Review: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey, Val McDermidIf someone asked Cat Morland to compare the little village of Piddle Valley to anywhere else in the universe, she would definitely say, “The dark side of the moon.” Just when she’s beginning to think that the only adventures she’ll ever go on are the ones she reads about in books, family friends the Allens invite her to join them in Edinburgh for the fabulous Fringe Festival.

Cat loves the festival’s shows, but she’s thrilled to become besties with the lovely Bella Thorpe — and then of course there’s Henry Tilney, a promising lawyer whose family owns the mysterious Northanger Abbey.

Cat can’t believe her good luck when Henry and his sister Eleanor invite her to visit them at their ancestral home. But her joy quickly evaporates into suspicion. What secrets hide behind the locked doors of Northanger Abbey? Has Cat just read too many scary books, or are the Tilneys hiding a dangerous secret?

A great retelling

You wouldn’t think there would be a way to improve on Jane Austen’s original Northanger Abbey, and in some ways there’s not. But Val McDermid does a fantastic job of modernizing this classic nail-biter/laugh-inducer for a new generation.

Cat is a wonderful heroine, genuinely kind and good-hearted. Her naivete is what makes the novel possible, and I spent half the time praising her intelligence and the other half lamenting her apparent lack of sense.

There’s a love story, of course, but something I appreciate about this modernization —  and Austen’s original —  is that Northanger Abbey is just as much about friendship, finding out who’s worth your time and who’s not. It’s a hard lesson at any age, especially when you’re a teenager.

On the flip side, it’s so fun to watch Cat’s paranoia ramp up throughout the novel. You know it’s all going to come to nothing — you’re pretty sure, anyway — but in the meantime it’s fun to let yourself get carried away by your imagination.

There’s one part of the ending that I feel was a bit of a misstep, or at least one that felt like it came from left field. The true reason for Cat’s being sent away from the Tilneys’ home seems forced, like McDermid got to the last couple of chapters and realized that Cat and Henry hadn’t gotten together yet, so she manufactured a quasi-deus ex machina ending.

All in all, though, McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is a great addition to The Austen Project, which asked six bestselling authors to craft modern retellings of Austen’s most popular works.

Beware, though. John Thorpe will make you want to reach through the pages and punch him in the face.

Have a modernization/retelling you love or loathe? Let me know in the comments.

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Review: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride, William GoldmanDo I even need to write a detailed summary of this novel? Those who have read it or seen the film already love it, and even those who haven’t can still quote it (Mawwage! Get back, witch!). So I’ll hit the high points:

Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.

Basically — and I try so hard not to be super judgey about whether or not people like a certain book — if you don’t like this book I’m pretty sure you have the wit and understanding of a sea sponge.

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride should be required reading — in schools, book clubs, bloggers’ circles, at work, everywhere.

No matter how good a story may be in an author’s head, it won’t turn out right if it’s not written well. Goldman is a master craftsman, balancing saccharine-sweet romance with incredibly brutal bad guys and genuinely laugh-worthy humor.

My only complaint is the occasional sexist overtones that peek through. Buttercup is what I would call dumb, and falls firmly into the “Helpless Maiden” category (the 1987 film weeded some of this out). Both Westley and Inigo are unnecessarily harsh with her several times, ordering her around like she’s a child.

Overall The Princess Bride is a fantastic, fantastical book, and is enjoyed best when read aloud (especially to someone who’s all eye-rolly about it but then gets sucked in). Wonderfully written, a blast to read. Pick up a copy soon!

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Review: Roosevelt’s Beast

Roosevelt's Beast, Louis BayardIn 1914, Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and a handful of naturalists and explorers began a months-long trip down the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), an unmapped tributary of Brazil’s great Amazon River. The expedition claimed the lives of several, and nearly killed Roosevelt.

Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast uses this true trip as a foundation for a psychological thriller that pits Roosevelt and Kermit against a terrifying unseen beast, a foe that mutilates its victims and drinks their blood.

What is this beast? Is it a member of an undiscovered species, or a known but incredibly violent animal? Is it terrestrial, or even real at all? How can they defeat a creature they can’t even see?

Not really my thing

It’s never a good sign when the best thing you can think to say about a book is, “Well, it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read.” The story is nicely written and has some great horror elements, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

I think it’s because I already know too much about the real Roosevelt. It started two years ago with Richard Zack’s Island of Vice, continued last year with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, and right now I’m about halfway through Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt biography.

Roosevelt was such a marvelous, interesting person, and his trip down the treacherous river fascinating enough, that Roosevelt’s Beast felt like overkill (pardon the pun).

Spoilers ahead

The truth behind the “monster” killing the local natives, and its connection with Kermit, didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

How could this thing that basically lives inside Kermit be killing people no one knew existed, before Kermit even got near them? It just happened to be chilling in an unmapped armpit of an unmapped river on the off-chance that Kermit would saunter by?

And if it used to live inside Kermit’s dead uncle Elliott, whom Kermit never even saw, how would Elliott be able to haunt Kermit and pass along the “beast”?

Give Roosevelt’s Beast a pass, and pick up a biography instead. Roosevelt’s real life is exciting and interesting enough!

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. September’s challenge was to read a book that includes an animal either as a main character or supporting character.)

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The Worst Time to Fail at Editing

Fairhaven PressA couple months into my tenure as a government employee, it occurred to me that I’d never read America’s Constitution. I know the preamble (Schoolhouse Rock version, anyone?), but it feels like of un-American to not read the whole document at least once.

So I picked up The Constitution of the United States of America: With Biographies of the Founding Fathers and the American Presidency, published by Fairhaven Press. Unfortunately its listed editor, Michael J Hollis, Ph.D., is apparently completely incompetent.

Worst editing ever?

I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to understand exactly what Fairhaven Press means when they say the book is “edited by” Dr. Hollis — it could be that he merely edited the text of the Constitution, and others were responsible for writing and editing the biographies included in this book.

But if I were Dr. Hollis, I wouldn’t want my name on this thing.

The problems begin on the front cover, where there is an unnecessary comma after “Edited by.” Throughout the biographies I found typos, formatting inconsistencies, and incorrect punctuation choices.

These aren’t major issues, but they did leave me wondering if they could be a symptom of a bigger problem. Could there be factual errors in the biographies? In the text of the Constitution itself?

I get it. Editing is hard, and sometimes it can be more about going with a gut feeling or choosing readability over following MLA or Chicago or AP style to the letter. But if you’re going to produce a book that’s used as a classroom supplement and call it “the best reference book for learning about American government and presidents,” you better damn sure know your way around punctuation.

Shame on Fairhaven Press and its editors for allowing this book to go to press.

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The Long Drive: Ancient Gold and Murder

Lately I’ve been on a mystery kick. It started with After the Funeral and has expanded to include a favorite of mine since high school, Clive Cussler. Strange how listening to characters in a book murder each other makes me feel less murder-y on my commute.

Spartan Gold, by Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood
(read by Scott Brick)

Treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo think they’ve seen it all when they find a WWII German submarine in a Delaware swamp — but that’s just the beginning. Someone wants what’s in that sub, and will not hesitate to use violent means to get it. What did the Persian rules Xerxes take from Greece, and how did a map leading to those riches wind up on bottles from Napoleon’s lost vineyard?

A good friend introduced me to Cliver Cussler novels in high school, and I loved them immediately. Although my true favorite will always be Dirk Pitt, this new series featuring Sam and Remi is just as exciting, tense, and well-crafted as Cussler’s original novels. Narrator Scott Brick was excellent, sliding smoothly between French, Russian, Ukrainian, and American accents. Just pure fun! 5/5 stars

Spartan Gold, Clive Cussler
Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie
(read by James Saxon)

The murder of Colonel Lucius Protheroe in the vicar’s study puts the small village of St. Mary Mead in a tizzy. Everyone, that is, except Miss Jane Marple — for behind the chintz and reading glasses lies the heart of a true detective. Everyone in the village is a suspect, and everyone has an alibi; can Miss Marple uncover the truth, or will a murderer go free in St. Mary Mead?

Murder at the Vicarage marks the first appearance of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, and I adored her instantly. The novel was fun — narrator James Saxon was just superb — and zipped along nicely despite being very “British.” And of course the Whodunit was masterfully hidden and revealed. 4/5 stars

Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie
Hiss of Death, by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
(read by Kate Forbes)

Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is looking forward to a lovely spring in in her native Virginia when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately she has her animals — cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and pup Tucker — to help her through. But when employees at the local hospital start turning up dead, Harry and her four-legged friends must find out who’s responsible — before they’re next.

I read Murder at Monticello, another Mrs. Murphy mystery, several years ago and really liked it. I enjoyed this one too, mostly. Surprisingly it was kind of…preachy. Characters ramble/rant on about homeopathic cancer treatments, drug/possession laws, and other things. The story was good, but at least once I had to hit the button to go to the next track because the tangent a character had gone on for so long. It was weird. But the narration was great and the mystery nicely done. 3/5 stars

Hiss of Death, Rita Mae Brown

Time to head back to the library! Got recommendations for great audiobooks and/or narrators? Drop ’em in the comments!

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