The Monogram Murders by “Agatha Christie”

The Monogram MurdersEveryone who knows me, and now readers of this blog, know that my favorite author of all time is Agatha Christie. I’ve been devouring her works since elementary school and frequently re-read my favorites. I probably own two-thirds of her canon, thanks to Barnes & Noble gifts cards and secondhand bookstores. So when I heard that the Christie estate had given author Sophie Hannah license to write the 43rd Poirot book, I was ecstatic, then trepidatious, then back and forth again (and only more frantically once I learned about the Agatha Christie festival’s celebration of it).

The Monogram Murders begins with a mysterious young woman that Poirot sees at his usual cafe. She confesses that she fears she’s about to be murdered and insists that Poirot not investigate her killer before fleeing into the night. Poirot’s concern grows when he’s called to the renowned Bloxham Hotel, where three guests have been found murdered with monogrammed cufflinks placed in their mouths. With the help of Detective Catchpool, his fellow boarder, he puzzles over the link between the two incidents in order to solve the case hopefully before a fourth body is discovered.

Hannah absolutely nails Poirot’s voice. In my head, I can hear David Suchet speaking each of Poirot’s lines in that adorable Belgian accent, though there wasn’t nearly enough mustache-stroking and eye-gleaming for my taste.  Sadly, the narrator Catchpool is possibly even more annoying and unintelligent than Hastings. Even dear Inspector Japp is a superior detective, which is really saying something. Despite working as a policeman, Catchpool has a strange aversion to dead bodies, to the point of being unable to perform his job and examine a murder scene. Hannah also keeps dropping vague hints about some trauma in his past that I felt was never fully fleshed out.

The murder mystery also didn’t appeal to me. It felt very staged and repetitive, as if you were watching a play rehearsal of the same scene over and over again. The twist (which I won’t reveal!) was somewhat predictable, though she did throw in one mildly shocking element, but the motive of the perpetrator was uninspired. You’d have to be as idiotic as Catchpool to not at least somewhat catch on.

Though the writing style mimicked Christie fairly well, for me it had an oddly modern vibe. My favorite part of Christie is the mid-1900s setting, often in rural villages with eccentric, old-school characters. This book was partially set in the village of Great Holling, but the place and its people were pretty much slandered across the board. Unlike Christie, Hannah seemed to glorify city life to the expense of the country. I could forgive that, except that the idea of Poirot giving up his beloved clean-lined deco apartment in London for a staycation at a boarding house across the street borders on the absurd.

As glad as I am that Poirot lives on, this is not one of his finest cases. While I didn’t hate it and was mildly entertained throughout, I probably would have liked the mystery better without him because Poirot made me hold it to higher standards. This is certainly below par of all Poirots and many of Dame Agatha’s other works. I would direct readers to the original Christie-written mysteries, such as Elephants Can Remember or Dead Man’s Folly, over this revival any day.

3 Stars

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Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunPer the recommendation of a fellow book club member and because author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was speaking at the university (which unfortunately I ended up missing), I decided to pick up this book. The title, Half of a Yellow Sun, comes from the symbol on the short-lived Biafran flag, which mirrors the hope of the Biafrans for a new dawn as a new nation.

Told from three different, interconnected perspectives, the 4 sections span the 1960s as Nigeria becomes independent and then descends into civil war. The Biafran region, an oil-rich area dominated by the Christian Igbo tribes, attempted to secede following an unsuccessful coup and the resultant ethnic cleansing by the Hausa Muslims. Prior to the war, Ugwu, a houseboy from an impoverished and rural Igbo village, moves to the city to work for university professor Odenigbo, who is English-educated and has strong views about the political future of his homeland. Moving in with them is Olanna, Odenigbo’s beautiful mistress from a wealthy Igbo family, whose twin sister Kainene has drifted from her. Englishman Richard falls hard for Kainene as he did for the Igbo art he came to study and is caught up in the ensuing conflict, despite being a former colonialist.

As I mentioned, there are 4 sections, the first and third of which take place in the early 1960s and the second and fourth of which take place in the late 1960s, during and after the Biafran war. The ploy of switching between time settings is meant to create suspense so that the readers are anxious to find out how things play out, but instead really just annoyed me. I would’ve preferred a more linear narrative, though I liked that the book covered both pre- and post-war to show how the characters developed (mostly from bad to worse).

I despised the majority of the main characters, particularly Odenigbo and Ugwu. They reminded me of my least favorite book, Things Fall Apart, because of their condescending parochialism and patriarchal attitudes, similar to that of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo. I would advise you to listen to Adichie’s TedxEuston talk on feminism because I strongly agree that everyone should be a feminist. But that’s certainly not the case in this book, which made me SO angry – though perhaps that was Adichie’s point to make her point.

In addition to numerous mentions of war rape, women are sexualized throughout the narrative, subjected to the male gaze. This is especially apparent through the character of Olanna, whose sexuality is a driving force of her personality. She is known as the beautiful one, and uses that identity to manipulate men. Although at the beginning she objects to her parent’s essentially pimping her out for their material gain, she easily slips into a role as a man’s mistress, as she is known, and caves to his every whim. Then, she consistently acts jealous of and sometimes behaves cruelly towards other women, especially those she believes her husband has slept with (truely or falsely).

The most feminist character is Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister who is known for being the ugly one. Perhaps because of her lack of good looks, she carves a life for herself, as a strong businesswoman in her family’s company and as an independent actor and thinker. Towards the end, she is the sole person who exhibits care towards others, organizing supplies for the refugee camp while the other characters only care for themselves and are all talk and no action. She’s a strong and admirable woman, and yet her fate is the hardest.

I have mixed feelings towards Richard, an Englishman who falls in love with Kainene. He makes some mistakes, but his worst is to be white and to claim to identify as a Biafran. He is simultaneously over-aware of and oblivious to the feelings native Biafrans hold for him because of his true identity as a former colonizer. Because of his eagerness to prove himself, he often gives off a smug racial superiority, not just over some Nigerians but also over non-Africans who are caught up in the war.

Like many of my experiences with historical fiction, I think perhaps I should’ve picked up a history of the Biafran War instead, because that was the part that intrigued me and yet the book portrayed the conflict is such a confusing manner that I learned almost nothing from it. Don’t get me wrong, because Adichie’s descriptions of war are terrifying and heart-breaking. This problem stemmed from being held to the character’s viewpoints. They were wrapped up in their petty dramas and, for all their supposed intelligence, there was rarely an educated conversation about the situation. By the end, their bluster had no backing as clearly they didn’t behave in a manner that suggested they believed in their own rhetoric. For this reason, I sympathized more with the supporting characters. Even though their actions were morally questionable, at least individuals like the poet and the Major both contributed to the war effort and followed through on their own beliefs.

I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. The characters and plot made me vacillate between exasperated to enraged to sad. I guess that’s what well-written books are supposed to do, and I did respect the writing style of especially the story within the story of “The World Stayed Silent While They Died,” but I certainly can’t say I enjoyed this book.

3 Stars

Isabella, the Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey

Isabella: The Warrior QueenPlease note that although I received an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book from Doubleday through the Goodreads First Reads program (my thanks to you both!), this review was not influenced in any way and reflects my honest opinion.

Isabella looks a mite terrifying in this cover, no? Let’s just say even before opening this book, I thought she was pretty badass and it’s contents only confirmed my opinion.

I didn’t know that much about Queen Isabella prior to reading it, just the usual shipping Columbus to America and nobody expecting the Spanish Inquisition. But apparently Isabella did a lot more than that, because Kirsten Downey’s Isabella, the Warrior Queen is long. I mean, over 500 pages long and as intimidatingly dense as a snow drift is to a corgi. Thank God I read this over Columbus Day weekend, because I seriously needed the extra day to get inspired and get through it.

What Downey does so right is a comprehensive overview of not just Isabella’s life, but the history and culture of the times. The text goes off on tangents at times, about syphilis or the Borgias, but these seemingly random topics actually played a huge role in Isabella’s life. I appreciate biographies that are conscious of not only telling the story of a person, but showing the various factors that shaped them into the person they became. I also liked that Downey utilized numerous first-person accounts from diverse historical records to put together a well-rounded impression of Isabella and her times.

Isabella gets a bad rap in retrospect, and certainly some of that is deserved. However, she was very much a product of the period she lived in and yet her rule was very progressive and change-making in certain ways. For example, not only was she a strong female ruler, she was a woman monarch who led her kingdom to one the largest military victories in Christendom, the reconquest of Grenada. Initially in her reign, she was far more tolerant of Jews and Muslims, but even when she began to crack down on those minority groups, she was always an advocate of treating Native Americans well rather than brutally killing and enslaving them. She was also ahead of her time as a staunch supporter of women’s rights, especially to education, making sure that her daughters were as knowledgeable as her son and donating to universities funding for women’s scholarships.

Because this was an ARC, the thoroughness of the content clashed with the inconsistent writing quality. Numerous grammatical and sentence structural errors made me cringe every few pages. I seriously hope they did a thorough edit before going to print. Additionally, while I was glad to see they made room for maps at the beginning of the text, my copy lacked them, which made reading slightly confusing. What I didn’t see was a page held for a family tree, an addition that would be extremely helpful to readers since Isabella’s family repeated names frequently.

Despite those flaws, I loved how much I learned from the text, and how afterwards I immediately turned to the internet to try to learn more about Isabella or find more books about her. Which reminded me of the awesome Royal Diaries series that I adored as a kid, including a book titled Isabel: Jewel of Castilla that I now shamelessly want to reread. And apparently the books were turned into a TV movie series – how did I miss this?!? (Sidebar: there’s also a currently-running Spanish show about Isabella, which looked excellent but unfortunately I haven’t found a version dubbed/captioned in English.)

I would definitely recommend this book to any history buffs out there, because it presents a strong overview of this pivotal era in international political history, or to those who are interested in military or religious history.

3.5 Stars

Comment on the rating: I considered my rating to be a rating of the ARC. It’s entirely possible that the editors have since corrected some of the issues that bugged me and the finished product could be 4 Stars. But I felt it would be dishonest to give it that without seeing the published version.

Weekend Update: Liebster Award Nomination

Howdy! I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock in the Interwebs because I’d never heard of this meme (?) until now. My thanks to both Kelly of dancingthroughthepages and The Bodacious Book Babe/Addicted to Ink for nominating me!

Since I was nominated twice and I’m feeling lazy, I’m going to pick and choose between the questions these gals asked me 🙂

For the uninitiated, The Rules:

  1. Link and thank the blogger that nominated you
  2. Answer the 11 questions your nominator gives you
  3. Tag 11 other bloggers who have 200 or less followers
  4. Ask the 11 nominated bloggers 11 questions and tell them you’ve nominated them

Onto The Questions:

1. What is a really underrated book that you would love to see on the big screen? Why?

I don’t think this book/series is necessarily underrated, since I know tons of women who love it, but I’m surprised and dismayed that Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (or any of her other books) haven’t made it to the big screen. It’s YA, which is popular these days, and has a strong female lead and an exciting plot – everything a movie audience could love!

2. What is something in a book that has to be well-done for you to like it? (For me, it’s characterization.) Is it plot, setting, characters, etc?

Definitely characters that I enjoy reading about. They have to be realistic and, to some degree, understandable, even if they’re actually horrible people.

3. Is there a book that you’ve tried to read innumerable times but have never been able to finish? What is it?

I pride myself on almost never not finishing a book, but Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals has me beat. The parts I’ve read have been amazing, and I loved the movie Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis. Plus I have a huge girl-crush on her as a person. But I keep checking it out of my library and getting through a few chapters before it’s due (it’s so long!) and then I can’t renew it because EVERYONE else wants it. I should probably just buy it at this point.

4. If you estimate, what is most books you’ve ever checked out from your library?

At once or in my life? I can’t even guess the latter, but I’ve probably had 30 (the maximum) checked out at once. It gets embarrassing because I put them on hold and now my local librarians know me as that girl and give me shit about “am I really going to finish all of them?” Well, duh.

5. What is your favorite book setting? (Stuff like this -> Fantasy AU, Boarding School, Hollywood, New York, Foreign Countries, etc.)

While I do love fantasy settings, mostly because I want to live in them (still waiting for my Hogwarts letter!), I also love boarding school settings. I assume this is a lingering childhood fantasy based off of Enid Blyton novels and exacerbated by Harry Potter.

6. What book or series do you hate the most? Why?

Twilight. It’s poor quality of writing, flat characters, and dumb plot are all irritating, but worst of all is that it’s blatantly anti-feminist. Not only is Edward a creepy stalker who should’ve been given a restraining order, Bella’s entire persona is sculpted around her devotion to a man.

7. Hard copies or ebooks? Why?

Definitely hard copies. I’ll bring my Kindle for long trips because I read so fast that I’d otherwise need to lug around multiple physical books, but I still love the smell and heft of paper.

8. What’s one book you would read to make you feel better if you were having a bad day?

Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses. I love how reflective it is of millennial life – it makes me laugh and gives me hope that even the terrible, awkward things will pass.

9. How many books (estimate) do you currently own? How many have you actually read?

In my tiny, cramped apartment – probably 40. Overall? Well, my parents recently moved and my mom complained that she packed 9 boxes full of my books so probably at least a few hundred. There’s probably about 10 total out of those that I haven’t read.

10. What are your top three favorite genres?

Fantasy, historical fiction, and biography/memoir.

11. Who is your favorite author and why?

Probably Agatha Christie because I love her characters and plot twists. I can reread them endlessly and still enjoy them. Close runners-up are George R.R. Martin, A.J. Jacobs, P.G. Wodehouse, William Faulkner, and Tamora Pierce.

 

Now, I don’t know if I know 11 bloggers, but my questions for those I choose are as follows:

1. If you could only bring 3 books with you to a deserted island, what would they be?

2. If you could be any character, who would it be?

3. How many books do you think you’ve read in your life?

4. What was the most memorable book you’ve read and why?

5. What was your favorite childhood book?

6. What book were you forced to read (i.e. in high school/college, for a book club, etc.) that you surprisingly loved?

7. Have there been any super-popular books that you’ve hated? Ex. Harry Potter, Gone Girl, etc.

8. What is your favorite book to screen (either TV or movie) adaptation?

9. On average, how fast do you read?

10. What book do you recommend most often to your friends, family, the Internet?

11. What do you love most about book blogging?

 

Blogs I’m tagging (thanks in advance for playing along!):

Blogs of a bookaholic

chitownbooks

lulusrantsandreads

fromatozbooks

yabookaddicts

If you aren’t listed but want to join in on the fun, shoot me a comment and I can add a link to your site!

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers

The VacationersSad news guys: I’m in a book funk. I keep reading books that I’m super excited about, that I’ve heard so many great things about, only to wallow in disappointment by the conclusion. Case in point – Emma Straub’s The Vacationers. I’d been waiting for months on my library’s hold list, starting at number 42, so that I was jubilant when the notification finally arrived that I could pick it up. By then, summer felt long gone so this was my one opportunity to relive its warm glory days by proxy.

The Post family’s two-week trip to Mallorca is supposed to be a much-needed break from their real-life problems. Franny and Jim’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is upcoming but their relationship is tense. Their daughter Sylvia, excited for her new start in college, is determined to have a summer fling after a terrible senior year. Sylvia’s older brother Bobby is coming along with his much older girlfriend Carmen, who the family hates. Franny’s best friend Charles and his partner Lawrence are on pins-and-needles as they wait to hear from their adoption worker. But of course, real-life baggage is along for the ride, disrupting the otherwise idyllic setting.

Now I didn’t hate it, but it was just so meh. Typical dysfunctional family goes on vacation and troubles brew, only the reach a quasi-happy conclusion. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of the television show Modern Family because of the adolescent angst, the gay couple, and the age-gap between romantic partners. Unlike the show, the book wasn’t particularly humorous or creative.

The one plus was the writing, which I thought was exquisitely lush at times. Straub had the eloquence necessary to build the scenes such that highly-educated, bookish, upper-middle class characters seemed in-place in it. Unfortunately all of said characters were fairly bland and stereotypical. I only sympathized with Lawrence, with the rest ranging from mildly unlikeable to despicable. But lucky for them, they still all got a soap opera-esque happy ending.

This is definitely the kind of book I classify as a “beach read,” i.e. extremely light and set in an exotic destination. Might be worth the trouble in the midst of the winter blues, but if I was on an island vacay and could only take one book with me, this would be far from it.

2 Stars

(P.S. I may be being harsher than normal because my high expectations had so very far to fall.)

The Kiss of Deception (The Remnant Chronicles #1) by Mary E. Pearson

The Kiss of Deception (The Remnant Chronicles, #1)Mary E. Pearson’s The Kiss of Deception has been heralded as one of the must-read fantasy books of the year. I began reading with high hopes that were nearly dashed by my first impressions, based on this beginning:

As First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, Princess Lia must wed a man she’s never met so that her country can form a much-needed alliance with the kingdom of Dalbreck against the Vendian raiders. Infuriated that she can’t marry for love, she flees on the day of her wedding with her maid Pauline to the distant reaches of the land. Unfortunately, her new existence as a tavern maid is quickly disrupted by the arrival of two handsome men, one her jilted fiancee and the other a barbarian assassin.

If you can’t tell from this description, Lia is a selfish twit. While I like her strong-mindnessness (unfortunately with a side of big-mouth syndrome as is common in YA heroines these days), I’m dismayed that she feels such scorn for duty and responsibility that she leaves her family and country in grave danger simply for her own happiness. Additionally, she has no information on the prince she is to marry, instead just making assumptions on his looks and age, which seem to be her only considerations in finding a good match. Nevermind that he may be intelligent or a wise ruler or anything.

And don’t even get me started on the love triangle. I loathe love triangles, and this is one of the most nauseating I’ve experienced. By the time both the prince and the assassin arrive at the village Lia is hiding in, their preconceived notions of the princess fly out the door once they see her pretty face. The next 200 pages ensue with them trying to out-man each other for her affections while Lia giggles and dithers and flirts.

In a creative twist, both suitors are occasionally given narrative chapters under their titles of “the prince” or “the assassin” or their assumed names, “Rafe” and “Kaden.” The idea is to throw the reader off as to who is the true villain of the piece (hint: neither really – it’s a YA love triangle!). I don’t know if this method holds up as I recall some chapters making little sense in retrospect, but that may be because I’m a bit bitter that I guessed incorrectly.

One of my biggest peeves with first books in trilogies is that, while I understand and accept that there has to be slow build-up to the subsequent plots, I’m frequently frustrated by how the author’s attempts to stretch the mystery result in incohesive world-building. This is true for this book. In a vaguely medieval world, I still know very little about the history and culture of the realms, or whatever governing system exists. Nor is much revealed about Lia’s family and their supposedly-corrupt court, the conflict with the Vendians, or even how the Dalbreck fit in.

It’s hinted from the beginning that as First Daughter, Lia should inherit the gift of Sight, an ability to know the future that her mother possessed strongly. Unfortunately, the magic is ill-explained, leaving me anxious to learn more since it seems like such a pivotal plot point. Related, the bits of prophecies and myths interspersed seemed like it could lead somewhere good, but the hints were so broad that I’m either entirely sure what will happen or it will be a complete surprise.

Yet the final third or so gives me so much hope! (Mild spoilers ahead)

The repercussions of Lia’s actions finally catch up with her and she begins to mature, gaining further self-awareness and insight from her experiences. After a series of brutal events, she becomes cold-blooded and a little crazy – and this Lia is such an improvement! I was chilled and thrilled with the turns the last few chapters followed, and consequently furious when it ended because I had just become intrigued about where the plot is going.

Can I rate the beginning and end separately? If so, it would be  2 and 4 – I guess an average is fair enough, though it belies my interest in reading the sequel The Heart of Betrayal (The Remnant Chronicles #2), which will hopefully improve on this book.

3 Stars

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and StoriesMany of you have likely heard the story of Marina Keegan: Just 5 days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University, she was killed in a car-crash, a tragic end to a rising star who had a play about to be produced in the New York Fringe Festival and a waiting job at the New Yorker. In the aftermath, her final piece for the Yale Daily News, titled “The Opposite of Loneliness, went viral.

I first read the titular essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” in those few days after Marina’s passing. At that time, mere weeks after graduating from college myself, it was instantly so relatable to me. This was the feeling myself and my friends had tried to verbalize over the last few weeks. Her sentiment, “We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have” has lingered with me since.

Sad and touching is her constant preoccupation with mortality in these works: “We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.” But she didn’t, nor did many of her characters. From “Challenger Deep”s crew in a drowned, lost submarine to “Why We Care About Whales” about our concern for animal life-cycles over man’s, she examines the human relationship with death. Most haunting is Marina’s piece “Cold Pastoral” about a girl who’s dealing with the death of her college sort-of-boyfriend, later to be eerily mirrored in her own life.

Even more poignant perhaps was the foreword by Marina’s old professor, Anne Fadiman, where she discusses Marina’s possibility – who she was as a person and how her personality impacted her friends and family, and would’ve impacted the world if she had lived. I’m glad that they had an opportunity to work through their grief by compiling these works, even if they weren’t as final as Marina herself might have wanted them to be.

Marina clearly had a privileged upbringing, so much of her fiction and non-fiction alike seem to be drawn from that experience. Unfortunately, that makes many characters sound like her instead of developing disparate voices. I had to remind myself whether I was reading the fiction or non-fiction sections at times. Also, because I don’t typically read short stories so I am unfavorably and unfairly comparing these works to novels, I found the plot structures to be a bit loose and holey, making me feel irritatingly obtuse (“The Ingenue” or “Baggage Claim”).

Her professor stated, “”Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” But truthfully, my perceptions are strongly colored by the solitary fact that this was a budding author who could’ve been great, who was my contemporary but is not – stagnant at 22 as myself and her classmates continue to develop and grow and change. Other reviewers have called her “the voice of her generation,” an accolade I don’t disagree with, yet her generation has moved on without her.

I’ve struggled with how to rate this, thinking would I have rated it differently if she was still alive? (To add on – would it even have been published if she was still alive? Would I have read it if she was still alive?) I can’t answer these questions, but I finally decided on

3.5 Stars