Many books, one post

Here it is, already November, and, despite my best intentions, I never got around to reviewing most of my October reads. So here they are, wrap-up style. (And, despite the lack of lengthy reviews, there are some real gems in the bunch.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

4 stars

I would hesitate to guess that this book could be as easily classified as memoir instead of fiction. The story is based on the author’s childhood, surviving the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. It’s horrifying, violent and tragic; but it’s also beautiful in the way she captures innocence and hope. I learned much and felt deeply, both things I find satisfying from a good “socially responsible” novel.

“Had I owned the words I would’ve told him what my heart intuited – that joy and sorrow often travel the same road and sometimes, whether by grace or misfortune, they meet and become each other’s companion.”

The Weird Sisters (audio)  by Eleanor Brown

3 stars

I was very back and forth on the book as I read it.  It had components I loved – smart Shakespearean references, strong women, and an unusual linguistic approach. Brown uses the third person plural “we” to great effect. But I never quite connected to these women, who seemed too immature to be believed. The story went on (and on and on) – not helped by the overacting of the audio book’s narrator. In the end, I wanted to like it more than I did, but I’d try Brown again.

“We’d wrap ourselves in cloaks woven of self-pity and victimhood.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

3.5 stars

This book is so different in style than anything I usually read that it took me quite a while to catch the rhythm. Epistolary in format, we get a glimpse into the perspectives of Bernadette, her husband, her daughter and neighbors, coworkers and old friends. Honestly, I found it a little confusing and the sheer number of voices kept me from completely connecting. But I loved Bernadette despite her many flaws. I got her and rooted for her and, admittedly, wanted more. I only wish I felt more part of the book than viewing it from a distance.

“It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle into a collective trance. “You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.”

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

3 stars

A strange, strange book, Soli take co-dependence to a whole new level. I wanted to love this book as much as I loved The Lotus Eaters, but I never connected to the characters. It’s not that they’re under-developed. Both Claire and Minna stand out as complex, broken souls. It’s just that I never really liked either of them and I just could not believe anyone in the book would have accepted Claire’s “living arrangement” with Minna. It was too far-fetched even for my suspension of disbelief. That said, Soli writes beautifully. It was the quality of this writing that carried me through this very long novel. (and also what raises my rating to 3 stars)

“She regretted nothing, except that making one choice canceled out the possibility of so many others. As she continued to watch, there was the smallest opening in Minna’s dance, like a dervish spinning for enlightenment, a pinhole through which Claire caught a glimpse of other possible lives than the one she had chosen.”

Fool (audio) by Christopher Moore

4 stars

I was entertained the entire time I listened to this book. I find Christopher Moore brilliant and have a deep appreciation for his irreverent, dark humor. Without any real effort to adhere to the original storyline, he tells his own version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, from the Fool’s perspective. Mixing time periods, languages, continents and cultural references, he still produces a cohesive book that had me giggling (and sometimes blushing) the whole time. I still think Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art is better, but I liked this enough to keep going through the Moore collection.

“The castle’s full of villainy and intrigue. They’ll need comic relief between all the murders and flattery.”

What else?

Somehow I managed to post three full book reviews in October…

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

Beautiful Ruins

Astray — review to come this week, but if you’re really curious you can find it on Goodreads.

Why I Love Flavia de Luce

(If you’ve visited alenaslife looking for my usual Monday Quote, I’m taking this Columbus Day off. Monday Quote will return next week. In its place, I offer a short review of my most recent audio read, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.)

“You are unreliable, Flavia,’ he said. ‘Utterly unreliable.’
Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.”

I just love Flavia de Luce, the precocious 11 year-old narrator of Alan Bradley’s entertaining mystery series. I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a couple of years ago, based on its title alone. I never thought I’d be so engaged by a British mystery, but Bradley has a way of making me almost forget that there’s a murder to be solved. Instead, I’m swept into the mind of Flavia, the incredibly bright motherless chemist and amateur detective.

I am often thought of as being remarkably bright, and yet my brains, more often than not, are busily devising new and interesting ways of bringing my enemies to sudden, gagging, writhing, agonizing death.”

Indeed, Flavia spends many remarkable paragraphs cooking up concoctions in her laboratory, located in one of the wings of her family’s troubled estate, Buckshaw. Never one for chemistry formulas myself, I am still engaged by how her knowledge (obsession really) with organic principles, poisons and death, always seem to embroil her in Bishop Lacy’s latest drama. The trouble in these books just seems to find Flavia.

Flavia takes me back to my love of Trixie Belden as a young girl. The difference is that, unlike Trixie’s loving family and band of best friends, Flavia seems quite alone. Her sisters are “horrid;” her father is aloof at best; and there are seemingly no other children in the vividly imagined Bishop Lacy. When Bradley does introduce a heartfelt moment, as he does with Flavia’s aunt in this book, those scenes resonate even more for their rarity.

“There’s a lot to be said for being alone. But you and I know, don’t we, Flavia, that being alone and being lonely are not at all the same thing?”

This storyline revolves around the sudden appearance of a puppeteer and his female assistant. There is, of course, a dead body (more than one actually), and a cast of extremely complex supporting characters, most of whom are suspect.

It’s remarkable that over the week I listened to this book in my car, I was often reluctant to turn off the CD, and always eager to return to driving alone. The narration was charmingly British. I never guessed the mystery, which is an added treat, but not what makes me love this series. Flavia de Luce has joined Scout Finch and Trixie Belden as among my favorite young heroines, wise beyond their years and beautifully innocent at once.

I can’t wait to find out what awaits her next.


It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done this particular style post, but upon special request, I return with a book-themed 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?We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. My Goodreads book club does an “Off the Shelf” challenge each month and this one has been on my to-read list for a long time. If it weren’t for the challenge I’m positive I would have stopped reading 50 pages in. This book is DARK, horrifying and speaks to all of my worst fears about motherhood. I am taking it very slowly. On a brighter note, I’m also listening to “The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag” by Alan Bradley. This is the second book in the Flavia de Luce series and it’s a book that makes me smile, charming protagonist and engaging narrator.

What did you recently finish reading? “One Amazing Thing” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Another book club selection. It was fine, not great, but fine. Finished listening to “Songs Without Words” by Ann Packer, which was painful, overwritten and over-acted in the audio version. I’m still surprised I stuck through with this one until the end.

What do you think you’ll read next? I have a whole stack of titles just staring at me waiting to be opened and read. I’m leaning toward, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” based on the strong reviews from people I know.

What are your W…W…W… titles?