Joseph J. Ellis (Part I)

I’m not sure where my fascination with the founding of the United States comes from. I think it has something to do with being very familiar with the musical ‘1776’ from the time I was a very small kid, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve just always been interested in it, and by Thomas Jefferson especially, but that interest has expanded way past Jefferson. I’m a pretty voracious consumer of knowledge on the founding of my country these days.

Joseph J. Ellis has written a large number of books on the creation of the United States. I haven’t read all of them or read them in any order, but the first one I read was His Excellency, George Washington back in 2006. It gave me a new appreciation of Washington. This was during college. I also followed that up in college with Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

For some reason I really took to Ellis. I don’t know what it was about his writing that I enjoyed. I still can’t quite explain it. One of my college roommates found his writing very dull, but I liked it as I felt it was a balanced look at the founding. Nobody was deified but credit was given where it was due, too. And then I took a break from Ellis and his writing.

But as with all things I love, I  returned to it. I listened to three books by Ellis this earlier this year. They were:

01. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic
02. Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
03. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 – 1789

American Creation dealt with issues from the revolutionary period through Jefferson’s presidency, and examines these six things, some of which are both great successes and incredible failures.

The first chapter examined the Declaration of Independence, which had revolutionary implications that the founders didn’t even realize; they saw the document as a letter to Britain and the world about why they were about to commit treason, and hopefully convince the rest of the world that it wasn’t really treason and get some aid, both financial and military. But when we talk about the Declaration of Independence today, which parts do we talk about? Not the charges listed against King George III about why the colonists revolted. We talk about what Ellis refers to as “the American promise.” Without ever meaning to, Thomas Jefferson wrote into our founding document the basis of all American political and social reform:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

This was my favorite chapter.

The second chapter examined Washington’s near superhuman achievement in keeping the Continental Army together in the winter at Valley Forge, PA. Supplies were short, and the ongoing strain changed Washington’s strategy. Over that winter, the strategy became to control the American countryside, rather than an all out decisive battle with the British. This was a hard decision for him, because rules of honor and conduct at the time demanded a decisive battle.

The third chapter dealt with James Madison’s efforts to create a strong federal government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While he wasn’t able to create a federal government that could veto state laws, the Constitution allowed for argument, which was essentially the solution. Neither the federal nor the state government was ever always right.

Chapter four was about Washington failing to create a successful, lasting treaty with the Native Americans, particularly in the southeastern United States – South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (although, IIRC, Florida wasn’t actually part of the country at that time).  Washington did desperately want to honor the treaties he signed and, unlike many of his contemporaries, admired and even liked, many Native Americans. But he was unable to honor his treaties, mostly due to the sheer size of the country and the small, almost non-existent federal military at the time. Washington considered it one of his biggest failures.

Chapter five looked at Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s creation of party politics. Knowing what we know now, this was possibly a disservice to the country. But anyway. Alexander Hamilton was basically Washington’s protege and favorite son, and Hamilton had pretty grand ideas about national economics, which Jefferson and Madison saw as a threat to liberty…particularly the liberty of their fellow plantation owning Virginian aristocratic friends. So Jefferson claimed to disparage party politics but worked to actively undermine the Washington administration from within. This really wasn’t a flattering look at Jefferson. I knew he disagreed with Hamilton but didn’t realize the efforts he made to make him and Washington look bad.

The final chapter looked at the Louisiana Purchase, and Jefferson again. In addition to the mental gymnastics Jefferson had to do to justify the federal power he exercised as chief executive while claiming to hate the power of the chief executive, the book looks at his achievement of making the purchase but also his failure to prevent slavery in the new territory. Ellis even argues that Jefferson’s failure here set the country on the path to Civil War, and so really, the tragedy outweighed the triumph.

I had intended to write this in one post, but as it’s nearly a thousand words, I’m going to cut this off here and continue in a second post on this subject.


The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I’m a sucker for a good detective story.

So, apparently, was England during the Victorian era.

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective goes into great depths investigating the murder of 3 year old Francis Saville Kent, the baby of Road Hill House, where the higher class Kent family lived.

Jack Whicher was one of the eight original detectives of the newly formed “detective branch” of Scotland Yard, and was only called in after local authorities botched the investigation. Local police were certain that the child’s nursemaid was involved in the crime, for no other reason except that people of higher classes didn’t commit crimes (and so the whole Kent family was excluded from investigation from the get-go). The only family member who garnered some suspicion was the head of the household, Francis’s father, Samuel Kent, who local police believed was having an affair with the nursemaid. There was no evidence of this affair.

Whicher ended up focusing on the family, and due to suspicious circumstances (such as a missing nightgown) finally settled on 16 year old Constance Kent, Francis’s half sister, as Francis’s murderer. Constance’s mother had died some time prior, and Constance, along with her brother, felt much left out of their father’s life with his new wife. But sadly, due to the whole “aristocrats – especially aristocratic ladies – don’t commit crimes” attitude of the times, the papers and public opinion supported Constance, and Whicher returned to London with his reputation in tatters – it took quite some time for it to recover.

He was eventually vindicated though; Constance confessed to the murder some 3 years later, and was imprisoned for it, at least for awhile.

Constance never explained why she did it. It’s been suggested she was mentally unbalanced, but Summerscale concludes that her confession was probably false and it was made to shield another person – most likely her brother, William Saville Kent, another relic of their father’s first marriage. They shared a close sibling relationship and at the time, Constance’s options in life were much more limited than William’s. William went on to become an early marine biologist. The motive of the crime was believed to be jealousy of Francis’s position as their father’s favorite, and the attention Samuel gave to his second wife’s children rather than his first wife’s children.

If William or Constance killed Francis, the other was most likely some kind of accomplice in the matter. But it was only ever Constance who ever got real blame or who ever gave any kind of confession. If her family did care about her reputation, they certainly never made an effort to clear her name while she was alive.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was well researched and well read, and it read like a true crime book. It was fun to learn how murder fascinated Victorian England, and that this was one of the first murders that captivated the whole country.

I also had an affinity for Jack Whicher. He’s been dead over 100 years, but he was still very good at his job, inspiring more famous detectives, such as Charles Dickens’s character Inspector Bucket.

Any true crime fan should read this book. It’s like, the original true crime. Sure, it’s not true crime exactly, but it is a good whodunnit: a murdered toddler, a dashing detective, and a great plot twist. How can you turn that down?

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

I originally decided to listen to this book because I wasn’t paying attention and thought it was a book about Native American history.

It wasn’t. *sad trombone noise*

But American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America might be the most important history book I’ve ever read in regard to understanding my own country.

Do you ever wonder how the United States ended up the way it did with no one dominant way of thinking throughout what is supposed to be one country? There are huge differences of opinion, from region to region, about individual liberty vs. the public good, the second amendment, the separation of church and state, etc… why is this?

Author Colin Woodard argues that there isn’t, and never has been, one United States and that the United States has always been, with a few very important exceptional time periods, a series of smaller, regional nations that have managed to get along just well enough to call themselves one country. There’s always the complaint that the United States, in particular, is superrrr polarized and it didn’t used to be like this.

Woodard argues it’s always been like this.

Woodard brilliantly explains the different “nations” in North America, taking us back through the colonial period, with different parts of the new continent settled by different people with very distinct political and religious traits. Because of this, different regions with unique challenges handled their business differently. As it became more important for them to stand together against common threats to their well being (the British control of the colonies, for example) they managed to pull it together long enough to win the Revolutionary War and then go back to being distinct regions again.

I won’t say that I didn’t know anything in this book. In fact, I probably knew most of it. But the information is laid out in such a concise, clear way that you smack yourself in the face and say “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!?” when thinking about why the South and the Northeast seem to be at constant political odds, and why the rest of the country seems to be constantly aligning with either side to shift the balance of power.

I don’t read/listen to a lot of books where I think I’m doing something patriotic. I mean, you can argue the philosophical merits of reading as patriotism all day, but for most of us (those of us not living in an authoritarian state, anyway), reading is just reading and you aren’t doing anything ridiculously heroic. I’d argue reading this book is actually patriotic. I believe it could be so vital to the understanding of the United States they should use it in high schools.

And I give zero fucks about bettering high schools.

(Of all my bleeding heart, blue state causes, I’m really not big on education…which I know is terrible and kind of a betrayal of my home regional nation. I don’t stay informed enough about the education system to formulate an opinion and prefer to die on other hills – the environment and animal rights hills, for example. It’s not that I don’t think education is important, it’s just not something I’m going to get personally involved in. I will, however, vote for a political candidate who supports bettering the educational landscape. I have trusted friends who pay attention and give their opinions to me on this.)

But yes. I think we’d be a better country and understand each other a lot more if we all read this books. So American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America? Read it. Listen to it. For a better #MURICA.


Agent Zigzag and Double Cross

I listened to two books by Ben Macintyre earlier this year. I first listened to Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal and then listened to Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. It should have been done in reverse order but hindsight is 20/20. For clarity’s sake, I’ll explain them in the order I should have read them.

Double Cross was a detailed look at how a series of spies and double agents were crucial to the success of D-Day, widely considered to be the turning point in the war, and about how the Double Cross program is easily one of the most effective espionage operations in history. Basically, the Abwehr (German intelligence) never figured out that the Allies had cracked the code for their Enigma machine and MI5 had very little trouble picking up the spies that arrived in the UK. The spies were captured, and were usually easily persuaded to spy for the Allies instead.

There is a full but not complete list of double agents on the Double Cross Wikipedia page: either their information is still classified or nobody knows much about them. But the book focuses mainly on these spies in particular:

Johnny Jebsen (Artist)
Roman Czerniawaski (Brutus)
Juan Pujol Garcia (Garbo)
Mathilde Carre (Le Chat)
Nathalie Sergueiew (aka Lily Sergeyev) (Treasure)
Dušan Popov (Tricycle)
Eddie Chapman (Zigzag)

The book details how the spies were recruited, turned, and maintained by their case officers. All of them were eccentric, and in some ways very needy and needed careful handling by their case officers. They were originally used for less important tasks, but as the war went on, British Intelligence came up with the idea of using the spies to mislead the Third Reich high command about an Allied invasion of Europe. Through a carefully orchestrated, escalating series of falsehoods the spies informed their German contacts that an entire army (a large portion of which didn’t actually exist except in the reports sent through the spies) were probably going to land in northern France somewhere, probably mostly at Pas de Calais. The spies reported minutia, but accurate minutia (such as insignia on uniforms) and details that gave their German handlers confidence in their information.

As we all know now, when the D-Day invasion finally came, the bulk of the Allied forces landed at Normandy. Because of the false information the spies were able to pass to German intelligence, German forces were spread too thin to hold off the full scale Allied attack at Normandy, and afterwards, the Allies quickly advanced through France and into Europe.

Of all the spies mentioned in the book, Popov was probably my favorite to hear about. At the start of the war he was a lawyer, but he was a promiscuous playboy from a wealthy family and staunchly anti-Nazi. Germans considered him important because of his family and business connections in France and so recruited him, and he became a double agent not long after that. He’s considered one of the primary inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, throwing money around and womanizing during his missions.

The book makes clear that while most of these recruits were very strange, they were also very brave and, in their own ways, rather smart. Most of these people were in great danger of being found out. Jebsen was picked up on what is assumed now to be an unrelated charge (he had some shady financial dealings), tortured, and (presumably) executed by the Nazis, but never cracked about the Double Cross program to save himself. Some of the agents did their jobs so convincingly they were awarded the Iron Cross by Germany.

The book also explains that one of the reasons the Third Reich was so susceptible to this false information was because, in addition to a real lack of organizational structure – or maybe because of it – there was an internal power struggle going on between the German military/intelligence services and the German secret police. Hitler apparently didn’t entirely trust the German military, as he (correctly) believed the commanders weren’t entirely loyal to him. Loyal to his home country of Germany but not Hitler or the Nazi Party, the book particularly details the efforts Admiral Wilhelm Canaris to subvert Hitler’s plans, including (IIRC) approaching the British about peace negotiations. Spoiler alert: Canaris was eventually humiliated and brutally, grotesquely executed.

It also seems that Germany never really took intelligence as seriously as the Allies did, believing their forces and weapons superior. Their arrogance was a major part of their downfall.

Agent Zigzag, as you may have guessed, takes a more in depth look at Agent Eddie Chapman, who was something of a conman and petty criminal with an honorable streak. He was captured by Germans and volunteered to be a spy. He quickly became a double agent so he could see his former girlfriend and their daughter, but he remained good friends with his German handler after the war and didn’t much like betraying them.

He was motivated by both love and money and was quite difficult for his handlers to deal with. One of the reasons he became a double agent for Britain was he didn’t believe the Germans were paying him enough. His case officer, Ronnie Reed, was one of the very few people who knew how to deal with him effectively.

Chapman was part of a scheme devised to make the Germans believe they’d blown up an aircraft factory but the explosion was entirely faked. Chapman also frequently reported back to Germany that their bombs were hitting their central London targets but the bombs were actually missing by miles, causing far less damage than they should have.

I really enjoyed both of these books. Macintyre is an engaging storyteller and I like his subject matter. Don’t you feel like all the heroes of the war should be recognized?

After the war, the British government more or less discarded these people. They deserve a lot more credit than they get. Macintyre does a really good job introducing them and getting the audience to care about them, getting into their natures and characters.

Macintyre has another book called Operation Mincemeat, but I haven’t read it yet. I will add it to my list, as these two books were both so interesting.


Yes Please

Amy Poehler wrote and read her book, Yes Please, which I borrowed and listened to at work.

There were some very funny parts, although pieces could be dull. I did come away really wanting to watch Parks and Recreation, Poehler’s critical darling comedy that was apparently on life support for much of its tenure but survived six seasons.

My favorite thing about listening to female comedians is that they usually give pretty good advice and, as someone who is told frequently they should try stand up, I took away from Poehler’s book is that if I want to try it (I go back and forth on it, and not just stand up, anything), I really just should. Do as much as you can, as often as you can. Say yes as often as you possibly can.

That said, I loved listening to Poehler’s stories about her family because they did remind me a lot of my family, and you know, childhoods mess people up so it’s always fun to hear about how other people are just like you but different.

I also really admired about this book the way Poehler seems to admit and own the fact that she isn’t – and can’t be – funny all the time. As someone who works hard to be funny (as not my job), I really, really appreciate that. She says some other stuff too that I really appreciated hearing as well, including that there are benefits to getting older and getting towards/entering into middle age, one of the biggest being that you become so much more comfortable with yourself.

I am already comfortable with myself but if I could get more comfortable? I am on board.

Anyway, Yes Please wasn’t some super deep read/listen so you can probably get either done in a couple of days. Great beach read. I like Poehler’s voice and she comes off as funny and relatable.

The Goldfinch

I decided early this year that I was not going to finish books I wasn’t enjoying.

Generally, I have always finished books I didn’t enjoy (except Moby Dick, fuck that book). I have a pretty strong sense of what I like, and most of what I didn’t like I was reading for school (again Moby Dick). Plus:

Image result for sansa mama didn't raise no quitter book meme

I didn’t actually set out to make this decision. I made it after listening to four hours of the audiobook of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

I enjoyed Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History so much. I read it back in college, I related very much to the predicament of some of the characters (some, definitely not all), and the story was so interesting that I could barely put the book down.

But let’s start with the only thing I did like about the book (I can usually find one thing). And that one thing here is that the book led me to the painting. The Goldfinch is an actual painting (which, after looking at for awhile), I’ve decided I really like. It’s one of the few surviving paintings of Carel Fabritius, an extremely promising and talented student of Rembrandt’s, but who was unfortunately killed in an explosion that destroyed much of Delft, a city in the Netherlands, where he was living and working. Most of his paintings were also destroyed in the explosion.

But the book itself? No. And it’s my own fault, really. There were signs. I ignored them.

The first sign I wasn’t going to enjoy The Goldfinch was that my friend hated it. She would have put it down, but was trapped on a flight from New York to Los Angeles and so hate-read it the entire way there. My friend and I have different taste and different opinions on a lot of stuff (for example, intersectional feminism) but being from similar background and having similar interests and education usually means we like a lot of the same novels. She, too, loved The Secret History. She, too, based her choice on her love of that novel.

The second sign I wasn’t going to enjoy The Goldfinch was I read the first couple of chapters and switched to the audiobook. Usually, I listen to the audiobook at work and if I’m really enjoying it, I end up picking up the book to finish it at home (as I did after this with The Girl in the Spider’s Web). It’s not good when I read a bit and decide “Ugh, maybe listening to this will be better.” I now find this is just about never the case. There are books that are enhanced by their audiobooks – actual examples for me being David Sedaris reading his own work, Amy Poehler reading her own work, etc… but I’ve never not liked reading something and enjoyed the audiobook better.

Here is the cliff notes summary of the book, because even the cliff notes are too long:

A boy (Theo) and his mother are victims of a terrorist attack at the Met. Theo’s mom doesn’t survive, and in the chaos following the explosion, Theo, in an effort to comfort a dying man, takes a painting called ‘The Goldfinch,’ puts it in his pocket or his backpack, and forgets about it. The entire rest of the novel is about how this one innocent action, which could easily be solved by returning the painting to the museum, ruins his life.

So I got about four hours into The Goldfinch. A lot can happen in about four hours. You can do several loads of laundry. You can watch an entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ film. You can fly from New York to several other destinations within the northern hemisphere.

The Goldfinch barely got past the terrorist attack. No joke, it took two hours to get to the defining moment of the story, and in book time, we’re barely a month or two past it. The kid’s deadbeat dad hasn’t even shown up yet, and there’s like 12 more hours at least.

It was another awkward meal with the Barbours when I decided to call it quits. Theo’s friends with a Barbour kid from school and his friend’s wealthy parents take him in for awhile while authorities try to figure out what to do with Theo, and Theo, suffering from PTSD, barely speaks to them. In his own head though, he whines incessantly and is incredibly obnoxious, and it was around this time that I realized that I just don’t care about Theo.

I stopped the audiobook, went into the app, returned the book to the library (yes, I’m sure I want to return it early – TAKE IT BACK, STOP ASKING ME!) and called it a day.

I know The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer. I know it was critically acclaimed. I know. I know. I know. Supposedly the story deals with the nature vs. nurture debate as well as the fate vs. free will debate. I don’t care.

I know somebody out there likes this book. I disagree. It’s boring and awful and I highly suggest skipping it if you require anything in your novels beyond the psychological development of a traumatized 13 year old boy – you know, stuff like a plot. I learned that The Goldfinch is a genre of literature called ‘bildungsroman,’ which is a coming of age story in which character development was extremely important. There was not enough character development at a fast enough rate to justify continuing.

I live in the minutia of daily life. I don’t need to read it book form.

And so this is how I decided that life is too short to read/listen to books I don’t enjoy. I’ve quit a couple books this year, and I feel so free!

The Stalin Epigram

Woohoo, I’m finally reaching 2017 books. That’s actually THIS YEAR. I know it’s almost August. Still, go me.

The first book I read this year was called The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and for that reason was somewhat disappointing. While it does create an atmosphere of suspense, it really isn’t much of a thriller, which is what I thought I was getting. It’s based on the life of Osip Mandalstam, a widely admired Russian poet, who writes a satirical (and not so satirical) poem about Stalin during the height of Stalin’s power and purges (the 1930s).

Mandalstam writes a forbidden poem, reads it to a bunch of people, gets ratted out to the “Organs” (which is the name for the secret police) and he goes to prison, where he’s tortured, and then into exile with his wife. After he gets out of exile, he’s super jumpy and paranoid and depressed as you would be after being tortured and exiled, so he goes back to Moscow, where he isn’t supposed to go. He is discovered again, sent to a labor camp or a Siberian prison (this time without his wife) and he dies.

I don’t know what the point of this book was beyond telling a fictional account of something that’s well documented. The book is told through several points of view, the main one (to me) being that of Mandalstam’s wife. Other points of view are a weight lifter, one of Stalin’s bodyguards, an actress both Mandalstams are boning (again, more pointless sex writing, ugh), another Russian poet or two (both friends of Mandalstam) and maybe a few others.

The writing was fine, and the characters were interesting and varied, but nobody seemed to really do anything. Like I said, there was no point. The author, I think, has put some pretty serious research into Mandalstam, which is why I thought we were going to get more spy story paranoia and not just “Hey this is what happened.” I think Littell might have actually visited Mrs. Mandalstam in the 1970s before her death to accomplish some of this research, and included his thoughts on the conversations and what they were like after the novel was finished, but again, I’m not sure of the point.

I skimmed a lot of this book, which I guess is why I can’t remember much and entirely missed the point. Like my previous read, this wasn’t great. It was okay. But the font was much smaller, and it was at least 100 pages longer. It took me three months to finish and I put it down for extended periods.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn’t seem to really know what it wants to be. If you do choose to read it, you won’t regret wasting your life. It’s not that bad. You may, however, find it to be generally disappointing.

City of Dark Magic

Ah yes. The last book I read in 2016: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte. I picked this one up at Barnes & Noble because it was $6. As good a reason as any to pick up a book, right?

I have a couple of issues with it, although I didn’t hate it.

Basically, music doctorate candidate Sarah Weston, who helps support herself by giving music lessons to/nannying the precocious only child of a wealthy Boston family ends up in Prague for the summer when her doctoral adviser, who was already in Prague, mysteriously dies. He was cataloging and chronicling possessions of one Prince Max, who has just regained possession of a castle from the Czech government after the Nazis took possession and occupied it during World War II. Sarah and a number of other experts in their fields are staying at the castle to do this research so Prince Max can open a family history museum.

Sarah’s adviser, and later Sarah, end up looking for evidence of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved,’ which is apparently a real academic mystery, where nobody knows who the addressee of this famous love letter that Beethoven wrote actually is. There are several theories, which the book delves into for the sake of fiction.

After her arrival in Prague, Sarah begins to suspect her adviser was murdered. That theory is later confirmed when someone else close to the project is murdered, and so Sarah finds herself at the center of an escalating mystery as a series of murders threatens this important summer project.

Now, this is clearly a fantasy book, so the alchemy, the ageless servant, the nearly clairvoyant precocious little girl, etc… I was ready for.

The detours into Sarah’s sex life, particularly early in the story, I was not only not ready for, I felt they added to almost nothing except the author’s word count.

I know that sex is part of life and having had it before, I like it as much as anyone. But I don’t really want to read about it in detail. I find the writing is generally cringeworthy (as this was) and I find that most of the time, it’s not relevant. In this case, Sarah gets horny on the plane and blah blah her sense of smell and blah blah blah ends up banging a guy who she thought was another guy in a closet or something at the castle during dinner.

To me, this is the least interesting “mystery” in the whole book, because I really don’t care. Sure, this ends up being somewhat relevant but you could have left it out entirely and I wouldn’t have had to roll my eyes and wonder if I should bother continuing. This happened maybe 50 pages into the book? I don’t read romance for a reason. I don’t find it interesting. I didn’t find this aspect of the story interesting. I found it rather annoying.

Sarah was something of a Mary Sue as well, but it wasn’t so unbearable I felt I had to put the book down. It was a little annoying sometimes.

The resolution of the story was a little strange, and I think I must have missed a part while skimming (I tend to do that). There’s a US Senator involved in this whole thing, who is a sociopath, but I don’t fully understand why she’s involved. Anyway, she gets sucked into a vortex of doom and that’s basically how her plot line is resolved. Not the greatest writing but also not the worst.

Actually, the whole book was not the best book, but also not the worst. One of the things it did have going for it is that it wasn’t very long, so it wasn’t so slow that I had to put it down, unfinished, a mistake thus far only reserved for the books I really find boring.

The premise of the story was interesting enough for me to keep reading even though a couple of things early on turned me off. I’m glad I did, because while some of the novel really fell flat, there were enough fun elements to make consider reading the sequel. I’m a sucker for historical mysteries – Shakespeare’s lost plays are some of my favorites.

I also liked the setting. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Europe, but I’d like to, so it was nice to spend a story in Prague. Prague is one of those cities everyone seems to visit and talk about in college. I never went, and I think this is the first book I read that was set there.

Oh. So yes, there’s a sequel. It’s called City of Lost Dreams. That takes place in Vienna. I may pick it up, but I’m in no rush.

This is a good – for lack of a better term – beach read. If you’re a huge fantasy nerd who wants something denser and more detailed, this isn’t for you. It’s pleasantly surprising, but it isn’t anything fantastic.

Jamaica Inn

Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time before I finally picked it up late last year, and as usual I don’t know why I waited so long to get around to reading it. I think I ended up reading it this time because I recorded the movie off Turner Classic Movies and wanted to read the book first.

Jamaica Inn follows Mary Yellan, a very serious, stoic girl whose mother just died to the hotel of the title, where her Aunt Patience lives.

There is a real ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. It still exists, people still go, and it inspired DuMaurier’s novel, however, the book does mention that the fate of the inn in real life and in the book are not the same and the novel is merely something DuMaurier made up. Apparently it’s a touristy spot these days, but in the novel it’s old and nearly abandoned.

So Mary is dropped off in the middle of the night at a dark, cold inn that “honest people” now avoid. In fact, if I remember correctly, she wasn’t even dropped off at the inn, because the carriage driver wouldn’t get close enough. She was dropped off a few miles away, across a moor, and probably wouldn’t have made it to the inn at all without the help of a passing vicar.

Aunt Patience, who Mary remembers from her childhood as lively and bright, is now cowering and meek, married to Joss Merlyn, the inn’s proprietor, as well as a drunk and local bully.

Mary and her uncle clash routinely, and Mary can’t stand her uncle, but is trapped in Jamaica Inn because Mary can’t bear to ignore her mother’s last wish – which was to go live with and care for her Aunt Patience. Mary also figures out that something is off – the inn never has any guests and the bar/restaurant portion rarely has visitors.

As with DuMaurier’s other novels, this story is full of rich language that creates a dark, brooding atmosphere. Mary is a spunky heroine, if not a little grating. Yes, we get it, Mary has little sense of humor and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and is pure of heart and spirit. WE GET IT. The supporting characters are more interesting, with my favorite of them being the vicar. There is a pretty good mystery involved, and some twists you don’t see coming until the very last moment, which I always appreciate. I’ve solved several plots way before the end and it always makes the story less enjoyable.

While Jamaica Inn is classified as a book of “romantic suspense,” I wouldn’t label it as such. It’s a suspenseful novel, certainly a mystery novel, but there isn’t that much that’s typically “romantic” about it. Mary does meet a man named Jem, and his identity and his job are parts of the mystery, but they’re not the main parts, and not even the most interesting parts.

I would recommend the book as a pretty good read, with this added tip: when you come across a word you don’t know because it’s not the 1800s anymore, look it up. The story will make way more sense. Jamaica Inn isn’t as good as Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel, but it’s enjoyable anyway and fairly short. I think the whole thing was 300 pages, tops. Probably more like 270.

Finally, as I previously mentioned, there is a film version of this novel that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton. The movie was terrible. Supposedly it was hijacked by Laughton who would revise the script to make his role better or more appealing to the audience and what not. For whatever the reason, the film was really bad. And I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, so it’s not like me to dump on one of his films. He killed it adapting Rebecca, and I’ve really come to love and appreciate The Birds. But the screen adaptation of Jamaica Inn? It was bad. It was just bad. It didn’t follow the novel, it eliminated the most interesting character, it featured Charles Laughton as the world’s most obnoxious squire.

In this case, if deciding between the two, just go with the novel.

‘Murder on the Orient Express’ trailer

I first read Murder on the Orient Express back in college – I went through a huge Agatha Christie phase my freshman year and read at least 10 (probably more) of her mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express is frequently touted as one of her best, and I agree. The book has gotten several film treatments; a couple I’ve seen but none that I’ve loved. I must say, I’m really excited about the one coming out this November! Naturally, I’ll have to reread the story before then, but it’s a great cast and I’m really looking forward to seeing if they can get it right. Is anyone else?

Here’s the trailer:

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