March Minireviews – Part 2

More reviews from the depths of time!!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Penne Dreadful by Catherine Bruns – 3.5*

//published 2019//

This was a pretty average cozy mystery.  The MC, Tessa, just wasn’t super bright and tended to get on my nerves.  Her husband has died recently in a car wreck, but now there is suspicion of foul play.  Despite the fact that Tessa goes on and on about how happy their marriage was and how much she loved her husband, she immediately believes literally every bad thing anyone says about him.  Like if my husband died in a car wreck, it would take more than someone telling me they saw him in a coffee shop to convince me that he was up to something nefarious, but Tessa just rolls right over with “ohno he was obviously hiding so much from me!”  Sounds like a great marriage! *eye roll* Anyway, this was a perfectly fine cozy, but nothing about it inspired me to read the next book in the series.

The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier – 3.5*

//published 1966//

This is a short story that someone gave me as a gift a while back.  While it was a perfectly interesting tale, it’s billed as “creepy” and it definitely fell short of the mark.  There was no point in the story where I felt anything particularly eerie or creepy was going on.  Ah well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – 5*

//published 1950//

I’m always wanting to reread old favorites and never seem to have time, so when various groups on Litsy decide to do chapter-a-day buddy reads, it really suits me quite well.  In March, a group started reading through the Chronicles of Narnia in published order and I’ve been really enjoying revisiting these classics.  LWW was just as fantastic as I remember it.  Yes, it can be a little heavy-handed on the metaphor aspect, but it’s still an excellent story, with Edmund’s story arc being one of the best examples of a character redemption that I can think of.  Plus, these stories are very much mixed with nostalgia for me, so I’m not remotely objective about them!

Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 4*

//published 1998//

Speaking of revisiting old favorites, I’ve still been participating in the Litsy buddy read of Harry Potter as well.  The slower pace has definitely allowed me to notice more details than I have before.  These aren’t perfect books, and the fandom definitely has some crazies, but I still really enjoy this series.

Blue Smoke by Dorothy Lyons – 3.5*

//published 1953//

We all know I have a weakness for horse stories, and this is pretty typical 1950s fare with a spunky heroine and a perfect horse.  The drama in this one got a little out of control at the end, but it was still a perfectly enjoyable way to while away a few hours – even if the binding didn’t hold up super well!!

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier 

This is a collection of short stories that included a few, like “The Birds” that I’ve been meaning to read.  Unfortunately, on the whole I wasn’t really a fan of these.  While I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel by this author, literally none of these short stories particularly engaged me.  Almost all of them had strange, abrupt endings without any real conclusion, leaving the stories feeling a bit pointless.  Even The Birds, which is objectively a fantastic story with a great concept, super atmospheric, completely engrossing – and then it literally just stops.  No resolution, no explanation, no nothing.  It felt like I was missing a few pages, it was that abrupt.  Several of the stories, like Don’t Look Now and Indiscretion just felt bizarre instead of creepy.  As I’m looking at my notes, I did mark Blue Lenses as “creepy and ominous” but now I don’t really remember what it was about.

All in all, I’ll still keep picking up du Maurier’s work from time to time, but I’m not convinced that short stories are really her forte.

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.)

My Cousin Rachel // by Daphne du Maurier


//published 1951//

This is one of those reviews that I probably ought to have written as soon as I finished the book, as the story gave me so many feels.  But I’ll try my best to recapture my initial emotions.

Du Maurier is an author that I added to the TBR because I had read one of her books and loved it (Rebeccaof course) but somehow had never read another of her works.  One the whole, while I didn’t love My Cousin Rachel like I did Rebecca (I’ve read Rebecca multiple times, but don’t really picture myself returning to My Cousin Rachel… well… maybe I will), it still did not disappoint.

The story begins much as Rebecca does – with the ending.  Somehow, du Maurier manages to make her first chapter actually be the epilogue of the story, and instead of ruining the ending, it adds to the tension throughout.  Just as in Rebecca we already know that the narrator will never return to Manderley – and thus spend the entire book wondering what has happened to make that so – My Cousin Rachel tells us in the very first chapter –

The point is, life has to be endured, and lived.  But how to live it is the problem.  The work of day by day presents no difficulties.  I shall become Justice of Peace, as Ambrose was, and also be returned, one day, to Parliament.  I shall continue to be honoured and respected, like all my family before me.  Farm the land well, look after the people.  No one will every guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still be doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer.  Was Rachel innocent or guilty?

And so, from the start, we know that we are not going to know whether or not Rachel is innocent or guilty (of what?  We don’t even know that, yet).  We know that our narrator, Philip, is alone.  And we know that, for some reason, he carries a “burden of blame,” although we do not yet know whether or not it is deserved.  Throughout the entire first chapter, du Maurier introduces us to a narrator who is still young, yet filled with confusion and angst about … something … something that has to do with his cousin Rachel.

Philip is an orphan, and has lived almost his entire life with his bachelor uncle, Ambrose.  Ambrose was known for not really caring for women; not only was he unmarried, he didn’t even employ any women in his household.  One of the primary landowners of the area, Ambrose was the Justice of Peace, and known for being quiet, just, kind, and intelligent.  As Ambrose grew older, his health began to deteriorate.  Philip tells us that Ambrose’s doctor recommended that he begin spending his winters in a warmer climate.  And one of those winters, when Philip was around twenty, Ambrose decided to go to Italy for his winter rest.

And there, in Italy, he met a distant cousin, Rachel, a widow.  He wrote to Philip and told him so.

“I have made the acquaintance of a connection of ours,” he wrote.  “…my cousin Rachel is a sensible woman, good company, and has taken it upon her shoulders to show me the gardens in Florence, and in Rome later, as we shall both be there at the same time.”

Still, despite Ambrose’s warm words about Rachel, Philip is shocked when he receives a letter from Ambrose telling of Ambrose’s marriage to Rachel.  And as the gaps between Ambrose’s letters get lengthier and lengthier, Philip is uneasy – a feeling that is confirmed by Ambrose’s last letters, which speak of Rachel not as a kind and loving wife, but as a gaoler, watching over him in his illness.  Ambrose hints at an even darker possibility – that of poison.  His last letter, a mere scrawl, sent Philip rushing to Italy – “For God’s sake come to me quickly.  She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.  If you delay, it may be too late.  Ambrose.”

Du Maurier does a brilliant job building this story.  Everything I have given you so far is in the first three chapters, and they are written exquisitely.  The tension is palpable, and we are given subtle looks at Philip’s character through his narration.  Philip is rather jealous when Ambrose is married, and we know from the beginning that he is suspicious of Rachel, but his story seems straightforward enough.  When Philip arrives in Italy, too late for Ambrose, who has died, he is told a different story (although not by Rachel, who has left town) – that Ambrose was suffering from a brain tumor.  His father died that way as well, and Philip is told that all of Ambrose’s paranoia stems from this.

The rest of the book, we are left wondering which it is.  Was Ambrose perfectly sane, and Rachel poisoned him for his money, and so she could marry her lover?  Or was Ambrose delusional and ill, and Rachel loved and nursed him as best she could?  Philip himself sways back and forth between the two possibilities.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of action, I found this book entirely engrossing.  Du Maurier has crafted a set of characters who are very real.  The story feels off-kilter the entire time.  You can never find your balance, because every time you reach a decision as to Rachel’s character, you’re given a new fact or incident that throws it all into a new light.

Throughout, Philip came across as incredibly young. I think that du Maurier capture that perfectly, that blend of arrogance and self-consciousness that one has when one is twenty.  That constant swing between complete confidence that one has solved all the world’s problems and that the old are rather ridiculous and hidebound, and the uncertainty and worry about how other people are viewing and judging you and whether or not you’re doing everything the way one ought to.  My early twenties are definitely the least favorite years I’ve lived yet, where you’re expected to be an adult and to make adult decisions, and yet you actually have no earthly idea what you’re doing.  Philip’s voice embodies all of that, blusteringly confident on one page, and agonizingly indecisive on the next.

I personally had a mild beef with the ending, which I’ll put below the cut.  Please only read it if you’ve read the book – because you should all read the book, and you should read it without knowing the ending.  It’s fantastic writing, and has definitely cemented my need to read all of du Maurier’s works.

20booksfinal#15 for #20BooksofSummer!

Continue reading