Thursday, January 31, 2013

What I've been reading: January 2013

Holy shnikes, it's already the end of January??  How the heck did that happen?  Luckily, I had some great books to keep me company along the way this last, very busy, month.

Astray, by Emma Donoghue.  Most readers discovered Donoghue with 2010's publication of Room, which was a total sleeper hit and well deserving of the hype.  However, I've been a fan since I read her debut novel, Slammerkin, back in 2001.  And yet, her latest, Astray, is a collection of short stories, which is not always my favorite format, so I was a little hesitant.  I should have known that Donoghue's style and nuance would be perfect in short stories.  Distinctive locations and characters drawn from historical documents make this collection strong and compulsively readable.  I highly recommend it.  275 pages

Lady Chatterly's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence.  Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of Lawrence's work, this was something I'd never gotten around to reading until now.  In 1928, this tale of a woman trapped in a marriage to a wealthy aristocrat whose war wounds have left him paralyzed and, finding herself unfulfilled, begins a passionate affair with the estate's gamekeeper, was absolutely scandalous.  In today's age of Fifty Shades and Sylvia Day, we are not so easily shocked, and yet read within the context (imagine such a novel in the current season of Downton Abbey, for instance) it becomes somehow both sweeter and more tawdry.  An interesting counterpoint to modern erotica, for sure.  345 pages

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier.  You can read my full review here.  305 pages.

When in Doubt, Add Butter, by Beth Harbison.  This is a bit off of my normal reading list, but I'd been reading some rather heavy stuff, and this seemed appealingly light and fluffy.  I was not disappointed on that score.  Gemma Craig (no relation to the diet guru) is a private chef with a full professional life that suddenly begins to move from testy towards disaster.  At the same time, she meets a mysterious man she can't stop thinking about, and now her world has been turned upside down on all fronts.  Sweet, light, and a little predictable, but a great diversion.  338 pages

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton.  This is my book club's pick for February's meeting, and it's one I cannot wait to discuss with the rest of the group.  Spanning five generations, two continents and a family full of secrets, this story starts with a tiny girl abandoned in 1913 on a passage from England to Australia, and works its way both forward and back from there.  I don't want to give away any good parts, but will say that if you're a fan of family sagas chock-full of secrets and mystery, this is absolutely recommended.  549 pages

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin.  Second in the Passage trilogy after 2010's first installment, The Passage, The Twelve fills in a number of gaps for readers.  In alternating segments, survivors in the weeks and months after the government-induced viral apocalypse attempt to navigate their radically altered landscape and protect their loved ones, and a hundred years later, soldiers met in The Passage track the original twelve virals in hopes of eradicating the source of the disease.  I cannot wait for the third installment, due out in late 2013/early 2014.  568 pages

January totals:
6 titles
2,380 pages

Year-to-date totals:
6/75 titles = 8%
2,380/35,000 pages = 15%

Well on my way!  Anyone joining me in the reading challenge for 2013?  It's not too late!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Can't keep it to myself: The Last Runaway

Since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring way back in 2000, I've been a fan of Tracy Chevalier's work.  The Last Runaway, published this month, just reinforces my admiration for her ability to capture a moment in history via a singular heroine. 

Young English Quaker Honor Bright decides at the last moment to accompany her sister, Grace, to America, where Grace's intended is working in Ohio.  No one is expecting Honor to arrive, let alone minus her sister.  Finding herself relying on strangers and struggling after illness, Honor makes several unlikely friends and begins a personal journey as a part of the Underground Railroad. 

There is so much to talk about in this novel, but I really don't want to give away any of the good bits.  I will say that Ohio in 1850 was prime-time for quilting, and Chevalier does a fabulous job conveying how a craft like quilting would pervade so many aspects of a woman's life.  Chevalier's eye for detail never falters, and I was delighted with the sights and sounds of American life at the time, especially through the eyes of one so new to the States.

Admirable, and highly recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Reading: Good Books

I mentioned in my last post that sometimes "good" is a subjective term when it comes to books, because everyone's tastes are so different.  Critics and reviewers can give readers guidelines and their opinions, certainly, but often public opinions vary greatly from those of the critics, and this "at-odds" works in both directions.  By that, I mean that if something garners critical praise and even wins awards, readers may not embrace it, and alternately, critics may be ambivalent about or even pan a book, and yet it wins great praise from readers or simply plenty of hype.

Take three of 2012's big titles: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and NW by Zadie Smith.  All were extremely well written, and received (by and large) lots of publicity (mostly good) and critical praise.  And yet?  Readers I have spoken with are a 50/50 split on all three titles, with little room for "gray area".  Gone Girl?  Was either a great twist on the modern thriller or off-putting with unlikeable characters.  The Casual Vacancy was either a brilliant dark comedy or just plain dark.  And NW was either unique, fresh and honest or confusing and weird. 

Why so much dissension surrounding these titles?  Well, I think a lot of it has to do with who we are as readers and what we expect when we open a book.  If Gillian Flynn's novel is being touted as an "impressive and ingenious thriller", a reader used to the average thriller may find themselves uncomfortable with Flynn's disregard for typical thriller plot-line and formula, or put off by her difficult, disturbed and disturbing characters.  Likewise, readers have years of Harry Potter titles which have created an expectation among readers as to what J.K. Rowling's work and style is like.  So those taking the "dark comedy" moniker of The Casual Vacancy with a grain of salt might well be in for quite a shock.  Dark comedy really is not for everyone, no matter who is writing it.  And Zadie Smith, who is particularly well known for books With Teeth and On Beauty, provided readers with a distinctly non-linear series of interconnecting characters and stories, which could be jarring to those with different expectations.

If a book succeeds or fails, is good or bad, based at least in part on what a reader expects of it, if anything, is there such a thing as a bad book?  In this, I am going to go ahead and say...yes.  Poorly written, poorly plotted, one-dimensional characters or, my pet peeve, characters who suddenly start behaving in a completely different manner for no apparent reason--all of these things can make for an unsatisfying read.  The one that comes to mind from this past year, I'm afraid, is Fifty Shades of Grey.  Sure, it got a ton of hype, mostly because of its subject matter.  But I have to raise an eyebrow if anyone tries to tell me that it's the best book ever, that they loved it and it's their favorite book of all time.  Because seriously, it was self-published and could have used a number of rounds with an editor before it hit the market.  There are some great self-published books out there, don't get me wrong, especially now with Amazon's e-book market booming.  Fifty Shades, however, just isn't one of them. 

What do you think?  What makes a book good, in your opinion?  Any examples you'd like to share?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What I've been reading: December 2012

This post could also be known as "From the Lost Chapters of Trumbull is Reading...".  Posting this list on the twenty-second of January?  Late much?  I know, I know.  Truth is, between holidays and the slew of new books being released, there just didn't seem to be an appropriate time to post this.  In any case, I actually managed quite a bit of reading during the month of December, and finished my year's reading challenge strong!

Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson.  I've had a soft spot for Chef Samuelsson since watching him win the 2010 season of Bravo's Top Chef Masters.  In this memoir, he covers his early life of being a young Ethiopian orphan adopted (with his sister) by a family in Sweden and learning to love cooking by the side of his adoptive grandmother, as well as his experiences at kitchens in Europe and America.  He talks about his passion for food and cooking, but also the heartbreaking and cut-throat business of opening and running a restaurant.  Extremely insightful and delightful to read.  319 pages

Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson.  I read this right after finishing Yes, Chef, continuing in the same kitchen-centered theme.  This, however, challenged me to think about the gadgetry in our modern kitchens, from the development of the stove (a far cry from an outdoor fire pit) to the most basic of tools, like the spoon.  Wilson's well-researched and wonderfully readable narrative frames not just the food as it changed throughout history, but how new and improved tools allowed for these changes.  I'd go so far as to call this a must-read for the average foodie.  327 pages

Ancient Light, by John Banville.  I picked this novel up after reading some rather luminous critical praise of it.  I don't always put much stock in what critics have to say: "good" is often quite subjective when it comes to reading material.  In this case, however, I'm glad I did.  Ancient Light is the story of an actor at the end of his career, still struggling with the death of his daughter some years before.  When he is asked to play a role opposite a fragile young actress, he seems presented with the option of making up for past mistakes.  Speaking of his past, his formative years were anything but ordinary, highlighted by the affair he had at fifteen with his then-best-friend's mother.  Intriguing and powerful.  288 pages

Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland.  This was my book club's choice for our January meeting.  Told in a series of interconnected stories, we follow a (fictional) painting by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, from its modern installation in a private home back through its many changes of location and possession back to the painter himself.  While the structure of the tales seems occasionally cumbersome, Vreeland's characters shine.  242 pages

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  Jennifer Egan is an author who really rather defies classification.  She has written about the political drama in 1960s & 70s family life (The Invisible Circus),  how our exterior defines who we see ourselves to be (Look At Me), and how our past often defines our present (The Keep).  In this most recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, readers meet an aging former punk rock musician and music producer, and Sasha, the troubled young woman he employs, and watch as they confront the pasts that both define and haunt them.  Rebellion, power, addiction, friendship and music are key themes in this unique and moving novel.  273 pages

Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist.  Swedish author Linqvist, author of Let the Right One In, has been compared on more than one occasion to Stephen King, and with some good reason.  Lindqvist's brand of horror is full of subtle creepiness that serve to make the reader uneasy, punctuated with startling episodes of violence that serve as plot catalysts.  The result here is a novel that I read compulsively and attentively, afraid to pause and afraid to blink.  A retired Swedish pop duo, husband and wife, take in an odd foundling child as a baby and raise her in their basement, honing her special particular talent in the process.  I definitely don't want to spoil the rest of it for you.  532 pages

Dangerous Inheritance, by Alison Weir.  This is a bit of a heartbreak for me, as I ordinarily love Weir's work, both fiction and nonfiction.  And don't get me wrong, Dangerous Inheritance is well researched, thoughtfully told and full of period detail that gives the narrative great nuance.  The story is actually two together, that of Lady Jane Grey's younger sister Katherine's imprisonment in the Tower, as well as three other innocent political prisoners nearly a hundred years earlier, Kate Plantagenet and boy Princes Edward and Richard.  While each story in its own right is very intriguing, I found the constant switching of time period and characters disjointed and tough to follow.  Not my favorite of her work--that would be Innocent Traitor, a novel of Lady Jane Grey.  Fingers crossed for her next book.  507 pages

December's statistics:

7 titles
2,488 pages

Final 2012 challenge statistics:

80/100 titles: 80%
31,158/50,000 pages = 62%

So, shy of my goals, certainly.  I knew starting this challenge that these goals were quite lofty, and honestly, I think that's a good thing.  I liked having something to strive toward.  I think perhaps this year I'd like to concentrate on some longer books, too, to help find some middle ground between my 80% and 62%.

So, for 2013 my goal is 75 titles and 35,000 pages.  That puts both in the totally do-able category for me, I think, if 2012 was any indication.

What about you, my readers?  Any goals or resolutions you'd like to share?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reading Ahead: February 2013, part 4

I've saved the mysteries for last this month, but perhaps also the best, as well?  You decide!

Bad Blood, by Dana Stabenow

Deadly Stakes, by J.A. Jance

Dreams and Shadows, by C. Robert Cargill

Now, where to start.  If you're a mystery reader and haven't read Dana Stabenow yet, you are really missing out.   Most of her mysteries are set in Alaska, where Stabenow was born and raised, and most feature Detective Kate Shugak.  This latest in the Kate Shugak series finds two villages in a tribal feud that has gone on over a hundred years, and it has heated up to the point of murder.  No one will speak to Sergeant Jim Chopin about the incident, and he turns to Kate and her Park ties to try and get some answers.  It should be a very strong installment to the series.

The ever-popular and very prolific Judith A. Jance's latest mystery finds former reporter Ali Reynolds called to investigate the murder of a gold-digging divorcee by the woman accused of the crime, only to find herself drawn into a second case which seems to be connected.  Jance is a master of the genre, and sure not to disappoint.

The last title is not strictly a mystery, but it has some similar elements.  Cargill, a screenwriter and acclaimed film critic, makes his fiction debut with some serious twists and turns on the usual fantastical fare.  Lost worlds, a clash of cultures, travel and humor all combine in a very unique tale--I'm recommending this one for fans of Lev Grossman and Neil Gaiman.  I have this on my list for sure!

I'll be back next week to finally talk about what I read in December, and talk about reading challenges.  Happy Reading!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pride and Prejudice turns 200

That's right.  Jane Austen's classic tale of manners, marriage, morality, education and upbringing in the society of early 19th century English gentry was published 200 years ago this month, and doesn't it look good for its age.  Movies and television miniseries interpretations, fiction inspired by Austen's Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, they all abound these many years later.  If you have never read this classic, I highly recommend it. 

However, if you've read it and are interested to see what else Pride and Prejudice has inspired in the realm of modern fiction, or if you're just looking for a good read, read on!

Dear Mr. Darcy, by Amanda Grange.  A retelling of the classic tale, but told from Fitzwilliam Darcy's side of the story through a series of letters.  Readers have gotten Elizabeth Bennet's angle on events, but in this novel, we get a chance to see the events that defined Austen's hero--the death of his father, his control of Pemberly, and of course, his courtship of the lively and willful Miss Bennet. 

Ever wonder how much help Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet had in making their match?  So did Mary Lydon Simonsen, and so we follow Georgina Darcy and her cousin Anne de Bourgh in their matchmaking schemes for the two lovebirds.  Of course, no scheme of the sort runs smoothly, and so we have to wait to see how they will manage to win The Perfect Bride for Mr. Darcy

How about Mr. and Mrs. Darcy as amateur sleuths?  Start with Carrie Bebris's Pride and Prescience, where the newlyweds are besieged by a mysterious plot involving one of their wedding guests, a Miss Bingley, newly engaged to a rich and powerful American mogul.  Her courtship has been marred by accidents and unexplained incidents until now, when the whole Bingley clan seems cursed.  The Darcys seem to be the only ones to see the danger, and may be the only ones who can stop it.  Carry on with Suspense and Sensibility

Finally, what's a classic without the addition of the supernatural these days?  In Seth Grahame-Smith's retelling (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a plague in the quiet English village of Meryton  has the dead rising from their graves.  Elizabeth Bennet, never one to simply sit by and let things happen, vows to wipe out this menace, only to be distracted by one Mr. Darcy in the process.  The most gruesome fun you ever had reading a classic tale. 

I'll be back Thursday with the wrap-up of new titles coming in February.  Happy reading!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reading Ahead: February 2013, part 3

While there are always thrillers being published, and that seems to be the most popular genre being published of late, the "serious fiction" titles tend to ebb and flow.  There are a few selections of note coming out in February, though.  (As a side note, any of this would make an excellent book club selection in the coming year.)

Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy

The first, Calling Me Home, is a debut novel but one that is already garnering lots of attention.  Strong women from different backgrounds find common ground in this novel about love in its many incarnations.  Full of secrets, racial tension and heartbreak, this novel may be the first break-out hit of 2013.  

Readers have come to expect novels rich with hard choices and unexpected consequences from Jodi Picoult, and this latest is sure not to disappoint.  Grieving in the wake of her mother's death, Sage makes an unlikely friend, elderly Josef Weber, through her grief support group.  When Josef confesses a terrible secret, he asks Sage for a favor, and one that could have long-reaching ramifications, both moral and legal.  Fans will devour it.

Finally, the last novel by the much-beloved Maeve Binchy, who passed away in July of last year, A Week in Winter follows an unlikely collection of characters through a week spent at an old hilltop mansion refurbished into a cozy getaway.  Told with Binchy's classic gentle humor and grand storytelling, this is one to embrace.

I'm back with the final wrap-up next week.  In the meantime, happy reading!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading Ahead: February 2013, part 2

Some may take a little umbrage with my calling the following titles guilty pleasures.  I will admit that I read J.D. Robb books with a certain amount of delight--they're fast, easy reads, with a fair amount of imagination involved but it's rare that I find myself puzzling over it long past the last page.  Nothing wrong with reading for pure entertainment value!  And so perhaps I should just call these pleasure reads, and dispense with the guilt.  What do you think?

Calculated in Death, by J.D. Robb

The Power Trip, by Jackie Collins

Crystal Cove, by Lisa Kleypas

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Ahead: February 2013, part 1

 Happy New Year from all of us at the Trumbull Library!  I hope your resolutions include making more time for reading, because the parade of new titles shows no signs of slowing come February!  Don't believe me?  Feast your eyes on this round of thrillers!

Alex Cross, Run, by James Patterson

Hit Me, by Lawrence Block (back to John P. Keller, last seen in 2008’s Hit and Run)

Airtight, by David Rosenfelt

Touch & Go, by Lisa Gardner

Guilt, by Jonathan Kellerman

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson

So, where to start?  Lawrence Block fans should take note of his latest title, Hit Me, which brings back hero John P. Keller for the first time in five years, as he was last seen in 2008's Hit and Run. I'm personally looking forward to Lisa Gardner's latest offering, Touch & Go, which finds Tessa Leoni (whom readers met in 2011's Love You More) investigating the darkness hidden behind the facade of a perfect family gone missing.  And if you're a Jonathan Kellerman fan (I have read a few, but certainly not all), you can't go wrong with a new thriller featuring forensic psychologist Alex Delaware.

I'm back next Tuesday with some guilty pleasures to look forward to.  In the meantime, happy reading!