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An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd
This is the second book in the Bess Crawford series. Bess is a nurse who solves mysteries in her spare time during World War I. I know, right? Well, in the first book she solved a mystery while she was on medical leave after she broke her arm. This time she’s back in England to transport some wounded soldiers and at the train station she happens to notice a woman she recognizes from a picture pinned to one of her patient’s tunics: it’s his wife! But the man she’s with is not the patient (i.e. not her husband)! Later, Bess learns that the woman has been murdered and the police are seeking information from anyone who saw her that day. That’s how Bess gets involved. Why Bess stays involved is probably the real mystery here. I mean, it’s a decent enough mystery with the lady getting murdered and all, but after a while, the idea of Bess single-handedly solving the case long-distance while she nurses soldiers in France started to seem a little silly. I’ll probably read more in this series because it’s kind of fun, but I hope the war ends soon so Bess isn’t stretched so thin. 3/5 stars
Sun Storm by Asa Larsson
I read two Swedish books last year that weren’t utterly depressing, which made me think I could pick up this crime novel and possibly enjoy it. For the record, I don’t think I am capable of enjoying Swedish crime novels. This one’s about a lawyer who returns to the remote village she left in disgrace years before due to a mysterious scandal the reader knows not. She doesn’t want to be there, but she’s helping out a friend whose brother was brutally murdered (and mutilated–ew) in the church he helped to build. There’s lots of intrigue with the church leaders and political types and plus there’s the Deep Dark Secret of the aforementioned lawyer. It’s intriguing, up to a point, but the point of view shifts sort of randomly. I can handle multiple points of view. I’m not confused by multiple points of view, but I am annoyed when the POV shift seems, well, random. Apparently this book won an award for Best First Crime Novel, and maybe it was the BFCN in Sweden that year, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. 3/5 stars
The Silent Cry by Anne Perry
This is book 8 in the William Monk series. I did not realize when I picked it up that it was book 8 in a series, but I enjoyed it so much that I had to go back and start the series from the beginning. As should be clear from the previous sentence, the book works fine as a stand-alone, but I think one would appreciate it even more in context. (After reading the first seven books, all of which I shall eventually review for you, I went back and re-read this one, and yes, I did appreciate it even more.) Monk is a Victorian-era detective (former policeman, now a “private inquiry agent”) who is asked to investigate a series of rapes of prostitutes in a poor London neighborhood. Meanwhile, a police officer is investigating the murder of a wealthy gentleman and the attempted murder of said gentleman’s son in the same area. Are the two cases actually related? What do you think?? Though there are no graphic scenes of violence, the narrative addresses some pretty brutal acts. I enjoyed the procedural aspects of nineteenth century detecting, as well as the social commentary. The recurring characters are great, and I shall discuss them in more detail below. (Just be patient.) 5/5 stars
The Trespasser by Tana French
This is Book #6 in the Dublin Murder Squad series, which I had been binge-reading and so you may remember it from psycho-killer editions of Mad’s Book Club. Or you may not. This one features Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, who both appeared in The Secret Place–my least favorite of the series–but this time Conway is the narrator. She’s the only woman in the Murder squad, and to say she’s not well-liked is an understatement. In fact, she’s pretty sure all of her co-workers are out to get her, except for her partner, Moran, and even him she’s not necessarily sure about because, hey, she’s got trust issues. A pretty blonde has been murdered, and the squad is pressuring her to arrest the girl’s boyfriend, but Conway thinks there’s something fishy going on. Plus, someone seems to be stalking her. Is it just her imagination? Is she just paranoid? Or is everyone actually out to get her?? I really enjoy French’s books, for the development of the characters even more than the mysteries themselves. Even characters who aren’t particularly likeable become sympathetic in the end. 4.5/5 stars
A Suitable Vengeance by Elizabeth George
This is #4 in the Inspector Lynley series, but it takes place before the events of Book #1. A flashback! In this story, Detective Inspector Lynley, aka the Earl of Asherton, has brought his fiancee to his family home to meet his mother, from whom he has been (mostly) estranged for the past fifteen years. While he is there, a journalist is murdered and circumstances force Lynley and his BFF, forensic scientist Simon St. James (this is all so British), to get involved. Things get really hairy when evidence starts to point to members of Lynley’s own family. Scandal! This is pretty great back story for the recurring characters, but it stands alone as well. 4/5 stars
The Keepsake, Tess Gerritsen
This is Rizzoli & Isles #7. A local museum finds a mummy in its basement. In the process of authenticating it, they discover it’s not an ancient mummy but a rather recent murder victim! Suffice it to say, she’s not the only one. Someone with extensive mummification skillz is murdering ladies, and it’s Rizzoli & Isles’s job to find out who. This story is okay, up until the end, which was kind of a mess, with one plot twist too many. I mean, it might not have been too much, but I was kind of already over the story and ready for it to end, so I didn’t appreciate the further intrigue. Also, nitpicking (not a spoiler): At one point Rizzoli thinks about calling for backup and decides against it because she doesn’t want the local cops to think she’s a wuss or whatever. HELLO, this is book #7 in the Psychos Trying To Kill Jane Rizzoli Series and YOU STILL THINK YOU DON’T NEED BACKUP?? I think that’s when I lost patience. 2/5 stars
The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry
Remember when I said how much I enjoyed William Monk #8? Well, this is William Monk #1, and it’s fantastic. It starts with Monk waking up in a hospital; he has been in a carriage accident, but he remembers absolutely nothing about himself or his life prior to waking up in the hospital. From his interactions with hospital staff and a visit from his boss, he deduces that he’s a police detective, and he decides that it’s in his best interest to a) go back to work, since he needs to make a living doing something, and b) not tell anyone that he has amnesia because who wants a detective with amnesia? From my description, you may be thinking that this premise is either silly or awesome. Well, it’s awesome, actually. Monk still has his mind, but not his memories, so while he can still detect, he is working by reason and not experience, except what is instinctual (which he doesn’t understand). He has to learn things about himself without letting anyone else know what he doesn’t know. His first case back on the job is the murder of a Crimean war hero who’s been beaten to death. Over the course of his investigation, he meets a former Crimean war nurse, Hester Latterly, a very sassy and independent lady; they don’t like each other at all, but Hester proves to be a useful contact, and therefore they must continue to spar and also solve a murder. THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. 5/5 stars
A Dangerous Mourning by Anne Perry
Monk #2: An aristocrat’s daughter is stabbed in her own bed. It’s up to Monk to bring the murderer to justice, but it looks like the person responsible must be a member of her own household–and not a servant, but her own family! Awkward. Also, how much fun is it to investigate the rich and powerful for murder, let alone arrest them? I’ll give you a hint: it tends to be a career-limiting move, and Monk’s supervisor is eager to see him fail, for any reason. Nurse Latterly manages to make herself useful again, much to Monk’s chagrin, as does barrister Oliver Rathbone, whom I neglected to mention in my last review, but he is another recurring character who serves as Monk’s foil and friend. 4/5 stars
Defend and Betray by Anne Perry
Monk #3: General Carlyon is murdered at a dinner party, and his wife has confessed to the murder. She says it’s because she was jealous of his flirtation with another woman, but Hester Latterly’s not buying it. Whom is the wife protecting? She asks Oliver Rathbone to represent the wife, and Rathbone hires Monk to learn the truth of the matter. Monk and Hester work together (again), but Monk is distracted by snatches of memory about his former life (you know, before he got amnesia). The accused reminds him of a woman in his past, and while he is trying to solve this case, he is also trying to work out who this other mystery woman was to him. 4/5 stars
That’s it for psycho killers, kids. Tune in next time for Romance!
Yes, gentle readers, it’s been entirely too long since I inundated you with a list of all the books I’ve been reading. I don’t know why I always put it off until it becomes such an onerous task I can hardly imagine performing it, but here we are again.
In my last book club post, I left off somewhere in the middle of October. In this post I shall begin to regale you with my reading pleasures (and displeasures) from the rest of October through December. We shall start with the non-fiction and highbrow (or at least non-genre) fiction.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This was the book everyone was talking about to explain the rise of Trump. Yes, I know, it’s a painful subject. This memoir tells a story of growing up among the poor working class in Ohio. His grandparents had moved to escape poverty in their native Kentucky, built a reasonably good life for themselves in Ohio, where a local factory supported the economy, only to have it all go to hell in a generation or two. Vance’s mother was intermittently employed and struggled with addictions and the men in her life. Vance describes the long-term effects of his unstable childhood and how he was able to overcome the destructive habits of his culture and eventually graduate from Yale Law School. It’s a compelling story. It’s also very sad, because the truth is that Vance got lucky. He worked hard to succeed, of course, but along the way he had nurturing grandparents and mentors in the army and in college who taught him how to navigate the world he was trying to enter. (I guess you’d call it “middle-class success world.”) His book is more descriptive than prescriptive, but it’s a frank discussion of the obstacles created by a dysfunctional culture. 4/5 stars
The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men by Carol Lynn Pearson
I wrote about this book extensively in a post at By Common Consent. The Reader’s Digest Condensed version is that Pearson has written a meditation on the cultural and theological implications of polygamy among contemporary Mormons. The institutional LDS church abandoned the practice of polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, but has never repudiated it; as a result it remains a theoretically viable principle that many Mormons have to come to terms with. (A lot of Mormons never think about it, of course; that remains the most attractive option.) Pearson is more poet than scholar. This makes her writing more accessible than that of a more academic bent, but it ranges from profound to painfully cheesy. The bottom line, though, is that this is the only book of its kind (that I know of), and that reason alone makes it important (and worth reading, if you are a Mormon; if you aren’t a Mormon, I imagine you wouldn’t give a crap one way or the other). 3.5/5 stars
Fiction (highbrow and perhaps middlingbrow)
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I kept reading about what a great book this was, what a classic, etc., so when it went on sale for Kindle, I bought it and read it, but to be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I suppose when it was written, it was probably fresh and provocative, talking about all the problems faced by teachers and students in urban schools: poverty, violence, a paucity of resources, bureaucratic bullcrap, etc. Kaufman based the novel on her own experience as a public school teacher. There are some funny parts, and there are some sad parts. It’s not a bad little book, but neither did it set my world on fire. 3/5 stars
Married Sex: A Love Story by Jesse Kornbluth
This is another book I read on a whim. I don’t remember why. Maybe I was feeling saucy. I really can’t think of another reason I would read something called “Married Sex.” (Not even if it was called “The Viscount and the Debutante Have Married Sex.”) David and Blair have been married 20 years; their one child has gone off to college, and they are discovering the joys of being empty-nesters. Here’s where it gets kinky: they have a long-standing agreement that if either of them is tempted to cheat, they will invite this potential lover to engage in a threesome. I’m sure you see where this is going, and no, it does not end well. As I write this, I honestly can’t remember why I thought reading this book was a good idea. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d enjoy at all. But this book is neither romance nor erotica. It has moments of profound insight about marriage. But overall, I didn’t like these people, and threesomes are definitely not my kink. (Note: I don’t actually have a kink.) Content warning: Just about exactly what you’d expect. 2.5/5 stars
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I had read two other Sittenfeld novels before this one, and to be honest, they had made me a bit wary. I enjoyed her writing very much, but Prep left me feeling depressed and hateful, and An American Wife frustrated me for reasons that are perhaps too complicated to get into here. Eligible is actually pretty clever, as modern retellings of Austen novels go. I don’t necessarily recommend it for die-hard Austen fans. Die-hard Austen fans should probably stick with Austen. But if you’re familiar with P&P and enjoy contemporary romances with a little (subtle) social commentary, go for it. 3.5/5 stars
The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond
I picked up this YA book at my 11-year-old’s book fair because I don’t know how I’m supposed to resist a book about a 16-year-old American girl working as a spy and Nazi assassin during World War II. EXACTLY. At first Girlfriend was uninterested, but then she had me read it aloud to her, and let me tell you, it is exactly as exciting as it sounds. It’s pretty violent for an 11-year-old. I censored it a little bit for that reason, but it should be fine for most teenagers, I think. (Unless your young teenager is sensitive to violence, as my 11-year-old is.) We both enjoyed it. There is plenty of action, of course, and there are plot twists, and then there are PLOT TWISTS. I predict it will make a great movie someday. 4/5 stars
Carol (alternate title: The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith
Another book I picked up on a whim because I didn’t feel like reading anything I already had on my Kindle, and this was available from the library. A young woman in the process of getting engaged meets a glamorous older woman who is in the process of getting a divorce. They become fast friends and decide to go on a cross-country road trip together. At some point they fall in love. Complications ensue. I’d never read any Highsmith before, and I have to tell you, this would not be the book I’d choose to sell somebody on her. It is perhaps the dullest story of the dullest lesbians in history. Carol (the older woman) remained more or less an enigma; the younger woman (whose name I can’t even remember) was a twit. I really can’t abide twits, lesbian or otherwise. It’s basically 300 pages of pure angst, interspersed with descriptions of hotels. Content warning: IT IS SUPER BORING. 2/5 stars
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
This book was on a couple “best books of 2015” (or something) lists, so when it went on sale for Kindle, I snatched it up. It’s about a 15-year-old girl who’s in state custody and potentially facing a murder charge for assaulting a police officer (or something). The book opens with her being taken into custody and she’s covered in this officer’s blood, only she says she didn’t do it. She meets a bunch of other kids who are also in state custody, and in retrospect, it’s unclear to me whether this was a facility for criminal youths or just youths without guardians (some of whom happen to be criminal maybe?)–it’s unclear because a) I don’t remember and b) it was all kind of confusing. It’s a sad story about dysfunctional young people, and it occasionally has some profound commentary about loneliness and, I dunno, dysfunction. There’s some sinister government action at work as well. I can’t say much of it stayed with me beyond the depressing stuff. I don’t know why anyone would call it a best book of any year, unless they really like depressing stories about surly teenagers. (Whatever happened with the potential murder charge? I have no idea. Possibly nothing.) I must have respected the craft involved because I gave it three stars on Goodreads, but…meh. Content warning: sexual violence. 3/5 stars (or is it really 2.5? How should I know?)
Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor
It took me a long time to finish reading this book because Frank O’Connor has written approximately 4,000 short stories. That’s what it seemed like to me, anyway. Fortunately, they are all good stories. I really don’t think there was a dud in the whole collection. Some were funny, others were sad. Some were funny and sad. The only one I’d seen before was “My Oedipus Complex,” which is a good story, but there are so many great ones here that I wondered how I hadn’t come across more of them. It’s almost like there are millions of books in the English language or something. As I recall, every story is set in Ireland. Themes of religion and family and politics recur. I recommend taking it in small doses–a story or two here, a story or two there–but read them all eventually. 5/5 stars
And that’s it for this part of this edition. Coming up next: Psycho killers!
I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for this installment. (Just a couple days ago I was reading a romance novel where the heroine’s breath was said to be bated, in quite a different context. Or maybe not so different. I don’t know your life!) I realized that I neglected to do content warnings for the previous May-October installments, but so many of the books were read so long ago, I couldn’t remember warn-worthy content if I tried. For this installment, I’ll just tell you that each of these books has sexual content of some kind, except for the Georgette Heyer, but I couldn’t tell you how graphic the sexual content gets because a) I don’t remember and b) half the time I skim that stuff anyway, so maybe I never knew. At any rate, on with the book club!
Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
A young widow and her even-younger sisters-in-law are at the mercy of the new earl, who wants these ladies married off ASAP so he can start selling his newly-acquired properties in order to pay off the bankrupted estate. He didn’t ask his cousin to die in a freak accident and leave him with all the debts. He certainly didn’t sign up to take care of three penniless females. (Four, technically, as there’s an aunt in there somewhere, but that’s beside the point.) It’s not his fault they’re penniless (and female)! It’s not like he’s got any money either (at least not enough to support four dependents)! SPOILER ALERT: He turns out not to be so cold-hearted after all.
Kleypas is one of my favorite romance writers, and I did like this book, but I had a couple of quibbles. First, despite how engaging the writing is (as Kleypas’s writing almost always is), I found the hero’s change of heart (which happens early on) rather precipitous. Of course, it is a romance novel, and the heroine, while something of a PITA, is very attractive and Has Spirit, and one can never underestimate the effects of such a combination on a red-blooded 19th century Englishman. (I suppose technically he is a blue-blooded 19th century Englishman, but in any case, I decided to just go with it.) Second, am I really supposed to believe that the hero, blood color aside, would really take the heroine in a passionate embrace after just coming from a train wreck where he broke a few ribs and is also suffering from hypothermia? I suppose I am, and I suppose I do–but it was not a seamless process of disbelief-suspension. At any rate, this book, while genuinely diverting, seemed mostly like an elaborate set-up for the continuing series–but at that it excels thoroughly. In fact, it took all of my willpower, upon finishing our story at 11 pm, not to immediately purchase and begin reading Marrying Winterbourne. I hesitated only to savor the experience of being so expertly manipulated. Well played, Lisa Kleypas. Well played. 3.5/5 stars
Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare
Clio has been engaged to the Marquess of Granville for the last eight years, but the marquess has been too busy with his diplomatic work on the continent to come back and marry her. Frustrated (and frankly somewhat humiliated), Clio finally decides to break the engagement, but marriage contracts already being drawn up, it is not so simple to (free free) set them free. She appeals to the marquess’s brother, Rafe, who is serving as the marquess’s agent of affairs. Incidentally, Rafe happens to be a retired champion prize fighter who wants to come out of retirement, but first he has to make sure Clio marries his brother. Why? Because reasons.
Tessa Dare is another of my favorite romance writers, and this book did not fail to entertain. (Dare rarely fails at entertaining.) But I had quibbles here, too. I liked the characters in this book a lot, particularly the heroine. There was much to like in the hero as well–a gently-born pugilist? say no more!–but the dynamic between him and his brother was too much of a mystery for too much of the story. It made it difficult to understand the hero’s motivations. Plus, I felt a little bit cheated on the pugilism front. When there’s a gentleman pugilist at the center of your novel, it seems like having a Big Fight at some point would not be too much to ask. But whatever. It was still a good time, despite being light on the fisticuffs. 4/5 stars
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan
Let me try to explain this conspiracy as succinctly as possible: the countess is a secret geneticist, and she’s been using her BFF Sebastian as her scientific beard, i.e. she does the science and he pretends to be the scientist, since that’s the only way she can get people to take her theories seriously (and not end up a social outcast). The problem is that Sebastian is in love with Violet, and Violet is determined that she Must Not Love. (I don’t remember why not.) Milan is good at putting new twists on old tropes, and this was a pretty good story, but I got a little impatient with the heroine, whose absent-minded professor routine got old fairly quickly. Also, there was a lot going on, what with all the Deep Dark Secret of the present and the Deep Dark Secret of the past and the Family Scandal, plus the OTHER Family Scandal, plus the old familial resentments, plus a major scientific discovery that I’m pretty sure is not historically accurate, but that may be quibbling, all things considered. This book is part of the Brothers Sinister series, and while I have read the other books, it wasn’t recent enough for me to appreciate all the interwoven storylines. 3/5 stars.
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer
I probably don’t need to say this again, but I will: Georgette Heyer is pretty much the best. This is another story about a family who are forced to accept a complete stranger as the new heir to the estate. Major Hugo Darracott is the offspring of some black-sheep uncle or something, and everyone expects him to be a complete rube because he’s not of their class. Of course, he is a lot smarter (and better) than any of these snobs are, with the exception of the delightfully sensible Anthea, with whom he quickly falls in love. He spends the rest of the novel solving the family’s problems–the most pressing of which has to do with smugglers–and winning Anthea’s heart. This book became more and more hilarious as it went on. It’s only a little bit a romance and mostly a comedy, but it was delightful all the same. 5/5 stars
The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean
Lady Sophie has a humiliating experience in London, so she decides to escape by stowing away in the carriage of the Marquess of Eversley, who’s headed for the Scottish border. (She’s a bit impulsive.) When he discovers her, he (naturally) assumes she’s trying to trap him into marriage. But she wouldn’t marry that notorious rake if he were the last man on earth! Harumph! I found this book disappointing by MacLean standards. I give the writing four stars, the plot 2.5 stars (a fair amount of adventure, but everything revolves around people doing stupid things for indiscernible reasons), and the characters 2 stars. The heroine was…fine, but the hero was emotionally immature to the point of embarrassment. I was rather hoping the sexy-and-scientifically-ahead-of-his-time doctor they met in Act II was being set up for his own future story, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. (One can always hope). Also, I know how fond romance writers are of puns, but the title takes punny for pun’s sake to the HNL. It’s not as though the rogue isn’t, in very deed, taken. Taking the rogue is the whole point of this story. Other suggestions: “Rocky Rogue,” “On the Rogue Again,” “Hit the Rogue, Jack,” “Rogue Hog,” “Where the Rubber Meets the Rogue,” “The Rogue to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions.” 2.5/5 stars
Undressed by the Earl by Michelle Willingham
The Earl of Castledon is a very proper, reserved guy, still mourning the death of his late wife and trying to raise his ten-year-old daughter without a mother. Amelia Andrews is a vivacious young lady who thinks the earl is far too stuffy for her but would make a good husband for her prim older sister. But when Amelia is faced with ruin, the earl comes to her rescue by offering marriage. Don’t worry, that’s just the beginning! Despite what the title would suggest, this is actually a very sweet story, marred only by a surfeit of subplots–one of which is an obvious setup for the next book in the series (UbtE is “Secrets in Silk #3”) and therefore forgivable, but the others seemed gratuitous and therefore annoying. The main story, if you can tease it out of the many plot threads, is worth four stars. I enjoyed the characters, and Willingham writes good dialogue. There’s just entirely too much else going on. (None of which has to do with anyone getting undressed, by aristocracy or otherwise.) 3/5 stars
To Charm a Naughty Countess by Theresa Romain
Before anyone gets too excited, you should know that the countess isn’t all that naughty. She is the one giving charm lessons to a socially inept duke (he suffers from social anxiety, but he exhibits some autism spectrum behaviors as well) who needs to find a wealthy wife to save his estate from ruin. As luck would have it, the not-so-naughty countess is herself wealthy, and she is in love with the duke, but unfortunately she believes he is incapable of love and only wants her for her money. (That is unlucky, and the reason this book is a novel and not a short story.) I’ve read Romain in the past, and this was a step above what I’d read before, but the “I love her but she doesn’t love me”/”I love him but he doesn’t love me” got old at times. The characters are nicely drawn, though. 3/5 stars
Only a Kiss by Mary Balogh
I do love a good Mary Balogh story, and this is one. Book #6 in her Survivors series, it stands fine on its own, and it is probably my favorite. Imogen, Lady Barclay, was deeply traumatized when she witnessed her husband’s death in the war, and she lives mostly in seclusion in their Cornwall home. The new owner, who inherited the estate upon the death of Imogen’s father-in-law, finally shows up to check out his properties, and he is immediately attracted to the previous heir’s beautiful widow, but of course she is determined not to love again. She cannot love again because of her Deep Dark Secret, which she refuses to talk about. Can Percival (yes, his name is Percival) break down the walls Imogen has built around her heart? I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll just say that when Balogh gives a character a Deep Dark Secret, she doesn’t mess around, and she is very good at this angst and redemption crap. And at making dudes named Percival seem sexy. 4/5 stars
Undone by the Duke by Michelle Willingham
I enjoyed Undressed by the Earl enough that I decided to give the rest of the series a whirl, if only to make sense of all the plot threads that were woven therein. So UbtD is Secrets in Silk #1, and it’s about an agoraphobic heroine, Victoria Andrews, who secretly designs and sews scandalous lingerie in her Scotland home and sells them to a dress shop in London. (Her family needs the money because her dad inherited a bankrupted estate but has been too busy fighting in the wars on the continent to come home and pay the damn bills himself. Is this information really important? I dunno, but it’s the basis of the whole “Secrets in Silk” gimmick. Get it? Her name is VICTORIA, and she has a SECRET.)
Victoria’s mom decides to take Victoria’s younger sisters to London to find them some rich husbands, but Victoria stays home because that’s how agoraphobia works. Long story short, the Duke of Worthingstone shows up (in disguise) to check out a property he won in a card game, gets shot by someone who thinks he’s the wicked earl who just burned the crofters out of their homes, and he’s forced to convalesce in Victoria’s house, sans chaperone. You can probably tell where this is going. It’s not so simple, though. If they get married, she’ll be a duchess, but she’s agoraphobic. Duchesses can’t be agoraphobic! Naturally, there’s a crapton of subplots setting up the other books, but it’s not a bad beginning. 3/5 stars
Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly
James Trevenen was stranded alone on a deserted island for five years. Now he’s back in England and about to receive an award for the treatise he wrote on a new species of crab that he discovered on said island (well, he had to do something to occupy himself), but he is still haunted by his experiences from that time. Haunted figuratively AND literally–he has a ghost! But this isn’t a supernatural tale. It’s a tale of a broken man who finds love with a charming young widow who has a young son. The book deals with some serious issues, but there is also a fair amount of humor sprinkled throughout. Cannibalism aside, it’s a pretty delightful story. 4/5 stars
When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare
Madeline Gracechurch (what a delightful name, I wish I had a name like that) is a lovely young woman with a gift for drawing, but she also has hardcore social anxiety; being in a roomful of strangers gives her panic attacks. The prospect of a London season has her so terrified that she makes up an imaginary fiance (a soldier she supposedly met while staying with her aunt in Bath or something) so she won’t have to go on the marriage mart. I don’t remember how she convinces her family he’s real, but she writes letters to him and sends them as part of the ruse, and she does this for, I dunno, a few years, until finally the lying is too much of a burden and she has to pretend he’s died in battle and she’s too brokenhearted to ever love again. (Also, at 21 or whatever, much too old to marry.) Yes, it’s an incredibly far-fetched story, but wait ’til you hear the rest: Years later, she’s inherited a castle in Scotland, where she lives happily and supports herself as a freelance illustrator, BUT wouldn’t you know it, that imaginary soldier, Captain Logan Mackenzie, turns out to be a real dude. A real dude who got all her letters, and now he’s come to claim his bride AND her inheritance because he and his men were screwed over by the Brits after the war and by golly, this English miss who had the audacity to insert herself into his life only to KILL HIM OFF is going to make good on her government’s broken promises.
Yes, it’s a completely ridiculous premise for a story, but you just have to roll with it because it’s Tessa Dare and it’s hilarious. Plus, the hero wears a kilt and murmurs unpronounceable endearments. Irresistible. 4/5 stars
Marrying Winterbourne by Lisa Kleypas
I told you I wanted to read this book as soon as I finished Cold-Hearted Rake. Well, I held out a whole, I dunno, month. I was not disappointed. Lady Helen Ravenel is shy and sheltered. Rhys Winterbourne is a Welsh merchant who has become one of the richest men in England via his successful department store. She needed a wealthy husband; he was wealthy and wanted an aristocratic bride to raise his social status. So they’re engaged, but Helen has a Deep Dark Secret, and it involves Rhys’s sworn enemy, so CAN THEY EVER BE TOGETHER? I don’t think this book can be fully appreciated without having read Cold-Hearted Rake first because CHR provides so much backstory for this book’s couple and a fat helping of character development for Rhys in particular. But I would say both were totally worth it, if only for the sake of this book alone. I mean, if you like romantic stories with brash Welshmen who murmur unpronounceable endearments. (No kilts, but you can’t have everything.) 4/5 stars
Unraveled by the Rebel by Michelle Willingham
Secrets in Silk #2. The plotting is off in this one. We find out in the first couple chapters that Paul is the son of a poor crofter who is also the secret heir to a viscountcy. He has sworn revenge against the wicked earl responsible for Paul’s father’s death; he has also sworn he will marry Juliette, a baron’s daughter he has loved for years, even though she swears she will never marry any man. Juliette was raped by the aforementioned wicked earl and had a secret baby who is being raised by her aunt and uncle–all of this, oddly enough, she has been able to keep from her immediate family, who are apparently the most incurious people who ever lived. No matter–Juliette is so traumatized and shamed by her experience that she feels unworthy to be Paul’s wife, even though she loves him.
The next several chapters are just different versions of “I must have my revenge on that wicked earl and also marry Juliette” and “I love Paul but I cannot marry him, I cannot!” and nothing to move the plot forward. Stuff eventually happens, but by then the reader’s patience has worn thin. And by “reader,” I mean me. YMMV. Threads of other stories from the series show up here and there but come off as extraneous and annoying, even if you understand what they’re about. It’s not bad, but it’s like the writer tried to cram in too much backstory and not enough actual story. And I know from having read book 3 that there are HUGE gaps between this book and that one, which is kind of an odd choice for an author who is trying to weave an epic story through multiple books. 2/5 stars
Unlaced by the Outlaw by Michelle Willingham
Secrets in Silk #4: The Final Battle. Prim Margaret Andrews enlists the help of Cain Sinclair, the sinfully dangerous Highlander who has been the go-between for the Andrews sisters’ successful (and secret) lingerie line, in searching for her younger sister, who has been abducted by a wicked viscount (I think–I don’t recall exactly). They get lost in the moors, sans chaperone. What’s the problem here? Aside from Cain Sinclair being of a different, i.e. lower, class than Margaret and having a younger brother who gets in deep trouble involving the same wicked earl from the previous three books? Nothing, really. A rather disappointing conclusion to the Andrews sisters saga. The romantic storyline is more or less resolved 2/3 of the way in, and the business with Cain’s brother feels tacked on, like the book should have ended ages ago. 2/5 stars
Beauty and the Blacksmith by Tessa Dare
This is a novella in the Spindle Cove series, which I adore, but it marks the first time Tessa Dare has disappointed me. Our heroine, Diana Highwood (whom we know from previous SC books), is a gorgeous young lady who has been living in Spindle Cove (nicknamed “Spinster Cove” for reasons you can probably guess at) for the last few years because the sea air is good for her previously life-threatening asthma. (I don’t know if sea air is really good for asthma, but this is the story.) Her mother has been desperate for the last three or four books to marry her off to a wealthy man with a title, but Diana isn’t interested in a society marriage; she’s secretly in love with the local blacksmith, Aaron, who is conveniently secretly in love with her. I almost hate to say it because I love Tessa Dare so much and her writing is so good, but there just isn’t much of a story here. It’s basically, “So Diana ends up with the blacksmith. Oh, and here’s some sex.” For Spindle Cove completists only. 2/5 stars
Fortune Favors the Wicked by Theresa Romain
Remember how I said To Charm a Naughty Countess was the best Romain I’d read so far? That was before I read this book. The Royal Mint is offering a substantial reward for the return of a large cache of stolen gold. Our heroine, Charlotte, is a former courtesan who has left the fast life in London and returned to her family’s home in the country; she needs the reward money to build a new life for herself. Our hero, Benedict, is a former naval officer whose career was ended by an accident that blinded him; he needs the reward money to provide an inheritance for his orphaned sister. So they’re rivals at first, but then they decide to work together, and I bet you can guess what happens next. The problem is that Benedict can’t marry or he’ll lose his measly pension, which he wouldn’t be able to support a wife on anyway. The other problem is that Charlotte’s former lover/”protector” is a raging psycho and he’s after her. Two very substantial problems! This book had great characters and great dialogue, though the ending was just a tad Scooby-Doo for my tastes. (At least it was happy.) 4/5 stars
And that, my friends, concludes the May-October edition of Mad’s Book Club. Tune in sometime in (hopefully) November to read the Here’s-the-Rest-of-October-I-Hadn’t-Gotten-To-Yet edition. Gentle readers, adieu.
These are all the psycho killer books I read in the last four and a half months.
A Test of Wills by Charles Todd
Inspector Ian Rutledge has returned from the war (World War I, that is) with his body intact, but his mind not so much. For one thing, he has a ghost accompanying him everywhere he goes. It gets to a guy. He’s afraid he’s losing his touch as a detective. A beautiful woman’s fiancé has been murdered, possibly by her guardian, a decorated military officer and respected local gentleman-farmer. It’s a political nightmare, and Rutledge suspects he’s being set up to fail, which makes it all the more imperative that he solve the case. The mystery was pretty well plotted, if a bit complicated, but more importantly, I really enjoyed Rutledge as a character and wanted to read more about him—which is convenient, since Todd has written about 27 more books about him. (Okay, maybe not 27, but somewhere in the double digits—high teens, at least.) 4/5 stars
Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Kills by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Confession: I have not read any original Sherlock Holmes stories. I know, I’m a disgrace to mystery lovers everywhere, I’m not fit to wear the uniform, etc. I keep meaning to, but somehow I never do. I am a big fan of BBC’s Sherlock, if that counts for anything. (No, I realize it does not. In fact, it may even make it worse.) Perhaps I would have appreciated this book more if I’d had a strong background in Sherlock Holmes, but I couldn’t have appreciated it much more because I loved this book. I loved the interchanges between Holmes and Watson, and how the mystery gradually unfolded, and how Holmes was affected by his failure to catch the murderer. I quite enjoy these psycho killer books set in the times before modern forensic techniques. This is a particularly great read. 5/5 stars
The Dead Will Tell by Linda Castillo
This is a Kate Burkholder mystery. Kate Burkholder was born into the Amish community but left the fold as a young adult, became a police officer, and eventually returned to her hometown to serve as the chief of the (“English”) police. This gives her an “in” with the Amish because she understands their ways, but they don’t quite trust her. Plus, emotional baggage, blah blah. I read the first three books a few years ago, but didn’t keep up with the series until I found this book in my local digital library. It’s #6, and it stands on its own. It begins with an apparent suicide that is soon revealed to be a homicide. This incident is followed by another suspicious “suicide” that leads Kate to a 30-year-old unsolved crime involving the death of an Amish farmer and four of his children, plus the disappearance of his wife. It’s pretty good. Development of the relationship between Kate and her love interest, John Tomasetti, will probably not resonate with anyone who hasn’t read the previous books, but it probably won’t distract from the story either. (It just made me want to fill in the blanks, as you will see below.) 4/5 stars
Gone Missing by Linda Castillo
I had to go to the actual real-life library and borrow actual real-life books in order to find out what happened with Kate Burkholder and the Amish in books 4 and 5. This will give you some idea of my dedication to this series! Here Kate is trying to find an Amish teen who has gone missing during her Rumspringa, the time when young Amish are allowed to break the rules and experience the outside world before deciding whether or not they want to be baptized. Has the missing girl decided to leave the Amish life, or has a more sinister fate befallen her? During the course of the investigation, Kate discovers links to other missing-teens cold cases. There’s some pretty messed up stuff here—as there usually is, when the Amish are involved. (At least that’s how it is in psycho killer books.) And Kate has to deal with more baggage from her own dark past as an Amish teen; this subplot will probably not be appreciated if you have not read the previous books. It’s a pretty exciting read, though. 4/5 stars
Her Last Breath by Linda Castillo
Yes, this is Kate Burkholder #5, and I had mixed feelings about it. This story involves a friend from Kate’s past—her Amish past, that is. An Amish man and his three children are riding in their horse-and-carriage one night when they are hit by a speeding pickup truck; father and two children die on the scene, while one son survives (but only barely). The grieving wife and mother is Kate’s childhood friend. There is something super-weird about this case. This was no buggy accident! Someone wanted this family dead, but who? Kate thinks her friend knows more than she’s letting on, but what is she hiding, and why? There are a lot of flashbacks to Kate’s teen years and her (Amish-style) adventures with her friend. This added a layer of poignancy to the story. You can see the plot twists coming a mile away, but there is a lot of action. Maybe a little too much action, in the Jason-springing-up-out-of-the-lake sense. One does begin to wonder one Amish community could have so much dark side. But that’s the nature of the small-town-sheriff-psycho-killer genre. Willing suspension of disbelief and such. I seem to recall liking this book somewhat less than the others, but according to my Goodreads records, I still gave it 4 stars, so what do I know? 4/5 stars (possibly 3.5, but I’m not going to re-read the book to tell you for sure)
A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
I could not get my hands on Inspector Rutledge #2, so I settled for Todd’s Bess Crawford #1, which this is. The setting is England during World War I. Bess Crawford is a nurse aboard the Britannica when it is attacked and sunk by the enemy; she survives, but she has a broken arm and is sent home to convalesce. A dying patient has charged her with taking a cryptic message to his brother. She feels obligated to fulfill his request, so she does, but she can’t leave well enough alone because she can see there’s something fishy going on with this family. Something that involves…MURDER. The mystery is well-crafted, and Bess is a great character—smart and nosy, but not in an annoying way. (That is more difficult to pull off than it sounds.) She’s no Ian Rutledge—she doesn’t see ghosts, for one thing—but she’ll do. 4/5 stars
A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George
This is the first book of another series about English detectives solving murders, only this one is real vintage: it was written in the 1980s. Inspector Thomas Lynley isn’t your average police detective; in addition to being talented and incredibly handsome, he’s also an earl. A freaking earl! He doesn’t like to flaunt his aristocratic ties—he only wants to be treated the same as any other talented and handsome police detective—but Sergeant Barbara Havers doesn’t buy his modest act. She’s working class, with an entirely deserved reputation for being difficult. In fact, this is her last chance to make it as a detective because she’s blown all the other ones by being such a pill (even though she’s very smart). She suspects she’s only been paired with his lordship because she’s the only female in the squad unattractive enough for him not to sleep with. She does not think much of Inspector Lynley. Their case is pretty gruesome: a fat, simple country lass is found in a barn with an axe in her lap, sitting next to her dead dog and decapitated father. Circumstances clearly point to her as the murderer, but the forensic evidence doesn’t add up. Lynley and Havers learn to work together as they uncover the dark, seedy mysteries of country life. It was the ‘80s, kids, so the secrets are pretty messed up. The story is a tad…seamy, to tell you the truth, but I enjoyed the interplay between Lynley and Havers; each character is like an onion, or an ogre—they have layers! 4/5 stars
Die Again by Tess Gerritsen
This is #11 in the Rizzoli & Isles series. I read the first two or three R&I books several years ago. I liked them—good psycho killer stuff—but I didn’t feel compelled to read any more and only picked up this particular book because it was cheap on Kindle and I was loading up for my trip to Japan (specifically the plane ride). It opens with a deadly camping safari in Botswana, which never bodes well. I don’t usually like to read murder mysteries where the weapon is a large cat, but this one intrigued me. Most of the book takes place in Boston, six years later, where large cats do not usually go around being the inadvertent facilitators of homicide. Detective Jane Rizzoli is on the case with Dr. Maura Isles, M.E. I saw the twist coming, but I still liked the story. It put me in the mood to read more of the R&I back catalogue. These broads are hardcore! 3.5/5 stars
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
Tessa Cartwright is the lone survivor of a serial killer who murdered several teenage girls about 20 years ago. The man arrested for the crime is (finally) about to be executed, but she has become convinced that he is innocent and the real killer is still out there. Don’t ask how she knows—just some freaky unexplained stuff that makes her think he might have been stalking her all these years. So she goes digging into her past, hoping to discover the truth. There are flashbacks to the period following the failed attempt on her life, her visits with the shrink and the rap sessions with her best friend, who was her rock until she betrayed her. What the heck happened there? And who is the real killer? It takes the whole book to find out—which I guess is how it should be. I will say this much: this book was a page-turner. However, I found the ending to be a bit of a mess. A whole lot of crazy revealed at the last minute. I didn’t quite buy it, so it was a bit disappointing. I’d give this author another shot, though. 3/5 stars
In the Woods by Tana French
I don’t remember how I heard about the Dublin Murder Squad series, but it took me forever to get to the top of the waiting list for this book, which is the first. Detective Rob Ryan has a dark secret from his past: when he was 12, he and his best friends disappeared one summer afternoon. A few days later he was found in the woods, considerably scuffed up and his shoes full of blood, but otherwise unharmed. His friends were never found. No one knows about his past except his parents and his best friend and partner, Cassie Maddox, but it comes back to haunt him when he and Maddox are assigned to a case involving a young girl who was murdered and left in the same woods where Ryan was found as a child. There’s no evidence that the two cases are connected, and yet the coincidences are too hard to ignore.
Based on the reviews I read, this is another one of those books you either hate or love, and whether or not you hate it has largely to do with your expectations regarding the two mysteries. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, so I’ll just say this: the same thing that disappointed many readers also disappointed me, but it didn’t spoil the book for me. To me the book was as much about the characters as about the case(s)—perhaps more so—which is why I found it so compelling. It wasn’t just about solving a mystery, but about understanding the characters and their motivations. I saw the end coming, and it still broke my heart. And that’s how I got hooked. 5/5 stars
Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George
Inspector Lynley #2! Lynley and Havers are back, this time investigating the murder of a playwright on an isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands, where they have virtually no authority, but they’ve been assigned the case on the basis of Lynley’s aristocratic connections, since one of the suspects is another aristocrat. This is pretty un-comfy for Lynley, especially since the case also involves his dear friend Lady Helen, who has become romantically entangled with yet another suspect. Lynley is forced to confront his own prejudices; Havers is forced to work behind his back in order to discover the truth. It’s a page turner, and there are quite a few plot twists, but again it’s the characters that make it worthwhile. 4/5 stars
Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
Inspector Lynley #3! Lynley and Havers investigate a murder at a boarding school at the request of an old school chum of Lynley’s, who is now a house master at aforementioned boarding school where murder took place. I should rewrite that sentence, but I won’t. You get the picture. There are bullies, there are plot twists, there are repressed homosexuals. It’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. 3.5/5 stars
The Likeness by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #2, this time narrated by Detective Cassie Maddox, shortly after the events of In the Woods. The cops find a body that looks exactly like Maddox—like, they could be twins. It’s super weird, and it affords an excellent opportunity for some super-weird detective work. Maddox’s old boss from her undercover days convinces her to go undercover posing as the murder victim to see if she can figure out who killed her, since they’re pretty sure it’s one of the friends she lives with. I know, it’s crazy. How would that even work? It’s too long of a story. Just trust me, it’s slightly less crazy than it sounds (but only slightly). Again, this is partly about solving a mystery and partly about exploring a character’s motivations and vulnerabilities. This one didn’t gut me like In the Woods did, but it still kept me intrigued through the end. 4.5/5 stars
Faithful Place by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #3, this time narrated by Frank Mackey, who is technically Dublin Undercover Squad, but we met him in the previous book (Cassie Maddox’s old boss, the manipulative bastard). Faithful Place is the name of the crummy Dublin neighborhood where Frank grew up; as a teenager, he planned to escape his dead-end world by eloping with his girlfriend Rosie to London, but on the night they were to leave together, Rosie never showed up. He spent the next 22 years believing she’d stood him up and gone to London on her own. For his part, he’s spent the last 22 years trying to forget Faithful Place and his crummy family, but one day Rosie’s suitcase is found in an abandoned house on Faithful Place, prompting a new investigation into her disappearance. Officially, Frank is not supposed to be working this case (too close, you know), but being Frank, he can’t help himself. Cans of worms are opened. Confronting the truth of his past sheds a light on his present that he’d rather not see. One of the things I appreciate about this series is how the characters will make morally questionable decisions and aren’t always likeable, but I understand and feel for them nonetheless. Another sad story, but like The Likeness, it ends on a slightly hopeful note. 5/5 stars
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #4. Yes, I did inhale this series. Once I started, I couldn’t stop! This book features Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the a-hole murder detective from Faithful Place. Yeah, I didn’t mention him in my review, but he was there and now he’s here, investigating a huge multiple murder case. A man has been knifed to death; his two children were smothered in their sleep, and his wife is also an apparent victim of a knife-wielding maniac, only she’s managed to survive and is in intensive care. Kennedy is of the opinion that most murder victims are the architects of their own demise; dig under the surface and eventually you’ll find whatever shady business they were into that got them killed. He and his rookie partner think this will be another open-and-shut case—prolly drugs or something—but they can’t find a motive anywhere. Could these victims be completely innocent? Meanwhile, Kennedy is dealing with his mentally ill sister and the specter of a family tragedy in his past. The combined stress threatens to send him off the deep end. I found the resolution of the murder case a little far-fetched and therefore a little unsatisfying; however, the real story was Kennedy’s evolution from by-the-book cop to a more complicated, emotionally damaged and morally compromised human being. He sort of broke my heart. 4.5/5 stars
The Secret Place by Tana French
Don’t worry, #5 is the last one I’m going to review for now because I’m still on the waiting list for #6 (although I’m still thinking of buying it, even though it’s still full price, being relatively new—I’m cheap, but I feel guilty about it). Holly Mackey, Frank Mackey’s daughter (who was introduced as a 9-year-old in Faithful Place but is now a savvy 16-year-old) comes to the police with evidence that someone at her boarding school may know something about a murder that happened on their campus the previous year. The other DMS books are told from first person. This one alternates between third-person narration (told from the point of view of Holly and her friends) and first person narration by the detective Holly initially approaches (Stephen Moran, a relatively minor character who played a pivotal role in Faithful Place). I didn’t think this book was quite as successful as the other ones, as I didn’t feel quite as invested in the characters. I couldn’t quite relate to Holly and her friends enough to find their story compelling. I liked the detective characters, but there wasn’t as much character development there; it was more of a buddy/partner story. It was still absorbing, even if it was less emotionally satisfying. 4/5 stars
Body Double by Tess Gerritsen
Back to Rizzoli & Isles. This is #4, so ancient history. A woman is found murdered in Dr. Maura Isles’ driveway. Here’s the weird part: she looks just like Maura. No, Maura is not asked to go undercover as her doppleganger. It’s not that weird. Turns out, it’s her twin sister. Maura was adopted as an infant, so heretofore she’s been ignorant of her family of origin. Unfortunately, solving this case means learning some unpleasant facts about her genetic background and the human beings associated with it. What does it all mean? Well, that isn’t delved into too deeply. This story is more plot- than character-driven, but it’s a pretty good plot nonetheless, if you enjoy police procedurals. 3.5/5 stars
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I’ve been on the waiting list for this sucker for ages, so maybe my expectations were too high, but I was a tad disappointed. The main character is a pathetic drunk who was dumped by her ex-husband for another woman (partly because she became a pathetic drunk); every day she rides on the train and passes by her old house. She avoids looking at it and instead focuses her attention on her ex-husband’s new neighbors, an attractive young couple she has decided to live vicariously through via her fantasies she concocts about them. One day the wife is reported missing; her husband is the chief suspect, but our pathetic drunk heroine is convinced he must be innocent. She knows that she was in the neighborhood the night the wife disappeared, but she doesn’t remember much of what happened. She is desperate to recover her memories and solve the mystery, but she’s such a pathetic drunk that she keeps screwing up and making the police think she’s a kook, and her ex and his new wife think she’s stalking them, and she’s just a mess. I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic. I felt sorry for our pathetic drunk heroine, but I also found the story a bit tedious. It started out page-turny, but by the time the mystery got around to being solved, I’d sort of lost patience with it. 3/5 stars
Still to come: Romances!
I remember how excited I was when I posted the March-April edition back in May, and I thought, “Cool, now when May is over, I can just start posting these monthly.” Ha ha ha ha ha! I’m so funny.
As usual, we will start with the highbrow stuff. Let’s do non-fiction, since that’s my shortest list.
The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes
This was a book I’d been meaning to read for years but never got around to. I think it finally went on sale on Kindle or something, which is how I finally forced myself to read it. I read Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, which was pretty good as far as biographies go. I really don’t like biographies because they tend to start with the dawn of time and take at least four chapters before the subject has even been born, and then they tell you what the subject ate for breakfast during their formative years and yada yada yada. I think I will never read another biography as long as I live (except for Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, which I intend to read but may not because my husband bought the hard copy and I find it so hard to read actual physical books anymore…but I digress).
This book is not a biography, thank goodness, but a quite interesting history of the Great Depression and the expansion of federal power. It’s a favorite of political conservatives because it’s critical of FDR’s New Deal, but it’s not a simplistic criticism. For example, the government takeover of utilities allowed more people to have access to electricity faster than it would have otherwise. And nobody is a straight-up villain in this tale, but most of the political figures have ulterior motives. Quelle surprise! Anyway, well-done if you like that sort of thing. 4/5 stars
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
I might not have read this book except it was for a book club, and someone mentioned there was polyamory. Nothing with polyamory in it could be totally boring! Anyway, this book explores the feminist origins of Wonder Woman. Interestingly enough, Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, who was a feminist but also kind of a jerk in real life. Lepore mercifully spares us most of the years covering the time when Marston’s and his female friends’ ancestors were crawling out of the primordial ooze, but gives a pretty decent sketch of early twentieth century feminism and the issues it was concerned with. Marston lived with two women (well, mainly two women), with whom he had children, and…let’s just say it was a very interesting family arrangement. I guess everyone was cool with it because they were all consenting adults and whatnot, but they failed to record a lot of sleazy details, so posterity will never know for sure. Anyway, the book is as much about the women in his life–Sadie Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne–as it is about him. Margaret Sanger shows up a lot. I think, technically, the story might have made an excellent long article and makes a slightly less excellent full-length book, but that’s mainly because I’m a big picture kind of gal. Fortunately, it’s not a long read, and the less-interesting parts are easily skimmed. The interesting parts are interesting enough. 3.5/5 stars
Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
If you’re like me, you’ve never expected to want to know how to run a drug cartel. But I heard the author of this book interviewed on a podcast and suddenly became very interested in how drug cartels work. As it turns out, the rules of economics apply to the drug trade as much as they do to other industries. This is a very accessible book for the layperson, filled with anecdotes as much as statistics. It covers human resources, infrastructure, competition, supply, demand–everything you need to know if you’re thinking about becoming a drug lord! Be forewarned that the author is pro-legalization, a position I am largely sympathetic to, but not always completely sold on. (Confession: I am mostly sold on it most of the time, particularly after reading this book.) 5/5 stars
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
This is another book I’d been meaning to read for years, mostly because I was fascinated by the personal story of Hoffer, who wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while working as a stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s. (For real!) I finally broke down and bought the book when someone mentioned it again in the context of Trump voters. Hoffer starts by discussing the appeal of mass movements and their potential converts, then goes on to describe the life cycle of the mass movement. His thesis is that the motivations behind mass movements are interchangeable, regardless of goals or values. It’s a relatively short, accessible tome, philosophical rather than scientific in nature. However, judging by current events, it appears to be scarily accurate. 5/5 stars
Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin
A character-driven novel about a woman’s relationship with her Episcopalian priest father, who is prone to long episodes of depression. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Margaret (the daughter) recalls the effect of her mother’s abandonment on both her and her father’s lives. You might appreciate it more if you have a religious background. Or, if you like books about religious people despite not having a religious background, you will probably appreciate it just fine (unless you only like books about nuns solving mysteries and whatnot). I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never not had a religious background myself. I loved it. 5/5 stars
The Collected Stories by Conrad Aiken
The only Conrad Aiken story I’d ever read before this was “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which is probably one of the best short stories ever written. If you’ve never read it, you must. (Unless you hate short stories, in which case, don’t bother.) And yes, I read this mainly because I got it on the cheap on Kindle. I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, but I’m glad I did, because Aiken actually wrote several other excellent short stories. There are a lot of them in this collection. I didn’t like all of them, but many were on par with “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” in my opinion. Perhaps you might like one of them even better! 4/5 stars
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
I was never interested in seeing the movie based on this book, and I must say that it never occurred to me to read the book the movie was based on until one day, I just got a wild hair and said, “Why the heck not?” Fair warning: Don’t read this book looking for something uplifting. It’s pretty much the opposite. This is a big fat downer of a book, narrated by the mother of a teenage boy who executes a mass murder at his high school. It answers the question “what do you do when your kid is a sociopath?” (SPOILER ALERT: You don’t do anything. You’re pretty much screwed.) It alternates between flashbacks and current time as more of the story is revealed, but you know from the beginning that nothing would end well. As I said on Goodreads, “This book was horrifying. I could not look away.” You’re either into that sort of thing, or you’re not. 4/5 stars
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
I’d heard this book was a feminist classic, and it always shows up on lists like “50 books every woman must read” or “50 books by female authors everyone must read.” So when it showed up on my Kindle sale list, I said, “Sure! Sold.” What can I say? I think I will just copy and paste my Goodreads review:
The chapters are hundreds of pages long with no natural breaks; you either have to read for hours at a time or randomly pick a place to stop and then come back later and think, “Now what was she talking about? Oh yeah, right. She’s using an awful lot of words here. Are they really all necessary? I feel like we’ve covered this.” Which is probably the point, or whatever, but man alive, it was tiring. Which is not to say there’s nothing interesting here. There’s lots of interesting stuff here–it’s a very long book, or at least it seems that way. Am I glad I read it? I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve finished, and what I feel most is relief.
I had to read a few romance novels afterward to recover. 3/5 stars
Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
William Styron’s big claim to fame in our house is that he wrote Set This House on Fire, a book I checked out of the library about 10 or 12 years ago and ended up buying because Mister Bubby spilled water on it. I’ve never read it. Correction: I’ve never read more than about 20 pages of it. I’ve always meant to, especially since I paid $14.99 for it. For some reason, I have not. If only it were on Kindle, like Lie Down in Darkness was. (But if my kid had spilled water on my Kindle, that would have been a lot more expensive.)
I read Sophie’s Choice (also by Styron) a few months ago. If you’ve read Sophie’s Choice, you will recognize the story of this book: A Southern family deals with the aftermath of a daughter’s suicide. It’s told in a series of flashbacks. Styron has a knack for writing some poignant stuff. He also has a knack for putting compelling pieces of writing in the middle of a lot of crap I couldn’t care less about. I guess one either loves Styron or thinks he’s overrated. I’m starting to think he might be overrated, which is a shame because $14.99 for an overrated book I’m never going to read is kind of galling. 3/5 stars
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
I tried to read this book a couple years ago and couldn’t get past the 20% mark. So many H names–Heathcliff, Hareton, Hindley–it was hard to keep track. And the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere. A lot of people love Wuthering Heights, and it was bugging me that I hadn’t finished it because isn’t that long, and I felt that I should just power through it and see what all the fuss is about. I’m glad I did because now I can make an informed statement on Wuthering Heights, which is this: Wuthering Heights sucks. Every single person in this book sucks. It’s not interesting. I don’t understand why people like it unless people are possessed of an imagination that allows them to imagine that they’ve read a different book than I did. Or as I said on Goodreads: You’d be better off listening to the Kate Bush song. It will take a fraction of the time, and you will enjoy it 100x more, even if you hate Kate Bush. 2/5 stars
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
I put off reading this book because it sounded like a downer to me: a boy’s mother is killed by a freak accident caused by his best friend. (I’m spoiling nothing here. You find this out very early.) That’s just too sad. On the other hand, it was supposed to be a great book–or so I’d heard. Judging by the Goodreads reviews, I’d say this is the kind of book you either love or hate. I ended up loving it. I loved the character of Owen Meany. The narrator I could take or leave, but Owen was the best. It’s a long book, but it didn’t feel as long to me as, say, The Golden Notebook (or Wuthering Heights, for that matter). Which is not to say that it’s a riveting page-turner that I couldn’t put down. It’s a long story that the narrator takes his time telling, but I found the story-telling entertaining and compelling enough that I enjoyed the long read. I guess you will know after reading 100 pages or so whether this book is for you. Don’t bother reading the whole thing just to find out how Owen Meany got John Wheelwright to believe in God. Long story short: life is horrible, and also miraculous. 5/5 stars
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
I read this novel while I was in Japan this summer. I’d been meaning to read some Murakami for some time but couldn’t decide which book to choose first. Murakami is always showing up on lists like “50 really cool books everyone should read” or whatever, and I guess The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of his more popular ones, so I checked it out. I found it enjoyable enough. It’s pretty weird, but let’s face it, a lot of Japanese stuff is weird. (To us American rubes, I mean. I’m sure the Japanese take it all in stride.) The narrator’s wife goes missing suddenly–just doesn’t come home after work. The simplest explanation is the one he gets–she was having an affair and has left him for another man–but for some reason, he just doesn’t quite buy it. Too many people show up giving him the idea that there’s a lot more going on. I became emotionally invested in solving the mystery. Or rather, not solving it, but discovering the solution. (This is not the sort of literary mystery that can be solved by deductive reasoning. It’s just too weird.) I was somewhat disappointed. As I said on Goodreads: “Intriguing, but in the end, I wasn’t sure what the crap I’d read.” If anyone’s read better Murakami, I’d be happy to give him another shot. 3.5/5 stars
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
This one is about the Salem witch trials. The narrator’s mother is a devoutly religious woman, but she’s also a fiercely independent thinker, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As you can imagine, this does not go over so well with 17th century Puritans. I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. The setting is vivid, and the characters are compelling. It would make for a good book group discussion (and undoubtedly has, many times over): When is your integrity worth your life, and when is your life worth your integrity? 4/5 stars
Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos deLaclos
I really liked the film Dangerous Liaisons with John Malkovitch and Glenn Close, which I saw a million years ago. It’s not edifying, but it’s certainly entertaining, and it’s even a compelling story. I can’t say the book is edifying either, and it’s less compelling than the movie, which alters the ending considerably. The novel is epistolary, not my favorite form, but it’s pretty good reading up to the end, which has nothing in the way of redemption. It’s pretty dark. I felt like I’d just read a tale of two sociopaths, and I didn’t know what to make of it. 3.5/5 stars
Grendel by John Gardner
Another book I’ve been meaning to read since college, which was when I read Beowulf for the first time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d really read Beowulf in college, or if I’d just skimmed it and relied on the professor’s lecture to fill in the gaps. I thought I should re-read Beowulf, in any case, in order to better appreciate Grendel. I don’t know if it helped, actually, but I did come away with a new appreciation of Beowulf. I found Grendel a bit…what’s the word? At the risk of sounding like (or actually being) an unsophisticated rube, I found it a bit pretentious. It was interesting enough, off and on. The idea that Grendel is fighting against his nature and destiny–to be a monster–is compelling, but while I was reading it, I kept thinking, “Oh, give it a rest, Grendel.” I thought it would be impossible for me to dislike a 174-page novel, but this one just didn’t do much for me. 3/5 stars
NW by Zadie Smith
I read this for a book group. It’s about four young Londoners who grew up in the same neighborhood–or went to the same school, or something–and have grown apart, but are still tangentially in each other’s lives. The writing is James Joyce-ish, particularly the first section. I liked the writing, but I didn’t like the characters, and the story felt inconsequential, despite a number of dramatic events. It was enough to interest me in reading something else by the same author, but I don’t know what I should choose. Do you have an opinion? 3/5 stars
Consenting Adult by Laura Z. Hobson
Hobson wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, the classic novel about anti-Semitism, which I’ve never read but have always meant to. I probably wouldn’t have picked this novel up except that it was cheap on the Kindle, and you know what a sucker I am for the cheap Kindle book. It is based on Hobson’s own experience as the mother of a gay son, who comes out to her during a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The narrator and her husband are secular, liberally-minded people who know homosexuals and are totally cool with people being homosexuals, but are nonetheless devastated to learn that their son is gay. It’s very interesting, from a historical perspective–it was published about 40 years ago–given that societal attitudes were so different, and even the scientific perspective was only starting to change at that point. Anyway, the story is primarily the mother’s, but also the son’s. Definitely worth reading. 4/5 stars
The Room by Jonas Karlsson
This is like Kafka meets The Office. Bjorn is an ambitious bureaucrat looking to make a name for himself at his new job. On his first day he discovers a mysterious room–actually a very ordinary room, but for some reason it intrigues him and becomes his favorite place. It turns out he’s the only one who can see it. As far as his co-workers are concerned, it doesn’t exist, and they think he’s crazy. But he knows he’s not crazy. He begins to suspect there’s an elaborate conspiracy against him. How high up the organization does this conspiracy go? This is a short novel. I thought it was very funny. It also has the distinction of being the second Scandinavian novel I’ve read that is not thoroughly depressing. (The first was A Man Called Ove, which I reviewed in an earlier edition of MBC–Jan-Feb, maybe?) 4/5 stars
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
This is a book I actually didn’t intend to read because I’d heard mixed reviews, and, you know, as a Mormon there’s only so much polygamy crap I can deal with. But you guessed it, it was cheap on Kindle, so I figured what the hey. There are actually two books here. One is set in modern times, narrated by a young man who was kicked out of his polygamist community (one of the “lost boys” who are abandoned because the religious leaders don’t like the competition for young wives) but returns when his mother (a 19th wife) is arrested for his father’s murder. This story alternates with the story of the “original” 19th wife, i.e. Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s infamous nineteenth wife who sued him for divorce and went on a national speaking tour against polygamy. The historical story is told via a series of “historical documents” such as journal entries, letters, academic papers, etc. (The documents are fabricated; it’s just a story-telling conceit. I mention this because so many reviewers seemed miffed about it.)
I found the historical story more compelling than the murder mystery, which was funny because I thought it would be the other way around. As a Mormon woman, I’ve read more than my fill of books and articles about church history and polygamy; if I never read another word, I’d probably be better off. But the “historical documents” really get inside the heads of the people who practiced polygamy and examine things like faith and doubt. The narrator of the murder mystery is not given to introspection, so there wasn’t much in the way of insights into modern polygamy. The mystery itself seemed to resolve rather abruptly, just because it was time for the book to end. There was also a romantic subplot that I didn’t find particularly compelling. 3/5 stars
Well, that will do it for the highbrow stuff. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I review the lowerbrow stuff.
Welcome to the second portion of this edition of Mad’s Book Club. The first portion, in which we (i.e. I) discussed highbrow literature is here. In this portion we shall be discussing literary offerings of a more modest type, i.e. the type you wouldn’t brag about reading (but I do).
Technically, this should be psycho-killer book, since I only read one of this genre during the March-April period. I know, right? What the heck happened in March-April? Well, mostly I was reading Don Quixote, but I discussed that in part one. Let’s just move along, shall we?
Blood Defense by Marcia Clark
Part of me knew that Marcia Clark had become a novelist, but I didn’t have any particular interest in reading her stuff. Probably this can be chalked up to mere envy on my part. Seriously, it’s not enough to have one successful career (successful, you know, despite that one magnificent failure)? Now you have to be a famous novelist too? Whatevs. Anyway, Blood Defense was a Kindle First offering in either March or April, and heck, it was free, so why wouldn’t I? Okay, I also read somewhere that Marcia Clark was a pretty good writer. Which, it turns out, she is. Not like Ray Bradbury good, but as far as psycho-killer books go, pretty darn good. Her tone is conversational and humorous, and there’s not a lot of extemporaneous info. I like that in a writer of any genre. Apparently her previous books were all about a lady prosecutor. (Go figure.)
In Blood Defense, the protagonist is a lady defense attorney, who manages to be both cynical and idealistic at the same time. Samantha Brinkman knows all her clients are guilty, but everyone deserves a robust defense, and plus, prosecutors and cops can be pretty scummy. So imagine her surprise when a cop accused of murder asks her to defend him. She’s not sure she wants to, even though it is a high-profile case that could make her career (also, he can pay her–score!), because a) she’s not so fond of cops and b) there’s something fishy going on here. Indeed there is something fishy. Suffice it to say, it’s personal. AND it makes the matter of her client’s guilt or innocence that much more consequential (to her, personally). There is a twist ending, and then there is another twist. Part of me was like, “Seriously, Marcia Clark?” And the other part of me was like, “That was pretty awesome, Marcia Clark.” I will definitely read more of Clark’s books. 4/5 stars
The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer
This is the first Georgette Heyer regency romance I have not loved. It is not bad, really. Heyer always writes very witty dialogue, and there is witty dialogue in this book. The story is kind of silly, but that’s neither here nor there. The main problem I had was with the main character, a young woman who has chosen to become a governess rather than live in genteel poverty, and by a wacky Three’s Company-worthy misunderstanding, she winds up in the wrong house with the wrong prospective employer, a gentleman who doesn’t want her to be a governess but to marry his dissolute cousin, who (he’s convinced) is bound to kill himself with drink or some other debauchery any day now. The deal is that she marries the awful cousin and once the awful cousin has kicked the bucket, she gets all his stuff and becomes an independent woman. Why would this gentleman (whom we shall call Carlyon because that is his name) need or want someone to marry his odious cousin? Gosh, I’d tell you, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a mere book review, so let’s just say it’s as good a reason as you’re likely to find in any madcap regency romance. Anyway, The heroine (whom we shall call Elinor, also her name) does not want to marry the odious cousin because, hello, that’s nuts, and not at all the done thing, but somehow she ends up marrying the cousin on his (conveniently timed) deathbed anyway, thereby becoming his heir.
What happens from there is not terribly important. Suffice it to say there is some intrigue involving Napoleon and whatnot, but Elinor really got on my nerves because she kept blaming Carlyon for forcing her into marriage with his odious (now dead) cousin, when the truth was that she was just too taken aback and indecisive not to go along with everything. And anyway, she only had to be married to him for, like, two seconds, and what’s the point of going on and on about it now? I mean, now that I write it down, it seems like she had a right to be upset, but at the time she was just whiny and annoying. Not always, but occasionally. As usual, though, the hero was perfect. 3/5 stars (but there are so many better Heyers to choose from)
Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Julia Quinn is probably single-handedly responsible for my obsession with Regency romance. Her eight-book Bridgerton series (featuring a family with eight children, each of whom finds love, hence, eight books) was my gateway drug. This book is not technically part of that series; this Miss Bridgerton is the Bridgerton patriarch’s elder sister, whom we have never met before, but Julia Quinn likes all her books to be in the same world (and also to capitalize on the Bridgerton name, probably–not that there’s anything wrong with that). Miss Billie Bridgerton has grown up with the Rokesby brothers as her neighbors and considers them her dearest friends–except for the eldest Rokesby brother, George, the heir to the earldom. She thinks he is stuffy and judgmental, and he thinks she is a hoyden, which, technically, she is–always running wild with his younger brothers, getting into scrapes and whatnot–NOT AT ALL WHAT A PROSPECTIVE COUNTESS SHOULD BE. Foreshadowing! I know you know where this headed. By a strange twist of fate (and also an ankle), Billie and George get to know each other better and, quelle horreur, start to develop inconvenient feelings for one another (though of course they don’t admit this to each other because that would be too sensible, which love seldom is). This is typically delightful Quinn fare, humorous and sweet, and a worthy successor to the Bridgerton series. I look forward to reading the rest of the Rokesby clan’s stories. (Content warning: there is sex.) 4/5 stars
A Novella Collection by Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan is hit or miss for me. When she hits, she’s fantastic. When she misses, meh. (It’s not awful, just not my bag.) The first two novellas in this collection are quite good. They are both part of the Brothers Sinister series, which you don’t need to have read to appreciate these stories. The other two were just okay. All stories are set in nineteenth century England. Milan doesn’t use a lot of humor, but she writes good characters (who don’t want for wit, even if they aren’t comedians), and she tends to eschew the usual artifices of romances (namely, characters acting like crazy people in order to keep the plot going). Content warning: There is sex. 3/5 stars
Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins
As I said in the last edition of Mad’s Book Club (January-February), Kristan Higgins pretty much has one book that she writes over and over again, but she writes it so well that I don’t mind. The last book of hers I reviewed was something of a departure. This is more her usual book, about a girl hung up on a dude she fell in love with a long time ago but who doesn’t feel the same way about her OR SO SHE THINKS. This girl is tall, sporty, and the only daughter in a family chock full of sons; as the title might have already informed you, she has difficulty getting men to see her as a potential romantic partner. In fact, our story opens on her getting dumped by yet another dude who can’t handle dating a woman who can pick him up (literally). But soon she meets a dude–a doctor, yet–who finds her robust athleticism irresistible. But wait! What about the dude she’s been hung up on forever? Can she bring herself to move on? Can she??? The story is actually more entertaining than it sounds, although I do wonder about the life choices of some of these people. Fortunately, I don’t have to live with them. I will say that although this is pretty much Kristan Higgins’ usual book, it does have a somewhat different ending. I enjoyed it. 3.5/4 stars
Heir to the Duke by Jane Ashford
This is an arranged-marriage historical romance. The wedding takes place early in the story. Nathaniel Gresham, aka heir to the duke, is good-natured but duty-bound control freak. He thinks his marriage to the very proper Violet Devere satisfactory and sensible. What he doesn’t know is that Violet has been repressing her adventurous spirit for years because her grandmother what raised her kept her on such a short leash, but now that she is married, she is ready to let her freak flag fly. Don’t be alarmed–it’s not that kind of freak flag. She just wants to wear fashionable clothes and go to the theatre and junk. But then she learns a deep, dark secret about herself, and she’s afraid that if she tells her good-natured but very proper husband, he will be DISGUSTED. Don’t worry–it’s not that kind of deep, dark secret. Suffice it to say, Nathaniel learns how to relax and have a good time, secrets are revealed, and really, not all that much happens, but it’s a light-hearted romp, fun while it lasts. Content warning: I think there is sex, although I don’t really remember. It seems like it wasn’t terribly explicit, though. YMMV. 3/5 stars
A Duke of Her Own by Lorraine Heath
Here is another story about a gently-bred lady (sister to an earl, in fact) facing genteel poverty who decides to strike out on her own by hiring herself out as a chaperone for American heiresses in London. What she’s really doing is less chaperoning and more husband-vetting. Her brother and his pals–all of them broke and needing wealthy wives–want her to set them up with some American sugar mamas, but she is too conscientious to recommend these dissolute rakes to her charges. Unfortunately, the Duke of Hawkhurst, her brother’s BFF, whom she has always held in disdain despite him being really hot, is determined to win the hand of this season’s loveliest and richest American girl, no matter what it takes, because only a vast influx of cash will allow him to restore his estates and bring out his illegitimate half-sister into society. So he’s ruthless, but for noble reasons. And unfortunately, as Lady Louisa comes to realize this, she finds she is no longer immune to his hotness. ALSO unfortunate: the duke is not nearly as attracted to the rich American beauty as he is to her most provoking chaperone. HIGHJINKS ENSUE.
Actually, this is quite a well-done story. Often in these must-marry-for-money tales, someone turns out to be a secret millionaire or something. In this case there is no deus ex machine. The hero and heroine really are facing genteel poverty. The stakes are high. No one acts like only a crazy person would (well, except when they’re addled by lust, but that’s to be expected). BUT DOES LOVE PREVAIL? You must read to find out. (Or, you know, you could guess.) Content warning: There is sex. (I remember that much.) 3.5/5 stars
I meant to make this a monthly thing, but I keep going with the bimonthly thing. Maybe next month.
Once again, we shall divide and conquer by genre, starting with the highbrow books.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Can you believe I had never read The Martian Chronicles before? Not even one chronicle had I read of it. I’m afraid I am a late-adopting Ray Bradbury reader. I read that one story of his about Picasso–at least I think that was Ray Bradbury. I’m pretty sure. That was in college, and I always meant to read more Ray Bradbury after that, but, well, you know me. Anyway, I read The Illustrated Man last year–that was awesome, by the way–and I quite enjoyed these Martian Chronicles. I don’t know what else to say except that Ray Bradbury is an awesome writer, which you probably already knew because who else besides me would wait 44 years to read The Martian Chronicles? And if, by some chance, you haven’t read Ray Bradbury yet–say, maybe you’re only eleven years old and just stumbled onto this blog by chance and have read this far only because you are filled with ennui and nothing really matters anymore, so why not read about what some middle-aged housewife is reading–you must go read some Ray Bradbury today. I promise your ennui will be significantly diminished, if not wiped out entirely, like some Martians I know. (NOT A SPOILER.) 5/5 stars
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This is one of Princess Zurg’s favorite movies–she thinks Howl is hot (you know, for an animated character)–but I have never seen the movie. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie, but when I saw that it was a book, I felt obligated to read the book first because that is how I am. For those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie, it’s about this young woman, Sophie, who gets cursed by a witch and turns into an old woman (because that’s the curse), but never one to be kept down, she takes control of her own destiny and sets out to get the curse removed, and that’s how she meets the wizard named Howl–who is legendary for stealing young girls, who are never heard from again, and he lives in a moving castle. That last part is pretty hard to explain. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty wild. Sophie ingratiates herself with Howl’s household and gradually grows attached to Howl himself (in the metaphorical sense–just saying, because you never know with these magical books), and I can see why PZ is attracted to Howl because a) he’s a young, attractive wizard and b) he has Secrets and A Past and is Conflicted and Emotionally Unavailable, and what woman can resist that? This is a delightful fairy tale of a book and pretty weird. You can see why the Japanese would make a movie out of it. 5/5 stars
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Generally speaking, I am not such a fan of epistolary novels. I don’t even like the idea of epistolary novels. But the description of this book said it put the “pissed” in “epistolary,” so naturally that piqued my interest. It is indeed a novel about a middle-aged professor of English who spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation for various students and also pretty much anyone else who asks them. He also writes letters of complaint (quelle surprise). He is pissed because he has been disappointed in his professional life–not only as an undervalued English professor, but mainly as a writer–and also in love, but he’s mainly pissed about being frustrated professionally and feeling like no one listens to or cares about him.
I have to say, his story may have hit a little too close to home–which bothered me mainly because this character is kind of a douchebag, and I thought his protégé (on whose behalf he wrote the most letters) was probably a douchebag too, which makes one (i.e. me) wonder, “Am I a douchebag?” How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much you enjoy reading a bunch of sardonic letters. I found them very funny. (The story does get more serious as it goes on.) I also found myself wishing I could see this story from some other character’s point of view–but that’s the problem Professor Douchebag knows all too well: no one writes letters anymore. 3.5/5 stars
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
I read a very lengthy excerpt from Don Quixote when I was in college. I don’t remember what I thought of it then. Much of college is a blur, to tell you the truth. I can tell you that I always meant to revisit Don Quixote and read the whole thing, but, well, do you know how long the whole thing of Don Quixote is? It’s over 1,000 pages–which oughtn’t to be such a big deal, but not all 1,000 pages are created equal. I quite enjoyed much of Don Quixote, even the parts that seemed pointless. There were times, however, when I felt like this story would just never end. Like, ever. Don Quixote is an old man who’s gone crazy and thinks he’s a knight like in those old tales of knights errant who fight monsters and evil-doers and defend ladies. (If you’ve seen Man of La Mancha, you know the basic premise. If you haven’t seen Man of La Mancha, I recommend it, but only on the stage; the movie is terrible.) So some of the novel is the adventures of Don Quixote, but some of it is just an excuse for Miguel Cervantes to tell an amusing story that has nothing to do with Don Quixote but it may as well go here as anywhere because that is how tales of knight errantry go.
DQ was originally published in two volumes, ten years apart. Some people prefer Part One to Part Two. Some prefer Part Two to Part One. I don’t know which group is bigger, or what the critical or academic consensus is, but for my part, I felt like I had gotten my fill with Part One, and Part Two was like a second helping I didn’t particularly need. It wasn’t that it was inferior in quality. I mean, I couldn’t tell you if it was or not because at a certain point I was just done. It’s like when you eat too much of a good thing–does the food really become less delicious, or do you just not want it anymore? That was Don Quixote for me. I enjoyed the majority of it, and would I say it was worth the effort it took? Yes. But I was also so, so relieved when I was finished. 4/5 stars
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
This book has the distinction of being the only novel with a Scandinavian setting that I have not found utterly depressing. (I don’t know what it is about those countries, but their books just make me feel empty inside.) Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, whose neighbors are constantly imposing on him. He is not given to warmth. He is, however, a man of principles and integrity, often to the point of being exasperating to those around him. He doesn’t want anything to do with other people, but he keeps getting involved in their lives against his will, and in the process–you can see where this is headed, yes? He forges meaningful relationships! The story is told half in flashback, half in the present. It is funny and heartbreaking and wonderful. (I did think the ending was a little on the neat side–just the tiniest bit, but totally forgivable because the story is so well told, with both humor and restraint.) This is typical Oprah’s Book Club-style fangirling, but I just loved this book. I would give it six out of five stars, but Ove wouldn’t approve. 5/5 stars
The Trial by Franz Kafka
This is another book I had always meant to read and never got around to, despite the fact that people kept making references to it and I always thought, “I should read that so I know what they’re talking about.” Well! Now I know. I have to say, I found it a bit frustrating at one point. It was like reading someone’s really weird dream. I kind of like reading people’s weird dreams. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is like that, and I loved that book. Sometimes, though, dreams can be a little tiresome, and one wonders, “Is this profound, or is the author just trying to be difficult?” I’m not one to give an author a pass on being difficult just because he’s a genius or whatever. So I went back and forth between thinking, “This is cool,” and “This is just effing weird.” It is an unfinished novel, and it reads like an unfinished novel–a bit unrefined. I had to read all of it before I really knew how I felt about it. (Despite being unfinished, it does have an ending.)
Once I’d digested the whole thing, I found it compelling. In case you’ve never read anything about Kafka’s The Trial, it’s about a dude (Josef K.) who wakes up one morning to find he’s been arrested, but he doesn’t know why or what crime he’s supposedly committed, and no one will tell him anything, and no one seems to know who’s in charge, either. SOUND FAMILIAR? (This is what they mean by “Kafkaesque”!) Things only get more confusing from there. The only thing that’s clear is that Josef K. is powerless. Yet he continues to fight in his own defense because, you know, that’s what we humans do. It is a weird, disturbing book, and significantly shorter than Don Quixote (by about 600 pages). 4/5 stars
Thus endeth the highbrow portion of this edition of Mad’s Book Club. Stay tuned for Part Deux, when we discuss the lowbrow portion. (I know you can hardly wait!)
We’ve covered the non-fiction and the high-brow fiction. Now it’s time to talk about the kind of books I mostly read.
A genre devoted to solving crimes committed by psychos.
Rage against the Dying by Becky Masterman
Brigid Quinn is a retired FBI agent who has worked hard to leave her former life of psycho-crime-fighting behind. More than anything, she’s afraid of it infecting the peaceful, happy life she’s found with her new husband, the gentle professor, who knows that she’s former FBI but thinks that she investigated fraud, not psycho-killing. Alas, fate has other plans for Brigid because a body turns up, and it looks just like the work of the Psycho Killer Who Got Away–a case that led to the death of Brigid’s young protégé and effectively ended Brigid’s career. Brigid doesn’t want anything to do with it–except of course she has to have something to do with it because it looks like this psycho will now be targeting Brigid, and she’s got to protect the people around her. Man oh man oh man, did I ever enjoy this book. Mainly because Brigid is awesome. Also because I like books about people catching the psychos and BRINGING THEM TO JUSTICE. This was a very exciting book (although content warning: rape and other horrible things), and I look forward to reading the further adventures of Brigid Quinn, sixty-year-old-lady badass. 5/5 stars
Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
I pretty much read all of the Karin Slaughter books. There is only one Karin Slaughter book I have not read, and will not read, because it contains the death of a character I was not and probably never will be ready to watch die. (I have, however, read subsequent books where the deadness of aforementioned character is a sad fact of life, but that is okay. I accept that it happened. I just can’t watch it happening. It’s too sad. This from a woman who reads serial-killer books for diversion. I never said my brain made sense.) This book is a stand-alone (not part of her Grant County or Will Trent series, although a new Will Trent is set to come out later this year AND I AM SO THERE), and as I said on Goodreads, I thought it was remarkably good–an intriguing mystery and a poignant portrait of grief–up until about the 60% mark, where there’s this crazy, crazy plot twist–CRAZY plot twist. Like Gone Girl crazy, only much, much crazier. Jason springing out of the lake crazy. The kind that makes you go, “What? WHAT? Oh, come ON!” I kept reading, because a) I can’t help myself and b) there was still a psycho-killer to catch and bring to justice and ONE CANNOT REST, but I confess that I grumbled a little while I was reading. “This is all very exciting, but are you freaking kidding me?” Eventually, though, I just decided to go with it. And it did make for a very exciting third act. Also, a very satisfying bringing-to-justice. (Content warning: rape and torture of women. What kind of sick human being am I?) 4/5 stars
Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane
Apparently this is the fourth book featuring the main characters, two ex-cops (a man and a woman) who are private investigators. Like, you know, a team. A private investigation team, I guess you would say. Anyway, I haven’t read the other books, but I would say this stands alone just fine. Previous events are alluded to, but you understand all you need to know from context. On the other hand, if you’re planning to read the other three books at some point, this book would contain spoilers. On the other hand, if you’re like me, by the time you get around to reading the other books, you’ll forget everything you learned about them from this book, and it’ll be just like starting with a clean slate. Anyway, enough small talk. The story of this book is a child abduction. A four-year-old girl is taken from her immature, irresponsible, and occasionally-drug-using mother’s home one night (while the mother is out doing whatever), and the girl’s concerned aunt asks Kenzie and Gennaro (aforementioned private eyes) to take on the case because she thinks the police aren’t doing enough. K & G are reluctant, but soon become intrigued by all the weird things they uncover (in the course of convincing the aunt and themselves that their services are not really required) and end up fully entangled in a case that is much more than simple abduction (if abduction is ever simple). Drug dealers! Blackmail! Police corruption! Meanwhile, there’s still a kid missing and time is running out. Stuff happens, K & G have to decide who they can trust and whatnot–it’s an interesting story, and it raises some interesting questions about what constitutes justice. (Content warning: violence, gross crime scenes and some mentions of crimes against children, although aforementioned mentions are isolated and not graphic in nature.) 4/5 stars
Because a life without love is…something.
The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer
If there was a TV channel that showed nothing but BBC adaptations of Georgette Heyer novels, that is where I would be every day of my life. I don’t know that BBC has ever done an adaptation of any Georgette Heyer novel, but they ought to. They ought to do all of them! Georgette Heyer is like Jane Austen, if Jane Austen were sillier. The dialogue is always very witty, and there are many eccentric characters to provide actors with ample opportunities to chew the scenery (if they were so inclined). This is a comic romance about Sir Waldo, a much-admired Corinthian (the “Nonesuch”) who travels to a village in Yorkshire to inspect the ramshackle property he has just inherited, which leads to much gossip among the villagers as to his intentions (regarding both the estate and the eligible females neighboring it). Sir Waldo is accompanied by his nephew, a charming, fun-loving young man who becomes infatuated with the most beautiful girl in town (who is unfortunately a spoiled brat who ought to be punched in the face, but I don’t want to give away the whole plot). Meanwhile Sir Waldo takes up a flirtation with the girl’s lovely (and much more sensible) companion, a gently bred spinster (you know, about 24 years old) who has been forced by circumstances to take this paid position (because no one would do it for free). This isn’t my favorite Heyer, but it was still very enjoyable. The hero is pretty much perfect, which ought to be boring, but at least he has a sense of humor about it, which is what matters. Besides, if we can’t have perfection in our fictional heroes, where can we have it? 4/5 stars
Silk Is for Seduction by Loretta Chase
Marcelline Noirot is a gently-bred lady who has been forced by circumstances to go into trade as a dressmaker. She works with her two sisters, each of whom has a special talent that is essential to the success of this family business. Marcelline is the designer, and she’s pretty much a fashion genius. She is determined to get the business of the finest (and wealthiest) members of the ton, and her latest strategy is to convince the Duke of Clevedon that she must provide his (intended) fiancée’s wardrobe. Clevedon could not care less about dresses; he just wants to sleep with this gorgeous and provoking woman (as one does). It’s kind of complicated, i.e. too complex to bother explaining, but Marcelline ends up getting the commission for the dresses but also finds herself becoming enchanted by the handsome and provoking duke, blah blah, whatever. This was a fine enough story as this type of thing goes, but I have to say I loved Marcelline as a character. She’s smart and determined and self-confident and doesn’t have hang-ups that need to be solved by a hot aristocrat’s sex-skillz. That alone placed this book above the average romance novel. (I guess–it’s the only reason I can remember for the rating I gave it.) (Content warning: There is sex. Performed with skillz.) 4/5 stars
If You Only Knew by Kristan Higgins
I’ve read quite a few Kristan Higgins books (mostly her Blue Heron series), and heretofore they have all been more or less the same. Which is not to say that they were not enjoyable. I am generally not a fan of contemporary romance, as the stakes tend to be lower than in historical romance and the heroines more neurotic (which is actually rarely loveable–it’s like everyone wants to be the next Bridget Jones, but I didn’t really like Bridget Jones). I do like Higgins’ books, even though the heroines do tend to be neurotic (as we know all modern women are), because her writing is clever and her characters are interesting, even when she’s writing the same plot over and over again. (Modern neurotic woman who has been hung up on a guy who broke her heart or didn’t return her interest for years finally meets a new dude, who has issues, but is exactly right for her–but wait! the dude she loved for years suddenly decides she’s the one for him and misunderstandings ensue. I don’t think I’m giving anything away, even though I’ve told you everything but the resolution, which I’m sure you can guess. It’s a tried-and-true formula: it’s all about the journey.) This book is slightly different in that it’s more chick lit than romance (although there is romance, so I’m including it here because I don’t want to make a separate chick lit category for one book). It tells the stories of two sisters–one who is divorced and looking for someone to settle down and have kids with (but is unfortunately attracted to the unsuitable dude who lives in the apartment beneath hers), and one who has the perfect marriage and family that includes a set of triplets and everything. Only wait! Is everything really as perfect as it seems?? SPOILER ALERT: No. Also, there are deep, dark secrets about their parents’ marriage, which one of them knows but the other doesn’t. Deep, dark secrets abound, really. But there is also humor, so it’s not that dark. It is a book about marriage but also about families. I think this is Higgins’ best book (of the ones I’ve read), hands down. (Content warning: Not really a lot of sex, mainly allusions to sex, but a frank discussion thereof at times.) 4/5 stars
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
This is a Kindle exclusive, and I got it on the cheap (even cheaper than its regular cheap price), so that may have influenced my feelings about it considerably–I do love a bargain–but I am prone to hate things I read for $1.99 as much as things I read for $11.99 and for free, so I will just go ahead and say that I thought this romance was pretty darn good for what it was. Another contemporary, set in the London theatre world. Elaine is an up-and-coming actress working in a play that needs to do well at the box office (for the same reason all plays need to do well), but ticket sales are flagging because the star of the show, an arrogant (but talented) diva named Richard Troy, is acting like a jerk in public and getting bad press all over town. The play’s producer and the theatre manager and Richard’s agent all conspire to persuade Elaine, England’s sweetheart (insofar as the theatre world is concerned), into faking a romantic relationship with Richard in the hopes that some of her good press will rub off on him. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that’s the premise. Take it or leave it. Elaine agrees to the charade because the producer also promises to give x percentage of ticket sales to Elaine’s favorite charity, which is important to her for personal reasons. It’s a common romance trope–two, actually: fake relationship and enemies-to-lovers. Here’s what I liked about the book: Richard really is a jerk. He really is arrogant, and he is often rude. He is not a loveable guy. He does not undergo a radical personality change over the course of the book (although he changes a little–for the better! because that is what romance heroes do, unless they’re Georgette Heyer heroes, who are perfect to begin with). But like Shrek and all ogres, he has layers. As you get to know him, you start to see his good qualities and how Elaine could fall in love with him without getting a lobotomy first. It’s not Shakespeare (ha ha, see what I did there), but it’s clever and more imaginative than the average. I also liked that the characters acted like grown-ups (most of the time), rather than adults who were psychologically still in high school (or whatever they call it in England). I was diverted. (Content warning: There is sex. Not oodles, but some. Can’t really recall the level of detail. Sorry.) 4/5 stars
Before We Kiss by Susan Mallery
I don’t know why I read so many contemporaries during February. It’s most unusual for me. I also don’t know why I picked up another Susan Mallery, when the last Susan Mallery I read was decidedly meh. I think that once upon a time I must have read a Susan Mallery I liked and have assumed there must be another one out there I would also like. Well. This wasn’t it. Sam is an ex-NFL player who has a business with some NFL buddies of his–I forget what the business is, but it’s thriving but they also need to have an EVENT because that’s what successful businesses like theirs do, and Sam is in charge of the event, so he needs to hire the services of an event planner. Unfortunately, the only event planner in town (it’s a small town, which nevertheless has many thriving business–it’s like a 27 book series where everyone in town finds love and professional fulfillment) is Dellina, a woman he had a one-night stand with and freaked out on when he stumbled into a spare room where she was storing a bunch of wedding dresses for a friend (who also has a thriving business in this very small town, but not a lot of extra storage space). Because a woman who keeps a dozen wedding dresses in her spare room is clearly PSYCHO. Well, Dellina’s not actually psycho (as I explained), and Sam gets that NOW, but it’s still kind of awkward now that they have to work together on this event thing, especially since they’re still very attracted to each other. Shall I go on? No, I should not. I should have stopped reading long before this, but I actually finished the whole thing (sort of–I skimmed a lot). This book sort of exemplifies everything I don’t like about contemporaries: the stakes are low and the details are mundane. Will the event go as planned? WHO CARES? Will Sam learn to trust women again (I forgot to mention he has trust issues)? WHO CARES? How does the story end? I DON’T REMEMBER. There are a few funny bits here and there, mostly involving Sam’s mother, who is a sex therapist and has never met a personal boundary she didn’t want to cross, but that’s neither here nor there. As a whole it was more tedious than diverting, and that’s not okay. I don’t like books that make me feel like I’ve really wasted my time as opposed to only sort of wasting my time. (Content warning: IT’S BORING.) 2/5 stars
Scandalous by Jenna Petersen
Well, here we have a historical romance, which is more my speed. Miss Katherine Fleming, who was orphaned as a young woman and subsequently made the ward of some awful family, is engaged to be married to a widowed nobleman of some consequence. She isn’t in love with him; she’s a practical sort, and she’s determined to make a pleasant but practical marriage. Uno problemo: Turns out aforementioned nobleman’s dead wife is not so dead after all. It happens. Unfortunately, this is the olden days, when you couldn’t just say, “Oopsy, turns out my fiancé is still married to a live woman,” and everyone would just understand. No, this will be a huge scandal that will ruin Katherine unless she agrees to marry the un-widower’s black sheep of a brother, whose name I think is Dominic. Yes, Dominic. Dominic is technically, from a biological point of view, the un-widower’s half-brother, being the product of an affair his mother had back in the day. Nobody outside the family knows this, but within the family things have been awkward, which is why Dominic has been off making his fortune and only come home to try to talk his half-bro into selling him one of the family properties for reasons which are very important to him personally, i.e. he knows Mom was residing there when he was conceived and therefore believes the house holds some clue as to his true parentage, of which he is ignorant because Mom refuses to say. It is so important to him that he agrees to marry Katherine in exchange for the property, and did I forget to mention that the reason the Un-widower is so concerned about saving Katherine from scandal by marrying her off to his brother is that he’s already spent her dowry. Oopsy again! Katherine, meanwhile, knows nothing of these family intrigues and believes Dominic is marrying her because he has nothing better to do just now. Honestly, I don’t remember why she thought he might be so willing to marry a woman he just met unless it was because he found her sexually exciting. Because that’s what’s really troubling Katherine–not that her fiancé has an undead wife and that she will now be marrying a complete stranger, but that the complete stranger MAKES HER FEEL THINGS SHE DOES NOT WANT TO FEEL. I told you that she was a practical sort. She wants a comfortable marriage to someone she likes, not someone she could fall in love with, because TO FALL IN LOVE WOULD BE DISASTER.
Okay. Yes, this blurb has to be longer than one paragraph, because I, like Katherine, have feelings. Okay, so far, so good. I mean, this is a pretty typical premise for a romance novel. People getting thrown together with people they’re sexually attracted to but not wanting to RISK THEIR HEARTS. I don’t know how often it happens in real life, but in the romance genre it happens all the time. It is also very common in romance novels for characters to have Deep, Dark Secrets that they are afraid to reveal to their beloved because aforementioned beloved Might Not Understand. This is often pure stupidity on the part of the characters, but you know, people are imperfect. They don’t always act in their best interests. Dominic’s secret is known to the reader from the outset: he’s of questionable parentage and he’s just made a gross deal to marry his (half!) brother’s fiancée in exchange for a freaking house. Of course Katherine Might Not Understand, so even though he knows he ought to tell her–especially since he’s FALLING IN LOVE WITH HER–he procrastinates. Katherine’s motivations, on the other hand, are not at all clear to the reader. You know that she is afraid to fall in love with Dominic, but you don’t really get why. Hers must be a TRULY Deep, Dark Secret, if not even the reader gets to know it. This is the thing, though, about romance authors keeping Deep, Dark Secrets from their readers: if you’re going to hold off on the reveal until the book is practically over, that secret had better be pretty damned deep and dark, or someone’s going to be pissed. And by “someone,” I mean me. When Katherine reveals why she cannot possibly live with a husband she loves but whom she believes does not (TRULY!) love her in return, even though she’s a woman in the nineteenth century with no money or social position and wouldn’t last a freaking second without the advantages of marriage, it turns out the reason is a) neither deep nor dark, and b) pretty damn stupid, actually. Then she commits the cardinal sin of romance heroines everywhere, which I find always annoying but basically unforgiveable when my eyes are already rolled so far back in my head from the Deep, Dark Secret That Wasn’t, and she does something THAT ONLY A CRAZY PERSON WOULD DO. And by “crazy person,” I mean someone ENTIRELY WITHOUT WITS OR REASON. This from a character who has heretofore shown every indication that she has intelligence and mental wellness. It angered me so much that I couldn’t get past it and focus on the fact that the love story itself was actually rather compelling. DO NOT ANGER ME WITH YOUR CRAZY-ASS NONSENSE, ROMANCE AUTHORS, or you too will find your book receiving 2.5/5 stars.
Well, that does it for the January-February edition of Mad’s Book Club, which is good because we’re almost all the way through March. That means that the next time we meet, we shall be discussing the books I read in March, which will probably not be nearly so many because a) I’m reading Don Quixote, and it’s freaking long, and b) other reasons I don’t care to get into just now, but don’t worry–it’s not a Deep, Dark Secret! I’ve just way-overstayed my welcome on this post. Gentle readers, adieu.
So now it’s time to move on to fiction. Since most of what I read is fiction, and I read a lot, I’m going to organize it (sort of) by genre. This edition will feature all the fiction that isn’t mystery/suspense or romance. Some titles are more highbrow than others, of course, but this is just what I’m doing. Try to roll with it.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is a book of short stories, all about Indian immigrants and their children in the United States. (At least I think they’re all in the United States. Well, one is in England. They’re not in India, that much I can tell you.) I really don’t have that much to say about it except that the writing is beautiful and the stories are interesting. (Not all beautifully written stories are interesting.) If you enjoyed Lahiri’s The Namesake (which I did), you will enjoy these stories too. 5/5 stars
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
I think one reviewer called this book The Crimson Petal and the White meets Fight Club. Actually, that’s what it says on Amazon. I knew I’d seen it somewhere. Anyway, they had me at “nineteenth century lady pugilist.” The story begins with young Ruth, who is plucked from the obscurity of her mother’s brothel to enter the glamorous world of professional boxing. The story is narrated by several characters, who seem only tangentially related to each other at first, but over the course of the book, their stories all come together. I found this book very difficult to put down, and I loved the two main female characters. The fight scenes and the brothel scenes got a little gnarly, but if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, I highly recommend this one. 5/5 stars
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I was not particularly interested in this Pulitzer Prize winner until I learned the story behind it, which intrigued me. Toole died young and unpublished; his mother found this manuscript, written out longhand, among his effects, and asked a publisher friend (Walker Percy, actually) to look at it. Percy reluctantly agreed, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a brilliant novel. So it got published and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize. How crazy is that? So I read it, and I agree that the author’s mom did the right thing. The main character is not loveable. He’s a pompous, gluttonous, inconsiderate, slothful guy in his thirties who lives with his mother and is forced by life’s circumstances to finally seek employment. As he goes from one job to the next, he meets a number of unsavory and/or crazy characters. It’s an absurd story, but a hilarious one. 5/5 stars
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
I saw The Exorcist, years ago, and I have to say that at the time, my reaction was “meh.” I realize it should not have been “meh,” that The Exorcist is a film classic and super freaky and whatnot, but nevertheless, that was how I felt about it. Maybe I’d been jaded by too many horror films. I don’t know. With the book, I think, I got a better sense of the themes of evil and faith and the nature thereof. It’s kind of slow-paced, as I remember the movie being, but not in a bad way. It definitely held my interest. But in case you’ve never seen the movie, I’ll warn you: it gets absolutely revolting. In case you have seen the movie but haven’t read the book, I’ll warn you: it’s even worse than the movie. I think Blatty overdid it in that department, frankly, but it’s still a good story. Not one to be read over breakfast, though. 4/5 stars
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
This is another Pulitzer Prize-winner, though I probably would never have picked it up if it hadn’t been on sale for $1.99 on the Kindle. It’s about two American professors, a woman (Vinnie) and a man (Fred) from the same university who each take a sabbatical to England to work on their scholarly pursuits and end up having love affairs. (Affairs, separately, not an affair together. Despite being colleagues, they don’t know each other well, and though their paths seldom cross during the story, the rare crossing thereof is consequential to the story.) Its Pulitzer-Prizeness notwithstanding, this book is fairly understated. I don’t imagine it will change anyone’s life, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. There was humor, but also pathos. I found Vinnie’s story more compelling than Fred’s, but Fred’s was sort of a necessary contrast. The ending is poignant. 4/5 stars
After Dark by Wilkie Collins
I’d read Collins’ The Woman in White and also Basil, both of which I greatly enjoyed, so I expected somewhat more from this book of stories, some of which were interesting and entertaining, and some of which were “meh.” I read the free Kindle edition, and I’m pretty sure that the first story was missing a few pages in the middle–like the part where something happens to somebody. Kind of important. That story might have been awesome, for all I know, but heavily abridged as it was, it was worse than “meh.” So if you decide to read this one, spring for the non-free edition, as I assume it probably has all the words. 3/5 stars
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carole Rifka Brunt
Fourteen-year-old June, who is mourning the passing of favorite uncle (possibly her only uncle, but nevertheless, her favorite) from AIDS, strikes up an unlikely friendship with the uncle’s surviving boyfriend, who had heretofore been kept a secret. Not that the uncle’s gayness was secret, but the boyfriend’s existence was hidden from June because June’s mother, sister of the aforementioned uncle, hated him (the boyfriend) and would only let her brother see her daughters on the condition that they never, ever meet the boyfriend. But June does meet him and embarks on a secret friendship with him. It has to be a secret because June’s mother would freak out if she knew. So–intrigue. It sounds like something of an after-school special, the way I describe it, but it’s much better than that. (More of an Oprah’s Book Club type book, only also better than that. Actually, it looks like it was an Oprah selection. Well, so were Song of Solomon and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Not that this is necessarily in that category. NOT THAT IT’S NOT. I’m just saying.) It’s a coming of age story for June, but it’s also about her relationship with her family, particularly her sister (who is going through her own crap). I liked it mucho. 4/5 stars
Native Son by Richard Wright
So I’d never read Native Son before this (obvs, or I wouldn’t be including it in my January-February 2016 edition), nor Black Boy. No Richard Wright whatsoever, as far as I know. I probably would not have gotten around to it, except that–wait for it–it was $1.99 on the Kindle. Still, I was sort of putting off reading it because last year I went through a period where I was reading The Souls of Black Folk, Up from Slavery, and Invisible Man, all in maybe a two week period, and I sort of overdosed on black oppression. I know, that’s quite a confession for a middle-aged white woman from the suburbs to make, but there it is. (All three of the aforementioned books are quite good, incidentally, though Invisible Man is long and sort of an acquired taste. I think it helps to have read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.) Anyway, I enjoyed Native Son much more than I expected to. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a young black man who accidentally kills a young white woman (the daughter of his new employer, as it happens–long story), and let’s just say it gets more complicated from there. The main character is not especially sympathetic. In fact, he’s kind of a brute. Despite that, his story is very compelling (I had a hard time putting the book down, actually–I know I say that a lot, but it happens to me a lot, okay?), and in the end I did end up sympathizing with him, despite everything. A very thought-provoking book. (High praise from a middle-aged white woman from the suburbs. I’m sure Richard Wright is posthumously flattered.) 5/5 stars
And that wraps it up for the highbrow portion of Mad’s Book Club: Multi-Episodic Edition. Next time: genre novels, including some fairly trashy ones. Stay tuned!
I stopped doing book reviews a long time ago because a) I find them very time-consuming (mainly because I feel obligated to provide links to every book I review–it seems only right) and b) I read a lot of books, and I’d rather read than write book reviews, even short ones. Even blurbs. But I happen to be in the mood today, so here goes.
These are all the books I’ve read so far this year. I’ve decided to divide them by genres, just for the sake of showing off how organized I can be.
Non-fiction comes first because the first book I read this year was a non-fiction book.
Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators by Jay Nordlinger
I have often wondered about the families of individuals who do evil things. I remember the Jonesboro school shooting, which happened when Princess Zurg was just a baby. My first thought was about the parents–not of the victims, but of the shooters, who were only 11 or 12 years old. Specifically, my thought was, How horrifying to learn that your baby is a monster. Whenever I hear about some horrible thing like a school shooting or other mass murder, my heart goes out to the victims’ families, obviously, but I can’t help thinking about the people who have to live with what their son or brother or husband did. These were the people who knew the monsters as something other than monsters. In the case of this book, it’s all about the children, of course. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but Jay Nordlinger could probably write a new edition of the phone book and I would enjoy reading it, so there’s that. 4/5 stars
What’s Wrong with the World by G.K. Chesterton
I got this on a whim because it was free. Never read G.K. Chesterton before. This is a series of essays on social problems. He was very anti-feminist, and I disagree with him strongly on that front, but his writing is consistently entertaining, and I felt edified by his perspective. Humorous and thought-provoking (if occasionally full of crap–it was a hundred years ago). 4/5 stars
A Train of Powder by Rebecca West
This book contains the series of long New Yorker articles she did about the Nuremberg Trials, which were interesting–the articles, that is–but I was actually more fascinated by the shorter pieces on other, less notorious trials (all murder cases, as I recall). She tells a story from all different points of view. One piece focuses a lot on a fisherman who discovered the victim’s body, and how the experience affected him. Interesting ruminations on crime and justice. 4/5 stars
Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews
Generally, I’m not big on celebrity memoirs. I’m just not interested in most celebrities’ lives, even the ones I like. (Two exceptions: I couldn’t help picking up Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch–because come on, Nellie Olsen–and Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography–because Choose-Your-Own-Autobiography. Both very good if you don’t absolutely hate memoirs and refuse to read them on principle–although I’m usually in that category myself.) I wouldn’t have read this book–even though I like Julie Andrews very much–except that it was chosen for a book group I’m in. I actually didn’t end up attending that meeting, which makes me wonder if it was truly worth reading this book–but I can’t say it was a bad memoir. If Julie Andrews interests you, it’s a very good memoir. She talks about her life growing up–her mother was a hot mess–and the beginning of her career, and the chapters tend to be on the short side, so it’s easy to pick up and put down. If Julie Andrews doesn’t interest you, there’s nothing here to make you think she’s more interesting than you thought she was. 3/5 stars
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
Another memoir I read for the same book group mentioned above. (That meeting hasn’t taken place yet, but I requested the book from the library early, thinking I might have a lengthy wait, which turned out not to be the case. I know it’s kind of an old book at this point, but this was the digital edition we’re talking about, and I’ve waited months for books older than this one.) Malala’s story is very compelling, and I was fascinated by her parents, particularly her father. Not to give all the attention to the man in the story, but Malala couldn’t have become the remarkable and courageous young woman she is without the influence and support of her father, who was equally courageous and perhaps even more remarkable, considering that he didn’t have a similar role model of his own and that he was raised in an extremely patriarchal society. But Malala is, of course, awesome. She is also ordinary, which is charming. (She likes Justin Bieber, which just goes to show that it takes all kinds to change the world.) That said, the book is sort of uneven in quality–but, you know, she is a teenage girl. I’m 45 years old and still haven’t written a book, and also haven’t gotten shot for trying to learn (or for any reason), so I can probably just go to hell. 3.5/5 stars
That’s all I’ve got time for today. We’ll move on to fiction tomorrow. Or, you know, whenever I get around to it.