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text 2019-12-29 13:44
24 Festive Tasks: Door 19 - Festivus: Task 1
Hot Sur - Laura Restrepo,Ernesto Mestre-Reed
The Wrath and the Dawn - Renee Ahdieh
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements - Sam Kean
A Blunt Instrument - Georgette Heyer
The Hour of the Star - Benjamin Moser,Clarice Lispector,Colm Tóibín

Overall, 2019 was a phantastic reading year for me with decidedly more highs than lows.  Of the latter, my worst reading experiences were, in no particular order:

 

Laura Restrepo, Hot Sur: OK, forget the "in no particular order" bit for a moment.  A main character expecting me to empathize with her for siding with the psychopathic rapist of the woman she calls her best friend ... and actually trying to talk her best friend into agreeing her horrific experience was all just a "misunderstanding"?  Sorrynotsorry -- just, nope.  A hard DNF, and that main character deserved everything she had coming to her as a consequence.

 

Renée Ahdieh, The Wrath and the Dawn: Shallow, infantile in tone, and, most importantly, abominably bady researched.  I didn't DNF quite as quickly as Hot Sur, but I barely made it past the 1/3 mark.  I might have been marginally more understanding if it had come across as YA fantasy (which was frankly what I'd expected), but it's written as historical fiction -- and getting core historical details wrong in a book of historical fiction is just about the worst sin you can commit in my book.

 

Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: Well, let's just say Mr. Kean is decidedly not Helen Czerski (which is NOT a good thing), and he also isn't half as funny as he apparently thinks he is.  What he seems to think is humor, to me comes across as arrogance and unwarranted judgmentalism -- and his research / fact checking on everything "non-physics" is plainly abominable.  Almost as importantly, his fractured narrative style and lack of clarity completely failed to translate to me his own professed enthusiasm for his subject.  Another book where I never got past the initial chapters.

 

Georgette Heyer, A Blunt Instrument: Heyer at her worst -- clichéd, biased, snub-nosed, with one-dimensional characters and a mystery whose solution is staring you in the face virtually from page 1.  I only finished it for confirmation that my guess was correct (which, dare I say "of course", it was), but it was a struggle of the sort I never experienced with Heyer before or since (and I've finished all of her mysteries in the interim).

 

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star: I know Lispector is highly regarded, but she's obviously not for me -- I detest speech that is so deconstructed to barely make sense (even to mother tongue speakers, as it turns out); combine that with the drab narrative (if that word is even justified) of a drab character living a drab life, and you've lost me for good.  It was a blessing that this is a very short book; if it hadn't been, this would have been another DNF.

 

(Task: The airing of grievances: Which are the five books you liked least this year – and why?)

 

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text 2019-07-29 15:49
OT: A futile long walk

Today, we ventured outside the old city center to go to Lidl. In Sweden we frequently found great bargains on vegan food, clothes, household appliances and much more. Guess what? That will never happen here in Denmark. Apparently, it’s the only country in Europe where Lidl doesn’t sell vegan food and even though there was some stuff other than food, it’s clear we’ll never bother with Lidl again. We needed sheets for our new beds and more clothes for my kids. Grr. That long, long walk in the relentless heat all for nothing. Well, there was vegan ice cream and ’accidentally’ vegan chocolate. At least the kids enjoyed the ice cream. And chocolate makes pretty much everything at least a little better. Now I’m semi-passed out on one of the new couches trying to simmer down and get over my disappointment. I didn’t take any photos. Out there even our cool new home isn’t very pretty. 

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text 2018-12-30 00:02
24 Festive Tasks: Door 19 - Festivus, Task 1 (Airing of Grievances)
The Red Queen - Margaret Drabble
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World - Stephen Brusatte
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright
The Lady Vanishes - Ethel Lina White
The Cutout - Francine Mathews
The Lake District Murder - John Bude
Candy Cane Murder - Leslie Meier,Laura Levine,Joanne Fluke,Suzanne Toren

I've been blessed with a pretty amazing reading year in which disappointments were few and far between -- so it was fortunately not difficult at all to spot the small number of candidates for my "grievances" list when scrolling back through my BookLikes shelves.  They are / were, in no particular order (except for no. 1):

 

Margaret Drabble: The Red Queen

Pretentious, artificial, historically incorrect and, most of all, monumentally self-involved.  If this is the type of book that Drabble's sister A.S. Byatt criticizes under the byword "faction", then I'm with Byatt all the way -- and that statement is far from a given where Byatt's own fiction is concerned.  Someday I'll seek out the actual memoirs of the Crown Princess whose story inspired this poor excuse for a novel.  I doubt I'll go anywhere near Drabble's writing again anytime soon, however.

Original review HERE.

 

Stephen Brusatte: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Speaking of monumentally self-involved, this wasn't much better than Drabble's book in that particular department.  It does contain the actual bit of paleonthological information, but that bit is essentially hidden between tales of Steve the Great and his almost-as-great famous friends and acquaintances, as well as Brusatte's pet theories -- pun not intended -- and a lot of generalization on subjects that don't necessarily lend themselves to same.  (Also, Brusatte obviously loves T-Rex ... and his obsession with the Rex's "puny arms" has me wondering about the wider psychological implications of Brusatte's fascination with the big bad  boys (and girls) of dino-dom.)

Original review HERE.

 

Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon

Our third candidate under the "monumentally self-involved" header.  Leaving aside that the book's subtitle ("History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them") is a complete misnomer, this, too, is chiefly about the bright and sparky Ms. Wright and her opinions, frequently at best shallow research, and largely inappropriate oh-so-clever (NOT) quips, asides, and pop culture references.  At least two of the "plagues" mentioned in the book actually are not epidemics at all (which shows that indeterminate "medical horrors" is what Wright was truly after), and on the epidemics that do get mentioned, entire chapters of medical research and the world-renowned scientists chiefly responsible for that research don't even get so much as a passing mention.  Virtually the book's only saving grace was Wright's stance against anti-vaxxers and similar superstitious nonsense -- the sum total of which, however, would easily have fit into one of the magazine articles that Wright produces when she's not pretending she is a science writer.

Original review HERE.

 

Ethel Lina White: The Lady Vanishes

One of the rare examples where I like the movie adaptation (by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, no less) vastly better than the literary original.  "Woman in peril" stories aren't my cup of tea to begin with, but leaving aside that I rather like Hitch's spin on the conspiracy at the heart of the book, most of all, the two protagonists (Margaret Lockwood's Iris and her "knight in shining armour", portrayed by Michael Redgrave in the movie) come across as much more likeable and believable in the screen version -- the guy in particular is nothing more than a pretentious prick in the book, for however much he's supposed to be the Hero and Iris's big savior and love interest.  All in all, Hitchcock elevated what seems to amount at best to B movie material on paper into one of his early masterpieces -- no small feat on his part.

Original review HERE.

 

Francine Matthews: The Cutout

Not strictly a disappointment, as I was a bit skeptical going in anyway; however, it had an interesting premise and started well and thus got my hopes up to a certain extent -- only to deflate them pretty thoroughly, alas, before it had really gotten going.  Totalitarian political machinations in a post-collapse-of-the-Wall Europe may have sounded interesting when the book was written in the early 2000s -- and sound even more up-to-date these days, in fact -- but it would have required a different writer to pull this off convincingly.  Matthews has no understanding of Germany, German society and politics, nor that of the Eastern European countries where her book is set (if she ever lived in Berlin or any of the book's other main locations, she obviously had virtually zero interactions with anybody other than her American intelligence colleagues), and unfortunately, name-dropping half a street atlas' worth of names of tourist sites and major traffic arteries is no replacement for a believable reproduction of local atmosphere. Similarly, not one of the characters is anything other than a two-dimensional cipher, and by the time the book reaches its end, it degenerates into the cheapest of cheap spy thriller clichés once and for all.

Original review (of sorts) HERE.

 

Honorable mentions:

(Or would that be "dishonorable mentions"?)

 

John Bude: The Lake District Murder

I already used this for the task of finding something redeeming in an otherwise disappointing book (International Day of Tolerance / Door 6, Task 1), so I won't formally use it again in this particular context -- besides, unlike the five above-mentioned books it didn't actually make me angry ... it just fell flat of what it could have been.

Original review HERE.

 

Joanne Fluke / Laura Levine / Leslie Meier: Candy Cane Murder

A huge disappointment only considering how popular these three ladies' books are (particularly so, Fluke's) -- ultimately, I guess this was nothing more than a confirmation of the fact that cozy mysteries aren't actually my kind of thing (with the sole exception of Donna Andrews's Meg Langslow series).  Of the three entries, Meier's was by far the weakest, but I neither cared particularly for Fluke's nor ultimately for Levine's, either -- though in the sense of "amongst the blind, the one-eyed man is king", Levine's was the strongest entry in an overall weak threesome.

Original review HERE.

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-12-29 20:58
Window on the Square -- Don't look too closely. There are too many holes
Window on the Square - Phyllis A. Whitney

I started out rating this 2.5 stars, then dropped it back to 2.0.  As a book to while away a few hours, it's fine.  It's a good page-turner, with multiple entwined mysteries, and I didn't see any obvious give-aways in terms of the ultimate revelation.

 

The ultimate revelation itself, however, is a bit of a let-down.  While not unexpected, it doesn't really mesh with the characters as they're presented.  So the following is going to be filled with spoilers.  If you want to pick this up, the Open Road Media edition for Kindle is currently $2.99, and there's a 3-book set with Thunder Heights and The Golden Unicorn for $3.99.

 

The rest of this very long review is pretty much spoilers, so consider yourself warned!

 

It's important to have a detailed summary of the action in order to see how all the tropes work as well as how the ending is set up.

 

Setting is 1870s New York City, Washington Square to be precise.  There's a bit of local description and a few bits and pieces of contemporary history, but not much.  Certainly not enough to make anyone running to Google to check out the accuracy.

 

Young Megan Kincaid has recently lost her mother and younger brother in an accident.  Her father, a professor at Princeton in New Jersey, was killed in the Civil War,  Her brother Richard was apparently developmentally disabled.  The book was published in 1962, so there isn't a whole lot of emphasis placed on Richard's condition.

 

Megan is the classic impoverished, innocent, idealistic young woman, the archetypal gothic heroine.

 

Megan's mother was a successful seamstress, and now Megan proposes to make her own living the same way, though she's not nearly as skilled.  She receives a summons to the home of Brandon and Leslie Reid, ostensibly to sew a frock for Leslie's daughter Selina.  But her other job, and the real reason she was hired, is to care for Selina's brother, Jeremy.  They are respectively eight and nine -- or seven and eight -- years of age.  I forget precisely how old they are.

 

Jeremy is withdrawn and moody, the result of having accidentally killed his father, Daniel Reid, two years before.  Selina is boisterous and spoiled.  Jeremy is blamed for everything; Selina gets away with everything.

 

Jeremy and Selina are the classic vulnerable orphans, for whom the heroine will sacrifice anything and everything, including her reputation and her life, if necessary.

 

Leslie Reid is the gorgeous widow who married her late husband's older brother within a year of Daniel's death.  She is fragile, often in poor health, but always beautiful.  She dotes on Selina, but seems to have no feeling for Jeremy at all.  She appears, however, to be devoted to the memory of her late husband.  Daniel was some kind of crusader in the days of political corruption.

 

Leslie is the archetype of the beautiful "other woman" who stands between the innocent heroine and at least one of the men put forward as her Happy Ever After.

 

Brandon Reid is Leslie's second husband, older brother of her first.  He is dark, handsome, worldly, powerful.  He explains to Megan that she is not just a seamstress; she is a kind of supra-governess, who will be living in the Reid home to try to bring Jeremy out of his emotional lockdown.

 

Brandon Reid is the classic gothic "hero."

 

Thora Garth was Leslie's childhood nurse, and is now governess to Selina and Jeremy.  She is devoted to Leslie and, by extension to Selina, but she hates Jeremy, considers him evil and wicked.  She makes no attempt to hide her hatred and calls him out frequently.

 

But Thora has another side.  Fairly early on, Megan discovers that Garth (as she is most often called) has a habit of sneaking into Leslie's room when the mistress of the house is out.  Garth dons Leslie's gowns, bathes herself in Leslie's perfumes, and gazes with deep longing at the miniature portraits of both Daniel and Brandon Reid.  Garth quickly develops an open animosity toward Megan.

 

Thora Garth is the classic nurse/governess protector of the delicate "other woman," who manifests symptoms of irrationality and/or insanity as a threat to the innocent heroine.

 

Andrew Beach is the children's tutor.  He comes to the house in the mornings to teach Selina and Jeremy.  He is also something of an artist, who sketches portraits of important people,which are then published in the newspapers.  Leslie Reid has noticed his talent and has asked him to paint a portrait of her with Selina. 

 

As a relatively well-educated, working-class man, Andrew is the classic counter to the wealthy Brandon Reid and a challenger for Megan's affections.

 

Kate, Henry, and Fuller are three of the Reid family servants, respectively the maid, butler, and coachman.  Kate quickly befriends Megan, though Henry remains aloof.

 

More important than the servants, however, are a couple of inanimate objects that are introduced early in the book with that kind of ominous foreshadowing of dark events to come.

 

One is a music box carrousel -- Whitney's misspelling drove me nuts through the whole book -- that Megan had given to her brother Richard as a gift.  This is her Most Precious Possession, given much more emotional value even than the few pieces of nice jewelry she has inherited from her mother.

 

The second is a carved head of the Egyptian god Osiris which occupies a place of some honor in Brandon Reid's library.  Prior to his brother Daniel's death Brandon was an (amateur?) archaeologist in Egypt.

 

Slowly, Megan works her way into Jeremy's affections and begins to break through his shell.  At first she is told he accidentally shot his father, but then she's told he did it deliberately.  But Jeremy doesn't completely remember what happened.  He insists there was another gun involved, that he did indeed have a gun, but it was unloaded and it disappeared after the shooting, to be replaced by the one that actually killed his father.

 

She also becomes more and more friendly with Andrew Beach, who warns her to get away from the Reid family.  This is the classic gothic romance trope of the kind, attractive, but slightly less desirable potential love interest.  Megan even goes on a "date" with him, to a cute little Italian restaurant.

 

She also goes on a "date" with Brandon Reid, taking the children to a theatre matinee.  It ends badly, because Brandon is moody and can't seem to control his emotions.

 

Later, they have another "date," of sorts, taking the children skating.  Now the relationship between Megan and Brandon is becoming more romantic, more threatening.

 

A series of events around the Christmas holidays starts to bring issues to a head.  Jeremy begins to make an elaborate gift for his uncle/stepfather, a beaded collar in an Egyptian style to decorate the Osiris head in Brandon's library.  Megan provides the beads; Andrew Beach obtains some fine wire for stringing the beads.

 

This co-operative effort strengthens the connection between Megan and Andrew over the issue of Jeremy, and reinforces the rivalry between Brandon Reid and Andrew for Megan's affections.

 

Leslie, Selina, and Garth takea trip up the Hudson River to visit Leslie's parents for several days.  While they are gone, Megan and Jeremy have a "date" of their own, a dinner party at the Reid house jsut for the two of them.  They dress up, have all the servants participate in preparing the dinner, and it's all going to be fun.  Then Brandon comes home, and things get messy.  There's now a sort of declaration of love, and then threats are made.

 

Megan must leave.  Leslie fires her, Garth threatens her, but Brandon insists she stay.  Her affection for Jeremy, and her sense of responsibility toward him, now override her better judgment.  She agrees to stay.

 

Christmas arrives, and Brandon gives Megan an Egyptian scarab brooch as a token of his affection.  Their romance is doomed, of course.  Megan gives Jeremy the precious carrousel music box, which is also doomed, of course.  Jeremy gives Brandon the beaded collar for the Osiris statue, and Brandon is delighted with it.  This means the Osiris is also doomed.

 

While all this is going on, Selina keeps chirping up with declarations of having a secret that she's not going to share with anyone.

 

But then there's a confrontation between Jeremy and Brandon over the music box, and Brandon in a fit of temper sweeps the toy aside and breaks it.  Jeremy is heartbroken, but also blames himself.  Surprisingly, though, Megan doesn't seem to be terribly affected by the damage.  And that's where things really began to fall apart for me.

 

A few days later, a gunshot in the house sort of wakens everyone.  But no one is hurt; the victim is the Osiris statue.  So another Precious Possession is destroyed.

 

Someone is out to get Brandon and Megan, and possibly Jeremy, too.  Garth insists the boy be put away, blaming him for shooting the statue, even though he remembers nothing of it.  Brandon believes, too, that Jeremy can no longer be allowed in the house, and though he intends to find a better place for the boy, he agrees that makinghim an inmate of some asylum is the only option.

 

Megan, with no evidence to the contrary, believes something else is going on.  She alone has faith in Jeremy.

 

The exact order of events leading up to the conclusion isn't entirely important, but it reveals the weakness in how Whitney resolves all the little mysteries.

 

Selina reveals her secret: She knows where the other gun from her father's killing is, the gun her brother insisted he had checked to make sure it wasn't loaded and therefore he couldn't have killed his father.  I just didn't buy that Selina, at age seven or eight, would think this was a fun secret to tease everyone with.  Though very different in temperament, she and Jeremy did have a close relationship.  And the fact that this gun was hidden meant something nefarious was going on.

 

The gun is hidden in a heavy candlestick belonging to Leslie,  That Selina, who was very close to her mother, would have bragged about knowing this also didn't seem to make sense.

 

And then Leslie is murdered, beaten to death with the aforementioned candlestick.  Evidence emerges implicating Brandon, even though he is out of the house at the time of the murder.

 

SPOILER WITHIN SPOILER

 

Well, of course, Brandon didn't kill her.  Neither did the children.  Neither did Thora Garth.  Neither did the servants.  Neither did Megan.  Neither did Andrew Beach.

 

As Andrew reveals to the police, Leslie killed herself.

 

NO WAY. 

 

Not only did I not buy Leslie's suicide-by-overdose-of-laudanum, but I didn't buy the rest of her scenario.  Yes, it's somewhat similar to the conclusion of DuMaurier's Rebecca, but the character of Rebecca de Winter was entirely different.

 

According to Andrew Beach's version, Leslie took the overdose and then told him what to do so her death would be blamed on Brandon.  After she died, Andrew proceeded to bludgeon her corpse with the candlestick, while wearing one of Brandon's shirts so there would be blood on it.  Then he was to wash in Brandon's basin, to make sure there were traces of blood there, too.

 

Andrew did all this because he was in love with Leslie.  Somehow or other I just couldn't see him bludgeoning the dead body of the woman he loved in order to frame someone else.  Andrew didn't come across as that kind of person.  He may have been jealous of Brandon for having been Lesllie's husband, and for having won Megan's heart as well, but Andrew was never portrayed as being a bad person.

 

But why would Leslie kill herself anyway?  Well, apparently it was because she was going to be found out to be her first husband's real killer.  Jeremy hadn't been believed at the time of the killing that there was another weapon, bu now Selina had found it and Jeremy's version would be believed.

 

At which point in the telling, Jeremy remembers -- I think he remembers -- that the person who fired the gun that killed Daniel Reid was in fact Jeremy's mother.  I'm not sure why Jeremy didn't remember this at the time, or why no one believed him, or how the other gun got removed from the scene.

 

Why did all this go down?  Oh, because Lesllie's parents were in financial trouble so she married wealthy Daniel even though she was already really in love with Brandon.  But then Daniel got mixed up in dirty politics and she didn't want to see her posh future destroyed, so she killed him. 

 

And Brandon married her to keep her quiet about the political scandal to save his family's reputation.  I didn't buy that, either.  He was an archaeologist, for crying out loud.  He would have been obsessed with the truth.  He would have wanted to know, at all costs, not just hush it up and forget about it.

 

Plus, he was willing to let Jeremy take the blame.

 

At the beginning of the book, I had some sympathy for Brandon, but it didn't last long.  He gave in to his lust for Megan even though he had married Leslie to save the family reputation.  That kind of man wouldn't easily set aside his scruples.  Nor would he, as the book went on, contemplate ending the marriage dishonorably.  His mood swings weren't suitable for heroism either.

 

At the end, when it's all been sorted out, Megan and Brandon are going to go to Egypt, and leave the children with their maternal grandparents. No.  No way.  After all the children have been through after all that Megan has been through fighting for Jeremy, there is no way I can accept Megan and Brandon abandoning them to the parents of the woman who killed their father and his brother.

 

Besides, how did Leslie's parents recoup their supposed financial losses?  How are they going to be able to take care of two small children?  Selina liked her grandparents, but I'm not sure about Jeremy. 

 

Overall, I thought it was a really crappy ending, partly for just being crappy but also for not being particularly believable.  Andrew Beach wouldn't have done that to Leslie and to Brandon, and by extension to Megan.  Andrew wasn't a bad guy.  But I also didn't see Leslie as the kind to take the suicide route and beg to be mutilated after death.  Just didn't make sense.

 

The worst, though, was Megan walking off to Egypt and abandoning the boy she had worked so hard to save.  That alone made Window on the Square just a tiny bit shy of wallbanger status.

 

The writing was fine, and most of what led up to the ending was fine but that ending pretty much ruined it all.  Not as bad as The Thorn Birds, but bad.  Down to 1.5 stars.

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review 2018-12-21 17:25
Borrower of the Night -- a disappointment
Borrower of the Night - Elizabeth Peters

Disclaimer:  I purchased the Kindle edition of this book in December 2018.  I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her regarding this book or any other matter.  I am an author of contemporary and historical romance.

 

 

This was a re-read, after many, many years.  I'm guessing I first read Borrower of the Night in the late 1980s, though it was apparently first published in 1973.  This is the first book in Peters's Vicky Bliss series.  I already own books 3, 4, and 5, but I'm not sure I want to pay for book 2.

 

For some reason or other, I remembered Borrower of the Night as being more mysterious and less slapstick. Frankly, I don't enjoy slapstick comedy at all, and I really don't enjoy it when mixed with mystery and romance.  So the silly humor in this book rubbed me the wrong way every time it occurred.

 

Vicky's romance with Tony also rubbed me the wrong way, and that may have been because I knew that in subsequent books, her affections got directed elsewhere.  I knew, therefore, that Tony was not going to be a lasting romantic partner.

 

The plot is fairly straightforward: Vicky and Tony discover clues to a missing 16th century German art treasure and they set off to find it.  They are joined/pursued by George Nolan, a famous art collector.  The three end up in an ancient German Schloss that has been converted to a hotel.  The other main members of the cast are a German physician, a German historian, the Countess who runs the hotel, her English companion, and the

countess's niece Irma who is the actual heir to the title and the castle and the treasure, if it can be found.  There are various adventures and threats and accidents and injuries.

 

What there wasn't was atmosphere and intrigue of anything resembling a serious nature.  The characters were all cardboard -- intrepid Vicky, macho Tony, presumed-evil-villain George, menacing Countess, beautiful victim Irma.  I couldn't make a mental connection to any of them, and that's the main thing I read fiction for -- the characters.

 

 

 

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