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!

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.

First Book Loves

My uncle pointed me at this Question of the Month and it’s right up my alley so I’ll jump in with some thoughts. I came at it via the post on Tossing It Out where there were even more questions added! I do love answering questions about reading. Mainly because it’s an excuse to go remind myself of books that somehow I’d slightly forgotten.

This is also a perfect time to discuss because I’d actually already started drafting a post somewhat along the same lines. After a visit home last month, I brought back with me all the books I still had at my parents’ house. It was mostly my childhood books; picture books, early chapter books etc. However, I’ve been re-reading them all to see if I really did want to keep them all. So, I’ve already been thinking about first loves when it came to reading. So far, only one has broke my heart (Sideways Stories from Wayside School did not hold up for me which is quite tragic and then I realized my favorite vignette is in the second book in the series and I immediately felt better).

So, to get to the question of the month: “What was the first book (or book series) you fell in love with?”

 

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Image from Goodreads

Full disclosure, I have no idea what the first book was. I vaguely recall my grandmother had a book about camels that I had her read to me on repeat but I have no idea what its title was or where it ended up or even if I really loved it or it was just the only book at her house. What I best remember are some of the first book series my mom would read to me and my sister: The Berenstain Bears and Amelia Bedelia. We had a ton of the Berenstain Bear books (mainly I just wanted to live in their treehouse) and I thought the Amelia Bedelia books were hilarious. Amelia seemed like a less put together Mary Poppins to me. Sadly, none of those books were in the books I still had at home. The one book that is still with me, with one of the nicest author-signed notes ever, is Sarah’s Unicorn. Bruce Coville came to my elementary school in kindergarten and I had somehow forgotten about it! My copy of Sarah’s Unicorn is well-loved (i.e. basically falling apart) and I had forgotten how much I adore it. Looking back now, it sent me down the fantasy story avenue very young and suddenly a lot of my reading makes a lot more sense now.

Those were the first ones; they weren’t necessarily the most influential though. If I would to pick the book series that comes to mind fastest, it’s the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery. I read through those at a blistering pace during 5th and into 6th grade and they have stayed with me all my life. I could never pick a single book; that is just not going to happen. Even trying to keep my Favorite shelf on Goodreads at a reasonable number is challenging. I resort to picking “representative” books from series or authors there in the hopes to keep it manageable.

Tossing It Out also threw in some more questions with his post: Do you remember Little Golden Books? What was the first book that you ever received where someone inscribed a message to you? There were many books series like the ones I mentioned: Was there a set that you owned as a child? I do remember Little Golden Books but not as fondly as some other bloggers did. We had them, but I don’t think I thought of them as a “series” in the way some people do. My first book with an inscribed message is Sarah’s Unicorn but the one I think of most fondly is a copy of Beauty and the Beast (Disney Edition) from my Aunt Michele and Uncle Joe for my birthday in 1992.

In terms of owning series when I was a kid, I know I had a lot of American Girl books but I don’t think I owned a completed series for any of the girls. I really think the first series I read through in its entirety, bought, and still own today are the Anne Books. After that, it might not be until Harry Potter that I felt the need to own all of a series. That may explain my anger when everything is a series these days; for a long time, I apparently wasn’t very drawn to them! Nowadays, they plague my to-read list since people don’t seem to just write one-offs anymore – everything must be a series! Which reminds me, quick update, I am down to 5 books in my to-read pile!!!! So, I’ll be returning to my reading goal of the year to finish all the unfinished series on my to-read list now that I have room on my nightstand again. I am excited to get back to them for sure!

Reading Catch-Up

So, about a few weeks ago, I brought home books from a secondhand sale and realized my to-read drawer of my nightstand was full…so, I hit the pause button on my reading goal for the year to start to make room for bringing home books again. Because let’s face it, not buying books is most likely not going to happen. But so far, it’s only been 3 Kindle books and luckily, not worried about space with the Kindle yet. So, some quick and easy reviews of books that had been on the top of the to-read pile for awhile.

The Ghost Bride was lent to me by a friend a few months back and I figured it was time to read and return to owner. This book was quite a bit different than my usual fare. It tells the story of a young Malaysian woman who is asked to be the ghost bride for a recently deceased son of a local wealthy family. As you can imagine, she’s not all that interested (in fact, she’s got feelings for the dead man’s cousin who may or may not have murdered him). Also, to make matters even weirder, the dead man starts haunting her and the only way to fight back is to enter the spirit world herself and figure out what is happening and how to escape the ghost and his family. The culture explored with this story was fascinating and I enjoyed learning about the spirit world and all the rituals performed by the living to help their family members in death. Li Lan, the heroine and purposed ghost bride also developed into a character you really root for; she is a bit wishy-washy in the beginning and I was wondered that would ruin the story for me but she definitely finds her backbone in the end.

Sarah Vowell is delightful; if you don’t know who she is, go Google for a moment and then come back. She also has a knack of taking obscure moments in American history and writing fascinating books about them. The Wordy Shipmates looks at the second wave of Puritans who emigrated to New England and founded Boston. First off, I had no idea there was such a distinction as Plymouth and Boston Puritans so right off the bat, I’m learning something but it’s Vowell’s tone that will keep you reading. Her dry wit never ceases to crack me up. Also, I can’t read anything by Vowell and not hear her reading it in my head – built-in audiobook!

When I travel these days, instead of picking up useless souvenir knickknacks that I would just get rid of a year later, I try to buy books and then write in the front cover where I picked it up from. That way, I’m buying something to remember my trip but also something I will keep and use over time. My trips to Disney are not an exception to the rule (well, I also buy pins but that’s another addiction next to reading and should be forgiven). On my latest visit out to Disneyland, I picked up A Whole New World (Twisted Tales #1). Twisted Tales are a new series out of Disney’s publishing arm that take a pivotal moment in their movies and ask “what if this happened instead?” As you all know, I adore a good re-telling of a fairy tale so I was all in for this one. This installment tells the tale of what could have happened if Aladdin hadn’t got the lamp but if, as planned, Jafar had. It was cool to watch scenes from the movie I knew so well get played out in very different ways or the few brief scenes between Aladdin and the Genie. They both feel they should be friends but never get the chance in this story. Instead, it is Jasmine and Aladdin and an army of street rats that take center stage. Excellent pacing for the story kept it moving and, though it had a pretty large cast of characters, all of them worked together well. Can’t wait to see how this series shapes up! (in fact, it looks like the next book is already out and the 3rd is going to be on Beauty & The Beast?! Just take my money already.)

Lastly, I finished up Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s exploration of books and reading, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books just last night. I picked this up at the delightful Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC last fall. I adore a book about books and/or reading. It’s like finding a kindred spirit who’s thought to put on the page what you think every time you open a book. Schwartz looks particularly at how her childhood shaped her reading and how she is still dealing with effects of her childhood reading and reading environment into her adult years. I have not read Schwartz’s fiction but her writing here is divine. It flows along so nicely from one story to the next but always keeping you along for the ride. It’s not a big book but it has a lot of substance for the book lover to parse out.

I’m still working on my to-read pile as I head into the summer season. Hopefully I can get back into my reading of series year goal soon!

 

Happy New Year (a few hours early!)

Happy New Year all!

A quick check in from the suddenly cold north (seriously, it couldn’t deliver a white Christmas for the 2nd year running but it can be cold and windy and gross right after it). I wanted to report back my reading goal for the year final numbers. I don’t read much non-fiction so this year I tried to add a lot more into my reading by doing an “every other” schedule with fiction books. I read 23 non-fiction books in 2015 compared to 13 in 2014. While I was hoping for a bigger number, still better! I will try to keep up the non-fiction reading in 2016 but I decided on a few different reading goals for 2016.

I want to finish a few series I’ve started over the years. My to-read list is scattered with book 3’s and 5’s and 10’s and I’d like to finally know what happened to a few of these characters. So, reading goal 1 for 2016: finish some series that have been lingering. Reading goal 2 for 2016: Keep adding non-fiction to the reading line-up as much as I can. Reading goal 3 for 2016: actually write reviews for the books I read which hopefully will translate into a more normal posting schedule on the blog! (well, I can dream I do that anyway!)

Wishing you all a wonderful and prosperous new year!