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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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

August Minireviews – Part 1

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.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

//published 1942//

In this outing for PI Phillip Marlowe, the tough-talking-but-soft-hearted detective finds himself working for a rich but rather dreadful old widow.  Per usual, Marlowe is pulled into all sorts of shenanigans, most of which would seem unrelated to someone more optimistic than our hero.  The mystery in this one seemed stronger to me than the first few books, and I really enjoyed the story.  These books are pretty fast reads and I am finding them to be thoroughly engaging.  3.5/5.

Once Upon a Kiss by various authors

//published 2017//

This collection of short stories are all retellings of fairy tales by random YA authors.  I picked it up as a free Kindle book in hopes of maybe finding some new authors to check out.  However, none of the stories in this collection rated higher than a 3/5 for me, and some I didn’t even bother to finish.  To me, a short story should still have a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and some kind of driving force for the protagonists, but a lot of these stories just came across as ‘sample’ writing – a few stories literally just stopped and were like, ‘If you want to find out more about what happens next, be sure to check out my book!’ which annoyed me so much that I won’t be checking out their books.

Overall, not a complete waste of time, but almost.

The Cat Sitter Mystery by Carol Adorjan

//published 1973//

This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I’ve had around for as long as I can remember.  I read this book when I was pretty little – it was possibly one of the first mysteries I ever read.  I was quite enthralled with the exciting and mysterious events surrounding Beth’s neighbor’s house!

Rereading as an adult, this story about a girl who moves into a new neighborhood and then ends up taking care of her eccentric neighbors’ cats, doesn’t really have a great deal of depth, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.  Adorjan does a really great job of making the whole story plausible, and also setting up reasonable explanations for all of the shenanigans.  The side story about Beth trying to settle into her new neighborhood in the middle of summer is also done well.

My edition is fabulously illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, who illustrated several other childhood favorites, like Magic Elizabeth and Miracles on Maple Hill.  They are probably most famous for their work with the original editions of The Borrowers and their sequels.  The Krush’s line drawings are just perfect, especially of the cats.

All in all, a comfortable 4/5 for this short children’s book, an old favorite that held up quite well to an adult reread.

The Story of Amelia Earhart by Adele de Leeuw

//published 1955//

Back in the 1950’s, Grosset & Dunlap published a series of children’s biographies called ‘Signature’ books – each one has a copy of the famous person’s signature on the front, and an illustrated timeline of ‘Great Events in the Life of…’ inside the front cover.  I really enjoy history books that are aimed at the middle school range because they usually hit all the high points without getting bogged down with a lot of details and political opinions.  It’s a great way to get a basic introduction to a person or event.  I’ve collected a lot of these Signature books over the years – they have those delightful cloth covers from the era and are just a perfect size to read.

That said, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one.  While it was a fine read, de Leeuw’s choices about what random vignettes from Earhart’s life to include seemed really random.  For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to a random event in Earhart’s life involving a neighbor who treats his horse cruelly – and in the end, Earhart and her sister don’t actually get to rescue the horse – instead, it escapes and then dies leaping over a creek?!  It just felt incredibly random and didn’t really add any information about Earhart – it never came back as this big influential event or anything.  There were several other, smaller stories like that throughout, like de Leeuw had collected tons of tales and then just pulled out of a hat which ones to include.  It was definitely much choppier than other Signature books that I’ve read.

Still, Earhart had an amazing and fascinating life.  I really loved how so much of what she did wasn’t amazing because she was the first woman to do it – but just the first person.  I love biographies that emphasize a woman’s abilities, intelligence, and skills as those of a person instead of those as a woman.  No one is going to believe that women are just as capable as men if we constantly act like being a woman was a weakness they had to overcome.

All in all, this was a fun and interesting book.  I’m not particularly into aviation, but apparently Earhart herself wrote a couple of books – I’m especially interesting to check out her book 20 Hrs., 40 Min. about flying over the Atlantic – I’m curious to see how it compares to Charles Lindbergh’s account, which I ended up really enjoying a lot.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

//published 1943//

The fourth Phillip Marlowe felt a little darker than the first three.  Marlowe seems a little jaded, and while he still manages to make fun of many of the terrible people he meets (usually everyone he meets is pretty terrible), sometimes it felt a little serious, like Chandler genuinely was starting to think that everyone out there really is terrible.  There is also a rather gruesome scene when a body is found – not exactly graphic, but so well implied that it didn’t need to be in order to make me feel a little queasy (possibly because I was trying to eat a baloney sandwich at the time).

However, the mystery itself was, I felt, the strongest yet.  The reader has access to all the same information as Marlowe, and while I was able to connect some of the dots, I didn’t hit them all.  I really enjoyed watching everything come together, but the ending was just a bit too abrupt to feel completely satisfactory.

Still, a really great read, if a bit darker than the earlier fare.  3.5/5.

July 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 had a lot of minireviews for July, so Part 1 can be found here.

Water Song by Suzanne Weyn

//published 2006//

This book was a retelling of The Frog Prince, but set in World War I Belgium without (much) magic.  I really, really liked the concept and setting for this story, but honestly the book was just too short for what was going on.  This ended up feeling more like an outline/draft for a story instead of a full story, which meant the characters were very flat and I couldn’t get behind the main love story because it felt so abrupt.  The ending felt rushed and a little strange, and after a big build up around the locket, the actual reveal was quite anticlimactic.

This was a book where I found myself wishing that Weyn had taken the time to turn it into a real, full-length novel.  There was so much potential in the story and characters, but this book barely skimmed across the surface.  3/5 for a decent read and a fantastic concept, but not a book that I would bother reading again.

#16 for #20BooksofSummer!

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

//published 1940//

This is the second book starring hard-bitten private detective Phillip Marlowe.  As with the first book, The Big SleepMarlowe’s narrative is what makes this book worth reading.  While the story is fine, with a decent mystery and fair pacing, it’s Marlowe’s slang-ridden, dryly humorous observations that keep me turning the pages.

After a little while, I felt a little better, but very little.  I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country.  What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.  I put them on and went out of the room.

This book is, as with the first, very reflective of the ingrained prejudices of its time, and the easily offended will probably not make it past the first page, where ‘negro’ appears three times, but I found the story to be all the more engaging because of its unvarnished view of its time – so much more interesting to read the books written then, where these words and concepts flow naturally because it was just the way it was, rather than books set during that time but written now, that frequently try too hard to belabor the point that there were prejudices.  It was genuinely disturbing to see how no one really cared about the first murder in the story because the victim was ‘only a negro,’ and that the case was given to a man on the police force generally considered to not be important or skilled enough to deal with something ‘more worthwhile.’  In the end, when Marlowe mentions to the murderer that he may have been able to get away with killing ‘just a shade,’ he really won’t be able to get out of also killing a white woman.

So yes, a fun story with a lot of twists and a fairly satisfying (if somewhat hurried) ending; Marlowe’s voice is absolutely hilarious; and, to me, an absolutely fascinating look and reminder of how in the not-so-distant past, having separate ‘joints’ for blacks and whites was not only normal, but considered completely unlikely to ever change.  3.5/5, and I plan to continue reading more of Chandler’s works.

The Methods of Lady Walderhurst by Frances Hodgson Burnett

//published 1901//

This is the sequel to The Making of a Marchionesswhich I read earlier this month.  I found myself a bit ambivalent towards that read, and I actually enjoyed this one even less.  The story begins with the marriage of Emily and Walderhurst, but the majority of the book focuses on Emily’s relationship with Walderhurst’s current heir, Osborn, and his wife.  Osborne has spent his whole life anticipating becoming the next Lord Walderhurst, and is quite upset when Walderhurst marries a reasonably young and healthy wife.  The entire book is a bunch of melodramatic nonsense that would have been a good story if Emily’s devotion to Walderhurst (who is mostly absent in India for the book) actually made a bit more sense.

I would have been willing to go along with the whole thing if the ending hadn’t been so odd and abrupt.  Just – quite, quite strange.  All in all, I think that I’ll stick with The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and leave Emily Fox-Seton on the shelf.  2/5.

#19 for #20BooksofSummer!

Martin’s Mice by Dick King-Smith

//published 1988//

I’m not sure whether or not I’ve rambled on about King-Smith on this blog before, so even if I have it’s been a while.  While he’s best known for his classic Babe: The Gallant PigKing-Smith was an incredibly prolific writer of children’s books.  While I don’t love all of them – some are really just too fast and shallow to be considered good reading, even for a children’s book – others have become lifelong favorites, like The Fox Busters and The Queen’s Nose.  

In this tale, we have the story of a farm kitten, Martin, who doesn’t like eating mice.  He thinks they are so beautiful and precious.  When he discovers that the farmer’s daughter keeps rabbits as pets, he is intrigued by the concept – and when he catches a mouse one day, he decides to keep her as a pet.  The rest of the story follows the adventure (especially when his long-lost dad finds out), and involves all sorts of funny critters, like an extremely intelligent hog, a crafty fox, and some quick-thinking mice.

While this isn’t a book that’s likely to win a lot of awards or to cause you to ponder your life, it’s still a very fun and witty story that would be a great read aloud or early reader book.  4/5.

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!

Woman With a Gun // by Phillip Margolin

//published 2014//

Last fall I had the pleasure of reading through Margolin’s Amanda Jaffe series.  The series as a whole was an easy 4/5 for me, and I really enjoyed them.  Unfortunately, Margolin has written several other novels, so enjoying those books meant that multiple titles got added to the TBR, and Woman With a Gun is the first of them I’ve read.

I really liked the pacing of this story.  We start in 2015 with Stacey, who is trying to write a novel but is feeling rather uninspired.  To pay the bills, she’s working as a legal assistant and finds it soul-suckingly boring.  (Aside: I empathize!)  On lunch one day she stops to see an art exhibit, but is drawn to a series of photographs.  When she sees the photograph that’s on the cover of this book, she is completely enamored – she can see an entire story waiting to be told.

The next section tells us the story of the photograph – the Cahill case from 2005.  A strange and mysterious murder that was never satisfactorily resolved…

I have mixed feelings about books that jump backward and forward in time, but Margolin handles it very well in this one.  I really liked that instead of using flashbacks or alternating chapters, large chunks of book are in one time before switching to another – there are only actually five parts to the  book: 2015, 2005, 2000, 2005, 2015 – which also works very well, as we slowly work our way back in time to understand what is going on, and then forward in time to find resolution.

The story was quite gripping, and I was lucky enough to start this on a lazy Sunday, and read it pretty much all in one go.  I was completely engrossed in the tale and anxious to find out who the killer really was.  It’s really a rather small circle of possibilities, which made the guessing even more engaging.

It did seem like Stacey’s love story part was rather hasty – an almost instalove vibe – and the ending, while satisfying, was still a bit bittersweet.

All in all, Woman With a Gun was an easy 4/5, and confirmed for me that I definitely need to continue working through Margolin’s books.

#11 for #20BooksofSummer!!!

(#10 will appear in this month’s minireviews at the end of July!)

Close Your Eyes // by Michael Robotham

//published 2016//

Well, this is (currently) the last of Joseph O’Laughlin books, and I’m quite, quite sorry to see them end.  Although I did check Robotham’s website – and he claims another book is coming sometime next year!  So I’ll have that to look forward to.

Wow, so I have really mixed feelings about this book.  Overall, the story was quite gripping and the pacing almost frenetic…  which, in retrospect, it almost feels like that was a bit of camouflage for the fact that this mystery didn’t seem quite as tight as most of the earlier ones – there were several times that it felt like Joe should have been more “on” a clue or lead; Vincent’s involvement also seemed rather cursory.   We were back with Joe’s first-person narration for this one, which I never like quite as well as the third person (despite the fact that I do quite like Joe).  There also felt like there was a LOT going on in Joe’s personal life, and while it was handled well on the whole, I still found myself wondering things like, “Would Joe’s daughter really go follow up on a clue instead of seeing her mum off to the hospital for surgery?” or, “Is it really more important to go talk to this random person than it is to spend some time with a family member having a major crisis?”

The biggest turn-off for this book was definitely the opening scene, a very bizarre and far-too-detailed scene involving sex and violence that left me feeling quite… dirtied.  Like now that is stuck in my head forever, and I don’t really want it to be there.  If I hadn’t already read all the other books in this series and known that that wasn’t really “what they were like,” I’m not sure I would have gotten over that opening scene.  It was just.  Ick.  And it felt completely superfluous, like it was just there for the shock factor.

But, setting all of that aside – I still could barely put down this book.  It was completely engaging, and I was QUITE impatient with my husband who kept interrupting me during the last few chapters when I just wanted to FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS.

And then I finally reached the end of the thriller part and took a deep breath, ready to read the last chapter and see all the little loose ends tied up – and there was a complete blindside in the last few pages.  Like I literally felt like someone had taken that heavy, hardcover book and cracked me over the head with it.  I was not expecting that last plot twist.  It felt so abrupt!  Plus, super weird, like I had to read a few paragraphs over to make sure that what I thought had happened had really happened…  it was just… strange.  A very strange way to end the book. Quite strange.  I didn’t like it.

Still, a 4/5 for a book that was quite intense and that I overall enjoyed (until the very end).  I’ll definitely be checking out more of Robotham’s books, and eagerly looking for another story with Joe & Company, hopefully next year.  This has been an excellent series and one I definitely recommend – as long as you feel like your heart can handle the intensity!

#7 for the #20BooksofSummer!