Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I Let You Go

I Let You Go
by Clare Mackintosh


In a split second, Jenna Gray's world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating . . .

My Reaction:
After reading the author's second book (I See You), I kept reading reviews that compared it to this one, and most were to the effect that I Let You Go was much better.  I'd probably agree that the first novel is the stronger of the two, but I didn't see that much of a disparity between them.  I Let You Go is more serious/less potboilery, but I didn't enjoy it more than I See You.  If anything, I had a harder time working my way through it and was happier to reach its end.  

The afterword reveals the author's very personal connection to certain components of her novel, which makes me feel a little guilty for my reaction to it-- but ultimately, it doesn't change the fact that for me, this was a only a three-star novel.  It's readable, but I didn't enjoy the reading... I found it cliched and (for the most part) depressing.  

As for the "twists"... 
SPOILERS follow!

Something was clearly being held back about Jenna, but I didn't guess that she was in the car, so I count that as a successful twist.  

I was significantly less impressed by the second twist-- that Ian was Jacob's father.  Too far-fetched.  Just silly, really.  

As for the weird last few lines of the novel, where we are given wiggle-room to speculate that Ian somehow (impossibly) survived his fall from the cliff and was stalking Jenna again... Grant me permission to roll my eyes?  In some books, that type of cheesy ending is fine-- expected, even-- but for a book that has been more or less realistic and serious, it didn't fit in at all.  If the intention was only to illustrate that Jenna still bears the psychological scars of her abusive relationship and will always be looking over her shoulder-- well, ok, but it should've been handled differently, I think.  

Getting back to the bulk of the novel, I sometimes ran out of patience with both of our main characters.  

First, Ray.  He's a likable-enough guy, but were his personal dramas (constant friction with his wife and son, pressure to get a promotion, temptation to dally with a pretty co-worker) really necessary to the novel?  I mean, there were times when his parts of the book were more interesting than Jenna's, but he was also just a little too clueless for a detective.  (And his name.  Ray Stevens.  Really?)   

As for Jenna... For the last quarter or more of the book, she filled me with frustration.  I realize that many abused women behave in ways that seem inexplicable to those who haven't been through that type of treatment, but that doesn't make it easier to understand or empathize with.  Her unwillingness to tell the police that it was her awful, abusive husband who was behind the wheel during the hit and run... I just can't wrap my mind around that.  It doesn't make sense, and I can't believe an otherwise intelligent woman would be that brainwashed, even though I know it probably does happen.  (But... even to that extent?  It still beggars belief.)  

Speaking of Jenna's abuse, I understand that we "needed" to see how abhorrent Ian was, but at some point he became a caricature of the Abusive Bad Guy.  He was so exaggerated that he didn't seem real.  (Maybe I'm just naive.)

Oh, and what kind of police detectives would send Jenna home without a police escort when her evil husband was still on the loose?  Insane!  

Everything taken together, it was a decent read, but not a favorite.  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Egg and I

The Egg and I
by Betty MacDonald

My Blurb:
In the late 1920s/early 1930s, a very young wife supports her husband in his dream of running a chicken ranch in a very rural part of the Pacific Northwest.  This humorous memoir recounts the trials and errors of building a life on the isolated ranch, interactions with outlandish neighbors, and assorted musings on the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. 

My Reaction:
I found The Egg and I to be thoroughly readable, often interesting, and frequently amusing (though only rarely laugh-out-loud funny).  It is true that her some of her stereotypes jar on modern sensibilities, but it may help to remember that the author and her work are products of their time, which should alleviate at least some of the insult.  (How would any of us fare, if judged by the standards of certain other eras?  In one way or another, I'm sure we'd fail to measure up.)  Indeed, the copy I read had what amounted to a disclaimer or apology as a foreword, written by MacDonald's children on behalf of the woman herself.  If their mother had still been alive, they assured the reader, her views would have changed with the times.

Because this is a memoir (and one written twenty years down the road from when the events took place), I find myself wondering how accurate certain portrayals are.  For instance, her husband sounds absolutely awful to me (despite the fact that we are told repeatedly that he's handsome and handy and a natural at chicken-ranching)-- so perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise to learn after reading that she eventually divorced him.  (I'm much more surprised that after she re-married, she and her second husband also took up chicken ranching!  I would've thought she'd had enough of that lifestyle.)

Then there are the neighbors and the Indians... I have no doubt that at least most of the specific incidents she relates were based in truth, but... wow.  That sums it up: WOW.  No wonder some of her neighbors sued her after the book and the film came out!  I did wonder how she dared publish some of those depictions, if these people were still her "friends" and neighbors.  It explains a lot that she had since moved away.

While reading, I had the passing fancy that it would be even more interesting (to me, personally) to read a similar account of rural life in my own little section of the country, back in the 20s/30s, when my great-grandparents would've been carving out lives of their own from this wilderness, with its own set of challenges, beauties, and bounties.  Then I paused and had second thoughts.  I don't know that I'd like to read this author's version of the area and the people...

My biggest surprise was at the foul language (of certain secondary characters) and the distastefulness of some of the topics addressed.  I knew little about the book, going in-- just that it was a funny book about chicken "farming" and that it had been made into a movie in the 40s.  I guess I foolishly assumed that the book would have the same flavor (and comparative innocence) as your typical humorous 40s film.  I was certainly not expecting so much cursing (though it's mild compared to what you can easily encounter today)-- not to mention things like "laying up" (extramarital affairs), abortion, syphilis, alcoholism, etc.  Of course those things existed back then, but I wasn't expecting to encounter them in a humorous memoir of the period.

Though parts of the book were amusing, it also had many moments of bleakness, unhappiness, and disgust.  I found it an odd mix.  It also seemed to end rather abruptly.  Since it's a memoir and not a tightly-plotted novel, that may be par for the course-- but it felt abrupt, all the same.

I wouldn't mind reading some of the author's other memoirs, at some point-- especially Onions in the Stew.  At least I now know what to expect!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Jerome K. Jerome

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a ‘T’. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks—not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.’s small fox-terrier Montmorency.
Three Men in a Boat was an instant success when it appeared in 1889, and, with its benign escapism, authorial discursions and wonderful evocation of the late-Victorian ‘clerking classes’, it hilariously captured the spirit of its age.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared re-read-aloud with Donald.)

This is either the second or the third time I've read Three Men in a Boat, but though I remembered thinking it was hilarious, I didn't recall any specific details of the "adventure".  This time around, I was surprised by the unevenness of the book.

Jerome K. Jerome (at least in my acquaintance with his works) has a tendency to go off on tangents.  Sometimes these tangents are highly amusing.  (It's amazing how consistent human nature is over the centuries!)  Other times, the tangent is poetic or historical or "travel-guide-esque" and of less interest to the casual reader-- and there's one section in particular that seems completely out of place with the rest of the book.  (It's not too far from the end, and I think you'll recognize it when you see it.)

Fortunately, in this instance, the amusing bits outweigh the dull paragraphs, so I can still recommend it-- and its sequel Three Men on the Bummel (which, as I recall, is not as good as TMiaB, but still an interesting read).  However, because of those dull passages that kept cropping up, I think I'll have to give this four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Quiet Life in the Country

A Quiet Life in the Country
by T. E. Kinsey

Lady Emily Hardcastle is an eccentric widow with a secret past. Florence Armstrong, her maid and confidante, is an expert in martial arts. The year is 1908 and they’ve just moved from London to the country, hoping for a quiet life.
But it is not long before Lady Hardcastle is forced out of her self-imposed retirement. There’s a dead body in the woods, and the police are on the wrong scent. Lady Hardcastle makes some enquiries of her own, and it seems she knows a surprising amount about crime investigation…
As Lady Hardcastle and Flo delve deeper into rural rivalries and resentment, they uncover a web of intrigue that extends far beyond the village. With almost no one free from suspicion, they can be certain of only one fact: there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country.

My Reaction:
(This was a shared read with Donald, selected mainly because it was a temporary freebie from Amazon.)

While it didn't hit my personal sweet spot, this book might appeal to fans of uncomplicated cozy mysteries set in England-- particularly if they like historical novels and unconventional (some might say anachronistic) heroines.  (It's set a decade or so too early to be a "between-the-wars" cozy mystery, incidentally.)

The humor missed the mark for me, and the whole thing felt in need of editing.  (There were too many things mentioned in passing that didn't really add to the story-- how characters got from point A to point B, etc.)

We're clearly supposed to come to love the two main characters, but I felt completely unengaged, emotionally.  Their quirkiness and unique friendship (bridging the gap between the classes!!) failed to be quite as interesting (to me) as I think it was meant to be-- maybe because we are "told-- not shown" how it came about.  The fact that its very uniqueness is pointed out to us repeatedly doesn't help, either...

The blurb creates the impression that there's something mysterious about Lady Hardcastle's and Flo's own histories-- and yet (in this first book, at least), when it's explained, it's a bit of let-down.  Without venturing into spoiler territory, I felt that the two women must have some interesting (albeit unlikely) stories to tell, but we only get the bare-bones version-- and silly little teasing references to what sounded like more exciting tales than the one I was currently reading!  Maybe their shared background is something that could be fleshed out in subsequent books, but the series didn't get off to a very promising start in this respect (or many others, I'm afraid).

The mysteries and solutions didn't strike me as particularly clever, either, unfortunately...

All in all, lackluster.  For the right reader, this could be the beginning of a pleasant series, but it's not suited to my tastes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

On the Night of the Seventh Moon

On the Night of the Seventh Moon
by Victoria Holt

According to ancient Black Forest legend, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, Loke, the God of Mischief, is at large in the world. It is a night for festivity and joyful celebration. It is a night for singing and dancing. And it is a night for love. 
Helena Trant was enchanted by everything she found in the Black Forest -- especially its legends. But then, on the Night of the Seventh Moon, she started to live one of them, and the enchantment turned suddenly into a terrifying nightmare . . .

My Reaction:
My (admittedly limited) experiences with Victoria Holt have been very uneven.  The first book (The Silk Vendetta) did not impress me, but Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendorric were both enjoyable.  On the Night of the Seventh Moon falls somewhere between the dull Silk Vendetta and the more interesting "Cornish Gothics"--  nothing anywhere near approximating "brilliant", but also not quite as plodding as Silk Vendetta.

Though I suppose I'll award it three out of five stars, the third is rather grudgingly given, as I found myself disliking most of the characters and (more often than not) wishing the book would just hurry up and come to its conclusion.  It felt long, which means it was boring me instead of whisking me away from reality, as a good book should do.

Unfortunately, the romance is very thin, and the "hero" is a handsome, lust-filled cardboard cut-out-- not very interesting.  The heroine, Helena, isn't much better.  You get to know her more as a character than you do Maximilian, I suppose, but-- but-- she's just so darn stupid!  There are so many times that Helena should pick up on things, but she just won't/can't...  Toward the end of the story, the Count says to her, "You are not your usual clever self today."  Well, that was a delicious bit of unintentional comedy!

I'll probably continue to read Holt, as the mood strikes me, but I'm wary.  The quality varies wildly from one book to the next.  This one, for me, was closer to the "dud" end of the scale.

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--Different times and all that, but it's just so gross when the male characters in a so-called romance are trashy philanderers who have fathered children with multiple women.  When Frau Graben fills Helena in on all the dirty details of the Count's history with women, it's clear that Maximilian has a similarly icky past.  ("My dear Miss Trant, he[the Count]'s only following the tradition.  They've always been for the women.  They see them, they fancy them and there's no holding them back.  If there are results they don't mind and nor do the women.") Maximilian apparently hasn't been quite so cruel or duplicitous in his dealings with women, but it's still not appealing in a hero.

--After all the drama about how Maximilian couldn't just publicly declare his marriage to Helena because it could ignite a war between the principalities (or whatever the heck they were-- forgive my lack of knowledge of or interest in German history)-- after all that, the extremely delicate situation is handled neatly and tidily in a single paragraph.  "The Prince of Klarenbock, to whom Maximilian had told the whole story during his visit there, behaved magnanimously."  ...Well, how convenient.  The supposedly serious threat of the people revolting against Maximilian goes "poof", too.  Everything is hunky-dory, because there was a war with France-- and war heals all wounds (or something).

--Even richer, Maximilian's fancy fake wife gets tossed into a convent to atone for her sins, while her son with Maximilian is raised in the big, happy family Maximilian and Helena create.  Ah yes, I'm sure that was never the least little bit awkward, and I'm positive that the son who had been raised for (eight?) years to believe he was "royalty" was now perfectly fine with his new position as an illegitimate son whose father never really loved his mother-- while said mother is apparently whisked out of his life without so much as a backward glance.  Good times.

Okay, I'll grant you that much of the tension would be washed away by the fact that Maximilian's position is no longer nearly so powerful, by the end of the book.  There's not so much of a grand inheritance or position of power to bicker (or hatch murderous plots) over-- otherwise, I would've predicted trouble from Dagobert, who also becomes a part of Helena's Perfect Family (along with Liesel).

...But still, even in the humblest of homes, wouldn't there be a certain amount of bitterness in such a truly weird "blended family"?  "Mom always liked you best" on steroids!