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Three Disappointing Books: John Wyndham, Belinda Bauer, and Samanta Schweblin

Today I bring together three reviews of books which I expected to enjoy, but which I found disappointing.

 

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ** 9780141032993
I have read and enjoyed several of John Wyndham’s books to date, despite the fact that his plots and science-fiction focus are not part of my usual reading fare. I found the storyline of The Kraken Wakes intriguing, and was expecting that I would be pulled into the story quite quickly.

However, this novel feels like a real anomaly in Wyndham’s oeuvre. It took too long to get going, and I did not connect at all to the story. The narrative voice was relatively dull, although it is perhaps fitting that it mimics the style of an article of sorts throughout, given protagonist Mike’s profession as a journalist. The plot is meandering, and the writing stodgy.

Had The Kraken Wakes been the first book of Wyndham’s which I had picked up, I doubt that I would have sought out any more of his work. I got halfway through the novel, before acknowledging that any interest that I had in it had completely disappeared. I expected The Kraken Wakes to be engaging and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the current climate crisis which the world is facing, but I feel as though a real opportunity has been missed here.

 

9781784164034Snap by Belinda Bauer ***
I purchased Belinda Bauer’s Snap on a whim whilst browsing in a local Oxfam store. It has received a lot of hype – and quite a bit of criticism, too – for being long listed for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Snap was not quite what I was expecting, if I’m honest. I found it an easy, quick read, and it did not always feel as though there was enough substance in some of its chapters. The writing was rather matter-of-fact – perhaps too much for my personal taste – although it does fit with the general style of thrillers.

The different threads of the story caught my interest enough that I read to the end, but I did not feel as though the mystery element was strong enough. I’m unsure whether the novel disappointed me, as I came to it with a few reservations, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pick up another of Bauer’s books at some point in future.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin ** 51jifqcd9ml
I really enjoyed Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream, her first book to be translated to English from its original Spanish.  I was therefore keen to get my hands on her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, a copy of which I found in the library.  These tales have been translated by Megan McDowell.

Publishers Weekly calls Mouthful of Birds ‘canny, provocative and profoundly unsettling’, and the Library Journal deems it ‘surreal, disturbing and decidedly original’.  I felt as though I knew, therefore, what the collection would hold.

The twenty stories here are incredibly strange, on the whole.  The first story, ‘Headlights’, is about new brides abandoned by their husbands by the roadside; the narrator of ‘The Test’ is tasked with killing a dog (I was unable to read this gory story in full); in ‘Olingiris’, six girls have to pull out every single hair on a woman’s body, only using tweezers.  The premises are odd, and a lot of the imagery caused me to feel queasy, rather than in awe of the author’s imagination.

There is little emotion to be found within these stories, and I felt rather detached from them.  I imagined that Mouthful of Birds would be highly immersive and unsettling, as Fever Dream was, but most of it simply did not sit right for me as a reader.  The writing is largely matter-of-fact, and I found it impossible to connect with any of Schweblin’s characters.  Whilst I might pick up a longer work of the author’s, and perhaps another novella, I am certain that her short stories do not work for me.  The characters and scenarios were flat, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief.

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‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ by Christopher Fowler **

The Guardian promises that Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors is ‘a bibliophile’s treat’, and Stylist calls it ‘the perfect guide to finding your next reading obsession’.  I spotted the paperback edition, which has been expanded and updated, in the library, and could not resist adding it to the small pile of tomes already in my arms.  The book appealed to me, as I love anything which brings my attention to authors whom I have not before considered, or have never even heard of.

9781786484901The Book of Forgotten Authors includes ’99 forgotten authors, their forgotten books, and their unforgettable stories.’  It has been split into separate sections, each of which encompasses around ten different authors, with a common theme in mind.  These categories include ‘The Forgotten Queens of Suspense’, ‘The Forgotten Booker Authors’, and ‘Forgotten for Writing Too Little – and Too Much’.  The connections which Fowler makes between each author are loose and tentative, and these categories often overlapped, most of them focusing almost entirely upon mystery authors.

Whilst running my eyes over the contents page, I noticed a lot of authors whose names I did recognise, just a few I had never heard of, and quite a few which I have read.  Many of the authors whom Fowler includes in this tome do not deserve, in my opinion, to be called ‘forgotten authors’; he writes about Margery Allingham, Virginia Andrews, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edmund Crispin, E.M. Delafield, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, and Georgette Heyer, amongst others.

Of course, the very nature of this book makes it highly subjective.  In his justification for each inclusion, Fowler writes that he asked many people, in the form of an open question, ‘which once popular authors would [you] recommend for discovery?’  The response which he received, with its ‘deluge of suggestions’, was as follows: ‘It seemed that everyone had a personal favourite.  Authors I’d long considered to be household names had been wiped from the collective memory, and were ripe for a renaissance.  Some were mainstream novels from the recent past that caused sensations in their time.  The task of tracking them down became obsessive.’  The process of selecting authors for inclusion here consisted of two distinct factors – whether the author’s books ‘proved difficult to obtain’, and then asking a focus group of around twenty book-lovers whether they had heard of the author in question.  Fowler ended up with a master list of around four hundred authors which could have been included.  To lessen the number of entries, he chose to leave out ‘nearly all playwrights, poets, screenwriters and graphic novelists, and dumped personal indulgences.’  This, to me, seems like a limiting approach, and I feel as though far more variety would have been included in the book had the odd playwright or screenwriter been focused upon.

I did not enjoy Fowler’s personal prose style, and found the book was something I was having to force myself to read, rather than picking it up out of enjoyment.  His narrative did nothing whatsoever to engage me, and I found that a lot of the portraits of the authors were repetitive.  I did not add anywhere near as many authors or books to my to-read list as I was expecting, and have only found a handful of ‘forgotten authors’ whom I want to check out.  If you are interested in reading this, I would recommend dipping in and out of it over a longer stretch of time, rather than reading it all in one go, as I did.

The Book of Forgotten Authors sounded highly promising, but there is so little depth to it.  Each entry is only around three pages long, and there are sometimes no suggestions for which book a new reader of a particular author would be best to begin with.  There is hardly any detail in the biographies which are presented of each author, and I found that they barely whet my appetite, as Fowler had intended them to.  The brevity in Fowler’s approach did not work at all well in my opinion.  The Book of Forgotten Authors presented the author with such an opportunity, but it felt both lacking and lacklustre throughout.  There are far better books than this one which set out to do similar things.

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‘The Shadow Year’ by Hannah Richell **

I really enjoyed Hannah Richell’s debut novel, Secrets of the Tides, and jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of The Shadow Year.  This is blurbed as ‘another mesmerising story of tragedy, lies and betrayal.’

9781455554331In the novel, protagonist Lila Bailey receives a package ‘out of the blue’, which consists of a letter and a key.  She has no idea who could have done such a thing, but someone has anonymously bequeathed her a ‘remote lakeside cottage and the timing couldn’t be better; with her marriage unravelling, the house offers the perfect escape.’  Upon reaching the cottage, which lies in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Lila soon begins to wonder as to why the previous inhabitants clearly left in such a hurry, leaving their belongings behind.  She also, later on, starts to feel as though she is being watched at every turn.  ‘As a year at the lake unfolds, Lila uncovers long forgotten secrets and discovers that the past can cast a very long shadow.’

The prologue is rather sensuously written.  Here, Richell has focused upon an unnamed female character, and speaks of the lake itself almost as a character in its own right: ‘Pushing off from the bottom, she swims out to where the water is dark and deep then stops to watch the breeze play across the surface, lifting it in choppy peaks.  Her blood is cooling and she feels the weight of herself – her arms, her legs, the heavy tangle of her nightie, her slow-beating heart.  Treading water, she sees the cottage tilt in the distance and the light waver across the treetops.  It’s a dream, she tells herself and lays her head back upon the water, suspended there between earth and sky, floating for a moment upon the skin of the lake.’

Lila likes the idea of going to explore the land with Tom, her husband, a trip which is focused upon in the first chapter.  The pair are dealing with a bereavement, following a miscarriage.  Of the trip, which Lila suggests after a series of arguments, Richell writes: ‘She can see that he is surprised by her sudden desire to do something and knows it must seem strange when she has spent the last couple of weeks holed-up at home, doing very little of anything besides sleeping and crying and wandering aimlessly around the house.  But somewhere new and remote…  somewhere no one knows them…  somewhere where no one knows what’s happened is strangely appealing.’

The second chapter of The Shadow Year begins in 1980, when five friends, all of whom have just finished their undergraduate degrees, stumble upon the same cottage that will be left to Lila decades later.  They are all unsure about what to do in the ‘real world’, and the cottage becomes a place of escape for them.  Upon the suggestion of Ben’s, they decide on a whim to spend an entire year there as an ‘experiment’, cut off from the rest of the world, and able to enjoy their own pursuits.  All is not as idyllic as it first seems, however; tensions begin to mount between various members of the group, and ‘when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again.’

Richell’s descriptions of the dilapidated cottage are quite lovely.  She writes: ‘The gritstone walls are spotted with lichen and the rose appears to be missing several tiles.  Closer still and she can see guttering hanging off at an alarming angle and birds’ nests and cobwebs lodged under the eaves.  In front of both ground floor windows, nestled amidst the dandelions and nettles are wild bursts of lime green seed heads, round and flat and translucent like paper…  As they move closer still they see that the windows are black with grime…’.

Everything in The Shadow Year started off so well, but there was very little momentum with which to carry the story along.  Rather, whole sections felt slow and almost stagnant.  I did not feel invested in a single character here.  I remember much of the cast of Secrets of the Tides as realistic constructions, with depth to them, and believable backstories.  The characters here, however, felt rather cliched.  The main twist of the novel was predictable, and I saw it coming very quickly indeed.

A lot of other reviewers seem to have really enjoyed The Shadow Year, but I cannot help but feel disappointed.  I have read books with similar plotlines, by the likes of Juliet Greenwood and Kate Morton, which I found to be far more immersive, and better pieced together.

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‘Landfalls’ by Naomi J. Williams **

Naomi J. Williams’ Landfalls was my final choice on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge journey.  I selected the novel, which takes place in several geographical locations – ‘From the remote Alaskan bay, where a dreadful tragedy unfolds, to the wild journey Barthelemy de Lesseps undertakes from the far east of Russia to St Petersburg’ – as my Pacific Islands choice.  I did not really know what to expect with the novel; whilst I love stories of exploration, I have been rather disappointed with similar tomes in the past.  The blurb, however, did intrigue me, promising to take me along on ‘an epic voyage, undertaken with the grandest of ambitions.’ 9780349140445

Landfalls begins in 1785, and tracks many different characters who are connected in various ways with the real-life four-year long French government-backed expedition.  Williams tells us, as she introduces some of the novel’s characters, that ‘this is to be a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery – but every person on board has their own hopes, ambitions and dreams.’  The first chapter begins in spring of this year, at the French port of Brest.  The voyage, which is being prepared at this point, is ‘meant to compete with the accomplishments of the late Captain Cook, a voyage that is supposed to be secret until it departs.’

Williams’ writing is intelligent; whilst the descriptions are sadly few and far between, the prose seems very natural, and the third person perspective which has been used for several of the chapters sits well with the myriad stories which unfold.  I found it rather problematic after a while that each chapter employs a different narrative style.  The first is relatively fragmented, and others are long streams of prose given in the third or first person perspectives.  The structure feels effective at first, but as the novel goes on, it is rather a jarring technique.

The use of so many different narrative voices and characters almost made the novel feel like an interlinked short story collection.  Whilst rather a rich and multilayered story is created, I personally enjoyed and connected with some of the chapters, but not with others.  My interest waned when the particular story which Williams was telling did not grab me at all.  Despite the way in which Williams based this novel upon a real expedition, the characters felt largely unrealistic, and two-dimensional.

Landfalls has been meticulously researched.  It is an ambitious novel, particularly for a debut.  Sadly, I did not find the book an immersive one; as soon as I became interested in a particular character or thread of the story, it would end – sometimes quite abruptly – and something entirely different would be focused upon.  There was an imbalance here.

I felt as though Landfalls had far more potential than was realised, and the reading experience was slow and not overly enjoyable.  Williams seems to subscribe far more to ‘tell, don’t show’ than I personally like in my fiction; no vivid pictures were created, or even attempted here, despite the exotic and varied locales which Williams had at her disposal.  The novel did not come together for me; it felt as though several loose ends had not been tied up, and the detachment which was present in most of the chapters did not endear me to the novel or its characters.  There was not enough emotion here; whilst Williams sets out to show the effects such a voyage would have had on myriad characters, there is no real depth of feeling to be found within the pages of Landfalls.

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‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu **

I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy.  It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’  I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived.  However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.

9780701183691The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874.  A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart.  He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’  The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.  Secondly: master your anger.  Thirdly: never, ever fall in love.  For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’

The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love.  Except I do realise it too.  Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’  Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain.  She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode.  I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits.  It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond.  But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’  Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood.  There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.

The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed.  Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.  The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’  Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.  The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’.  Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up.  It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.

On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read.  It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too.  One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others.  It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed.  I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.

There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love.  It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar.  It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing.  The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent.  The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked.  The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.

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Disappointing Reads

Of late, I have read several books which disappointed me on many levels.  Some of them I was very much looking forward to, or was intrigued by, and others are by authors I have previously enjoyed.  Have you read any of these?  If so, what did you think of them?  Which books have disappointed you lately?

1. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
I had heard mixed criticism about Carey’s work, and decided to dip into his oeuvre for the first time with this novel.  I found it rather disinteresting and oddly paced, and it never did pick up.  The entirety felt very disconnected, and the relationships forged within the story were nowhere near strong enough to save the book for me.

2. 2am at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino 51yddc2bljql-_sx328_bo1204203200_
I was so looking forward to this one, and found it quite mediocre.  I still gave it three stars overall, as I found the main character rather endearing in places, and liked her story, but felt that those of other characters, whilst important on the whole, were rather disinteresting.  Nothing in Bertino’s writing style sparkled for me either.

3. His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood and Other Stories by Poppy Z. Brite
My first taste of Brite’s work left rather a sour taste in my own mouth.  The sexual explicitness was too much at times, and I found that the odd elements of each of the stories were jarring.  It is both gross and gruesome – too much so for this squeamish reader, anyway!

181400474. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Note to self: stop buying books from genres you never read just because BookTube tells you to do it.  Again, I gave this three stars because I liked the general idea and it kept me relatively entertained on part of a long flight to Kuala Lumpur, but it says something when the dead characters in a book feel far more present than the ‘live’ ones.

5. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
I found Olive Kitteridge a very interesting and memorable read.  I was slightly disappointed by The Burgess Boys, but liked it well enough.  In this case, I have no idea what happened with My Name is Lucy Barton.  It is distinctly underwhelming, silly and farcical.

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Most disappointing books of 2014

Hello and a Happy New Year! 🙂

I’m really sorry for my long absence from the blog, but things got really busy and time proved to be insufficient for most of my activities.

Instead of a list of the best books I read in 2014, I decided to compile a list of the most disappointing ones, because, sadly, there were quite a few of them. I will make some brief comments about why they were disappointing for me, so if you would like to see a full review on any of them just let me know 🙂 In no particular order, here is my list:

1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger **

I had heard so many great things about this book, and having bought it since last year, I was really looking forward to reading it. However, my high expectations were everything but met. I found the book rather dull and boring, and even though I expected to finish it within a few hours, it actually took me a couple of months to do it. I wasn’t particularly fond of the main character, Holden, either. I expected something big to happen by the end, but the book let me down in that aspect as well.

2. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut **

I am usually not so absolute with authors, but this book, having been the first of Vonnegut’s I read, made me reluctant to pick up any of his other books. The plot and the premise were so very interesting and I was convinced I would be in for a fabulous read, but that was far from what I eventually experienced. I recognise that Vonnegut has a rather poignantly humorous writing style, but I’m sad to say it was not for me. I caught myself struggling so much while reading, and I couldn’t wait until the book was finally over.

3. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki ***

This book looked like one I would thoroughly enjoy, since its main theme is the praising of the Japanese lifestyle and parts of their culture. As a Japanophile, I usually adore such writings, but this one disappointed me a bit. It lacked the passion I expected it to have, and I found it a bit boring in some parts.

4. Happy Days by Samuel Beckett **

Since I’m usually not really fond of Beckett’s plays, I should have tried to avoid this one. However, I was obliged to read it for one of my university courses, and I have to admit that I have never struggled so much in reading a play. It is flooded by stage directions that obstruct the reading experience, and it tired me out so much. Despite its tiny length, I had to take many breaks whilst reading in order for me to concentrate on it. I’m not doubting the great messages its analysis brings to light, but I believe this play would probably be better watched rather than read.

5. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest ***

Another book I expected to thoroughly enjoy but didn’t. I love fantasy and science fiction, and this book was good, but nothing more than that. It didn’t make me feel very excited while reading and often I was quite reluctant to pick it up and continue reading it. The plot was nice, some of the characters wanted a bit more working out, but it wasn’t anything particularly great.

6. The Skriker by Caryl Churchill **

Who would have thought that a play about fairies would be so un-fairy-like? The dialogues were confusing, the characters not particularly interesting and the premise rather dull for my liking.

7. The Gunslinger by Stephen King **

That was my first Stephen King book, and I didn’t find it as compelling as I had expected. I didn’t really like the writing style and the plot was confusing and very disorganized. Despite the fact that it was the first book in the series, I believe King didn’t introduce his world and the characters adequately for the reader to grasp what is going on. Sometimes, the chapters seemed unconnected with each other, and it looked to me more like an amateur writer’s first draft than a book by such a well-known author.

8. The Metamosphosis by Franz Kafka **

This book had been sitting on my self since last year, as well. The plot had an interesting premise and again I had heard so many wonderful things about it, but when I finally got around to reading it I was very disappointed. It tired me quite a lot and it took me a long time to finish it. I didn’t ike the ending and I felt that even though the story wanted to convey a certain message, it failed in doing so for me.

I am sure you have read some of the books I mentioned here, so I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on them.

I hope you all have a great (reading) year!

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Two Disappointing Reads

Sadly, at the start of the month I read two rather disappointing books one after the other.  I was so looking forward to both of them, and was a little disgruntled that I didn’t enjoy either.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick **

‘Sleepless Nights’ by Elizabeth Hardwick

Attracted as I am to lovely green Viragos, I spotted this in a Brighton bookshop.  It isn’t a novel which I’ve come across on my many book shopping jaunts before, and so I had to purchase it.  From the start, I found Hardwick’s prose rather beautiful:

“So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian – all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness.”

The entirety of Sleepless Nights is made up of fragmented memories, some true and some fabricated, but there is nothing whatsoever to distinguish between the two.  Whilst interesting, the structure of the book made the entirety feel a little too disjointed, and I found that it did not flow at all.  Characters were introduced at whim and disappeared just as quickly, and it was therefore rather sifficult to identify or sympathise with any of them.  I am not sure how I feel about reading more of Hardwick’s novels.  I think that they will all be stylistically intriguing, but I am not sure whether I will enjoy them.  On further thought since finishing this volume, I have decided not to read any more of her books on the lack of strength of Sleepless Nights.

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway **
I do really enjoy Hemingway’s fiction, particularly the way in which he uses language so sparingly.  This was the first volume of his non-fiction which I had come across.  I should perhaps have studied the blurb a little when I came across it in Fopp, as I am fascinated with Africa and African society, but not with the hunting of innocent animals.  I found some of the passages rather difficult to read.  The entirety was rather gory, and I found Hemingway’s flippancy about such horrible things rather unsettling at times.  His writing does not seem so startling or interesting when he is writing non-fiction, and in consequence, it seemed a little dull and too matter-of-fact.