October 29, 2014

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood: Review

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stone mattress

The Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast recently aired an episode titled Women of a Certain Age. Part of the show discussed how women are pushed aside as they age. No one wants to listen to the opinions of an older woman. They (we) become invisible. Some younger people think there is something creepy and sad about women who share their thoughts with the world. In looking for books with female protagonists who are older, I had a hard time finding any that weren’t about midlife crisis or featured crime solving spinsters. But then came Stone Mattress

Margaret Atwood has written women characters from young to middle aged to elderly. Stone Mattress is heavy on the elderly. The first three stories center on the life of a successful author of fantasy novels: Constance braves an ice storm with help of her dead husband’s voice, her old boyfriend is surprised by a young student’s interest in Constance’s writing rather than his own poetry, and finally Constance heals old wounds at a funeral.

Six more stories follow this trio. In Lusus Naturea a woman is born with a genetic disease that forces her to hide from humanity. I really liked this strange little story of loneliness and desire. The Freeze Dried Groom and The Dead Hand Loves You were my least favorite. The Dead Hand Loves You focuses too heavily on a campy horror novel written by the protagonist. I never did get around to reading The Robber Bridegroom so Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth was a tad confusing. Still, I got the gist and enjoyed Atwood’s cheeky humour.

If there is a clear winner in my opinion, it’s the title story, Stone Mattress. It’s about revenge. I’m Team Verna, even if she is a murderer through neglect and her secret weapon, her sexuality. The story took me on an emotional ride. Verna is not all that she seems on the outside and when she gets a chance to get (somewhat) even, I was cheering her on. (Because it’s fiction, people!)

The last story, Torching the Dusties, is a hyperbolic example of the elderly becoming not only obsolete but unwanted. A mob of young people decide that the elderly have taken too many resources and must die. Inside a very swanky retirement home, Wilma, a woman with macular degeneration can only learn about the events happening through other people. A very frustrating situation for her. The plot to destroy the elderly seems both ridiculous and repulsive, but even Wilma concedes that the young people have a point as the residents take on a “let them eat cake” attitude during the siege.

The older characters in this collection are never props for the younger characters to learn something about themselves or impart some wisdom. If anything, the stories show that we’re never finished. We’re never too old to feel hurt, or angry, and it’s never too late to mend fences.

Atwood is as dark and funny as ever, with everything I’ve come to expect from her work, including the naughty sex bits. I hope she never changes!

October 27, 2014

Media Madness Monday: The Craft

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media madness monday

With Halloween on Friday, I picked an old favorite for a rewatch over the weekend. The Craft, yes, The Craft. I have so many feelings about The Craft.

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First of all, this was a cheap DVD from Walmart and it was a little blurry. I’m not sure if this is because of the cheapness of the DVD or if it always looked that way. The Craft was released in 1996 (I thought it was way older), and cost $15 million to make. That’s seems like a lot of money. Is that a lot for a movie in 1996?

Onto the plot. Three misfit girls who practice witchcraft find a fourth to “call the corners” in the new girl at school. The new girl, Sarah (Robin Tunney) has secrets and issues. Her mom is dead. She’s tried to kill herself. Lead witch Nancy (Fairuza Balk) says this is “punk rock.” Sarah is also a “natural witch” as is declared by the proprietor of the local witch shop. With the increase in their powers, the girls use spells to vanquish their enemies or improve their lives. Sarah wants a jackass to like her, Nancy wants out of her trailer home, Rochelle (Rachel True) wants to smite her racist swim competitor, and Bonnie (Neve Campbell) wants her scars to disappear (and finally wash her greasy hair, I guess). It doesn’t take long for things to go horribly wrong.

The actresses are great, especially Fairuza Balk who went all in as the demented, power hungry Nancy. She embraces the crazy, campiness of the character. Robin Tunney is an expert at crying a single tear. Just one tear. She plays this sympathetic character well, as this “good girl” is obviously the one we’re to root for. She definitely has a Bella Swan vibe to her. The other two ladies, played by Neve and Rachel, were actually compelling characters with real problems until the last third of the movie. I’ll get to that.

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The adults though, where did they find these people? When they were present at all, they are caricatures of real humans. The homeless guy with the snake, I don’t even know what his purpose was other than to die in the first ten minutes. Nancy’s mom gives the worst drunk person impression ever. Sarah’s dad is more like a creepy uncle than a parent. I loved the last scene when he walks by, waves and says, “Hi girls!” like “No, nothing weird happened here.” The only decent adult part was the lady witch store owner. I got to say though I hope she had a second source of income because her only customers stole from her, something she knew. Even if she wasn’t a witch, she’d be an idiot not to know. She should have gave those moochers warts.

Despite the campy beginning of the film (the snake guy, the bad date, Nancy’s trailer), I thought the first part was the best part. It’s all “Yay! Girl Power!” After the girls “invoke the spirit” things get crazy. After the douchey football dude attempts raping Sarah, Nancy tries to sleep with him in some weird power grab. Who even wants this guy? Ovaries before brovaries, ladies. Plus, Rochelle and Bonnie become puppets of Nancy and lose all agency of their own. If they had any sense, they would side with Sarah who is less crazy and more gifted.

The Craft is so 90s. The soundtrack features songs from Elastica and Matthew Sweet. The clothes! Chunky heels, stockings, crop tops, nose piercings. Nancy rocks the goth look.

The Craft passes the Bechdel test, since they aren’t always discussing boys. These ladies don’t need saving from a boy either. They fight it out amongst themselves. It had some unintentionally funny moments, like Sarah’s flailing run down a dark alley. It’s a bit goofy. It’s not scary, if that is an issue for you. If you are of my vintage, you’ll enjoy this blast from the past.

October 21, 2014

Nightmare at 20000 Feet by Richard Matheson: Review

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Well, that was disturbing.

Back in October 2008, I read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, a novella that really impressed me. Now in October 2014, I’m revisiting Matheson through the audiobook collection Nightmare at 20000 Feet.

Stephen King warns in the introduction of this collection that “he will wring you dry” and he certainly did. At the end of many of these stories, I was left with an eerie sense of unease. He has a cynical eye for the human race. What are the worst things we are capable of? What does madness do to a person? Can you trust your family, your neighbours, your own sanity? 

Nightmare at 20000 Feet is the classic Twilight Zone episode featuring the only man on a plane who sees a gremlin on the wing. It’s been remade many times. Even Bart Simpson had an encounter with the gremlin. The short story is much more scary than the television episode. We learn more about the man’s state of mind. He’s nervous, he’s taken drugs, he’s suicidal (he has a gun ON THE PLANE! Something unimaginable now.) Is he a reliable narrator? Is the gremlin real or a figment of his sick mind?

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A couple of my other favorites were

Disappearing Act. A one night stand begins a chain of events leading to the literal disappearance of a man. He starts to freak out after trying to get into contact with the woman he slept with only to find she doesn’t exist. Then other parts of his life start disappearing, including his wife and home.

Legion of Plotters. A little too close to home. A man begins to suspect the little annoyances he endures throughout the day are part of a plot to destroy his sanity. It doesn’t end well.

Dance of the Dead. The future, 1997, is a place ravaged by war but young people are still seeking a good time. One thrilling entertainment is watching the Dance of the Dead performed by LUPs. You’ll find out what they are. 1997 sure sounds a lot like the 1950s though.

The Distributor. I can’t call it a favorite because it left me feeling terrible but it is compelling. A man moves into a quiet neighbourhood and slowly begins to destroy the lives of the people on the street. It ends in murder and suicide. I was most disturbed by the cold, calculated way he goes about it for no apparent reason.

The stories reveal a lot about attitudes towards race and gender during the time period. The women are harpies, victims of violence, or sexual predators. Slaughter House features sexytimes with a ghost! The men are driven crazy for it. One of the neighbours in The Distributor are afraid of being outted as black, whether they are or not.

There are ghosts, monsters, vampires, zombies, all your typical Halloween creatures, but not so typical.The writing is creeps up on you. The mundane details add up to the macabre. It’s a slow process that raises the hair on the back of your neck. If you want to be freaked out, read Nightmare at 20000 Feet.

About the Audio: No Stephen King does not read his own intro. Damn. There are several narrators for the collection, although only one woman, Julia Campbell. Yuri Rasovsky’s oddly cheese-grater-like voice was one of the ones that creeped me out the most. I couldn’t listen to him vocalize a child’s voice in Dress of White Silk. I had to skip that one.

October 20, 2014

Evil Book Bloggers: Everything You Heard Is TRUE!

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First things first, just like Canadians, all book bloggers know one another (Shout out to all the Bobs in Saskatchewan!).

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We are all part of a Super Secret Society and have monthly meetings.

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A virgin is sacrificed. Virgins are so hard to get these days. It’s a hardship.

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We dance around a Fire of Vengeance and burn the books of our enemies. Sometimes there are marshmallows!

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Through a complex ritual, we decide the fate of authors. Who will be destroyed? Who will be revered?

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I’m not saying book bloggers eat babies but…

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In case you didn’t get it, this is a (hopefully) humorous response to some authors’ ideas about what book bloggers do. Like we sit around plotting the demise of writers and books because we hate them so much. Or we’re all drunk with some imagined power, a power we do not actually have.

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But really we’re just sitting here like…

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Well, maybe not the stealing part though.

Shock-tober: Good Lady Ducayne

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good lady ducayne

I actually paid cash money for this audiobook ($1.95 on iTunes).

Spoilers, but really there are no surprises here.

Bella (another Bella in a vampire story!) Rolleston is just poor girl, she needs your sympathy. She’s looking for a job as a companion to help her Mama pay the rent. Her only option is to pay an employment agency to find her some work. Although the Superior Person at the office takes her money, she informs Miss Rolleston that finding her a job will be near impossible since she has no skills. Bella, ever optimistic, hoofs it to the agency every week in hopes that someone will give her a job.

Being at the right place at the right time pays off, when she happens to be at the agency upon the arrival of Good Lady Ducayne. The old lady takes on Bella immediately, despite her lack of accomplishments. Like an employment ad on Kijiji, if it’s too good to be true it probably is. Bella fails to see the red flags. Old Lady Ducayne wants to take her to Italy (red flag). She asks the following, “Have you good health? Are you strong and active, able to eat well, sleep well, walk well, able to enjoy all that there is good in life?” (Red Flag). She needs a healthy girl because all her other companions became too ill and had to leave her employment (RED FLAG).

In Italy, everything is fine until Bella starts feeling tired. She’s having strange dreams and has mysterious cuts on her arms. Lady Ducayne’s Italian doctor tells her those are mosquito bites. Yeah, that’s it, mosquito bites. What kind of crazy-ass Italian mosquitos leave bites that look like cuts? Bella buys this hook, line, and sinker. I began to question this girl’s intelligence. She’s like that girl in Mean Girls with the psychic boobs.

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Oh and then she learns that no one knows how old Lady Ducayne is. She could be over a hundred. And by the way, all her former companions didn’t just get sick: THEY DIED. (RED FLAG!!!!! GET OUT NOW, GIRL!!!!)

Bella doesn’t get on the first coach to Splitsville because the money is good and Mama doesn’t have to knit mantles or whatever it is she does anymore. Plus, Lady Ducayne is sooooo easy to work for!

Eventually, Bella is rescued by a young English doctor because, surprise, Lady Ducayne has been syphoning off Bella’s plasma to keep her alive.

This isn’t a very scary story, really. Lady Ducayne doesn’t turn into a bat or a wolf or anything. She’s just using questionable scientific methods to stay alive indefinitely. The deaths of all those girls was just collateral damage. It’s a trope of the sensation novel that the Italian doctor, or count, or French maid is totally evil. Obviously Bella hasn’t been reading Wilkie Collins or she’d know this. Poor, stupid Bella needs a man to get her out of this one because she is too dumb to realize she’s in trouble. No one ever tells her what was really going on. 

Even though I found Bella too stupid to live, I did love that she didn’t just sit around waiting for her luck to change. She went out and tried to take charge of her own destiny. I had to admire her for that. It was a short one too so I didn’t have to put up with her for long.

About the Audio: Good Lady Ducayne by Mary Elizabeth Braddon was narrated by Anne Rosenfeld and she did an excellent job. It was very entertaining and over the top. This audiobook is just over an hour.

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