Reading since January

I have been reading. I promise. Lately I’ve been feeling the need for historical romances as chasers for some heavier fiction. Being part of a book club has changed my reading habits more than I expected so I’m still adjusting to the fact I have this one book each month that is not of my choosing. I’m enjoying them; they just aren’t often quick reads. They need to be read slowly and thought over, mulled if you will, so I have something to say about them when I sit down to informally lead a discussion on it. So, let’s take a look at what I’ve been reading since I started the year with Austen. [You will note none of these go towards my reading goals really…I need to re-group on that set of goals one of these days…]

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Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1): I discovered Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix late last year and it was the best find ever. I was happy to discover they were books first and my delightful friend got me the first one for Christmas. While the book was lovely, I am going to say something that pains me a bit…I like the TV series version better. I know! For shame! But the series does a few things with what is a solid story base and the makings of a fabulous characters that make it that much better. 1) It cast perfectly – seriously, the TV series was almost too perfect in picking actors to enhance the makings of the characters in the book. And it edited them well too – taking some roles out and attributing them to other more prominent characters. It could also be over the course of the book series this happens as well but the TV series hits you with them 10 minutes in. 2) It takes everything on page and fleshes it out more. Which is odd because you usually have the opposite problem with film adaptations but this is a relatively short book with some odd choices in it. The series edited it perfectly; adding where needed, removing some of the odder choices. It’s one downfall might be it made all the “hero” characters a lot more likable than they come across in the book sometimes. I will be interested to keep reading to see how they continue to compare but for the moment, the TV version is winning this series.

As Old as Time (Twisted Tales #3): ** spoiler alert ** I am enjoying the Twisted Tales series from Disney. I missed the second one somehow but they are really stand alone stories, just in the same vein of storytelling. Besides, Beauty and the Beast is a personal favorite so clearly this was a must read for me. This particular retelling played well with the original story, having that pivotal moment again where the book begins to deviate from the movie we all know so well. In this tale, it is the moment of Belle and the rose in the West Wing. In the movie, she is stopped before she can touch it; here, not so much and so sets off the adventure. I liked this version of Belle; she is the one you recognize but also a bit like you would probably be in her shoes. The talking furniture freaks her out, she calls herself out when acting too much like a gothic heroine and is, quite rightly, not perfect. She sticks her foot in her mouth with the Beast as often as he loses his temper. I also liked that this story focuses as much on Belle and the Beast as it does on Belle’s mother and father. For the first part, the two stories are actually told in parallel and well the changes are sometimes clumsily wrought (the forgetting spell is convenient but doesn’t play out 100% well and Gaston is…well…not the villain here so I can forgive the changes there but they are kind of just weird in the end.) Overall, I liked this re-telling of B&B and I liked that it left the door open for more adventures of Belle and the Beast as they head off to find more of the displaced magical creatures.

The Complete Stories: I picked this up when I was in Savannah last fall at one of the most swoon-worthy bookstores I’ve found in a while in my travels. Flannery O’Connor is one of those 20th century authors I actually rather enjoy. I remember thanking heaven for Wise Blood in my contemporary American lit class as it was one book I enjoyed out of many I loathed. However, it took me awhile to get through this collection. Her stories are lovely but can be a lot in one sitting. I needed to pace myself to enjoy her language and quirky plot twists. These are never fun to read; it is language you read O’Connor for and that particular brand of Southern Gothic no one does better.

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World: [I read an uncorrected proof via Edelweiss so some issues I had with this one are probably fixed in the published copy.] I both liked this and found it extremely annoying at the same time. I think a lot of it had to do with the formatting and I hope once this is actually published there will be better indicators to the readers when Stevens is switching between her narrative, one of her short stories, and the unfinished novel she’s working on because I spent a lot of pages figuring out which one was which a lot when reading. That said, I liked the disjointedness of the narrative (which surprised me), I just want a better marker for when the narrative is switching up. The author herself can grate a bit. She’s very much what you think of when you think “twenty-something rather insecure MFA graduate working on first novel.” But she is incredibly honest (or seems to be) and I cannot but applaud that sort of raw honesty about one’s self. She can be annoying, whiny, and unlikable and she doesn’t sugarcoat that. She also isn’t hiding her failure here and I liked that best of all. She is very clearly writing an entire book about this really weird and rather foolish idea she actually acted on and then failed at pretty spectacularly. I think she is strongest when it’s her narrative; I found the fiction she includes of that sort of pretentious overly sexual blather that MFA programs are churning out by the literary review full and I find utterly ridiculous and boring most of the time (because do you know the people in those stories? I don’t and I don’t want to either). I read this for the premise; the idea of a writer going off to live in the middle of nowhere and Nell Stevens delivered beautifully for that part of the story.

The Never-Open Desert Diner: I liked this novel but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you why. I liked the characters; as weird and rather unlikable as they could be. I liked their quirkiness. I loved the setting of the book. The desert is as much a character as its human counterparts and it made me want to go explore middle of nowhere Utah someday. The plot…is odd. About halfway through the book, the plot becomes even weirder than the characters involved and I’m not sure I really buy it in the end but I also don’t think the reader gets the full story so there are still a lot of blanks when you read the last page. It fits the story though so didn’t bother me as much as it normally would.

The Underground Railroad: This is as good as everyone is saying. You need to read it. Heartbreaking and yet inspiring to read. Cora is a character with a story who stays with you long after you finish the last page. I have nothing more to add, just go read it ASAP.

Orphan Train: I really enjoyed this read; I particularly liked the structure which is odd because often in a split narrative like this I prefer one storyline over the other but I liked both stories equally here and thought they complimented each other incredibly well. Both Vivian and Molly are strong, relatable heroines that you root for throughout the book. I also liked learning more about this odd little episode in American history and its after-effects on the generations that followed the orphan trains in the American midwest.

I have a stack on the bedside table at the moment (of course). I am about halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul and have Maud’s Line and Lab Girl on deck then it’s back to working on the books in the to-read pile before then getting back to my reading goals for the year…oy. I need more time to just read!

Beginning the Year with Austen and Tea

2016 was a lot of ups and downs for me. But on the whole, it was not one of my better years. So, 2017 is going to be about small steps and silver linings (it is; I have as my theme in my new planner). And honestly, 2016 needed one helluva chaser so it was time for some Austen. And tea.

Luckily, Austen fit in well with one of my reading goals. I need to empty my to-read drawer and two books are fit my need for an Austen chaser. I started with the annotated version of Pride & Prejudice that I picked up in the coolest bookstore I have even seen in an airport during my work trip to Milwaukee in November (a trip I’d otherwise happily never think of again as it was over election). It was too good a deal for the copy that I happily hauled the substantial volume back to Tallahassee. This annotated version is edited by David M. Shapard and I’ve seen added his other Austen annotated versions to my reading list. P&P of course can always stand on its own but add in lots of footnotes, explaining language, social customs, Austen’s own experiences as well as literary criticism and this Janeite is in a particularly fabulous nerdy heaven. I savored both re-visiting my second favorite Austen and learning more about all the world it inhabits historically and along the author’s timeline.

Which brought me neatly to a biography on Austen. I’ve read quite a few and honestly, unless someone stumbles across a hitherto unknown cache of Austen letters (swoon at the thought! Can you imagine?!), her story isn’t changing much these days. So finding a new take on her life story was a pleasant surprise. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things is delightful. It looks at Jane through the window of different objects, big and small, that she either owned or would have interacted with often throughout the course of her life and then frames that chapter around the item and its significance. These range from her writing desk to a bobbin of lace. I have read Byrne’s excellent biography on the actress Mary Robinson so I knew she would do Jane justice and she does (and refrains from too much poetry this time around so gold star for that!). I particularly loved the chapters on her writing desk and her first check from her publisher John Murray. Jane is often presented through the framework of her family but she is at her best in my opinion when she is being presented on her own and shown as the genius she was, even if she deviates them from the usual Austen family memoir line.

These books were just what I needed. I have moved onto Phryne Fisher now (who could not let me down if she tried – she’s too fabulous) and I have a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the wings so happy reading times ahead!

Reading Goals 2017

http://images.clipartpanda.com/reading-clipart-owl-reading-clip-art-830x1191.pngI am trying to be realistic about my reading goals for next year. In general, I don’t think in terms of numbers here. I try to pick a way to structure or guide my reading for the year. Nothing rigid (I’ll go off plan pretty quick so might as well be flexible) but something to help me select books from my ever growing to-read list.

So, I had a grand theme in mind for 2017 but I’m putting it off for the moment for some smaller reading projects:

  1. Finish my 2016 theme. I have around 25-ish books that would complete a series or get the one-off book from my list. I’d like to finish this up first.
  2. Re-read the Harry Potter series. This has been a long time coming. It is time for me to re-visit the whole series in order and take more than one long feverish night to read them. I’ve re-read them piecemeal over the years but not as one complete set.
  3. Empty out the to-read drawer. I’ve actually already started this because I went to put a new book in and couldn’t fit it…So clearly it is time to read the books I already own and decide if I’m keeping them or sending them on their way.

Which will hopefully bring me to my grand scheme for 2017…reading the books that have been on my to-read list the longest. This is going to be tough. Some of the oldest books are those classics, those books you think you should read, not the ones you’re necessarily most excited to read. My list takes me back to 2009 and the first book up will be The Count of Monte Cristo (clearly this will be a marathon, not a sprint since that clocks in at over 1200 pages). I may take some liberties in what order I read the oldest books on my list. I imagine I’ll also be taking a hard look at whether I actually want to read these books or really just think I should. After all, I’ve seen the movie! [I just made myself cringe so no, I have not lost my mind]

Soul searching ahead!

Last Minute Drive-By Reviews

I am feeling like I usually did right before winter break in school. Anxious to get things done, excited for what is coming and really unmotivated to do the before said work. It’ll get done but I’m not moving very fast on it. I’ve done my yearly round-up of reading on Goodreads already and I did pretty good on my goal to finish series this year. I started with a pretty hefty list and I have only 24 books I didn’t get to. Considering I deviated periodically and also added books onto the list for a series I wanted to continue, I did pretty well for myself! I’ve also knocked two more out since I last did reviews so onwards:

Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia Grey #2): I liked this book better than the first in the series. You get a really good look at Julia’s kooky family in all their glory here and it is hilarious. I laughed out loud quite a few times which isn’t something you expect to do in a murder mystery. I also liked the ambiguity of right and wrong in this book which again, is not something I usually like. I prefer when my fiction is uncomplicated however here, one of the culprits gets away free as a bird and commits another murder we learn much later. Yet somehow we’re OK with that within the framework of the narrative; those people could technically have deserved to die because of information we have. I think the name Grey is a good moniker for more than one reason for Julia and her series. Also, Brisbane, the series’ reluctant hero, continues to be annoying and delightful at the same time.

Charmed (Fairy Tale Reform School #2): As my Goodreads review put it “Gilly hon, that was a bit rough at times but believable. Just glad you remembered your friends in the end!” This suffered a bit, as series do, from some growing pains. However, a more delightful cast of misfits you’d be hard pressed to fit in middle grade/YA lit right now in my opinion. Our (mostly) reformed students all earn their freedom from school in the end of the story but the epilogue assures us that is really only temporary as they’re so easily bored…

An Inquiry into Love and Death: the author Simone St. James is very good at evoking a ghostly atmosphere in her books. I liked this one a bit better than The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Jillian is the sort of heroine I enjoy; smart but human. She puts together the pieces just as fast as the reader and is as scared as the reader is when the ghosts are present as well as the very human villain. What I enjoyed and found ironic is the reasons behind the villain’s actions are villainous to some extent because he believes World War II is inevitable and the heroine thinks that is impossible. That the world would never go to war again. It is both charming and sad to know what is headed for Jillian. Oh, and she has a pretty fabulous hero (but only in fiction; in real life, he would be as big a jerk as he says he is).

Delicious!: This book was a delightful read, and I read it fast. It has so much good food! I was so hungry reading it! That said, it wasn’t perfect. It’s, quite rightly, separated into 3 “books” inside it and maybe was trying to juggle a lot of plot, a lot more that it could handle at times. It also had a borderline annoying heroine. You know, one those absolutely perfect, talented beautiful heroines who thinks she isn’t even though everyone is constantly telling her she is. They get worrisome after a while. But the story is good enough to work through that in my opinion.

Homegoing

Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.

I relate to the world through books. In light of the recent election, I’ve tried to figure out what to read to help me understand what happened. As I bulk up my reading list with political treatises, calls to action and historical reviews, this book was already on my nightstand. It was the book for discussion at my library’s book group this month and it was perhaps more timely than expected when selected over the summer.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi tells two parallel stories of a family tree starting in Ghana; one sister is sold into slavery and taken to the American south, the other sister is married off to a white colonialist in their native home. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation until at the end when the two branches of the family tree meet again in “current day” to bring the story full circle.  The timing of the novel is a bit off (I stuck to thinking about each chapter as taking place in a vague time period and not worrying if characters were still alive that probably should not have been) but I think Gyasi wanted to make sure certain generations were in place for certain events such as Birmingham coal mining by prisoners and the unionization of the mines later in the South or in Ghana, the conflicts of colonialism over time as well as the overarching evil of slavery that threads through both storylines. The stories are all powerful (some stronger than others as often happens when your chapters are basically vignettes that could stand on their own). I would also note Gyasi is strongest in her African chapters; her American chapters could sometimes feel like they are out of Hollywood’s central casting. I did wonder a bit if that may have been slightly intentional; that she was using the stereotype as a sort of shorthand and that the reader could then fill in the character blanks as a sort of self-examination. But that could be years of readers’ response theory rearing its head.

For me, the American chapters definitely held up an ugly mirror. For one, several are set in Harlem, in the north. In fact, the family is part of the Great Migration of African American families to the north during the early 1900s. Now, in school, growing up in the northeast, I think we’re taught a quiet sort of pride in that. We were “better”; we weren’t “racist” because African Americans could make a life for themselves in the North. It is a way, I see now, we comfort ourselves. The north could be, often was, just as bad. I liked that Gyasi did not sugarcoat Harlem of the 1920s. The lead character in that chapter wanted to be a jazz singer and was told continually she was too dark to make it big, no matter her talent. Her husband, light skinned enough to pass as white, leaves her and starts a family with a white woman. It made me reflect on how I was taught about African American history growing up in a almost all white northern suburb. I definitely had guilt and shame but was comforted again with this idea that we were “better” than the south. Later history classes corrected me on that and Gyasi makes a powerful statement about it here by illustrating it but not overtly addressing it. In light of recent events, I think perhaps the comforting message of high school history class had stuck with me more than I thought. I also find, living in the south now, that I cling to my northeastern identity more and more. In a sense, willfully other-ing myself at times as a comfort. Gyasi doesn’t let you do that in this read; we are all culprits. We all allowed this to happen and we are all tainted by the history of slavery and what it led to, both in the Americas and in Africa.

Gyasi is also touching on other aspects;  I think she is saying some powerful things about masculinity, both white and black. A particularly heartbreaking chapter features a gay man deciding to follow the standard path open to him; marrying the woman his uncle arranges for him. She touches on social class and how that intersects with race and gender as well. From an artistic perspective, she’s also just telling a fascinating story of one family and its parallel branches and doing it with lyrical language. Her African chapters especially paint a vivid picture of the time periods she is capturing. The book very helpfully comes with a family tree in the front so the reader can keep track of where in the family they are as the book progresses.

While I have been adding lots of non-fiction to my reading list lately to help me understand our new world, this book reminds me why fiction is always my favorite. It can bring to light the world we inhabit in much truer ways sometimes that simply recounting the facts.

In need of some inspiration

Last week was long. I was away from Tallahassee, traveling for work and it was just the week that would not end. In the middle of it, I needed inspiration so I started thinking about my fictional spirit animals; the fictional ladies I want to be when I grow up. In times of trouble, I admit, I retreat into fiction. I’m trying very hard not to do so here. So, I’ll post this here for inspiration, for those days my news feed will make me cry and remember these ladies. They may have been afraid sometimes, discouraged, annoyed, angry but they always acted as they saw fit and made the tough decisions when they needed to. So, my fictional hall of fame:

Agent Peggy Carter

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Seriously, when I grow up, I want to be just like Peggy. She is smart, resourceful, bold and is not afraid to tell it like she sees it. But, she also knows how the game is played so she has to be extra clever to get around all the ridiculous male misogyny in her line of work. We need more Peggy Carters front and center for girls and boys to see what is possible, regardless of gender. I know the character isn’t going anywhere but I was bummed that the TV show wasn’t more successful. Her portrayer, Hayley Atwell is also #lifegoals so it was a win-win in both fiction and reality!

Leslie Knope

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Leslie Knope is a spirit animal of sorts. The woman can do things with binders and organization that made me actually get teary at times watching this show. But mainly, she is eternally optimistic and sure that she can make changes in the world around her. She refuses to get bogged down by all the naysayers and traditionalists around her but continues to work and fight for what she believes in. She even wrote a letter to America after the recent election and folks, it gave me life.

Amelia Peabody

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Amelia doesn’t have a movie or tv show yet; criminal really. I’ve always cast Kate Winslet for her in my mind though and Tom Hardy for her rapscallion husband Emerson. Amelia is a take no prisoners sort of person. She is happiest when organizing the lives of everyone around her and solving murders while she does it. She is brilliant and independent; her marriage proposal to her husband is one of the best things ever. And their marriage a thing of beauty; Amelia never loses herself in it but I think becomes the best version of herself. (which is a common thread for my fictional role models; all had strong partners for love interests. Example A: Ben shaking his head next to Leslie in the above gif).

Anne Shirley

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Anne is a bit of a mess at times but she always pulls through. Smart, funny, and still sensitive after living a life that would have hardened most. Her imagination is perhaps the thing I love most about her; the world is a stage for her mind to go wild and she’s another optimist for us to aspire to be like. The type of friend who sees the rainbows through the rain.

Belle

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My first bookworm role model; the heroine who taught me what it was to be a heroine. To fight for those you loved even against crazy odds (and to always have a book on hand). The Disney princesses can be problematic, it’s true; but Belle has a backbone on her and never lets the world and the little minds she’s surrounded by get her down. She always dreams of adventure and does not settle for less than what she wants.

On the road again…

I have a lot of travel back scheduled into this year. And on top of that, busy work schedules, a fun sinus infection and other various commitments and you get this, my first post in a month being written in an airport during a 3 hour layover. I swear I’m still here!

And still chugging away on my reading goal for the year. I have surpassed my GoodReads Challenge total for the year (I’m currently on book 98 out of the 85 I wrote in for the challenge) so that one’s crossed off the list. My quest to finish half-started series though is still moving along as best I can. I got a little side-tracked for a bit (again). I’ll have gotten a good chunk done and off my list. I can’t decide if I want to keep up that challenge for the first part of the upcoming new year or if I want to go down one of the other paths of my to-read list that I’ve been brainstorming (the books on there the longest, pick a genre, a topic, an author etc.). All that aside, here’s what I’ve been reading (well, most of it; I spare you the many romance novels I sneak in everywhere) since we last spoke:

The Serpent on the Crown (Amelia Peabody #17): I have been savoring this series. Mainly because after many years, I am on homestretch. Once I get to #19, that’s all she wrote (literally). I was bummed to find out, #19 is one of the novels that takes the family back in time to fill in gaps Elizabeth Peters skipped earlier in the series so #18 will actually be the “last” story of the Peabodys in the 1920s. I’ll miss Amelia; one of my most favorite literary role models. But I still have two books up my sleeve for this series so I’m going to drag it out.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6): Flavia remains one of my favorites as well but she’s becoming increasingly a character who needs a big sister in her life. Ironically, she has 2 of them but Flavia is marked and this chapter finally explains why she is so separated from her family. This installment was also, what’s the right word? Painful to read at times. Flavia goes down a dark path for a while, one in which she desperately needed a big sister to stop her from and that was hard to read. She’s having some major growing pains and I hope the author can steer her through and still keep Flavia all the best parts of herself.

The Unusual Suspects (The Sisters Grimm #2): This is one of those series I had forgotten about and then was bummed I had because it’s lovely, fun, imaginative and also, somehow, realistic (unlike the Into the Wild series which has a similar fairy tale trope and which I abandoned after 50 pages because every character was annoying me and I can’t imagine how I liked the first book). We have a main character in that fun early stage of her teenage years here which can be annoying but she had only a mild case of Book 5 Harry Potter Syndrome. She’s also surrounded by such fabulous characters and a story that gets more intriguing by the second that I survived her. Also, there is a teenage Puck in these books; what is not to like?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Harry Potter #8…sort of): I must have started at least 3 different blog posts about this book on its own and I just…can’t articulate my reactions to this book very well. I enjoyed it; I liked the idea behind it. I, as I always expected, adored Scorpius Malfoy, wanted to smack Albus because he’s just like his father and want to SEE this. I think just reading it does it an injustice. That said, I am one of those fans that finished the HP stories in my own head a long time ago and I had a hard time adjusting my mind to this ending Rowling has endorsed. I have my own stories for James, Albus and Lily, not to mention Rose Granger-Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy. And to be honest…I like my endings better. So while I liked this, I appreciated it, I would LOVE to get to see it realized on stage someday, I think I’ll just keep my own stories for the kids as my canon and go on my merry way.

Changeless (Parasol Protectorate #2): This broke my heart but I abandoned this. I adored the Finishing School series by the same author (see last blog post) but I remember struggling to like the first book in this series as well and the second book fared no better. I didn’t like the characters, the story was moving at the pace of molasses and…it wasn’t giving me what I wanted. What I wanted was the Finishing School characters to pop up, to give me some sort of connection to this storyline and why I should care and it just wasn’t happening. It’s on my try-again someday list though so maybe 3rd time will be the charm with this series.

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats, and Ex-Countries: I ran out of room in my to-read drawer when I bought a new book so a book needed to come out. Considering this one has been in there since last November, it seemed like its time had come. I don’t think I would like this author if I ever met her; she is need of someone who would be more sympathetic that I would be. To be frank, a friend who’d smack her, tell her to get over herself and to start by showing her married lover the door, would probably be a good idea right about now. However, I liked the stories she told around the places she was living and the authors she chose to see her new home in a different light. I learned a lot about authors and composers I didn’t know before and, to be honest, about cities I had never heard of. I liked the use of literature and geography to explore her story but her story seemed overcomplicated by…her. A lot of angst going on it this book but if you plow through that, the idea is very cool.

Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3): I literally finished this an hour ago (writing on Sunday in an airport remember) and I need the next book NOW. This series is one of my current favorites. It has fabulous heroines, magic, mystery, a hint of romance and a delightful supernatural detective who gets better with each book. In this latest story, Jackaby and his intrepid crew of mortal and immortal gumshoes are getting closer to figuring out who the Big Bad is that’s been leading them on a merry chase for 3 books now. I loved seeing Jenny, the resident ghost of the crew, get some answers in this book as well as see her come into her own. The strength of Jenny has always been hinted at but it was awesome to get to see her kick some ass and take some names in this book. One of the best things about this series is the strength of its heroines (and its villainess) and it’s wonderful to see the series keep building on that strength.