September Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

Recently, life has felt crazy, so I’m attempting to catch up on some reviews…!!!

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

//published 1953//

This book definitely felt like Chandler had his footing back.  While it wasn’t quite as hilarious as the first couple of books, it was way better than The Little Sisterwhich was downright depressing.  In this book, a lot of Marlowe’s snarky narration is back, and there was a nice trick to the mystery.  It did at times feel like everyone was a bit too casual with the body count, but you’ll have that.

Kiss the Bride by Melissa McClone, Robin Lee Hatcher, and Kathryn Springer

//published 2016//

These three novellas were basically all very average.  Each one had some niggling thing that really aggravated me, but overall worked alright.  On the whole they were just pretty forgettable.

Playback by Raymond Chandler

//published 1958//

This is the final Phillip Marlowe book that Chandler wrote (although he left another incomplete at the time of his death – more on that to come), and fell more along the lines of the earlier couple of books, with a lot of snark and dry humor.  The mystery had a good tempo to start and I was completely engaged as Marlowe is hired to follow a mysterious woman.  However, this story had 100% more sex than the other books – in other books it’s either been bypassed (woman always seem to want Marlowe more than he wants them) or glossed over, but in this one it felt like Marlowe was having sex every couple of chapters, and it happened with at least three different women.  So that felt really weird, and through it all he keeps quietly pining for this woman he met in The Long Goodbye.  In the end, the mystery sort of fizzled out, and Marlowe suddenly gets back together with The Long Goodbye woman.  All in all, another 3/5 for an interesting read, but not one I’d visit again.

An Unlikely Duet by Lelia M. Silver

This one is a DNF at around halfway, just because it’s become so boring.  I really liked the idea of just a straightforward sequel to Pride & Prejudice that focuses on Georgiana.  The story starts well, with her meeting a charming young man while visiting Charles and Jane Bingley.  However, despite the fact that they talk all the time, the two never really seem to talk.  At one point, it seemed to me that he had stated his intentions to court Georgiana pretty clearly to her brother, but then there are misunderstandings and everyone is spirited away and they never get to talk……. the book just never really engaged me and since I haven’t picked it up in a least three weeks, I don’t think it is ever going to.

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker

//published 1989//

When Chandler died, he left four chapters written of his next Marlowe book.  In 1989, thirty years after Chandler’s death, Poodle Springs was finished by Robert Parker.  Overall, I thought that Parker did a decent job with this book, capturing the essence of Marlowe’s narrative voice and keeping the mystery nice and twisty.  The biggest difference to me was that in Chandler’s books, Marlowe is always one step ahead.  He may get caught and beaten up, but he still knows what’s what – he may appear to be wandering aimlessly, but in the end we find out exactly what he was up to.  But in Poodle Springs, it kind of felt Marlowe really was wandering aimlessly, always a few steps behind what’s going on.  In multiple places he says things like, ‘I wish I knew what was going on; none of this makes any sense.’  So Marlowe felt a lot more like a stooge than an intelligent investigator.

I enjoyed the book, even if I felt like the conclusion to Marlowe’s romance was quite weird and, frankly, illogical (‘We love each other too much to get married’???), and it ranked a solid 3/5 for me.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed my foray into the gritty detective world, but if I ever come back to these books, it will only be to the first four.  They were funnier and more engaging than the second half of the series.

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Vertigo // by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

//published 1954//

Despite the fact that I do love a good Hitchcock film, I’ve somehow never actually watched Vertigo – I think possibly because I don’t really care for heights myself, and my least favorite part of any movie is the bit where someone is up high and on the verge of falling.  Going into this book I knew genuinely nothing about the plot – and it turns out that it isn’t really all that much about falling off of something tall (although it does play a part)!

The writing in this story was excellent, and the pacing virtually perfect.  I found myself gradually sucked into the story, and the setting – France at the beginning of WWII – added a perfect level of tension in the background that really gave the story depth.  It wasn’t a story that was incredibly exciting, but I found myself compelled to keep reading nonetheless.  And when the ending was revealed, my mind was genuinely blown.  It was a conclusion that made completely and total sense – but that I would never have guessed.

It was interesting to read a book that was centered on a character who wasn’t really at all likable.  Flavieres is weak and rather sly, and the kind of person who always believes his troubles are because of circumstances beyond his control.  His growing obsession with Madeline was super creepy; I loved it.

Madeline’s story, the possibility that she is her ancestress come back to life, is done so well.  As the reader, you know this cannot be true.  Flavieres knows it cannot be true.  And yet – what other explanation can there be for the things happening to Madeline?  Brilliant.

The ending was completely satisfactory, although I felt like it was a bit rushed.  So much information all at once – and then it was over.  I found myself almost startled that I had reached the ending already.

One annoyance was that, despite the fact that this book was translated from its original French, for some reason the translators didn’t bother translating everything…???  So I would get something like this –

He had only to think of her to lose his sense of proportion.  La femme a la tulipe!

And while I’m pretty sure that that means ‘the woman with the tulip,’ I’ve never actually studied French, and many of the other phrases/words weren’t so obvious.  It was rather aggravating to have to stop and try to find a quick translation from time to time.  Like I got that a lot of those instances were when Flavieres was going off on a flowery ramble and was ‘titling’ a moment of Madeline’s life as though she was portrait, but it seemed like that could have been accomplished in English by using capital letters or italics or both – Woman With a Tulip!  Although maybe it’s because leaving it in French makes it sound much more poetic than our poor prosaic English…

Anyway, Vertigo was well worth the read, and it’s one that I may read again sometime now that I know the trick, to see if I can find the clues that I missed the first time around.

Special thanks to FictionFan, whose review of this classic inspired me to add it to the list!

The Big Sleep // by Raymond Chandler

//published 1939//

I’ve recently subscribed to two book boxes, one of which sends very new books (like the one I reviewed here), but the other, Bookishly, sends an older, used, somewhat classic book every month, along with some tea and other small goodies, like a notecard or notebook.  This one comes from England, and I have quite enjoyed getting some of the very classic Penguin editions that are different from what we have here stateside.

Anyway, one of the books I got was Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.  When I realized that it was the second book in a mystery series staring a private detective named Phillip Marlowe, one of the founders of the ‘hard-boiled detective’ genre, I decided to start with book one, The Big Sleep.  

I genuinely had no idea what to expect, but was immediately captivated by Marlowe, who is not only the main character but also the narrator.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.  I was neat, clean, shaven and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.  I was everything well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars.

This book was originally published in 1939, and I can see it offending some, as it contains much of the casual prejudices and racism of the day.  (And honestly, some of the negative reviews on Goodreads had my eyes rolling practically out of my head… why do people read books published almost 80 years ago and then get offended that the people in them have a completely different worldview?!  How ignorant do you have to be to not expect that…???)  But at the same time, its very casualness of those prejudices is incredibly revealing of its time, and an intriguing reminder of how times have changed.  For instance, I don’t think anyone could get away with writing anything like this –

“Don’t kid me, son.  The fag gave you one.  You’ve got a nice clean manly little room in there.  He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors.  He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men.  Think I can’t figure people like you out?”  …  he swung on me … it caught me flush on the chin.  I backstepped enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of punch.  It was meant to be a heard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.

But it’s not really an overwhelming bit of the story, and the majority of Marlowe’s narration is genuinely hilarious and Chandler’s knack for writing conversation is brilliant; I found myself snorting with laughter on more than one occasion over bits like this –

Her hot black eyes looked mad.  “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped.  “And I don’t like your manners.”

“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said.  “I didn’t ask to see you.  You sent for me.  I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle.  I don’t mind your showing me your legs.  They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.  I don’t mind that you don’t like my manners.  They’re pretty bad.  I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.  But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

This wasn’t a story full of action.  Marlowe meanders about making his own observations and doing his own thing, but we’re privy to pretty much everything he knows and does.  Chandler isn’t afraid to kill people off, and there are multiple corpses throughout, but nothing gory and no one dies that you’re particularly sad to see go.

While the old-fashioned prejudices may have been rather offensive, the old-fashioned morals aren’t, and I loved how the language in this book never went stronger than a ‘damn,’ and how a few criminals were running a pornography business, which seemed to genuinely disgust the majority of the characters.  I also really liked the Marlowe didn’t fall into bed with any of the women about – he’s way too crafty to fall for their lures, and it says a lot about his overall character, which is actually rather philosophical and introspective, despite his rough-and-ready exterior.

At one point, Marlowe has apprehended a possible bad guy.  When he confronts the kid, the kid responds with “Go _____ yourself” – blank included in the original text.  And that seems to be this kid’s default response to everything, although Chandler manages to mix it up quite a bit with things like, “He spoke three words to me and kept on driving,” or “the kid shrugged and said his three favorite words.”

Despite Marlowe’s hard image, I appreciated that he was genuinely disturbed by the easy murder of one of the characters, even if that character was a bit of a skunk.  There is so much drinking and smoking in this book that I was cracking up – for instance, I’m not sure if even the leaders of criminal rings these days have their own monogrammed cigarettes.

While I wasn’t racing to the ending in desperate fear of Marlowe’s life, I still really wanted to see how things were going to unwind, and with sentences like, “She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be wearing for a steady diet,” luring me along, I found myself thoroughly immersed every time I picked up the book.

I’m looking forward to continuing Marlowe’s acquaintance.  There are only eight books total, plus a ninth that Chandler had partially written at the time of his death and was later finished by another author.  The Big Sleep was an easy 3.5/5, and a really fun start to a series.

#18 for #20BooksofSummer!

Jamaica Inn // by Daphne du Maurier

//published 1935//

Overall, I wanted to like Jamaica Inn, but just found it too, too depressing.

Mary’s mother has died and Mary is going to live with her only remaining relative, her mother’s sister Patience.  Aunt Patience is married to an innkeeper named Joss.  But when Mary (who is a young woman of 23, not a child, by the way) arrives at Jamaica Inn, she finds it to be a frightening and lonely place that discourages visitors.  Joss is a strong, terrible man, and Aunt Patience is a shadow of her former self.  As the story progresses, Mary discovers various evil and terrible things going on around the inn, but feels unable to speak out against them because of how the destruction of Joss would devastate Patience.

Many of the descriptions are rather melodramatic, but excellent nonetheless.  Du Maurier has a knack of describing people in a way that makes them quite easy to picture – perhaps aided by the fact that nearly everyone in this book is practically a caricature.

In both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachelwe are given a first person perspective from a possibly unreliable narrator.  Much of tension from both of those books is not knowing how much of what we hear is actual truth, and how much of it is simply in the mind of the narrator.  But in Jamaica Inn, the story is much more straightforward, a more traditional Gothic novel, with smugglers and dark, sweeping moors, and an innocent young woman caught up in circumstances beyond her control.  It wasn’t exactly boring, but it almost was.  While in Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel I was constantly guessing as the guilt and innocence to the very end, I really had Jamaica Inn figured out about a third of the way through; the book felt almost formulaic.

Throughout, I couldn’t tell if du Maurier was trying to make a point about the situation of women in society or what, but she constantly, and I do mean constantly, harps on how hopeless and almost pointless the existence of women is, because they are so dependent on men.  Of Aunt Patience she says –

“You mustn’t mind your uncle Joss,” [Aunt Patience] said, her manner changing suddenly, fawning almost, like a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience, and who, in spite of kicks and curses, will fight like a tiger for its master.

And really, that sums up the way both sexes are portrayed throughout.  The women – downtrodden, hopelessly bound by love and loyalty; the men – vacillating between cruelty and indifference.

Even Mary herself, who claims that she will always be independent and strong, and will never fall in love or put herself into a place where a man has control over her, falls in love “against her will” –

And there, in spite of herself, came [his] face again, with growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his  bold offensive stare.  He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar.  He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.  Nature cared nothing for prejudice.  Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another.  This was no choice of the mind.

Later in the same chapter she is thinking about how back at home she would see people in love, but after they married –

…when the lad came home at evening tired from his work in the fields, and calling sharply that his supper was burnt, not fit for a dog, while the girl snapped back at him from the  bedroom overhead, her figure sagging and her curls gone, pacing backward and forward with a bundle in her arms that mewed like a cat and would not sleep.  There was no talk then of the moonlight on the water.  No, Mary had no illusions about romance.  Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.

Just…  ugh.  So hopeless, not just about love, but about life – that all we are is unthinking animals who know nothing better than to find someone to whom we have a spark of attraction that we may breed – no hope of any kind of long-lasting affection or companionship – just drudgery and darkness.

And that’s what this book was, consistently, throughout every page.  Drudgery and darkness.  Complete hopelessness.  In the end, Mary goes off with with this man who stands “for everything she feared and hated and despised” – and there is no sign whatsoever that he is not all of the things she lists off in that paragraph.  And so Mary, despite knowing that her life will probably be miserable, purposefully chooses to go with him!  I had already lost all my respect for Mary about halfway through the book; for all her claims to be strong and saucy, she really isn’t terribly smart and is already completely resigned to a life just as miserable as Aunt Patience’s (even though Mary spends a great deal of time despising her Aunt Patience for her loyalty to Joss).

In the end, du Maurier leaves us with nothing.  Christianity is “built upon a fairy tale.  Christ himself is a figurehead, a puppet thing created by man himself.”  Humans are nothing more than animals who can never expect to be anything better.  Women will forever be subservient to men because they will always choose to be loyal to a man, even if he is cruel – which he will be, because all men are so instinctively, desiring nothing more than to crush all who are weaker than they are.

The picturesque descriptions of the moors and the attempt at a mystery were not enough to overcome the darkness and hopelessness of this story for me.  2/5 and not recommended.

However, I will say that both Rose Reads Novels and That’s What She Read are more generous than I am, so you may want to check out their reviews for some balance.  ;-)

#13 for #20BooksofSummer!

(#12 will be reviewed at the end of the month in July’s minireviews.)

April Minireviews

Usually this space is reserved for books I felt kind of “meh” about, but this time around it’s just a way of trying to catch up on some of the backlog.  I’m ready for summer break!!!

Paper Towns by John Green

//published 2008//

I really was going to write a whole long review complaining about this book, but who has time for that?  I read this book because I felt like I needed to actually read one of Green’s books before dismissing him as a pretentious and condescending guy who just says whatever young adults want to hear so he’ll stay popular.  (These days, they call that “being relevant.”)  Now I can be quite smug about not liking him, because, after all, I have tried his books!

Paper Towns was about what I expected.  The main character was completely unrealistic, a high school senior who cared about grades, grammar, and making his parents proud.  And it wasn’t really those things that made him unrealistic, it was just his entire manner and way of speaking.  He spends most of this book running around trying to solve a mystery, following clues he believes his neighbor/crush has left for him.  I’ve heard Green get a lot of flack for perpetrating the “manic pixie dream girl” method of creating a story, but I’m not sure I buy that.  Like half the point was Quentin realizing that he saw Margo as a manic pixie dream girl (although he doesn’t use those words), and understanding that he’s only ever seen her as a very one-dimensional character instead of an actual person.  Yes, Margo is weird and quirky; and yes, she helps Quentin appreciate his life more fully; and yes, we don’t really get to know her from her own perspective – but I still felt like Quentin’s realizations of her were above the MPDG level.  A little.

Overall, the story was just dumb and kind of pointless.  It was a book that desperately was trying to be poignant and deep, but really just came through as cliched and boring.  I compare that to something like The Scent of Waterwhich doesn’t at all try to be poignant and deep and yet manages just that, and can’t believe that people hail someone like John Green as a genius and brilliant writer.  OVERRATED is the main word that comes to my mind, as this book was desperately boring, the characters were flat, and the entire book read like one long cliche.  2/5.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

//published 1817//

Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this particular classic, and I’m quite sorry that I waited this long.  While this book didn’t have the character studies of some of Austen’s other works, I found myself laughing out loud on multiple occasions.  Austen’s wry sense ofhumor was at the forefront of this rather frivolous tale, and I loved the way that she poked fun at all sorts of things, but all in such a gentle and kindhearted way.

I purchased the perfect copy of this book, a wonderfully-sized paperback that I love.  My only problem was the “introduction,” in which I was treated to a ten-page synopsis of the story (complete with all the spoilers) and not a word of actual insight or thought!  I’m really heartily tired of introductions that are actually a CliffNotes version of the book.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean that everyone who picks it up has already read it!  I mean really.  If the foreword isn’t going to actually give information, what’s the point?!

But the story itself is adorable and fun, and although this may have been my first reading of it, I don’t anticipate it being the last.  5/5.

Wild Palomino: Stallion of the Prairies by Stephen Holt

//published 1946//

This is another book in the Famous Horse Stories series, and one that I’ve had on a shelf for years and never actually read.  I wasn’t really missing all that much, as Wild Palomino was a wildly impractical tale from page one through the finish.  At the time that I actually read it I kept thinking, Wow, I should make sure to point out that crazy plot twist when I review this book!  But I honestly don’t remember many of specifics as this was an easily-forgotten story.  It’s perfectly fine, and the younger audience for whom it was written would probably enjoy all the drama and excitement, but it was just too implausible for me to really get into.  2/5.

The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1912//

So I mean, sure, some people complain about Wodehouse’s books being a little samey.  I’ve never found that to be an issue for myself personally, because each one has its own unique charm, despite following more or less a set of guidelines.  But I found myself getting major deja vu when I was reading this book, mainly because it wasn’t my imagination – Wodehouse actually used part of one of his other stories!

The part I haven’t been able to figure out completely is whether or not this book or Psmith, Journalist came first, mainly because of the whole thing where Wodehouse wrote lots of his books as serials before printing them as a book, and also tended to have some of his books published first in the U.K. and then in the U.S.  or vice versa.  Either way, this whole book felt weird because of the inclusion of virtually the entire plot of Psmith, Journalist, including a character named Smith!

The Prince and Betty starts as its own story, with Betty’s rich stepfather (or possibly actually father or possibly uncle, I’m not sure which as it has been a while) deciding that his next big scheme is going to be opening a casino on a small European island country.  Complicated hijinks begin, including the rich guy’s attempt to  make Betty marry the prince of said small country.  Of course, Betty and the prince already knew each other from before (except she didn’t know he was a prince… and neither did he!), but Betty thinks that the prince is just trying to appease her father (or stepfather or uncle), so she gets angry and runs away.  So far, so good.

Except next the story takes a strange turn.  Betty lands a job as a secretary for a small newspaper and – well, insert the entire plot of Psmith, Journalist here!  It’s a shame because I actually love Psmith, Journalist  – like, a LOT – but it didn’t feel like it fit into this book at all.  I’m not sure if it’s because I had already read Psmith, or if it really did read like two different books mashed together.  So yes, both halves were good reads, but they didn’t go well together, but that could have just been me…