Author Rating: D

The Handmaid’s Tale (listened to audiobook read by Claire Danes, March 2017; not recommended)

This will be an unpopular opinion but this book is terrible. It’s boring. Twenty-five chapters in and I want to slap the main character, Offred. Just eat the fucking toast already.

I do not understand why this novel is recommended so glowingly by so many. Has anyone actually read it since they were 14, in 1985?  I don’t believe in the dull, gray world, and I have been given no reason to care about any of the characters, least of all the main character, Offred, who is as appealing as gray washwater.

It’s hard to find really good speculative fiction. This doesn’t even rise to the level of passable.   Claire Danes might be a good reader. It’s hard to say given how unremittingly dreary and uninspired this particular book is.

Author Rating: A

The Thirty-Nine Steps (read 9/6/2014)

First published as a magazine serial in the last half of 1915, this is the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, adventure hero.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype subsequently adopted by Hollywood as an often-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. The story was a great success with the men in the First World War trenches. One soldier wrote to Buchan, “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Richard Hannay continued his adventures in four subsequent books. Two were set during the war when Hannay continued his undercover work against the Germans and their allies the Turks in Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. The other two stories, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep were set in the post war period when Hannay’s opponents were criminal gangs.

I listened to the Librivox recording read by Adrian Praetellis and enjoyed it very much. I will be on the lookout for Buchan’s other novels.

Author Rating: A

When I indicate “read” in this instance, I actually mean listened to Librivox recordings. I am very surprised that I have never read anything by Burnett (1849-1924). She was left out of what I thought was a comprehensive study of 19th century English literature. I guess the men who organized the list of who is important did not consider her or her subject matter important. Perhaps because, according to the Washington Post at the time of her divorce in 1898, she had “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” (Gretchen Gerzina, Frances Hodgson Burnett: the unexpected life of the author of The Secret Garden, pg 204)

While Burnett is best known for what are considered children’s stories, she is much more than that. Further, what are deemed “children’s stories” are belittled by that categorization. Her stories are beautifully rendered studies of the lives of women.

The Secret Garden (read 81/2014) Recommended

I listened to the Librivox reading by Caroline Griggs. It is a wonderful story, and Ms. Griggs was a perfect reader. This is not a book to be ignored because it is labeled “children’s literature.”

The Shuttle (read 9/1/2014)

A novel set during the late 19th century when young, wealthy American women were marrying titled but often poor Englishmen. The “shuttle” is a reference to the back-and-forth trans-Atlantic trips made by the rich American women and their would-be titled English suitors. The heroine is Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel, who travels to England to find her sister who married one of those poor but titled gentlemen and had seemingly forgotten her American family. Betty is a strong, delightful character who, through intelligence and compassion, rights wrongs and finds true love. Burnett is masterful.

The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst (aka Emily Fox-Seton (read 8/10/2014)

Burnett’s two novels describe the difficulties of women and their limited options. I listened to a Librivox recording, and although these are two novels they are run together into one under the title Emily Fox-Seton.

A Lady of Quality (read 8/20/2014)

Also listened to a Librivox reading. This is a historical novel set in, I believe, the 16th century. Somewhat reminescent of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,the story opens with the tragic death of Clorinda’s mother who had borne her lord and master many girls but no male heir. Clorinda grows up to turn her father’s opinion of women on its head.

Author Rating: C/B

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (read 8/1/2013) Recommended

Surprisingly well written, delightful and engaging light entertainment. First published in 1966, this is the first novel in Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series, featuring James Mackintosh Qwilleran (Qwill), a former crime reporter who, as the story opens, is hired to write about the art scene for an unnamed city’s newspaper, and introducing Kao K’o-Kung (Koko for short), the cat in the title. Although never formally stated in her books, the geographical settings in the series are thought to be modeled after Bad Axe, Michigan, where Braun lived until the mid-1980s.

UPDATE:  While the first book was a pleasure to read, those that followed … not so much.  Braun was unable or unwilling to continue Qwill as she had begun, and the books that followed hang on nothing but the thin thread of novelty.

The rest of The Cat Who novels are as follows:

Ate Danish Modern (1967)
Turned On and Off (1968)
Saw Red (1986)
Played Brahms (1987)
Played Post Office (1988)
Knew Shakespeare (1988)
Sniffed Glue (1988)
Went Underground (1989)
Talked to Ghosts (1990)
Lived High (1990)
Knew a Cardinal (1991)
Moved a Mountain (1991)
Wasn’t There (1992)
Went Into the Closet (1993)
Came to Breakfast (1994)
Blew the Whistle (1995)
Said Cheese (1996)
Tailed a Thief (1997)
Sang for the Birds (1998)
Saw Stars (1999)
Robbed a Bank (2000)
Smelled a Rat (2001)
Went Up the Creek (2002)
Brought Down the House (2003)
Talked Turkey (2004)
Went Bananas (2005)
Dropped a Bombshell (2006)
Had 60 Whiskers (2007)

Braun also had published three collections of short stories:

The Cat Who Had 14 Tales (1988)
The Private Life of the Cat Who… (2003)
Short and Tall Tales (2003)

Author Rating: Not Yet Read

Charlie Pierce introduces an author new to us — Charles Portis, author of five novels:

  • 1966:  Norwood
  • 1968:  True Grit
  • 1979: The Dog of the South
  • 1985: Masters of Atlantis
  • 1991: Gringos

Additionally, a number of Portis’ essays and short fiction pieces have been published in one volume titled Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.

You can read Portis’s The Forgotten River, one of the essays in Escape Velocity, here.

Author Rating: A

Bonecrack (read 3/20/2013) Recommended

What a wonderful quick read! Originally published in 1971, this terrific short novel of mystery and suspense has held up well. Before trying his hand at novel-writing, Dick Francis had a career as a jockey and he brings that inside knowledge to bear without becoming bogged down in the minutiae of the sport. The only disappointment comes from not wanting the story to an end.

Author Rating: C

1876 (read 3/24/2013) Not recommended

“Gore Vidal is a great writer.” You’ve heard that, right? If the rest of his works are of this caliber, he’s highly overrated. I threw it down after getting 1/3 of the way through. Nothing happens! A guy and his widowed daughter get off a boat in New York, they stay in a fancy hotel while he looks for work as a writer. Time goes by and he gets jobs, but we never see anything happen. Every other sentence is “I’m just like Rip Van Winkle, oh, I shouldn’t say that, it’s boring.” I was hoping to learn something about American history while being entertained but I was neither entertained nor enlightened.