March Minireviews – Part 1

Usually, I only post a group of minireviews for books that have just been sort of meh for me, leaving me with not a whole lot to say about the story.  But this month I’ve been super busy with work and other projects and just simply haven’t had time for reviews.  I really struggled through a reading slump the end of February and into March, but over the last couple of weeks have been back in the groove, which means I actually have quite the little pile of books waiting to be reviewed.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to really unpack all the ins and outs, so I’m going to try to just give each read a few paragraphs… hopefully I don’t get too carried away…

Dead End Close by Dominic Utton

//published 2017//

I actually started a whole long review of this book but then got really carried away.  I disliked this book so much that the whole review was turning into a rather incoherent rant, so maybe I can just summarize a briefer, coherent rant here.  I actually rather enjoyed Utton’s first book, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Timeand I think that added to the disappointment that I felt about Dead End Close.  This book focuses on several households all on the same dead-end street in Oxford.  There’s a bit of mystery/thriller aspect, but at the end of the day this book was just overwhelmingly depressing.  No one has a happy life, no one has a happy ending.  All of my notes on this book end with “???” because I just didn’t get this book at all.  There’s this weird guy meandering through the story (and sometimes narrating it) with a clipboard, and we are given the impression that he’s a supernatural/angelic being of some kind (???), but apparently there for observation purposes only has he does diddly-squat to prevent anything from happening.  Throughout the story, all the lives that started pretty bad to begin with only get worse.

But the biggest reason that this book gets 0/5 stars for me is that a huge part of the plot centers around a trio of Oxford boys who are trying to get into a club, and the initiation process requires them to rape a girl, video it, and then get the video to go viral.  This whole part of the book literally made me ill to read, it was so disturbing and dark and gross.  And maybe I could have gotten around this if this book had had some kind of point, but it didn’t.  The whole story was just completely pointless.  It went no where, there was no character development, terrible things happened to everyone, people get raped and killed, and a heavy sense of hopelessness lingers on every page.

I think I was especially irked when I got to the end and Utton attempted to whitewash his entire story by acting like, somehow, there was a message of hope.  Like, “Oh wow, sometimes bad things happen, but there’s always hope!”  Yeah, that doesn’t really fly with me when the only “hope” part of your story is in the next-to-last paragraph of the entire book.

Dead End Close was given to me free of charge from the publishers, and this is my obviously very honest review.  I hated every word of this book and wouldn’t even recommend it to someone I didn’t like.  Weirdly, I would still read another of Utton’s books, though, because I enjoyed Harbottle, but this one was flat dreadful.

The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

//published 2011//

They say that a book can impact your mood.  I think this is true, but I also think that sometimes my mood impacts the book.  I picked up The Wreckage (the fifth in the Joseph O’Laughlin series) during the height of my reading slump and could not get into it.  And even though I eventually finished the book, it never really gripped me.  I can’t say for sure if that was the book’s fault or mine, but I definitely felt very meh towards this story the whole way through.

I think a large part of this was because it didn’t feel nearly as personal as the other books in this series.  The other books have dealt with tight, domestic-type crimes (kidnapping, murder, robbery, etc.), but this one was more political, following a storyline in Iraq, where a reporter believes that several bank robberies are connected; and London, where our old friend Vincent Ruiz finds himself entangled in a complicated web of disappearances, robberies, and embezzlement.

The story was done well, and the present-tense that Robotham insists on using made more sense as a third person narrative.  But my personal disinterest meant that I didn’t read this book very closely, and consequently it felt disjointed to me.  It left me with a 3/5 rating, but I think that it will be better when I read through this series again.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

//published 2017//

This was another ARC, but one that I thankfully enjoyed a great deal more than Dead End Close.  This story drifts back and forth in time, following the lives of three German women before, during, and after World War II.  While this wasn’t exactly a cheerful read, it was a very engaging one.  Shattuck handles the shifts in time perfectly, giving information about the lives of these women at just the right time.  It is not a mystery, but each of the women has her own secrets that are only gradually revealed.

It was quite fascinating to read a story about “everyday” Germans.  Marianne, passionate about the resistance; Benita, rather naive and sometimes willfully blind; Ania, caught up in the dream of a better life and failing to see how the promises were built on shifting sand.  The language is lovely and the characters are well-drawn, although I wish that we saw more of Marianne’s thoughts and actions.  She is weirdly both the center of the story and yet in the background of it.

While I don’t see myself returning to this book time and again, I would definitely read another of Shattuck’s books, and recommend this one to anyone who enjoys history from the perspective of ordinary people struggling to see what is right.  4/5.

The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar

//published 2014//

This book is the sequel to a lighthearted YA novel that I read in February, The Art of Wishing.  While Wishing didn’t really blow my mind with its awesomeness, it was still an entertaining and pleasant read, and I was expecting more of the same from The Fourth Wish.  Unfortunately, it was overall pretty terrible.  In this book, Margo is struggling to adjust to her new life as a genie.  For some reason, Ribar decided that the overwhelming majority of people who get a hold of a genie would use their wishes to find some kind of sexual fulfillment.  Color me crazy, but if I had three wishes for anything, I really don’t think any of them would involve sex…???  Plus, we also have to spend a lot of time nattering on about how genies can be either male or female (I mean the same genie can be either), and how this doesn’t change who they are on the inside, and they can still love each other no matter their outward apperance, aw how romantic except why so boring and consequently not actually romantic at all.

I skimmed large portions of this book hoping to actually find a story, but there wasn’t one.  Margo was a total whiner in this book, spending most of  her time being a jealous girlfriend.  I don’t really have high hopes for her relationship with Oliver, especially since they are not both timeless, eternal beings.  Like I don’t think this relationship is going to last five months, much less five centuries.

In the end, 2/5 and nothing that inspired me to find out if Ribar has written anything else.

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time // by Dominic Utton

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//published 2014//

I read this entire book in a day – in snippets between many household chores on a busy Saturday.  It’s an epistolary novel, which I find incredibly difficult to resist and even harder to put down – just one more letter is so easy to say!!!

The main narrator is Dan.  He’s working for a newspaper in the city and has to commute from his suburb home every day via train.  The trains are invariably late, and Dan has had enough.  He finds the email address of the managing director and writes to him, telling the MD, whose name is Martin Harbottle, that he, Dan, will now be wasting as much of Harbottle’s day every day that Harbottle’s trains waste of Dan’s: Dan will write an email that will hypothetically take as much of Harbottle’s time to read as it took Dan to sit on the delayed train.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the story is really quite implausible on several levels, the main one being simply that Dan decides to pour out all of personal and work life to a complete stranger (especially incriminating information about the implosion of the newspaper where Dan works).  The second implausibility that actually nagged at me more was that it now seems like Dan is wasting his time twice – once on the train and again writing the emails!  As the book progresses, we get the impression that Dan is starting to write the emails while he is on the delayed train (which makes much more sense), but that didn’t seem to be what was going on in the beginning and it seemed kind of weird.

But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  I actually liked Dan – I’ve read several reviews that said they couldn’t stand him, but he seemed like a pretty average guy to me, and I really appreciated the fact that, at the end of the day, he decided that his marriage and his friendship with his wife was important enough to preserve and build.  (I rarely skip to the end of books, but I did on this one – I really didn’t want to read a whole book only to find that Dan decided to skip out on his wife and have an affair because his “happiness” was more important than his wife and daughter.)

This is a rambling book, and if you aren’t interested in Dan’s stream of consciousness thoughts, you probably won’t enjoy it.  I found bits of it more boring than others, and there isn’t a really strong plot, but I found it a hard book to put down, in part, I think. because of the subtle humor throughout.  I definitely would have liked to have heard more from Harbottle himself – his emails always seemed too short and too infrequent, especially since I actually rather liked him better than Dan.  Harbottle is always careful to give the reasons for each train’s delay, some of which were more ridiculous than others –

On August 27 the train was late leaving Paddington due to its late arrival in Paddington.  This lateness subsequently caused it to lose still more time on its journey to Oxford.

[next email from Dan to Harbottle]

Thanks for your most recent reply.  It makes me feel so much better to know that the reason my train was late on Saturday night was…because it was late.  That’s some serious zen you’ve got going there, Martin.  That’s some major Buddhist mind-bending philosophical shizz you’re spouting.

At the end of the day, there was just enough to think about to keep me going on this book, and I’m going with 3/5 overall.  I actually did feel like Dan grew as a person throughout the story, and that part of that growth was his recognition of the fact that he had even more growth to do.  I ended the book feeling optimistic about Dan’s future – that even though some things were rough, that he was going to work forward.

I’m having a bit of a crisis right now.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, like, but things are kind of falling apart – and I’m not sure (OK I have no idea) what I should be doing about it.  Even whether I can do anything about it.  All this stuff at work, and all this stuff at home: I’m part of it, it’s part of me, but I feel like it’s happening despite me, like it’s all happening to me, but like I’ve got absolutely no influence on what matters.  I’m not driving the train, Martin, I’m sitting on the train watching it all happen out of the window, powerless to do anything about where it’s taking me or how long it’s going to take to get there.

I should get off the train, shouldn’t I?  I should get off the train and start walking.  I should take charge of stuff, determine by own direction, be in control of how long it takes to get there.  It’s just that… I don’t know how to do it.

But at the end of the day, Dan does get off the train.  He realizes that in life you can either allow things to happen to you, or you can try to make things happen.  We can’t control everything, but there are many things that we can control, if we actually want to.

While Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time wasn’t the deepest or most inspiring book I’ve ever read, it still had a lot to offer: humor, an engaging narrator, and a few crumbs of thought to chew on.