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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 2018-12-23 22:01
24 Festive Tasks: My Final Books (Doors 16, 17 and 19 -- Human Rights Day, St. Lucia's Day, and Festivus)
A Christmas Guest - Anne Perry,Terrence Hardiman
Skandinavische Weihnachten: Die schönsten Geschichten von Sven Nordqvist, Hans Christian Andersen, Selma Lagerlöf u.a. - Hans Christian Andersen,Selma Lagerlöf,Various Authors,Sven Nordqvist,Josef Tratnik,Dirk Bach,Jens Wawrczeck
A Woman of No Importance - Full Cast,Oscar Wilde
Model Millionaire - David Timson,Oscar Wilde


Anne Perry: A Christmas Guest

The third book in Anne Perry's series of Christmas novellas, each one of which has as their protagonist one of the supporting characters from Perry's main series (William Monk, and Charlotte & Thomas Pitt).  This installment's starring role goes to Charlotte Pitt's vinegar-tongued grandmother, who -- like another remote relative, recently returned to England after having spent most of her adult life living in the Middle East -- finds herself shunted onto Charlotte and her husband Thomas at short notice, because the family with whom she had been planning to spend the holidays have made other plans.  While Grandma pretends to despise her widely-traveled fellow guest, secretly she develops a considerable amount of respect for her, so when the lady is unexpetedly found dead, grandma takes it upon herself to seek out the people who had unloaded her on the Pitt household; convinced that something untoward is afoot.

 

As Perry's Christmas novellas go, this is one of my favorite installments to date, and i loved seeing it told, for once, not from the point of view of an easily likeable character, but from that of Grandma, who is a major pain in the neck to others (even though you'd have to be blind not to recognize from the word "go" that her acerbic tongue and pretensions are merely part of her personal armour).  I also wondered whether the murder victim's character might have been inspired by pioneering women travelers like Gertrude Bell, even if the story is set a few decades earlier than Bell's actual life.  I had issues with a couple of minor aspects of the plot (and characters / behaviour), but they didn't intrude enough to seriously impinge on my enjoyment of the story.  And since Grandma, for all her overblown pretenses, is certainly a strong woman character -- which she shows, not least, by eventually admitting to her own fallibilities -- I am counting this book towards the Human Rights Day square of 24 Festive Tasks.

 

 

 
Various Authors: Skandinavische Weihnachten

A charming anthology of Christmas short stories and poems from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland; chiefly geared towards children, but more than enjoyable by readers and listeners of all ages and generations.  I knew some of the entries (no Scandinavian Christmas anthology without Andersen's Little Match Girl, I suppose), but many of the stories were new to me, and they made for delightful listening on this 4th weekend of Advent. -- Set in Scandinavia, and thus I'm using it as my book for the St. Lucia's Day square.

 

 


Oscar Wilde: A Woman of No Importance

Wilde's second play; an acerbic take on the narrowness of fin de siècle English morality; or more particularly, supremely hypocritical perceptions of women's role in society.  Unlike in Wilde's later plays, the beginning comes across as a bit of an over-indulgence in the author's own clever wit, with a veritable fireworks of sparkling onelines and repartees following in quick succession without greatly advancing the plot (which is what earns the piece the subtractions in my star ratings -- it's the perfect example of too much of a good thing); but once the plot and the dialogue centers on the opposing protagonists, it quickly finds its feet. -- As Festivus books go, it's rather on the dark side, but it's a satire nevertheless, so I'm counting it for that square ... and though (unusually for Wilde) the last line is telegraphed a mile and a half in advance, I nevertheless enjoyed saying it along with the play's heroine from all my heart.

 

 


Oscar Wilde: Model Millionaire

My encore enjoyment to follow up A Woman of No Importance; a story that couldn't be any more different in tone and intent -- the tale of a gentleman who believes he has done a kindness to a raggedy beggar modelling for his artist friend ... only to find that he could not possibly have been any more mistaken, and that in fact it is he who is ultimately at the receiving end of an unexpected kindness.

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text 2018-12-20 21:46
24 Festive Tasks Door 19 Task 1 - my five most disappointing reads of 2018

giphy

 

 

These are the five books that disappointed me most this year and an explanation of why and how they got under my skin. 

 

2018 disappointments

year one"Year One"disappointed me not because it's badly written or poorly structured but because I found myself deeply out of sympathy with the values of the Good Guys, annoyed at the saccharine romance of the alpha pair and turned off by the obsession with fate and Messianic redemption.

 

"Year One" is a sort of urban fantasy twist on "The Stand". It tracks the path of groups of survivors of "The Doom", a virus which kills anyone who is not immune. As billions die, some of the immune discover latent magical powers and find themselves drawn to The Dark or The Light.

 

In the world according to Nora Roberts, the secret to surviving the apocalypse is to band together with skilled people, preferably from privileged backgrounds, who embrace middle-class values, choose faith over fear, work together as a team and focus on "doing what comes next". Of course, emergent magical powers are also pretty useful.

 

These traits and values were portrayed so positively that they slid into my imagination already tagged as a Good Thing. Then I thought about the scale of loss, of the billions dead, of cultures across the world extinguished, of losing everyone you ever loved, of having the value of your previous life challenged or eroded and it seemed to me that the main characters react almost as if they're on medication.  

 

The ability to focus "on what needs doing" is certainly a survival skill but the ease with which these newly-gifted previously-privileged people did it, their unthinking adoption of the "I'll protect Us against Them" made it difficult for me to empathise with or care about them. That these oh-so-focused folks are The Light seemed questionable to me.  

 

Then Roberts cranked up my discomfort by constantly maintaining that some things are "meant", that they're part of a "destiny", that it isn't enough for people to be attractive, privileged, educated and have magical gifts, they also have to have some kind of pintable-tilting agents of fate on their side. 

 

What finally extinguished my interest in this series was the idea of a Messianic "One" being sent to save the world. It's too "In God We (white, beautiful, magically-endowed people) Trust" for my British Athiest sensibilities.

 

buried_450I got three-quarters of the way through "Buried" before abandoning it.

Why put it aside so close to the end? It had become obvious that this wasn’t really a complete novel. I was sliding towards a cliff-hanger ending and would have had to wade my way through another book, perhaps two, to get any real resolution. I hate that.

 

Why did I let myself get so far into the book? Well, the premise of a librarian-slaughtering, cold-case serial killer being investigated by a famous true crime author who has to return to his left-as-soon-as-I-could-and-never-went-back hometown seemed intriguing. How can you go wrong with that?

 

C. J. Carmichael managed it by writing all the characters at arms-length so that I felt I was reading a profile rather than meeting a person. Throw in the fact that the crime writer turns out to be a weak, undisciplined man who has never grown up and who does not meet even the few commitments he makes and I was losing interest in him solving any murders.

 

Even the writer's must-be-the-baddy soon-to-be-brother-in-law, my last hope of a good sub-plot came straight from the how-to-define-a-narcissist handbook and had no personality as an individual.

 

I felt like I was one step away from watching “The Bold and the Beautiful” with a garnish of librarian-slaying. 

 

51fA3kZasmL._SX342_I bought "The End We Start From" as an audiobook.  It has an intriguing end-of-days setting. It's poetic in its intent and execution. It's been highly praised and heavily hyped. It's two hours and two minutes long and yet it felt like a test of my endurance.

 

I found the lyricism self-conscious and over-wrought. There are many fine sentences but having them layered endlessly on one another becomes a burden of blessings. The whole here is much less than the parts.

 

The rhythm is punishingly slow. The narrative drifts through dense prose that is vivid but directionless. There is no "why?", no "what next?" just a relentlessly drab "right now" that is soaked in dispassionate disassociative observation.

 

This is probably a wonderful book in the same way that Philip Glass probably writes wonderful operas, it's just that neither of them is for me.

 

Edwards-TheRetreat-21954-CV-FT-533x800"The Retreat"is probably an interesting horror/mystery story. It has a lot of the right elements: a child thought dead but who we know to be abducted, the dark dark woods in the dark dark valley in a dark dark Wales,  a set of writers at a retreat, trying to write but finding themselves haunted and a main character with a tragic past (of course) who has just had a hit with a novel about a monster abducting and eating children.

 

I settled down for a few evenings of enjoying a creepy mystery in a warm room on dark cold nights and then found that the main impact of the book was to send me to sleep in my chair.

 

I attribute this mainly to the narrator, Simon Mattacks. Except when he is doing Welsh accents, at which he is quite adept, he narrates with a uniform cadence of the kind used by TV presenters on programs like "Escape To The Country": blokish, wannabe-charming, inoffensive rhythms that always trigger a mix of distrust and disdain in me, awakening my inner-Northerner who then mutters "wimp"  and "smug git" in my ears.

 

I returned the book to audible and got a refund. I may come back to "The Retreat" in ebook format but I won't be listening to any more books narrated by Simon Mattacks.

 

The Picture Of Dorian GrayMy main reaction on reaching the end of "The Picture Of Dorian Gray" was relief that I'd no longer have to spend any time in the company of the narcissistic parasitic men who populate it.

 

The central conceit of Dorian Gray's picture is as surprising as finding out that the Count living in Castle Dracula is a vampire.  Even so, I had expected to enjoy how the story was told. Instead, I flipped from boredom with what I mentally labelled "A Single Shade Of Gray" to annoyance at just about every attribute and utterance of the main characters.

 

Dorian Gray starts as an entitled, over-privileged air-head, mainly notable for his cluelessness and his pretty face. He ends up as an even more over-privileged hedonist, mainly notable for his endless capacity to blame other people for the consequences of his own decadent choices.

 

Lord Henry, his mentor/corruptor suffers from verbal incontinence. The man ceaselessly spews out tiresome epigrams, the meretricious sparkle of which he uses both to prop up his ego and to sustain his endless self-deceit about his engagement with the world. 

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text 2018-12-19 15:55
24 Festive Tasks: Door 19 - Festivus, Task 3 (Book Stack / Scales Feat of Strength)
Die Romane: Buddenbrooks. Königliche Hoheit. Lotte in Weimar. Der Zauberberg. Joseph und sein Brüder. Doktor Faustus. Der Erwählte. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull. - Thomas Mann
The Collected Jack London - Jack London,Steven J. Kasdin
Deadly Pleasures: The Black Tower / Death of an Expert Witness / The Skull Beneath the Skin - P.D. James
The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare,John Jowett,Gary Taylor

The books I picked for this task:

 

* My hardcover boxed set of Thomas Mann's complete novels (7 books)

* My one-volume omnibus of The Collected Jack London,

* A three-novel book club P.D. James omnibus edition named Deadly Pleasures (and containing the novels The Black Tower, Death of an Expert Witness, and The Skull Beneath the Skin)

* ... and, of course, my Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works.

 

Altogether, they came to a weight of 8.5 kg (= 18.7 pounds).

 

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text 2018-12-18 16:27
24 Festive Tasks: Door 19 - Festivus, Task 4 ("Festivus" Google Search Results Page)

 

This cracks me up, every single time.

 

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