Reading List by Jennie for April through June
I also read and reviewed:
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I got this a little while ago when there were a bunch of Agatha Christie books on sale; several people told me that it was good but “strange.” I like strange, at least sometimes, so I decided to make this my first foray into the author’s works. I liked it pretty well – it’s a very compellingly written tale of 10 people lured to an island and picked off one by one. The novel ends with no resolution to the mystery – who is the killer!? So I was relieved to see that there was an epilogue, consisting in part of the confession of the murderer and an explanation of how and why s/he did it. I was a little disappointed by that part – it was clever, sure, but somehow I was expecting something *more*. It may be, though, that I expect more because the mystery writers who came after Christie borrowed and built so much on her work that what was ingenious and fresh at the time feels…okay, even good, but not great. My grade for this is a B, edging towards a B+. I will definitely continue with Christie’s works – maybe Murder on the Orient Express next?
Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford
When I started this book I whined to Janine about how I was really not feeling it, and she sensibly advised me to dump it (“life’s too short”). But I didn’t listen, because I haaaaate dropping books. Plus I had liked the previous Nancy Mitford title I read, Wigs on the Green, so I kept hoping Don’t Tell Alfred would get better. And it did, though it definitely took its time. It maybe didn’t help that this is Mitford’s last novel (though she wrote biographies after it), and was not well received at the time it was published. It also maybe didn’t help that the protagonist and some of the other characters were first featured in arguably the author’s most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, neither of which I’ve read (I have them in my tbr pile though – actual physical books, not digital versions!). Anyway, the narrator, Fanny is a middle-aged Oxford don’s wife who ends up in Paris when her husband is appointed French ambassador. Many comic travails follow, including the refusal of the previous ambassador’s wife to quit the premises, a social secretary who is more “social” than “secretary”, and a spiteful gossip columnist who seems to have it out for the Ambassador and his whole family. Then there are Fanny’s four sons, who cause their own problems – especially her eldest, a proto-hippie who arrives with an unexpected (and unexpectedly very pregnant) wife and a Chinese baby they’ve acquired from somewhere. The book was written in 1960 and some of the takes are a bit backward, even racist. I wasn’t always sure what were Mitford’s prejudices and what were the prejudices of her characters, being gently mocked, but I think it was (more than a) little of column A and a little of column B. Anyway, I gave this a B, which is far higher than I would have expected after reading the first third of the novel. I will get to her other novels, but I think I’m taking a break for a bit.
Intrusion by Mary McCluskey
This was another one of my Amazon Prime freebies, and possibly the last I’ll read for a while, since I’ve tried to avoid even downloading them lately. They’ve ranged from quite unsuccessful to mostly unsuccessful for me, and I can’t just download a free book without eventually feeling some pressure to read it, so in terms of emotional capital, they aren’t really free. Anyway, this was a fairly predictable story that I nonetheless didn’t hate because it had decent-ish writing and a fairly compelling style (how damning-with-faint-praise can I be?). I was hoping for a bigger twist at the end – there wasn’t really a twist at all, since circumstances were pretty much how they’d seemed from the beginning. The narrator, Kat, is a Brit who has lived for decades in Los Angeles with her American husband. They are grieving the death of their only child, a 17-year-old son who died in an auto accident months before the book begins. Into their lives comes an old friend of Kat’s, Sarah – a woman she went to school with who was *always* clearly bad news. In spite of the fact that Sarah is indisputably up to no good, Kat finds herself increasingly caught up in her web. Again, the ending was predictable and Kat took way too long to see the writing on the wall (though I did give her a partial pass since she was grief-addled over her son). But I’m giving this a B (though a lowish B), because I found myself wanting to continue reading each time I stopped, which is not necessarily a common experience for me these days.
The Last Girl by Joe Hart
Okay, I lied – I read one more Amazon Prime freebie (though maybe I read it before Intrusion? I can’t remember). I think I probably picked this up because it’s dystopian and unlike many readers I haven’t burned out on dystopian yet (partly because I haven’t read a *ton* of it – I’m picky and wary of the genre, even though I often find it really compelling). This is actually the first of a trilogy but I don’t feel the need to continue with the rest of the books in the series (and usually that’s hard for me to keep myself from doing). The heroine is one of several girls raised in a high security facility after a mysterious event that causes the female birth rate to drop drastically. This book had elements that reminded me of better dystopian fiction – specifically The Girl with All the Gifts (the way that the girls were treated as both dangerous and valuable prisoners made me think of TGwAtG) and at times The Last Girl made for absorbing reading. But ultimately the plotting, characterization and prose were all pretty meh, and I didn’t really care about anyone, least of all the Mary Sue-ish heroine. I gave it a B- in my log but I think that it was only that high due to the aforementioned readability – in retrospect I’m dropping it down to a C+.
Off Sides by Sawyer Bennett
I believe I got this from Daily Deals either free or for .99 – my fondness for NA college-set hockey books warring with my fear of the unknown when it comes to new-to-me authors. I probably shouldn’t have bothered. This was a very anemic, paint-by-numbers tale of a virtuous poor good girl (albeit one with piercings and wild hair colors) and a rich jock who has to overcome his snobbish parents and social set to be with the girl that he loves practically on sight. The characters – with one exception, the hero’s sister (who had a very small part) – are all black and white, good or bad, totally supportive of the h/h or determined to destroy them at all costs. The h/h do not talk or act like real people, especially not like young, college-age people. I like a good Cinderella tale as much as the next gal, but it needs to have something more than Off Sides offered to keep me interested. This one was a C- for me.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
I can’t remember who told me they found this book boring, but I think it was after I read (and loved) Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is partly inspired by Three Men in a Boat. Anyway, I only had a vague memory of what it was the person had against TMiaB; it’s only rereading the comments on my TSNotD review that I even recall that the charge leveled against it was “boring.” If I’d remembered that, I might never have picked this book up, because I’m very suggestible when it comes to the B word. It turns out that I did not find it boring, though it was fairly slight and rather repetitive. Apparently first intended as a travelogue then turned into a humorous recounting of the author’s river excursion with two friends, Three Men in a Boat is funny in a gentle, ironic, silly and very British way. The travelogue-turned-humor book change explains some odd passages, as when the narrator tells an anecdote about a ruined woman who eventually left her child and went to one of the scenic spots the group is passing in their boat and drowned herself. I kept waiting for the punchline, but it never came. Maybe an editor could have excised that section? But still, TMiaB really is amusing, particularly the squabbling between the three men over division of labor; everyone seems to think they’re the only ones doing anything. (“I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.”) This is also a quick read, which never hurts. My grade is a straight B.
The Fifties by David Halberstam
I read and really appreciated Halberstam’s The Children a while back, so I was interested in giving his work another try. The Fifties seemed like it would be right up my alley – an examination of a decade that may have been staid on the surface but whose roiling underbelly lead to the chaotic 60s. But there were a couple of things that kept The Fifties from being a success for me. One was the organization, which was all over the place. There felt like there was no thematic or chronological coherence to the subject matter the author covered. Levittown, Marilyn Monroe, the arms race, Ray Kroc, and way, way more than I wanted to know about Detroit automakers, all kind of jumbled together. The writing made even subjects I would think I’d find interesting – like the Charles Van Doren quiz show scandal or the origins of the Pill – feel dry and dull. About the only sections that had some emotional resonance for me were the parts about the nascent civil rights struggle (telling given that this was the subject matter of The Children): Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine. Overall, though, this was a disappointing slog and I’m giving it a low C. (I might rate it lower but it’s not so much a bad book as not a book for me; it has plenty of enthusiastic reviews on Amazon.)
The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
Last fall I read and reviewed The Girl with All the Gifts and it has stayed with me ever since I read it. When I heard that there was to be a sequel, I was excited. When I heard it was actually a prequel, I was slightly less so, since I knew it wouldn’t likely contain the characters from TGwAtG or advance the story, taking place before the events of the other book as it did. The Boy on the Bridge takes place 10 years after the fungus that created the “hungries” has caused a breakdown of society. An expedition from Beacon, the main base of humanity left in Britain, is traveling through the U.K. picking up biomedical caches left by a previous expedition, one that went mysteriously missing and never returned to Beacon. This tank, called the Rosalind Franklin, contains 12 people: six soldiers and six scientists. Among the scientists are Rina Khan, who has a secret that’s very soon going to be obvious to the rest of the crew, and her protégé, 15-year-old Robert Greaves, who appears to be an autistic savant. Robert frequently leaves Rosie on secret jaunts for his own scientific experiments. On one of these he discovers a girl who is like Melanie from TGwAtG, a hybrid unknown to the survivors thus far. The discovery sets in motion a chain of events that, along with trouble back at Beacon, puts the crew on a fateful collision course. The story was involving but I spent way too much of it missing my favorite characters from TGwAtG (which says more about TGwAtG than this book). The story got much more compelling though in the last third. The dénouement surprised me (characters I was sure would die lived, and characters I thought would survive died), and the ending, along with a stellar epilogue, brought this book up to an A- for me. It’s not The Girl with All the Gifts for me, but it’s close. This appears to be the end of the series, and I will miss it, but The Boy on the Bridge really closed it out beautifully.