A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

A Separate PeaceThis was the first book I chose for my library book club (because you know I need another book club…) for some very specific reasons: It had several copies available in the system, it was not terribly long, and it was a book I thought I probably should have read by now.

And, in fact, yes, this is a book that I should have gotten around to long ago, but it was never required in school and so I hadn’t actually heard of it until maybe a few years ago. It’s an obvious precursor to many of my favorite novels and very likely to my absolute favorite movie, Dead Poets Society. Young boys in boarding school coming of age? That is totally my jam.

This particular boys-coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story takes place in New England shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and is narrated by an adult Gene looking back at his time on campus, particularly one terrible horrible no-good very bad year. In that year, Gene and his bffaeae Finny avoid thinking about the war by doing other foolish and dangerous things, all leading up to this one thing that happens that haunts Gene for the rest of his life.

And it’s pretty great. Most War-era books I’ve read have taken place in the middle of the war and especially in the middle of the fighting, so reading about these boys so close to going off to war but so removed from the war itself was really interesting to me. And of course there’s the whole boarding-school/high-school atmosphere of everything mattering oh so very much and the incomparable importance of friends and grades and sports, which I cannot help but love from afar.

Gene’s internal struggles are the true heart of the novel, though, and they are struggles that I can sadly understand. He spends a lot of the novel wondering whether his best friend is really a friend trying to make Gene a better person or actually an enemy trying to bring Gene down to lift himself up, and although it’s obvious that it’s the former, Gene is pretty convincing that it could be the latter. I found myself shouting at the book more than once, “Hey, idiot! Seriously! What is wrong with you?!” Oh, how glad I am that I never have to be sixteen again.

The big downside to reading this novel is that I have read and watched so many of its direct and indirect descendants, so some of the important twists and consequences of the novel were preeeeeeeetty obvious because I’d seen them before. But I really would never have seen Leper’s (yes, that’s a character’s name) storyline coming. Poor kid.

Recommendation: For fans of boarding-school coming-of-age novels and those who have ever been insecure.

Rating: 7/10

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for MurderOkay, so, me and Hitchcock, we’re not, like, super-best-friends or anything. I’ve been very very slowly watching his movies, and they’re basically okay, though I may never understand the appeal of Vertigo. But holy heck I want to kiss the man on the mouth for directing this movie.

It is basically everything I want in an entertainment vessel. I would go see this as the play it originally was, I would read it as a book, I would listen to it as an opera, and I would totally go see it in 3D even though it would give me a headache. (Side note: This was originally screened in 3D in 1954. Oh, how history repeats itself.)

What is this “everything” I speak of? Let’s see. We have an inside-out murder mystery (like my beloved Double Indemnity) in which the murderer is the protagonist. Well, would-be murderer, as we also have a completely bungled murder that becomes an elaborate cover-up, and I do love elaborate cover-ups. There’s tons of suspense of both the “I hope he gets away with it!” and the “I hope they catch him!” variety, which is brilliant, and there’s also a mustachioed detective who provides some comic relief in the form of sarcasm.

Also, the acting is fantastic on everyone’s part, especially Ray Milland as the surprisingly likeable murderer. The cinematography is really interesting, too, especially with the little 3D flourishes that came off only a bit odd when I had no idea that’s what they were. And probably 90% of the film takes place in one room, but I never stopped to think, hey, these walls are getting a bit stale (like perhaps I did for another one-room Hitchcock film).

There’s really nothing more I want to say here that isn’t “omg this film is amazing go watch it now” so… you should go do that!

Rating: 10/10
(RIP)

Death of a Fool, by Ngaio Marsh

What? A new “Golden Age Girl” for my Vintage Mystery Challenge? Delightful!

I had never heard of Ngaio (pronounced “Nye-oh”) Marsh, but my friend Jessica has been pushing me to read her, and in my “I have nothing to read doo doo doo” searching of OverDrive for an audiobook, I found two that fit my reading challenge. Perfection! I couldn’t decide between the two, so I asked Wikipedia to tell me what they were about. It then just outright spoiled one of the books, so the other it was!

And I’m quite happy with the one I read. It’s from near the middle of Marsh’s bibliography, so it’s got a nice established detective who does not long to be Holmes and also it is obvious that Marsh still likes her detective (I don’t know if she ever doesn’t; I am basing this statement on my experiences with other writers).

AND it’s a locked room mystery, and I love me a good padlocked door.

Well, except that there’s not actually a door. Or a lock. Which kind of makes it awesomer. What happens here is that there’s one of those pagan plays, with the dancing and the running around chasing girls and all, and this same family has been doing the play forever, and they’re doing it again, except this time there’s some German lady who drove out for two days to see the play but the fact that she’s annoying the crap out of everyone means no one wants her to go see the play, and also there’s some infighting amongst the family people who are all kind of sick of each other, and there’s a sort of prodigal granddaughter returning to her homeland and also being in love with someone in the play, and whatever and the play goes on and then suddenly the family Patriarch is supposed to have a line or something except he doesn’t say it because he has been BEHEADED. In front of everyone, because where else would he be, except no one saw it.

And that, my friends, is intriguing. All those things from before the play come into importance when Inspector Alleyn shows up and is all omg everyone seems to have wanted this guy dead, but no one could have done it, and also the way he seems to have died is just not right and what the heck actually happened?

So it’s good, is what I’m saying. I liked that there were a bunch of clues that I could figure out, and I solved what is sort of the first mystery before it was revealed, but even with just a few minutes left to go on audio I wasn’t sure what the answer to the whole mystery was. And when I heard the answer, I wasn’t like, what. I was like, “Ohhhhhhh, iiiiiiinteresting.” Also, there is a re-enactment, and although no one has to shut up and be a corpse, it’s still a fun time. I will definitely be reading more Marsh in the future.

Recommendation: Do you like classic mystery novels? Then read this.

Rating: 8.5/10
(Global Reading Challenge: Australasia, Vintage Mystery Challenge)

Dead Man’s Folly, by Agatha Christie

I am slowly working my way through Christie’s novels in a quite haphazard fashion… this one I had originally picked up because it was the only Christie audiobook at the library, but I ended up reading it in print from the beginning after the CDs were too damaged to play and the book took so long in getting to me that I had forgotten all the important bits! Dedicated, I am. Sort of.

I say this both to impress you and to impress upon you that I have read/listened to this book 1.5 times, and still when I got to the ending I was like… what. It is possible, I suppose, that a keen mind could have pieced together the clues that led to this ending, but mine was not that mind. Alas.

The story is delightful — Christie brings in her alter-ego, Ariadne Oliver, who is off at some rich person’s house concocting a murder mystery event. Things get weird, so Oliver contrives to enlist the help of our good friend Poirot, whose moustaches are fine indeed. Oliver tells Poirot that things are hinky and that she’s worried that her murder mystery puzzle will turn into a true murder mystery, but Poirot writes off her intuition. Until, of course, someone turns up dead. And someone else doesn’t turn up, missing. Sacre bleu!

There are a ton of characters in this novel, and therefore many suspects, and I felt things got a little busy trying to sort out how everyone was related and all of their backstories and whatnot. And a lot of the actual mystery solving takes place off-page, Holmes-style, which was a little disappointing. But regardless, Christie writes a fine mystery and even though I was a bit baffled by the solution, it still affected me as it should. And how can you argue with her wonderful descriptions? You can’t.

All in all a successful story. Which should I read next?

Recommendation: For anyone who likes a classic whodunnit.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge, Vintage Mystery Challenge)

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson certainly knows how to do creepy well. I read her short novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle for last year’s RIP Challenge, so grabbing another book by her seemed very smart for this year’s!

The premise of the book is that there is a fellow, Dr. Montague, who is conducting some experiments at a place called Hill House. Basically, he’s heard some stories about the house being haunted and basically uninhabitable, and he’s hoping to make some notes on any phenomena he might come across. He takes on a couple of assistants, including Eleanor Vance, our protagonist. Eleanor and the others spend several nights in the house, observing some interesting things like something banging on doors, a very cold spot where no draft could come through, and the same or another something writing messages on walls. But even with all of the house’s oddities, Eleanor finds herself starting to really love the house… perhaps too much?

Because that’s what the book is really about. Eleanor has been essentially a shut-in for 11 years, taking care of her mother, and her sister doesn’t respect her, and Eleanor has no friends or self-confidence until she shows up at Hill House. And then she tries a little too hard to be BFF(aeae)s with everyone, and of course it doesn’t work quite that well, and so she makes friends with the only thing left to be friends with — the creepy house. Which goes about as well as you might expect.

I’ll admit I was hoping for something a little scarier when I picked this up, but I am perfectly content with the psychological creep factor — I certainly understand the feeling of being shut in and having no one to hang out with, though I hope that my friends who have to love me through the Internet would keep me from getting eaten by a haunted house. You would, right? Please?

Ahem. So Jackson hits the interpersonal relations right on the nose, with the “lets be best friends!” attitude of strangers living together that slowly erodes into a “lets avoid each other like the plague!” when the people realize they don’t actually like each other all that much, and with the clingy “wait let’s still be frieeeeends” Eleanor, and especially with the pitch-perfect passive-aggressive Theo. Jackson also nails the creepy-haunted-house bit with the banging on the walls and the spinning room and the “oh, that’s really creepy” moment between Eleanor and Theo. And THEN she offers up an excellent person going slowly and inexorably insane.

Basically I’m going to have to marry Shirley Jackson. Don’t tell Scott.

Recommendation: For those who like a bit of psychological creepiness in their cereal, and who don’t mind if that’s the only kind of creepiness. Not for those who are looking for people popping out from behind doors, wielding knives and severed heads.

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

See also:
books i done read
Reading matters
things mean a lot
A Striped Armchair
Well-Mannered Frivolity

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (21 December — 22 December)

I… didn’t get this book. At all. I even did something crazy and went and read the SparkNotes after I was done with it to attempt to figure out what the heck had happened, but I’m still not satisfied. I didn’t not like the book, but after reading it I just had absolutely no idea what I was meant to have taken away, and now that I know what I’m meant to have taken away, I’m disappointed.

See, the plot of this book… well, there’s not really a plot. But there’s a protagonist, so that’s good, and he’s called Okonkwo and he lives in Africa and he aspires to great things. His father was a loser, so Okonkwo fashioned himself a winner, to good results. But then he kills this kid that was sent to live with him and who called him “father” and who liked living with Okonkwo, and then things seem to start falling apart, as they do.

And I thought that maybe that was the point of the book, because it’s pretty emphasized — that Okonkwo did a bad thing by killing a boy he thought of as a son, and now he gets to be punished. And he does get punished, in various ways, including being exiled for seven years for inadvertantly killing some other guy’s son. But then Achebe completely ignores all of that and starts in with some missionaries, who come to the villages and start converting people to Christianity, and then things seem to start falling apart, as they do.

Wait, what? Okay, fine, so things are falling apart for a different reason now, that has nothing to do with Okonkwo. But Okonkwo, whose life was already falling apart, doesn’t want it to fall apart anymore so he tries to bring an uprising against the missionaries, which totally fails, and [ending alert] then he kills his real son (who’s a convert and who is “not his son anymore” and cetera) and then he kills himself. Or is said to have killed himself. And SparkNotes says he did it. But I don’t believe that.

Anyway, so I finish reading the book and I’m like, okay, this plotline that I’ve just outlined makes sense, but I’ve only included, like, less than half of the scenes in the book and what were those supposed to be for? So I ask SparkNotes, and it tells me that this book is really about showing the Western world that Africa is a real place with real people with real emotions and religions and languages and customs and such and that colonization sort of makes those things fall apart and also the colonial nations are pretty stupid for not realizing that Africa is a real place etc.

And then I go, oh. That makes sense. I get that. I would feel stupid for not seeing that while reading it, except that I was too busy trying to follow the story Achebe was telling, and not the one he was implying, which is unfortunate. I guess if I had known in advance that the written story was merely a vehicle for a bigger statement, I would have liked it better. As it stands, I am just confused and disappointed.

Rating: 5/10
(Back to School Challenge)

See also:
an adventure in reading
Books ‘N Border Collies
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (24 November — 1 December)

This book would have been better with cannibalism.

No, seriously. I was promised cannibalism, and there was none. Hinted potential cannibalism? Yes. Actual eating of humans? No. Totally unfair.

For this review I’m going to assume that a) you are unlike me and actually had to read this at some point in your schooling or b) you are like me and the book was spoiled for you by a person of the A persuasion. If neither of these are true, well, now you know there’s no cannibalism?

Tiny plot summary: a bunch of boys get stranded on a jungle island after some mysterious circumstances. They start off working toward rescue, but then some kids break off to have fun on the island or hunt the native pigs. The latter group gets bigger, the former group gets smaller. The hunters get all worked up in a tizzy one night and kill one of the other boys, who they thought was a beast at the time. Oops. Then they get worked up in a bigger tizzy about wanting to run the island and they on-purpose kill the fat kid with the asthma. Mmmm, dashed brains (and still no cannibalism!). Then. Then. -twitch- Then, right before they kill (and possibly eat? Cannibalism, please!) the last of the relatively sane people, they get frickin’ rescued. WHAT.

I mean, yeah, the book is old and British, and the writing is difficult to understand at times, and there is NO CANNIBALISM, but I was pretty much on board with the book the whole way through. I was intrigued by the slow descent into madness (well, faster for some) of the boys, especially the one who’s trying to keep everything together. I was horrified but admiring of the sow “rape” scene (no, there is no sex with pigs. Or cannibalism). But then, right when we’re about to find out just how deep into evil 12-year-olds can get… they get frickin’ rescued. Jeez. The one time they keep the fire lit. Especially after all of the stuff in the beginning about how maybe there was an atomic bomb and probably everyone else is dead and all, the rescue really seemed completely out of place. I get it — the kids are all crazy and stuff until a real voice of authority comes, at which point they become good little Brits again. But I think the drama, the horror, and the irony would have been just that much more delicious if Golding had at least waited until AFTER Ralph was dead for the rescuers to come. Seriously.

The other problem I had with this book is that while I liked specific scenes (the “rape”, Simon talking with the Lord of the Flies, the parachutist/Beast nodding in the breeze, any time Ralph says “sucks to your ass-mar”), I had a lot of trouble remembering any character that wasn’t on a page for a while. Jack, Ralph, Piggy, sure. But everyone else I had to flip back and re-learn who they were all the time. I don’t know if that was Golding’s intention (kids are interchangeable?), but it was really rather confusing.

But I did actually like this book, possibly because I didn’t have to read it for school. 🙂 Funny how that works.

Rating: 7/10
(My Year of Reading Dangerously)

See also:
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett (25 August — 27 August)

I love the blurb on the cover of this book:

“By far Leigh Brackett’s best novel to date and comes awfully close to being a great work of science-fiction.” — New York Times

When I saw that, I thought, “Hmmm. What does that mean? Is this just an okay work of science fiction?” And I’m still not sure what the Times reviewer was thinking fifty years ago when he wrote that, but I can certainly make a hypothesis.

The only real science-fiction-y aspect of the novel is the fact that it takes place in the future, after a World War III nuclear holocaust has destroyed all the cities in the world. After this catastrophic event, the government has outlawed cities (too much of a target) and pretty much everyone has taken to being a New Mennonite and living just like the Amish do today. Part of the new religion preaches the comfort of being ignorant, thus keeping people from wanting to invent another nuclear bomb.

But a couple of kids in the Youngstown, Ohio area (not sure exactly where they’re meant to be, but I recognized a couple of city names nearby, Andover and Canfield) are more curious and less mindful of their parents than they should be and end up hearing about and lusting after a forbidden city called Bartorstown, where men are purported to be able to learn things and to be allowed to remember what the world was like 100 years ago, before the bombs and terror and whatnot. These kids set off to find the city, but since no one talks about it for fear of being stoned to death, and they can’t even really be sure the place exists, the quest is a little harder than they expect.

I rather enjoyed this little book! It has just the right combination of adventure and reality, and the main character, Len, is really easy to relate to. The novel is really more about Len’s physical and emotional journey rather than his destination, and there’s a lot of really good commentary about the human condition. And, for a dystopian novel from the fifties, the writing is pretty darn clear and concise. Good marks all around. (Also, Brackett’s a chick and worked on The Empire Strikes Back, which is like plus ten more points.)

Rating: 7/10

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (18 August — 23 August)

Mary has been bugging me to read this approximately since the day I met her four and a half years ago. I have finally read it. Stop bugging me, Mary. 😛

Um. Hanyway. On the Road is this weird little autobiographical novel written by Jack Kerouac about being young and free and awesome and travelling across the country with as few cares as possible. It’s definitely not the kind of book I would normally read, as it is really very plot-less, but I did appreciate Kerouac’s ability to set a scene.

The book is essentially this: Kerouac, in the form of Sal Paradise, travels from New York to Denver to San Francisco and back many times via bus and car and hitchhiking, and with next to no money, and meets some rather interesting people along the way. His big inspiration is Dean Moriarty, who does the “without a care” part of his roadtripping by ignoring the cares he should have (a wife, a kid, another wife, some more kids…) and doing generally whatever he wants.

I found Dean to be kind of a putz, but I can definitely see why Sal would want to follow him around the country; he’s just got this crazy spirit that begs to be observed.

And reading the book made me want to do a wild and crazy roadtrip of my own, but of course with less hitchhiking and having no money and having to pick up odd jobs just to get back where I came from. Because I am not one of these “beat” kids. So maybe it would be just a regular roadtrip, without the wild or the crazy but definitely with the fun?

Rating: 7/10
(Critical Monkey Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Minority Report, by Philip K. Dick (18 June)

I put this book on hold at the library a while ago when I realized I’d never actually read anything by Philip K. Dick. I figured a book of short stories would be a good start, but I managed to misread the record. (An aside: I would never do that now! My first library science class has taught me more than you ever wanted to know about every field in a catalog record, and I’ve only had eight hours of class so far.) I’m kind of glad I did — this may be just one story, but it’s presented as a top-bound notebook like those I used for reporting. I felt really cool sitting around flipping pages super-quickly for an hour, and you will, too!

Hanyway. I’ve not seen all of the movie version of this (just the beginning and the creepy part with the eyeball), but Scott says this book is nothing like it. John Anderton is the commissioner of the pre-crime unit, which, like other government departments, uses psychic “idiots” to see the future. People who are seen committing crimes — from felony to murder — are brought in and contained before they can do the deed. On the day when Anderton’s new assistant, whom Anderton is training to take over the department eventually, arrives, Anderton’s own name shows up on a punch card as the murderer of a guy he doesn’t even know. Anderton, thinking new guy is framing him, decides to undermine the system by running away and hiding for a week, but before he can he is kidnapped by the guy he’s meant to kill and has a reader-headache-inducing couple of days before figuring out the plot and making things right.

That’s right, headache-inducing. Dick doesn’t dick around (hah! I’m so witty) with much exposition past the idea of pre-crime; after spending a few pages on that suddenly Anderton is figuring out things left and right and is like, “This is the truth! No, this is, for some reason I may or may not tell you later!” and you’re like, “Buh?” and Dick’s like, “Hahahahaha.” Srsly. But in the end you sort of get it and then you write your congressperson a long letter against the use of mentally retarded people (no, really) as psychic crime-stoppers because it would confuse you. Or something.

Rating: 7/10