Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 - This Year in Reading

This wasn't a bad reading year - I managed to read a total of 121 books, which is a respectable number all things considered. Without any further ado, here are some of the things that went well this year:

- I finished all my challenges
- I did well with working on my challenges earlier in the year, so there wasn't as much of a sprint to the finish line as there has been in the past
- I found some great new series that I like, that I look forward to continuing to read next year

And here are some things that need improvement:

- Although I did well with finishing some of my challenges earlier in the year, rather than waiting until the last minute, I did have to do the usual last minute catching up, and I'd rather not do that again
- My reading pace varied too wildly; I'd like to keep up a more steady stream of reading rather than having a "feast or famine" approach
- Summer reading was slow - not sure why; I'd like to keep up on this in the coming summer
- Lack of proper planning meant that I didn't get bingo in French Bingo
- I stopped grabbing books from the Library Sale shelves as often as in the past, but I still dragged home a few too many, meaning that even though I cleared 60 books from this pile again thanks to the Mount TBR Challenge, the overall amount didn't go down as much as I might have liked
- Although I joined a lot of challenges and completed them, and enjoyed doing so, I didn't interact with the challenge hosts and the other participants. I'm not good about that and I'd like to work on getting better at that in the coming year

So here are some goals for 2017:

- Rethink some challenges, and focus on my favorites and those that help me with the TBR pile
- Keep up my reading momentum
- Work on completing challenges early in the year again
- Interact more with the challenges I do take on
- Read more than 121 books

So there you have it! While I'm looking forward to reading as usual, to be honest, I am not feeling very optimistic about the future these days, readers. But in any case, I wish all of you all the best in 2017.

December - This Month in Reading

This month was the usual mad scramble to complete all my challenges, and I managed to do so, with the exception of running out of time to get bingo in French Bingo, but that's OK. I read a total of 28 books, which is a nice big number; too bad I wasn't reading at that level all year!

For January 2017 (!) I hope to keep up this momentum and read at least 10 books - a slightly more realistic goal than 28, ha ha.

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs - Elaine Sciolino

I think I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the execution. On the one hand, I liked hearing about the street and the residents and shop keepers of the street. On the other hand, I feel like there was ... I don't know, more history that could have been added? In some cases, I felt like the author was trying too hard to add herself into the story too often. I dunno, this wasn't an unlikeable book of anecdotes, and I love to read about Paris, so all in all I guess it was OK.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Lesser Dead - Christopher Buehlman

Is it possible that I could love this author any more? No, seriously, I crack open one of his books and it's like - siiiiiiiiiigh, I'm home. OMG. This narrator is the best yet - and I love that he says right up front, I'm not a reliable narrator, etc. The vampire genre is a tad boring these days, but this author revives it handily and gives it a vitality and grace I couldn't have invented if I'd been paid to do so. This author has such a gift for description, I can't even describe it. I rarely get such a reliable interface between what I'm reading and vivid imagery, and only Christopher Buehlman delivers that. The pacing, the plot, it's all masterfully done. I can't recommend this book enough. If you read horror type books, and you're not already a fan of my fave, please, do yourself a favor and check him out.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Outer Edge of Society - Alexandre Dumas

This play was kind of an account of potential social climbing, with a couple of love stories (or potential love stories) involved as part of the main plot. All I can say is I'm glad that I am not part of this world of scheming and manipulating - and at the risk of spoilers, I will say that there is a (partial?) happy ending. It's an interesting take on how the "upper classes" were expanding, with or without the consent of those who had been part of them for a long time.

One Fat Englishman - Kingsley Amis

Like the last review, this is my first encounter with this author, whose reputation precedes him. I've read at least one book by his son, Martin, but this was my first foray into this paragon of British literature. After some research, I realize that this isn't one of his most highly regarded works, and in fact it seems to be at least a little autobiographical; apparently it was. Did these people really drink and carouse this much? I find it hard to believe, but I guess when this much booze is involved, anything can happen. All in all there were some amazing turns of phrase and things that made me laugh out loud in this book; if this is one of his weaker works, I am in for a real treat when I read the classics.

See Now Then - Jamaica Kincaid

This is my first book by the author, and it makes me wonder what her other books are like. I did like the way she portrayed the way people in a longterm relationship can hold simultaneously good and bad feelings about those they love - that strikes me as very true! On the other hand, this slim volume is written in a stream of consciousness style that isn't my thing, if I'm being honest. The repetitious pages-long paragraphs got old. So while I am not completely on board with the writing style, this book was enough to make me curious enough to read other books by this author, so I think I will do so.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

December Reread 9 - Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher

I am utterly heartbroken that Carrie Fisher died yesterday. I can't even tell you what the original Star Wars meant to me. I thought Princess Leia was so beautiful, and she was such a refreshing change from the usual screaming meemie damsels in distress. I wanted to be that sassy and brave and savvy and smart! Still do, as a matter of fact, ha ha.

As my last official reread in 2016, I wanted to honor the author, who happened to be very sassy and brave and savvy and smart in real life, and a talented writer to boot. This book is a written format of a stage show of the same name, and is a sort of Cliffs Notes version of the author's life, including her Hollywood royalty family, her own acting career, her writing career, and her struggles with addiction and with mental illness. It's a fresh, funny, breezy read that is also frank and not sugar coated. I can't believe we have lost such a talent. At least we will always have her works to call on.

ETA: I just heard her mother, Debbie Reynolds, has died today - I am in shock.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

December Reread 8 - The Long Secret - Louise Fitzhugh

This book is a fitting sequel to Harriet the Spy; it retains some of the same characters and adds fantastic new ones, and we get to see some more depth from some of the side characters, if not so much from Harriet herself. I like how the author develops the titular "secret" and how she just drops us into the action and lets us observe how things unfold. I also like that not everything is neatly resolved; while we do discover the secret and etc., there are a lot of things that we don't find out about, which is realistic.

I feel like there could be a lot more stories that take place with this crew, but sadly there aren't. There is a book that is supposed to be about Sport, but I read it years ago and it had none of the magic of this book and the predecessor; I think it was published posthumously so it might have been a rough draft or have been partially written by someone else or something. Like Shirley Jackson, Fitzhugh died young and it makes me sad to think of all the great books she might have produced. Another childhood fave that I can hold close to my heart.

Monday, December 26, 2016

December Reread 7 - Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh

I was in dire need of a palette cleanser, so I grabbed this childhood favorite for an attitude adjustment. I loved this book to pieces when I was a kid, and I was happy to find a decent older version that preserves the original illustrations by the author.

This book is kind of a mystery to me. It draws me in and is engrossing, and yet there are some very odd things that happen during the story and make little sense even now. On the other hand, I love the author's way of just breezily taking us along with her, and her character descriptions are so well done I can see the characters in my mind very vividly as I read. Harriet is kind of annoying, but that is totally realistic and it never bothered me, and still doesn't. The sequel is also on my pile, so I think I will read that too to complete this reading. A fun revisiting of a perennial favorite. Recommended.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee (Spoilers)

Hoo boy, readers, where do I start with this book.

This book reads like some kind of half-baked first draft of a sequel. There are passages that are lifted directly, word for word, from To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM). There are also many things that seem to contradict TKAM, such as:

-At one point, Jean Louise says, "no one in my family had ever used [the N word]." However, she herself used it several times and was specifically told not to use it during TKAM. To be fair, she wasn't hurling it at people as an insult, she was simply using it to describe black people, but she was still using it.

-In this book, Francis is described as Aunt Alexandra's son, but in TKAM he is her grandson.

-In this book, the Finch Landing house hasn't been lived in, but Aunt Alexandra was living there in TKAM.

This of course doesn't even touch the meat of the book, which is supposedly this: Jean Louise (Scout) has to grow up and realize her daddy is actually a human being and not a perfect paragon of virtue. Um, OK - but was it necessary to devote the bulk of the book to making Atticus Finch a racist and segregationist screeching about "state's rights" after spending so much of TKAM assuring the readers he is a fair minded man? Was it necessary to make nasty remark after nasty remark about the NAACP? In today's world, do we need one more lengthy diatribe about how "the wicked northerners are invading the south and imposing their icky nonsense like 'integration' when it should be up to the states and not the nasty overreaching federal government, because, after all, the black people [insert your own nasty epithet here] just can't help being inferior" (to paraphrase many many many speeches in the book)???? Strangely enough, I can turn on my TV and hear pretty much an identical speech on any day, and it's no less disgusting!!

But the most disturbing part of the book has to be when Scout has a talk with Uncle Jack, who was a seriously cool guy in TKAM, and decides that her thinking that her father is a racist is actually worse than racism itself. SIGH.

All in all, I feel like I read some kind of tired and poorly written "alt-r1ght" parody of TKAM and not a sequel to a Pulitzer Prize winning book. Don't waste your time unless this sounds like something you might be interested in.

Sorry all, I have just about had it with racism these days. I'm fed up with it and I'm tired of being told I have to respect racism and bigotry in all its forms. I am for inclusion and education, so that is what I will continue to try to do with this blog - to read so as to learn and open my mind as well as to be entertained. I will "set a watchman" here and do my best to uphold what I think is right and fair and just. Sadly, this book does not make the grade. NOT recommended.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

December Reread 6 - To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

I was lucky enough (I guess that remains to be seen, actually) to find a barely used copy of the 2015 "sequel" to this book on the Library Sale shelves for $1, but I wanted to reread this book, which I think of as a favorite, before the sequel, so I'd have it fresh in my mind.

It's funny how perspectives change as we age/mature, and as society changes. When I first read this book as a kid, I didn't really pick up on the infantilizing tone the author can use when black characters are involved in the story, but it's more apparent to me now. One thing I thought was well done was the description of the poorer, or as some characters describe them, "trashier" elements of the town and its surroundings; I like how she draws a distinction between people who work hard and maintain a level of courtesy and personal dignity despite being poor, and those who refuse to do so; despite being set in the 1930s I feel like there are people who live this way today - in thought, if not in deed. Atticus Finch is a very dignified character and is someone to look up to.

I have heard some, well, interesting things about the sequel, so I look forward to seeing what it's all about.

Friday, December 23, 2016

December Reread 5 - Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery

I read this book ages and ages ago, although strangely enough, not as a child - I was a young adult. Then I found this copy on the Library Sale shelves and I've been intending to reread it ever since. And of course, as usual, time is running out for me to complete 2 of my reading challenges, so no time like the present! :)

What can I say about this book - it's charming. Anne is at times annoying, to be honest, but her heart is pure and she is a sympathetic character. Even when she is at her most exasperating she is also lovable, and you so want her to be happy and to realize her dreams.

For its age (100+ years) there are parts of the book that are not too dated, which is refreshing. Something I found to be strange was that "children" of 12 were seen as children, but 16 year olds were old enough to teach school. Nowadays, it seems like 12 year olds are all going on 21, but teaching school at 16 is unheard of, outside of the rare genius who might teach a college level class in physics or something.

In summary, this is a charming classic book with an unforgettable main character.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

Someday I'll have my act together enough to actually read classic horror during the month of October. Until then, let me just rave a bit about Shirley Jackson. Her writing is so clear, and her descriptions are so vivid that they really give you the creeps while you're reading. At the same time, the way the story develops, I feel unsure of some of it - is it real? Is it imagined? It's hard to say. It's a shame the author died so young, she was obviously enormously talented. I will really have to read her other books sooner rather than later. Recommended.

Monday, December 19, 2016

December Reread 4 - Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton

Do you ever feel certain that you read a book a long time ago, most likely in school, but you can't conclusively remember if you read it or not? No? It's just me? Sigh. Having a bad memory can be a real trial sometimes.

So it is with this book. I would swear up and down that I read this book in school - high school or college - but even as I was reading nothing came back to me. Ah well, I am going to assume that I did read it all those years ago and go from there.

This book is really short, and it's a deceptively easy and quick read, but it is a really well done story. In fact it reminds me of Anna Karenina in the foreshadowing, and the repetition of events. I feel like the protagonist makes the same mistake over and over. It also feels very "Russian" to me in that events seem to be inevitable, and seem to close in on the main characters.

This is definitely a good read for December, as much of it takes place in a New England winter, back when one could count on lots of snow and ice and cold temperatures. None of that is evident where I happen to be, but the written descriptions painted vivid images in my mind and that helped.

All in all this is a classic book that deserves this title. Recommended.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Woman Who Died a Lot - Jasper Fforde (Spoilers)

So I have finally caught up with the Thursday Next series! Despite being published in 2012, this book is new to me in that I've had it on my TBR Pile for quite a while, because I wanted to reread the entire series before I read it. I felt guilty about rereading a large number of books with such a big TBR pile waiting to be read, but I got around that by joining the Read It Again, Sam Challenge, so that I had to reread books. And voilà!

After the last installment, which was basically all set in the Book World, this one was a let down in that it all takes place in the "real world" within the series. I did like the way the story developed, though, and how the author has brought several past story threads together, resolving a couple that were a big relief to me, while leaving others open for more books. In fact, at the end of this book, another is promised, so we'll see. All in all I can still say I am a fan and that this series is a real favorite.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

December Reread 3 - One of Our Thursdays Is Missing - Jasper Fforde (Spoilers)

This was the last book in the series that I had to read so that I could catch up and read the last actual book in the series for the TBR Pile Challenge. I had forgotten how much I really like this particular book. I am a big fan of the Book World, so of course I am predisposed to liking a story that mainly takes place there. I also really liked reading the story from the fictional Thursday's point of view - I loved hearing about how the in-book versions of the Thursday Next books work, and finding out a lot more about Fiction Island and how the Book World works. This series is such fun, I am so happy I stumbled on a review of it ages ago and took the plunge. And now I have a brand new (to me!) volume to dig into - can't wait!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hector and the Secrets of Love - François Lelord

Found this book during the Borders Last Days Sale frenzy and it joined the zillion (well, it seemed like a zillion at the time!) other books on my TBR shelves, where it's been sadly gathering dust until I finally got it read. Hooray!

Like its predecessor, this book is a light take on the nature of love and how humans process it. From time to time it strayed a little too far into the whole silly "Mars/Venus" thing in my opinion. And I found it interesting that the overall take on romantic love seemed to be what we think of as sort of "Continental" if not specifically "French" - namely that people maybe aren't necessarily meant to be 100000% monogamous, and that feelings can wax and wane at various points in one's life, etc. All in all this is a fast read but it wasn't as thought-provoking as I think it's meant to be. I know there is a third book, so I might get around to reading that sometime just for the sake of completing the series.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Escape from Camp 14 - Blaine Harden

This book chronicles the life of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in a North Korean political prison camp and endured unimaginable things until he managed to escape the camp. The words "harrowing" and "heartbreaking" don't even begin to cover this true story. I truly feel lucky that my "problems" are nothing like his, and this book has really changed the way I view the "bad" things that happen to me - they can't hold a candle to even the smallest of the bad things this man has endured. In fact, reading his life story in my climate-controlled home wearing clean clothing, with a full stomach and pretty much any creature comfort one could want, made me feel profoundly guilty. It's a real mind trip for those of us who have never had to worry about where our next meal was coming from. I know there's no pain Olympics, and that I am allowed to feel bad about truly bad things that happen to me, but I hope I can use the mental images from this book to keep things in perspective.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Fire Engine that Disappeared - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Finding this book, which appears to be from the late 1960s, was my introduction to this pair of authors and to Martin Beck. This poor book has been languishing on my TBR pile, ever since I figured out that I would need to read several books in the series in order to read this one, due to my weird hangup about reading a series out of order. I was finally able to make that happen, and I am happy to say that I am really enjoying the series overall.

This particular volume was diabolically plotted and spends little time with Beck relative to some of the other cops. I know we are supposed to find Gunvald Larsson irritating, and he is, but at the same time he makes me laugh with some of his antics. Something I really like about this series is how the authors show the reality of police work - it's not all excitement; cases are most often solved by hard work and attention to detail. I happen to have the last book in this series on my TBR pile, and I look forward to reading the rest of the books.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Laughing Policeman - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Book 4 in the Martin Beck series does not disappoint. I know it's considered the Beck series, but we do learn a lot about the other cops he works with, so it's more of an ensemble cast than one might suppose. I will call out some dated Freudian style psychology that I don't think holds water, but other than that, this is a well plotted police procedural and I really enjoy these books.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

December Reread 2 - Thursday Next: First Among Sequels - Jasper Fforde (Spoilers?)

What can I say about this installment of the wonderful Thursday Next series except that I liked it? Once again the author bends my brain with his alternate universe plus Book World shenanigans. I like how we find out about the written version of Thursday in this volume - talk about meta, it's a series of books within a series of books, but the series in the books, while sharing titles with the actual books, are apparently very different. If that seems muddled, trust me, if you read the series you'd understand. I so want to visit the Book World, although I think I prefer the non-fictional fictional Thursday Next.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Hector & the Search for Happiness - François Lelord

The second book in this apparent trilogy was yet another of my Borders Last Days Sale finds, so I had to read this one to clear that one off my TBR pile. This little book is something of a philosophical parable type story about happiness, and an exploration of why so many people these days seem to be unhappy, even though many people live comfortable lives. The titular Hector, a psychiatrist, travels around and has adventures, all the while musing on happiness. At times I thought this book overly simplified things, but all in all it was a usually lighthearted take on modern life with some satirical jabs here and there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones - Alexander McCall Smith (Spoilers)

So I thought maybe in this book we had a glimmer of hope that Bertie would get some things that he wanted - and I suppose he kind of did - but for the most part, I think the author is deliberately toying with the readers now, by pulling the rug out from under. SIGH. There were a lot of strangely dropped plot elements in this book - Cyril's puppies get sold, and there seems to be some weirdness about that, but then it's just kind of dropped. Matthew gets saved from drowning by dolphins and no one believes him and then that gets dropped - I mean, he tells Big Lou, and she believes him, but other than that it's dropped. Bruce has some kind of change of heart and appears to become a better person overnight - will it last? Pat is absent, will she be back? I guess I will have to read the next book to see what's what!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

No Exit - Jean-Paul Sartre

There is probably nothing I can say about this play that hasn't already been said, and much better. So I'll just say that I can see why this would have been a sensation when it was first produced. I feel like I have seen a stage production of this - maybe it was in college or something - ? I'm not sure. But it definitely makes me think about both other people in general, and also how we try so hard to curate how other people see us, which may or may not be successful. Sorry if this is too rambly or incoherent, it's hard to put down thoughts.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Farewell to Manzanar - Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston

Another timely read. We have public figures using the internment of Americans of Japanese descent/ancestry (I'm including those people who came to the US and wished to become citizens but were denied that ability because of racist laws) as a possible precedent for doing the same thing to other groups... I honestly feel like I have stepped through the looking glass recently.

I'm sure it would be wasted on them, but these public figures and their supporters should read this book. The author writes honestly about her time in the internment camps, and the impact that the combination of entrenched racism and being forced to live like a bunch of criminals because of racism had on her life long after she left. It's heartbreaking to think of a child having to bear that burden because of people's close-mindedness and tribalism. And this wasn't even 100 years ago!! As human beings, we really should be doing a lot better than this. Hearing these stories from the people who lived them is one way thoughtful people can learn and can maybe help prevent awful things like this from recurring.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

I Love You, Beth Cooper - Larry Doyle

Not sure what to make of this book. It's something of a pastiche of teen comedies from recent years, although the movie it seems closest to in spirit is probably Superbad. It was a fast read and etc., but some of the stuff kind of grossed me out, to be honest - are there really high school girls that will, well, um, you know with any and every guy that is halfways good looking and a few who aren't? Maybe it's just my inner prude or something - ? Anyhow, if you like stuff like American Pie and etc., you'll like this.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

December Reread - Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde (Spoilers)

This book is strangely timely, considering that many people in leadership positions these days seem to behave like Yorrick Kaine and so many people seem to be under the influence of his Ovinator; lurking behind it all is a sinister global corporation increasingly taking over people's lives. Ripped from the headlines indeed! The ending was very touching and brought tears to my eyes. Some of the goings-on are hysterical and really made me laugh - I am not sure I could love the Emperor Zhark character more. I'll be reading a couple more of these this month, so as to FINALLY catch up with the series, and as I said in the previous review, it's a welcome distraction.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Man on the Balcony - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

These Martin Beck books are really enjoyable - they move right along, and they aren't bloated or weighed down with unnecessary nonsense to add 200+ pages. There's a lovely economy of story. We're introduced to the crime and over the course of the book it's solved. What can be better than that? The ending did seem just a little abrupt, to be honest - almost like there should have been one more chapter or something, but that's not a big deal. I do like how the details of the cops' lives are provided without having to have pages of extraneous details. All in all this is an enjoyable series.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Unit - Ninni Holmqvist (Spoilers?)

So the "elevator pitch" for this book would be "Logan's Run meets Never Let Me Go with a Scandinavian twist." The "twist" I refer to is the sense of calm that pervades this book - this story could certainly be told in a much different way, but I like that there is that feeling of tranquility throughout. I think it makes the story sink in more deeply that if it had been written in a more overtly emotional fashion. Don't get me wrong - there is a lot of emotion here, and a lot of emotional scenes, it's just that they are presented in a way that's ... reflective, I guess.

In some ways, I am not 100% of the message the author expects readers to take away from this book. As someone who is rather close (coughcoughcough) in age to the protagonist of this book, and who is married but childfree, I can identify with a relate the sense of procreation being considered more important than quality of life for single people, older people, etc. - and the idea that there are no adult spaces left, that "families" (ONLY including people who have children, and NEVER referring to a married couple) are taking over every conceivable space and place, literally and figuratively pushing out people who dare to veer off what I see called on the Internet the LifeScriptTM (birth, school, graduate high school, graduate college, get a job with decent pay/benefits, "settle down" by getting married and immediately having kids... you get the idea). This book is definitely food for much thought, and it will stay with me for a long time. Recommended.