Three Disappointing Novels

I subscribe to the Nancy Pearl rule of only reading fifty pages of a book and giving up if you aren’t enjoying it.  It works very well indeed for the mostpart, but there are occasions in which I have read an enjoyable book by a certain author, and want to see another of their works through to the end in the hope that it might improve.  There are also those books whose storylines sound far too good to give up reading.  I have grouped together an amalgamation of three such books, all of which I had high hopes for and was ultimately disappointed with.

‘The Listeners’ by Monica Dickens

The Listeners by Monica Dickens **
If I had bothered to read the blurb before purchasing The Listeners, I doubt whether I would have chosen it over Monica Dickens’ other books.  Its premise – troubled people seeking help from The Samaritans, which is partly based upon her own experiences in setting up the first American branch of the charity – does not render it the most cheerful of novels by any means.  The front of the very ugly Penguin edition which I read says that ‘her famous novel about the Samaritans’ is ‘compassionate, observant and amusing’.

I did like the way in which The Listeners followed different characters, both victims and workers for the Samaritans, but there was a real sense of distancing throughout, and I felt unable to identify – or even sympathise with – the characters because of it.  Dickens has created a cast of very troubled people, and there are far too many characters throughout, which further hinders any care and compassion being built up on the side of the reader.  Whilst Dickens is not shy in describing those whom she creates, they feel rather two-dimensional, particularly when considered as an entire cast.  As with much of Dickens’ work, it is nicely written, but it is neither as lovely as Mariana, nor as witty or absorbing as her memoir, One Pair of Feet.  It was even a little dull in places, which I found surprising; I was expecting it to be a very engaging novel.  It was lovely, however to see that some people do give up their time to help others in such life-changing ways.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Celebrations at Thrush Green by Miss Read ***
This was another book which I borrowed from the library, and based upon the two books written by Miss Read which are upon my read shelves, I was expecting quite a quick and cosy read.  The premise sounded relatively intriguing: ‘There’s double cause to celebrate in Thrush Green: the school is in its centenary year, and an unexpected letter sheds light on the village’s most distinguished son, whose statue has stood on the green for many years.  However, the preparations are plagued with anxieties…’.

Sadly, and even though I did enjoy it on the whole, Celebrations at Thrush Green is my least favourite Miss Read book to date.  It was a little too quiet and predictable overall, and some of the characters did not feel as though they had been well fleshed out.  I will still read more of the extensive Thrush Green series, but I can only hope that all of the books I have yet to come across are more enjoyable than this one.

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‘An Expert in Murder’ by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson **
This is one of the novels which I picked up in the library sale. I hadn’t heard of the author before, but the premise – in which an imagined Josephine Tey works as a detective of sorts to solve crime – was really interesting.  (Side note: I hate to be superficial, but the beautiful Faber & Faber cover also attracted me to the volume.)  The storyline does sound marvellous:

“It is 1934, and celebrated Scottish crime writer Josephine Tey is on her way to London to see her own hit West End play – but her trip is interrupted by the grisly murder of a young train passenger…  Cleverly blending elements of the Golden Age author’s real life with a gripping murder mystery, ‘An Expert in Murder’ is both a tribute to one of the most popular writers of crime and a richly atmospheric detective novel in its own right.”

I am beginning to adore quaint crime novels, and this seemed to fit the brief perfectly.  Until I started to read it, that is.  The sense of place is very well portrayed from the first, but the scenes and settings are the liveliest thing about the entire book.  The style of the prose fits the period relatively well, but oddly, a lot of the dialogue, and the things which the characters talk about – do not seem to.  There are often quite modern constructions within the conversations, which sit oddly against the whole.  The third person perspective which Upson has used does work well with the unfolding story, but something about it renders the characters rather flat.  Whilst An Expert in Murder starts off relatively well, it soon lost momentum.  It lagged a lot in places, and did not hold my interest throughout.  There were no characters whom I really liked – or was even interested in – and I even found Upson’s portrayal of Josephine Tey rather insipid.  I doubt that I will read more of the author’s work based upon this, especially given the poor reviews of her fiction which I have seen around the Internet since reading this book.

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Flash Reviews (17th December 2013)

No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read ***
I really enjoyed the first Thrush Green book I came across, and jumped at the chance of reading a lovely orange-spined Christmas story which forms part of another of Miss Read’s series, Fairacre.  It seems as though No Holly for Miss Quinn is relatively far on in the series, but each novel is self-contained, so it does not really seem to matter if they are read out of order.  This book tells the story of Miriam Quinn, a spinster of sorts, who moves into Holly Cottage with a lovely lady named Joan Benson, following the close deaths of Joan’s husband and mother-in-law.  Rather than be left to settle in, Miriam is soon swept away to Norfolk to care for her brother’s children whilst his wife is ordered to stay in hospital over Christmas.  The entire book is quaint and quite charming, as I expect the whole series to be.  I did not enjoy it as much as I did News from Thrush Green, but it was a nice little read nonetheless.

‘The Crowded Street’ by Winifred Holtby (Virago Modern Classics)

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby ****
I love Holtby’s writing and look forward to each of her novels.  The Crowded Street is the second book which she wrote, and it was first published in 1924.  The story itself begins in 1900, and is written beautifully.  The first chapter particularly is utterly sublime.  I love the descriptions which she crafts, and she clearly understands her characters so well.  I was rather fond throughout of the protagonist Muriel, particularly when she was young.    I very much enjoyed the way in which the plot is split into separate sections to denote time moving forward.  The entirety of The Crowded Street is so absorbing.

Holtby is definitely one of my favourite authors on the entire Virago list.  Her stories never fail to disappoint, and her characters – particularly the protagonists – are so memorable.  Whilst I did not quite adore this as I did The Land of Green Ginger, it is still a marvellous novel.

The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket ****
I have been warned against using Wikipedia countless times, and usually search out more reliable websites in my quest for information, but this time I failed miserably.  Before I ordered The Ersatz Elevator, hoping to continue with my reading of the Series of Unfortunate Events books in order, I quickly looked up the chronological order in which the books were published.  I knew that the next book which I needed was the fifth, and Wikipedia told me that The Ersatz Elevator was the fifth published.  Naturally, I ordered it. When it arrived however, I found that I had actually purchased the sixth book rather than the fifth.  Having put myself on a pre-Christmas book-buying ban, and being too impatient to wait until the new year to supplement my collection with the correct volume, I decided to begin regardless.  The books in the series are rather predictable in that you know something troublesome is always going to happen which puts the lives of the Baudelaire orphans in peril, but they will always overcome it in the most clever of ways.  The Ersatz Elevator is really very clever, and is certainly the most original plot in the series so far.