TBR Challenge Update #11

Only a little over a month to go in 2017, and there are 715 books still on my To Be Read List.  I managed to eliminate quite a few just by ruthlessly trimming the titles which no longer held interest.  There were a surprising number that, on closer investigation, I realized I’d already started and then discarded.  Off the list they went!

Here are three I actually managed to read:

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville.  A strange yet moving novel, about two very different young women in two time periods.  In 1899 Vienna, a psychiatrist is drawn to a girl with a mysterious past.  In 1940’s Germany, a troubled little girl lives with her doctor father at the “hospital” where he works.  At the end, the two narratives converge in a surprising way.  Deeply influenced by fairy tales, and very much about the power of storytelling and the way the stories we tell shape us and allow us to cope with life.

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier.  I picked this up on a whim and then realized it was on my TBR list!  Probably from back when I read Rebecca.  Anyway, these were fun.  Dark and creepy to varying degrees.  du Maurier is great with atmosphere.

The Lives they Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny.  I’m not sure where I heard about this, but I’m glad I picked it up.  Hundreds of suitcases filled with patients’ belongings were found when Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 125 years of operation.   They’d been abandoned in the attic, never reclaimed.  This is a really sad, moving look at the very real lives which usually ended at Willard.

When I began this challenge back in March, I had 831 books on the old to-read list. 116 eliminated, yay!

Only 32 of those actually read.  Heh.  I suppose I’m doing pretty well when judged according to the letter of the TBR Challenge, if not the spirit.

Let’s see how many I can read for real by the end of the year!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.

–Marie

TBR Challenge Update #10

I took October off for reading scary stuff for Horror Month and re-reading The Shining and IT and The War of the Worlds.  But I did manage to pick a few off the TBR list here and there!

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.  I really liked The Owl Killers, so I wanted to come back to this one–I remember beginning it almost ten years ago and then never getting beyond the first chapter.  This is a loose retelling of The Canterbury Tales, set against the backdrop of the Black Plague in 1348.  I really enjoyed it!  The characters, each with a secret, are very distinct and well-drawn, and the atmosphere is great.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.  I went through a contemporary Irish fiction phase a few years ago, and added this one to my list.  I enjoyed it very much!  Johnsey, lives in rural Ireland, and he inherits the family farm after his parents’ deaths.  He’s a man who doesn’t quite fit in, and this makes for a melancholy read–it’s lyrical, though, with passages of beautiful writing and imagery.

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart.  Why the shift to third-person narration in this third book?  One of the things I enjoyed best about the first two was being inside Constance’s head.  I really missed that in this novel.  I also missed the mystery element. But the story itself was fun, and ripped from the mid-1910’s headlines, with young women getting hauled into court on charges of “waywardness.”  As ever, funny and fun, with a nice pace and great characters.

I’ve managed to cross a few more off my list by beginning them and realizing that I’m no longer interested.  I’m in a bit of a fiction slump, but I’ve got some good nonfiction going: In the Great Green Room, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and Friends Divided, a new book about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

–Marie

 

Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!

–Cayla

Halloween Read: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling kids

A crack team of animated teen detectives, The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their last case thirteen years ago.  Though they caught the culprit (a guy in a costume with an evil scheme), all four of the kids never forgot that terrifying night they spent in a haunted house.

Now young adults, the members of the detective club are not doing so well: Kerri is a bartender with a drinking problem, Andy (deemed too aggressive for the military) has escaped from prison and is on the run, Nate is in an asylum, and Peter has killed himself.  Andy is the one who decides the team has to get back together and revisit the scene of their last case, and put the true mystery to rest at all costs.  That way, she figures, they’ll all be able to move on with their lives.

And it turns out there’s a lot more than just a guy in a mask waiting for them at the haunted mansion.

It’s inventive, original, and funny, with truly creepy scenes, lots of monsters, a suspenseful climax, tons of action, and a great mystery.  It’s like Lovecraft blended with Scooby Doo!

If you like horror that doesn’t skimp on the comedy, give this a read this Halloween!

 

 

Halloween Read: “20th Century Ghosts” by Joe Hill

ghosts

A troubled teen awakes and finds himself transformed into a giant insect.  An inflatable boy deals with schoolyard bullies.  A girl haunts the movie theater where she died.  A boy is locked in a cellar with a phone that connects to the afterlife.

The stories in 20th Century Ghosts are a fantastic blend of horror, weird fiction, and dark fantasy.  Several of them have references to classic works, like Dracula and The Metamorphosis (and those are just the most clear-cut ones).   They’re all very subtle and strange, and have a range of tone and mood.  Hill’s style, as always, is incredibly absorbing and completely readable–he puts you right there in the tale he’s telling, and he can create a world of amazing detail in just a few pages.

This is a fantastic collection for readers who enjoy their Halloween reads more on the weird fiction end of the Horror spectrum.  If you’ve enjoyed Hill’s novels, give these stories a look!

 

 

Halloween Read: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey

ghostland

American history and haunted places are two of my favorite things!  What a treat to find them both together in one book.

Dickey has this to say in his introduction:

If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses…Tune out the patriotic speeches and sanctioned narratives, and listen instead for the bumps in the night.

That is so true!  The haunted places in a town or city are where you find the dirty secrets, the underbelly, the stuff nobody wants you to know about.  Stories of ghosts are usually stories of some kind of trauma or betrayal or tragedy–and these stories also give these tragedies some meaning after the fact.  There can be justice or understanding where there wasn’t any in life.  A community can make sense of a terrible occurrence through weaving tales of hauntings.

Ghostland is a tour of haunted places which never delves into whether ghosts are real or not.  The fact that ghost stories endure is real enough, and that is what matters to Dickey.  The focus is on what ghosts do for the living, what purposes they serve to individuals, communities, and cultures.

The tour travels all across the United States, from houses to hotels to restaurants to prisons to graveyards to whole towns.   Dickey is a wonderful tour guide.  He’s informed and passionate and a great storyteller.  The atmosphere he creates makes you feel that you’re traveling along with him.

The book also addresses the fact that we live in a changed world.  What do the ghosts of the digital age look like, of the information age?  He mentions how digital lives on social media continue after death, and how that’s a kind of haunting.  But in the end, we’ll always need ghosts, because we’ll always need a way to deal with death and mortality.  The guises and trappings might change, but ghosts and haunted places will always be with us in one way or another, and they’ll always adapt to meet our needs.

Only four days to go until the big day!  Plenty of time for some ghostly armchair travel to get you in the mood.