Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers; The Case of the Horrified Heirs: a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner; Ancestral Shadows by Russell Kirk

 I've made a recent discovery in piano music, the compositions of Arthur Farwell.  He wrote some reflective tone poems that I like to listen to when I write.  Here is Roses and Lillies  from his collection called Tone Poems After Pastels in Prose.

 It's Advent and I did not have candles so I went to Walmart.  They did not have Advent candles but they did have this Starbucks mug for five dollars so the trip wasn't a waste.  To me at least.  According to my husband it was.

We're nearing the end of the year and I am scrambling to make my Goodreads goal of 200 books this year.  I thought such an ambitious target would get me to read through more of my TBR pile but all it's made me do is cheat and read a bunch of picture books to make the quota. 

Today I am going to combine three book reviews.  They are not long nor are they very profound but I hope you enjoy reading them, or better, are inspired to read the books.  If you have already read them, tell me whether you liked or hated them and why.

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey, #3)Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another good mystery by Sayers.

An elderly woman dies. She was terminally ill with cancer, so no one is surprised that she dies of heart failure. Except the doctor doesn't think she should have died so soon. Peter Wimsey picks up the scent and begins to investigate. It turns out the lady's niece, who happens to be a nurse and who was caring for her, also is going to inherit all of her aunt's money. (The aunt was very rich). No one suspects foul play and an autopsy does not reveal anything but heart failure. Yet Wimsey is not persuaded.

When Wimsey begins to interview other people who worked in the house before the old woman died and they begin to die as well, his suspicions are confirmed.

This was a very interesting story with many different clues and incidents that do not seem to be connected but all the threads are tied together at the end.

Sayer's always does thorough research when writing a story. In this case we get the low down about wills and the different laws that arbitrate them. She weaves this information into her story to make crucial plot developments.

And, of course, what makes Sayer's mysteries especially enjoyable are the lively characters and Wimsey's sharp and, at times, scathing wit.

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The Case of the Horrified Heirs (Perry Mason Mystery)The Case of the Horrified Heirs by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Virginia Baxter is framed for possession of drugs but why? Who did it? Someone is intent on getting her out of the way, not by murder but by having her thrown in prison. What is the motive? Who did she offend or does she know something that could obstruct someone's goal. But what is that goal? What does someone want and how is Virginia in the way?

Lauretta Trent is a wealthy woman in her sixties. She is financially supporting her two sisters and their husbands. She has left a will that was signed by her lawyer and his secretary, who happens to be Virginia Baxter.

For the past few months Lauretta has been hospitalized for digestive upsets. Is it the spicy Mexican food she can't resist or is something else going on? It turns out that her hair and fingernails test positive for arsenic. Who is trying to kill her?

Is it the siblings? They are not given anything in the will. They're better off if she lives. Or is it the chauffeur who stands to gain the most? He also prepares her food.

Nothing is as it seems and what I enjoyed about the story was all the different threads that seemed unrelated and how they come together in the end.

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Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly TalesAncestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales by Russell Kirk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Russell Kirk is best known for starting the Modern Conservative movement. A devout Catholic, his beliefs permeate each and every story. Therefore, the stories are not simply ghost tales but stories with a higher, other worldly message.

"...the tale of the preternatural- as written by George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other masters- can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order." -Kirk

All of the stories are surreal, whether they are talking about demon possession, haunted houses, or Native America spiritism. In one story, a man stumbles into a place where dead friends dwell. At first he thinks he is dead, but it turns out that he made a "wrong turn" somewhere. If it was supposed to be heaven, it was a little bleak.

They are not traditional or run of the mill but they are extremely suspenseful and I found them to be rather frightening. Some people will enjoy these stories and some probably won't understand what he's getting at.

You'll have to read them for yourself and decide.

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For Advent devotions I'm reading Thomas A Kempkis' The Imitation of Christ every night.  I'll be reviewing that book at the end of the month.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A History of Chess by H.J. R. Murray the original 1913 edition

Please listen to the beautiful Mozart Requiem as you read today's post.

History Of ChessHistory Of Chess by Harold J.R. Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This incredibly long book is worth reading but only if you enjoy reading encyclopedias. Murray leaves no stone unturned in this giant epitome on the history of chess. He takes us all the way back to India and describes several of the games there that could very well have developed into European chess.

He takes us from country to country, Persia, China, Japan, Malaysia, everywhere some 1500 years ago where they played any sort of game that resembled today's chess game.

If one is a chess expert or afficionado then he will enjoy the very detailed accounts of chess players and moves and rules with all the comparisons and contrasts in existance.

The book is also full of amusing anecdotes about Moguls and Warriors and their chess games. He also notes that chess was taken up over games of chance since chess required strategy and it felt more propitious to engage in games one had control over believing there was a connection between the game and real life war strategies.

He also traces the development of the various pieces, ones starting out as elephants and servants, eventually turning into knights, bishops and also the queen. The Queen had its own evolution from an innocuous player to the most powerful piece on the board.

Murray describes the development of chess in Europe and how it might have arrived there. The church at first was against the game, regarding it as sinful but later embracing it and was also instrumental in changing some of the pieces.

He records every instance of chess being mentioned in Medieval literature and also how the church and Aristocrats created analogies between the game and religious life and courtly behavior.

In the end he records some of the most famous games up to that time (the book was published in 1913) and also some of the more famous sets such as the Isle of Lewis chess set.

While it was a slog, I'm glad I read it and feel I have a better understanding of a game that possesses a rich and diverse history.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Cottage for Sale: a woman moves a house to make a home by Kate Whouley

Mozart's Piano Quartet no. 1 KV 478 is being performed here.

Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved: A Woman Moves a House to Make a HomeCottage for Sale, Must Be Moved: A Woman Moves a House to Make a Home by Kate Whouley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was not exactly what I was expecting but it still had its merit.

As you've probably read in the blurb. A woman who lives in a Cape Cod house on, where else? Cape Cod sees an advertisement for a colony of vacation cottage homes for sale. For a mere three thousand dollars she could own one of them. She visits the colony, falls in love with one particular cottage, and buys it.

The next several hundred pages contain her adventure in the world of conquering bureaucrats, getting permission to travel with a cottage, getting it to her property, but promising not to disturb the wetlands, which her property borders, arguing that she will not have more than three bedrooms because the cottage is going to serve as her office and what difference does it make anyway?

She also has trying adventures with the various contracters to move, build, paint, pour cement and what not.

In the end it all comes together, a rougher ride than she expected but who can predict these things?

Whouley's writing style is engaging and she makes what must have been a tedious process sound interesting.

My only complaints are that she could have developed the characters more. I realize this was non-fiction and one can only know so much about men who work on your house, but she never really lets us know her friends and family, either. One particular person, Barbara, whose family owned the property, had a lot of potential and I would very much have liked to have gotten to know her better but we only get a glimpse of her in the beginning and at the end when she is bedridden. It seems an entire story took place while we were attaching the cottage, but we never get to learn of it.

The other complaint I have is that the author writes everything in present tense. I cannot emphasize enough how much I hate reading a story in present tense. If you are not writing in second person you have no business writing in the present tense. It drains any color or rhythm her writing might otherwise have had. All the sentences limp along: subject verb. subject verb. subject verb. It's like listening to someone with one of those ugly monotone voices. A voice with no lilt, no lift, no melodic line. As a musician, I cannot tolerate voices of people who refuse to listen to themselves. As a reader, I feel the same way about tone deaf sentences.

On a positive note, I found her yearning for male relationships entertaining, but only because, being single after an ugly divorce, I was that person. With so many males crawling all over your house, surely one of them is The One. I won't tell you in case you like to be surprised.

I could comment on the unrealistic expectations of a forty-something woman who has never married and perhaps that is why she has never married, but you may want to draw your own conclusions.

Is the book worth reading? It's not War and Peace, but it was a fun, if small, rollick.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Greek Myths Volume One and Two by Robert Graves

It's been a sad week.  My little dog Breeya had to be put down.  Unlike Odie, she was not completely incapacitated, but she was so anxious and unhappy.  All night long she would run in and out of her doggy door and howl.  It wasn't typical howling.  It was a hoarse rasping.  She could not see or hear and was confused.  I finally had to decide if this ghost of the beautiful dog I once knew was worth preserving.

Derek, Breeya, Odie and me.  When we were young.

A couple of days later, I went to feed my guinea pigs to find Little Bear dead.  No sign of trauma, nothing.  He was only two years old.  I don't know why he died.

I have actually been more shocked over Little Bear than Breeya who had been sliding down the hill for the past year.  Little Bear was fine that morning when I was holding and cuddling him. When I went out to his pen in the afternoon he was lying very still in the tall grass.  We looked him over thoroughly.  There is nothing to indicate why he died.

Josh with Little Bear and Percy

Death, even with pets, is filled with sorrow.  I have been checking up on my little fatso, Percy, throughout the day, to see if he is OK.  So far, just as fat and sassy as ever.

Sorry to turn this into a lamentation for my pets.  It's been a rough year on that front.  At least there's still Percy and Hercaloo.

Hercaloo looking down at the piggies.  Trying to decide which one to nip, no doubt.

I find Paul Hindemith's Harp Sonata reflective and peaceful.  You can listen here.

The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths by Robert Graves

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert Graves is quite thorough in writing about the myths and at the end of each story, he provides foot notes that can be as long as the story itself.

Some of the footnotes are speculative. "This god replaced an earlier pagan god etc.". It is difficult to know these things or the origins of any of these stories. But Graves gives his educated guesses and they are worth pondering.

In Graves' version the myths are not child friendly and a lot more graphic than I remember Edith Hamilton's version. I have not read Hamilton's version in many years, so I suppose I could be wrong. She also includes stories that Graves leaves out.

Graves seems to lean heavily on saga, which I appreciated since I recently read the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also fills in the gaps those two poems leave, letting us know how the Trojan War began and what happened to some of the key players such as Achilles, who is alive in the Iliad, but already dead in the Odyssey.

Another asset to Graves' collection is that he provides a cohesive chronology which seamlessly ties the gods and their origins, and also the heroes and their adventures together.  This allows the reader to gain a greater understanding of how all the stories fit inside of each other's story.  For example Heracles and his labors overlap Jason and the Argonauts.  In Graves' version we can see each myth separately, but also how they are a part of each other's story line.
I do not know if Robert Graves has a certain predilection towards the salacious (his books, I, Claudius and Claudius the God were pretty lewd) or if he is simply preserving a faithful translation of the stories. He has been criticized for relying too heavily on Suetonius' histories, who is also known for creating scandals that are not as historically reliable as they should be.

Simply put, The Greek Myths Volume One and Two , are filled with violence and perversion. Every single story contains murder and rape. No Greek hero is exempt from practicing treachery, adultery, and, in one instance, necrophilia. Leaving children out for exposure was common. Many of the heroes were spared from an early death by compassionate shepherds, or even female animals who nursed them.

Women are treated savagely by men, and especially Zeus who ravaged the countryside without mercy.

These women were not only the victims of this heinous crime but they also got to be punished for it by the ever jealous Hera.

The female goddesses were not much better than the gods. Both male and female gods' sense of justice was based largely on caprice and selfish ambition. There seemed to be very little reason other than a cruel nature behind any of their actions.

Ancient Greece is known for being the intellectual epicenter of the B.C. epoch, but I have to conclude that these myths, as Robert Graves tells them, were formed during a much earlier time when the Greeks were no more than tribal barbarians steeped in pagan practice that by today's standards of morality seem demonic.

It certainly gives me a greater appreciation for our concepts of justice, mercy and humanity that we take can take for granted in our country.  These values did not always exist and sadly, do not exist in many parts of the world.

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Hand feeding Little Bear grated carrot.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensation Tales of Terror compiled by Stefan Dziemianowicz

I think it would appropriate to listen to J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor while reading my latest post.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of TerrorPenny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

" Penny Dreadfuls were cheaply printed, inexpensive publications written to titillate the masses with shocking thrills and lurid horrors. Over time, "penny dreadful" became a catch-phrase for any story steeped in gothic horror that pushed the limits of what was acceptable in popular fiction." From the Dust Jacket

This is a collection of twenty short stories, some novellas, of gruesome and horrific stories of varying quality. Some, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit and Pendulum deserve their place as timeless horror classics. Others probably needed to be left in the nineteenth century.

They are all Victorian in style which is to say they possess a certain melodramatic flair with damsels in distress and genteel men determined to save them. Many would have been considered quite horrible in their day but can be taken in stride in our jaded era.

The worst in my opinion was written by Bram Stoker, of all people. He wrote a disgusting little short of two psychopathic young boys who torment and murder babies and get away with it. Not sure what he was going for in that. It did not scare me, just filled me with revulsion towards the writer as much as the characters. Why write a story like that?

Some writers not much known today, wrote some good, scary tales and wrote them well. One was by James Hogg, a lamentably little known writer, who wrote a wonderful short called George Dobson's Expedition to Hell. A carriage driver has a horrible, hellish vision and when he awakes he discovers no peace (I don't want to give anything away so I leave out the details).

Another was by John Galt (who is John Galt? chuckle...if you haven't read Atlas Shrugged, forget it) where he describes a young man's nightmarish experience as a coma victim taken for dead and what happens thereafter.

Of course the Piece de Resistance and the last story in the collection is The String of Pearls better known as Sweeney Todd. I had never seen the movie or musical and do not know what attracted anyone to converting this story into a form of visual entertainment, but it kept me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails for the entire book, which is a couple hundred pages.

All in all, a great diversion for the month of October.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard

Feruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was an Italian pianist who lived during a time when he met many of the famous composers whose works he performed.  Here you can hear him playing Franz Liszt's La Campanella (Bells) Etude.

It's been quite a week.  Last Sunday, I received a call from one of my sisters that my father had fallen and knocked himself unconscious.  It was serious and he ended up in ICU for the weekend.  My mother has macular degeneration and can no longer drive.  Therefore, I packed up myself and my bird and began the ten hour drive to my parents house on the Gulf Coast in Florida.

I was pulling out of the driveway when my other sister called to let me know that while my dad was back home, my mother was now in ICU for a racing heart.

My mother has had stage four lung cancer for five years now.  She has been on three different chemo drugs, all taken orally, but this last has been hard on her heart.  The doctors shipped her off to Pensacola for a cardio ablation.

This is a procedure where they insert a needle through the thigh and work their way up to the heart and burn two holes in it.  The next three months, as the heart heals, the holes scar over and these scars prevent the heart from fibrillating.

Who discovered that is what I want to know?  Who came up with the idea of burning holes in the heart and figured out it would keep the heart stable?

Both parents are home and I and my one sister who flew down had a lovely visit with both parents as they recuperated.  I hated to leave and I'm certainly going to miss those sunsets on the water, which is how we ended every day.

Grandma loves her grand bird and Hercaloo was quite put out with me when we returned to Texas.

But enough about my adventures.  Here is my latest book review.  I found this book in the library in Golden, Colorado when I was visiting one of my sisters.  Naturally I wasn't satisified with only reading it, I had to own it.  I don't understand my pyschology but I must own the books I hold dear.

You may or may not be a Christian, but I think the writers of this book had some interesting insight into the history of art and what place does religious belief have in the expression of it.

Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of GodIt Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God by Ned Bustard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was Good is a collection of essays by various international artists who have reknown in their field. These fields vary from oils, to sculpture to mult-media. The book includes several photographs of their work, something I find to be one of the valuable attributes of this book.

Besides art, all of these artists have one other thing in common: they are believers in Christ. Though their particular denominations and creeds vary (some are reformed, some are Baptist, some non-denominational and at least one is Roman Catholic) they each offer something as to what sort of philosophy a Christian should have when expressing themselves through the visual arts.

They are all in agreement that Christians were once the powerhouses of art as is evidenced by the Cathedrals and millions of paintings housed in museums all over the world. In fact if one took away religiously inspired art from Europe there would be a significantly smaller amount of art and architecture to see, largely limiting the tourist trade to good restaurants and nude bathing. And we are not even including classical music.

Somewhere along the line, Christians not only lost their standing in the artistic community but seem content to embrace a limited vision of how art should be expressed by believers. This is obvious if one visits any number of churches where the theologically rich tradition of singing hymns, some of them hundreds of years old, sacred music played on the organ and other classical instruments have been tossed in favor or a more "contemporary" sound which has more in common with pop songs on the radio then deep, meditative worship.

Each artist in this book contributes an essay providing their own opinion, insight and philosophy of what art means to Christianity. What purpose does it serve and how should it be expressed.

Some write about the definition of beauty and offers a time line of how that concept has changed over the decades and centuries, including the twentieth where it was deemed undesirable to make works of art that were beautiful.

Another gives a historical account of what art meant to religious figures in the past two thousand years.

Still others contemplate how art should be expressed by believers. Should Christians only create art with an overt Christian message or is their world view implicitly expressed simply because as Christians, they cannot escape expressing this view through their chosen mediums. Is one a Christian artist, or an artist who happens to be Christian?

Should Christians only give happy, sentimental views of life or should they make art that exposes the grime as well?

These and many other ideas are explored throughout these essays.

While I found much of what they said to be valuable, although I did not agree with everything and found one or two of the philosophies esoteric, I think that many would benefit from hearing what they have to say whether you are a Christian or not.

I found that all the writers were people who may have their eyes toward God, were firmly grounded in the realities on earth.

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Herc and me back home.  Tired but glad to be back in Texas.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"Platitudes Undone" a Facsimile Edition of Platitudes in the Making by Holbrook Jackson with the original Handwritten Responses of G.K. Chesterton

 Symphony No. 60 by Franz Joseph Haydn is playing.  Some people think Haydn is a thicker, slightly more sluggish Mozart, but I think Papa Haydn's symphonies are filled with good cheer and if maybe they don't soar quite as high as Mozart's they are still worthy of a good listening to while enjoying a cup of tea while watching squirrels chase each other outside or while reading this post.

Some people use the words "Nerd" and "Geek" interchangeably but do you know that actually refer to two different kinds of people?

"Nerd" is an afficionado of classical literature, fiction and non fiction. They read.  A lot.

 They will get upset if a three hour movie of Pride and Prejudice is not faithful to the text in storyline and dialogue, if the actors do not properly embody the characters. In fact, Nerds become outraged and offended that anyone thought they could squish a literary masterpiece into a mere three hours!  Uh, not that I know anyone personally like that...

A Geek on the other hand will often own an entire collection of Star Wars miniatures proudly displayed around the house.  My husband's boss, who I hope is not reading my blog, has such a collection as well as movie posters of Star Wars on the wall.  His living room has three sofas tiered to three different levels so he and his friends can better watch movies on his wall-sized movie screen.  He and his wife, also a geek, enjoy this. And so do all their friends who come to watch movies with them.  This sometimes includes Josh and me, since we don't watch quite so many movies, but more power to them that do.

A Geek friend of mine was unable to enjoy the Hobbit movie because Smaug the dragon did not look like a dragon, but a Wyvern.  I did not know what a Wyvern was. 

"Wyvern's do not have fore legs.  Dragons have fore legs," my friend informed me.  Good to know.  I feel smarter.

I, a Nerd, was also unable to enjoy the Hobbit movie but that was for the petty reason that the Hobbit movie was not the Hobbit.  Period.  Nice fantasy adventure and all that, just not the book.

I was invited to a Baby shower to a friend who loved Science Fiction and Fantasy.  We were asked to come wearing something, a costume or what not, from those genres.  There were Princess Leias, A Green Lady, and of course a few Harry Potters.

I wore my husband's T-Shirt that had the words, "Miskatonic University" on it.   I was a Nerd among Geeks.

Now to be fair, there are rarely pure bloods of either side.  I am probably only 80% Nerd and 20% Geek.  My husband is 60% Geek and 40% Nerd. 

In fact, as I was telling someone in a previous post I am a huge Classic Star Trek fan, although I see definite improvements in the latest movies.  For one their costumes are more realistic.

I was at Books a Million with my son when they were having a promotional event for the latest Star Trek movie.  One of the workers there was giving out head shots of Spock.  She looked at us and I eagerly waved her over. 

She came and handed the photo to Derek.  Derek handed the photo to me.  He knew which one of us was the Spock Fan.  It now rests on a shelve next to my Harvard Classics.

Josh also knows my Geek side.  I got into my car one day to see a couple of decorations on my dashboard.  He's so sweet.

What has any of this to do with my book review?  Not much.  I just felt compelled to set the record straight between Geeks and Nerds.  Language is important to Nerds.

Platitudes Undone: A Facsimile Edition of Holbrook Jackson's Platitudes Undone: A Facsimile Edition of Holbrook Jackson's "Platitudes in the Making" with Original Handwritten Responses by G.K. Chesterton. by Holbrook Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"In 1955, in a used bookstore in San Francisco, Dr. Alfred Kessler, an avid collector of the works of G.K. Chesterton, uncovered a rare treasure-Chesterton's personal copy of a privately published edition of Holbrook Jackson's Platitudes in the Making (1911) with original responses by Chesterton written in green pencil between the lines of Jackson's book." -From the inside cover.

Those of us who know and love Chesterton for his Father Brown mysteries will enjoy his clever repartee to Jackson's assertions.

This brief book is filled with, in my opinion, extremely arrogant platitudes by Holbrook Jackson, a man I had never heard of before and probably with good reason. People like him deserve to be obsolete. Most of his "pearls" are unproveable nonsense that show a contempt for mankind while trying to appear clever.

Why read this book? Because G.K. Chesterton has written his personal responses to Jackson's platitudes which show Jackson's wisdom to be farcical while demonstrating Chesterton's authentic humor and insight.

Here are a couple of examples:

Jackson: As soon as an idea is accepted it is time to reject it.
Chesterton: No: it is time to build another idea on it. You are always rejecting: and you build nothing.

J: A lie is that which you do not believe.
C: This is a lie: so perhaps you don't believe it.

J: Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference.
C: But U (sic.) can breed surprise. Try saying "boots' ninety times

J: The god of theology: a power that creates to destroy.
C: No: that is obviously the god of modern science.

I found this quick read to be a lot of fun.  For those of us who cannot come up with sharp and witty replies to the Holbrook Jacksons of the world, Chesterton is like your big brother who will defend you against the bully threatening to beat you up.  I found this book in a library book fair.  I hope you Chesterton fans out there can find your own copy.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Up for Grabs: A Donald Lam-Bertha Cool Mystery by A.A. Fair

I am sitting out back enjoying the cool weather.  It is 68 degrees and glorious.  I have my feet propped up on a small table in front of me, the better for Hercaloo to shred my sandals.  Ah, well. They're old.  It's hard to catch her in action because she knows when her picture is being taken and she stops what she's doing and poses.

I am listening to Beethoven's Piano Trio in C Minor Opus 1 No. 3, performed by the inestimable Isaac Stern on violin.

Up for GrabsUp for Grabs by A.A. Fair

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first A.A. Fair book I read I wasn't sure of. A.A. Fair is a pen name for Erle Stanley Gardner. His two heroes in his A.A. Fair books do not remotely resemble Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street and it left me unsure.

This is the second book by Fair and I'm sold. The two heroes are an unlikely couple who have nothing in common but their detective agency. Bertha Cool is a tough as nails woman whose face could stop a truck and whose mouth could shut up the truck driver. She runs a private detective agency and runs the business end of things. We rarely see her outside the office. She wants to solve crimes because she wants to make money. If solving the crime doesn't make money, she is not interested.

Donald Lam is the private detective who works with Bertha. He is young and light of stature but very, very charming, something that gets on Bertha's nerves, probably because she's not a sweet young thing and blind and deaf to his charms.

Lam is not in it for the money; he's in it to solve the crime. He is the brains behind the operation and the one who keeps them in business.

They're a good pair, because without Cool, there would be no income. Cool negotiates and keeps the books. She makes sure they get a fair price for their services and nobody is going to rip her off. She's too intimidating for that.

Without Lam, there would be no business because crimes would not get solved and there would be no clients.

The stories are told from Lam's first person narrator which is nice because he is charming. And witty and funny and slick and very clever. Hearing the story from Bertha's perspective would be brutal and filled with lots of salty language.

The plot: The head of an insurance company, a Mr. Breckinridge, comes to Cool and Lam with a proposition. To weed out false claims of injuries, Breckinridge has set up a phony contest where claimants "win" a two week vacation to a dude ranch in Arizona. With activities like swimming, golf and horse back riding, a very attractive hostess, the dude ranch is not a place to convalesce.

The trick is to catch the "injured" victims engaging in activities that belie their condition. Breckinridge is willing to pay a lot of money to the private detective agency if Lam would be willing to travel to Arizona and collect proof of false injury claims.

Lam is not particularly interested but Cool is not a woman to say "no" to, so off he goes.

Without giving anything away, things become complicated really fast. There are all sorts of shenanigans going on, including a murder. The naked plot is fine, but the really enjoyable part is watching Donald Lam in action as he puts the pieces together and slowly tightens his noose.

In conclusion? A great entertaining read.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Here's a recording of Chopin's complete Mazurkas.  Feel free to listen to a few or all.  They're so cheery, how can you not be cheerful with them?  Especially since here in Texas this morning it is a glorious 71 degrees.

Double StarDouble Star by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like vintage Science Fiction novels and this fit the bill in every way. In many ways the science fiction of the 1950s were adventure stories that just happened to take place in outer space. The characters were even called "Space Cowboys" because the heroes did not act much differently then the romanticized versions of cattle herders.


How did such a tedious job like taking care of cows metamorphose into a glamorous, "good guys conquering the villains" persona? Why did not skilled artisans ever develop such a reputation? 

"Bif, the brick layer smelled trouble. Slowly he pulled out his trowel, and stealthily advanced toward the fast disappearing shadow just around the corner..."

Back to the review:

Double Star is a fun adventure story that had me wondering what was going to happen to the very end and, unlike some stories, resolves in a satisfying, convincing and also poignant way.

"If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he's a spaceman."

This is the first sentence of the story and the observation is made by our main character, Lawrence Smith, aka "the Great Lorenzo."

He might have been great but now he is an out of work actor trying to avoid creditors. He is sitting inside a bar when he sees the aforementioned man walk in. He strikes up a conversation with him and soon finds himself sucked into the vortex of an adventure.

I do not want to give anything away, but briefly, the spaceman Dak Broadbent needs the great Lorenzo to perform his greatest act ever: impersonate an intergalactic political figure for the future of the universe. If that sounds like a tall order, it is.

John Joseph Bonforte has made great strides in diplomatic dealings with Martians. So much so that the Martians want to make him one of them and have him perform a "nesting rite". Don't ask what that is. The upshot is that it will make Bonforte a fellow Martian and family. This will go far in bringing Martians into the Empire because they will see themselves as having a voice in the intergalactic government, something they don't have now, even though Earth has colonized the planet, although they apparently have not overpowered the Martians, which would make them a formidable foe if uncooperative with the empire's plans.

There is a faction, both human and Martian that are against this kind of union. They have therefore kidnapped Bonforte so he will be unable to attend the Martian rite.

Now, one thinks, so what? Surely the Martians will understand that he has been kidnapped and contrary to his own will, will not attend the ceremony.

No, they won't. Their idea of honor is that one deserves to die if they for any reason, even those beyond their control, do not follow through on their word. They are willing to die themselves for failing to follow through and would expect no less from a human.

The kidnappers know this and hope to destroy all diplomatic relations with Mars and the Empire as a result.

The solution? Hire an actor to impersonate Bonforte for the ceremony. The kidnappers won't dare reveal what they have done because it would turn everyone against them.

At first Lorenzo balks, but he soon grows attached to the idea of not only the challenge of what would undoubtedly be his greatest performance but of achieving something not just for himself but something greater for man (and Martian) kind.

The story is told in first person narrator by Lorenzo. He is a very likeable person and very human as he struggles with the part he is to play in this adventure and also how he thinks and calculates to pull everything off. We see his transformation as he "becomes" Bonforte. Heinlein succeeded in creating a character worth following around on this rather suspenseful story.

Things, naturally don't go smoothly, or it would be a much shorter story, so we get to ride along bumps and twists as unexpected plot turns arise.

This might be called an "old fashioned" science fiction story, but it is my favorite kind and they are mostly be the kind I read.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

The Last Word and other Stories by Graham Greene

 Cooler weather is finally here.  This means reading and writing on the backyard swing with my ever present cuppa cuppa.

Yesterday I read an article in the Washington Post
about the concert pianist Martha Argerich.  It was written last December right before she was to received a Kennedy Center Honor.  

She is a fascinating woman.  Her life is chaotic, sleeping until two p.m. and practicing the piano until the wee hours of the morning, when she practices at all.  Her children would be seen sleeping under the piano.

  Ms. Argerich has a photographic memory and only needs to hear a piece once and can then play it perfectly.

This may or may not be true.  Non musicians are always trying to wrap famous musicians in sensationalist auras of genius.  Otherwise they probably would not be so interesting to read about.  

I'm not sure I could live around someone whose day is that unstructured.

It's also depressing to know that some people can memorize instantly.  Rosa Levine, Van Cliburn's teacher, explained her method of memorizing music.  She went out for a walk to the park, reading the musical work she was going to perform.  By the time she returned to the house, it was memorized.

Little old me struggles to memorize a single page in a week. Then I must daily reinforce what I have previously learned in addition to learning new material.

People ask if you're fine, and you say that you're fine, but you're not really fine....

Actually it depressed me to know that I am such a slow learner until I started practicing.  Then I realized I didn't care because I love spending so much time learning music because it means I am surrounding myself with beautiful sounds all that much longer.

I hope you will enjoy listening to Argerich perform Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E miner Op. 11.
By the way, if you're wondering what the numbers and letters mean in a title of music.  Piano is, of course, the instrument the musical work is written for.  Concerto means that it is written for solo instrument and orchestra in Sonata Form ( Three separate songs or movements written in ABA, The first movement is fast, the second movement slow and the third fast again).

No. 1 means it is the first piano concerto Chopin wrote, he wrote it in the key of E miner and Opus 11 means it is the 11th work that Chopin has written for any instrument.  
Maybe you found the above interesting, enlightening or boring, but nevertheless there it is and there it stays.

But this is a book review lest we forget:

The Last Word and Other StoriesThe Last Word and Other Stories by Graham Greene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Graham Greene is a relatively new discovery for me and I have come to enjoy his writing very much.

I read this book while flying to Colorado to visit my sister over Labor Day.  This is a collection of short stories that range from a dystopian future to a psychological murder mystery. I will review just a few of the thirteen stories.


The Last Word is about a man who has lost his memory from an explosion due to some kind of war. He has been living the last twenty years alone and on bread. His neighbors are as suspicious of him as they are of each other. It is apparent that a totalitarian regime has been ruling the country.

One day, for some reason, he is escorted from his tiny apartment by a guard who takes him to the general. As the story progresses we find out who this lonely man is and why the dictator wants to see him.

This particular story shows the power of the Spiritual world and how no physical world can defeat it. There are many surprises and the ending brings a final surprise that enforces St. Paul's assertion, "Death, where is they sting? Grave where is they victory?"

The Lottery is about an Englishman who only visits out of the way places such as a tiny village in Mexico. While there he wins the state lottery which is quite a bit of money even by English standards. He doesn't want the money and is embarrassed that he should take money from such an impoverished province, so he donates it back to the state to use for good works. One can imagine the outcome or how the state defines, "good works".

Murder for the Wrong Reason
is about a murder narrated by the Chief of Police. His conclusions about the perpetrator brings an unexpected conclusion.

Finally, An Appointment with the General is about an arrogant French journalist for a socialist magazine that goes to a Latin American country to interview the general who runs the country. She thinks she is going to intimidate the general by accusing him of not being "socialist enough". She finds the tables quickly turned on her.

All the stories are fascinating to read made all the more so by Graham's fluid writing.  I recommend them to all fans of Greene's writing or people who would like to become fans of one of the last centuries foremost authors.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Five Passengers from Lisbon by Mignon G. Eberhart


I am listening to Mozart's Die Zauberflote.  I am not a huge opera fan but I do love Mozart's operas because they're so witty.  Die Zauberflote is pretty out there and the production we watched was a modern take and maybe a little too over the top in some of its costumery, but the singing was superb, especially the Queen of the Night.  The above link is only for the overture since singing might be intrusive to your reading.

Five Passengers from LisbonFive Passengers from Lisbon by Mignon G. Eberhart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this out loud to my parents and to make the book more readable I skipped all the description of irrelevant detail. One thing I did learn is another lesson in good writing, but first the storyline:

WWII has just ended and Europeans and Americans are scrambling to get out of Europe to North or South America as fast as possible to bury the past and start over. We are introduced to five such people.

Luther and Daisy Belle Cates: millionaires who stayed in France throughout the war, even though they are American. Why? Will we find out?

Gili: A European woman from unsure origins and even less sure morals. We do not know what she did to survive the war but it probably wasn't pretty.

Mickey: A man who had a rising promising career as a concert pianist before the war. He became a part of the French resistance before getting captured by the Nazi's and held in a concentration camp until the end of the war. To torture him they mutilated his fingers.

And our protagonist who also serves as our third person limited narrator:
Marcia Colfax: Marcia is an American living in Paris and she fell in love with Mickey before the war. When he was captured, she was determined to wait it out until he was released, a big assumption on her part. She moved to Marsailles, and, when the war ended, she and Mickey meet up again, only now he is Andre Breton and she mustn't forget it, because his passport says so.

All five of our characters have purchased passage on a Portuguese carrier to South America which is where the story starts. Unfortunately for them, the boat is sinking and they find themselves on a lifeboat with three Portuguese sailors in the dead of night in the middle of the Atlantic trying to negotiate stormy waves, each of which threaten to overturn their boat.

Finally dawn turns the sky to gray and also shows an American Red Cross ship heading toward them. All is saved!

Except for one. One of the Portuguese sailors collapses after fighting the waves all night with an oar.

Or so it seems. After everyone boards the Red Cross Ship it is discovered that the Sailor is dead and not from exhaustion. He has been murdered and the knife in his back proves it.

Who on board the lifeboat murdered him? And why? That is what the rest of the story leads you to (um.. to who did it and why).

The mystery was good enough to hold one's attention but the unnecessary description of every item in a room, of how everyone was dressed, the color of the skin, how one always bit her lip, how the captain furrowed his white eyebrows or studied the painting across the room etc...

And the smoking! It seemed after every paragraph our characters had to take a smoking break and we get to read about it from the pulling the cigarette from the package to the lighting to the exhaling to the flinging the butt over the rails.

If what you're describing does not propel the plot forward leave it out. At least that is the most valuable thing I received from reading this novel.

This book was written in 1946 so the war was still painfully fresh in people's minds, and the characters, how each are revealed to be a certain type that existed during the war is interesting. Some are desperate to erase their cowardly acts, others are appalled to find themselves on the losing side after they invested so much in that side and others were just innocent victims that managed to weather the storms of war. I felt Eberhart could have done to develop these characters more rather than bore the reader with minutia.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Dark night's Work and Other Stories by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Case of the Phantom Cat

The other night Josh and I were in our front roomWe have two living rooms; the front room has a bay window that faces the street.  This is where I keep my piano and where we watch TV.

I give you a brief description of our house to understand what happened next.  We heard a noise like something falling down.  I ran out of the front room, through the back room past the dining room and into the kitchen.  There used to be a way from the front room directly into the dining room but we made a wall out of bookshelves that now separates the two rooms.

 All that to say that I lost precious seconds getting to the kitchen to find out what the noise was.  I assumed it was Breeya our little geriatric dog who often wanders aimlessly around the house, neither seeing nor hearing nor knowing where she is (sad).

I went through the kitchen to the utility room and out the back door where the motion sensor light was on.  I looked around for Breeya but couldn't find her.  When I returned to the front room, she was there lying under the piano, peacefully sleeping.

That could only mean one thing.

It was the cat!  We have a cat that is sneaking into our house through the doggie door at night.  She is helping herself to Breeya's food dish and pushing things off our kitchen counters for her personal amusement.

I don't know for a fact it is a cat.  It could be a 'possum or a raccoon, but I doubt it.  Either of those animals probably wouldn't be able to tear out of our house with the lightening speed of this animal.  I have not seen it yet.  

But I know you're there, cat, and if you're reading this, know you will be discovered and face the due penalty of your sins.  I'm not sure what that penalty will be, that's between you and God, but know that the wicked do not prosper.

Les Oiseaux  Tristes by Maurice Ravel is playing. The composer is also the performer in this vintage recording. Les Oiseaux Tristes is French for sad birds. I think that this is how my little Hercaloo is feeling because I now have to keep her in the cage when I go out for fear Senor don Gato eats her.

A Dark Night's Work and Other StoriesA Dark Night's Work and Other Stories by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Dark Night's Work and Other Stories are a small collection of short stories by the Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell.

Gaskell was close friends with Charlotte Bronte, or at least as close as anyone could get with a recluse in five years, which was how long they knew each other before Bronte died.

Her work does not come near the power of Bronte's but still deserves a place in British and world literature.

Her work can often be dark and suspenseful as is the first and longest story in this anthology. This affected the way I read the other stories, reading them in fearful suspense, waiting for something dreadful to happen to the protagonists who were so vulnerable.

In A Dark Night's Work, a man does something criminal which is witnessed by his man servant and his daughter. They all agree to cover it up to preserve his tenuous standing in his social circles. They all pay a price however that permanently alters their lives.

The next story, Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, is about a poor homeless girl and her relationship with a crippled, lonely boy who she first sees through her window lying in bed next to the window of the house opposite.

In Six Weeks at Heppenheim a British man touring Germany becomes ill and is bedridden in an inn for several weeks in a small German village. While there he gets to know the inmates of the inn and their inner dramas, finding himself drawn in and finally a participant in their lives.

Cumberland Sheep-Shearers is without much plot and is mainly an observation of farm life during sheep-shearing time, although there is a slight story of romance between a man and woman which is hardly referred to but nevertheless makes a strong social statement, a statement that is prevalent in all Gaskell's stories.

The piece de resistance, however, is the last story. What the Grey Woman lacks in length, it more than makes up for in horror and suspense. A young, inexperienced girl is swept off her feet by a French count who carries her away to his remote and isolated chateau in the Swiss mountains. The terrifying discoveries awaiting her there induce her to finally escape with a loyal maid. What follows is a suspenseful chase scene that kept my stomach in knots to the end.

None of Gaskell's stories can be called profound and certainly don't hold a candle to the great's of the 19th century such as Jane Austin, the Bronte sisters, Trollope, or her good friend Thackery. She can rightly be accused of sentimentality at times approaching the maudlin. In Hollywood, she would be a "B" actor. Incidentally, the BBC has created several fine productions of her novels, my favorite being the Cranford series.

However she ably paints the English landscape in a way that reminds one of a Hudson School painting. Perhaps the others made clearer exposes of human character, but Gaskell showed the complicated social strata that afflicted a class conscious society and that by itself makes her books worth reading.

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Case of the Musical Cow by Erle Stanley Gardner

Josh surprised me this weekend by announcing that we should visit our public library because it was holding a book fair.  He said I could buy one book.  Now in case any of you think "you're husband gives you PERMISSION to buy a book?!?!" you have to understand that my book buying has gotten out of control and has deteriorated into hoarding.  I was not even buying for pleasure but out of compulsion and I wanted to escape from what felt like a bondage.  Please don't laugh, it was serious. I am ashamed at how much money I was spending.

Josh agreed to be my accountability partner.  Every day he asks if I bought a book.  Knowing he's going to ask helps counter that sense of panicky urgency I feel when I come across a book I must, must have.

So off we merrily skipped to the library.  At least I was skipping in my heart since we drove.  Below is the treasure I found.  Price?  Seven dollars.  The Harvard Classics set was five dollars.  The O'Henry biography and Ghost Story anthology were a dollar a piece.

Later we visited Bed, Bath and Beyond because we love looking at the Coffee makers and coffee accoutrements.  Do I really need another set of espresso cups?  No.  But I did buy a bag of Italian espresso.  It makes a great Cappuccino.

I am reading through the Ghost Story collection. Expect a positive review in the future.

I am listening to Molto Moderato from the Suite for Flute and Piano by J. Berger as I write this.  I hope you will enjoy it as you read.

The Case Of The Musical CowThe Case Of The Musical Cow by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I mention writing a positive review about the Ghost Story collection because this is going to be a negative review. I wasn't going to write a review for this book because I didn't like it.  Then I thought that I should write one and present this book as an example of how not to write a novel.

First of all, I was disappointed that even though Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the story, it was not a Perry Mason story. I would not have gotten the book otherwise.

Gardner has mastered the court room scene climax and this book is no exception. I don't think I am spoiling by saying the ending arrives at a satisfying conclusion with a suspenseful courtroom scene where classic Gardner lawyers play a game of wits matching any chess game Kasparov could arrange for the board.

It was everything else that dismally fails.

What makes any story succeed? The believability factor.

I understand, through my own writing, that in order to make a plot work you have to provide the characters with plausible reasons for acting the way they do. This holds true inside any genre, be it science fiction, dystopian. apocalyptical, classic, or fantasy. Whether the story deals with space aliens, zombies, women in petticoats, hobbits, they have to act according to the rules inside that paradigm.

That would make a fascinating dissertation: what makes a plot inside any story reality believable? I think it is universal truths about human nature. Regardless of what planet they are living on or what shape they exist in, there are rules the characters must follow to allow the reader to believe in the storyline.

What makes the story of the Musical Cow unbelievable? The protagonist does things that are unbelievably stupid.

The skinny: Rob Trenton takes a cruise to Europe where he intends to tour for several weeks. On the ship he meets Linda Carroll, a beautiful (naturally!) but distant lady with whom he becomes immediately smitten.

The story actually starts at a Paris cafe where Rob has planted himself in hopes of meeting Linda. He has met every tiresome person he hoped to avoid from the ship, but no Linda. Happily, Linda does pass by his table and joins him.

With her are another couple. The three of them plan on traveling across Europe in Linda's car which she has brought with her on the ship. Linda is rich (naturally!) Linda and the couple ask Rob to join them.

OK, this is not entirely unbelievable but it certainly is not wise to travel with people you don't know. What is their character? Are they drug smugglers? Sociopathic serial killers? Nevertheless, people-really, really stupid people usually on college spring break, have been known to do this.

By the time they get to Switzerland, the couple who have barely entered the stage are called off on a emergency and have to fly home. We never see them again. They were apparently written in to provide Rob a reason to travel with Linda. Rob is no Mr. Ripley.

They arrive in the Alps where they stay in a lodge and meet another American. Tragedy has struck the lodge; the inn keeper's wife has died due to eating poisonous mushrooms. Strangely enough everyone else ate the same mushrooms but did not die. Hmmm....

The other American Merton Ostrander (where did Erle get that name?) immediately attaches himself to Rob and Linda, much to Rob's consternation. When Linda and Rob prepare to leave, Merton insists on joining them, without even saying goodbye to the Innkeeper, even though he's stayed at the lodge for a few months and was like a "member of the family" according to Merton.

It's time to return to the ship but Rob becomes seriously ill, apparently due to food poisoning. Merton says, "so sorry, but we're rushing to the ship, too bad you can't make it, bye!" and hussles Linda off, leaving Rob in a hospital.

Rob is not ready to admit defeat yet, and still ill, staggers to the boat before it leaves port.

Strange things happen on the boat. Another American asks Rob a lot of questions. It becomes obvious that he is a detective and he is looking for any signs of smuggling. Rob finds his room has been searched.

Another strange event: Merton dumps boxes of Cow Bells overboard. He had collected these for a lecture he was going to give back at the University in the States. No explanation is given other than that he has changed his mind. Okey dokey. Strange and barely plausible. Now comes the unbelievable part on which Gardner builds his case, so to speak.

At the port in America, Linda informs Rob that she is going home with friends and if he likes, he can take her car and she'll come back the next day to pick it up. Rob agrees to this.

On the way home, a tire blows out. As Rob changes it, he notices that something is attached to the bottom of the car. He removes it and finds a container containing....da da da DUM!...drugs!!!

And now for the disgustingly unbelievable part that caused me to lose all respect for Rob:

Rob concludes that it is impossible that his lovely Linda could in any way be involved in drug smuggling and he must protect her. What does he do? He drives farther down the highway, stops on the side and buries the drugs. (Linda's car happens to have a shovel.)

While burying the drugs, a police officer pulls up beside him. Rob tells him he had a blow out and just finished changing the tire. He opens his trunk to show the blown out tire. The policeman touches the tire checks Rob's driver's license and leaves. He has to touch the tire because this propels the plot.

Because later at the station the officer has a flash: the tire was cold! That means that he hadn't recently changed the tire. That means he was at the side of the road for a different reason. He and another officer return to the spot and, unsurprisingly, discover the buried drugs. They arrange for policemen to lie in wait for when Rob returns.

Rob doesn't return. He has no plans to return, but the next morning he finds that Linda's car is gone. He drives to her residence in another town (she gave him her address) to find that Linda Carroll does indeed live there but she is an older woman who lives alone.

What does Rob conclude? Why, that there are two Linda Carrolls, of course.

Shortly after leaving Linda's house Rob is kidnapped by a gang of drug traffickers who want their dope. I'll stop there in case anyone out that actually wants to read the story.

Gardner does make everything work out in the end and Rob's time with the drug gang is quite suspenseful. It's just that the premise is so weak. It reminds me of the end of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, the movie version. All of us in the theater groaned together in disgust (yes, it was an audible groan). Stupid has a price and he paid it.

Rob does not pay for his dumb acts, other than being arrested and having to go to court to clear himself on drug and murder charges (the ship detective gets murdered).

Gardner wanted to create a story where the skills of a forensic doctor were needed to prove how Rob could not have killed the detective. That takes place in the courtroom and it is interesting as is the verbal dueling between the lawyers. But Rob did not get what he deserved.

He deserved to go to jail, not because he was guilty of murder, but for being such a dunderhead. Maybe a year or so would have ironed some sense into his sweet, pathetic head.

As for Linda Carroll, Merton Ostrander and the detective, they needed to play larger parts in order for us to fully appreciate who and what they actually are. A fuller character development would have made the story more interesting, but the three of them are merely skeletal figures.

In conclusion, this book serves for me as a cautionary tale and I hope to hone my own writing skills so as to draw the reader in, hold them captive and never make them sneer in disgust at an implausible story development.

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