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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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.

The Joy Luck Club // by Amy Tan

 

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//published 1989//

When I picked up The Joy Luck Club, I was hoping to read a book that would emphasize the mystery of the culture within a culture – the difficulty of balancing the culture from the past with the culture of a new place and time.  In this story, Tan blends old and new culture beautifully, telling the story of four women and their daughters in a way that wonderfully expresses the yearning every parent has to see life be better for their children than it was for themselves, and the inability for any child to truly appreciate the sacrifices that have been made for them.  And she does this while emphasizing the impact that the Chinese culture has had on each of the characters.  Throughout the story, Tan’s ability to express various aspects of this culture and its influence on Tan’s characters gave layers of depth and interest to the tale.

It is an odd story in many ways, being more of a collection of vignettes surrounding a group of individuals than a linear story.  There are four sections in the book, and within each section is a chapter told by either one of the mothers or one of the daughters.  For me, this was the only part of the book that was a tad confusing – because there were long gaps between characters’ chapters, and because the next chapter about a character would not directly pick up where the last chapter had ended, I found myself having to flip back through the book at the beginning of each chapter to remind myself what had happened in this family before.  I think this mild confusion was emphasized because every chapter is told in first person, so rather than reading a chapter wherein an individual’s name is repeated throughout, thus helping me to remember that Lindo Jong was the person who was pledged to marry a neighbor’s son, the personal pronouns in every chapter meant that I had to flip back to that chapter to remind myself whether Lindo Jong was the person pledged to marry the neighbor’s son, or the one who told the Moon Lady her secret wish.

However, the first person narratives did, in this instance, make the stories feel much more personal and real, and also gave the narrators opportunities to emphasize not just the action of what occurred, but how they felt about the event and how they believed it influenced them in the future.

The nature of these stories means that we jump back and forth in time.  The mothers were all born, in China, around 1915, so when they tell a tale from their childhood, it usually takes place sometime in the 1920’s.  Most of the immigrated to America in the 1940’s, and their daughters were born in the early 1950’s, so many of the stories take place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Finally, the present-day story, where the book begins and ends, takes place in the late 1980’s, when the daughters are approaching middle age, and the mothers are elderly.  Despite this, I never felt lost or confused as to what was happening when.  Tan easily inserts dates when necessary, and they flow naturally into the story, giving context and place to each chapter.  This is a book where date and location are important, as the story ranges through the good part of a century wherein the world goes through many advances in technology and changes in societal mores.

While Tan doesn’t claim this book to be autobiographical, she was born in 1952 of parents who had immigrated from China just a few years before.  This is definitely a story that is rooted in what the author knows.

This wasn’t exactly a happy book, yet despite the many tragedies and misunderstandings throughout, Tan somehow manages to leave us with a sense of hope, that each of these mothers will be able to reach her daughter and share what it is that has shaped her.

I’m not sure that The Joy Luck Club is a book that I will return to again and again, but it was a thoughtful read, beautifully written and brilliantly executed.  I look forward to seeing what else Tan has written since this 1989 debut.

This book was initially brought to my attention by a lovely review by The Literary Sisters, who do a much better job than me at outlining the story!

December Minireviews – Part I

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, inspired by the way that Stephanie reviews the unreviewed every month, I think that some months (or maybe all of them!) will get a post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

Quite a few this month, so here is Part I – Part II should be revealed at the end of the month…

William Tell Told Again by P.G. Wodehouse

philip_dadd_-_p-_g-_wodehouse_-_william_tell_told_again_cover

//published 1904//

When I started this book I just assumed that it was going to be another of Wodehouse’s school stories.  My goal of reading all of Wodehouse’s books in chronological order means that I’ve been wading through a lot of school misadventures and cricket.  However, William Tell is actually a story about…  William Tell!

Now, I must be completely honest – I really don’t know anything about the real story of William Tell.  But Wodehouse’s version was quite entertaining, with plenty of little sarcastic quips and fun characters.  He really made the whole story come to life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s a very short, fast read as well.

I read it as a free Kindle book, and didn’t realize until the end that the original book had multiple illustrations throughout, and, more importantly, each illustration was accompanied by a short poem that actually added to the story!  The poems are available to read in the Kindle edition (although not the illustrations), but are at the very end of the book.  Apparently, I ought to have been flipping back to them throughout.

Fury and the White Mare by Albert G. Miller

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//published 1962//

This is the final book in the Fury trilogy, and followed the same basic pattern as the first two books.  There’s a new neighbor who wants to do bad things (in this case, steal timber), Fury does many clever and intelligent things, and Joey learns more about being unselfish and independent.

The only thing that annoyed me about this book was Joey’s attitude towards the white mare.  Basically, Fury yearns for a mate, and he wants the mare, jumping his corral to go to her.  Joey’s adopted dad, Jim, wants to round up the mare and bring her to the ranch for Fury, because Fury is very upset without her.  But Joey is basically jealous of the mare and doesn’t want her at the ranch.  That’s all fine as far as it goes, but they try to find another companion for Fury and eventually they find a dog that Fury really likes and who helps calm him down…  so why isn’t Joey jealous of the dog??  He makes some halfhearted explanations, but none of them really make sense to me.  It just seems like Joey either should be jealous of everything else that Fury likes, or nothing else.

But on the whole, this was a perfectly fine read and a nice addition to the series.

To Refine Like Silver by Jeanna Ellsworth

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//published 2014//

This was a moderately interesting variation of Pride and Prejudice where Darcy and Elizabeth meet in Derbyshire before the events of the original story.  There, Elizabeth befriends Georgiana, who is recovering from her harrowing experience at Ramsgate.  Darcy is captivated by this kind and intelligent young woman, and things go from there.  This is definitely a story that is heavy on Christian themes, and a lot of the story is comprised of conversations about deep and serious topics rather than anything actually happening.

I read another variation by this author a while back – Mr. Darcy’s Promise – which was also alright. However, Ellsworth definitely needs to find someone else to do her cover art, because they are both just simply dreadful.

If you’re interested, I’ve reviewed this book more fully on my “secret” book blog where I post reviews only of P&P variations, because I can’t stop reading them even though they’re terrible…

Lad of Sunnybank by Albert Payson Terhune

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//published 1929//

Earlier this year I reviewed another book by Terhune, The Way of a Dog.  At the time I gave a bit of background for Terhune, who raised collies at his New Jersey home (Sunnybank) and wrote about the prolifically in the 1920’s and 30’s.  Lad is one of Terhune’s great heroes, and he has several books and numerous short stories about him, of which Lad of Sunnybank is one.  This volume is a collection of vignettes starring this intelligent and faithful companion.

While most of the stories are good (True??  Maybe??  Some of them??), Terhune does have a habit of veering off onto minirants about personal peeves.  It’s not bad if you’re just reading one of his shorts, but if you’re blazing through the whole book, have 2-3 pages per chapter devoted to Terhune’s grumbling sometimes gets rather old.  And it’s not even that I disagree with him – it’s just not really part of the story.  For instance, in one chapter, Lad saves a child from being struck by a car.  Then Terhune goes on for three pages about the dangers of motor vehicles –

A heedless high-school boy – a feather-brained flapper – a drunkard – a degenerate speed-maniac – any or all of these are allowed to drive a gigantic metal projectile of death, through crowded streets or along peaceful country roads.  The examination they have taken in order to get a driver’s license has made no test of their reliability or even of their sanity.  They are turned loose with full chance to kill or maim.

A bit melodramatic, but valid points – also nothing to do with the actual story, so.

But homilies aside, Lad of Sunnybank is another engaging group of stories that make for delightful reading for dog lovers of all ages.

Stormy, Misty’s Foal // by Marguerite Henry

stormymistysfoal

//published 1963//

The original Misty book was published in 1947, with its sequel, Sea Starfollowing in 1949.  Henry said that she never intended to write even one sequel, much less two.  But in 1962 a huge storm hit the Atlantic seaboard. Later known as the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, it is considered in the top ten worst storms of the twentieth century (in the US), wreaking millions of dollars of damage along the coast, killing several people and injuring more, wiping out homes, businesses, and livestock, as well as destroying and causing devastating damage to many towns.

The island of Chincoteague, along with its personal barrier island, Assateague, were among those hit by the storm.  In 1963, Henry wrote another Chincoteague book.  While much of the book is fiction, Misty really was brought into a house to be saved from the storm, and the damage Henry describes is completely accurate.  She says that she wrote the book as a response to the hundreds of children who did their part to help restore Chincoteague and Assateague.  Her dedication says:

Dedicated to the boys and girls everywhere whose pennies, dimes, and dollars helped restore the wild herds on Assateague Island, and who by their spontaneous outpouring of love gave courage to the stricken people of Chincoteague.

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The real Misty and Stormy

At the end of Sea Star, Misty had been sold to a movie producer so that she could travel to advertise the movie.  When Stormy opens, a few years have passed, and Misty is back at home on the island with the Beebe family, ready to give birth to her first foal.  The family is quite excited, of course, and the first couple of chapters reintroduce us to the warm, happy family, greatly aided by Wesley Dennis’s suburb illustrations.

But a storm is brewing.  While the people of the island are no strangers to nor’easterns, this one coincides with one of the highest tides of the year, and soon water covers almost the entire island.  The people of Chincoteague band together to rescue and protect one another, but soon they are forced to evacuate.

I’m not going to lie – I did actually shed a few tears over this book.  Many of the ponies die, and just knowing that so much of this story was true made it hard to read.  But Henry does a magnificent job capturing the hope and beauty that so often balances these tragedies – wherein strangers are willing to give what they can to help those who are in need.

Because so many of the wild ponies – who are rounded up every year during Pony Penning Day, with some of the young being sold to raise money for the fire department – were killed by the storm, donations poured in to help purchase back island ponies to reestablish the herds.   Another twist, which Henry doesn’t mention in her book, was that, at the time, parts of Assateague had been sold into lots for development.  After the storm, however, the development plan was abandoned, and now the entire island is a wildlife refuge.

In her afterword, Henry says:

Boys and girls all over the United States … deluged Chincoteague with a fresh tide – of letters!  … and tucked inside were pennies, dimes, and dollars.  The letters are stories in themselves:

“Here is a check for four dollars and four cents for the Misty Disaster Fund.  It is an odd number because we earned it weeding dandelions and they grow odd.  We hope the money will come in handy.  Please excuse our poor writing.  We are doing this in my tree house.”

“During our Story Hour we set out a jar marked ‘For Pony Pennies,’ and we marched around the library until 386 pennies were dropped in.”

“The radio said your ponies and chickens drowned.  … Here is one dollar.  I know it isn’t much, but that’s how much I can give.”

Henry adds that by June enough money had been received for the firemen to purchase back ponies, and Pony Penning Day was still held.

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Aerial footage of the Beebe farm just after the storm.

Something about this story really got to me.  Just the idea that fifteen years earlier Henry happened to write a story that children loved, so when the storm hit, they gave back.

Henry doesn’t shy away from death in this book, and the scene where Grandma Beebe’s little chicks all drown legit made me cry.  In some ways it was a hard book to read, but in a good way, and it is a story that is never too dark.  It was also funny to read some of the “signs of the times” in things like the women and children not being allowed back on the island because of typhoid scare, when in this day and age, I’m sure just as many women would be on the island helping with the cleanup!  (Although the part where Grandpa and Paul smuggle Grandma and Maureen back onto the island early is just fantastic!)

All in all, Stormy is an excellent addition to this little series, and a solid read.  4/5; recommended.

Also, here is a webpage with more details about the storm – and more pictures – if you are interested.

The Morning Gift // by Eva Ibbotson (+ life updates!)

So, first off, I did completely Princep’s Fury which was my Book 20 for 20 Books of Summer, so I was successful!!!  Totally stoked.

Secondly, things have been quite busy around here.  Somehow, summer is almost over and I still have a lot of things on my list to get done!!  So I have been painting shelves and fence and house trim and the porch, and also trying to learn how to make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes from my garden as well as freezing green beans and also hanging out with my family and trying to train the dog how to not drag me across town when we are taking a walk.  So, life is busy but good.

I have also, weirdly, been selling books.  I have this whole box of books that I keep meaning to donate or something, but there is this funny thing… not everyone reads the same books!  So, much to my surprise, people are buying the books I don’t want??  About half the books are ones random people have given me (another funny thing: people seem to think that if I like to read, it means I like to read… everything, apparently??  Because they literally hand me a pile of books and say, “Hey, I know you like to read so”.  I mean, I appreciate the sentiment but it makes me giggle sometimes).  The point is, this means that I have a little bit of spare cash… to buy books!  Do you think I could eventually make my whole book thing self-sustaining?? (HA!)

ANYWAY on to The Morning Gift.  I approached this book with mixed feelings.  The official synopsis says:

Ibbotson magically recreates pre-World War II Vienna and introduces Ruth Berger, passionate, clever, and wildly in love with Heini Radek, a young prodigy come to study piano at the Conservatoire.

… When Hitler’s forces move into Austria, Englishman Quinton Somerville offers Ruth matrimonium ad morganaticum – marriage based on the morning gift, a present given by a husband wishing to free himself from a new wife.  If she accepts, Quin will bring Ruth with him to England, and safety, as his betrothed.  The consequences of her decision are surprising – and undeniably romantic.

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//published 1993//

Now, basically my favorite trope is one in which people are married and then fall in love.  (My favorite, I think, is The Princess by Lori Wick.)  So that’s the reason that I put The Morning Gift on my list to begin with.  HOWEVER my only other experience with Ibbotson was quite negative: A Company of Swanswhich I basically hated because the characters were completely unlikable, the situation mind-blowingly unrealistic, and the couple NEVER had a conversation in which they walked away with the same understanding as to what had just happened – how am I supposed to root for a romance with two people who are literally incapable of communicating?!

Point being – I was leery of The Morning Gift but… romance after marriage…!!!

And what I got was a 3/5 read.  There were a lot of things about this book that I liked, but a lot of negatives as well.

The main positive were the setting and background characters.  These were brilliantly done.  I enjoyed every character who crossed these pages.  They all felt quite real and interesting.  I am always intrigued to hear about various subsets of people and how they were impacted by WWII.  My understanding is that Ibbotson herself left Vienna in the 1930’s, and that a lot of this background information was semi-autobiographical, and I think that that was part of what made this so realistic.

Ruth is a likable heroine.  She is intelligent and kindhearted, studious and fun.  It was easy to see why everyone loved her and wanted the best for her, but at the same time she wasn’t a perfect angel, either.

Ironically, the main problem with this story was… the story.  :-/  Parts of it made sense, but there were long sections in which I found myself wondering what in the world was going on.  About a third of the actual story should have hit the cutting room floor, and the whole thing would have flowed much better.

The beginning is good.  We meet Ruth and her family, happy in Vienna, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Ruth is a smidge spoiled, but has one of those characters that doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by the spoiling, and is well-loved by everyone.  A distant cousin comes to stay with them, and he is a musical genius.  Ruth, who is very attracted to music, is drawn to Heini (seriously, Heini?!) when they are children, and continues to virtually worship him as they grow older.

This leads to our first hiccup.  Heini is always presented as someone who is completely self-absorbed.  He knows he is a musical prodigy, and takes advantage of everyone in pursuit of his passion.  He takes Ruth for granted and expects her to wait on him hand and foot.  Consequently, I never liked Heini, and never understood why Ruth liked him, either.  He’s never given a single characteristic that makes him likable.  And I realize that this is so that later, when Ruth stays with Quin instead, we won’t feel bad for Heini but… then it ends up feeling like there is no point to Heini’s character at all. He was definitely the last-believable and least-interesting character in the cast, put there solely to create an impractical love triangle.

So anyway, Ruth and Heini are engaged, yadda yadda, Germany is getting really interested in taking over Austria, and many of Ruth’s friends and family start to leave for England because even though they are not orthodox, they are Jewish.  Ruth is going somewhere else in the country to college when her family leaves Austria, believing that Ruth will have no problems leaving on her student visa, but there is an issue and Ruth isn’t allowed to leave.  She returns to Vienna, but everyone is gone – and Hitler invades.

Through a series of coincidences, Quin is in Vienna.  He had met Ruth’s family several years earlier, when Ruth was still a girl.  Running into her again, he feels an obligation to see her to safety.  They try a couple of options, but nothing is successful and time is running out, and so, by page 66, they are married and on their way to England.

Before the wedding, we get this conversation, wherein Quin explains to Ruth that this will be a marriage in name only:

It had been a mistake to introduce the word morganatic into a conversation that was already going badly. …

‘Who is he, this Morgan?’ [Ruth] asked.

‘He isn’t anyone,’ said Quin, sighing.  … ‘The word morganatic comes from the Latin matrimonium ad morganaticum  – a marriage based on the morning gift.  It’s a gift given the morning after the bridal night with which the husband, by bestowing it, frees himself of any liability to the wife.’

Ruth never really seems to grasp the concept of the morning gift, probably because Quin explains it terribly: I didn’t grasp the concept, either.  I was even more confused when I looked it up.  Quin’s explanation goes on to say that the morning gift means that they are basically not married any more, but according to the Wikipedia article (which is obviously correct), the morning gift was actually used in situations where one spouse (usually the husband) marries someone quite beneath him socially.  The morning gift is given because the wife and any children they have will not inherit money, land, or titles from the husband.  But the wife who receives the gift is still quite married – the husband couldn’t go off and marry someone else.  It’s just a little bonus money because that’s all the money she’s going to get.  Consequently, I never understood why Quin was dragging the morning gift into his situation at all, because it didn’t match what was happening with them.  And after this conversation on page 47, we don’t hear about the morning gift again until page 310.  What even.

In between, the story drags on and on and on, full of misunderstandings and misapprehensions.  Quin and Ruth keep their marriage a secret, and are working on getting a divorce, which is quite difficult to do at this time in England, especially since they have to wait until all of her visa stuff is settled first.  Meantime, they spend basically no time together, yet I’m supposed to believe that they are falling in love.  There’s another girl, of course, who is super weird to me.  Like Heini, she is presented as completely unlikable and honestly rather dreadful, so why would Ruth ever perceive her as a threat?  Quin is completely oblivious to the pursuit from the other girl, and consequently sends all sorts of mixed signals.

I honestly got very frustrated with Quin.  When my niece was learning to talk, she would frequently not talk, instead whining or crying because she wasn’t getting what she wanted.  Our response to that was always, “You need to use your words!”  And that’s exactly what I kept wanting to say to Quin.  USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.  QUIT EXPECTING EVERYONE TO FREAKING READ YOUR MIND.  It was super, super annoying.

I won’t even go into the ending.  Just when it appeared everything should be resolved, that ol’ morning gift reared its ugly head again and I had to drag through another fifty pages of completely impractical and unrealistic filler before finally getting to the actual end.  We’ll just say that if I had been Quin, I would have been genuinely ticked off.  (Although it’s sort of his own fault…USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.)

If it weren’t for the fantastic background and wonderful secondary characters, this book would have been a low 2/5, but those things really brought the tone of this book up.  I loved Ruth’s parents and all the neighbors and the wonderful women running the tea shop and the other professors and Ruth’s college friends.  The descriptions of everyone trying to adjust to and find a new life in England were really well done, and I loved how everyone jumped right in, trying to find a way to be useful and industrious in their new lives.

On the whole, I definitely plan to give the rest of Ibbotson’s works a miss.  Two books of unlikable and unrealistic situations, wherein all the romantic tension is created solely because the two people involved don’t know how to USE THEIR WORDS is plenty for me!

#17 for #20BooksofSummer!

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Black Rainbow // by Barbara Michaels

Okay, so quite a while back I read (and loved) the Amelia Peabody series, written by Michaels, whose actual name is Barbara Mertz, who wrote the Peabody series as Elizabeth Peters.  (Why, people.  Why so many names.  Please stop.)  Anyway, I went on to read Peters/Mertz’s Vicky Bliss series, which was also enjoyable but lacked the magic that made me love the Peabody books so much.  (Or maybe they just lacked Amelia Peabody.  I really love Amelia Peabody.)

Mertz also wrote several stand-alone novels, most of which were written as Barbara Michaels (many of which have Elizabeth Peters emblazoned on them, as though giving me someone’s other fake name is going to somehow help me keep them straight).

Prior to Black Rainbow, the only Michaels book I had read was Houses of Stone.  I’m sure that you all remember my engaging review of that book.  My main complaint about it was that it was mostly a treatise on how horrible women have had it throughout all the years.  According to the main character in Houses of Stone, there has never been a single woman born who had it better than a man.  Or something like that.  Frankly, I got super bored with her rantings and explanations about how all Gothic novels were written were just a cry for help from women, who wrote about being imprisoned because they were imprisoned (by men, of course) – emotionally, physically, mentally, etc.

And, let’s be honest, I wasn’t completely surprised, because both the Peabody and Bliss series had a strong feminist line to them.  However, I felt like the main characters of those two series were reasonable.  They realized that they still had the brains and wherewithal to do something with the their lives, especially if they spent less time whining about their (hypothetical) disadvantages, and more time actually doing.  Still.  Houses of Stone was a downer, but I went in hoping for better from Black Rainbow.  Because I still liked the story in Houses (when Michaels deigned to pause the lecture and grace us with a bit of plot).  Plus, I know Michaels can write a solid, engaging tale when she wants to – there are nineteen Peabody books, and while I’m not going to say that they are all 5-star reads, they were, on the whole, pretty darn good.

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//published 1982//

Enough rambling.  On to Black Rainbow.  This novel is set in the 1800’s and is about a young woman who has been hired as a governess.  She is broke and all alone in the world.  We first meet Megan as she walks from the station to her new home, Grayhaven Manor.  Ominously, as the storm clouds part, a black rainbow appears over the estate.  Megan is seized with a superstitious fear, which she of course represses and continues on her way.

Megan, we find out, has been employed as a governess for the ward of a random fellow she met in London.  Megan has quite the crush on her employer, the young and handsome Edmund Mandeville, even though she knows basically nothing about him except he is young, handsome, and owns an estate called Grayhaven Manor. (Oh, and he has a ward.)  Megan’s obsession with Edmund, who doesn’t even appear for a few chapters, felt extremely weird, since Megan herself barely knows the guy.  Whatevs, as the kids say.

Heroine #2 is Jane, Edmund’s sister.  Jane has been running the estate in Edmund’s absence, as it turns out that he’s been away at war for a bit and while he was gone their dad kipped over, and Jane had to step up to the plate, running the estate and, more importantly, the mills that finance it.  Of course, this all works out because Jane is intelligent, kind, resourceful, decisive, far-seeing, a good listener, and any other quality you can think of that you wish your local mill owner had.

Edmund finally gets around to showing up, and he decides that because he is a MAN he should obviously be in charge, so poor Jane is stuck wandering aimlessly around the house wishing she had a job.  Edmund, who is a complete and total douche, struts around like a banty rooster, making all sorts of stupid decisions that adversely impact the lives of his employees and tenants.  He also decides to remodel the entire house, and he wants to sell the mill because real gentlemen aren’t involved in trade.  Edmund wants to come off as a real gentleman, because he is interested in winning the  hand of a real lady from a neighboring county.

Lady Georgina is obviously only interested in Edmund for his money.  She’s beautiful and an excellent horsewoman and is out of money.  She’s a total snob and all the servants hate her.  Basically, she’s Caroline Bingley.

The story went on and on and ON, and I use the word “story” loosely because there wasn’t much of one.  It was impossible for me to like Megan because anyone who is in love with Edmund is just plain stupid.  He has no redeeming qualities.  He’s a whiny, spoiled little twat who throws temper tantrums whenever things don’t go his way, and then acts all charming and flattery to win back people’s good opinions.  I couldn’t stand Edmund, and I couldn’t stand Megan for liking him.  Just.  Ugh.  No.  Please.  Edmund and Lady Georgina deserved each other.

Jane was much more likable, but she was really only there so Michaels could spend pages emphasizing how helpless Jane’s position was.  Poor Jane just has to do whatever Edmund says, because he’s a man and she’s a woman.  And, by the way, women are always the smart, kind ones, and men are always selfish jerks, so the reason that there are any problems in the world is because men make (bad, obviously) decisions and women just have to sit about wringing their hands.

Every now and then, something would happen to make the story pick up the pace a bit, and I would think Oh, good, a story!  except then it would just sort of fade away again.  The other problem to me was that the “mystery” aspect of the story wasn’t very mysterious, as it was quite obvious what was going on/what was going to go on, which added to the overall boredom of the read.

In the end, 2/5.  This was more or less readable, but I just didn’t like anybody.  The ending was solid(ish), but it just seemed completely and totally unreasonable to me that Megan would go through so much to win the affection of a total tool, and I got really tired of hearing how trapped and helpless Jane was, all due to her womanhood.  (Aside: Lady Georgina didn’t seem to have trouble with helplessness.  She went out and got shizznizz done.  She didn’t spend a whole lot of time hand wringing.)  The story was very predictable and not terribly exciting.  I’m still planning to check out more of Michaels’s work (actually, another of her books is on the TBR shelf as we speak), because I know she can write good ones!

Oh!  And that “black rainbow” thing?  Despite the fact that Michaels describes it as “palest silver-gray to a black deeper than the moonlit vault of the sky,” all I can seem to find is “moonbows,” which reflect from the light of the moon rather than the sun.  Still, they do use regular rainbow colors, just more muted than their daytime cousin.  I couldn’t find anything under black rainbow, but I am open to pictures/articles if anyone else has some??

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Here’s a picture from this article about moonbows.  In fairness, the author says that to the human eye, they usually appear white or silver, but a time lapse brings out the colors.  Of course, everyone takes the pictures with the time lapse, so I can’t seem to locate a picture of what it would look like to a normal, mid-1800’s governess strolling the the dripping darkness towards her new home…