Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Normally I am a stickler for reading series in order. However, much as I loved Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny's first and second books in her Armand Gamache/Three Pines mystery series, set in rural Quebec near Montreal, I never read any of the others...until I was searching my library's audio collection for something to listen to and spotted A Great Reckoning, #12 in the series.

Throwing caution to the winds, I downloaded it and never looked back. Penny does a fabulous job of filling me in on what happened between #3 and #11, and this really is a stand-alone novel.

And, let me tell, it was absolutely fabulous. The whole time I kept on thinking of Harry Potter--not sure whether it was the setting (the Sûreté Academy, aka police academy), the supporting characters (students and professors), the mysterious map that figures prominently in the whodunit, or all of the above.

It was enormously fun to read--I adore the inhabitants of Three Pines, starting with Armand and his lovely wife Reine-Marie, but also Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, Ruth, and Clara--and the mystery was good, with sufficient red herrings, snatches of poetry  (ancient and modern), philosophical and ethical quandaries and musings, and just the right amount of danger.

It wasn't an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but I quite enjoyed the forays into orienteering, map-making, and WWI from the Canadian perspective.

Now, I'm thinking rather than back-tracking and reading #3-#11, I will just plunge forward since Penny has also published #13 and #14.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette was a solid four-star novel, a classic, but reader, it was no Jane Eyre.

I've read a lot about Charlotte Bronte's life and work although until Villette, I had only actually read Jane Eyre...multiple times. I knew that it was her last novel and that once again she tried to tell the story of her life in Brussels as a young woman and her unrequited passion for her teacher, Monsieur Heger, and her jealous rage against his wife, Madame Heger.

The writing in Villette is better than the plot, which is filled with coincidences and, apart from the two main characters, Lucy Snowe and Paul Emmanuel, peopled by rather two-dimensional characters. The story Charlotte Bronte wanted to tell required plot gymnastics because, I believe, her real motivation was catharsis rather than the need to tell a story of the human condition. She needed to rewrite her own personal history in such a way to prove to herself that she was loved by the man she loved, she had been chosen and not rejected.

I've been reading Hemingway lately and so top of mind for me is that Villette is not a honest story. Charlotte Bronte created a story of star-crossed lovers, thwarted first by Paul's cousin, Madame Beck, by Catholicism (not just the fact that Lucy is Protestant and Paul is Catholic, but personified by Pere Silas), by misplaced family obligation (Paul is sent to save the family fortunes in the Caribbean), and finally by Nature herself. All this to explain away the fact that she (Charlotte Bronte) fell in love with a married man--actually I think it was more transference and infatuation than love.

I am glad I read Villette. It shows Charlotte Bronte's skill as a writer, but it suffers from a lack of honesty, something that shines through in Jane Eyre.

Book 2 in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge!

Friday, February 16, 2018


I went into Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich, with my eyes wide open. I read enough reviews without getting spoilers to know that this was one of those books you either love or loathe, but I didn't quite know why.

Reading it is akin to watching a train wreck, a beautiful, dazzling disaster of a novel. Let me start with the writing. It is gorgeous. Ruskovich has the pen of a poet--she can weave sentences that are strong and poignant and colorful. Her words sing.

The problem is that the story doesn't hold together and the characters are unbelievable. I'm pretty comfortable with ambiguity in novels, but I don't think that Ruskovich wanted her readers to feel uncertain about what her characters did. The ambiguity is unintentional, so despite the glorious turns of phrase, the novel is weak.

If you haven't read it or don't mind spoilers, here goes - Jenny and Wade are married, have two young daughters, June and May, live on a mountain in Idaho near a small town. Wade meets Ann, a music teacher and English expat, and asks her to teach him to play the piano so that he won't develop early dementia, as his father did. She does--he practices at home. One hot summer afternoon, May is singing a song Wade learned from Ann, so Jenny kills her with a hatchet. June runs away from the scene and is never found. Jenny goes to prison, Wade and Ann get married, Wade gets dementia, Ann becomes obsessed with Jenny.

So, why did Jenny kill May? Because she hummed a song? Really--no other reason? Why did Ann and Wade fall in love? There seemed zero chemistry between them. Why was Ann English--what on earth did that have to do with anything? She didn't even seek solace in a cuppa tea, ever! The most non-English character I've ever met. Why did Ann visit the weird Deliverance-esqe family at one point in the story? It had absolutely no bearing on the plot or our understanding of Ann. What did Eliot and his accident have to do with anything--okay, plot device to get Wade to the school to meet Ann, but then why did he surface again later in the story for one short section? How did that have anything to do with the story arc or help explain anything at all about what went down that summer afternoon?

All that said, I actually found the prison scenes interesting, although they did nothing to help me get a handle on who Jenny really was, why she did the awful thing she did, etc.

Idaho was one of the most dissatisfying books I've read in a long time. It should've been great--Ruskovich has a way with words, but based on Idaho, I don't think she's a very good storyteller.

This is a Tournament of Books finalist. I have feeling it will do well. The crowd at GoodReads on the Tournament of Books group seemed to love it.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Manhattan Beach

Until I read Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan, I gave absolutely no thought to how ships, especially those engaged in WWII, were repaired. I suppose this is due to my living my entire life in landlocked Colorado and spending zero time with any proximity to a naval shipyard, but I found the subject utterly fascinating as recounted in Manhattan Beach.

Manhattan Beach not only provides an interesting look at how a young woman, Anna Kerrigan becomes a diver involved in ship repair in New York during WWII, but it also includes a creditable mystery that involves the disappearance of Anna's father, gangsters, politics, nightclubs, Ziegfield Follies show girls, and the rough and tumble life of the naval shipyard workers and its neighborhood.

However, the soul of the story is really that of the relationship between Anna and her severely disabled sister, a lovely girl named Lydia, who cannot speak or move, but who is cared for by both Anna and her mother with tenderness and a devotion that is heart-breaking. In a way, Lydia almost becomes for Anna what an imaginary friend is to some children--a confidant who doesn't pass judgement but who provides a focus and purpose whenever necessary.

I absolutely loved how Anna reinvented herself, which I think the vast disruption of the war made possible for so many people.

I also loved Anna's relationship to the ocean--her physical need to dive and immerse herself in another world, where she was lighter and stronger but completely vulnerable to the literal ties that bound her to the other world. In writing that, it occurs to me that her experience in diving metaphorically maps how she interacts with the other worlds she enters--the world of the gangsters and nightclubs and money laundering, the world of the mistress, the world of San Francisco where she starts over, but still tied to her family, however tenuous.

Manhattan Beach is on the Tournament of Books 2018 shortlist and one that I hope goes far. I'll be rooting for it.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

John Baxter's The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris was so much fun to read. I am going to Paris for a week in July and, in typical fashion, am spending my time before the trip reading up on the city.

The book is less a guidebook than a series of short essays, each of which focuses on a particular spot (restaurant, theatre, park, etc) or slice of history (often literary) or a cultural quirk (absinthe drinking, for example) and all of which impart a feeling of what it is like to roam the streets and boulevards of Paris, stopping for a coffee, window shopping, enjoying the light, and relishing the feel of the city.

Baxter has a lovely way of writing that I quite enjoyed...
“Paris metro stations sometimes resemble women’s handbags, filled with colorful but often puzzling objects, many of dubious utility.”
Lest you think the book is only about the beautiful buildings, exquisite food, or lovely parks, Baxter also talks about the gritty aspects that characterize all cities, regardless of  how well their tourism offices spin reality.  I absolutely loved reading about the two side-by-side cabarets in Montmartre (circa 1900), Le Ciel (heaven) and L'Enfer (hell), as well as les apaches (street gangs) from the 1920s.

And, to top it off, the front of the book contains a marked map with all of the restaurants, markets, and sites.

This book was a great way to kick off my Paris reading and whet my appetite for cafe au lait and croissants.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Code Name Verity

Elizabeth Wein's novel, Code Name Verity, is one of those books that everyone was reading a few years ago. It appealed to me, I got a copy, and then let it sit on the shelf until last week when I decided to give it a whirl.

It was wonderful--set in England during WWII, it is a non-traditional novel--no chapters but rather is broken into two parts. The first part is a confession by a female British spy, captured in Occupied France, in which she tells the story of her best friend, Maddie, a female pilot in the Air Transport. The second part is a report that Maddie writes, telling her side of the story. Both characters are absolutely marvelous--courageous, resourceful, practical, and loyal.

I really liked how the two friends were from different worlds--upper crust Scottish gentry and Manchester factory. They acknowledge that in peacetime they would never have met, much less been best friends.

It is suspenseful and cleverly written so that the reader never quite knows what to believe about what the two young women are saying until the end. It's quite difficult to write a review without giving away plot and character details that are so much more fun to discover as a reader than to know about ahead of time.

I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads--read up on author Elizabeth Wein, and am ordering the second in the Young Pilots Series, Rose Under Fire.

I absolutely love reading about WWII flying these days. My dad was an WWII RAF pilot and in typical fashion of his generation, didn't talk much about his wartime experiences, so these books help me understand what his life and work were like during the war.

I searched to see whether a movie was in the making, because it would make a terrific movie, and didn't find any current news, but I did find some fantastic fan art. Here is a sample that does a wonderful job in communicating the gist of the novel.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tournament of Books - 2018 short list

Here are the 18 books that made it to the short list this year, and here's the link to the official article at the Morning Post.

I would like to read the six I've noted, but will definitely read at least March Madness!

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker - plan to read
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - a likely winner, so I plan to read

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich- definitely will read
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - a likely winner, so I will try again to read
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eganm - definitely will read
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - would like to read
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward -would like to read
So Much Blue by Percival Everett
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
White Tears by Hari Kunzru

This is such a great way to help me choose current titles to read. I'm rarely at a loss as to what to read when it comes to classics, but there is just so much contemporary fiction that I appreciate the help in navigating my way to the best books.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Farewell to Arms

There are a lot of pretty cheesy covers for this book out there. I picked the one I  liked the best!

Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929, is his second major novel, preceded by The Sun Also Rises (1926). The Hemingway I've read in the past have all been from his later years--The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Across the River and Into the Trees, plus a number of short stories. I liked Farewell to Arms the best so far.

Yes, the style is easy to parody--everything is fine, grand, or splendid, and the word "very" shows up least once per page--but I found the character and story of Frederic Henry to be compelling.

Set in during WWI (1917/1918), I found the descriptions of the Italian and Swiss countryside to be particularly interesting, and the war scenes with Henry, a lieutenant in the Italian army, serving as an ambulance driver, were incredibly rich in detail.

If I had read the book as a teen or young adult, I would have focused on the love story between Henry and Catherine Barkley, and would have found myself skimming the war scenes. Now, especially since I am trying to understand the mechanics of the early 20th century, I avidly read the war scenes but found my mind wandering a bit as the lovers ("Darling" is another overused word) engaged in endless boring dialogue about drinking, making love, and getting married...someday.

Having read this book, I'm interested in finding a good bio on Hemingway.

Since I'm going on a family vacation to Paris and the Dordogne region this summer, I'm also planning to read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast this spring. And, I would also like to read The Sun Also Rises and reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, plus I have a copy of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain that I want to read as well.

Visiting Dry Tortuga NP is on my travel wish list for sometime soon, and that would enable me to visit Hemingway's house on Key West. Sounds like I might be setting myself up for a mini-course on Hemingway.

First book in the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge done!

Monday, January 08, 2018

Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset has the distinction of being my last book of 2017 and my first book of 2018. Weighing in at 861 pages, I started reading it on Nov 18 and managed to finish it in 7 weeks with the holidays and holiday reading thrown in there for good measure.

As you might have guessed by the title, this is the last of 6 novels in the Barsetshire series, and I have to say that I was sad to say goodbye to the villagers, squires, clerics, lawyers, wives, and servants that I've come to know and love since I started on the series with The Warden, back in November of 2010. I think when I reread the series--and believe me, I will!--I will endeavor to do it in less than 7 years!

I also found that I enjoyed the books more as I progressed through the series. I know that book 2, Barchester Towers, is considered to be the crown jewel of the series, but it was not my favorite. Perhaps being more familiar with the characters and their lives with each book helped, but I really think book 6 is the best. Such a rich collection of characters--I think Josiah Crawley and Lily Dale are two of the most frustrating, and fascinating, characters ever developed. Their obstinacy is maddening, and yet I could definitely see the world from their point of view. They couldn't be more different--one is a dour killjoy and the other is a warm and witty woman, but they defy social convention and will not bend to make their road easier.

I couldn't help wishing that Trollope had written a 7th book in the series in which he married off Jane Crawley to Johnny Eames. Maybe there's some Trollope fan fiction out there that finally gives Johnny a wife--if ever a man should be married, he is it.

I found myself mentally picturing Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey (as played by Hugh Bonneville) for Archdeacon Grantley--I find it not at all strange and very amusing that Julian Fellowes borrowed the name Crawley from Trollope's Barchester series and gave it to the lords of the manor! And Mrs. Grantley's ways of handling the Archdeacon are definitely aligned with Cora's.

Finally, I think that one of the reasons I liked this final book so much is the mystery around how Mr. Crawley got the cheque in the first place. I think that more than the other novel, this one had a super strong plot line off of which the other branches could comfortably hang. It was a perfectly constructed novel, and immensely satisfying to read.

I would absolutely love it if the BBC did a TV series of the entire Barchester series. There is a version from 1982, but it only goes through the first 2 books.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Wrapping Up Xmas Reading

I had a fun December reading a variety of holiday-themed books.

I finished up Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop, an anthology of stories set in the NYC bookshop, and edited by bookshop owner Otto Penzler. I ended up giving it 3 stars on GoodReads--anthologies are tough because they are usually a mixed bag, with some good stories, some so-so stories, and one that I found simply unreadable. Tastes vary, but overall I enjoyed the book.  Lots of the stories involved rare or unpublished manuscripts by popular authors, nefarious agents, and criminals disguised as Santa. The creepiest by far, but also the most creative, was "The 74th Tale" by Jonathan Santlofer--it involves a down-and-outer who reads Poe and takes the stories to heart.

I ended up not finishing A Very French Christmas - another anthology, and one I was sure I would love but the stories were fairly ho-hum. Not magical, not heart-warming, but rather dull. I gave up when I hit a patch of anti-Semitic authors (the bios of the authors at the back proved helpful) and their rants did nothing to put me in the Christmas spirit. I'm really hoping that these aren't actually considered the best and most beloved French Christmas stories.

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg was superb.

I'm enjoying listening to the Winter series by Elin Hilderbrand. I really liked Winter Street, the first book, and then went right into Winter Stroll, book 2. I'm picking up book 3, Winter Storms, from the library the afternoon. It's about the extended Quinn family who live on Nantucket and own a B&B on the island. Setting is marvelous and characters/plot are interesting. If Hallmark doesn't make this into a series, then I am seriously underestimating them!

'Tis the season for reading--hope you are enjoying the seasonal fare!