October Reading Wrap Up

After my slow book month in September, I didn’t think it could get any worse. I was wrong. I don’t know if it was the books, or my schedule or just my mood, but I hardly read at all in October and it’s starting to get me down. (Followers will also notice that I didn’t do much writing or posting either…I just felt as if I didn’t have much to say.) But, if only to look back on later, I still provide my measly little wrap-up.

By the numbers: 4 books, 2 reviews on Goodreads, 0 reviews on alenaslife, 0 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (poetry, non-fiction, foreign locale), 2 audio, 1 set-aside

October 2014
From most to least favorite:

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

Even though I guessed most of the plot early on, this tale held my interest and my heart. Maud is 82 and clearly has dementia, so when she insists that “Elizabeth is missing,” no one pays attention. As her memory and her independence continue to slip away, her past becomes more pronounced. Maud is the definition of an unreliable narrator but the way Healey handles her voice is brilliant. My heart broke for her in so many ways.

“The sun’s in my eyes and it’s difficult to see. The shape of her is distorted by the light, circles of her silhouette removed as if by a pastry cutter.”

The Drop, Dennis Lehane

My favorite part of reading Dennis Lehane is the way the atmosphere creeps off the page from the opening lines. His novels are dirty and violent, obsessed with society’s underbelly — the thugs and the losers. And yet…there is still beauty.

“His brain was not evil. He knew it wasn’t; he spent a lot of time wandering its pink folds. It was just confused and hurt and filled with misshapen parts like an auto junkyard.”

The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan (audio book)

Despite some weaknesses in the writing, I love the atmosphere and I love the two main characters, Marie & Antoinette. Buchanan’s novel is based in historical facts set in late 19th century Paris. Degas and one of his most famous models are included, as are some famous criminals and authors. Those “real” moments, passages and people set an incredible background for Buchanan’s imagination.

“Willfulness, such as yours, is exactly what a girl needs to raise herself up to do something useful with her life.”

 

When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle (audio book)

Complex and interesting subject, but unlikable characters.

“She was at sea. She knew the rocking of the boat as intimately now as if she’d never known anything else, felt the muted drone of the engines deep inside her, in the thump of her heart and the pulse of her blood. At sea. She was at sea.”

My October Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

September Reading Wrap Up

It doesn’t seem it should have taken so long to post my September wrap up considering I only finished 6 titles. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I read so little. I did not crack the spine of a book for two weeks. But I’ve learned I need to ride out these slumps (and I was listening to a good audio, so there’s that.) I did complete a Dusting Off The Bookshelf challenge — see below.

By the numbers: 6 books, 5 reviews on Goodreads, 4 reviews on alenaslife, 1 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (poetry, non-fiction, foreign locale), 1 audio, 0 set-aside

September ReadsFrom most to least favorite:

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob ~ Already Reviewed

My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff ~ Already Reviewed

The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields ~ Already Reviewed #DustingOffMyBookshelf

The Free, Willy Vlautin ~ Already Reviewed

Landline, Rainbow Rowell

I just couldn’t ever really get past the gimmick that drives the plot of this book. Plus the fact that the protagonist’s name is Georgie McCool. It was all trying too hard for me.

“You don’t know when you’re twenty-three.
You don’t know what it really means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten – in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
She didn’t know at twenty-three.”

Beatrice & Virgil: A Novel, Yann Martel (audiobook)

Even though the writing is superb, I was uncomfortable the entire time I listened to this (thankfully) short book. In the beginning, I was concerned that it was taking far too long to get to the story. Then 1/3 of the way in, I was so disturbed by the often gruesome content. And then, the end. I don’t have the words to describe the insane, awful, gut-punching ending. I wanted to like it. I didn’t.

“Life and death live and die in exactly the same place, the body…to ignore death is to ignore life.”

My September Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

August Reading Wrap Up

August started strong, but then I stumbled for a couple weeks in terms of reading. I just wasn’t motivated to dive into (or finish) anything.  Distressingly, I set two titles aside for later — not quite giving up, but waiting for a better time. In better news, I did complete by Dusting Off The Bookshelf challenge — more to come on that this week.

By the numbers: 8 books, 8 reviews on Goodreads, 3 reviews on alenaslife, 1 oldie from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 1 from my 2014 personal challenge (non-fiction), 2 audio, 2 set-aside

August 2014 books

From most to least favorite: (Overall, I really ended up liking everything I read this month)
Shotgun Lovesongs, Nikolas Butler, already reviewed

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan, already reviewed

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews #DustingofftheBookshelf

So wonderful and quirky and unexpected. Black comedy at its best. I am ashamed that I have not gotten around to writing the review this book deserves.

“It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would be.”

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches: A Flavia de Luce Novel, Alan Bradley (audio book)

I am very sad to have completed this book, as it is the last in Bradley’s 6-book Flavia de Luce series. I have truly adored each and every installment in the series and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is no exception. This is the only one, however, that I don’t think would stand alone without reading the preceeding novels. This finale ties together many outstanding questions left from the 5 murders Flavia has “solved” in her 11th year. I listed the audio versions of all these books except the first. Jayne Entwistle does a magnificent job bringing these books to life.

“Why is it that the facts closest to our noses are the ones that are hardest to see?”

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, Allie Brosch 

Not my typical read at all — a collection of comedic illustrated essays — but I had heard really great reviews from readers I trust. And I’m glad I snapped my mini-reading funk with this book. I read this in one sitting with no problem. Fast-paced, acerbic humor (as in I was laughing out loud at the pool) balanced with heartbreaking honesty. I recognized myself several times throughout. It’s really good read.

“But trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back.”

Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson, already reviewed

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

Despite my “advanced age,” I love that the YA fiction genre really coming into its own, filled with great characters, sharp writing and high emotion. We Were Liars has all of these qualities, plus some additional twists and turns. It just didn’t quite reach the level of an overall great read for me. Wounded and vulnerable and misunderstood teenagers make for great books. I just never quite fell in love with this set the way I think I was supposed to. The other problem here is that I predicted the central plot twist very early on in this novel.

“Silence is a protective coating over pain.”

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen (audio book)

Perfectly pleasant, very readable, likable characters, good story, interesting setting. Nothing earth shattering here but I can never go wrong reading Anna Quindlen.

“Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product.”

What I set aside this month…

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: Good book, bad narrator. Set aside the audio 25% in. Must get print version.

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. Lost momentum 2/3 the way through. Will finish this month (?)

 

My August Photo Collage is comprised of book covers uploaded from Goodreads.

July Reading Wrap Up

Summer hours and a week-long getaway made for a great month of reading for me. New releases and many titles that had been lingering on my to-read for far too long are finally finished.

July Reads

By the numbers: 13 books, 13 reviews on Goodreads, 5 reviews on alenaslife, 4 oldies from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 2 from my 2014 personal challenge (set in a foreign locale & a classic), 1 audio

From most to least favorite:
The Painter, Peter Heller  Reviewed

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan Reviewed

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian Reviewed

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes  Reviewed

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman

This outstanding collection of short stories has been on my to-read shelf for years just waiting for my discovery. I fell hard for these brilliant, quirky, animal inspired stories. All are about survival despite the odds. They inspired me and entertained me. Bergman is definitely an author I’ll watch for.

“I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd Reviewed

Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia

Another book that defies any easy description. Mix together temperamental artists, teen angst, middle-ages loneliness, and a mystery. Then plop all of it in a crumbling Shining-style grand hotel and you’ll get a feel for this novel. High drama and high stakes vs. ruin and decay. Really enjoyed reading it, even if I couldn’t swallow the actual story line.

“Maybe that’s what he reminds her of: they are both full of dark corners, odd places, possibly ghosts.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

“The years took the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul…But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods — come and gone with the sun.”

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Engrossing and enjoyable read despite the heavy mental illness subject matter. Even though I didn’t see the movie I was heavily influenced by its stars in visualizing this book as I read.

“I am practicing being kind over being right.”

Emotionally Weird, Kate Atkinson

This novel has so much confusion — stories within stories, mysterious characters coming and going, multiple fonts, unreliable narrator(s) — all purposeful. I was often lost, but never frustrated or disinterested because it also has Atkinson’s wit, humor and beautiful writing. I suppose there’s a plot — mother and daughter on a decaying Scottish island trying to tell their personal truths, claim identity. It’s all rather circular and a little bit beside the point (although, true to Atkinson’s other works, there are multi-layered connections among characters and everything gets tied together well.)

“Memory is a capricious thing, of course, belonging not in the world of reason and logic, but in the realms of dreams and photographs — places where truth and reality are tantalizingly out of reach.”

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, Diane Chamberlain

This book is much more made-for-tv-movie than my usual reading choices, but I had no trouble getting caught up in CeeCee’s story. It’s fast paced and engaging, even if I don’t want to believe any woman (even a 16 year-old) would be gullible enough to fall for the lines that ensnared CeeCee.

“You got dealt some crappy cards. But you’re the one who has to decide how to play them.”

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A carry over from June, I struggled to make my way through this book, which I truly wanted to love. I liked the first part and the last part (up until he final 2 pages), but the 300+ pages in the middle left me unmoved, even a little bored. There were some things I loved. I love the blog posts that show up in the novel. These were the most enlightening, passionate, personal moments in the novel, I loved learning about Nigeria and Nigerian culture. Certainly my eyes were opened to the many ways in which Americans (myself included) are blind to racism and cultural identity.

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon on audio

This historic fiction is based on the real-life disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Creighter in 1930s. Lawhon does a great job of evoking the era, filled with politicians, gangsters and corruption and sets up some delicious characters as the title implies. I wasn’t crazy about the mystery itself. The plot developments felt a little forced and overall, it moved too slowly to make it thrilling. (I probably would have preferred to read the print instead of listening to the audio over the course of a month.)

“His hand left a trail of shame across her skin.”

My July Photo Collage is comprised of book covers provided by Goodreads.

Another winner from Jojo Moyes

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

A quick reading Q&A with myself:

Do you read romance novels?   Never.

Do you like books when you are sure you know where the story is going and how it will end?   Not at all.

Do you like authors to wrap up all the loose ends in a novel?   No.

Judging by the answers above, I should not have ever chosen The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, but I did. And I loved it.

“All that counts is the truth. Without it you’re basically just juggling people’s daft ideas.”

The emotional truth of Jojo Moyes’ characters as well as the strength of her writing elevates this novel beyond its romantic story-line. I was completely engrossed by the dual stories of women left behind, both in wartime and modern day.

The book’s title refers to a mysterious painting at the center of this novel, but the words also describe the heroines of the two intersecting stories. Sophie Lefevre is a French citizen trying to survive without her artist-turned-soldier husband under German occupation during World War I. Liv Halston is the widow of another artist (an architect) trying to rebuild her life despite impending financial ruin a century later.

Both women look to the painting for strength and hope with varying degrees of success. Part historical fiction, part modern day romance with a little bit of old-fashioned mystery; the book’s success comes from the honesty and identifiable emotions of these two women. I cared deeply for each, and even though I guessed their fates early on, was eager to follow their journeys.

“Do you know how it feels to resign yourself to your fate? It is almost welcome. There was to be no more pain, no more fear, no more longing. It is the death of hope that comes as the greatest relief.”

I can recommend this book (as well as Me Before You, which is even better) without any reservation. Moyes tells great stories and she tells them well.

4 stars for The Book of Unknown Americans

the book of unknown americansI’ve waited to post a review of this novel as I try to wrap my mind (and words) around why I liked it so much. This book wants to be a lot of things – love story, issue-oriented novel, independent essays – which should make it a mess, but somehow all the components work together to make a book that really touched my heart.

The story is told in alternating voices as we meet the residents of an apartment building in Delaware. All the residents are immigrants and all are Spanish-speaking despite their origins in multiple different countries. The bulk of the story, its heart really, is a love story between Panamanian Mayor, whose family has been in the U.S. since he was a few years old, and Maribel, a beautiful but brain injured girl whose family has made the journey from Mexico so she can have a better education. Their journey together, with all its ups and downs, challenges and epiphanies, is the stuff of great YA fiction.

But Henriquez does not stop with the love story. She delves deeper into the lives of their parents and their neighbors. We get to know these immigrants, some of them citizens, some of them illegals and each gets the chance to tell his or her story. This is tricky as Henriquez inhabits over a dozen voices, men and women, young and old. The fact that she pulls this off sympathetically is a testament to her great writing.

Obviously immigration is a very sensitive political subject and one that’s deeply personal as my father was born in Mexico and came to Chicago as a very young boy. I often found myself wondering if my grandparents, father and aunts and uncles faced the same issues and hardships as these characters.

“I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.”

It’s too late for me to ask my dad if he felt simultaneously conspicuous and invisible as a young man, but this line opened a space in my heart. Likewise, I thought of the many half-English, half-Spanish conversations I had with my Lita growing up as I read about women trying to make a life and hold their families together in a new country.

“That first day, the words were merely sounds in the air, broken like shards of glass, beautiful from a certain angle and jagged from another.”

Henriquez does an excellent job of presenting these characters and the issues they face without coming down hard on any side of the political debate. Her characters are simply human.

“People do what they have to do in this life. We try to get from one end of it to the other with dignity and with honor. We do the best we can.”

I was touched and moved by the small stories and the central families is this lovely novel.

This is the second Henriquez novel I’ve read, having previously enjoyed The World in Half. She is definitely an author to watch.

Book Review: China Dolls

China DollsIt’s kind of killing me to not love this book. Lisa See is an author whose work I eagerly await so when I got the email that this new release was waiting for me at the library, I rushed over. I expected evocative settings, heart-break and strong-willed, amazing female characters.

I got most of those things, most especially a detailed description of the Chinese nightclub scene in San Francisco in the 1930’s and 40’s. See brings this era to life vividly which I loved.

And there’s plenty of heartache and heartbreak to keep the story moving. Along the way she manages to confront war, racism, promiscuity, Japanese internment camps and lost loves. And really, she handles those issues deftly, weaving them into her story without unnecessary melodrama. But I would say this novel has a surprisingly melancholy feel. The emotional highs are always muted by the knowledge that the bottom is about to drop out.

“Dreamers are born to be disappointed.”

My bigger problem though, came in her three female characters. I never liked them. Grace, Ruby and Helen are passionate. They’re strong-willed. They’re complex. But they’re not likable. I couldn’t root for them in their times of trouble, nor celebrate their successes.

I fell so hard for the female characters in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love and Shanghai Girls, that these three suffered in comparison.

My 3 star rating may just be a matter of my sky-high expectations for Lisa See. This is a fine book, just not her best.