October 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, inspired by the way that Stephanie reviews the unreviewed every month, I think that some months (or maybe all of them!) will get a post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

Endless Night by Agatha Christie

endless-night-v2

//published 1967//

A while back, as a part of my goal to read all of Agatha Christie’s books, I read a couple of the novels she wrote under the name of Mary Westmacott.  I only reviewed Giant’s Breadbut I did skim through two of her other Westmacott novels.  All of them, although well-written, were rather depressing.  On the whole, I read for pleasure, and I don’t find pleasure in being depressed so I gave her other Westmacott novels a miss.

All this to say, much of Endless Night reads as a novel rather than a mystery.  The actual death doesn’t occur until about 3/4 of the way through the book.  The rest is all about the feelings and actions of our narrator, Michael Rogers.  While there is a story throughout, much of the narration is verging on stream-of-consciousness, as Rogers meanders through various tales of his life, usually weaving his way back to the main thrust of the story.  From the beginning, Rogers hints at a disaster involving his wife.  These insinuations lend to the overall feeling of unease throughout the book.

Honestly, for most of the book I felt like it was a 2/5 read for me as it was just a downer and not much was happening, plus I just wasn’t a fan of Rogers, who was a bit of a whiner (also melodramatic; I was really over his sentences like, “Ellie!  Oh Ellie!  If only I had known!”  Pull yourself together, man, geez).  However, that last 25% of the story brought it up to a 3/5 and an overall recommendation, because when Christie decides to actually pull back the curtain and show the reality of what is happening, everything falls into place like magic, and it made me want to reread the whole book and see if I could see where she was going now that I knew the destination.

Dragon on Trial by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland (Menagerie #2)

51hgzkilk1l-_sx329_bo1204203200_

//published 2014//

The sequel to The Menagerie picks up virtually immediately after the conclusion of the first book (as in, like within half an hour).  Like the first book, I thought this was a great middle-school read.  There is lots of action, and the characters are really fun.  This time, Logan, Zoe, and Blue find themselves working with Marco (a were-rooster, so great), who I thought was a hilarious addition to the team.  With griffins, unicorns, mer-people, and more, these books are just great all-around fun.

All in all, this book did a really good job of forwarding the overall plot of the trilogy while still having its own contained story as well.  So while the main thrust of the story (who murdered the goose who lays the golden eggs??) was concluded, the overall theme of someone is sabotaging the Menagerie is still waiting to be tied together in Book 3.

4/5 and recommended.

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones

game1

//published 2007//

This short story was engaging but a bit confusing.  In the end, it turns out that Jones was basically writing about stars/planets/gods as though they were people, which I started to cotton onto about halfway through the tale, but in some ways it felt like the story would have made better sense if Jones’s afterword had been a foreword instead.

The whole concept was great fun.  It’s a short story, so the characters are terribly well developed, but that didn’t make them less likable.  While this was a fun little romp, I actually think that I would find it more interesting to read now that I know from the beginning what characters I am watching for.  3/5 and kind of neutral as far as recommendation or not.

Krakens and Lies by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland (Menagerie #3)

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2tzhjr1b6govjk2gg4imspvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk

//published 2015//

I am actually really sad that it appears like this series is only going to be a trilogy.  It was a lot of fun, and really like the characters and the setting that the Sutherlands have created.

In this book, we finally find out who is sabotaging the Menagerie and why, and also what happened to Logan’s mom.  While I felt like some of the conclusions were a little bit of a stretch, it was all in good fun.  Overall, I felt like this was a really great children’s/middle school series that I would definitely recommend, especially for kids who love animals.  Even though my youngest sister is a bit older than the target age group, I’m still going to give her the first book to read, as I think they’ll appeal to a wide range of ages.

I have to say that one thing that I really liked was that I felt like the characters acted their age.  They are all around 12-13 years old, and it seemed like there was a great balance between them being independent and them needing adult help/supervision.  I loved the way that Logan had a great relationship with his dad, and how Zoe’s family really gets along, even when they have their differences.  Honestly, all the families that we met in this book were loving and supportive of one another, and that was just a delight, especially when so many children’s/YA books act like it’s impossible for young people and their parents to ever relate to one another.  The Sutherlands presented different family shapes, but all with parents/adults who, even if they didn’t completely understand their children, still loved them and had their best interests at the forefront.

All in all, this book – and the series as a whole – is a sturdy 4/5 and definitely recommended for its anticipated age group, as well as anyone who as ever secretly hoped that unicorns and dragons were real.

 

Passenger to Frankfurt // by Agatha Christie

13623931-_uy200_

//published 1970//

Published in 1970, Passenger to Frankfurt is one of Christie’s final novels, and her last “stand alone” novel that didn’t include any of her well-known protagonists.  This is an odd book, one that doesn’t really follow the normal pattern.  There is no murder – really, in some ways, no mystery.  This is more of a dystopian novel than anything.

In her insightful foreword (which should definitely be read before reading the book – and probably after reading the book as well!), Christie states quite plainly that she is not trying to write a “true” story (e.g. any of Poirot’s books, for instance, could have happened within our “real world” rules).  She talks about how much violence and unrest is going on in England and around the world in 1970, and says that she started with that and went from there.

Fear is awakening – fear of what may be.  Not so much because of actual happenings but because of the possible causes behind them.  Some known, some unknown, some felt.  … All seeming to lead to worship of destruction, pleasure in cruelty.

She tells us that the story she has written is a “fantasy – and extravaganza” – but –

Nothing is impossible; science has taught us that.

This story is in essence a fantasy.  It pretends to be nothing more.

But most of the things that happen in it are happening, or giving promise of happening in the world today.

It is not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one.

This, then is the lead-in for Passenger to Frankfurt.  “Not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one.”

Our story begins with Sir Stafford Nye.  In his mid-40’s, Nye (who is referred to as “Sir Stafford Nye” throughout almost the entire book, which honestly was a bit aggravating at times) is rather halfheartedly involved in diplomatic relationships for the British government.  We are told that he has too much of a sense of humor to really work his way further up the ladder, which is fine with him, as he thinks everyone further up the ladder is insufferably dull.

Nye is on his way home when his flight is delayed by fog and forced to layover in Frankfurt.  There, in the airport, Nye is approached by a desperate young woman who tells him that her very life is in danger.  She asks him for his help.  And, being a man who likes a bit of a gamble, Nye agrees – and the adventures begin.

There were a lot of things about this story that I really enjoyed.  The first half is completely engaging as we begin to see that all the rebellions and rages around the world are part of an intricate web being woven by someone.    Nye is a likable character, entertaining and intelligent.  As he and the mysterious woman (who has multiple names, and finding out her true one is part of the story so) begin to pick their way through the web, it’s all quite exciting and interesting.

And then – it just sort of – gets weird?  What really happens is we get to this super exciting climax with Nye and his companion, and they have plans for what they’re going to do next and then – we don’t hear from them again.  Instead, we start hopping around to various government cabinets and listening to them gripe about how bad the state of affairs is around the world.  All these youths trying to tear down the governments, etc.  It just felt like all the momentum that Christie had been building suddenly dissipated.  I didn’t care about these random ministers and politicians.  I wanted to be with the action!

Although I have to say that that section was not without its humor –

Monsieur Grosjean sighed.  “It is very popular among the young,” he said, “the anarchy.  …”

“The students, ah, the students,” said Monsieur Poissonier.

He was a member of the French government to whom the word “student” was anathema.  If he had been asked, he would have admitted to a preference for Asian flu or even an outbreak of bubonic plague. Either was perferable in his mind to the activities of students.  A world with no students in it!  That was what Monsieur Poissonier sometimes dreamt about.  They were good dreams, those.  They did not occur often enough.

The other weird thing is that throughout this is emphasized as a movement of youth, of empowering youth and enabling youth and, basically, manipulating youth.  So I was confused as to why Nye, at age 45 (we are told specifically on page one!), is being courted by this organization.  He seems outside of their usual net, and it seemed like the whole story would have made more sense if Nye was twenty years younger.

In the end, this was only a 3/5 read.  It starts very strong, but the middle bit, muddling around with the governments, and then the ending, which is almost nonsensical in its abruptness, were much weaker.  A lot of what Christie has to say is very thought-provoking and insightful.  She has a real grasp on the ease with which the unscrupulous can manipulate the young, and how a movement can start with positive ideas but swiftly become something negative.  I was really reminded of all the “Black Lives Matter” nonsense that’s been going on, where a desire for positive change has been railroaded into destruction for the sake of destruction.

“Idealism,” said Lord Altamount, “can arise and indeed usually does so when moved by a natural antagonism to injustice.  That is a natural revulsion from crass materialism.  The natural idealism of youth is fed more and more by a desire to destroy those two phases of modern life, injustice and crass materialism.  That desire to destroy what is evil sometimes leads to a love of destruction for its own sake.  It can lead to a pleasure in violence and in the infliction of pain.  All this can be fostered and strengthened from outside by those who are gifted by a natural power of leadership.  This original idealism arises in a non-adult stage.  It should and could lead on to a desire for a new world.  It should lead also toward a love of all human beings, and of good will toward them.  But those who have once learned to love violence for its own sake will never become adult.  They will be fixed in their own retarded development and will so remain for their lifetime.”

That is actually so brilliantly insightful.  The enthusiasm for a new world that every young person possesses can either become tempered with a love and empathy for humanity – leading to positive change – or can be influenced by the love for violence and destruction, leading to anarchy.

Anyway.  Passenger to Frankfurt is definitely worth a one-time read, but I really wish that Christie had about doubled the size of this book.  More time spent with Nye and his friend would have really made this story better.  The ending of the book hinges on this mysterious sniper-like woman being unmasked, but it felt very abrupt and would definitely have benefited from her being in the story more earlier on – people getting knocked off by her, adding some drama and terror to the story.

It was just a little frustrating because there were a lot of really good bones to this tale, and I think that with a little more flesh, it would be a book with a lot to offer in our complicated times.  But instead it muddles around and skims a good bit, leaving me feeling ultimately rather dissatisfied.

******************************************

As an aside, this is actually my final Christie book!  I started all the way back in January of 2012 by reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles with a goal of reading all of her published novels.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and may even loop back around through them sometime…

The Pale Horse // by Agatha Christie

the-pale-horse

//published 1962//

I will be the first to admit that, as a general rule, I prefer Christie’s older works to her later ones.  Some of my very favorite of her books came out of the 1920’s and early 30’s, and while her later books are still enjoyable, they just don’t always seem to have that lighthearted feel that still incorporates a twist in the plot that blindsides you.

However, The Pale Horse, published in 1962, broke the mold.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and loved the way that Christie lured me into a rather self-satisfied feeling of knowing who the murderer was, only to flip everything upside down.  Delightful.

Our story is told in small part as a third-person narration, but, for the most part, as first-person narration by a fellow named Mark Easterbrook.  Mark is the studious type, an author, and also friends with Mrs. Oliver, who flits in and out of the story as well.  It doesn’t really seem as though there should be any connection between Mark and the death of a kindly, well-loved priest, but the threads of the story soon begin to weave together.  Except, as usual, Christie is weaving something completely different from what the reader thinks.

I really liked Mark a great deal, and, for once, didn’t feel as though the little bit of romance was completely unbelievable.  There was really a good amount of intrigue and tension, all with a completely satisfactory ending.  The Pale Horse is getting added to my personal collection.  4/5 and recommended.

Ordeal by Innocence // by Agatha Christie

Two years ago, a man was convicted of murdering his adopted mother.  Six months ago, the man died in prison.  Now, a witness comes forward who proves the man’s innocence.

But instead of being relieved and glad to hear that Jack didn’t kill Mrs. Argyle, the reactions of Jack’s family range from uncomfortable to distressed.  At first, the witness, Arthur Calgary, is confused at the response of the family.  But as he learns more about the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Argyle’s death – and her life – he realizes that everyone wanted it to be Jack.  Jack is the trouble child, the one whom they can all not excuse, exactly, but at least understand.  If Jack wasn’t the murderer, than it was someone else in the family.  And after two years… how will they ever know?  Now the entire family is torn apart by suspicion and doubt.

Christie weaves an engaging story with a range of characters.  Mrs. Argyle, unable to have children of her own, adopted a brood, all of whom came from various “troubled” backgrounds.  Many of the children came to her during the war, when she opened her home to youngsters from London with no where else to go.  Some just never went back.

While (as always) the mystery is good and the solution quite twisty, this was one of the rare occasions where Christie’s personal opinions made  me a little uncomfortable.  While I could understand – if not justify – her repeated description of one of the adopted children as “half-caste” because her mother was from India, as a product of Christie’s time, her frequent references to heredity as the main reason that some people become criminals and some don’t seemed a little off.  While I could agree that Jack was the type of person who would be a “wrong’un” no matter his upbringing, I wasn’t sure I could agree that it was because of his parentage.  Christie tells us on several occasions that, basically, breeding always tells.  Her conclusion seemed to be that adoption was a futile process.

‘It was an article of faith with her that the blood tie didn’t matter,’ [Mrs. Argyle’s widower said].  ‘But the blood tie does matter, you know.  There is usually something in one’s own children, some kink of temperament, some way of feeling that you recognize and can understand without having to put into words.  You haven’t got that tie with children you adopt.  One has no instinctive knowledge of what goes on in their minds.  You judge them, of course, by yourself, by your own thoughts and feelings, but it’s wise to recognize that those thoughts and feelings may be very widely divergent from theirs.’

And I’m not sure that I can completely concede this one to Christie, perhaps because I have an adopted sister and know many other happily adopted children who did come from terrible backgrounds and terrible parents.  But these children aren’t doomed to failure because of their parents’ choices, and they aren’t doomed to be forever misunderstood and only half-loved by their adopted families.  Of course their thoughts and feelings will be widely divergent – they are humans and no two humans can fully comprehend the way the other’s mind works.

Adoption is difficult, especially when the adopted child is older, but Christie’s comments on how Mrs. Argyle’s adoptions may have been more successful if she had been able to find children from her “class” rather than from the offspring of prostitutes and alcoholics, whom are already doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents no matter what training, love, or discipline they receive, did not sit well with me.  And while I know that these opinions are also somewhat a product of her time, it was still a bit much.

While Ordeal by Innocence was a decent mystery, it wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine.  3/5, but not particularly recommended.

Destination Unknown // by Agatha Christie

AKA So Many Steps to Death 

Destination-Unknown

//published 1954//

So this is one of those Christie thrillers that I wasn’t really impressed by.  While I generally enjoy her thrillers, even when they are a little absurd, Destination Unknown feels too serious to be taken in her usual lighthearted vein (think The Secret Adversary and The Man in the Brown Suit).  While I generally feel like Christie is writing her thrillers with tongue in cheek at some level, Destination Unknown lacked that sparkling humor.  There are snippets of it here and there, but not enough to bring up the overall tone of the book.

All over the world, important scientists are disappearing.  Are they going of their own will, or are they being kidnapped?  Either way, the Good Guys suspect that the scientists are being taken behind the Iron Curtain to the Bad Guys.  At the beginning of our book, another scientist, Tom Betterton, has recently disappeared.  His wife claims to know nothing of his disappearance.  Several months after he left, she tells the Good Guys who have been following her case that her doctor has recommended that she go to a warmer climate to recover from the stress and anxiety.  The Good Guys prick up their ears and send someone to follow her to Morocco, hoping that Mrs. Betterton is actually on her way to join her husband.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Betterton’s plane crashes.  She is the only survivor – and lies in a coma in the hospital.  Meanwhile, another English woman has arrived in Morocco.  Hilary’s life has gone through a series of devastating blows, and even the beauty and mild climate of Morocco isn’t enough to lift her spirits: she has decided to commit suicide.  Before she can do so, she is approached by one of the Good Guys, who has a proposition.  Mrs. Betterton is going to die.  Does Hilary want to take her place and attempt to infiltrate the Bad Guys?  And so our story really begins…

It’s not a bad story.  It’s put together well, and if you can get past the whole “the entire world is either Good Guys or Bad Guys” thing, it’s fairly plausible.  But for some reason it just comes across a little heavy.  There are passages of conversation in which characters talk about why the Good Guy concept of the world is the best, and while, on the whole, I do actually agree with them, it sometimes comes across as a little preachy, even when the point is solid:

Why do you decry the world we live in?  There are good people in it.  Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground for kindliness and individuality than a world order that’s imposed, a world order that may be right today and wrong tomorrow?  I would rather have a world of kindly, faulty, human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy.

Me, too!  Except I don’t always it belabored in my fiction.

I think that the other weak point of this book is that there isn’t a lot of action.  It takes a long time for Hilary to even get to the compound, and then it’s still not terribly exciting.  Instead of interspersing her action and humor with some solid insights, this book was more an attempt to give us insights interspersed with a bit of action.  I realize that this book is, in some ways, a product of its time, but still.

A 3/5, but not particularly recommended.

#16 for 20 Books of Summer!  20booksfinal

They Came to Baghdad // by Agatha Christie

9912f541-f0b5-4d3a-8ec9-4688cca3f8cdimg1001

//published 1951//

There has already been, in the past, discussion on this blog about the fact that many people don’t take Agatha Christie’s spy thrillers seriously.  And I have said then, as I will reiterate now… neither did Christie!  They Came to Baghdad is quite classic of Christie’s one-off thrillers: mysterious individuals (sometimes in capes!), people in disguise, innocent young women swept up into adventure unexpectedly, betrayal, kidnapping, and pretty clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys.

I, of course, ate it up.  I completely love Christie’s spy thrillers.  I love the way they are over-the-top and funny, but still have an engaging plot and interesting characters.  It’s all just ridiculously dramatic and so much fun.

Victoria is our unlikely heroine.  Christie has a knack of creating a relatable, realistic character – in this case, Victoria Jones, shorthand typist – who then go on to do something absolutely ridiculous – like haring off to Baghdad because she fell in love with a young man in a park – and yet manages to keep the situation feeling fairly believable.  wouldn’t do what Victoria did, but I didn’t really doubt that Victoria would!

Through a series of events, Victoria finds herself entangled in complications with international implications, and is soon working as a sort of unofficial spy for the Good Guys.  Throughout, Victoria is intelligent, intrepid, and upbeat.  She’s also a liar, not very good at planning ahead, and quite stubborn.  She made a believable, likable heroine, and I was completely on her side even when I didn’t agree with her decisions.

I had read this one before, so it’s hard for me to say if Christie wasn’t as knacky with her red herrings or if (more likely) I just subconsciously remembered some of the tricks.  So I wasn’t particularly surprised by the ending, but the journey was still great fun.

Throughout, Christie does get mildly preachy in spots.  It’s obvious (to me) throughout her career that Christie also believed strongly that there were definite Good Guys and Bad Guys, but she didn’t necessarily believe that they were the people that everyone always said were Good or Bad.

“I know everybody says there’s going to be another war sooner or later,” said Victoria.

“Exactly,” said Mr. Dakin.  “Why does everyone say so, Victoria?”

She frowned.  “Why, because Russia – the Communists – America – ” she stopped.

“You see,” said Dakin.  “Those aren’t your own opinions or words.  They’re picked up from newspapers, and casual talk, and the wireless.  There are two divergent points of view dominating different parts of the world; that is true enough. And they are represented loosely in the public mind as ‘Russia and the Communists’ and ‘America.’  Now the only hope for the future, Victoria, lies in peace, in production, in constructive activities and not destructive ones.  Therefore, everything depends on those who hold those two divergent viewpoints, either agreeing to differ and each contenting themselves with their respective spheres of activity, or else finding a mutual basis for agreement or at least toleration.  Instead of that, the opposite is happening, a wedge is being driven in the whole time to force two mutually suspicious groups further and further apart.  Certain things led one or two people to believe that this activity comes from a third party or group working under cover and so far absolutely unsuspected by the world at large.  Whenever there is a chance of agreement being reached or any sign of dispersal of suspicion, some incident occurs to plunge one side back in distrust, or the other side into definite hysterical fear.  These things are not accidents, Victoria, they are deliberately produced for calculated effect.”

Is it totally conspiracy theory?  Yes, absolutely.  But that doesn’t make it any less plausible then or now.

For me, Christie’s writing is truly classic because it is, in so many ways, quite timeless.  While culture may have changed somewhat in the last sixty-odd years since this book was published, there is still a basis of relatability because Christie understood and portrayed human nature so very well.

They Came to Baghdad is a super fun romp of a spy thriller, with more serious undertones, should you choose to read them.  Either way, it’s a fabulously fun read and highly recommended.

AND it marks the halfway point for 20 Books of Summer – Book #10!!!

20booksfinal

Crooked House // by Agatha Christie

I first came to know Sophia Leonides in Egypt towards the end of the war.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House was first published in 1949, but her own foreword to the book states that she had had the book in her mind for quite some time, and that it was “one of my own special favourites.”  I enjoy little snippets into the author’s mind, so I liked that she felt as though the Leonides were quite a real family – “I feel that I myself was only their scribe.”

9875107Our story is narrated by Charles, a young man who met and fell in love with Sophia Leonides, but, although he told her he loved her, sent her off  back home to England without an official engagement, as he knew he would still be gone “on assignment” for another few years.  In the second chapter, Charles returns home after two years.  He has been exchanging letters with Sophia during the interim and is more convinced than ever that he wants to marry her.  He wires her first thing and makes arrangements to meet up with her at a restaurant.  While he paces the hours away, he comes across a death announcement in the newspaper for Sophia’s grandfather – “suddenly, in his residence.”

And when Sophia shows up to dinner, she tells Charles that she can’t marry him until – unless – her grandfather’s death is resolved:  “I think, Charles, that he didn’t just – die.  I think he may have been killed…”

Sophia’s fears are justified.  Old Mr. Leonides has definitely been murdered.  Conveniently, however, Charles’s father is an important man at Scotland Yard.  Charles tells him that he intends to marry Sophia, and Charles’s father sends Charles off with the case’s Chief Inspector to sort of muddle about and see what people will tell him.

So Charles meets his possible future in-laws for the first time as they are being interviewed by the police (which makes anyone else’s story of awkward first impressions rather tame in comparison), and we get quite the picture of a tangled – and crooked – household.

This is Christie at her best, in my opinion.  The classic closed murder, conversations and interviews with all the potential murderers, quirky characters, complicated connections, plenty of motives and a plethora of red herrings.  While it takes a bit of a stretch to think that the family would just casually welcome Charles into the household, considering his connections with the police, the story still works quite well.

The ending is brilliant – the kind that made me want to sit and read the book again, now that I knew who the murderer was, just so I could admire all the clever clues Christie gave throughout the story – clues that I (and Charles!) completely missed.

All in all, an excellent stand-alone mystery of Christie’s and definitely recommended.

20booksfinal