Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching GodAnother book club, another book I should totally have already read. This one a little more drastically, though… I was in fact assigned to read this for a class in college, and in fact I wrote a term paper partially based on this book and got an A on it, but I had never read more than the minimum required to write said paper and remembered none of it.

But actually I think it was probably more interesting to me now than it would have been oh those many, many years ago, because the book is set entirely in Florida and very very partially in my adopted home of Jacksonville, so not only did I get to read a classic story but I got to learn more about the history of my current surroundings! I say I don’t like history every time I read a historical novel, but I suppose I have to admit to finding bits and pieces of it fascinating.

Which is good, because this historical stuff is really important to the novel. It’s one of them literary novels that doesn’t really have a contained story to it, but instead ruminates on the life of a mixed-race dreamer girl called Janie living in an urbanizing state in the early 1900s. I’m not sure if that specific time is ever pinned down, but the book was published in 1937, so not later than that?

The urbanizing state part was super interesting to me. Janie travels from the Panhandle to Central Florida, briefly to Jacksonville, and then down to the Everglades, and you can see the vast differences between these parts of the state then and now. Central Florida (before Disney World!) is just this vast expanse of nothing where Janie’s husband can use his modest dollars to build and run an entire town. The Everglades area near Lake Okeechobee is like California during the gold rush, if you like your gold in the form of beans. It is nuts to think that these places that were essentially wild eighty years ago are chock full of suburban subdivisions and snowbird winter homes today.

The dreamer girl part was less interesting to me, largely because there is so much less variation in Janie than in her surroundings, which now that I write it down seems to possibly have been kind of the whole point. So it goes. Anyway, Janie starts off as this dreamy teenager who just wants to, like, have epiphanies under pear trees (I admit that I do not understand this part at all), but quickly gets married off to a wealthy guy who’s good for Janie’s pocketbook but not for her mental or physical health. So naturally, she runs off with a handsome man who turns out also to be good for her pocketbook but terrible for her independence as a human being. Eventually he dies, and she goes off again with a man who seems to love her very much but still beats her and searches for the ulterior motive in all of her actions. I’m not exactly sure what Hurston is trying to say with Janie’s inability to find a man who cares about her brains, but my takeaway is that you should maybe look into this aspect of a relationship before running off and marrying someone. Good advice, self.

There are so many parts to this story that I found myself utterly baffled by, including toward the end a giant but brief hurricane and a giant but brief court trial, and I think that maybe I should have read this book during that college class after all, when there would have been someone to explain it all to me. I bet there’s a Cliff’s Notes on this somewhere, maybe I’ll go read that? But even without really getting the story, I did like Hurston’s writing style (even the dialect!) and I enjoyed the reading experience very much.

Recommendation: I mean, you should probably read this, it’s an important book for some reason that Cliff’s Notes will undoubtedly explain to me someday.

Rating: 7/10

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Here’s a true story for you: The Hobbit is the first book I ever lied about reading, way back when I was but a young Alison looking to score some Summer Reading Club points. My parents totally did not believe my lies, but they allowed said lies to stand anyway, leading to DECADES of shame and regret. Well, not really. Most of the time I forget it even happened. But I’ve never lied about a Summer Reading Club book since! (Summer reading in general, yes, totally.)

But now I have read it, and I can speak with authority on the subjects of Misplaced Heroism and Wizards That Are Not Very Nice. Seriously, I had no idea Gandalf was such a jerk! Blah blah blah, grand adventures, blah, self-confidence, blah, endless treasure, whatever. No means no, Gandalf!

I know I’m not the last person to read this book, so here’s the plot: jerky wizard recruits homebody hobbit to go help some dwarves steal all the treasures from a talking dragon. Said gang wanders toward dragon and gets swept up in some side-quests along the way; a ring is tricked away from a creeper. The gang finally gets to the dragon and fails at stealing all the treasures until someone kills the dragon for them. There is fighting. Eventually, Homebody Hobbit returns home with a handful of treasure, which doesn’t last long for an amusing reason.

So. It’s a Quest Novel. I’m not always a big fan of these, and I’d have to say this one is all right, I guess. The scrapes they get into are interesting, especially when they ignore directions and go wandering in the woods, and of course I was intrigued by the Gollum aspect of things having seen the LOTR movies (I’ll get around to the books someday, maybe). I was a little concerned by the GI-Joe-like refusal to let anyone die, but then everyone started dying and I was like, hey, hold on, this is going a little overboard. But it’s really not a quest until someone dies, right?

Of course, the best part was that the audiobook cover had the same picture that graces my engagement puzzle (read: the puzzle my then-boyfriend and I were putting together when I completely ignored his proposal [accidentally, I swear!]), so when things got boring I could just think back on adorable times. I may be a huge sap.

The second-best part was that ears-reading the book meant that the narrator SANG to me, which was absolutely fantastic because a) I always want to know how songs in books go and b) Rob Inglis is probably a way better singer than those dwarves and goblins and whatnot. If he could have sung the whole book to me, that would have been just fine.

And even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, I liked it enough that I am very interested in seeing the movie — I was going to watch it eventually if only for Martin Freeman, but now I might actually pay to see it, which is just ridiculous. There had better be singing!

Recommendation: You probably already know if you want to read it, but if you’re on the fence you should think about how much you like quests, goblins, and riddles.

Rating: 7/10
(TBR Challenge)

Overture to Death, by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh and I are totally BFFs, even if she doesn’t know it, largely because a bunch of her books are on OverDrive and so it is SO EASY to listen to them! After Death of a Fool, I was like, give me more! And so I found this little number, which promised music and therefore I was in.

There’s not really music. Unfortunately. But there is a FANTASTIC murder device, which is a gun attached by pulleys to the soft pedal of a piano, such that when our murderee sets down to play some Rachmaninoff, she shoots herself in the face. WHAT.

I am loving Marsh’s ability to murder people.

And then the story is even better — it’s established in the lead-up to the murder that this woman, called Miss Campanula, and her BFF/arch-enemy Miss Prentice, are not well-liked by anyone. And it is Miss Prentice who is meant to play the overture at the play that night, except that she has been injured and while she really really means to play, no one will let her and Miss Campanula takes her place at the last minute. So, first question: who was meant to be killed that night?

There are red herrings and seeming red herrings all over the place, and pretty much everyone is like, “I wouldn’t mind if both of them were dead, except I don’t really mean that, or do I,” and “everyone” is SO MANY PEOPLE and I suspected all of them at one point or another but only one person did it and it’s sort of interesting who and how that happened.

I’m learning Marsh’s tricks, so I’m not quite as awed by her mystery-weaving abilities this go-round, but trust me, she’s got them.

Recommendation: If you like a whodunnit, you’re gonna like this.

Rating: 8/10
(Vintage Mystery Challenge, RIP Challenge)

Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers

I found this book in Mac’s Backs when I was up in Cleveland for New Year’s, and since I’ve never seen any other Sayers novels there (and because I still have some store credit there), I snapped it up right quick! It even took precedence over my library book for in-flight reading material, because I liked Gaudy Night so much I wanted my Sayers fix pronto!

This was, for the most part, a very good idea, especially the plane part, because I might not have been able to focus on this book were it not for lack of anything else to do. The story is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but Sayers buries the whole thing in so much train timetable nonsense and sometimes indecipherable Scottish dialect that more than once I found myself a bit confused by something but too overwhelmed to go back and figure it out. So I may be missing any subtler parts of this mystery.

But basically, you’ve got a dude. A belligerent dude, who is not terribly well liked by most of his friends. And so then he dies, seemingly accidentally, and that’s all well and good until one Lord Peter Wimsey is like, “Oh, ho, but this one piece of evidence that would totally make this an accident is missing!” and Dorothy Sayers is all, “But I’m not gonna tell you what that evidence is because where’s the fun in that?” except she actually writes, “(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.)” Which is both sexist and unnecessary, because I sort of knew what she was talking about but it didn’t help me figure out whodunnit any faster, so whatever.

Ahem. Anyway, dude-face is dead, and it’s an artist what killed him, and in particular one of six potential artists who had the motive and means to do it. Interestingly, most of these artists have gone missing, so it takes rather longer than it probably should to round them all up, figure out their stories, and solve the case. And even then, the case takes a while to solve, because it gets all Clue up in Scotland. Or, I should probably say that Clue gets all Five Red Herrings up in Mr. Boddy’s mansion, but I saw Clue first and I’m sticking with it. What I mean to say is that several people offer theories of what might have happened, and then Wimsey is all, “Nuh-uh, you’re wrong and I’m right like Sherlock Holmes!” and then, and I am not kidding about this, Wimsey stages a real-time reenactment of the crime that is, again, totally unnecessary but which is in fact delightful.

So. Minus points for the incredibly dense writing, but super-awesome plus points for lines like, “‘You shut up,’ said Wimsey, ‘You’re dead, sir.'” and, “‘Now, corpse, it’s time I packed you into the car.'” Though I admit that if anyone had ever said, “To make a long story short,” I would have had to shout, “TOO LATE!”

Recommendation: For fans of classic-type mysteries who are not adverse to a little translation in their reading or a little math (for the timetables).

Rating: 8/10, mostly for the delightful ending
(A to Z Challenge, Vintage Mystery Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

Another Cain! I really like this guy’s work.

This book is more like The Postman Always Rings Twice than Mildred Pierce, because there’s more murder plotting, but it of course still has that don’t-trust-charismatic-people aspect to it. So good.

And the murder plotting here is EXCELLENT, because the murderer fellow, who is again offing a lust-object’s husband, is an insurance agent and he knows what has to be done to make a murder play out like an accident. So there is lots of planning and trickery and secrets.

But of course there are more secrets than just this planned murder, as our murderer discovers AFTER he’s done all this work, and those combined with the fact that he works with at least one good insurance agent who has totally figured out that there was a murder but can’t quite prove it make this novel wonderfully suspenseful.

The ending is great as well; it combines a few excellent surprising endings that I’ve read before and makes them more interesting. It’s just a good time all around!

Also, just a few pages into this book I realized that I had watched the movie version in my freshman English class, though I didn’t remember it terribly well because I’m pretty sure the noir voice-over aspect put me to sleep. Definitely a more gripping book.

Recommendation: Good for those who like suspense and slowly unveiled evil characters, and also those who would like tips on planning a perfect murder.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

I read Mildred Pierce for my book club a little while ago and loved it, so the fact that I had a couple other Cain works sitting in anthology form turned out to be an excellent thing.

Of course, The Postman Always Rings Twice isn’t really anything like Mildred Pierce. In Mildred, Cain writes a moderately creepy story about the power of especially charismatic people, while in Postman… no, wait, it’s still about the power of especially charismatic people. But here there be MURDERERS. That’s the difference. Not such a big one, really.

Postman is about a drifter fellow who very quickly falls in love (well, lust) with a married woman and just as quickly they are planning her husband’s death. They try once and fail, then try again and succeed, but of course murdering someone isn’t really something you can get away with so easily, especially when an insurance company is involved.

The trial bit is what I think I liked the best… my husband’s in law school so he’s always coming home with very strange hypothetical and real cases, but this one takes the cake, especially in the way the lawyer uses all sorts of lawyer-y tricks that baffle and confuse and amaze me in the end.

I also liked that the narrator turns out to be possibly unreliable (not even definitely unreliable, how cool is that), and also the way the whole ending plays out, from the betrayals to the justice.

But it is a short book (~100 pages), so really you should just go read it.

Recommendation: Not for people who love their characters, but definitely for people who love their plots. Also for budding lawyers who want some true genius to aspire to, but not for those who want to have, like, integrity.

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Before we even get into the story here, let me tell you that I. Hate. Acid paper. My copy of this book is the 1974 movie tie-in edition, and although I thought they were done with this terrible paper by then, they were not. So now my copy of Murder on the Orient Express is technically two half-copies of Murder on the Orient Express. Sigh. I suppose that it could have been worse, that I could have lost a page without noticing and be missing 1 percent of the book — possibly an important 1 percent!

But there were no missing pages, and every page was delightfully intriguing. This book had been an option in a mystery novels class I took in undergrad, so though I read a different book from the list (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, another Christie novel with a crazy ending) I knew how this one ended. Even still, I was drawn in to the story and the odd detecting skills of M. Poirot.

The story starts off as a classic locked-room problem — a Mr. Ratchett is found dead in his compartment on the Orient Express train. The chain is in place on his side of the door, and the communicating door between his compartment and the woman’s next door is also locked. His cause of death is twelve stab wounds to the chest, of varying levels of severity. The doctor on board the train immediately presumes a crime of passion perpetrated by a woman, but the pipe cleaner left behind at the scene says perhaps a man. But the handkerchief also left behind says a woman. And while most of the stab wounds say right-handed person, one definitely says left-handed person. And, everyone on the train has an alibi for the presumed time of death. Poirot gets dragged into solving this impossible problem, and of course he does, because that’s sort of his job.

I greatly enjoyed finally reading this novel, which is similar to a Sherlock Holmes story but with better showing of clues to the reader. I felt like I could have solved this case myself even without knowing the final result, and I liked watching Poirot come to his realizations mostly along with me (he is a bit smarter than I, unfortunately). I also absolutely love the ending; not the solution bit, but the bit right after that.

Rating: 7/10
(RIP Challenge)

See also:
an adventure in reading

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.