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…

The Mystery of the Yellow Room // by Gaston Leroux

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//published 1908//

Published 1908, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is one of the earliest “locked-room” mysteries, and a precursor to the era of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.  This classic was brought to my attention a while back by a review by The Literary Sisters.  I have, as an aside, never gotten around to reading Leroux’s most famous work, The Phantom of the Opera, so this is my only experience with his writing to date.

The story centers around Mademoiselle Stangerson, the daughter of a famous scientist.  She and her father have worked together for many years, and reside in a chateau in France.  When Mlle Stangerson is attacked in her room, her father and their faithful servant rush to rescue her.  Mlle Stangerson had locked the door from the inside and it had to be broken down before she could be rescued.  But when they finally break in, Mlle Stangerson is all alone, close to death – and there is no way out of the room other than the locked door her father has just broken down.  How could the attacker of gotten in or out of the locked room?

The detective in the story is not actually a detective at all, but a reporter named Joseph Rouletabille, who, at this time, is only 18 years of age.  Rouletabille is clever and logical and is determined to find out what happened in Mlle Stangerson’s room – the Yellow Room.  The narrator, Sainclair, is a friend of Rouletabille who spends, in my opinion, far too much time singing Rouletabille’s praises.  Rouletabille finds himself butting heads with the lead detective on the case, Larsan, a Rouletabille believes the man Larsan is pursuing is actually innocent.

So I didn’t really get into this story, but I think that the main reason is because I was reading it as a Kindle edition, and it was honestly rather terrible.  While the words themselves were there, no effort had been made to really correct any of the formatting.  Sainclair frequently inserts other sources into his narrative – newspaper articles, journal entries, written reports, etc. – and the Kindle edition did a dreadful job of setting these apart or making sure that the quotes of when they began and ended were clearly marked.  Because Sainclair’s narrative is first person, and may of the things he quotes are a first-person narrative, it really did make the whole thing feel muddled, because I wasn’t always completely sure when I had switched between the narrator and one of his sources.

The Kindle edition also lacks any of the diagrams or floor plans, which, I have discovered, were quite critical to my understanding of the story.  Consequently we get references to locations in the chateau or the Yellow Room for which I had no real basis for understanding.

I read this on my Kindle because I got the book for free, but I really wish that I had gone through the effort of locating a hard copy at the library instead, as the terrible formatting really detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

The mystery itself is clever, but the writing is rather long-winded (although typical of its time).  There are a few chapters that are from Rouletabille’s perspective and they were rather confusing because he would switch at random from present tense to past tense.  For instance, at one point, he is speaking with Larsan, and the section is in present tense.  He and Larsan run down the stairs and knock on the door of another character, but as soon as the door is opened, Rouletabille’s narrative starts using the past tense instead.  It was rather confusing and made his sections feel very disjointed to me.  There are also many dramatic references to random things, like Rouletabille’s repeated cry of, “Ah!  The perfume of the Lady in Black!” which has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but apparently does have a great deal to do with the second story starring Rouletabille, aptly titled, The Perfume of the Lady in Black.

I found it virtually impossible to believe that Rouletabille was only 18, and when I was able to believe it, it made his character that much more obnoxious.  Arrogance is acceptable in a character like Hercule Poirot because he has spent many years building his reputation and being brilliant.  From a teenager, it just felt quite annoying.

All in all, while I found The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be fairly interesting as a piece of historical crime fiction, I wasn’t particularly enamored with it, and it was definitely not a story that made me yearn to read other adventures of Rouletabille.  I think I probably would have liked it more if I had had a hard copy with proper formatting, but I’m also sure that I wouldn’t have liked Rouletabille any more on physical pages than I liked him in the ebook.  3/5.

Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog!) by Jerome K. Jerome

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//published 1889//

This book was first brought to my attention by FictionFan, who has mentioned in a few posts, and reviewed it here.  After reading the first chapter, I couldn’t believe that I had somehow gone my entire life without this book.  Jerome has created a masterpiece of humor, a sort of travelogue with random reminiscences thrown in, and a little spice of thoughtfulness as well.

Published in 1889, the story follows our narrator, J., as he and two of his friends, Harris and George.  Feeling weary of their everyday life, they decide to take a holiday by boating up the Thames.  But the joy of this story is in the narration itself, as J. gives us plenty of asides.  While the book loosely follows their journey, much the book is meandering anecdotes, a style that feels like it ought to be annoying but is honestly just pure delight.  I could not stop laughing while I was reading this book, and probably read over half of it out loud to my ever-patient husband, because so much of this story was just too much fun to keep to myself.

I tried to mark pages to quote for this review, but realized that what I really wanted to do was quote the entire book, which means that you just simply need to sit down and read it for yourself as soon as you possibly can.

One of the things that I loved about this story was how while the setting was obviously dated, the story didn’t seem to be at all.  The adventures and thoughts of these three were completely relatable, right from the first page where J. tells us how he visited the the British Museum and started reading about various diseases and realized that he had them all!  While WebMD may have given us a more modern access to hypochondria, it is most certainly not an issue limited to our place in time!

The whole book is that way.  The classic story of Uncle Podger hanging a picture (who hasn’t known someone just like him?!), the comforting realization that a full stomach makes you feel just as happy and contented as a clear conscience (and so much cheaper and more easily obtained!), the foul and dirty nature of a tow line – Jerome captures our human nature perfectly, and, in the process, reveals that we really haven’t changed that much in the almost 130 years since he wrote this tale.

Besides humorous anecdotes, Jerome also gives us snippets of history and various travel tips that are thoroughly engaging, and also manages to touch on serious topics with a deft hand, somehow slipping it between funny bits without detracting from the story or trivializing the issue at hand.  His few pages on a young, unmarried mother who found that drowning herself in the river was easier than continuing to live under a cloud of shame and poverty genuinely choked me up, and added yet another layer to the fact that human nature – both of those who have been judged and those who judge – really hasn’t changed that much, either.

In short, this is a book that is very much worth reading.  As I said at the beginning, I cannot believe that I have never read it before – or even heard that much about it!  This book is a delight that I think everyone would – and should! – enjoy.  I will definitely be adding a copy to my personal shelves very soon, and the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is next in the queue to read.

A Tale of Two Cities // by Charles Dickens

I like to preface my reviews of “classic” books with a reminder:  I’m not a literary expert.  I just know what I like. So don’t expect this crazy, insightful post about this book: it’s probably going to be just as deep as any other review of mine.  I don’t really know a lot about Charles Dickens. I just happen to know that I really, really like this book.

Tale-of-Two-Cities-1859I hadn’t read A Tale of Two Cities since early high school, or maybe even junior high.  While I vaguely remembered thinking that it was a good book, many of the details escaped me.  Consequently, I was genuinely blown away by this story, which is way more readable than I remember it being (apparently my vocabulary/reading comprehension has improved in twenty-odd years, which is good), and just fantastic writing clear through.

Sure, Dickens tends to go off on these random descriptive paragraphs, and sometimes he takes the (very) long way around instead of just saying what he means, but on the whole this story is so strong that it would have taken some really bad writing to ruin it – and Dickens is a long, long way from bad writing.  Some of it, in fact, is so beautiful and so amazingly relevant almost 160 years after writing, that I would find myself stopping to reread a sentence several times over, just in an attempt to soak it in.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Or –

It was one of those dark nights that hold their breath by the hour together, and then heave a long low sigh, and hold their breath again.

The story itself, of heroism and courage, of true love and sacrifice, of loyalty and betrayal – absolutely fantastic.  And if Lucie is a bit ridiculously blonde and fluffy, I still believe there is a strong core of intelligence and bravery in her, as she is willing to forego many comforts, and even to risk her life, to protect and care for those she loves.

I love Dickens’s humor throughout, which adds just the right amount of seasoning to what could otherwise be a rather sad tale.

When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house [a bank], they hid him somewhere till he was old.  They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him.  Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment.

I have read some places that Dickens didn’t “appreciate” women, but I didn’t really get that from this story at all.  Like I said, Lucie can be a bit too angelic for my taste (and Dickens does love to describe an angelic young woman at length), but there is nothing weak about her.  And as for Madam Defarge – geezy cow, what a fabulous character!  Strong, intelligent, driven – a fantastic leader with a strong sense of justice.  Madam Defarge is terrifying and amazing.

Dickens obviously thinks that Englishmen are superior to the French (but I’ve yet to meet an Englishman who doesn’t think that so), but I think that on the whole he does a fairly decent job of portraying the reasons and stories behind the terrors of the French Revolution, while still not justifying them.  Dickens writes mob mentality pretty brilliantly.

In all honesty, this is one of those books that stirred me so deeply that I find myself pretty bad at writing a review for it.  But I will say that all novels should do what this one does: inspire, hearten, and challenge their readers.

And for all the haters out there (and I read reviews by several of them) – I’d like to see you do better.

PS If you would like to read a far more coherent and intelligent review, I highly recommend popping over to check out what FictionFan has to say about this classic!