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: “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 Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!

–Marie

Posted in Booklists, Uncategorized

Marie’s Currently Reading…Blizzard Edition!

As most of you have probably  heard, there’s a blizzard on the way to Maine tonight.  CRIPPLING, you guys.  It’s going to be CRIPPLING: http://haggett.bangordailynews.com/2017/02/12/home/crippling-blizzard-on-the-way-for-coastal-and-interior-maine-2/

snowmen
I’ll do my level best not to go insane.  No promises.

Tomorrow is looking like a wash.  A whitewash.  We’ve called a closure already here at the library, because…seriously, CRIPPLING BLIZZARD, guys.   In between shoveling out our driveway from the snowdrifts and baking brownies and praying that the power stays on, I’ve got lots of great books on the go for tomorrow’s snowstorm!

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes–a history of hot air ballooning!  There’s something incredibly inspiring about the early aeronauts and their quest to take to the air.  Balloonists were showmen, scientists, adventurers, and everything in between.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart–fun, rollicking historical fiction with a fascinating lead and some cracking good dialogue.  It’s about a woman named Constance Kopp, who was one of the first deputy sheriffs in America.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stewart–this is a witty and very entertaining novel about a barber in a small French village.  When he starts losing clients due to baldness, he decides that he’ll become the village matchmaker instead.  It’s clever and cozy but not twee.

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon–I need at least one thriller on standby.  An alcoholic journalist tries to redeem her life and career by taking on an unsolved case.

Not a bad set of companions for the day.  Apart from Snow Shovel, of course, who I’ll be seeing a lot of.  I hope you’re all holed up somewhere snug and safe tomorrow!

–Marie

 

 

 

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

bloody-project

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a deft blend of historical fiction, murder mystery, psychological fiction, and courtroom drama.  The writing is also complex and elegant all the way through (this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize).

Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, the story is about Roderick Macrae, a young man who has brutally murdered three of his neighbors.  He does not deny his guilt in the slayings.  But the question is: is Roderick sane?  Or will he hang for his crime?  And what drove him to murder in the first place?

Burnet tells the story with the conceit that he is piecing together a narrative from materials related to the case that he found in an archive.  A nice framing device, but one that, for me, quickly was absorbed into the memoir which was supposedly written by Roderick.

Roderick’s story is gritty and bleak, given his time, place, and social status, and it’s clear from his personal narrative that there’s something off about him.  Yet you’re sucked into his story completely, and into his poor community and desolate household.  You know there’s something he’s not telling you, but at the same time you get a good picture of what his life and relationships (or lack thereof) were like.

Following Roderick’s account of the murders, there are accounts from the medical examiner, a criminologist, and then a courtroom transcript.  All of these following accounts allow for the reader to fill in the gaps in Roderick’s narrative, and to provide a clearer and more three-dimensional picture of the other characters.

For my money, the best parts of the book were the memoir written by Roderick, and the excerpt about the case written by the criminologist.  Both have the best atmosphere and voices in the book.  They also allow for the best presentation of the historical time, place, and mood.

If you enjoy historical fiction and/or historical murder mysteries, give this one a try!

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “The Heavenly Table” by Donald Ray Pollock

Heavenly TableThe Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio.  One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler.  The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl.  Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing.  As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.

Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.

The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid.  Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing.  There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome.  There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.

It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers.  But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes.  Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.”  So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now.  Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.

For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone.  I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak.  Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good.  Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-clay-book-coverHow am I only just reading this now?

Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay has actually been on my to-read list for a while.  People rave about this one, and lots of people I know call it one of their favorite novels of all time. After reading it, I see why.  It’s got everything.

It’s complex and intricate, but approachable and funny.  The characters are three-dimensional and, while not always likeable, always human. The whole saga has a leisurely pace that manages to be sweeping and compelling.  It’s got pathos and atmosphere and brilliant historical detail, including cameos by historical figures.  It’s got World War II, comic books, escapists and magicians, a story frame which treats Kavalier and Clay as actual figures in the golden era of comics, and a poignant family story.

The basic story is this: In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler’s Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes.  The two form Empire Comics, and create a character called The Escapist.  The story follows Joe and Sam through the war years and into the mid 1950’s, when superhero comics are going out of fashion.

Chabon takes a lot of time exploring all of the inspiration and fantasies that go into Sam and Joe’s creations as they mature and grow as people, and as the world changes around them.  The history of comics in America figures into the plot quite a bit.  Most of all, the themes of heroism and escapism (two big appeal factors for superheroes) shine through the most in this meaty novel.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an amazingly rich, detailed, intelligent and entertaining story.  I’d suggest it if you’re after a novel to immerse yourself in, if you enjoy novels about the Jewish experience in World War II, if you enjoy novels about New York City, and if you enjoy family-saga type stories.  Really.  It’s got a little something for everyone.

–Marie