I have been a terrible blogger lately. Mostly because in the beginning of the year Goodreads asked me for a goal. So, I wrote down a hundred books. It didn’t seem daunting. I read a lot. But then I realized that that’s two books a week. Now, clearly, this goal is not that difficult, but it takes dedication. So far I’m right on track, but since my reading has gotten in the way of my blogging I decided to combine the two. I’ve listed recent books I’ve read a couple of times before, but from now until the end of the year I’m going to make a monthly roundup. I’m starting with March, but January and February will more than likely get their own posts eventually.
The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse
(*** of five)
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, mostly because I’d heard good things, and most of it was completely solid. I really enjoyed the basic premise; Lucas inherits an enormous country manor house from his uncle who’s just committed suicide for reasons that no one seems to be able to fathom, and invites his group of tight knit friends out for continual weekends of idleness. But recent events seem to change almost everything as almost immediately Lucas confesses his love of his ten year best friend, and our protagonist, Joanna. They begin a tentative relationship, both seemingly to realize the dangers of dating someone who’s been that important in their lives. This was a really interesting plot, to me. But the book seemed to lose that interest fairly quickly. It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving away at least parts of the plot, but ultimately this seemed to be a book about the dissolving of a group and how that came to pass. But, quite like this review seems to be, it ended up muddied and confused. I didn’t always like the protagonist, which is okay generally, but I often found her decisions and actions confusing and selfish. I didn’t understand why she behaved the way she did, though I understood the difficulty of the situation surrounding her.
Then, there’s a whole older generation that we’re given glimpses of through memory, film, and the ever increasing presence of the uncle’s old girlfriend. I’ll just go ahead and say; there’s a mystery here. It’s not a particularly good mystery, but it exists and causes the plot to propel itself further, to a degree, with the older generation shedding light and anguish on the younger.
The ending was almost atrocious. I found myself eager to find out what it was, but as soon as the characters showed up to explain the dialogue devolved into some sort of film script out of the 1940s. I kept expecting to actually hear the words “That’s right, I did it and I’d do it again!” In one sentence a character is protesting a perception and then three lines later, as if to make sure the reader understand the situation, she relents “No, it’s true, that thing I just said wasn’t. I always knew it was true.” It felt sloppy. And it felt like these characters, who’d been so richly introduced and cultivated, deserved far more.
Forget About It by Caprice Crane
(**** of five)
I was drawn to this book by some sort of inexplicable force. I read chick lit from time to time. It tends to come in waves; sometimes I love them and sometimes I hate them. I’d never read anything by Caprice Crane before and about one sixth of the way into this one I promptly scurried over to Paper Back Swap and ordered ‘Stupid and Contagious’. Basically, her voice is really enchanting. It’s the perfect blend of pop culture and enough traditionalism to keep it from sounding too dated too soon. She’s just really funny.
The basic plot is this; Jordan Landau is having a bad life. She feels like an outsider in her family, her co-workers use her as a doormat, and her boyfriend’s a narcissistic cheater. So when she gets a bump on the head during a bike accident she decides to fake amnesia. Yes, that’s right, she fakes amnesia. “Forgetting” everything gives her the confidence she needs to change her life for the better.
Honestly, I would have preferred it if the synopsis ended there. The fake amnesia was interesting to me because I’ve read amnesia chick lit books before. Notably Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Remember Me?’ which was probably her best effort to date. But there’s more to the plot of ‘Forget About It’. Just when Jordan thinks it may be about time to “get her memory back” she gets in yet another accident and gets amnesia for real. Yes, that’s right, she gets it for real. Luckily the characters were still enchanting enough to sustain the impossibility of that little nugget.
I had a really good time reading this book, which is pretty much the only thing you can ask for when it comes to chick lit. And this is pure 100% chick lit fluff. I’ll say, I enjoyed the first half of this book much more than the second and the ultimate romance was relatively tepid, in my opinion, but mostly because I preferred another option for her. But the voice and characters were enough to sustain this book in general.
The Likeness by Tana French
(***** of five)
I struggled with how many stars to give this title. I read ‘In the Woods’ last year, loved it, and gave it four stars. I felt like I should give ‘The Likeness’ the same. But in the end I found that I just couldn’t. This rating isn’t based on the particular constructs of the book, it’s based on me. And while I don’t think I can put this novel in with my favorites I have decided that they aren’t the only ones that deserve five stars. I was completely and utterly invested in this book in every way shape and form. It was the sort that kept me up at night thinking about it, once I could finally put it down. The sort of book that ravaged me and made me feel wretched. The sort of book I look for because caring that much about anything doesn’t happen to me all that often.
Now that that’s out of the way we’ll get down to the premise, it’s ridiculous. Detective Cassie Maddox has transferred from Murder to Domestic Violence following the disastrous Operation Vestal, described in this novel’s precursor, so it’s a surprise when her boyfriend, and homicide detective, Sam O’Neal, calls her in to a case. She immediately sees why; the victim looks exactly like Cassie and her identification belongs to an undercover identity Cassie used years previously. With no leads and nowhere to start they all make a decision to send Cassie into Lexie Madison’s life to try and find her killer from the inside. Cassie soon finds herself ingrained with Lexie’s friends, a group of tight knit college students studying for their PhDs in English at Trinity College, and living in an old manor home inherited by their leader, Daniel. They’re undoubtedly an odd bunch, but Cassie soon finds herself falling for their old fashioned lifestyle and for the group itself.
So, yes, the premise is, to put it finely, implausible. It simply could not, and would not happen. A lesser book might have been ruined by this but somehow ‘The Likeness’ pulls it off. Like the book, and apparently the Spanish proverb, says “Take what you want and pay for it, says God”. I took a compelling story and I paid for it with my suspension of disbelief.
The characters were about as richly realized as could be. Lexie’s friend came to life for me completely. Possibly because I’d read Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and they were all present there as well, but I will just leave that off (the resemblances are astounding, but not, to me, in an annoying way). Daniel, Justin, Abby, and Rafe were so endearing to me that I forgot, several times, that they were likely to be suspects. Their interactions were fascinating and I found myself wishing that I could take a little vacation into their lives. The relationship between Cassie and Undercover head, Frank Mackey, was brilliantly done. The only relationship that fell flat for me was between Cassie and boyfriend, Sam. It just didn’t even really seem necessary to me. We were introduced to both these characters in ‘In the Woods’ so perhaps French felt as though she didn’t need to spend as much time on them as a couple, but it would have helped. I found them to be the only thing in this novel that I didn’t care about deeply.
But above all, this is a mystery, the sort of well written mystery that always makes me take notice of the genre and realize that it can compromise of a lot more than pulp fiction. I was left constantly guessing what was going on and the layers heaped so thick that in lesser hands it might have been annoying. But it wasn’t. It so wasn’t. It was wonderful.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
(*** of five)
Probably the best thing that can be said about this novel is that the amount of time it took me to read it was in direct relation to how much I enjoyed it. That’s to say; one days worth.
The premise for this was fantastic, hence the reason why I had to pick it up even after hearing several tepid reviews. The Greek gods are alive, not so well, and living in London, where they moved at some point in the seventeenth century. They live together in a crumbling house, serve in menial jobs (Artemis is a dog walker, Apollo a cheesy TV psychic, Aphrodite a phone sex operator, and Dionysus owns a nightclub called Bacchanalia where he exclusively sells his home brewed diabolical wine) and are not to happy about it. This is where it gets a bit dodgy. Enter Alice and Neil, a relatively hapless couple-that-should-be who get mixed up with the bored Olympians through a stray arrow (shot by Eros, obviously), a well aimed lightening bolt (Zeus, clearly), and a Orphean quest to the underworld.
It was entertaining, I will give it that, but that was about all. There were a lot of things that could have happened with this premise that just… didn’t. The characterization was fine, I guess, but I would have chosen differently. The gods are vapid and relatively annoying, even the ones we’re meant to like, but you couldn’t quite help liking them anyway just because you know how they’re suppose to be. Does that make any sense? No? Well, sorry. The main problem with this book is that the writing just wasn’t that good and that drove me crazy because it could have been so much better. But, for what it was it was fine. Not a great review but if you’re into Greek gods you’ll probably give this a whirl anyway. Just like I did.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
(**** of five)
I think it’s very possible that out of many modern books dressed up as Gothic novels this is the one that hits it hardest on the head. There’s no other way to describe this tale other than “Gothic novel”. All the elements are there; a family sequestered in a crumbling English manor house, obsession, secrets, and an otherworldly sense of time. This book draws heavily from Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (as well as Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, though not to the same extent), and it makes no bones about it. Copies of the classic are scattered throughout the pages of ‘The Thirteenth Tale’.
Another word I might use to describe this book is ‘weird’. All the characters were SO INCREDIBLY WEIRD (in all the right ways, in the estimation of this Gothic Victoriana loving heart) that when I describe the goings on, particularly in the earlier parts of the novel, people seemed to assume I wasn’t enjoying it. Not the case, I was enjoying it immensely. So immensely, in fact, that I had to talk about it. I really wish I knew someone else who had read this so I could discuss it with them. Honestly.
‘The Thirteenth Tale’ is the story of Margaret Lea, a surviving twin, amateur biographer, and rare book seller. She receives, on a day like any other day, a letter from a one Miss Vida Winter, one of the most popular authors of her generation, revered by all and a conundrum to many. No one knows anything of Miss Winter’s past and she’s been unwilling to share it, until now. Her request is for Margaret to travel to her Yorkshire home and hear the tale of her life. But the tale is not a short one, it’s a meandering tale of love, loss, obsession, and family that spans several generations. The only thing that is clear is that nothing is as simple as it should be.
Really, everything about this book was good. I cared, rather deeply, about all the characters. Even the ones that were violently fucked up. I loved the pacing; quick, but meandering, if that makes any sense. I love stories were things that don’t seem important turn out to be. And I loved how the reader, and the biographer, are given clues to an ending that we’ve been told to be patient for. Impatience is, perhaps, a book’s greatest compliment. And, make no mistake, this is not a mystery in the usual sense but it is a mystery none the less. And I, for one, couldn’t wait to discover all the secrets that lay behind the walls of Angelfield house.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
(**** of five)
I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who hasn’t been exposed to Agatha Christie at one point or another. I’m not exception. Though, to be honest, my consumption has dealt with, almost entirely, BBC episodes of Poirot and Marple. But whenever I come across one of her volumes at a thrift store I usually pick it up. This was one such find.
And, of course, I loved it. Read it in one day sort of loved it. That’s the way with Christie, I think, you can’t manage to put it down because you have to know what happened. This is one of her more famous books, previously published as ‘Ten Little Indians’. And… other things. In it, ten people are invited to a secluded island off the coast of Devon on false pretenses. Once they arrive they discover their host, U.N. Owen, is not present and has left a handy gramophone record accusing each one of various murders in the past. They search the island and find no one, which stands that their accuser is one of them. But which one? As the bodies start to pile up and paranoia builds it seems to be clear that no one is intended to leave this island alive.
The characters were fairly shallow, but that’s not the sort of story this is. And it was perfect for what it was. Not great literature, but no one ever accused Agatha Christie of that. This is entertaining and clever and well worth the read.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
(*** of five)
How to review this book. It’s difficult. I’ll begin by saying that I am mostly unfamiliar with Shirley Jackson’s work, save ‘The Lottery’ which I read in eighth grade English. But, I mean, that’s the sort of story that really sticks with you so I thought I had to explore Jackson a little more thoroughly. Why I picked this instead of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is basically due to preference; I have a penchant for rich people living in crumbling houses apart from the rest of the world. Which is, essentially, what this was about.
Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood lives in her ancestral home with her sister, Constance, invalid uncle Julian, and cat Jonas. Every week she ventures into the nearby town for groceries and library books despite the fact that the townsfolk hate the Blackwoods. Perhaps due to the fact that six years ago, nearly the entire Blackwood crew was poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was arrested of the crime but eventually acquitted. The three live relatively isolated until a cousin, Charles, enters their lives. Merricat is immediately distrustful, but is the danger she perceives real or another part of this strangely Blackwood way of life?
The first things is the characters. They’re all exquisite, especially Merricat. I wish we’d had more of them. Really, because the length of this book made it so very little development went into the characters. They ended up sort of one dimensional. I was able to project things onto them, but I am not sure if that’s what was intended.
Also, I really needed a solid reason why the townsfolk hated the Blackwoods so strongly. I mean, this wasn’t just annoyance at their wealth or fear in their mythology, this was hatred on such a high scale that it made absolutely no sense. I would have liked a reason.
But, the book really was very good. A difficult novel to review, but I thought it deserved one.
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
(**** of five)
I’ve seen several people compare this novel to ‘The Secret History’, which is probably the reason why I picked it up in the first place. The elements are all certainly there; an exclusive group of pseudo students, a lost weekend that spans months, and a culmination in murder. But I honestly found this to be nothing like ‘The Secret History’. It didn’t even feel, not something I can say about most I lump into this category, that it was trying.
Karen Clarke has traveled through university as easily as she can. She studies language, something that’s always come easy to her, and marks are impeccable. Probably because she’s spent the past years studying and living a relatively quiet life with a group of like minded friends in a suburban house. But everything changes when she meets Biba Capel by chance at the end of her academic career. Soon Karen has all but moved into Biba’s crumbling Highgate childhood home where lives with her brother, Rex, and whatever transients happen to be passing through at the time. Karen soon begins a relationship with Rex and weaves her life together with the Capels, not quite realizing the complexities of their pasts. With suicide, abandonment, and guilt in their corner what Karen takes to be a summer of love is about to end in murder.
This book is filled with secrets. It makes no bones about it. And by the end of the novel, once we’ve learned the answers to all of them, I was fairly satisfied. In some points the answers seemed a bit predictable or easy, but it’s likely that the answers are that way because it’s the natural progression of the narrative. The framing of the book, Karen, picking Rex up from prison ten years after the events of the bulk of the novel, was good, but I didn’t think particularly necessary. I didn’t really care about anything that happened in the present. Karen and Rex’s daughter, Alice, Karen’s fears that they’ll be harassed by the media, I didn’t care. I think I would have framed it differently. But c’est la vie.
Overall, I did quite enjoy this novel. I couldn’t wait to get back and read what happened, but I’m not sure how long the story will stay with me. Then again, it did reminded me of college, A LOT, so maybe it will.
Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse
(***** of five)
This was my first Blandings book. Actually, it was my first Wodehouse that wasn’t a Jeeves novel and I can’t say that I was disappointed. Clearly, judging from my rating, I loved it. The book was written in a sort of omniscient third person that was well aware it was narrating, which was perfect. The characters, while still being Wodehousian caricatures, still managed to be relatively well rounded and likable. In the end everything ended up as it should and it didn’t feel typical. Basically, all the things that make Wodehouse so popular are present here and were, as always, delightful.
Searching for a lead character in this ensemble is difficult but I suppose I’d have to concede that the honor goes to Mr. Ashe Marson, writer of tepid (and really rather embarrassing) popular crime novels. Upon a chance meeting with Miss Joan Valentine he decides to embark on a more adventurous lifestyle. At the same time the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, second son to the rather absent minded Lord Emsworth, has become engaged to American heiress, Aline Peters who’s father is an avid collector of Egyptian scarabs. Events are set into motion when Lord Emsworth visits Peters and accidentally pockets the prize of the latter’s collection and move to Blandings Castles where the whole cast of characters end up for a hilarious jaunt in the country.
It’s a quick read and hilariously funny. And of course I’m continually enamored of everybody’s name.
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
(*** of five)
I feel rather wrong giving three stars to an Evelyn Waugh novel, particularly since the feeling I had coming away from this one was that I did, in fact, like it. But I suppose my problem is that I didn’t love it. This volume was thin, which was part of the reason why I picked it up just now; it had been sitting on my shelf since Borders went out of business and I thought now was as good a time as any to tick it off my list.
‘The Loved One’ is essentially about funerals. British expatriate, Dennis Barlow, came to Hollywood to write like his mentor and housemate Sir Francis Hinsley but ends up working at a funeral home for pets instead. When Sir Francis is unceremoniously fired from his job at Megalopolis films he commits suicide and the ensuing funerary arrangements cause Barlow to meet Aimée Thanatogenos, with whom he is instantly in love. But Aimée has also caught the attention of head embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, and the subsequent love triangle takes up the bulk of the story.
It was fairly clear to me that Waugh wrote this story after an unsatisfactory visit to California and upon some research discovered it was when a studio expressed interest in adapting ‘Brideshead Revisited’ to the silver screen. Apparently he only enjoyed meeting Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney, citing them as the “only artists in the place”. He believed ‘Brideshead’ to be over the head of most Americans (I try very hard not to find that insulting) and in that wrote ‘The Loved One’ as almost an antithesis. Take from that what you may. I found ‘The Loved One’ to be a good little novel but certainly nothing to the brilliance of ‘Brideshead’ or even the magnificent farce of ‘Vile Bodies’. It’s almost felt, at times, that the novel was written with contempt, which felt a little single minded. There were parts that were subtly hilarious and parts that sailed by with barely a ripple. This would be normal, but perhaps not ideal in a volume so thin. Overall, yes, of course, it’s Waugh so it’s good, but I wouldn’t say it’s his best effort.