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.

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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!

Traces of Guilt // by Dee Henderson

//published 2016// Bonus! A cover that doesn’t make me cringe! //

Traces of Guilt is the first book a new series that Henderson is writing – the Evie Blackwell Cold Cases.  However, they actually tie in with a BUNCH of the characters from Henderson’s “standalones,” and I’m not completely sure if I would have understood all the character interactions if I hadn’t already read the earlier books.  Perfect Ann plays a pretty important part in this book (because guess what!  The ridiculously introverted Ann is also friends with Evie!)

This book was significantly better than the last few Henderson novels that I’ve read.  Evie is quite likable.  She works for the Illinois State Police, but is using her vacation time to work on a few cold cases in Carin County.  The governor-elect is planning to start a task force the following January (book is set in November), sending a team of specially selected individuals to work through cold cases involving missing people.  Evie is doing a sort of test-run in Carin County at the suggestion of Perfect Ann.

Gabe Thane is the sheriff of Carin County, as his father was before him.  Gabe’s brothers both live around Carin Lake as well – Josh and Will.  Because they’ve lived there all their lives, the two cold cases Evie is working on have a very personal feel for the brothers.

The first case involves the disappearance of an entire family – a deputy sheriff, his wife, and their 11-year-old son all disappeared, along with their truck and camper, on their way to spend the weekend camping.  No sign has been found of them despite an extensive search at the time, and several times of revisiting the case.  The second case is the disappearance of a young girl from Florida, who went missing while her family was staying a local hotel.

Overall, this story had much tighter plotting and an actual story, which was nice.  Like I said, I really liked Evie, and also Gabe.  I was really drawn into the process of searching for the missing family.  While there wasn’t a lot of urgency to this story, since presumably people who have been missing for 10 or so years are probably dead, it was still engaging.

I was moderately annoyed that every time the  narrative changed (third person) perspective, the person’s name was placed as a heading.  I really feel like the words Ann Falcon are a completely unnecessary indicator that we’ve switched perspectives when the first sentence of the paragraph starts with something like, “Ann was puzzled over Josh’s behavior.”  Why do authors do this??  The random headings were quite distracting to me – it’s annoyed me in books by other people, too.  I can understand when it’s a first-person narrative, but it makes NO sense when it’s third person.

The biggest thing that annoyed me by far, though, was when Perfect Ann announced that she “knew” what had happened to the girl who had disappeared.  She has literally NO evidence, and while I’ll admit that her theory does tie together some coincidences, making it probable, it’s a BIG jump from probable to definite.  But an entire room of supposedly experienced law-enforcement officers all nodded their heads, agreed that Ann was right, and then just didn’t bother investigating the case any further!?  Later, evidence does show up to, of course, prove that Perfect Ann was right, but I was SUPER aggravated that everyone just accepted Ann’s theory as 100% fact, as though there weren’t fifty million other possibilities out there.

It also confused me a little because the other books I’ve been reading of Henderson all act like they are these big mysteries and not a lot of romance, and then have ended up the opposite.  This one completely sounded like the main thrust of the story was going to be about a developing relationship between Evie and Gabe… and that doesn’t even kind of happen?!  I do not understand people who write synopses.

All in all, this was a 3/5.  While there was a lot more story and things of interest going on, the ending still really fizzled out.  After spending all this time working on the disappearance of the family, the solution to the mystery felt awkward and tacked on, and also, weirdly, felt like Evie didn’t really solve it.  It was a conclusion that fit the facts, but still felt weird.  Still, a decent and engaging read that did a fairly good job of setting things up for the next book as well.

Book #4 for the #20BooksofSummer!!!

Say You’re Sorry // by Michael Robotham

//published 2012//

In Robotham’s sixth outing for the Joseph O’Laughlin series, Joe himself is back as the main narrator (present tense, unfortunately, although Robotham does write it fairly well).  Some time has passed since the last book, but much of Joe’s life looks the same: still estranged from his wife (not divorced), but still working with her to raise their two daughters.  He has moved back to London, and the book begins with his daughter Charlie coming to stay with him for the weekend.

The other narrator of the story is Piper.  Piper was kidnapped three years before Joe’s story begins, and she and her friend Tash have been held in a small basement room ever since.  Her story is interspersed between Joe’s chapters, as we learn the back story of how Piper ended up where she is.  In Joe’s world, a girl is found dead and is identified as Tash.  In Piper’s story, we find out just how this all came to be.

Robotham balances these two narratives perfectly, giving just the right of information from one before switching to the other.  While Joe’s story takes up the majority of the book, Piper’s bits are critically important and emotionally devastating.  This isn’t a pretty story, as it involves kidnapping, rape, and even some torture, but Robotham handles all of this deftly.  We are told enough so that we know what we need to know, but he doesn’t smother the reader in excruciating details.

The tension really ratchets up in this book, and I found myself racing through the pages to find out whether or not Piper survives.  My only complaint was that while the clues were there to point to the true criminal, I also found it hard to believe that he had disguised himself so well.

There are always minor quibbles.  I’m still aggravated with Joe’s wife, who seems to think that it’s perfectly acceptable to keep Joe stringing along for years instead of just making a final decision as to whether or not she wants a divorce, especially when her reasons for not wanting him to stay with her seem flimsy at best.  I really miss the Julianne of the early books – I thought that she added an intriguing dimension to the story.  Ah well.  On the other hand, I’m really a bit in love with Vincent Ruiz, who reminds me quite a bit of Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle.  He is definitely my favorite character.

All in all, this has been a very enjoyable series so far.  While I’m definitely getting more out of them by reading them in order, they also seem like they would be perfectly readable as stand-alones.  I really appreciate Robotham’s ability to tackle some intense subjects without making his stories too bleak – although his willingness to kill off various people means that while I’m fairly certain that Joe himself will survive, I’m still rather worried about everyone else: the tension is real!

4/5 for this outing; recommended.

Bleed for Me // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2012//

This is the fourth installment of the Joseph O’Laughlin series, and Joe himself is once again our narrator – and once again in the first person, present tense.  Although I have to say that the tense didn’t bother me as much this time – I think Robotham is getting better at it, sometimes having Joe explaining what just happened instead of in the moment, which makes the narration somewhat more believable.

While Bleed for Me was just as intense as the earlier books, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Shatter.  I think this was partially because the victims/intended victims were very young.  There is something inherently uncomfortable about people who prey on the young and innocent, and consequently this book was disturbing to me.  It was done well, and in many ways addressed the dangers of placing too much trust in people we don’t really know, but it was still troubling.

The personal troubles between Joe and his estranged wife continue, leaving me feeling consistently annoyed with the wife, who I actually really liked in the first couple of books.  But she basically comes out and says that she can’t handle the person Joe has “become” since he found out he has Parkinson’s, which is why they have now been separated – not divorced – for two years.  So here’s Joe, gradually dying of a degenerative disease, separated from his home and beautiful daughters because his wife feels like Joe is too morbid (or something, I’m honestly still not clear on what her issue with Joe really is – she just keeps saying things like “I don’t love you in the right way” whatever the heck that means), and that just seems cruel.  Sure, they still share duties with the daughters and work together on parenting, but it’s not the same as living with them, which is obvious from the way that Joe hangs around his old house like a stray dog, hoping for glimpses of all the little family-life details that he’s missing.

I guess I just don’t understand why that makes a better background story for Joe than having him stay married, with him and his wife working together through the difficulties of life.  Instead, it’s just another couple (or at least half a couple) who are willing to give up on over two decades of relationship because things have gotten hard.

ANYWAY I do love series like this because I love recurring characters and seeing a bit more of them every time.  Vincent Ruiz is still one of my faves, just as gruff and honey badger-ish as ever –

Political correctness is not one of Ruiz’s strong suits.  He once told me that being politically correct was like pretending you could pick up a dog turd by the clean end.

He’s also a great friend for Joe, and I love the way that their friendship has progressed since the first book.

The story itself was very gritty and done well.  The bad guy was so slimy, and watching him slither through loopholes was incredibly frustrating.  However, I felt like there were more aspects of this book that didn’t fit together than there have been in the earlier books.  While we got explanations for most of the stuff that happened, some things are just left as implied that it was because of this other guy being involved.  The mystery kind of stretched beyond the initial tragedy, and it sometimes felt like some of the connections between this crime and another were a little forced.

Still, I did enjoy this installment, and am curious to see what else Robotham has in store as the series progresses.  3/5.

Shatter // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2008//

Well, look at this!  I promised you all this morning that I was going to start getting back into the blogging groove, and here we are with an actual book review already!  :-D

The third book in Robotham’s Joseph O’Laughlin series was absolutely addicting.  I had trouble putting this book down.  It was terrifying in that way that really good thrillers can be.  Robotham managed to create a story where the reader knows who the bad guy is pretty early on – and it only adds to the tension..

Overall, the premise of this book – that this murderer controls his victims through fear and manipulation and never actually physically sees or touches them – and yet they die – is so scary.  It was brilliant.  From the very beginning, when Joe watches a woman jump off a bridge, the fear ratchets up with every chapter.  With snippets of narrative from the killer, we get glimpses into the why and how of what is happening.  This isn’t a gory book at all.  Robotham doesn’t need it to keep his readers glued to the pages.

The first-person-present-tense continues to nag (why, why, why), but I found myself liking Joe even more in this book.  It was great fun to see Ruiz from the last book – now retired but just as Superintendent Battle-ish – and to see how character lives in general are progressing, because despite the excellent pacing of the book, there is still time for character development and background that really helps to fill out the book.

Speaking of which, I ended the book feeling quite frustrated with Joe’s life.  Mild spoiler, but his wife decides that they should separate at the end, and part of her reasoning behind this is because Joe got involved with this case at all.  But this made no sense to me.  Literally, a woman died because no one cared to find out what was happening with her – that’s the whole point of the first death.  Several people saw this woman on her way to jump off the bridge, and despite the fact that there were all these suspicious signs that something wasn’t right, no one cared.

But Joe cares, and it’s that caring that drives him to continue to assisting with the case.  In the end, I felt like his wife didn’t appreciate or deserve him.  Her attitude towards Joe really aggravated me, and he’s just so patient and resigned like, “Oh, she’s probably right, I’ve been rather self-centered lately worrying about the fact that I’m dying of Parkinson’s disease, so I suppose it’s perfectly reasonable that she wants to throw away our twenty years of marriage instead of trying to work through our problems, nbd.”  Except he said all that with no sarcasm.

Still, in the end this was a solid 4/5 read and I’m intrigued to continue with the series.  This book could be read as a stand alone, but I think that reading it in context of the preceding books helps to give it context.

Lost // by Michael Robotham

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//published 2006//

This is the second book in the Joseph O’Laughlin series, but in this book, Joe is more of a secondary character.  The primary protagonist, and narrator, if this story is Vincent Ruiz, a homicide detective that we met in the last book.  I really liked Ruiz in Suspect – for some reason he reminded me a great deal of Agatha Christie’s Superintendent Battle, that sort of stolid, steady character whose intelligence tends to be underestimated because he isn’t a chatterbox.

Ruiz’s story starts one night when he is pulled out of the Thames – almost dead, a bullet wound in his leg, and absolutely no recollection of how he got there.  Ruiz’s only clue to his own activities is a picture of Mickey Carlyle that was in his pocket.  Mickey is one of Ruiz’s great failures – a young girl who disappeared out of her apartment building one day and was never seen again.  While a man was convicted of Mickey’s murder, her body has never been found, and Ruiz  has never been completely convinced that she actually died.  With Ruiz’s superiors dead set against reopening any kind of case around Mickey, Ruiz is on his own trying to piece together the events that led up to his near-death experience in the river.

Lost is a twisty kind of book.  Ruiz is a likable character, although I didn’t always agree with his decisions.  Once again, the first-person present tense narrative made me roll my eyes a lot as it genuinely makes no sense, but on the whole I was able to look past it to enjoy the story.  For me, the biggest hang up on the logical end was the fact that Ruiz still has a bullet wound in his leg and is hobbling about on crutches, but suddenly starts dashing all over London, including down into the sewers.  I found myself writing a note with lots of question marks when I read this bit –

“Any cuts?  Cover them up with waterproof Band-Aids,” says Barry, tossing a box toward me.  “Weil’s disease – you get that from rat urine.  It gets into a cut and ends up in your brain.”

So did he manage to cover the bullet wound with lots of waterproof Band-Aids or…????

But setting that aside, Lost was pretty engaging.  It was fun to see Joe again, and I rather like the relationship between Joe and Ruiz.  I’m interested to see where Robotham takes the next book – it looks like Joe will be back in the narrator’s seat again.  All in all, a solid 3.5/5 for Lost – and if it wasn’t for the clumsy choice of narration tense, it probably would have been a 4/5.