Category Archives: fiction

A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities before. In high school, sophomore year.

This would be an excellent example of a teacher you have destroying a book you read.

A Tale of Two Cities is not a book that you look to for statements about the objectification of women. It’s not a book where you talk about how the hero of the story is secretly selfish because he hopes, one day, to be remembered.

A Tale of Two Cities is a book where you talk about the redemption of human beings, and love, and symbolism, and fabulous prose. It’s a book where heroes are heroes and villains are deliciously evil.

It’s a book where, if you’re reading it in high school with an English teacher who sells herself as an intellectual but pedals pseudo-intellectual bullshit, you ignore everything your English teacher has to say and just enjoy the story.

There is something to the criticism that the characters here are a bit flat; Lucie is loving and supporting and never changes and it’s borderline cringeworthy in. The Marquis is evil and unabashedly enjoys it. The most developed character is easily Sydney Carton.

I love Sydney Carton. I didn’t know it in the 10th grade, but I knew this time through, that he was suffering from depression and self-medicating with alcohol, and he let his law partner get the credit for his true legal brilliance because, basically, he just didn’t care. He was selfless, and smart, and I adored him.

There was only one, gaping plot hole in this book that I either didn’t hear because I missed it while I was simultaneously doing something else, like driving (entirely possible), or because there was just one, gaping plot hole that was never explained:

how did Carton know to show up in Paris? After reading the plot summary, I guess it’s because the family was gone from London for so long? Anyway, if anyone knows for sure, I’d be glad to hear it.

If you hated A Tale of Two Cities in high school, I highly suggest revisiting it, particularly as an audiobook. It’s still wordy AF. It can still be a bit slow in spots. But I appreciated it so much more this time. In contrast to my newfound warmer feelings for Sydney Carton, were my much stronger repulsive feeling to Madame Defarge. I somehow missed the first time through exactly how evil she was. She’s great to hate. And I hated her so much more this time.

Dickens has his reputation as one of the greatest writers the English language has ever produced, and I get it. I get it now. I hope you give yourself the chance to get it, too.

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The Minotaur

I took Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur out of the library. It happened to catch my eye and the blurb on the jacket sounded really interesting.

As soon as Kerstin Kvist arrives at remote, ivy-covered Lydstep Old Hall in Essex, she feels like a character in a gothic novel. A young nurse fresh out of school, Kerstin has been hired for a position with the Cosway family, residents of the Hall for generations. She is soon introduced to her “charge” John Cosway, a thirty-nine-year-old man whose strange behavior is vaguely explained by his mother and sisters as part of the madness that runs in the family.

Weeks go by at Lydstep with little to mark the passage of time beyond John’s daily walks and the amusingly provincial happenings that engross the Cosway women, and Kerstin occupies her many free hours at the Hall reading or making entries into her diary. Meanwhile, bitter wrangling among Julia Cosway and her four grown daughters becomes increasingly evident. But this is just the most obvious of the tensions that charge the old remote estate, with its sealed rooms full of mystery. Soon Kerstin will find herself in possession of knowledge she will wish she’d never attained, secrets that will propel the occupants of Lydstep Old Hall headlong into sexual obsession, betrayal, and, finally, murder.

Sounds great, right?

It was not so great. Whoever writes these blurbs does a better job than the author hyping the book. The concept was good, the execution was…meh.

None of the characters, minus the narrator, was very likable. Julia was the aging matriarch who disparaged her daughters and drugged her son, John, to control him. John probably had some kind of high functioning Asperger syndrome, or maybe schizophrenia. Ida was the oldest and, more or less, relegated to the role of housewife and caretaker of the family, doing all the cooking and cleaning. Ella and Winifred were, more or less, the same character but one – Winifred – was engaged to be married to the town vicar. Winifred was a caterer, Ella was a teacher. Both were shallow, superficial, and ended up in a sexual relationship with an “artist” who moved into town and who the narrator, Kerstin, nails as a playboy pretty much the moment she meets him. Zorah, the youngest, is a wealthy widow who flaunts money and uses it to hold power over the rest of the family. It’s revealed later why she’s so bitter, but in some ways, she’s much better than her mom and sisters, because she actually cares about her brother and tries to get him help that he needs, rather than just drug him to keep him docile.

The action proceeds much too slowly to be considered particularly interesting. I didn’t find it particularly suspenseful. The characters were so annoying and horrible to Kerstin that it was hard to tolerate – only John pronounced her name the way she asked, as “Shastin,” which was the Norwegian pronunciation, apparently – and only Zorah’s story was worth it’s background, and I’m convinced it’s because she wasn’t in the book a lot.

There were a lot of Gothic elements – a old, crumbling home, a curse, “romance,” etc… – but they were grossly exaggerated and a lot of them didn’t matter. Yes, there was tragedy and secrets and you did get a sense of claustrophobia, but it just wasn’t enough to make the novel worth it.

The climax of the book was also a total letdown, as well as completely infuriating and upsetting…at least to me, but I never liked bullies.

“Barbara Vine” is a pen name of Ruth Rendell, and under this pen name, she writes these “psychological thrillers.” I’ve heard a lot of good things about Barbara Vine, including from Stephen King. When I googled, I found he’d said of her, “best suspense novelist with undercurrents of horror.” I suppose her other novels must have been more effective. I started with this one. If I didn’t know that her other novels are widely admired, I’d feel no need to ever read another.

Evil Under the Sun

My annual attempt at reading “scary” stories in October actually worked out in 2017.

I actually read this book, and it was exciting because it was the first book I took out from the library in the town where I now live, so it was a big moment for me.

Anyway, Evil Under the Sun was one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, one of the lesser known ones that doesn’t get much attention. This one, unlike a couple of the other lesser known ones I’ve read, was quite enjoyable.

Hercule Poirot is on holiday at a secluded beach hotel in Devon when a beautiful, flirtatious red-headed actress named Arlena is murdered. Poirot and the police go through the full investigation and questioning of witnesses and about their alibis.

In this particular case, Arlena was a well known flirt who had many affairs after her first husband died under suspicious circumstances and she remarried an honorable military man, who was in love with someone else who happened to be at the hotel. He also had a daughter who hated her step mother.

Other suspects include a young man that Arlena appeared to be having an affair with, the young man’s wife, and several other vacation goers with means and motive.

As usual, Poirot’s reasoning was flawless, and as usual, there is a piece of information the reader isn’t privy to until Poirot reveals it – in this case, a similar murder – which means the reader can’t solve the mystery but doesn’t render it unenjoyable.

I might have liked this book a lot because, as I’ve mentioned before, I have an affinity for mysteries and stories where the isolated settings dictate a lot of what is possible for the characters. This book took place at a remote beach resort, and so there were a very specific set of suspects that must have committed the crime in a very specific set of circumstance.

This was an entirely satisfying mystery and a good one for Halloween.

 

Carrie

I read (listened to) Carrie as part of my ongoing effort to get through more of Stephen King’s prolific collection of published works.

Sissy Spacek performed the reading and I liked the touch because she played Carrie in the 1976 film.

Of all the Stephen King books I’ve been through so far, and admittedly, I haven’t been through that many, this was probably my least favorite. All of King’s books can be haunting and jarring and all deal with hints of the supernatural and that kind of thing, and Carrie is no different.

But I disliked it because it made me cringe. Carrie’s naivete is hard to deal with, although I guess without sex-ed and the internet you wouldn’t know what your period was. That said, I think I disliked it more because I hate bullies.

Carrie is bullied. Relentlessly. It’s clearly gone on for years before the the start of events actually chronicled in the story and goes on throughout the novel. For all my short comings (and believe me, there are many) I am not a bully, and reading about how every single kid picks on this girl just drove me crazy.

I get that not every kid is going to stick up for the kid getting bullied. But in my experience, there’s usually at least one. I don’t know where authors go to school (because it’s not just King, there are other authors I’ve read who write about kids being bullied and nobody ever stands up for the kid) but usually someone will stick up for the victim. At least where I lived and grew up. I can’t think of any kid who didn’t have any friends or, at the least, a sympathetic classmate. Carrie kind of gets one in Sue Snell, but Sue’s still a little too wishy washy publicly to make a real difference.

I also spent most of the book wishing I could beat Carrie’s mother to death. Carrie’s mom bullies her too, and I don’t particularly understand her religious views, which are basically entirely related to sex and how evil it is, even when you’re married to someone. She’s one of those people that, upon reflection, make you think that maybe there really isn’t enough to do for young people in certain parts of this country in their formative years. Like many of King’s stories, this one takes place in Maine.

I did like the (fake) scientific articles on telekinesis throughout the story. Something about fake science is a lot of fun for me. It sounds like it could be real.

Anyway, Carrie was a good story, but not my favorite. It’s also obviously one of King’s earlier works, and I enjoyed the references to things like payphones and paying a quarter for a burger and soda. Nostalgia is fun, guys!

The Hobbit

Ah yes, one of my old favorites: JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I goofed though. It was a full BBC radio production of the book, not a straight reading of the text. The Wikipedia entry on the production says the script remains close to the text, but I didn’t like it. The voice actors of the dwarves annoyed me, Gandalf sounded ridiculously arrogant instead of kindly and gentle, Bilbo had a lisp, I felt like the whole thing was pretty far off from the novel even though the internet swears that isn’t the case.

It was only 4 or 5 hours long too. I don’t know if that would be true in a straight reading of the text. In this case, since I wasn’t much enjoying the production, it’s short length meant less suffering.

I love The Hobbit. I love it. I love Lord of the Rings, I love Tolkien.

I hated this. I know it’s the “classic” radio production. I know, I know, I know. I didn’t enjoy this. I disliked the production so much I could barely focus on the story, which I love.

I’d have preferred a straight reading of the text, or maybe a different production. I came across another “full production” recording of a book this year that I thought was excellent. But this? I couldn’t. I just didn’t like it. Someone must love it. I just don’t. I don’t know how they ruined The Hobbit for me, but they did. Bad job, BBC.

Murder on the Orient Express

I first read Murder on the Orient Express in college, when I went through a phase where I read a loooot of Agatha Christie mysteries. I started with And Then There Were None (as it came highly recommended by one of my best friends’ mom, who was one of two sets of extra parents I was fortunate enough to have growing up), and then moved on to Murder on the Orient Express.

I revisited it in preparation for the movie that, at the time, was coming out in November. Spoiler alert: I never saw the film.

The book is considered one of Christie’s two best (along with And Then There Were None) and upon revisiting, it’s definitely one of my favorites.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I like limited settings. They require a lot of interesting dialogue and a clever plot. Murder on the Orient Express takes place on a train! A train that is caught in a snowstorm!

For those who don’t know, the Orient Express was a long distance passenger train that originally ran from Paris to Istanbul. The line made a lot of changes through the years and eventually was shut in 2009, the last version of the line running from Strasbourg to Vienna.

Our favorite Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who ends up on the train when his plans are changed, is called in to solve the murder of Samuel Ratchett, by his friend Bouc who operates the train line and who is on board. Ratchett, who believe his life was being threatened and tried to hire Poirot and was refused, is murdered on the second night of the trip when the train is caught in the snow near Vinkovci.

The story moves on from there. The story involves a kidnapping and a ransom and another murder. It was very reminiscent of the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 and may have inspired this part of the book.

I was glad I revisited this story. It really isn’t very long and was quite a nice break from the near constant stream of non-fiction books I usually involve myself in.

Christie’s murder mysteries aren’t usually solvable by the reader because of some piece of unknown information that the reader isn’t privy to until the big reveal towards the end. In this case it was details of the other murder relevant to the story. That said, you could guess at the ending better in this story than with many of Christie’s other stories.

Not being able to solve the mysteries doesn’t usually bother me. I never enjoy something I solve half way through…sometimes less than halfway through. Like the movie Fracture with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Solved it half way through. Knew how it would work out. Was psyched with my own cleverness but sad that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film.

While the mystery here isn’t solvable, exactly, the solution is particularly interesting. It’s cleverly done, and very satisfying.

One thing that always sticks out in Christie’s mysteries, though, is how dated they are. Not, necessarily, in a bad way. I’m obsessed with train travel, so the idea of a rail line that goes from Paris to Istanbul is fascinating to me. What is a little off-putting, but not book destroying, is how constantly stereotypes are adhered to in Christie’s writing. Poirot is Belgian, and constantly referred to as “foreign.” It’s done all over her works with regard to nationalities, ethnicities, and gender. It isn’t inherently negative, but to someone who isn’t used to these references, it’s a little bizarre. It’s done here.

As I said, it doesn’t ruin the story. It’s just a little off putting if you aren’t used to it. And the books are nearly 100 years old. It was a very different time.

I really loved revisiting Murder on the Orient Express. It isn’t a long read, so if you haven’t read it and are looking for a clever story, it’s a lot of fun.

The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

Another one of my weird interests: people who disappear. I don’t think I’m actually unique in this but I will admit it, which I think makes me unique. And kind of weird. But knowing you’re weird makes it ok, right?

Anyway, this is one of those cases.

Joseph Crater was a New York Supreme Court Justice who disappeared on August 6, 1930 and whose body was never found. There is no proof he was murdered, but most people of his stature who disappear without a trace and are never found are frequently murdered.

His disappearance was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine, a New York City political organization started in 1789 and dissolved in 1967. By the time of Crater’s disappearance, Tammany Hall was a thoroughly corrupt enterprise tied to organized crime. Its influence really began to wane not long after Crater went missing – they engaged in a losing battle with reformers looking to clean up the political process in the city. One of the reform leaders was Franklin D. Roosevelt, first governor of New York, then President of the United States.

Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress builds a mystery novel around the three major women in Crater’s life around the time Crater disappeared – his wife, Stella, his maid, Maria, and his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.

This was a very entertaining novel. Crater was presented as complete asshole, so his disappearance is really no loss. The characterizations of the three women, however, was a fascinating picture of three women, each who are unable to really exercise any agency in their roles in the early 20th century, taking control of something in their lives as they react and deal with the disappearance of this man they were all, in some way, dependent on.

The story moves between the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, where Mrs. Crater and Maria’s husband meet in a cafe. IIRC, Mrs. Crater is telling Maria’s husband, a non-corrupt NYC police detective who helped investigate her husband’s disappearance, exactly what happened in the months leading up to August 6, 1930.

I’m not going to give away the ending here, although it was an immensely satisfying explanation, because it’s never fun to read a mystery when you know the end. But the book itself, despite the dark subject matter, isn’t particularly dark, and is really more about these three women, their relationships with each other, and their efforts to improve their lives. The characterizations were fun and their relationships, particularly with each other, are so well developed.

I did this one via audiobook at work and in my car, which I very much enjoyed as I traveled all over two counties, working and apartment hunting. This a great book for the beach – an intelligent, not too dense, page turner.

The Woman in Cabin 10

Another book that was so promising but turned out so, so underwhelming.

Typical thriller premise – woman sees another woman on a boat who disappears and doesn’t appear in the passenger manifest, nobody believes the first woman – and the story goes on from there. I think I picked this up because I’m terrified of boats/open water and will never get on a cruise if I can avoid it. Plus, the premise implies murder. It’s a boat. There’s only so many places someone can hide, no matter how big the boat is. I also tend to like settings that are somewhat claustrophobic where the setting is a huge part of the story. There’s the movie ‘Clue,’ books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, and so on and so forth.

I think the biggest problem with this book is the main character, Laura Blacklock, or Lo, as she’s called. She’s a travel journalist (which is how she ends up on the boat), she has a stupid nickname (you need to shorten ‘Laura’…really?), she’s conceited, she has absolutely no idea how to handle anything without being hysterical and/or completely ridiculous, and she wasn’t really compelling in any way. Even her panic/anxiety attacks were annoying.

Another problem is pacing. At least when I read trashy Dan Brown thrillers, they’re exciting and keep a good pace. This book starts with a burglary. Great! Then we spend WAY too much time rehashing it and returning it. Then Lo sees a mysterious, unexplained stranger who is not accounted for in the ship’s passenger list. Okay! Then we spend waaaaaay too much time wandering the boat looking at the crew.

And on and on and on.

Add to that the resolution of the novel sucks, and well…you get The Woman in Cabin 10.

I have heard good things about Ruth Ware’s debut novel In A Dark, Dark Wood but this book doesn’t incline me to read it much. I will probably skip Ruth Ware for the foreseeable future.

 

The Magicians

I listened to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians because the book I originally wanted to listen to wasn’t available at the time and this was labeled as “the adult Harry Potter.”

I’ll stick with actual Harry Potter.

It’s weird though. I didn’t hate this book. The story was interesting, I liked the premise, and there was magic, terror, and some pretty good actions scenes. I feel like in some ways it was a lot more true to real life – particularly the parts about being in a hyper-competitive, highly exclusive school (studying is something that JK Rowling glosses over in the HP universe – only Hermione’s study schedule is ever detailed and not many words are devoted to that either – and Hogwarts is the public school of magic in the UK, meaning everyone goes whether they’re good at magic or not).

But there was a lot of stuff that was tough for me to get past. Our hero – anti-hero? – is Quentin. And Quentin is suffering from depression. Boy oh boy, is he suffering from depression. And consequently, so are we. In addition, Quentin is selfish, brooding, narcissistic, and an overall miserable prick. He’s not very likeable.

This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. The thing is, everyone at this magic school Quentin attends, called Brakebills, is a huge asshole in some way or another. Seriously. There is almost nobody to like. At all. I don’t mean that they just have some asshole qualities. All of them are fucking awful in almost every way. They are also brave and smart, which makes them just this side of tolerable, but overall? They’re all negative, brooding, asshole-y douchebags who have too much free time and drink too much.

The other thing I struggled with too was the length of the novel. According to Amazon, it’s 432 pages. I don’t remember how long the audiobook was, but by the end I just wanted it to be over. It drags out too long. Grossman crams 5 years of schooling into this novel with much of it not being particularly noteworthy. Magic is hard, complicated to learn, and requires endless hours of practice and study. But I feel like, maybe, we don’t need to go through every hour? It wasn’t well paced. For every good scene of significance, there was one that was bad and could have been cut. Maybe two.

Interwoven into this whole thing is Quentin’s obsession with Fillory, a Narnia like place he read about in stories as a kid that featured a family called the Chatwins, specifically the children. As I said, it’s very Narnia-esque. This obsession eventually becomes relevant (and it takes quite awhile for it to become relevant) when Quentin and his friends discover they can travel to Fillory. I honestly wish Grossman had gone more into the Chatwins. They couldn’t have been worse than the main characters in this story.

Anyway, Quentin manages to be miserable in Fillory too – no joke. The magical land he’s been obsessed with since childhood, and Quentin manages to fucking be miserable there. There’s a villain in Fillory, called ‘the Beast’, who Quentin and his friends end up seeking to outrun and destroy. They’d met the Beast before in school, when (IIRC) a spell goes awry and the Beast eats a student before the faculty can vanquish it.

Magic is much more dangerous in this book than in the Harry Potter universe because it seems to be a lot less…stable, I guess is the word I’m looking for? Or maybe it’s more wild? Anyway, in Harry Potter books, you use the right gesture with your wand, say/think the right incantation, and boom, spell. Intent of the spell also matters. If you’re going to cast an unforgivable curse, you know you’re doing that. In The Magicians universe, magic has a lot of complex variations that change with things like phase of the moon. Messing up a spell near the wrong body of water, even one meant to do good, can be catastrophic. Spells gone awry is hinted at as a possibility in the Potter universe (Luna’s mother dying as a result of an experiment gone wrong) but in this one it has real consequences when the Beast is released and kills a student.

Anyway, the whole thing is eventually resolved in a neat little bow. Okay, not that neat, but a bow all the same. Grossman clearly didn’t know he’d be writing a trilogy. Yes, there are two more ‘Magicians’ novels – The Magician King and The Magician’s Land.

I’m not sure I’m going to get to the last two books of the trilogy. I thought I was. But even though I didn’t hate this book, I can’t really say I liked it either. Plus my favorite character became a freakin’ niffin. And no. I have zero interest in the television adaptation.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

I started Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy back when it was still a trilogy but after Larsson was already dead, and I read all of them in a total of about a month in college? Or just after college?

Anyway, I really enjoyed them.

So when I saw that Larsson’s work was being continued under a different author, this time David Lagercrantz, I was really excited.

I immensely enjoyed The Girl in the Spider’s Web, although not as much as any of the original novels and I think that is because Lagercrantz supposedly went out of his way to humanize Lisbeth and Mikael, and while that was ok, I preferred their more fantastic versions. They’re like regular people who are also superheroes!

Anyway, there were some really cool elements to this, including that we get to meet Lisbeth’s estranged twin sister, Camilla. Camilla is…interesting. Without giving away too many details, I hope to find out in the future why Camilla is…the way she is, and why she dislikes her sister so much.

The story also features an NSA officer, an idiot-savant child, a murder, and the usual tech aspect of the story that may not be devastatingly realistic but adds excitement to the story anyway. I don’t really read works of fiction (or watch fictional films, for that matter) for their strict adherence to reality, so the tech stuff that isn’t necessarily real? No big deal for me.

Lisbeth naturally bonds with the child, she having limited social skills herself. When his father is no longer able to care for him, she brings him safely to his mother…who is being abused by her new significant other and, IIRC, gets rid of him.

In spite of mellowed out Lisbeth and Mikael, the novel moved at a good pace and there was enough going on to keep me turning pages. Well, I originally started listening on audiobook at work, but owned the novel at home and hadn’t gotten the chance to read it yet, and finished it at home on paper because I was so into it.

Also exciting about this book: a renewed friendship between Lisbeth and Mikael! This was my absolute favorite part. I always liked their dynamic.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the book. I can’t wait to read and/or listen to the next one, that came out a few months back. I love Lisbeth, even “mellow” Lisbeth, so as long as she keeps appearing in novels, I’ll probably keep reading them.

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