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!

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A Season to Wed // by Cindy Kirk, Rachel Hauck, and Cheryl Wyatt

After really enjoying the happy little novellas from the first Year of Weddings (set by seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn), I thought that I would give the second year a whirl.  These are still set by month, but the titles don’t reflect it the way the first set did.  I’ve actually read the first three seasons at this point, and I’ve overall been disappointed as these stories are really not up to par with the first set.  This first book in particular was quite weak, and there was one story in the second book that I didn’t even bother finishing.  The third book was more at the level of the first year, though, so I will probably still end up finding the autumn book at some point (it isn’t at the library even though the other three are…??)

Anyway, on to this set of three stories –

Love at Mistletoe Inn by Cindy Kirk – 2.5/5 – this was a story that was almost really good, but was executed so clumsily that I couldn’t get into it.  The premise is that Hope eloped with her high school sweetheart, John, the night of their high school prom.  But right after they got married, she panicked and changed her mind.  The guy who married them said that was fine and he just wouldn’t file their paperwork and everyone could go on with life.  Now, ten years later, John is back in town AND Hope has just found out that they are still legally married even though the paperwork never got filed.

First, I wasn’t convinced that they were legit married.  Isn’t the whole point of getting married so that the government can acknowledge your marriage?  If it’s never filed, the government never knows about it??  So maybe they are ‘morally’ married (or something), but I don’t think they would suddenly be able to just sit down and start filing taxes like a married couple.  I don’t know, I’m not a legal expert, but the the whole thing seemed sketch.

Secondly, Hope goes to John to tell him this whole story.  And… they sleep together!?  Like right then?!  This is ‘Christian’ romance, so there is nothing graphic, and in fact it was so NOT graphic and so incredibly random that I had to read the paragraph multiple times to make sure that that was what had actually happened.  Here’s how it goes down – they’re sitting on John’s couch and share a kiss.  John, of course, has always been desperately in love with Hope through all the years.

This was the woman who held his heart.  Whether she wanted it or not, she had it for all eternity.

John had always felt connected to her.  He’d never forgotten the vows they’d made and the promise given.  In this moment, he saw those same sentiments in her expression.

Several hours later, Hope left John’s bed and headed downtown for an appointment she’d made after speaking with the county recorder.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I have edited nothing!  What just happened!?  It was just SO obvious that Kirk didn’t want annulment to be an option, so she had to make them sleep together right away, apparently.  It was just weird and forced and bizarre.  So even though I actually liked the characters and even parts of the story, that whole bit was just so weird that I couldn’t get past it.

A Brush with Love by Rachel Hauck – 2.5/5 – I really enjoyed Hauck’s contribution from the first round of seasonal weddings, but this was a really weak story.  The whole story was way too melodramatic, and it seemed impossible to believe that Ginger would suddenly and completely do a 180* turnabout and now everything is fine.  The story was just weird and cheesy, and not in a relaxing way.

Serving Up a Sweetheart by Cheryl Wyatt – 3/5 – This one wasn’t too bad and I actually enjoyed most of it.  However, the story was really choppy, and the whole hate-to-love thing happened waaaay too fast to be convincing.

The Light Between Oceans // by M.L. Stedman

//published 2012//

Sometimes, I life gets busy and I don’t have a lot of time for book blogging.  When that happens, I can usually manage to work in some reviewing UNLESS it occurs at the same time that I have a book that I consider to be a block – a book that gave me a lot of feelings and that I really do want to review well, but I just can’t seem to get my thoughts into coherent order.  So September has had a busy start, and the next book on the review pile – The Light Between Oceans – has been one that I’ve been struggling to review.  Hence, no reviews for this month, and a HUGE pile of books awaiting attention!  So it’s time to at least attempt to get some thoughts down on this one.

It can sometimes be a bit awkward when someone loans you a book.  I’m always scared that I’m not going to love it like this person does!  And while I didn’t dislike The Light Between Oceans, it wasn’t really a book I probably would have picked up on my own, being a bit too ‘A Novel’ like for my tastes.  Still, it was a decent read with an engaging premise and an excellent setting.  The writing was beautifully evocative and I was genuinely drawn into the story.  Although I have to say that Stedman does employ that irritating trick of randomly inserting present-tense paragraphs in the midst of a past-tense narrative.  This drives me crazy and consistently felt jarring and odd.  I think it’s supposed to ‘pull us into the moment’ or some such nonsense, but it really just felt like the editor missed a lot of chunks of the book that needed to be switched to past tense.

The book was loaned to me by my boss – I work for a small orchard, and the couple that own it are quite fantastic.  The wife said that she made the mistake of cutting through the book section of our grocery store, and read a huge chunk of this book while she was standing in the aisle… and then went back the next day and bought it!  I admired her self restraint, as I don’t think there is any way that I could have waited until the next day…

The setting is Australia, just after World War I.  Tom is the main protagonist, a quiet man who just wants to put the war behind him and go on with his life.  He ends up with a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off the southwest coast, an excellent job for a reliable, steadfast, not-particularly-sociable man.  Eventually, Tom marries Isabelle and brings her to the island, and they are very happy together.  The only dark spot in their lives is Isabelle’s inability to carry a baby to term.  After multiple miscarriages and a stillbirth, Isabelle is grieving for the family she cannot have.  Only a week or so after her stillbirth, the ocean brings a small boat to the shore of the island.  Inside of it is a dead man and a live baby.

What follows is a story of what happens when people try to build their lives on a lie.  And while I could always see how this was all going to come crashing down sometime, Stedman makes the whole situation very plausible – I completely could understand Isabelle’s justifications, and could see how she could convince herself that they were true.  The isolation of the island, the way the supply boat only comes twice a year and they only make it to the mainland every couple of years, makes the whole story possible.  Watching Isabelle and Tom grow to love the baby that isn’t theirs is heartbreaking.

The big takeaway I really had from this book was how all of their troubles started when Isabelle convinced Tom to go against his conscience.  Tom knew what was right and wanted to do it, but Isabelle forced him into a position where he had to choose between his convictions and his wife, something that no spouse should ever do to their beloved.  It was SO heartrending to watch Tom continue to struggle with their choice and the lies they were telling, and while Isabelle was always a very sympathetic character, I just found her to be incredibly selfish.  It was especially ironic because she married him for his integrity and reliability, and then basically emotionally blackmailed him into betraying himself.

On the other hand, it was easy to see the terrible toll that Isabelle’s miscarriages had had on her, and I found it very easy to believe that her mental health was struggling with grief and hormonal imbalances, so that the lies that she told became, at some level, truth for her.  Sometimes our minds prefer to accept easy lies rather than difficult truths.

Of course, part of the trouble is that my husband’s name is Tom, and book-Tom reminded me a great deal of husband-Tom, so Isabelle’s lies and insistence on Tom’s lies somehow felt very personal!

I think the hard part about this book for me is that there wasn’t really a way to end it happily.  There was going to be a lot of grief and sadness for someone somewhere (and there was), and I’m more of a happy-ending kind of girl.  So while it was a decent ending, it was still sad, and I felt like Stedman made it even a little sadder than it had to be.

Overall, I wouldn’t personally reread this book, but I can see it having a great deal of appeal to many readers.  It was an emotional and intense read with intriguing characters and a gripping story.  While it was a bit too melancholy for my personal tastes, it never felt so in that pretentious way that many novels do – it was honest, not wallowing.  The setting was perfection and the writing very beautiful.  A 3.5/5 for me, but a book I would recommend to people who don’t mind books where not everyone gets a happy ending.

August Minireviews – Part 2

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.

I’ve had a lot of meh reading going on, plus a minimal desire for blogging, so this actually the second round of minireviews this month.  Part 1 can be found here.

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

//published 1949//

After really enjoying the first few books starring the gritty Californian private investigator Phillip Marlowe, The Little Sister was a bit of a disappointment.  While I was still give it a 3/5 for having a decent mystery, the overall story really lacked the wit and tongue-and-cheek-ness of the earlier books.  Instead, Marlowe is completely disillusioned with…  well, everything, it seems.  It’s a sort of midlife crisis kind of book, and doesn’t really make for uplifting reading.  I struggled to get through it, as it also seemed to lack some of cohesiveness of the earlier books.  It made me give up on these books for a while, but I think I’m about ready to pick up The Long Goodbye and give Chandler another try.

PS Reading the introduction to this book, the introducer stated that The Little Sister was the only one of his books that Chandler never read again – apparently he disliked it as well, and was writing it during a dark time when his wife was dying, so that all makes sense in a very sad sort of way.

The Whisky Wedding by Elizabeth Ann West

//published 2016//

I got this Pride and Prejudice variation for free, which was really the only good thing about it.  It starts with a decent premise – the Bennets receive word of Lydia’s elopement before Elizabeth and the Gardiners leave on their journey.  However, I was already a little leery of the tale when Mr. Bennet, Mr. Gardiner, and Jane go to London while Elizabeth, Mrs. Gardiner, and all the Gardiner children (??!!) head north on the road to Scotland.  Despite the incredibly impracticality of this, I was willing to let it slide for the setting up of the story… except that was only the first in a long litany of absolutely ridiculous actions, including Darcy and Elizabeth eloping while Elizabeth is drunk, Mrs. Gardiner abandoning Elizabeth in Scotland and returning to London by herself, Elizabeth running off with no one but a footman for company, Jane wandering around London by herself looking for Lydia, and Mr. Bennet shrugging his shoulders because Oh well Lydia is a whore now, nothing we can do about it, guess I’ll just read a book.

In between, conversations were nonsensical, characters didn’t remotely resemble their originals, and no one was particularly likable.  Mr. Bennet was ridiculously uncaring (while lazy and selfish, I never get the impression that Mr. B would willingly just stop looking for his daughter after one day of halfhearted searching).  Mr. Bingley was portrayed as a pathetic, whimpering puppy, which always annoys me – yes, in the original he was swayed by his friend, but the arguments that kept him from returning to Jane were Darcy’s reassurances that (1) Jane didn’t actually care for Bingley and (2) that Jane’s mother would force her into a marriage with Bingley regardless of Jane’s feelings.  Thus, Bingley’s non-return to Jane wasn’t completely due to a weak spirit, but also due a misguided attempt to do what was best for Jane.  But in this version he is a completely pathetic wuss, and Jane is instead won over by the manly spirit of Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Point being, I slogged through this for over half the book and then realized that I was just being bored out of my mind (because yes, on top of everything else, it was SO so boring), so this book ended up as a DNF at 67%, with my only regret being that I waited that long.

Mail-Order Bride by Debbie Macomber

//published 1987//

Something quite strange is the fact that The Whisky Wedding isn’t the only book I’ve read lately that involved a drunk bride!  I was trapped at the doctor’s office once day and finished my current book.  This Macomber book was a freebie I had picked up recently, and since I really enjoy the trope of marriage first and then love, I knew I had to at least give it a try.  Despite the fact that Macomber is incredibly prolific, I actually don’t particularly remember reading any of her books, although I probably have at some point.  This is one of her earliest books, recently released as an ebook for the first time.

Unfortunately, the story just wasn’t that great.  The trope itself was done well – the events leading up to the  marriage are completely believable and I was pretty pleased that the story was actually going to be plausible.  Carolyn’s aunts give her a trip to Alaska to help Carolyn recover from the breakup with her fiancee… except that they’ve actually answered an ad for a bride, placed by Paul who lives in a remote Alaskan village but yearns for companionship and a family.  Of course, Carolyn is upset when she finds out that she’s married to Paul (the drunk thing is actually done in a way that is mostly believable), but it felt like Macomber just cut a big chunk right out of the middle of this book, as we go from Carolyn being angry and trying to escape to Carolyn being desperately in love with Paul and super jealous of his past.  There never felt like there was a time where they were just becoming friends and learning about each other’s pasts.

I really wanted to like this book, but in the end it was just another 3/5 meh read with a decent set-up followed by a pretty sloppy plot.  I’m sure I’ll end up reading another of Macomber’s books one of these days, but Mail-Order Bride didn’t really inspire me to hunt any up.

Mind Your Manors by Lucy Lethbridge

(British title: Spit and Polish)

//published 2016//

I think the problem I had with this book was that I was a bit misled by the synopsis, which says, “Lethbridge reveals these old-fashioned and almost-forgotten techniques that made British households sparkle before the use of complicated contraptions and a spray for every surface. A treasury of advice from servants’ memoirs and housekeeping guides…”  Going in, I think I just thought that this would be somewhat of a reference book, when in fact it is more of just a book full of little tidbits that were interesting, but not necessarily for practical application.  (The ‘practical application’ part was basically ‘use vinegar and baking soda!’)

So while I did enjoy this book and find it interesting, it was much shorter and less practical than I anticipated.  I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the American edition, which not only changed the title, but even the subtitle from ‘Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust and Decay’ to ‘Tried-and-True British Household Cleaning Tips’ because apparently Americans didn’t clean things the same way as British servants, so we need to clarify that these are going to be British tips, not American tips!  Why, publishers, WHY?!

Overall, while this book was a pleasant read, I didn’t feel any need to add it to my personal reference library.

Uprooted // by Naomi Novik

//published 2015//

While Fatal Trust was a really good read, Uprooted is the book that has finally pulled me out of my reading slump.  I started with a very ambivalent attitude, assuming that this was just going to be another meh read, but ended up being drawn in – almost reluctantly! – to a genuinely fantastic fantasy novel.

Agnieszka is our narrator, a young woman who has grown up in a valley knowing that their lord, the Dragon, would choose a girl from her year to be given to him for ten years.  In exchange, the Dragon protects his people from the evils of the Wood that borders their land.  Everyone expects Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, to be chosen, but it is no surprise to the readers that the Dragon selects Agnieszka instead, and takes her to his tower to begin her years of servitude.

At first, I was really aggravated with both Agnieszka and the Dragon, because it felt like they just needed a good conversation between them.  The Dragon is so ridiculously impatient with Agnieszka, acting like she should just already know what he expects her to do and that she should already understand a bunch of stuff about magic and how the Wood works, all of which felt quite unreasonable.  Agnieszka, on the other hand, is absurdly stubborn, refusing to do anything the Dragon wants her to do just… because.  But their relationship gradually got a lot better and that’s when the book really started to get interesting.

Novik does a fantastic job of world-building.  It was so easy to immerse myself in the way Agnieszka’s world works.  The magic, the lifestyles of the people, the Wood itself – all superbly drawn.  I also loved the characters – there was a lot of depth to them, and their motivations were easy to grasp and understand, making the whole story flow well.  Even when ‘good’ people were doing the ‘wrong’ thing, I could see what was driving them and accept that they were doing what they were doing.

But what really pushed this book to the next level was the ending – it was perfect.  I could not imagine a single way to make it better.  It was everything I wanted the ending of this book to be.  There was just the right amount of explanation, just the right amount of resolution, just the right amount of epilogue.  I loved it, and the conclusion to this story made me close this book with a huge sigh of contentment, even though I was also sad that it was actually over.

Also, I really, really wanted to give this a full 5* rating (and I did on GoodReads), but there is a sex scene… and while I didn’t mind these two characters having sex, I felt like I ended up with a lot more detail than was necessary.  It’s also the only thing that would really hold me back from recommending this book to my (much) younger sister, or young teen readers in general, which is disappointing because this book has so much to offer.

In conclusion, I definitely recommend this one if you enjoy a fantasy novel with well-developed characters, excellent world-building, a completely engaging plot, and a perfect ending.  Uprooted is a book I fully intend to add to my permanent collection, and I’m also excited about reading Novik’s other books, a series about the Napoleonic Wars… except with dragons!  4.5/5 for this one, and highly recommended (except for that one bit).

This book was first brought to my attention by a great review by Sophie over at PaperBreathers, so thank you!

Fatal Trust // by Todd M. Johnson

//published 2017//

A few times a year I request a review copy of a book from Bethany House Publishers.  Back in 2013, I received a copy of one of Johnson’s earlier books, Critical Reaction.  While it wasn’t a book that completely blew my mind, it was still a really engaging thriller, and one that I enjoyed enough to check out Johnson’s first book, The Deposit Slipwhich I actually liked even better than Critical Reaction.  So when I saw that Johnson was publishing another book, I knew that I definitely wanted to read it.  And, conveniently, Bethany House provided me with a copy to do just that!  So many thanks to the publisher, and also to Johnson for providing yet another well-paced and engaging thriller.

Ian Wells is an attorney in Minneapolis who is slowly getting his practice where he wants it.  His dad was an attorney also, and dealt in ‘boring’ things like wills, trusts, deeds, etc.  (Actually, I worked for a lawyer who did this kind of stuff and it is amazing how boring it all is, so I totally empathized with Ian’s feelings).  Ian has always wanted to go into criminal defense, but when his dad passed away he felt obligated to take over that practice.  Over the last few years he’s been shifting to criminal law, but in the meantime he has had a lot of financial setbacks.  His mom has Alzheimer’s and is getting to the point where she is going to need 24-hour care.  Several other very expensive problems are cropping up in Ian’s life all at once.

And then he gets the phone call: a man wants Ian to help with the conclusion of a twenty-year-old trust fund – Ian must determine whether or not three men qualify to receive their share of the trust money.  In exchange, Ian gets a huge payoff.  Ian feels like there has to be something sketchy going on, but he’s reaching a point of desperation.

Johnson does a GREAT job pacing this book.  I found myself drawn right in, and every baby step that Ian takes seems completely reasonable – until he suddenly realizes that he’s completely stranded in a complicated quagmire.  Ian’s financial issues are involved just enough to make the story believable without making them absurd – just enough to make Ian ignore his gut and keep going.  The tension ratchets up perfectly – at first I was just moderately interested in Ian and his life, but by about a third of the way into the book I could hardly put it down.

The romance in this book was at just about a perfect level – enough to provide some motivation for characters but not so much that it derailed the actual story.  Like Johnson’s earlier books, there was nothing overtly religious in the story, but it was devoid of bad language, sex, and graphic violence, all of which I really appreciate.

I was genuinely impressed by the way this whole story came together.  Small details that seemed irrelevant at the time end up tying together at the end.  While I thought I had a lot of the story figured out, there were some extra twists that I didn’t see coming, but that didn’t feel at all unreasonable.  Knowing the ending made me want to read the book again and see the clues that Johnson left, which (to me) is always the sign of a good thriller.

The only really weird thing about this book was that it was set in 2018.  I never understand why books do this, because Johnson’s 2018 looked exactly like real-life 2017.  And who knows what is going to happen in the next year that could make the 2018 dates seem really weird.  I mean, if I wrote a book in 2000 and set it in September 2001 and the book never mentioned 9/11, it would seem really strange.  So that kind of threw me off, even if it is a more or less minor thing to pick on.

All in all, 4/5 for a really well-paced and engaging story, and kudos to Johnson who has a 3/3 record for producing 4* reads for me to read.  :-D

Autumn Brides // by Kathryn Springer, Katie Ganshert, and Beth Vogt

So this is the final season in the first Year of Weddings novellas, and I felt like it ended well.  I really enjoyed all three of these stories.  There is apparently a second Year of Weddings, which do sound quite appealing to me, as they are all supposed to be stories that focus on people who help make weddings happen – so caterers, florists, photographers, wedding planners, etc.  I love stories that work with people in the hospitality industry (random but true), so I definitely do want to get through those one of these days.  I’ve reserved the first couple of collections at the library.

September Bride by Kathryn Springer – 3/5 – This was a cute story with a fun premise, and I really liked the characters.  However, I felt like Jesse went from super-suspicious of Annie and her motives to over-the-top in love really quickly.  And when he pulled some strings to find out more about Annie’s background, he just assumed that she had been unjustly accused and was suddenly on her team, even though just a day before he had been the one who asked about her background to begin with because he thought she was up to something!  So while it was a really fun little story, it still seemed lacking in the ‘logical conclusions’ department.

October Bride by Katie Ganshert – 4/5 – Possibly because it involved the well-loved fake-relationship trope, this was probably my favorite of the three.  Plus, Jake was just a 100% perfect hero for this story.  I loved his relationship with Emma, and really wanted this story to be a full-length novel.  Emma’s family was just so much fun, and the small-town vibe was completely  believable.  I really enjoyed watching their fake relationship spiral out of control.  All in all, I have put some of Ganshert’s other books on the list to see what else she has gotten into.

November Bride by Beth Vogt – 3/5 – This was a really fun and lighthearted little story, even though I did just want to shake some sense into the main couple every once in a while (USE YOUR WORDS!).  Still, they had good chemistry and it was a happy little story without too much angst.

In conclusion, the Year of Wedding novellas have been fun and relaxing.  While they weren’t these mind-blowing stories that left me pondering life’s deeper meaning, they were fluffy and fun and got me through some really slow reading times and introduced me to a few new authors, which I’m sure was the point!  Overall recommended if you like relaxing, clean, happy little romance tales.