January books — 2013 off to a strong start

Not only is my 2013 off to a very quick start (I’ll never be able to keep up the 10 book/month pace), it’s off to a good one. Of the 10 books I completed in January, most were well above average. A couple surprised me. A couple disappointed me. And all made me glad I love to read.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

4 stars

fun homeA very quick, if mildly disturbing, read. This is my first experience with a graphic-book and I found the illustrations sometimes really added to the limited text,but in some cases stole from the sharp, crisp writing. Bechdel does not shy away from the discomfort inherent in not only her own coming out story, but the complicated back-story of her father’s closeted homosexuality. The complex father-daughter relationship was fascinating to me and I would have liked that to be fleshed out even more (in terms of text). Overall, I was impressed by this memoir.

He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

4 stars

Previously reviewed

The air would smell like taffy and drying seaweed, and they would wear white, and there would be still more happiness. So much happiness. It was almost as exhausting as this relentless February.”

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

3.5 stars

Previously reviewed

Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in which you never lived? I’m sure there is a word for this phenomenon in German — beautiful, absurd, and twenty letters long.”

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

3 stars

the chaperoneI really liked so much of this book (including Elizabeth McGovern’s excellent narration), but it just went on so long. I felt like it had several false endings, places where I was finished but then it kept going. Maybe the problem is just that I didn’t expect an epic when I began. The story covers almost 50 years of Cora’s life in a great deal of detail. And while I find the 20th century interesting background, I was frustrated at Moriarty’s need to touch on so many different “issues” — Prohibition, adoption, gay rights, reproductive rights, suffrage. Add to that, Cora happens to witness or read about dozens of historical events. I began to feel manipulated after a while. What a I loved was the relationship between Cora and Louise Brooks. I would have been much more satisfied had she ended the book after their summer together.

The young can cut you with their unrounded edges…but they can also push you right up to the window of the future and push you through.”

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

3.5 stars

Deceptively simple story about a Bengali woman, Amina, who meets her American husband on-line, moves to Rochester and struggles to bring her parents to America. Immigrations, marriage, family, desire, truth are the themes all tangled under the surface story.  I liked Amina a lot and thought the author brought up many interesting questions, but the other characters didn’t seem as truthful to me. I couldn’t understand their motivations or transitions,which is what prevents a higher rating. I would read more of this writer.

You thought you were a permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together — until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did.”

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

4 stars

Reviewed previously

You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audio)

4 stars

Another great installment of Harry Potter. I can see that the tone of these novels has really darkened considerably. There were moments when my youngest was truly afraid. It’s quite an accomplishment that, even knowing that Harry will survive, I feel the danger and fear he faces. The suspense and environment are so rich, that “spoilers” don’t even interfere with the drama. Can’t wait to start the next one.

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

2.5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book but I couldn’t. In fact, I cared so little about it when it was over that I didn’t write any sort of review or notes and now I can only remember a disabled teenager, a grieving loser-ish thirty-something and a trip in a van where they pick up all sorts of oddballs. It sounds like a premise I’d love (kind of Little Miss Sunshine), but it never came together.

I know I’ve lost my mind. But I’m not concerned, because it’s the first thing I’ve lost in a long time that actually feels good.”

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories byLudmila Petrushevskaya, Anna Summers (translation)

Dozens of short stories, most about people whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin Books in exchange for my honest review.

A Red Herring Without Mustard (A Flavia de Luce Mystery #3) by Alan Bradley

4 stars

A Red Herring without MustardWhile other books were failing me, Flavia was there to bring a smile to my face. As usual, this precocious 11 year-old amateur chemist/detective found herself embroiled in murder and mayhem. While there is a certain formula to all these books, Bradley wisely goes deeper into each character with the succession of novels. We learn more about Flavia each time and get to know more about her long-lost mother Harriet, who posthumously plays a huge role in the emotional undercurrent of this book. The “Buckshaw Chronicles” are a smart, entertaining, emotionally fulfilling series of mysteries. I’m so grateful their interesting titles drew my eye a couple of years ago.

Whenever I’m with other people, part of me shrinks a little.  Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.”

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The Casual Vacancy – a new review

The Casual VacancyI really enjoyed this novel. I’ve only ever listened to Rowling’s Harry Potter books on audio, but I’ve been consistently impressed by her character development, attention to detail and evocative settings. This book has all of those things.

When Barry Fairbrother dies in a small English town, he leaves “a casual vacancy” in his seat on the local Pagford Parish Council. Through this position, we then meet dozens of his fellow Pagford residents and a few from neighboring Yarvil. Reading about them was like peeking into their diaries. Rowling leaves no stone unturned in searching for her characters’ underbellies, and in turn, the underbelly of the community they represent.

The criticism this novel has received, in fact, revolves in large part around the fact that these characters about whom she writes 500+ pages, are not entirely likable. While that’s true, it didn’t bother me in the least. I didn’t mind that they were petty, guilty, crazy, addicted, ineffectual, suspicious, lewd, sad people. I still liked going along on this journey.

“The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else.”

Rowling is definitely of the school that an author should never introduce a character or plot point that does not have some greater meaning. So in the last 1/3 of the book, I was a little annoyed at some “contrived” meetings of characters and situations. But, this is how she writes. She is making a point about the way in which lives are interconnected. I chose to suspend my disbelief and, in the end, was entirely satisfied with where she left each character.

Did I miss the Harry/Ron/Hermione heroics? Yes, a little bit. But I would argue that The Casual Vacancy does have its share of heroes, at least heroic moments. It’s just that they’re human. They’re small and subtle, tiny victories over our more base natures.

“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

W…W…W…Wednesday

www_wednesdays44

Where do the weeks go? It’s Wednesday again Feel free to play along. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? The Casual Vacancy, which received a lot of flak for its bevy of unlikable characters, but I’m liking them so far. Not sure what it says about me, but I love the small-town politics and intrigue. Listening to the 3rd installment of the Flavia de Luce series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, and enjoying it immensely. Flavia always brings a smile to my face. Also from J.K. Rowling, my sons and I are on the last disc of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We are definitely on the edge of our seats at the moment. These books are a real thrill.

What did you recently finish reading? Finished an advanced copy of a disturbing new memoir, With or Without You, by Dominca Ruta. Sometimes reading about another person’s crazy scary childhood makes me feel like my life has pretty much been a cakewalk. Also read The Newlyweds, which was a very interesting novel about a Bengali bride trying to make a marriage and life in America work, all the while missing her family in Bangladesh. (That is a really simple sentence about a really complex book.)

What do you think you’ll read next? Eager to start This is How You Lose Her on audio and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in hardback. I’ve been wanting to read both for a long time.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

A November Reading Wrap-Up

I did post an individual review of my favorite book in November (actually my favorite book I read this year), Tell the Wolves I’m Home, but I managed to complete quite a few more novels. Here’s a wrap-up of what I read in November.

Harry Potter Prisoner of AzkabanHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (audio)

4 stars

My sons and I have been listening to the Jim Dale audio versions of the Harry Potter series and this one did not disappoint us. I love how Rowling tackles the trials and tribulations of a boy growing up. Of course Harry’s world is fantastic and dangerous and full of wizards and magic, but at its core, this entire series is a coming-of-age saga. The four of us experience the books each in our own way. That’s an achievement in itself – the fact that my sons want to sit in the car just to listen to more is astonishing.

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

GoldGold by Chris Cleave

3.5 stars

I was so eager to read Cleave’s follow-up to Little Bee that it’s no wonder I was slightly disappointed. I loved the high stakes world of Olympic cyclists and I have to say that Cleave really understands how to write broken, wounded women, but I was never 100% invested in either of the protagonists. Gripping while it lasted, but didn’t stay with me long.

“Love wasn’t supposed to require the constant reassurance. But then again, love wasn’t supposed to sit watching its own reflection in a dead TV while temptation rode a blazing path to glory.”

LLots of Candlesots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (audio)

4 stars

Listening to Quindlen read her own essays was an easy pleasure. I admit there were moments when I felt “too young” to totally identify with her, but how can I complain about a book that makes me feel too young? Seriously though, I loved the prompt to think about where I am in my life — both what’s behind me and what’s ahead. Quindlen has a remarkable way of bringing me in tune with myself. There are no huge revelations of life-changers in this collection, just an interesting collection of thoughts from a very strong writer, woman and mother. I’m a little jealous.

“One of the useful things about age is realizing conventional wisdom is often simply inertia with a candy coating of conformity.”

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

4 stars

I almost feel bad about how much I liked this coming-of-age novel because it’s all so obvious and melodramatic, but I loved it. I fell right into this dysfunctional world of overwrought and seriously damaged teenagers and didn’t want to come out. Nothing subtle about Chbosky’s writing, but I didn’t expect anything else from YA. What he did successfully was capture that very particular moment in teenage-dom when you are both cynical and naïve.

“I guess what I’m saying is it all feels familiar. But it’s not mine to be familiar about. I just know another kid has felt this…all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. The songs you love have been heard by other people. The girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. You know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing “unity.””

taftTaft by Ann Patchett

3 stars

Definitely not my favorite Patchett. As I expected she sets an incredible scene (in this case Memphis) and gives the readers a multitude of interesting characters, both black and white, trying to balance life’s joys and challenges. There are peaks of drama and a whole lot of internal monologues. All typical Patchett stuff. But this story, this setting, these characters never really captured my interest. Looking back on the body of her fiction work, I can say that her books just keep getting better and better.

“As a state, Tennessee was nearly as screwed up as Texas, in that a man’s allegiance wasn’t to the whole state, just that little part he comes from. People got stuck in the mountains. But in Memphis there’s a river running through the middle of things. It takes people out, brings other ones in. That’s why mountain people kept to themselves and delta people make love in alleyways.”

 

Flight BehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

4 stars

Kingsolver returns to the citizens of rural Appalachia, which she writes so well. Still socially responsible (and even a little preachy at times) she still drew me in to Dellarobia’s world. From the very beginning with its description of a flame-haired woman ready to throw away her life for a moment of rapture, I was hooked. Dellarobia’s natural intelligence and wit, combined with her desire for something more out of life, was a winning combination. Add to that a thought-provoking treatment of the global warming crisis, and I had a winning book.

“…and understood that he had become himself, in the presence of his wife. With the sense of a great weight settling, she recognized marriage. Not the precarious risk she’d balanced for years against forbidden fruits, something easily lost in a brittle moment by flying away or jumping a train to ride off on someone else’s steam. She was not about to lose it. She’d never had it.”

Also Read in September

Also read in September

It’s hard to believe that I only posted one book review on my blog in September. I guess life got in the way. I was reading though. Here’s a round-up of my September titles…

Playing with Matches

By Carolyn Wall, 3 stars

There were moments I loved this book, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. The story felt fractured and, while that might have been an intentional author choice, it prevented me from feeling close enough to the characters. I just couldn’t get why people were doing the things they did. I really loved the southern setting, the language, and Clea as a little girl, painfully drawn back again and again to her whore of mother. But once Clea grows up and returns to the scene, the book was disjointed. I got the metaphor of the approaching hurricane, but the storm itself was anticlimactic. For this style of book I much prefer Jayne Phillip’s Lark and Termite.

My heart feels like some rickety place. Like there’s nowhere safe to put my feet. It has something to do, I think, with the way my houses keep falling down.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

By J.K. Rowling, 4 stars

Finally finished listening to this one with my boys. Once again, I am so impressed by this series. I love how we each get something different out of these books. My oldest son (11) really gets the humor and some of the layers of interpretation. My youngest (7) just gets wrapped up in the action and drama. There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing, “I can’t wait to get back in the car to find out what happens next in the story.” I can’t add much more than has already been said by reviewers world-wide. I’m just glad to be on the bandwagon.

“Oh well… I’d just been thinking, if you had died, you’d have been welcome to share my toilet.”

One Amazing Thing

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 3 stars

Easy, interesting read — almost a short story format as several people share one amazing story from their lives while trapped by an earthquake. I think the individual stories worked better than the book as a whole, which almost became trapped in its own format. I was especially intrigues by Mr. Pritchett’s childhood story which was such a contrast to the adult character as portrayed in the current-day narrative. While the book didn’t hold together well enough for me, I will watch this author for the future. She did make me ask myself  what story I would tell.

She had always been this way: interested-quite unnecessarily, some would say-in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them.”

Songs Without Words

By Ann Packer, 2 stars

GROAN! I should have given up on this book after 2 disks, but I had no other audio books in the car so I kept listening. Then, by the time i picked up my next book, I was half way in and felt the need to finish.
The three main characters in this book are all lost and faltering. Depression, suicide, despair kind of bad. That wouldn’t normally bother me in a book except that Packer worked through it at such a slow, plodding pace. I am a big Dive From Clausen’s Pier fan, so I’ll try her work again, but if this had been the first book by her I’d ever read, I’d stay far away. But here’s where the second star comes in…she writes people thoughtfully and compellingly. I like her characters. That’s why I couldn’t give up on the book. I needed to know. And, in fairness, I read this during a very sad time in my own life which may have tinted further my view of this book.

Sorry – no quotes – unless you want me to go into the multi-sentence description of picking up a telephone to check voicemail…

Also read in July

July was an extremely busy reading month for me. Thanks to my week-long vacation and a string of really excellent titles, I managed to finish 10 books last month. But, even with all the strong writing, I was not able to write individual blog posts or reviews for every single book. Here’s a round-up of what else I read in July, the good, the bad and the excellent.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian 4 stars

This book must have been recommended to me 20 times in the past few years, but somehow I never got around to reading it. I’m glad I did. Alexie does a brilliant job with Junior, growing up unpopular on a Spokane Indian reservation, which doesn’t hold a candle to freaky unpopular off the rez. “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” He cleverly uses illustrations along with text and finds a heartbreaking honest voice for Junior. I can’t wait to introduce this book to my sons (just not quite yet.)

The Madonnas of Leningrad 2 stars

This was a Book Club pick; otherwise, I may have given up before finishing. I knew very little about the siege of Leningrad or the treasure of the Hermitage so I think the author, Debra Dean, hit upon a very winning subject. She had all the drama she needed in an unusual setting. Unfortunately, she never developed the characters enough to capture that background material. Boring.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 4 stars

Another, “How could I have waited this long?” moment. When everyone else was caught up in the hysteria of reading these books, I was not at all interested. I didn’t read kids books, fantasy, or books that topped 700 pages. A couple of years ago my oldest son took on the entire series and finished it between school years. He too told me they were great. Finally, this summer, my sons had the challenge of needing to listen to an audio book for the summer reading program. I suggested we find something for the car that we could all listen to. Harry Potter won. Such a great book. Excellent writing which appeals on many levels. My sons just love the story and the characters. I appreciate that Rowling’s writing is also a magnificent metaphor for the trials of growing up, especially if you’re a little different from everyone else.

In One Person 3 stars

Only knowing John Irving’s work through film adaptations, I was shocked by this book. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but something about his descriptions of a bisexual boy coming of age in Vermont struck me as “dirty old man.” The sex passages felt lascivious instead of feeling integral to the plot or character development. And, in the end, I didn’t really get the book. I enjoyed reading it in the moment, but was left with, “So what?”

 

 

The Weight of All Things 4 stars

I picked this book off the library shelf because I remember reading and really liking Night of the Radishes last year. I’m glad I did. Once again, Sandra Benitez transported me to another place (war-torn El Salvador) so completely that I lost sight of where I was actually sitting (poolside in the American Midwest). We see the war through the eyes of 10 year-old Nicolas who feels the weight of his mother’s death in the book’s first pages. We then follow him over the next couple months where he is caught between and amidst both the guerillas and the national army. Benitez expertly shows the horrible costs of war, especially when there are no clear lines of bad and good, only the victims. Beautiful writing.

The Sandcastle Girls 4 stars

I knew nothing about the Armenian genocide when I opened this book. Seriously, I didn’t know it existed, so Bohjalian had an immediate hook for my interest. The intense drama of the circumstances provides an excellent backdrop for the novel’s love story. This is the kind of sweeping historical saga that I love to read. Bohjalian did not disappoint.