Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Year of Wonders

 Year of WondersYear of Wonders

  - Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Prior to this, there was one book I had read by the author - People of the Book. I absolutely loved it (except for one side thread) and was really impressed with the way she narrated the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. So, I wanted to read more of her works and settled on Year of Wonders.

Given the subject matter - an outbreak of plague in the 17th century - I was prepared to read a depressing story. It is indeed bleak, yet the storytelling is so superb and the prose so evocative, that I couldn't put it down. This book is based on the true story of an English village Eyam, whose inhabitants quarantined themselves to contain the outbreak while undergoing dreadful suffering. The author has researched the known historical facts very well and woven them into a rich narrative with vivid details. Through the first-person narrative by Anna Frith, a housemaid at the village rectory, we see the disruption of the peaceful (I assume) existence by the first plague death, the slow understanding of what they were facing, superstition and collapse of faith, the terrible and heart-breaking casualties until the contagion finally fades out. We see the rector Mompellion guiding the villagers and trying to hold up their spirits through this unprecedented ordeal, supporting them beyond the point of exhaustion. We see his wife, Elinor, assisted by Anna, trying to provide as much nursing care and comfort as she can to the villagers in their unbearable grief, without the benefit of medical knowledge or supplies.

On the downside, the language and the sensibility come across as too modern. Elinor and Anna come across as highly intellectual and feminist - which one could accept in the educated high-class lady, but seeing it in an uneducated village girl with a vulgar family background stretches the imagination too hard. I was a little troubled by repeated, graphic details of the manifestations of the disease. Pain and fear can drive people to madness, but some of the cruel actions arising out of it really disturbed me. I mean, it is all believable but disturbing nevertheless.

But what quite destroyed the great story was the end.  
 
*** SPOILERS ***
The terrible mania of Anna's stepmother Aphra in all its gory detail was repulsive, and her killing of Elinor was unnecessarily dramatic. Anna, who had never seen anywhere beyond the village, traveling alone to Egypt (I think it was) and becoming the wife of a most respected doctor was uncharacteristic. However, the worst was the revelation of the rector's true nature - he, who had been the personification of calm and compassion, the voice of reason, turns out to be a misogynist and fanatic. Yes, that killed the book for me, a grudging 3-star instead of the 5-star it could have been.

Mini Reviews - XIX

A Countess Below Stairs

A Countess Below Stairs

  - Eva Ibbotson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have heard a lot about Eva Ibbotson’s books for children, but I haven’t read them yet. In my current regency binge phase, I came across this and based on the recommendations, it seemed to be a good one. However, it left me very disappointed.

The plot is entirely predictable at every stage. The main character (the countess of the title) is a Mary Sue (a new phrase I have learnt!) type, annoyingly perfect. Anna and Muriel are both completely one-dimensional - Anna is kind to and loved by everyone, whereas Muriel is despotic and cruel to one an all, and this includes not just the adults, but a kid and a dog. For each and every person, their respective behaviors are constantly set in contrast, and I don’t think a reader needs so many reminders to understand how evil a person Muriel is. The hero, Rupert, doesn't have much to do in the book, except play a martyr to his commitment. He is willing to sacrifice everyone's life because, you know, he gave his word to Muriel. However, he also gave a promise to little Ollie, which he can't be bothered to keep - utterly despicable character, who has to be rescued by others by devious means.

It seems to include nearly all of the tropes of the genre, including the heroine being high nobility and a misunderstanding separating the lead pair. It is also too verbose, and I skipped pages of examples or illustration to make the same point.


Lord Sidley's Last Season

Lord Sidley's Last Season

  - Sherry Lynn Ferguson

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I chanced upon this book, while trying to find clean regency romance with humor, besides Heyer. It certainly fulfilled my expectations, and perhaps more.

I loved that the heroine is not just an independent, sensible girl, but also a talented artist. She does aspire for love and family, but her art is a passion which she does not want to give up. This is a kind of aspiration I haven't come across in my limited view of regency era heroines. The hero is titled, wealthy and handsome (as in all the stories in this genre!), but also considerate, and he respects the lady's talent enough to promote it whether or not he is able to win her.

The witty exchanges between the couple is usually amusing, but their conversation is engaging otherwise also. However, I don't care for fall-in-love-at-first-glance, which is the case in most of such stories. Also, the resolution of conflicts was a little too tidy, even though that is what I expected in case of the heroine. Overall, an entertaining, breezy read.


Miss Treadwell's Talent

Miss Treadwell's Talent

- Barbara Metzger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For most of the book, there is a flow of witty and sarcastic exchange of dialogues between the lead pair, which is what I was looking for. I enjoyed the banter, and thought it was going on well, until the end, where it became full of fantastic coincidences, supernatural intervention, and inexplicable tidy closures.

I would have preferred to see a greater role of Maylene's well-advertised talents in solving the mysteries than the supernatural guidance from the seances held by her mother. We hear a lot about her abilities, but see little in actual action, and even less done without the hero's assistance. I could not warm up to the hero - Hyatt keeps insulting Maylene throughout. He may be excused for his cynism, but not for failing to apologizing to her even when his presumptions are proven false.

In order to provide a cut-and-dried solution for the heroine's happily-ever-after, one innocent girl is deplorably forced to marry her lecherous cousin, Lady Crowley marries Shimpson for no reason we could see, and Lady Tremont is paired off with the duke unnecessarily (not to say weird!).

A highly unsatisfactory conclusion, for which i subtracted a point from the rating.


A Loyal Companion

A Loyal Companion

 - Barbara Metzger

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

This is a simple romance, though with over-the-top action, and sometimes language, for a regency. In most regency novels of my experience, duchesses don't spout curses, and evil lords fall just short of kidnapping a high-born girl (commoners are fair game for them, with no-one raising an eyebrow).

The plot is typical - a headstrong but kind and thoughtful girl falls instantly in love with a wronged but charismatic hero (not to say titled and rich); and an impoverished nobleman (who is not really noble in his actions) wants to marry the girl for her money to pay his debts. The heroine is just too sweet and perfect, and manages to solve all of the hero's problems. And he, in turn, turns a knight in shining armor or rather a major in dress uniform, and rescues her from the nefarious villain.

What raises it above the par is the dog, who is the narrator of the book. Each chapter starts with his voice, sometimes philosophical thoughts but often sarcastic observations of the human society. What would have been a run-of-the-mill sugary romance otherwise, is lifted to a quirky adventure by this loyal companion.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Mini Reviews - XVIII

April Lady

April Lady

  - Georgette Heyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The romantic plot is based on misunderstanding between a couple, a usual trope in romance novels. The misunderstanding is not particularly interesting, at least in the current times, yet better than another of her novels (The Nonesuch), where the it was just plain stupid. The heroine is kind-hearted and sensible, but something of a doormat who allows everyone to walk over her. The hero is foolish, and I disliked him for not apologizing enough to his wife for his unjust and harsh remarks, and also for not chastising his sister for causing his wife so much trouble and pain. The entire plot is a big farce, but there is not much of humor, which is what I like best in Heyer novels. 


 

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a Butler?

- Georgette Heyer

 My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having binged on Heyer's regency books for last two years, most of which I enjoyed for their wit and humor, I wanted to give her mystery novels a try. The title and the blurb of this sounded interesting, something in the style of Christie's Poriot.

This didn't have much of humor, not even in dialogues, unless you count the sarcastic remarks of the Hero to all and sundry, specially the heroine. Then, it was quite predictable - the heroine's secret, the villain's identity, and the reason for murder(s) are evident quite early. The long chase sequence at the end, and the last-minute rescue was very theatrical, and jaded - I've read much better action sequences written in the same era. And finally, the lengthy, winding explanation of the entire plot bored me so much that I skipped most of it, just scanning to confirm what I suspected.

Okay, if you are a die-hard Heyer fan and enjoy very light mysteries. Avoid, if you are into intelligent murder mysteries or fast-paced thrillers (the non-gruesome kinds, because others are a different game altogether).

Different Class

Different Class

Different Class

  - Joanne Harris


My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I loved everything about 'Gentlemen and Players' - the plot, setting, format, thrill and the battle of wits. This is not really a sequel, though it is set in the same school, and the protagonist is the same elderly teacher, Mr Straitley.

The plot here is also fraught with a great tension, gradually building up as the story progresses. However, it is very dark, with a theme of abuse, sadism and psychopathy running at its core. Due to this, I found it quite disturbing.

I love the way Joanne Harris writes, but the treatment of the plot in here left me dissatisfied, annoyed even. First was deliberate misleading the reader about the identity of the author of the diary - from the reviews and questions I collected that I wasn't the only one to make that mistake. Another one is that ominous buildup - a catastrophic event in the past developing into the current tragedy, but that event is not revealed until the end. I feel both of these have become a part of the pattern, at least in this series of work.

Several questions were left unanswered, and there was some expectation to find answers to some of them in 'BlueEyedBoy', but even after reading it, I am still perplexed. [Who actually was Mousy and what happened to him? What eventually became of Spikely? What was the motive of Harrington, and that of Winter?]

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mini Reviews - XVII

The Toll-Gate

The Toll-Gate

  - Georgette Heyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this for the second time, while on a spree of re-reading the Heyer novels I enjoyed most. This time I revised my review of this from 4 to 3 stars.

I found it rather slow, and skipped paragraphs of mundane and irrelevant details through out the book. The romance was hardly worth the interest, though the plot - a mystery - was different from the other Heyer works I have read. I love the Heyer heroines that are strong characters with a ready wit. But Nell seems to be rather passive and subdued, though we are told that she is very efficiently managing the estate. And the basis of attraction - the larger-than-life size of the lead pair - seems rather ridiculous.
 
 

The Reluctant WidowThe Reluctant Widow 
  - Georgette Heyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Quite a bland offering from GH. I find tiresome the kind of her heroine who is so 'excessively good natured' that she is not disturbed much even when she is aware that she has been manipulated and terribly imposed upon. She is upset for only a moment before dissolving into a smile or giggle. She is 'just the right sort' to agree to schemes and pranks that the least bit of common-sense will counter. And her vocabulary is limited enough to describe most people and events as 'odious' or 'horrible' (I counted 25 of the former and 20 of the latter - thanks to kindle search).
 


FredericaFrederica
  - Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been re-reading some of the Georgette Heyer books I enjoyed the first time, and this is the only book that I loved as much the second time as well.

It is a thoroughly entertaining book, full of humor and witty exchanges, and a cast of many endearing characters who are not such paragons of virtue as to become insipid. Of course there are some dim-witted and repulsive ones, but the novel would be no fun without them! My favorite characters in this, or perhaps the whole of Heyer, are the irrepressible Felix and the irreplaceable Trevor - the former for his unconscious enthusiasm, and the latter for his quiet, sharp efficiency which doesn't preclude subtle humor.

Death of an Expert Witness

Death of an Expert Witness (Adam Dalgliesh #6)

Adam Dalgliesh #6: Death of an Expert Witness

  - P.D. James


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the better mysteries so far in the series - with a lot of suspense and tension, inevitable red herrings, and more plausible motives. However, it continues the tradition of the previous books - elements I didn't like - a full cast of unlikable characters, a detestable victim, and a rushed solution derived from intuition rather than reasoning. It deviates in the way the characters are introduced. In earlier books, the setting is introduced first, and then the backstory of the characters is built up through conversation or inner thoughts. Here, the main characters and their stories are introduced first, one after the other, and by the second or third you have a pretty clear idea of who is going to be killed. It also makes the initial 20% of the book rather bland, because it only serves to underline the depravity of the would-be victim.

Even though Dalgliesh's character is more sympathetic in this book than before, and the mystery is good, I am not inclined to continue with this series. I feel it doesn't say much for a mystery series if you cant care about the characters or even the lead. The characters are almost all mean or shallow. As for the hero, I find him inconsistent and unsympathetic, with no endearing personality traits. He may be publishing poetry, but investigating officers are no celebrities and poets are even more obscure, but in this series everyone seems to know of him and his poetic tendencies. There is no continuation of characters, not even a young subordinate or a bungling constable.
Contrast (unfair, I know!) it with the two most famous fictional detectives - despite Poirot's vanity and Holmes's detachment, they are both kind. Even though they may not respect the intelligence of Dr Watson and Captain Hastings, they have a fondness for them. They are not uncivil even to Lestrade and Japp.

The writing is good, but the solution of the mystery leaves much to be desired - critical pieces of evidence are withheld from reader and only brought out at the end, and the logical process of deduction is missing. So, I am leaving it here, and I don't think it will make it to my favorite murder mysteries list.

The Black Tower

The Black Tower (Adam Dalgliesh, #5)

Adam Dalgliesh #5: The Black Tower

  - P.D. James


My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was quite bland and tedious. The setting and the atmosphere were both bleak, while the character cast was unlikable as ever. Dalgliesh's role is unofficial for a second time. It restricts the investigation a bit, because even though people are willing to talk for the most part, he cannot exercise his authority much. His deductions, as presented to readers, continue to lack the logical process of reasoning based on facts. The revelation of the poison-pen is totally like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, while the murderer's identity and motive are arrived at through a lengthy speculation with a theory.


The build up of the mystery is actually fine, despite the grim setting and the boring details. What pulls it down is the way the solution is presented - pages of conjecture and a gut-feel of antipathy towards the criminal. I think that is why this series has failed to impress me much, even though I like the writing - the solutions is based more on intuition than on logical deduction or pursuit of clues.
I'd have rated it 2.5-3 had the denouement been better.

Shroud for a Nightingale

Shroud for a Nightingale

Adam Dalgliesh #4: Shroud for a Nightingale

  - P.D. James


My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The mystery in this book is more intriguing than the previous books in the series. Yet, it is surprising that I liked this better than the earlier ones, because I did not find much else to like.

The author repeats her formula - a closed setting, a victim much disliked by everyone, and a number of red herrings (obviously, for otherwise it would be difficult to make a novel out of a murder mystery). Further, most of the characters are unpleasant and I didn't care for them, and this includes the detective Dalgliesh. I found him unsympathetic, cold and prejudiced; what makes it worse is the kind of people he has a bias against - sick, disabled, and even plain-looking ones. Dalgliesh, and several others, are quick to judge people based on their looks and demeanor, and are often unaccountably correct. I found his assistant on this case rather repulsive - he is a lazy sycophant, who has a derogatory attitude to women.

The modus operandi of the first murder was fairly straightforward, and I was surprised to see Dalgliesh take so long to figure it out. I had also guessed the identity of the murderer, though not the motive for it, which made me uncertain of my guess. The reason behind the second murder was tangential, and it was perhaps quite unnecessary. (view spoiler).

The author continues to withhold crucial information from the readers, at the same time revealing that the detective has obtained or inferred some vital clues (by means of his though process or discussion with the subordinate). And finally, when the mystery is disclosed to the reader, there is no insight into the process of reaching this conclusions. I feel that this is the one big reason no other author is able to match the works of Christie or Doyle - their detectives are quite likeable despite their eccentricities, their is a clear logical process to the solution and it is revealed to the reader at the end.

What I did like about it was the atmosphere and the tension throughout, that kept me on the edge. I like the way the background and nature of the characters is slowly uncovered, through their talks with the detective, or among themselves, though it becomes a bit confusing when their thoughts are related in lengthy paragraphs.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Unnatural Causes

Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh, #3)

Adam Dalgliesh #3: Unnatural Causes

  - P.D. James

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The third book in the series was a disappointment, specially because I liked the second one a lot, and expected much from the rest of the series.

This is again a closed circle murder mystery, with a limited number of possibilities and everyone under a shadow of suspicion. I think it started well, but became progressively sluggish and somewhat bizarre. I liked the author's patience in building up the atmosphere in previous books, but I began to feel like it was too much of a good thing - lengthy descriptions of surroundings or oblong thoughts of the characters are not holding up my interest any more. I am more interested in people - so I like to read about their back history and how it shapes their personality and motives, as well as the detective's talks and observations with them.

Once again, nearly all the characters were unlikable, and one of them was stereotypical shallow and insensitive. In fact, I couldn't develop a great liking for Dalgliesh's character either. Further, it is not his case; so his unofficial role in the investigation caused the plot to suffer, while his mutual dislike towards the official investigator was unnecessary and uninteresting. And sad to see that the quiet but intelligent Marin is missing.

I had guessed early who committed the murder and how it was carried out, and felt a satisfaction to find that I was at least partly correct. However, the main culprit's identity and the motive was quite unsatisfactory and far-fetched to me. But what is most disappointing (and definitely not a mark of of a good mystery/thriller IMHO) is the way the great reveal is handled. Dalgliesh "knows" the who and how, and explains it to the official police in charge some way from the end, but the readers are privy neither to the information, nor to the process of arriving at it. I positively loathe it when the reader as well as the other characters get the full picture from a confession. In this case it was in the form of a tape, but from a readers' perspective it was several pages too long, and very unrealistic in tone. I don't know if it would sound better on audio, but I definitely didn't enjoy reading it.

A Mind To Murder

A Mind To Murder (Adam Dalgliesh, #2)

Adam Dalgliesh #2: A Mind To Murder

  - P.D. James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the first book, I was a little surprised to find that this is not reminiscent of Agatha Christie, but has a more modern setting, though still quite a ‘clean’ crime story - something which I sorely miss in contemporary works.

As in the first book, this is a closed room mystery, the victim is not particularly liked, and almost everyone has a motive. But I liked this one better. Firstly, it did not have the dated setting which felt little out of place in the previous book because of an apparent later time-frame it was set in. It was also easier to follow the characters and the story arc. I found the plot and pace tighter, and the motives more logical.

However, a large part of the solution was evident to me by 50% mark, even though it felt that the author later indulged in obscuring the plot with some red herrings, to pull the story. Once again, coincidences play a role, but it was interesting to find that the detective had not arrived at the complete and correct solution :) In a way, this fallibility humanizes him, making him more likeable.

We get to know a little more about Dalgliesh. His subordinate, Martin, is not shown prominently, but I liked whatever we get to see about him. I hoped to see more of him and his camaraderie with the detective, but sadly he doesn't feature in later books.