Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November Recap and December Goals

Happy belated Thanksgiving!  I was traveling for the holiday week so I dropped my review-a-week blogging schedule.  As a new book blogger, I’m testing out the types of writing I’d like to do, and a monthly recap seems helpful so I can stay on course without taking too much time from my reading. This month I reviewed two works of literary fiction and two works of crime fiction.  They are my two favorite genres, and I anticipate reviewing more crime fiction than literary fiction going forward.  I also expect to review a classic every month or so.  My goal for the next month is to post one review a week, and I intend to post reviews more frequently starting in 2012.

I haven’t experimented much with different types of posts on this blog.  I plan on focusing on reviews because I like to recommend books.  I haven’t tried any weekly memes yet because I’d rather spend my time reading than in churning out posts.  If I find an interesting meme, I may join.  I do plan on posting my favorite reads of 2011 before the end of the year, and in 2012 I plan to post my favorite reads every 4-6 months.  Finally, I have joined the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012  in an effort to round out my reading with books I’ve been meaning to read for years.   I'm still and English major obsessed with reading lists!

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott (Review)

Note:  there are spoilers below.

This is the creepiest book I’ve read all year, and that’s saying a lot because I read Emma Donoghue’s Room early in the year.  The End of Everything is narrated by Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl whose best friend, Evie Verver, disappears near the end of the school year.  It’s a story about more than how she disappeared:  it’s a story about why she disappeared.  Room was easier to read because the five-year-old narrator is so innocent.  Lizzie, at age thirteen, is wiser but more confused:  more confused about relationships, motivations and sex. 

The creepiness started for me in the first thirty pages.  I was leery of Mr. Verver from the opening chapters, and at that point I suspected him of abusing his older daughter, Dusty.  The revelation that he did abuse Dusty on the last page was not a surprise.  My trepidation made the sections where Lizzie described her adoration of Mr. Verver so hard to read. 

So why did I push on past the first 30 pages when I was dreading what I would read?  The writing is fabulous.  Abbott nails Lizzie’s confused, thirteen-year-old voice, or, more aptly put, she nails the voice of adult Lizzie looking back on the summer she was thirteen.  Also, the characters are complex and messy.  Finally, there are more plot twists than what I’ve given away in this review.

All in all, this a great, disturbing read that leaves the reader with a few answers, unlike the ending of The Virgin Suicides, which is a book I thought about often while reading this book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A FATAL GRACE by Louise Penny (Review)

This is the second novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, but it also works as a stand-alone novel.  Yes, there are a few things from the first novel, Still Life, that are referenced in this book, but it’s not a huge barrier to entry.

I don’t read many cozy mysteries, so it’s a bit hard for me to give up the rollicking plots of mysteries with a thriller edge.  The plot is not the main reason to enjoy this book:  the main draws are the characters and the writing.  This series takes place in Three Pines, a small village near Montreal, a village populated with interesting but not too eccentric people.  It’s very reminiscent of Cicely, Alaska from the TV show Northern Exposure:  an isolated, village in northern climes with interesting folks.  Three Pines is full of interesting, artistic folks.

The mystery itself was not a huge draw for me because the murder victim was not a sympathetic sort, unlike the murder victim in Still Life.  For a dash of intrigue, the sub-plot involving Gamache’s relationship with the police department was a lot more interesting than the unraveling of CC’s murder.

I’d recommend this book for people looking for a story with lived-in, psychologically-well-drawn characters.  It’s not a thrill-ride, but it’s a pleasant story about an unpleasant murder solved by a supremely charming detective.  Refreshing is the word that comes to mind:  it's refreshing that Gamache is in a stable and happy marriage, and the story is a refreshing take on dour subject matter.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back to the Classics Challenge 2012

Here it is not even the end of November, and I've made my first resolution:  to read more classics.  Please read this post for more information about the reading challenge, hosted by Sarah of Sarah Reads Too Much.  It's a great reason for me to read books I've been meaning to read for ages.  Please join in. 

I've included my prelimary list of nine picks below.
  • Any 19th Century Classic:  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Any 20th Century Classic:  Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
  • Reread a Classic of Your Choice:  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation)
  • A Classic Play:  The Tempest  by William Shakespeare
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction:  The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Classic Romance:  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation)
  • Read a Classic that has been translated from the original language to your language:  The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
  • Classic Award Winner:  The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1972 National Book Award for Fiction)
  • Read a Classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will never visit:  Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (Review)

“[T]he history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.” (p. 46)  A spoiler-laden discussion of the ending of The Sense of an Ending follows.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, a retired, divorced man in his sixties, remembering his life and musing about the slipperiness of memories.  Early in the book, Tony’s school friend Adrian talks about one view of history as, “something happened.”  What happened here:  Adrian kills himself as a young man, soon after breaking up with Tony’s ex-girlfriend Veronica.  About forty years later, Veronica’s mother Sarah bequeaths Adrian’s diary to Tony, but Tony’s ex-girlfriend refuses to give it to him. 

There are two final twists to the story:  (1) Tony misremembered or blocked out the level of hatred in his letter to Adrian and Veronica after they began dating, a letter in which Tony tells Adrian to seek out Sarah to learn the truth about Veronica; and (2) Adrian and Sarah end up having an affair and a child together. 

I think Tony feeling guilty for Adrian’s affair and subsequent suicide is a bit of a stretch.  He didn’t force them to have an affair.  Should he have realized that Adrian had an affair with Sarah or that she had a child?  I’m not sure he could have known.  He wasn’t in close touch with his school friends after they left for college, and I don’t expect him to keep in touch with his ex-girlfriend either.  I’m not sure why Veronica railed against Tony about not getting it:  I’m not sure how he could have figured out that Adrian and Sarah had an affair and a child.  Maybe he should have just asked Veronica why her mother had Adrian’s diary to bequeath to him in the first place.  Maybe what Tony finally gets at the end of the novel is that he should have asked more questions.  That seems to be the most satisfying reading for me.

It seems like a bit of a lame conclusion for such a big twist:  Tony should have been more aware of the great unrest going on after he broke up with Veronica.  It seems kind of slight compared to the final twists in a few other books with unreliable narrators, like Atonement by Ian McEwan or We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.  Maybe it feels slight because this is a much shorter book.  Anyway, I’m quibbling with the book because it is so good:  good, but not perfect—but what book is?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell (Review)

I don’t love much contemporary fiction, but this I loved.  I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this worked for me, and it’s not the plot.  The plot is a bit cheesy:  the Bigtree family runs an alligator wrestling attraction in Florida, and they fall apart after the mother dies of cancer.  So what is it that works?  The siblings are oddballs but not cloyingly so.  They’re not a collection of eccentricities like the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, for example.  Instead, they’re devoted to each other even though they are each solitary.  And though the Bigtrees are a sad bunch, the book never becomes overwhelmingly depressing.  In fact, there’s even humor to be found.

So, again, what is it that works for me?  First of all, I’m a sucker for teen angst stories.  Also, the ghost stories didn’t seem contrived to me.  Finally, the writing sings.  Yes, some spots were a rough go for me (some background discussions about failed efforts to drain the swamps and Ava’s story in the second half of the novel, to name a couple), but, overall, Russell can tell stories, and this book is full of them. 

I’m not sure if this book has been marketed to book clubs, but I think it is a good fit for them.  There are lots of juicy topics for discussion:  family dynamics, growing up isolated on an island, government management of the swamps, the miseries of working in tourist traps, and ghosts.