Posted in Book Challenge, Reading Challenges

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #4

I’ve hit the wall, folks.

Why, why do I have all this nonfiction on my TBR list?  What was I thinking? I read nonfiction sooooo sloooooooowly!  It’s insanely frustrating.  I’ll be five years completing my to-reads at this rate.  Ugh.  Also 100 pages before I give up?  Why on earth did I feel the need to be so generous?  Particularly with 820 books to read?  Sorry, dumping that guideline, too.

Gloves are off.  I need to deal with this list Kondo-style because life is too short to have a TBR list this long.  I will focus on the books that make me spark with joy and can be vertically folded and stored in a dresser.

Whining out of the way, here’s the update:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  I’m glad I finally got around to this one.  I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the movie.  And yet, it still left me a little cold.  There are some inspired passages, but on the whole it didn’t do much for me.

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine.  I just couldn’t!  I’m sorry!  It’s huge and I’m slow and I have a life to live!

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois.  I’m not sure why this was on my list, to be honest.  I mean, it looks like a novel with an interesting hook, good characters, and from what I read it’s got a nice style, but it’s just not my thing, and it didn’t grab me.  The story is about a woman whose father wrote a letter to a Russian chess champion, and never received a reply–so she sets out to find the chess champion to get her father’s questions answered.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones.  I remember why this one was on the list.  It got a ton of attention and positive reviews when it first came out, with a lot of praise given to the cracking dialogue and inventive storyline that gets wilder and wilder.  I could not get into it at all, I’m afraid, even though it has the tone and feel of Edward Gorey.

Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell.  Another case of why did I want to read this?  Did I hear about it because it influenced another book?  Was I reading a lot about tough neighborhoods in the early 20th century?  Because it was considered an offense to morals when it was published and I was curious?  Never mind, it doesn’t matter–it didn’t grab me at all.

So yeah.  Sorry to be a Debbie Downer this time around, but man.  No wonder some of these have been on my list for so long.  I’ll give Mark Haddon’s The Red House a try next, along with a biography of Julia Child called Dearie.

According to Goodreads I’ve got 819 books to go.  I have lost track of which ones I’ve actually read, which ones I didn’t like and gave up on, and which ones I’ve just booted without a second thought.  I’ll tally at the end of 2017 and not bother thinking about it now.

Surely I must be coming up on books I’m just dying to read!  Or happy surprises!  I really do want to read more than I discard.  We’ll see how it goes.

–Marie

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier

new boyNew Boy: Or, Much Ado About a Pencil Case.

I kid.  Kind of.

New Boy is Chevalier’s entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. Hogarth has commissioned novelists to retell selected works of Shakespeare.   This is a retelling of the story of Othello, and while knowing that adds a fun layer to the story, you can also enjoy it all on its own, on its own merits.

Here’s the set-up: Osei, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, relocates to Washington D.C. in the early 1970’s. He makes an immediate connection with Dee, a white girl from a strict household.  Ian, the class bully, takes immediate offense at this newcomer for a lot of different reasons, and decides he’s going to bring him down.  Mimi, Ian’s girlfriend and Dee’s friend, finds herself in the middle as an unknowing pawn in Ian’s scheme.

The action takes place over the course of one school day, from playground to lunchroom and back.  The stakes seem a lot higher when all of the events play out over a single day.  It’s also a nice choice given the age of the characters–for a sixth-grader, school is your life, and the schooldays really are packed with drama.

I love how immediately engaging the writing is.  There’s a simple clarity to the prose, one that allows the characters to shine.  It’s also nice that the adults are all on the periphery, so that the young characters can exist on their own terms, with their own concerns and issues.

This isn’t just a retelling of Othello.  It’s also a commentary on the themes of the story.  Here, the racial climate of 1970’s America hits home for a reader in a way that a Moorish Venetian general in Cyprus might not.  And since the characters are pre-teens, the raw emotions and overreactions play a lot better than they might otherwise.  It’s awfully hard to map such a tragedy onto a bunch of kids, and some moments work better than others, but it’s still a good effort. The ending, though different, offers a suitable shock and a feeling of nothing really being resolved.

Chevalier has interpreted the characters in her own believable way.  Their motivations and desires all ring true, both in the context of this new story and as interpretations of the characters presented in Shakespeare.  Definitely worth a look!

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

EleanorEleanor Oliphant is fine.  Completely fine.  Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, when the loneliness starts to be too much or when she has yet another awkward encounter with another person.  As quickly becomes clear in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine.

Eleanor is in her early thirties and she lives a solitary life.  She’s held the same office job for almost a decade.  She gets a weekly phone call from her volatile mother.  She’s socially inept, with real difficulty reading cues and interacting with other people.  She keeps to a strict daily routine and her weekends are a blur of vodka-haze.  Day after day, week after week, this is Eleanor’s life.

Until one day when she and a co-worker happen upon an elderly stranger who needs assistance.  From there, Eleanor’s routines are upended, and she suddenly has plans for the future and more human contact than she’s used to.

There’s a dark layer in this book that I wasn’t expecting.  Eleanor’s got a terrible, sad secret in her past, one that is uncovered as the book goes on.  She’s solitary and disconnected for a good reason.  However, this darkness makes the light at the story’s end that much brighter–there’s real weight and import in Eleanor’s growth as a person.  She’s not quirky.  She’s struggling to cope and to heal.

Which does not mean that she isn’t fun to read about.  This is a very amusing book, and extremely heartwarming, too.  There’s catharsis and change, but there’s also always a sturdy friend and hope for the future.  Her voice is original and perfectly individual.

Eleanor’s relationship with Ray, the scruffy IT guy from her office, is gold.  Ray is a kind, affable guy, and his patience with and affection for Eleanor is great to read about.   Their friendship shows how much kindness can make a huge difference.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, or A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, give this one a try!

–Marie

Posted in Book Challenge

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.

–Marie

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Burntown” by Jennifer McMahon

BurntownJennifer McMahon’s latest, Burntown, feels like a return to her classic form after The Winter People  and The Night Sister.  It’s an intricate mystery with just the hint of the supernatural around the edges, filled with well-drawn characters and well-crafted scenes.  And the writing is compelling as ever.

This time, the supernatural comes in the form of speaking to the dead and having visions.  The reality of both, in the narrative, is taken as a matter of course–but the reader can decide how much the characters themselves inform what they believe they see and hear.

The story is this:  Eva’s father is professor named Miles, who as a child witnessed his mother’s murder.  He is an inventor who builds a machine which can supposedly allow people to talk to the dead, based on plans smuggled out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory.  One night there’s a terrible storm and flood, and only Eva and her mother escape alive.  But from there the two of them live on the streets.  Eva doesn’t remember anything about what happened to her father and her brother, Errol.  After her mother’s apparent suicide, Eva is left alone.  And then, in a series of violent ways, her mysterious past starts to catch up with her.

Two other characters’ paths cross with Eva’s eventually.  There’s Theo, a high school senior who has been selling drugs to please her girlfriend.  There’s also Pru, the overweight cafeteria worker at Theo’s school who has dreams of the circus.  Those are the primary players, but there’s a web of relationships in this Vermont town.  The intricacies of their relationships and the unexpected ways they all connect and influence each other is nicely done.

The setting, a down-on-its-heels mill town in Vermont (those on the street call it “Burntown”), feels very realistic if you’re familiar with broken-down mill towns in northern New England.  McMahon sets many of her novels in Vermont, and she’s got a gift for painting a picture of the landscapes and people, both good and bad.  There’s a very strong atmosphere and sense of place in her books.  In Burntown, you always have the feel of being in a ruin, in the underbelly.  Sometimes literally, as when the story focuses on a group of women who live under a bridge and claim to have visions.

I always enjoy the people in McMahon’s books, particularly their motivations.  She can craft characters who seem very real, whose desires and impulses and secrets ring true.  In this story I particularly enjoyed Pru, with her outsize fantasies and her happy ending.

The ending to Burntown, if not entirely happy, is at least hopeful.  It ends with a wonderful image that, to me, summed up the book very well.  The climax and reveal of the mystery wasn’t a huge twist or anything, but it rang true.  But then, this is more a story of the strange than it is a thriller, so it works.

If you’ve read and enjoyed McMahon’s books in the past, definitely check this out.   And I’m always reminded of Sarah Waters when I read McMahon’s work.  If you like Burntown, you might enjoy The Night Watch, for the intricate relationships between characters and the setting, London during the Blitz, as well as the compelling writing and great characters.

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “The Shadow Land” by Elizabeth Kostova

shadow landKostova’s latest, The Shadow Land, is about an American woman named Alexandra who travels to Bulgaria to teach English.  On her first day there, she accidentally comes into possession of an urn filled with human ashes.  Inscribed on the urn is a name: Stoyan Lazarov.

Alexandra befriends a taxi driver named Bobby, and the two of them set off to return the ashes to Lazarov’s family.  From there they learn more and more about Lazarov, who was a violinist who spent some time in a prison camp in 1949, as well as his family.   They also find themselves embroiled in the current political scene in Bulgaria–and all the possible threat that could entail.

The narrative goes back and forth from focusing on Alexandra, who is still dealing with the death of her brother, to the stories of the people they meet, finally to Lazarov’s time in the labor camp.  It’s an extremely rich and layered book, one that gives you time to absorb the characters and their stories.  The examination of the prison camps and the dark background of Bulgarian politicians after the fall of communism is particularly heartbreaking.  Kostova’s author’s note at the end is worth a read for the background she gives.

Kostova’s writing is elegant and immersive, but never gets bogged down, even with all of the storylines going on.  Her word choice is perfect and each sentence is extremely well-crafted.  The scene she sets is the next best thing to a trip to Bulgaria.

The Shadow Land is an engrossing, absorbing story with a rich sense of place.  Give it a try if you’re in the mood for an enthralling read with lots of layers and a cast of fascinating characters.

–Marie

 

 

Posted in Book Challenge

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #2

Man, why do I even bother with challenges when I can’t seem to keep from constantly cheating and finding loopholes to make them easier?!

This week’s cheat: if I can’t find a book readily through the interlibrary loan system, and it’s been on my to-read list for years, I’m not going to bother.  If I was that interested in a title I’d have bought, borrowed, or begged it by now.

Here’s my second TBR Challenge Update!

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore.  A poor girl makes a rich friend, and they spend the summer together at the rich family’s summer estate.  It turns out this rich family is pretty twisted and has lots of secrets, but that doesn’t stop the poor girl (with secrets of her own) for wanting to be one of them.  A good summertime read–I thought the best writing was the depiction of this lavish estate.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne.  Old-fashioned creepiness which I’ll elaborate on this Horror Month!  Loved this one!

The Keep by Jennifer Egan.  Smart, spooky, and really well-constructed (one narrative is about two cousins renovating an old castle in Europe, the other about the prisoner in a writing class telling their story).  I got to my page 100 benchmark, though, and then just skimmed.  Something about this just didn’t gel for me, but it might for you!

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland.   Another one I could not get into.  Just the wrong time for me, I think. The set-up is interesting: the main character, Lena, is a transcriptionist at a city newspaper, a lonely, kind of faceless job.  There’s a stark quality to the writing that suits the character and setting.  But just not for me at this moment in time.  After I set this down I had a hankering to read Patricia Highsmith.  Unsure why.

Dark Echo by F.G. Cottam.  It’s about a haunted boat.  A haunted boat named the Dark Echo, built by a WWI vet and imbued with some nasty history.  I was not immediately sold, but I gave it a chance because I really loved House of Lost Souls.  The book is a nice mix of atmospheric horror and a mystery,  but I just didn’t respond to this the way I did to Cottam’s other book.  Classic case of the problem being me, not the book.

So there’s where she stands.  At least I’m still knocking them off the list at a steady clip.

As I look at the to-read list I put together on Goodreads over the years, I can chart my reading interests over time–historical mysteries giving way to the domestic suspense of the 1950’s and 1960’s, my period of obsession with American culinary history, the coming of age stories set in rural America, and on into horror stories and natural history.  It’s fun to see how reading changes and evolves over time.

Perhaps I’ve just outgrown a lot of the ones from further down the list.  Which of course doesn’t indicate any problems with the books themselves.  I’ve simply moved on.

Next will be She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth and The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.

For the numerically inclined: we’re at 832 books to-be-read.

–Marie