow, must go off to block the lying, scummy, book hating site because how hard would it be to throw in a pathetic little recommendation there, really?

WAY STATION By Clifford D. Simak

Enoch Wallace was born in Wisconsin in 1840, he served four four years in one of those American wars I can’t keep straight in my head (Gettysberg?), then he went home to Wisconsin and worked the farm with his father. When his father died in 1866 he buried his father and stayed alone on the farm. And there he still is, in 1962, apparently not having aged a day in the interval. What is more, when Intelligence start trying to look into his circumstances his house has not aged a day either, at least from what they can see on the outside, as one can’t see in and cannot even turn the door knob…

What they don’t yet know is that after his father’s death Enoch Wallace accepted an offer made by an alien, an offer to became a Gatekeeper to allow his home to be transformed into a Way Station and work for Galactic Central. It has been an interesting life, he has made many friends and talked to many alien species but he has become somewhat isolated from humanity and the Earth that he loves. But, big politics are happening in the galaxy and they are going to overflow onto Enoch at the same time that Earths inquisitiveness is about to start to encroach on his world.

This is not a flash bang book, it has a very slow gentle pace and Simak used it as an indirect way to explore what other intelligent species may look like and be, he does this from the point of view of Enoch, so we don’t get full pictures, we get second hand experiences. It is intellectually exciting and speculatively fascinating, but not fast paced through most of the book. The end speeds up and the reader participates in Enoch’s feeling of everything going out of control after years of peach, it is the more vivid because the rest of the book as been so steadily paced. I really enjoyed it and would thoroughly recommend it to lovers of old school sci-fi.

That said, while I see it as another great book from one of the greats of the old school of science fiction, you have to enjoy Simaks writing style, though I myself cannot see how anyone would not apparently he is not for everyone. According to Wiki, he was The Science Fiction Writers of America’s SFWA Grand Master and he was one of the inaugural winners of the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime. That is in addition, you know, to winning a few Hugos and a Nebula. Funnily enough though, he has not been as enduring in the public eye as other original writers of the genera I think that is funny because from the first time I picked up a tattered old sci-fi paperback of his in some forgotten second hand bookshop, I was hooked on his writing. There is something about his style that just completely engrosses me and the fact that his books are all speculative fiction makes it better. One of the best things about the early sci-fi was that authors used it to posit circumstances and speculate about humanity. Simak is one of the best in my opinion.

ANNIHILATION By Jeff Vandermeer

This was a fascinating book, with a disquieting theme of kind-of maybe science fiction, a touch of creeping horror and more than a bit mystery. Nicely written from a single view point that has you constantly wondering just how reliable that narrator is and just how real the events are.

Our narrator has just entered the mysterious Area X, as part of team eleven to explore this largly unknown area. Has it been colonised by an alien invasion? Is it a result of an environmental disaster gone wild? We don’t know and neither does out narrator, the biologist of the team, even though she and her team mates have been training intensively for this mission for months. It turns out, there is an awful lot else they do not know either. As a biologist myself, I really loved the construction of Area X, the narrator describes it as transition zones, but to me the ecosystems and the species were such strong plot elements describing why the area was insane (biologically speaking) that I almost did not need the more creepy, more horrific elements (which I will not spoiler for you, as they are worth reading for yourselves).

A spectacularly creepy story which I read almost without stopping. While I know there are two more in the series, I understand this to be a real standalone book, complete in itself and I really appreciate that this is the case as I hate needing to get another book to conclude a story arc. Nevertheless, I have every intention of finding the other books and reading them as I enjoyed the story and the writing of this one so much.

THE LOST LOVE SONG By Minnie Darke

In this truly delightful little love story we have a number of different people all over the world who’s stories are tied together by the lost love song of the title.

Arie Johnson in Melbourne Australia puts his girlfriend Diana Clare on a plane for a world tour. Diana is a fascinating random and likable character, a classical pianist and Arie adores her, he wants to marry her and hopes when she comes back she will say yes.

On the night before she leaves Diana starts to write a piano melody, Arie only ever hears a little of it, this is the love song and when Diana gets on a plane from Singapore it stays behind to travel it’s own long journey through a whole heap of peoples lives. A single dad in London coping with a teenage daughter, a nomadic poet drifting through England, a boy and girl who fall in love at music camp and play it on cello and flute…

The evolution of the song is interesting and it is told through the stories of a huge range of people, it is the deft writing of characters that makes this book so very nice to read. It is a very human sort of book, human emotions and lives, small incidents and major events, it is all… just nice to read!

One of my favourite bits, one that I am sure will stay with me and which made me laugh, was when Evie Greenlees comes back to Australia from the UK. She is sorting through the possessions that she left behind her and tells herself that “It was time to get seriously Marie Kondo.” So, she asks a few possessions if they spark joy or not and gets different answers, then she starts to ask a pile of cartons marked ‘BOOKS’ and before she can say the words they reply “Don’t you even dare ask“. This was my laugh out loud moment from the book, and it brought me enough joy all on it’s own that it would have been worth reading for that alone. But this is a very joyful book in general and I am so happy a friend gave it to me.

I liked most of the people, I enjoyed reading about their lives and the ending was graceful and satisfying.

MOLL FLANDERS By Daniel Defoe

This was a thoroughly enjoyable classic literary fiction from an author that is probably as famous as some of his novels are.

Defoe was a prolific English writer 1660 – 1731, poetry, religion, political and moralistic writings in their hundreds flowed from him during his career as author and activist. Moll Flanders was written later in his writing career 1720, (I think) and was surprising to me in many ways as well as being really quite delightful to read. By the time Defoe started this novel his work as a political writer had tapered off but he was an established author having had great success with Robinson Crusoe just a couple of years before and to be honest I had expected this novel to be as moralistic and far fetched as Robinson Crusoe, which can be VERY moralistic and preachy. I was wrong, it was great – though the language may take the reader a bit to get used to and the completely random capitalisation of words may be hard for people with firm ideas about grammar.

Moll Flanders is a lot of fun, apparently belonging to a style of prose fiction with a rogue of low class for a hero. It has a totally undeserved reputation in many ways, I think, because Moll (who is meant to be based on an actual criminal, Moll King) is meant to be this incredibly wicked woman, and the story is meant to be salacious and instead she is likable, pretty moral on the whole and there is no salaciousness at all. Reading this book one finds that though Defoe regularly has her calling herself a whore – by 2020 standards, she was practically a nun because as far as the text tells you, she had sex with a grant total of eight men over her whole life and was married to most of them! Most party girls these days go through more men than that a month. Her life is really very interesting and the reader learns so much about the era! It is an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable ride as Moll’s matter of fact narration of her very eventful life is cheerful and good humored throughout.

The story has a moralistic element to be sure, though I found the actual morals being espoused fascinatingly slippery to pin down. In it’s day it was probably a bit titillating, or at least shocking. Maybe, I guess. But I would agree with the literary viewpoint that Moll Flanders is an important work in the development of the novel, in the way it challenges the common perception of femininity and gender roles in 18th-century British society. As I know little about the movement, I would hesitate to suggest that Defoe or this novel are actually feminist, but Moll’s world is independent and self reliant in a way that females are rarely portrayed in literature even far more recent that this novel.

My feeling is that Moll King, to whom Defoe apparently spoke quite a bit, had a huge input and impact on the story. Certainly there are different ‘voices’ within the narration and the feeling of a lone woman in 17th-century England comes through very strongly. I think it is likely that a lot of the moralising and religious stuff comes from Defoe, with his established bent for that sort of thing. While the descriptions of the seductions, relationships, lodging houses and stratagems Moll experiences are so very believable I feel like they are likely from life. The section on life as a thief in London is truly fascinating and immensely detailed, I would guess that is not part of Defoe’s experience though the descriptions of Newgate prison may be as he was incarcerated for political activism.

Although Moll mentions scruples about the morality of some of her actions and decisions, religion is far from her concern throughout most of the novel, inserted in places but not part of the narrative. Like Robinson Crusoe, at the end Defoe allows her to repent and be ‘saved’ and become an ‘honest woman’ after she is transported to the Americas as a theif. So we have a happy ending of sorts and it is certainly a very satisfying ending to a life that is absolutely packed with adventure far beyond what a modern day person could imagine.

All in all a really enjoyable book an example of how good literature really can be timeless.

MIDNIGHT DAYS By Neil Gaiman

This is another multiple re-read of a Neil Gaiman collection that, somehow, it seems I never reviewed before. So first thing is that in my last review of a Gaiman collection I claimed that my favourite was whichever one I happened to be reading. Here, with the very next one I am contradicting myself with a measly three stars – why would that be?

Part of it is that the collection does not have the cohesiveness and integrity of some other collections, the stories seem to have little in common except that they don’t have anywhere else to share-house, and those kinds of share-houses never work well. Because of this lack of cohesiveness I am breaking a personal rule and reviewing the stories separately.

Also bring on the classic ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ excuse: Here is my confession, I am not a HARDCORE comic geekgrl, I liked comics as a kid but was not passionate about them, and until I discovered the adult graphic novels in my 30’s I had not read any for years. Several (all?) of these stories are for the hardcore comic geek, that person who still has cartons they have kept from childhood and are word perfect on EXACTLY which episode Medusa went from a villain to a hero, what comic Robin first appeared solo in ect ect. I know people like that, but I am not really one of their tribe.

There are six stories in this collection and the first three are Swamp Thing stories. I like Swamp Thing in the Hellraiser series, I can’t get into the spirit of the thing elsewhere, as a rule, though and I have tried really hard because the artwork is good and I started running out of comic favourites ages ago. The first one here is ‘Jack In The Green’ it is short, set in the plague years of the 17th century (so, really topical right now) and it is apparently the first script Gaiman ever wrote and it is an excellent story with perfect artwork.

The next one is Brothers; another Swamp Thing story, good writing, pretty funky with some wacky concepts and artwork to match. It is not bad but suffers a bit in the telling if you do not already know a lot of ST history as it was written for an Annual and presumably anyone buying an annual is following the characters and the story. As I do not follow ST, I have fairly hazy notions of who and what Chester, Liz and Abby are, why Abby has a bun in the oven which seems to be part of the plot. Maybe.

The third is another Swamp Thing, Shaggy God Stories, it has that very classic 60’s – 70’s feel comic artwork which I like. It is good that I like the artwork because I have absolutely no idea what the story is. While reading it I have no idea, when I finish reading it I am clueless and on re-reading I remain mystified. It must be a ST companion to some other story I never read. It gets two stars for the artwork.

The next story moves away from the Swamp Thing (thank goodness), to John Constantine of Hellblazer. Drawn by Dave McKean, a virtuoso among artists. As I adore Hellblazer, Constantine, Gaiman AND McKean this story was a huge win for me. It is one of the rarer of Gaimans stories and it is brilliant it has that edginess of the better Helblazers and that strange ‘mythic’ element that Gaiman captures so well in the writing. The artwork is the final, perfect piece to an extraordinary story and there is not a single panel I would not hang on my wall for it’s artistic perfection. It was entirely worth buying the volume just so I could own this story: Hold Me.

Next is a Sandman companion story – kind of. There was an original DC Comics Pulp hero in a gas mask called The Sandman. I encountered it briefly and with no real interest long ago and never thought of it at all until I came across Gaiman’s Sandman many years later. Gaiman incorporated that original pulp hero, apparently effortlessly, into the Dream of the Endless story line and so you see tidbits of him a few times through the series. This is a collaboration between Matt Wagner who took on the DC sandman, Wesley Dodds and Gaiman who wrote Dream. It is a pretty good story with very nice artwork exceptionally well suited to the story, the era, which is 1939 and it’s society, which is England on the brink of war. It is pretty good and it does not matter too much that I have not read too much of the Mystery Theater or of Wesley Dodds.

The last story is Welcome Back to the House of Mystery.
What can I say?
I want those minutes of my life back.
Every minute that I tried to read this thing is wasted, because I don’t especially like the artwork, I can’t read the script and I have no idea if there is a story or a narrative and if so what it is. This one is where I prove I am not a real comic geek as it is a throwback to the old-style kiddie ‘horror stories’ and humour and I don’t know that I have ever successfully finished it.

Jack In The Green 5*
Brothers 3*
Shaggly God Stories 2*
Hold Me 5*
Sandman Midnight Theater 4*
Welcome back to the House of Mystery 1*
For a total rating of 3.3 stars which I am rounding down to 3, purely on the annoyance of that last story (Sorry Neil, sorry Dave, I still love you in other ways).

ENDLESS NIGHTS By Neil Gaiman

On this, many times multiple, re-reading I still find this collection as good as ever. It may well be my favourite of the Sandman companion books (though, let’s be honest; my favourite tends to be whichever I am reading at the time), partly because it is such a lush book. It has that lovely Dave McKean artwork and the textured pages and it is just a bit of an art experience to read it.

The stories are all quite perfect little gems in themselves, we finally get to read the story of why Dream and Desire are so very much at odds in chapter 3 The Heart of a Star where we get the backstory to a few throwaway lines in The Sandman, which are key to a major story arc. I love the way Gaiman does not feel the need to over explain everything in the books. This over-explaining is a very common flaw of many otherwise good stories, both in books and film and a thing that way too many stories and franchises seem to do. Gaiman understands that not all ends need to be tided up ALL the time, but these extra stories have the internal integrity of a complete tale, with no ‘fanfiction’ feel to them and The Heart of a Star in particular has plenty of charm.

Every time I re-read this, a different story is my favourite, this time it was chapter 2 Desire, What I’ve tasted of desire… I love the title too, one of my favourite William Blake verses. The story is a perfect addition to the Endless because in The Sandman in general, Desire is mostly posited as an adversary. But this little stand alone story gives us an isolated example of Desire’s own nature and sphere of influence without any real intervention from the rest of the Endless. And it is a great story in it’s own right with one excellent main character!

As always chapter 5 Delirium, Going Inside fascinated me. It is a simple enough little story, well conceived, and while the Endless characters of Dream (Daniel) and Barnabas are familiar there is no indication of when it takes place that I can see. I do not believe it ties into any particular time frame of The Sandman. While the story is nice, it is the amazing artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz that makes this chapter sing. The crazy lines, often irregular panels and chaotic, yet amazing artwork let the right side of your brain wander along the colour and image of delirium, while the left side of your brain simultaneously follows the actual story line. At least, that is how it always feels to me while reading it.

Anyway, perfect companion book for people who loved the Sandman, but completely accessible to anyone who didn’t.