December Minireviews – Part 3

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.

Will I finish December reviews before the end of January???

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith – 5*

//published 1956//

I always think of this as a Christmasy book, as that’s when the bulk of the action takes place, and since this is one of my all-time favorites, it seemed like a lovely time to revisit it yet again. Smith is so clever and humorous, with characters that are easy to love and a villain that’s easy to hate. As always, one of the most important parts of this story are the absolutely magical illustrations by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnston – I can’t imagine reading this story without them! If you’ve never picked up this story, you absolutely should.

The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith – 4*

//published 1967//

I only discovered this sequel a few years ago, and while I don’t love it nearly as much as the original story, it is fun to see where Pongo and Missis’s children have ended up!! Again the illustrations make the story, and while this one definitely leans more heavily on magic (which was nonexistent in the first story), it’s still a great deal of fun.

Christmas With You by Nora Roberts – 3.5*

//published 1989, 1986//

One would expect the first (and longest) story in an anthology entitled Christmas With You and composed of only two stories to actually be, you know, Christmasy, but I honestly think some editor someone saw the title of this one (Gabriel’s Angel) and saw that there was a snowstorm in the first chapter and just assumed that it must have something to do with Christmas! In truth, the snowstorm is a freak spring blizzard and the entire story wraps up by the following fall, so there is literally not a single Christmas event in the entire tale! Setting that aside, I did enjoy this story (we all know I’m a sucker for a marriage of convenience) although there were some aspects that got a little too drama-y for me. Still a good time.

When I started reading the second story, Home for Christmas, I realized that I had already read it in the past and it employs my LEAST favorite trope (teehee oh btw I had your baby years ago but I never bothered to tell you because I’m pretending like I have your best interests at heart) BUT it takes place in New Hampshire, which I hadn’t visited yet for my #ReadtheUSA2020 challenge and it was less than a hundred pages long, so I rolled my eyes a lot and got through it. Despite the trope making me want to smack the female lead in the face, it wasn’t that bad of a story. However, I can’t believe I’ve ended up reading this one twice!

Santa’s On His Way (various authors)

//published 2018, just like all the Christmas books I read this year for some reason//

Another anthology, this one had four stories in it. Lisa Jackson’s name is in the biggest letters on the cover, so apparently she’s the keynote writer, but hers was the one story (A Baby for Christmas) that I didn’t finish – the characters just weren’t working for me. It was also weird because the other three stories were all published in 2018, but this one was from 1997??

What the Cowboy Wants for Christmas by Maisey Yates and A Cowboy for Christmas by Nicole Helm were solid 3.5* reads – nothing terrible innovative but perfectly pleasant. I’m not a big cowboy-romance reader, but these weren’t too bad.

Snowed In by Stacy Finz was my favorite of the collection (even though I would still give it 3.5* haha) It’s a fun trope and it was done well here. Plus, I liked the way it all came together in the end.

All in all, I probably won’t revisit this anthology again next year, but I may see if Finz has written any full-length novels.

Mutts and Mistletoe by Natalie Cox – 4*

//oh look, this one was also published in 2018//

Sometimes Hallmark-movie-type reads are just predictable and annoying, but other times they are predictable and fun, and this one was the latter category for me. It’s absolutely ridiculous that Charlie’s apartment just happens to be rendered uninhabitable at the same time that her cousin decides to dash off to meet her online-girlfriend, meaning that it’s the perfect situation for Charlie to take over the cousin’s upscale dog boarding business, especially considering that Charlie doesn’t even like dogs. But somehow Cox makes the whole thing work, keeping things light and fun and the scenarios mostly on the right side of believable. Charlie is overall likable and not too stupid despite her lack of knowledge about dogs and country life, and who doesn’t love a grump veterinarian hero? While not perfect, this was the exact kind of fluff I was looking for, and I kept this one for a reread next year.

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer – 3.5*

//published 1926//

This was borderline between 3.5* and 4*. It’s one Heyer’s earliest books, and it shows. Compared to most of her stories, the action in this one is choppy, the dialogue sometimes stilted (especially because most of the story is set in France with a French heroine who is constantly exclaiming things in French except I have no idea what she’s saying so I had to keep stopping to look things up because sometimes it was actually important to the plot of the conversation…), and the age gap between the two main characters was so great that I was honestly a little surprised that that was the direction the romance was headed. Despite all this, the bones of a good Heyer story are still here. It’s a fun story and when Leonie wasn’t shouting in French she was a likable character. The duke is a little over-the-top but I still ended up liking him and I absolutely loved his brother and sister and the family dynamics at work. So while I didn’t love this one, I did still enjoy it. It’s not where I would recommend someone to start if they’ve never read a Heyer story before, but if you already love her books you’ll probably enjoy this one as well.

Also, I just finished Devil’s Cub which is actually about the duke and Leonie’s now-adult son and it was absolutely delightful, so if nothing else it’s worth reading Shades just to get the full impact of the fun in Devil’s Cub.

This wasn’t a Christmas read, but it was December’s book for one of my traveling book clubs and thankfully still fit into my theme of an all-fluff month!!

The Midnight Kittens // by Dodie Smith

//published 1978//

Growing up, The Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of my very favorite books, and I read it so many times.  The amazing illustrations by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone still make me so happy and the story is just too perfect for words.  More recently, I discovered that there was actually a sequel!  And while The Starlight Barking was a little strange (and had actual magic), it was still a lot of fun.  Now for some reason, Goodreads has The Midnight Kittens listed as Book #3 in the Hundred and One Dalmatian series, so I decided to give it a go.  I found a secondhand copy on eBay, and was curious to see how it tied into the other two books.  The short answer?  It doesn’t.  So that was the first disappointment.

The next disappointment was that this book just wasn’t… interesting?  I’m not even sure what the word is that I’m looking for.  I’ve only read a couple of Smith’s books.  Most recently, I read I Capture the Castlewhich, while it wasn’t an instant classic for me (as it is for so many others), I still found incredibly readable – the writing itself was a delight, and the story very well-crafted.  But The Midnight Kittens lacked that.  The story was directionless and the characters not particularly interesting.  I just couldn’t get into it.

Basically, Tom and Pam are twins (around 12 years old) who have been going to school in London, but live with their Gram in Suffolk, as their parents died when the twins were quite young.  The story revolves around a long weekend that they spend visiting Gram.  Except… not much actually happens.  They stay up late to see if they can see some wild hedgehogs come to eat the milk and bread Gram has set out, and instead see four kittens.  Pam immediately decides that they are magic kittens (??).  Over the course of the weekend, they take a tour of a local house, a run-down mansion called Freke Hall.  The next day they go with Gram to visit a friend of hers in a nursing home, and staying in the same home is a very old lady who once lived in Freke Hall when she was a little girl.  She tells Tom and Pam about a secret room where she once hid a painting.  Tom and Pam sneak into the house when when they get home and find the secret room, and also meet some friendly squatters who are coming there to live (??).  Meanwhile, the kittens appear at midnight each night, exactly at midnight, to eat their milk and bread.  Tom is afraid to tell Gram about the kittens, because he isn’t sure if she will adopt them or have them put down (??).  Eventually, the twins tell this whole story to Gram (along with some other side adventures I haven’t bothered to include) and Gram doesn’t believe them, because Pam used to tell made-up stories, and suddenly they are all emotionally devastated by the broken trust and Tom and Pam go back to school heavily burdened by the fact that Gram doesn’t believe them (??).  But then Gram sees the kittens and calls them and tells them everything is fine and then everyone is happy la-de-da.  ??????

It was all just so rambling and pointless!  The kittens weren’t really that much of the story, it’s mostly Tom and Pam being obnoxious children – this book made me feel so old, because all I could do was roll my eyes at the way the twins were so annoying condescending towards their Gram the entire time – explaining to her how Tom is now agnostic and Pam is an atheist and how sad it is that people still believe in God (despite the fact that Gram does).  They’re always giving Gram advice about how she should be running her household and ways that she could be saving money and I don’t know, they just seemed so bratty the entire time, which is probably why I found this book so tedious.  They were SUCH know-it-alls.

The whole book was very disjointed and kind of read like a weird dream.  It was fairly short, for which I was thankful.  I was quite disappointed in this story, but at least I don’t have to worry about making room for The Midnight Kittens on my permanent bookshelves.

I Capture the Castle // by Dodie Smith

//published 1948//

This is one of those books that I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.  The title seems to crop up on all kinds of list of “books everyone should read,” and I’ve never read a negative review of it anywhere.  Plus, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is literally one of my favorite books of all time.

If you’re like me, and have somehow reached adulthood without discovering this book, it is about a family living in a run-down castle (in England, of course; we are sadly bereft of castles in the States) between the wars.  Cassandra is our narrator, and the entire book is actually her diary, which she begins in March of the year that she is 17.  Cassandra lives with her father, who wrote a famous book (but hasn’t written anything else since); her stepmother, who is a model for painters and an artist herself; her older sister, Rose (the “beautiful” sister); and her younger brother, Thomas.  The family is becoming rather desperately poor, as Father doesn’t do much besides read detective novels and work crossword puzzles.  Rose is especially discontented with their poverty, and the complete lack of eligible young men.

But everything changes for the Mortmain family when new neighbors arrive – including two handsome (and eligible) brothers.  Rose sets her cap for the oldest, since he’s the one with the money, and the story unfolds from there.  It’s not a book with a fast pace or one that you want to gulp down in big sections, but rather a gentle tale that unfolds at the perfect pace.  I always wanted to know what was going to happen next, but never so much so that I couldn’t take the time to savor Smith’s excellent writing.

All in all, Cassandra is a delight, and I loved getting to know her through her writing.  She definitely felt her age, a mixture of confidence and hesitancy, worldly knowledge and naivety, self-awareness and complete unawareness.  I completely fell in love with her family, especially her stepmother, Topaz, who was probably my favorite character in the whole book.

Still, I couldn’t give this book a full 5* rating, although it did garner 4 from me quite easily.  I felt like the story really bogged down once Cassandra fell in love.  I grew rather bored with the hash and rehash of her feelings.  People being in love is my #1 reason for not liking first-person perspectives.  Can anything be more dull than listening to someone else try to explain (at length) a feeling that can never be explained?  Yes, yes, I get it, he’s amazing, you can’t describe how you feel, so please stop trying.

I also did not personally care for the ending, as I prefer endings to be unambiguously happy, and this one, while not unhappy, still definitely had some open endings with no promise of how they would play out in the future.

This book has been on my radar for many a year, although it was Lady Fancifull’s excellent review that made me actually add it to the TBR, leading to actually getting read!  It does appear that Smith has written some other novels, so I may give one of them a whirl.  While I Capture the Castle did not become an instant classic for me, it was excellently written and very pleasurable reading.  Definitely recommended.

The Starlight Barking

001

 

by Dodie Smith

Published 1967

So, as I mentioned in my review of The One Hundred and One Dalmatiansthat book has been a favorite of mine for many years.  However, I was SO surprised to find out only a couple of months ago that Smith write a sequel ten years after publishing the original.  I ordered it off of Amazon immediately, especially when I learned that the sequel, despite it’s suspect cover, was, in fact, illustrated by the same duo (Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone) as the first book.

I really enjoyed this little book, but I  must say–it was odd.  The first book, despite the talking dogs and all that, still somehow seemed plausible.  (Because I grew up pretending animals could talk??  Maybe…)  But this book–well, it begins with Pongo, Missis, Prince, and Perdita waking up one morning several years after the end of the first book.  However, although the dogs are awake, no one else is.  As the morning progresses, they realize that only dogs are awake everywhere.  All humans and all other animals are fast asleep.

So, right away this book takes on more of an other-worldly feel.  I guess the first book was completely devoid of any kind of magic or anything like that, so it was a bit of a surprise to come across and enchanted sleep right out of the box on the second book.  Long story condensed, Pongo and Missis and many other dogs, end up traveling to London to meet up with Cadpig, who has become the Prime Minister’s dog, to try and figure out what is going on.

I really enjoyed this story a lot, and there were actually some very good thoughts in it, but it somehow gave me the weirds, too, and I can’t exactly explain why.  Still, the illustrations were perfect, it was lots of fun to see what happened with all of my beloved characters, and the story was still sweet (even though a little bizarre), so a high 3/5, almost a 4.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

002

by Dodie Smith

Published 1956

(Don’t even bother reading an edition that isn’t illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone.  I didn’t even imagine that there was an edition without their perfect illustrations, and then I ordered a copy for my niece for Christmas and was devastated to find perfectly dreadful drawings inside…  such tragedy!)

Wow, today has been all about book raves rather than rants, hasn’t it??  And here is yet another–I love this book!  Actually, I love this book so much that it is physically painful for me to watch the Disney version.  I am usually quite skilled at separating movies from their books (I think to myself, This isn’t my book.  It just happens to have the same title as my book.  But it’s actually a completely unrelated movie.  And that helps), but even as adorable and delightful as the movie is (the animated version, that is–I like to pretend that the live-action version doesn’t even exist), it just doesn’t hold a candle to this perfect, perfect book.

It’s a book that I’ve read easily a score of times, probably more, because I would guess that I’ve read it at least once a year since I could read, and that’s been quite some time now.  But this story never gets old for me.  I love Pongo, Missis, Perdita, and the puppies.  I love the Nannies, and I love the Dearlys.  I even love the wild and crazy villain of Cruella.  I love the Great Dane near Hampstead and the Colonel and Tib and little Tommy and the elderly Spaniel.  Most of all, I love Smith’s narration; her descriptions and word play are wonderful.  (“Mr. Dearly … was particularly good at arithmetic.  Many people called him a wizard of finance–which is not the same thing as a wizard of magic, though sometimes fairly similar.”)

I am starting to sound like  a broken record; I hope you’ve been making a list of all the books I’ve recommended today.  Add this one to it, possibly at the top–this book is most definitely worth a read.  5/5.