Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon

glimpses-of-the-moon-theEdith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon

In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?

I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.

Mini-Reviews #9: Readathon reviews

With this batch of mini-reviews, I’m once again caught up with my backlog. I read three of the four books during the October 24-hour readathon, hence the title of this post. 🙂

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castlewhich-witch

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle — Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian are the last remnant of a once-prominent family. They live in a decrepit, isolated old house, and they don’t associate with any of the people in the nearby town. The novel’s sinister atmosphere is augmented by the suspicion that seven years ago, Constance deliberately poisoned the rest of her family. I’m no fan of horror, but I found this to be a very well-written, creepy but not too scary book. I may even read some more Shirley Jackson in the future.

Eva Ibbotson, Which Witch? — I’ve been a fan of Ibbotson’s YA/adult novels for years now, but this was my first experience reading one of her books for children. It was just as delightful as I expected it to be, telling the story of a dark wizard who holds a competition to determine which witch will be his bride. Beautiful and kind Belladonna would love to be the winner, but her magic is inescapably good. How will she convince Arriman the Awful that she’s his perfect match?

goodnight-tweetheartcrooked-kingdom

Teresa Medeiros, Goodnight Tweetheart — The plot of this romance novel is essentially “Boy meets girl on Twitter.” As such, the book is inescapably dated, but I must admit I enjoyed it anyway! It had some good banter and some sweet moments…overall, a pleasant escapist read. It’s not a new favorite or anything, but it’s definitely a fun way to spend an evening (or, in my case, the middle of the night!).

Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom — If you loved Six of Crows, which I didCrooked Kingdom will not disappoint! The twists and turns of the plot kept me hooked, and I loved the fact that Kaz was always one step ahead of his enemies. And as with the previous book, I was completely invested in these characters and rooting for them all to achieve their goals. I especially liked that this book gave more attention to Jesper and Wylan, the two characters who were least fleshed out in Six of Crows. There was also a very welcome appearance by Nikolai, my favorite character in the Grisha trilogy, which leads me to believe that Bardugo isn’t done with this world yet!

Review: War and Peace

War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Anthony Briggs)

“Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, War and Peace — presented here in the first new English translation in forty years — is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, searching for meaning in his life; cynical Prince Andrei, ennobled by wartime suffering; and Natasha Rostov, whose impulsiveness threatens to destroy her happiness. As Tolstoy follows the changing fortunes of his characters, he crafts a view of humanity that is both epic and intimate and that continues to define fiction at its most resplendent.” (Summary from Amazon.)

It took me more than three months to read this book, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I feel a bit presumptuous in criticizing such a well-known classic, but certain parts of the novel worked for me much more than others. There’s a lot of social comedy in this book, which I loved! And I find the Napoleonic era fascinating, although I’ve only been exposed to it from a British point of view, so it was interesting to see that conflict from a Russian perspective. However, there are reasons most people never finish this book, and those reasons are: the overly long, mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of battles; philosophical digressions; and tirades about the right and wrong way to study history. I do think this book is worth reading once, but I’m glad I don’t ever have to read it again!

I also want to note that I liked the Briggs translation; it’s not as word-for-word accurate as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is rumored to be, but I suspect it’s more readable. Instead of footnoting the long French passages, Briggs just translates them directly into English, although he does note when certain characters are speaking French. I actually preferred this, but some readers may not. Also, the Briggs translation is pretty aggressively British; for example, some of the lower-class soldiers have Cockney accents! Again, I didn’t mind this, but I can see how others might. All in all, I’d recommend this translation for casual readers but maybe not for serious scholars.

Review: The Little Prince

Little Prince, TheAntoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (trans. Katherine Woods)

After trying to review this book in my usual way, I’ve given it up as a lost cause. So I will just say that this classic children’s fable about a stranded pilot and a little boy from another planet is a wonderful read, for adults as well as for children. It’s full of allegories and lessons for attentive readers, from the folly of greed to the power of friendship. I’m sorry I never read this as a child, but I still found it incredibly touching and moving — the perfect book for a winter’s evening!

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth, TheNorton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

This classic children’s book tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo who comes home one day to find a mysterious package in his bedroom. The package turns out to be a toy tollbooth, and when he assembles it and drives through in his little electric car, he is transported to a new world. Milo visits a variety of unusual places, including the hostile cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping). He also receives an important mission: to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from where they are imprisoned in a castle in the air. Along the way, Milo encounters many dangers, including the land of Illusion, the Doldrums, and the demons of Ignorance. Luckily, with the help of his friends Tock and Humbug, he is finally able to rescue the princesses and restore them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Ultimately, he learns that his “boring” life is actually more interesting than he ever imagined.

For some reason, I never read this beloved children’s classic when I was growing up. If I had read it around age 7 or 8, it probably would have been one of my favorite books. But even as an adult reading it for the first time, I found a lot to enjoy and admire. I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay, and this book is chock-full of it, from the watchdog with a clock for a body to King Azaz of Dictionopolis. There’s also a hint of satire, as when the Humbug explains that several family members have occupied prominent positions in history; for example, many kings have been Humbugs. The book is quite didactic, though, which I wasn’t expecting. Nearly every creature and situation Milo encounters is designed to teach him (and the book’s young readers) a lesson. I did find these constant “teaching moments” a little tedious, but luckily the book has a lot of whimsy to make up for them. Overall, I definitely think this is a great book for children, but if you missed it as a kid, it’s not too late to enjoy it as an adult!

Review: The World of Jeeves

World of Jeeves, TheP.G. Wodehouse, The World of Jeeves

This book is an omnibus of short stories describing the adventures of Bertie Wooster, an amiable but dim aristocrat in early 20th-century England, and Jeeves, the consummate gentleman’s gentleman. Bertie is a friendly soul who just wants to be left alone to enjoy himself. Unfortunately, he has plenty of friends and relatives who are continually making demands on him, both financially and emotionally. His terrifying Aunt Agatha holds him in contempt, yet she is constantly trying to “improve” him and set him up with equally terrifying young females. His friend Bingo Little is always falling desperately in love with some girl or other, and for some reason he always approaches Bertie for help. Though Bertie is not overburdened with brains, he has a generous heart and usually wants to help. Good thing he has Jeeves, whose gravity and intelligence always manage to get Bertie and his friends out of whatever scrapes they’re in.

What can I say about Jeeves and Wooster that the entire world hasn’t said already? Wodehouse has a very specific style and brand of humor, and literally nobody does it better than he does. Bertie’s narrative voice is an utter joy to read, showcasing his own lack of intelligence but also satirizing the pretentious language of some popular fiction at the time. Strangely enough, his friends and family all think of him as the village idiot, but he’s probably smarter than most of his friends — definitely wiser than poor Bingo, for example! And the interplay between Bertie and Jeeves is wonderful; Jeeves always appears completely respectful and subservient, yet he dominates Bertie mercilessly (for his own good, of course!). I definitely recommend the story “Bertie Changes His Mind,” which is narrated by Jeeves and demonstrates how skillfully he is able to manipulate his employer. My one caveat is that you should pace yourself while reading this book, because the stories are all very similar and could become tedious after a while. But I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys British humor and wants a good belly laugh!

Review: The Giver

Giver, TheLois Lowry, The Giver

Eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents and sister in an idyllic place called simply the Community. The Community is governed by a set of Rules covering all aspects of life, which results in a peaceful, orderly society. Everyone has a specific role to play in the Community, with the Elders evaluating the children on their twelfth birthday in order to determine how they will serve the Community as adults. Jonas is looking forward to his Ceremony of Twelve with great excitement, wondering which job he’ll be assigned to perform. But when the fateful day finally arrives, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen for the most prestigious and mysterious job of all: he will be the Community’s new Receiver. At first Jonas doesn’t even know what being the Receiver entails, but he soon learns that it will isolate him from everyone he knows, even his family. And as his training with the former Receiver (now called the Giver) continues, Jonas realizes that the supposedly benevolent Community is hiding some very dark secrets.

Despite the fact that this book came out during my childhood, I somehow never read it before. So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it, reading it for the first time as an adult. Fortunately, my fear was groundless — I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book! Of course, some of the more sinister aspects of the Community will be unsurprising to adult readers, who have presumably encountered other dystopian novels and can guess what’s coming. But Lowry does such an amazing job of peeling back the seemingly perfect facade of the Community bit by bit, slowly revealing surprising tidbits of this allegedly ideal world. I also really loved the character of Jonas, who reacts to his new discoveries in such an understandable way. I practically got chills at the scene where he gets his list of Rules for how to be the Receiver — it perfectly encapsulates the confusing new world he’s been thrust into. Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the ending; Jonas decides to take a stand, but the outcome of this decision remains uncertain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels!

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!