Peril at End House

I started this post a long time ago and then got busy and didn’t finish until now. Sorry for the back log!

It felt appropriate to kick off October with a mystery, and who better to read than the Queen of mystery herself: Agatha Christie!

I listened to this as a palate cleanser after listening to 30 hours and 34 minutes of Nicholas Nickleby.

In this story, Captain Hastings and his detective friend Hercule Poirot are vacationing and meet a young woman who has had some strange accidents–narrow escapes but is DEFINITELY FINE AND NO ONE IS TRYING TO MURDER HER. Poirot, of course, is intrigued and feels she is in danger, so they investigate to try to stop the murderer before she or he succeeds in killing their young friend.

But a few days later someone does die; not their friend, but her cousin, and Poirot must find the killer before they strike again.

Things are, of course, not all that they seem, and only Poirot can untangle the evidence and motivations of the cast of characters.

I’d put this in the middle of Agatha Christie mysteries: not every book can be Murder on the Orient Express, but this wasn’t a clunker either. It was entertaining, and if you’re looking for a good Audible listen, I’d recommend the Christie mysteries with either Hugh Fraser or David Suchet as narrator. They played Hastings and Poirot respectively in the great BBC adaptation of Poirot mysteries, and do an excellent job narrating these stories.

★ ★ ★

Nicholas Nickleby

iron gate flowersI haven’t read a lot of Dickens (don’t tell my Mom, but I didn’t make it all the way through Great Expectations in high school; skimming was involved), but I’m tackling him this fall. Now that I think of it, I should have started with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (which is next on my list), as that was Dickens’ first novel, but instead I started with number three, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Overall, I enjoyed my foray into Dickens. His stories are a little sprawling, with many characters, which means that if you tire of a couple characters, there are plenty more to keep you entertained.

The story centers around the titular Nicholas, a young man who, after the death of his father, is left to support his mother and sister. The family travels to London to seek work and assistance from the deceased’s brother, Ralph. Ralph turns out to be, of course, unhelpful and takes an instant dislike to Nicholas, possibly because he’s too perfect.

The novel was first published as a monthly serial, and I can certainly see that structure, especially in the beginning, with chapters being somewhat self-contained (while still furthering the overall story).

The chapters bounce between Nicholas’s adventures with the evil schoolmaster Squeers, then his brief return to London, his travels with the Crummles acting troupe, and finally his position with the Cheeryble brothers. Alternate chapters follow Nicholas’s sister, Kate, and her misadventures in London, and some chapters follow the wicked Ralph and his schemes.

Nicholas as a character is almost too perfect (his main flaws seem to be that he’s a little impetuous and has a temper), and poor Kate is also mostly angelic. I loved Mrs. Nickleby as a weak-willed character who is easily drawn into telling long boring stories and who thinks she’s a shrewd judge of character (spoiler: she’s not). There are some great secondary characters too, who I think would be really fun to play in a stage or screen version.

It feels like Dickens had more fun coming up with the side characters, and I have to say, the female characters don’t come off too well, as there’s a lot of fainting and weeping. What’s the deal with women fainting? I’m hoping in later Dickens novels to read fewer fainting scenes, but I guess we’ll see.

There were also some great comic moments, such as the letter from Fanny Squeers to Ralph Nickleby:

“Sir,

“My pa requests me to write to you. The doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.”

Excellent. Fanny Squeers in general is a pretty hilarious character.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, especially as it gathered steam near the end and everything came together. It took a little while to really get into it, and many chapters begin with a long descriptive passage that doesn’t seem 100% necessary, but I see why Dickens was popular. I can’t imagine having to wait a month to read the next chapter, so I’m glad I could do the equivalent of a series binge for this story.

As with many Dickens stories, there are a couple movie/ miniseries versions. I’ve seen the 2002 movie, which I like (mostly). Charlie Hunnam seems a weird choice for Nicholas, and I don’t think he’s too convincing, but many of the other characters seem to be completely enjoying their roles and do a great job. Jamie Bell is great as Smike, and Christopher Plummer is an excellent choice for the crafty Ralph.

Apparently there’s a 2001 miniseries with James D’Arcy as Nicholas?? I can’t really imagine him as Nicholas either, though I haven’t seen that version, so I’m not sure. Maybe this means it’s time for an updated version (ahem, BBC)!

★ ★ ★

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cranford

Yes, Audible misspelled the author’s last name. It bothered me every time I opened the app to listen.

I’ve been on an Elizabeth Gaskell kick the past couple years, though I’m trying to pace myself so I don’t race through them all. I’ve read North & South (and watched the beautiful BBC miniseries) and Wives and Daughters (which I loved despite being unfinished), and last month I listened to Cranford via my Audible subscription.

This book feels like a miniseries in which you get to know the residents of a small English town and their misadventures. The narrator is a young woman who visits periodically and writes about the lives of the middle-aged women who mostly run the town.

Since it’s a series of vignettes, it doesn’t feel like a cohesive story, but there is a protagonist, Miss Matty Jenkyns, a respectable spinster whose gentle ways work her into the center of life in Cranford. The “adventures” are gentle and often hilarious, and I love Gaskell’s description of the friendship and loyalty between all these women.

It’s short and gentle, and a fun listen on my work commutes.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a BBC miniseries of Cranford, which I liked pretty well and it has a stellar cast (Judi Dench is Matty Jenkyns, so). The miniseries adds a few characters, like a young attractive doctor who catches the eye of several young (and some not-as-young) ladies, and focusing partially on a doctor makes me incredibly glad I live in the 21st century with more modern medicine. Whew. Being a country doctor in the 19th century was no joke. The first series is available to stream on Amazon Prime if you’re interested.

Read as part of my Classics Club 50 Books in 5 Years project.

★ ★ ★

To the Lighthouse

 I’ll open with a confession: I don’t really care for stream-of-consciousness style of writing, and this book was a lot of that.

This book is about a particular group of people (centrally the Ramsay family) at a particular point in time, and then the family again, a few years later on another day.  Woolf primarily goes from person to person as the day progresses, detailing their inner monologue.

In fairness, there are moments when I think Woolf really captures how one’s thoughts can jump so quickly between being happy with another person and then feeling so distant the next. We are all paradoxes, and there are some lovely passages in this book that feel really true.

However, I didn’t really enjoy reading this book. I enjoy stories and books with a bit more plot. I’m fine reading about the thoughts of characters as a part of a story, but I don’t want a book almost wholly composed of those thoughts.

It was exhausting to me to keep jumping from person to person, hearing their sometimes self-indulgent thoughts, and I wanted to know more about what happened in the time between the two days. The first day is before World War II, and the second day after. In between these times, several characters die in asides in the brief middle passage, with not much notice taken, which is interesting in one sense, and maddening in another.

I’d love to hear from someone who enjoys Woolf, and this book in particular, to see what I’m missing, or what appealed to them.

★ ★

The Broken Earth Trilogy

Broken Earth Trilogy PicI recently finished reading N. K. Jemisin‘s Broken Earth Trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky.

The first book starts with a cataclysmic event from the perspective of an unusually gifted woman who then starts on a quest to find her missing daughter. The book shifts between three female perspectives and doesn’t really stop to let you catch up–there isn’t time. I was intrigued but also confused for the first 50 pages or so. I discovered later that there is a glossary of terms in the back of the book, which might help the first-time reader (I’m impatient though, and hate flipping to the back, so I took the approach that eventually I’d figure out what all these new words meant. I did, so it worked out).

The second and third books expand this fractured, pain-filled world further, and Jemisin’s imagination is on display here. Her characters are messy, interesting, and just trying to survive. In a brutal dying world, all choices are hard.

The books explore the relationships between oppressed and oppressor, and what happens when the rules shift during times of disaster.

These books all won awards (the first two won the Hugo and the third won the Nebula), and I think well-deservedly. They are well-written, fast-moving, heartbreaking, and I deliberately read them slowly so I could remember them better (I hope) than if I just inhaled them.

A friend lent me these books after I read Dune earlier this year, and there are certainly parallels: inhospitable environments, power struggles, and quests. Where Dune is more science fiction though, I’d call The Fifth Season fantasy (some people have magical abilities, and we don’t need an explanation of why). But they share some similar tones. The Fifth Season also has a female protagonist, while Dune is heavily male-centric.

Dune has more political machinations, and in the Fifth Season trilogy, I think the characters are more nuanced. Both are great feats of imagination, which is what I love about science fiction and fantasy stories. While we can escape into theses stories for a while, their ideas linger into the real world and make us question the way we approach our real problems.

EDIT/ UPDATE: It was just announced that The Stone Sky has won the 2018 Hugo award, so now all three books in the Broken Earth trilogy have won this award! Awesome.