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!