Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for April, 2013…
News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, by Jennifer Haigh – I was already a fan of Jennifer Haigh’s work, having read her novels Faith and Baker Towers , and I was excited to return to Bakerton in this volume of short stories. The stories didn’t disappoint: many of my favorite characters from Baker Towers reappeared and the writing was lyrical. Fully reviewed here.
The Crown (Joanna Stafford #1), by Nancy Bilyeau – The first in a series (or trilogy? I’m not sure) starring Joanna Stafford, an aristocratic novice nun during the time of Henry VIII, this was a relatively engaging read. It’s a plot-driven book that goes quickly and would make for a good summer read. There were a few typos, which got to be a bit distracting.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed – You might think you have problems in your life, and then you read the letters to Dear Sugar and the responses sent back by Cheryl Strayed, and you realize that you actually don’t have problems, after all. The writing was beautiful, and the letters were searing. If you’re going to read this one, have a box of tissues handy.
Honor, by Elif Shafak – I was excited to read this family saga, immigrant epic, and account of an honor killing in London in the 1970s, but it turned out I had a hard time getting into it. The characters didn’t really engage me and some of the sub-plots just seemed extraneous. Good writing, though.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1), by Alan Bradley – I’ve been looking forward to starting the Flavia de Luce novels and I wasn’t disappointed. Flavia, an 11-year-old diabolical chemist who lives in a manor house outside an English village in 1950, dedicates her life to studying poisons and tormenting her two older sisters (don’t worry, they give as good as they get). So Flavia’s life is pretty tame – that is, until she stumbles across a body in the cucumber patch. Armed with her extensive knowledge of chemistry and her trusty bike, Gladys, Flavia will help the police solve the crime whether they want her assistance or not. Such fun!
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks – I loved March, and the premise of this book – tracing the history of a rare Haggadah back to its creation – fascinated me. The historical parts of the book were extremely well-written and fascinating. The present-day (well, 1990s) plot, focusing on the grating book conservator, her hyper-critical mother and her dysfunctional relationship with the rare-books librarian who rescued the Haggadah, was less engaging. The characters were unrealistically accomplished and most of them were highly irritating. Read it for the historical plots; skim the present-day plot. (“Read” as an audiobook.)
Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey, by Simon Armitage – I threw this one across the room when I was finished. Most of the book was good – funny in parts, with great descriptions of the scenery Armitage encountered while walking the Pennine Way backwards, from Scotland to the English Midlands. But the ending was infuriating, and it made me hate the whole book.
Queen Victoria ’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy, ed. Ellen Datlow – This one was spotty for me. I enjoy the gaslamp fantasy genre (I’ve read and loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, and The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, all good examples of gaslamp) but not all of the stories in this collection hit my sweet spot. Some did: the title story, “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells,” was great, and I also loved “The Vital Importance of the Superficial,” “Estella Saves the Village,” and especially Catherynne M. Valente’s contribution, “We Without Us Were Shadows” – which set the young Bronte siblings in a magical world of their own creation and so obviously was going to be the crown jewel of the collection, for me. Some of the other stories were engaging, but horrifying, and others fell completely flat. Glad I read it, though – it was worth it just for the four stories I’ve named.
The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France, by John Baxter – It’s been awhile since I read a foodie memoir, and this one perfectly scratched the itch. Learning that the UN has declared the traditional French repas, or banquet, to be a treasure of world cultural history, writer and Paris transplant John Baxter goes in search of the near-extinct French recipes, in an attempt to create the perfect repas in his mind. Along the way he discusses coffee, bouillabaisse, moules, truffles and more. I loved this, and highly recommend it with one caveat: DO NOT read the chapter “First Catch Your Elephant,” about what Parisians ate during the siege of 1870-71, while eating lunch. Learn from my mistakes.
The Sunshine When She’s Gone, by Thea Goodman – It’s rare that I come across a book that I truly detest, but this was one. First of all, it’s billed as a comedy: don’t be fooled. There is nothing funny about this book. The plot description grabbed my attention right away: a new dad, looking to give his exhausted wife a break, decides to take his baby daughter out to breakfast. When the corner deli is closed, he hops on a plane to Barbados … as one does, I suppose. Mom wakes up after having blissfully slept through the night to find Dad and the baby gone. While Dad copes with being on his own with the baby for the first time, he dodges Mom’s calls and leaves her occasional voicemails lying about his whereabouts. Meanwhile (spoiler alert), Mom promptly sleeps with her ex-boyfriend. When Dad (spoiler alert) comes home, as we all knew he would, he’s pretty mad to discover Mom’s activities during his absence; angst ensues. At that point, I felt like sitting the characters down and saying: “You’re an adulteress, and you’re a kidnapper. You’re both disgusting. Can you just call it even?” The book promised a fun romp with an underlying theme of two people learning about what it means to be first-time parents, and trying to hang onto a bit of their own identities outside the parent mold. Well, it wasn’t a fun romp, and if your identity outside the parent mold is doing drugs and sleeping around… um, I can’t relate to that. Skip this one.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro – I listened to this as an audiobook, and was thoroughly creeped out (in a good way) within five minutes. Kathy H, the narrator, is recounting her life story, starting with her time at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school in England . However, there is something very dark, and very wrong, lurking behind Kathy’s seemingly idyllic childhood. Almost immediately upon beginning the book, you know that there’s weirdness afoot, and it just gets weirder and weirder. As Kathy describes life at Hailsham and her complicated relationship with her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, the creeping sense of dread turns to full-on nightmare, made all the more nightmarish by Kathy’s matter-of-fact narrative style and the reader’s dawning realization that she doesn’t even question the “role” that she’s been groomed for. There’s so much stuff here: stuff about coping with your own mortality, stuff about science and government and ethics. Look for a full review to come, because WOW. It’s not a comfortable read, but it’s amazing. (“Read” as an audiobook.)
At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee – After listening to Never Let Me Go, I needed something lighter, and I also was out of library audiobooks, so I had to delve into my own very small collection. (I have three: this and two Harry Potter books.) At Knit’s End is short, sweet and funny. I’ve read the book before, and I’d listened to the audiobook before, and it proved to be a good rest from the two intense books I listened to this month. It’s a collection of quotations with related thoughts about knitting, and cute anecdotes from the Yarn Harlot’s life sprinkled throughout. Fun and relaxing. (“Read” as an audiobook.)
Akhmatova (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), by Anna Akhmatova – This collection of poems by Anna Akhmatova was one of my chosen ways to celebrate National Poetry Month. (I also read a book of A.A. Milne poems to Peanut, subjected you all to another selection from my beloved e.e. cummings, and read Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey, which was… okay.) I loved getting to know a new poet, and Akhmatova is a remarkable talent. More thoughts on her, and one of my favorites from the selection, coming next week.
I’m sort of amazed at the reading I was able to accomplish this month. For those who don’t know, hubby’s work schedule changed at the beginning of the month and I no longer have the luxury of someone else driving me to work – hence the audiobooks. But between lunch, evening reading after putting Peanut to bed, and weekend stretches (during naps) I still managed to breeze through ten books, in addition to the three audiobooks. My reading was spotty: I had a few books that I really enjoyed, like News from Heaven, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and The Perfect Meal. Others were uncomfortable, but good: Tiny Beautiful Things and Never Let Me Go jump to mind. But there were other books that I enjoyed for stretches and disliked for stretches, and one that I truly hated. Next month, I’m planning to show a little more restraint at the library and read some books I already own, and I’m pumped about the choices I’ve got set aside!