My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse: B-

Book description:
My Man Jeeves, first published in 1919, introduced the world to affable, indolent Bertie Wooster and his precise, capable valet, Jeeves. Some of the finest examples of humorous writing found in English literature are woven around the relationship between these two men of very different classes and temperaments. Where Bertie is impetuous and feeble, Jeeves is cool-headed and poised. This collection, the first book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, includes “Leave it to Jeeves,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “Absent Treatment,” “Helping Freddie,” “Rallying Round Old George,” “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” and “The Aunt and the Sluggard.”

Review:
It grieves me to award a relatively low grade to My Man Jeeves, because I truly did want to like it, but the trouble is, if I may be allowed to borrow Bertie’s manner of speech for a moment, that the stories it contains are “dashed repetitive, don’t you know?” In fact, you too can write a story just like the ones in this book! Make a selection at each parenthetical prompt and you’re halfway there!

A friend of (Reggie Pepper/Bertie Wooster) is having trouble with a (rich aunt or uncle/woman) and is despondent because said person has threated to (cut off his allowance/break off their engagement). (Reggie/Jeeves) comes up with a kooky idea to achieve the friend’s desired result and hijinks ensue.

The outcomes of the stories are all different, of course, and usually at least somewhat amusing. The story that varies the most from the formula above is “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” in which Reggie is summoned to the home of his former sweetheart, who has manipulated him thither with tales of an excellent golf course nearby but who really wants him to steal an ugly painting by her husband’s father. I probably should’ve seen the end result coming, but didn’t.

The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster is also enjoyable, with Wooster being terribly impressed by the “devilish brainy” Jeeves and occasionally rewarding him for his achievements by casting off ties, hats, or mustaches that have offended Jeeves’s delicate sensibilities. I’m a little sad that Jeeves’s intellect is used primarily for schemes of deception, though, and hope that won’t always be the case. There are a couple of occasions where he quietly works a solution of his own while Bertie is away, and I found those better examples of his cleverness than simply advising someone to pretend to have written a book on birds in order to appeal to a rich uncle with an ornithological bent.

There’s actually one story featuring Bertie and Jeeves that is even older than those collected here. “Extricating Young Gussie,” first published in 1915 and collected into The Man with Two Left Feet in 1917, finds Bertie tasked with preventing the marriage of his cousin to a chorus girl. I had thought it was safe to save this ’til later, since Jeeves’s part is extremely small, but Bertie mentioned it a couple of times here so I’ll probably go ahead and tackle that one next.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: A

From the back cover:
Lionized by literary society, Edward Driffield is married to his second wife, a woman of iron will, indisputable rectitude and great charm. Her request to Alroy Kear, lightweight novelist, to write a biography of her husband seems both flattering and agreeable. But on delving into Driffield’s past Kear revives the spectre of his first wife, Rosie, delectable companion of less respectable days and the unlikely muse of his greatest work.

In this novel Maugham has created the unauthorized biography, the book that cannot be written for fear of offending Driffield’s unsuspecting public. And in Rosie he has given us his greatest heroine, luscious, inconstant and commonplace, yet lingering most persistently in the mind.

Review:
Prior to reading Cakes and Ale, my exposure to W. Somerset Maugham was sorely limited. I first heard of him during my teen years in the context of “the guy who wrote the book that became the movie that starred Bill Murray in his first serious role.” (I was a bit of an SNL fanatic in those days.) After reading Cakes and Ale, I wonder what took me so long.

Cakes and Ale will possibly sound disorganized when described, but flows logically when read. The narrator, William Ashenden, is a middle-aged author who’s approached by a more commercially successful peer, Alroy Kear, to help with a biography Kear is writing. The subject is Edward Driffield, a novelist with whom Ashenden was acquainted when he (Driffield) was married to a vibrant but unfaithful former barmaid named Rosie, but who spent his later years with a respectable second wife who struggled for years to make him fit the mold of a venerated elder statesman of literature.

Despite Kear’s assertions that he wants to know everything that Ashenden has to tell about Driffield’s former marriage, Ashenden realizes that, with the second Mrs. Driffield backing the biography project, there’s no way any of it would be usable anyhow. The fact is, Driffield wrote better books when he was married to Rosie and though she was wildly unfaithful, it wasn’t done from malice. Rather than tell Kear what he wants to know, Ashenden instead reminisces privately about his awkward first meeting with the Driffields as a boy of fifteen—during which period he obediently adopted the class prejudice of the aunt and uncle with whom he lived—and the later resumption of their friendship when he is a 20-year-old medical student living in London.

Maugham’s writing style is especially appealing to me, managing to be clever, witty, insightful, and concise all at the same time. There aren’t words enough to express how much I adore the passages about young Ashenden. He’s so self-conscious and awkward, and I love how Maugham depicts Ashenden’s struggle between the warnings he’s received about working-class people versus what he is actually seeing for himself. It’s a nostalgic sort of portrait, fond and sympathetic, of a boy who gradually sheds the things he’s been led to believe and learns to think for himself. This isn’t the only portrait to be found, of course. Both Rosie and Kear are quite extensively developed, and the reaction of other characters to them also allows for some wry commentary on communities both rural and literary. Oddly enough, the least developed character is probably Driffield himself, about whom the biography is being written!

The only complaint I have about Cakes and Ale is that it’s too short! That’s not to say that the story is incomplete, for it isn’t, but I enjoyed the book so much I could have gone on reading it for thrice as long! Happily, Maugham wrote quite a few other things, one of which is waiting for me at the library and another of which is on its way from Amazon at this very moment.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines: A

From the back cover:
A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting—and defying—the unexpected.

Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

Review:
I had a pretty major misconception about A Lesson Before Dying. I’d expected something akin to a training montage, where Grant imparts academic knowledge upon Jefferson and produces in the end a carbon copy of himself. It’s to the book’s credit that it completely avoids this sort of approach.

Grant Wiggins wants more from life, longing to move away from the plantation community he despises but can’t seem to leave and to take along with him his married girlfriend, Vivian. He feels that events are conspiring to keep him there—like family obligations and the unwillingness of Vivian’s husband to grant her a divorce unless he can see his kids on a weekly basis—even while the community has pinned their hopes on him to such a degree that he feels driven to escape their expectations. He’s not always a likable character, but he is an interesting one. I ended up sympathizing a lot with Vivian, because he’s a fundamentally good guy who is still self-absorbed and impulsive, and does stupid guy things like get in a bar brawl and then ask her “Are you still mad?” every two minutes.

Jefferson is an incredibly compelling character. At his trial, his defense attorney—in an attempt to spare his life by establishing his complete lack of sense—compares him to a hog. When Grant first visits him at the jail, all Jefferson will do is reiterate that he is a hog, and for the longest time it doesn’t seem that progress is being made. Grant tells him that the community needs someone to stand up in defiance, someone to be their hero. They thought it would be someone like university-educated Grant who would fill that role, but Jefferson could be that person now, for the benefit of everyone else. His transormation is gradual and believeable, and the diary he writes as his execution date approaches is the highlight of the book.

I listened to this in unabridged audio, read by Jay Long. He sometimes sounds stiff reading Grant’s narration (but then again, Grant’s a pretty uptight guy), but does fabulously for everyone else, employing a variety of regional speech patterns and dialects. The one thing that bugs me about Gaines’ writing style is the tendency to repeat things with identical verbiage, be they actions or lines of dialogue. I swear the phrases “can you stand?” and “get him outta here” must be repeated about four times each (in rapid succession) in the aftermath of the bar fight.

Like the other work by Gaines that I have read, A Lesson Before Dying is sad and thoughtful. I really like how the merits and dignity of the humble and hardworking people on the plantation are gradually made evident to Grant, who has always considered himself superior to those around him. Too, I find interesting the struggles for status within the black community, particularly the resentment by mulattos and educated blacks towards the white man who lumps them together with those they consider beneath them.

I’ll be continuing to read more by Gaines. I’m thinking A Gathering of Old Men will be next.

The Pact by Jodi Picoult: C-

From the back cover:
The Hartes and the Golds have been neighbors for 18 years and are very close. So when Chris and Emily’s friendship reaches the next level, nobody is surprised. Then one night, the hospital calls. Seventeen-year-old Emily is dead—shot in the head by a gun Chris took from his father’s cabinet. One bullet remains in the chamber, and Chris tells of his suicide pact with Emily. But the police have questions, and soon Chris is on trial for murder.

Review:
Picoult’s works are usually about sensational topics like faith healers and school shootings, and nearly all culminate in a trial of some kind. I’d only read one Picoult previously, and liked it well enough to try another, but now I see what critics mean when they complain about the repetitiveness of her books.

Besides the fact that a violent crime has been committed in each, both books employed the same tactic of alternating back and forth between the past and the present, saving the final reveal of what really happened until the end, in the middle of all the trial proceedings. The teen leads were childhood friends in both books. The teen boys had the same defense attorney. This book was actually written first, so I suppose it’s not technically the repetitive one, but if you copy something down the line, then the original is going to be subject to some retroactive criticism on that account.

All of the characters felt very shallow to me, and many of their actions rather implausible. For example, Chris intended to stop his girlfriend from committing suicide. So, what did he do? He brought a gun and bullets to a meeting with her, as he had pledged he would, because otherwise she’d realize he intended to stop her. Uh, so you were gonna let her load the gun and then stop her? ‘Cos I think she’d be realizing it either way, and in one version, she’s not, like, armed. Another example is the married couples, who go for months and months barely speaking after the incident, and then are suddenly, inexplicably, going at it like bunnies. You’d think there’d be some working out of issues first or something!

Also, waaaaay too much detail on the sex scenes. I know where the various bits go, thank you very much. Picoult obviously felt it was important to reiterate that for her readers, I guess. Also, I did not need that part where Chris and Emily fondly reminisce about the time they watched some dogs doing the deed. I’m going to do my best to forget I ever read some of those words.

Pretty much the only thing that kept me interested was the hook I mentioned above—dangling the final revelation in front of readers like a carrot, lending them the necessary fortitude to make it past all the dreck in order to satisfy their curiosity. The trial was pretty interesting, too, even though the outcome was highly unlikely. Beyond that, however, I can think of nothing that I actually liked.

I’m done with Picoult now.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult: B+

From the back cover:
New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult—known for tackling today’s hot-button issues—delivers the riveting tale of one small town’s entanglement with high school violence.

New superior court judge Alex Cormier is assigned to preside over the case of the alleged Sterling High School shooter. Lawyer Jordan McAffee represents Peter—the boy who, on the day of the shooting, was found in the corner of the gymnasium holding a gun to his head with a shaky hand. Detective Patrick DuCharme has one star witness, but her story keeps changing. And then there’s the biggest problem of all—the star witness happens to be Judge Cormier’s daughter.

Picoult, acclaimed for her penetrating exploration of the gray areas in modern society, asks difficult questions in Nineteen Minutes, which may be her most powerful and important novel yet.

Review:
Nineteen Minutes had its flaws, but ultimately, though I didn’t find it as emotionally affecting as was probably intended, it was an interesting read.

The structure of the story bounces around in time, establishing what life was like for Peter growing up (as well as filling in background for other characters) and waiting until the last possible moment (on the concluding day of his trial) to finally divulge what happened in the crucial moment when Josie Cormier and her boyfriend encountered him on the morning of his shooting spree. Probably this was supposed to be a big twist, but I had been suspecting something like that for a while. I’ve read some reviews where the ending is particularly criticized. I’m not sure whether they’re talking about this part (which I thought was okay) or the more cheesy final pages.

Peter is the best-defined character in the novel: Picoult does a good job at making him sympathetic and chilling simultaneously. She also shows that some of the victims weren’t little cherubs, though it was overkill after a point. I was annoyed when the trial proceedings were interrupted just to show, yet again, how much of an abusive jerk Josie’s boyfriend was. We got it already!

The other major characters didn’t benefit from as thorough characterization as Peter received, and I was sometimes at a loss to fully understand how certain developments had occurred. Part of the problem might be the time jumping—skipping a few months to encounter Josie and her mom having a better relationship without actually showing how they worked to achieve it, for example.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. Maybe it was a little sensational, but the approach to showing why a student might be driven to do something like that was thoughtful enough that I didn’t feel the only intent was to capitalize on interest in similar real-life tragedies. I’d read more by this author.

Live at Five by David Haynes: B-

From the inside flap:
Brandon Wilson anchors a television newscast that is regularly trounced by reruns of “The Facts of Life.” When a new producer, hell-bent on raising channel 13′s ratings, decides that his middle-class African-American anchor with a penthouse isn’t “black” enough, he has a brainstorm: Brandon is to redefine himself by doing a series from a new home in the inner city. There Brandon meets Nita, who manages an apartment building in addition to juggling three kids, night school, and a job.

Brandon sees his move as a Faustian bargain that allows him to tell the stories of “real folks.” But when the station demands something more sensational, Brandon and Nita find their loyalties caught up in a media circus that only Nita can find a way to tame.

Review:
Part of why I read Live at Five was that I am curious about the black experience, and it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered before. But it also made some points that I thought were oversimplified. Like Brandon, who’d expected to encounter thieves and criminals all over, being surprised to find instead so many decent, hard-working folks living in the inner city. Is that really shocking?

Brandon himself was a bland character. I found all of the TV station stuff to be pretty dull, honestly. Nita was much more interesting, with all of her responsibilities and insecurities. I also really liked building resident Mrs. Carter, a nosy, feisty old lady who reminded me a lot of someone at work.

A physical relationship developed between the two leads, but not a romance. Apparently, being really noticed and understood by a high-class guy made Nita realize that she was worth more than she’d been giving herself credit for (earlier she’d considered running off with a slightly shady character for want of better offers), though the whole time she’s thinking how Brandon’s different from other guys, he was cheating on his girlfriend and so was as much a dog as any of them. Still, I was glad it didn’t take the predictable route where they’d end up together.

All in all, it wasn’t bad. Except the editing. That was pretty bad. For the record, Milkweed Editions, since you seemed to have trouble deciding, the apostrophe in y’all goes after the Y. Might want to make a note of it.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman: A-

From the back cover:
You can’t help but feel sorry for Alice Thrift, who has recently tumbled from the top of her Harvard Medical School class to the probationary wing of her student internship. It doesn’t help that her social skills cause her mother to suggest she might be slightly autistic. So when Ray Russo, a social-climbing purveyor of carnival fudge, dedicates himself to winning her adoration, Alice finds him impossible to resist. Now it’s up to her two best friends to help her toward the path of enlightenment.

Review:
This is the second book by Elinor Lipman that I’ve read, and it was as entertaining as the first. It was also similar in that it managed to be interesting without some fancy plot gimmick, excelled in “show don’t tell” writing, and featured a rather obnoxious character stirring up the lives of mild-mannered folk.

I particularly liked how Lipman handled the revelation of the character of her first person narrator. Rather than have her proclaim that she is socially inept, for example, she’d have her say something bizarre and point out the flaw through another character’s reaction: “Why do you sound like an anthropologist?”

Lipman also created fully-fleshed out characters. A good example was Ray Russo, the obnoxious character du jour. He’s a thoroughly repugnant guy. Some of the things he said were so odious to me that I had to take a break from the book for a minute. And yet, he also had good points: he defended Alice, he helped her to make friends in her building, and he didn’t expect her to be more gregarious than she was capable of being. I could easily see how Alice, though repulsed on the one hand, had trouble completely writing him off as a creep.

The development of Ray and Alice’s relationship is well done, though I was impatient to know what ultimately happened, and consequently found the gradual pace of Alice’s realizations to be frustrating. Also, though I appreciate the realism of all the awkwardness, sometimes it was just too uncomfortable to be a fun read.

I plan to read more by Lipman, but I have noticed that several other of her books also feature a somewhat meek protagonist encountering and being impacted by a more flamboyant new acquaintance. I worry that this repeated theme is going to become annoying.

Austenland by Shannon Hale: C

From the back cover:
Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her life. No real man can compare. When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly becomes more real than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, stripped of her modern appliances, Jane throws herself into mastering Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to vanish. Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

With humor, charm, and perfect sympathy, award-winning author Shannon Hale delivers a novel that will delight every reader who has ever dreamed of escaping into Austenland.

Review:
I hesitate to unequivocally declare this book awful, because it certainly had a few lines that made me giggle (“Argh,” Jane arghed.) but it’s pretty durn crappy. I’d not read any Hale before, and I worry this experience will tinge my perceptions of some YA fantasy I have by her.

Jane, the protagonist, is incredibly annoying. She’s 33 and yet behaves quite like Mia from The Princess Diaries, if that gives you any indication. She is forever swearing about how from now on things will be different in some new way, and of course she paints, and of course the real actors fall in love with her ‘cos she’s not at all like the typical sorts of ladies who frequent the resort, etc.

Most of the supporting cast are bleh. Miss Charming, one of Jane’s fellow visitors to the resort, is revolting, made even more odious by the audiobook format. I did quite like Mr. Nobly, however. He’s Austenland’s Darcy equivalent, and is the only one of the characters to be at all interesting, even though we hardly learn anything at all about the actor behind the role.

The ending is ridiculous, complete with people running after Jane in the airport and everything. I therefore predict that this will be optioned as a film.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman: A

From the back cover:
Born and raised in a college dorm and chafing under the care of “the most annoyingly evenhanded parental team in the history of civilization,” Frederica Hatch is starting to feel that her life is stiflingly snug. But then, into this cozy but claustrophobic world, comes Laura Lee French, a wannabe Rockette and the new dorm mother at the lackluster women’s college where Frederica’s parents teach and agitate.

Further disturbing the peace is the fact that Miss French—in the distant past—had been married to Frederica’s earnest and unglamorous father. Fearing scandal and campus glee, the three Hatches and Laura Lee attempt to keep their secret.

Review:
I really enjoyed My Latest Grievance. The narrative is first person, but Lipman still does an excellent job revealing the protagonist’s personality more by showing than telling. Frederica is a sardonically funny, capable, curious (bordering on nosy), and at times obnoxious teenager who has had a very unconventional upbringing and who occasionally finds herself yearning for conventional things, to her parents’ disappointment.

The plot is actually a bit excruciating, since it involves Laura Lee (an annoying, selfish, deluded, melodramatic, amoral, exceedingly indiscreet, and incredibly immature grown woman) arriving and launching a very public affair with the president of the small women’s college at which Frederica and her parents reside, resulting in all sorts of unpleasant ramifications. She does face censure for her mind-boggling lack of sense, though the Hatch family is far more tolerant of her than I would be.

The writing is wry and concise, and the story wraps up with a very satisfying conclusion. I’d definitely read more by this author.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: A-

From the back cover:
Margaret Lea, a bookseller’s daughter whose own past is a mystery, is contacted by Vida Winter, a venerated author renowned for her secrecy.

Vida has always been reclusive, publishing popular “autobiographies” that are anything but the truth. Now, Vida is nearing death, and she wants to tell her last tale—the notoriously missing 13th tale—before her time comes. Struck by curious parallels to her own life story, Margaret agrees to help Vida and reveal the truth. Travelling to an aging and haunted estate, Margaret is unprepared for the heartache that will accompany Vida’s deepest secrets—and what they will reveal about her own past.

Review:
I checked this book out with great trepidation. Having seen it hyped in several mainstream places, I was obviously skeptical about its merits, even though the premise sounded like an interesting one. I in no way expected to like it as much as I did.

Good stuff: The Thirteenth Tale references Jane Eyre quite a bit, and it is reminiscent of that story, but it also reminded me strongly of Rebecca. Familiar elements include spooky presences, derelict old houses to explore, strange and creepy families, and dour housekeepers. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and often surprising.

Not so good stuff: One plot twist that was probably supposed to be a surprise was easy to predict. Margaret is sometimes irritating, and her narration was a lot less interesting than Vida’s story. The ending was also a bit drawn out, but it also wrapped things up thoroughly.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The unabridged audiobook from Recorded Books is particularly good, and I think helped to create a storytelling vibe.