Thursday, March 31, 2016

March - This Month in Reading

Ok readers, I have made an effort to stop repeating this time-flies sentiment in every month-end wrapup post, but I honestly can't believe it's going to be April 2016. It really feels like I was just doing the usual end-of-year-mad-reading-dash to finish up some 2015 challenges!

Last month, I wrote that I wanted to read 12 books, and get started reading books from my TBR pile in March. I just missed my goal, reading 11 books, but I did in fact get started reading from the TBR pile, so I'm happy with that. I think that since today is the end of the first quarter of 2016, a quick challenge status report is in order:

Back to the Classics Challenge - 4/12 books read - not bad! I'm happy with this.

Mount TBR Challenge - 14/60 books read - I'd have to read 5 books per month to keep up a good steady pace for this challenge, and this is just one book off, so I'm happy with this as well.

Color-Coded Reading Challenge - 5/9 books read - excellent! Looks like white and brown (as usual) will be my problem color categories this year. Suggestions appreciated!

Read It Again, Sam - 3/16+ books - slow start, but I think this will work out OK.

2016 Banned Books Challenge - 2/3 - 5 banned or challenged books read - so this one is doing fine. I'm hoping to read more than 5, but if it doesn't work out, I'll be OK.

Books in Translation - 13/10 - 12 books read - well, I guess this challenge is technically completed! LOL I will check in to moving up into a different category, since I know I have more translated books that I will be reading.

French Bingo 2016 - 1 book read so far - I need to get moving on this one. I plan to read some foreign-language books this summer so that will help, if I don't manage to read any other applicable books soon.

Literary Loners Reading Challenge 2016 - 12 books about loners, introverts, etc. read so far - it helped that Harry Hole is a loner, so there were a few books right there.

Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge - 21/26 books read so far - I'm still missing books with titles beginning with J, U, V, X and Z - suggestions appreciated!

TBR Pile Challenge - 1/12 challenge and 0/2 bonus books read so far - this one got off to a slow start because I chose books from a series, etc., but this should pick up considerably in April.

LGBTQIA Reading Challenge - 1/5 books read - another slow start that I'm hoping picks up soon.

All in all, this is not too bad!

For April, I'd like to read at least 12 books, and I'd really like to concentrate on challenge books. I've decided to take a break from the library for the next couple months, so I can work on the books I have on hand. Possibly this summer I'll have to do some more challenge-related library book reading, since I have more series books in the TBR Pile Challenge list, but I hope to be in good shape otherwise.

How was your first quarter of 2016 reading?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March Reread - Finn Family Moomintroll - Tove Jansson

Readers, I goofed. I thought this book was the first one in the series, and didn't double-check before I started reading. So now I've re-read this book out of order. Sigh! Oh well, if that's the worst thing that happens to me this week, that's not so bad, eh? ;)

I loved this series so much when I was a kid. It's so imaginative, and the author's illustrations are fantastic. The Moomins are soooooo cute! Even the more "unpleasant" characters aren't too bad, and are in fact usually rather cute as well. As an adult I identify more and more with the cranky but amusing Muskrat. I like that there are "problems" in the book, but they are not that big of a deal, and are solved fairly easily, with no true strife. This is a nice book with nice characters who are generally kind, and a welcome antidote to the less-nice aspects of real life. Recommended.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Snowman - Jo Nesbø

This has to be the best book in the Harry Hole series yet. My copy was almost 600 pages and they flew by, because I couldn't put the book down once I started reading. All of these books have been creepy - they're all murder mysteries/crime novels, after all, so that's only to be expected - but this one was the creepiest yet. I was seriously worried that I would have nightmares last night, since I stayed up reading until my eyes rebelled and forced my brain to put the book down and go to sleep. Luckily I must have been too tired.

Remember the mini-tantrum I had while reading the last book? Something happened in this book that almost made me pass out from apoplexy right there on the couch, but luckily it wasn't what it appeared to be. Speaking of that concept, that seems to be a real theme in this book - things are not what they appear to be. Something that seems innocuous struck me as creepy, and I'm sort of hoping it comes up in the next book and proves me right.

I should give a belated shoutout to the translator, Don Bartlett. I know that reading any work that has been translated means I am reading a blend of the original author's writing prowess and the translator's skill at making those words sing in another language, and I think Bartlett does a fabulous job of making these books so much fun to read.

All in all, I am so happy I stumbled on this particular book on the Library Sales shelves and spent the 50 cents to acquire it, so that I could discover this fantastic series. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (Spoilers)

OK, it's probably a cliche, but I feel compelled to quote the original saying from which this book derives its title:

“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.” -Robert Burns

This short and simple read is actually so packed full of meaning and potential analysis that it's hard to believe it's barely more than 100 pages long. Each character has a "scheme" in mind, and we watch as each one comes to terms with this beloved plan going awry. As a reader, it's easy to see that most of these ideas are nonsense, and some of the characters are cynical enough to voice this. But it's also hard not to sympathize with George's dream of owning his own plot of land (if he can only get enough money together), and it's hard not to hope when his dream starts to spill over to some of the other characters.

It's also hard to know why George sticks with Lennie; it seems like it's partly out of guilt and feeling somehow responsible for him, but it's such a detriment to George - Lennie literally destroys everything he touches. In this way the ending makes perfect sense; there is no way for George to keep going forward with Lennie if he is ever to get what he wants.

Sorry this is rambly, but I'm having a hard time forming thoughts in a coherent way. My mind is racing, thinking of all the things I could have written college papers on.

So let's move on to this book's status as #12 on the ALA's list of frequently banned and challenged classics; and talk about some of the reasons:

"Challenged in Greenville, S.C. (1977) by the Fourth Province of the Knights of the Ku KIux KIan" (if you're raising the ire of this group, you're probably doing something right)

Banned/challenged for "profanity" - and in the 1980s and later (give me a break, this is how rough and tumble people talk, and by current standards it's nothing big)

"Challenged as a summer youth program reading assignment in Chattanooga, Tenn. (1989) because 'Steinbeck is known to have had an anti business attitude:' In addition, 'he was very questionable as to his patriotism:'" (Bwahahahahahahahahahaha - thanks for your input, 1%ers - anti-business, that's hilarious; and I love how scoundrels always hide behind "patriotism" when they have no valid complaint)

Banned and challenged for "offensive language" - Some of the characters do use the N-word a couple times, but sadly that was the way people spoke back then, and frankly I think it's important to keep in mind both how far we have come since this book was written in the late 1930s and how far we still have to go in this regard. Much like its use in Huckleberry Finn, Steinbeck includes it to comment on how the African-American character is marginalized both in the story and in general, in society. I love how nobody notes that George refers to a "Jap cook" but that's in there too; again, it shows how people with little economic (or other) power always search for another group to look down on, to make themselves feel better. But let's move on...

"In 1992 a coalition of community members and clergy in Mobile, Ala., requested that local school officials form a special textbook screening committee to 'weed out objectionable things:' Steinbeck's novel was the first target because it contained 'profanity' and 'morbid and depressing themes'" (mustn't think of anything that isn't unicorns and lollipops and sunshine and rainbows... well, maybe not rainbows, exactly, ahem - UGH)

I can't make myself do any more but you get the idea. You can read the entire list (if you can stomach it) here. Once again it's mainly the bleatings of people who have most likely never actually read the book. Sigh. I know I'm biased, because I love Steinbeck, but this book is amazing and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple

This book was a fun, fast read that really captures family dynamics. I was immediately engrossed in the story and could not put it down. And I can honestly say that this book took many twists and turns and did not follow any kind of predictable path, which I loved. There were moments that were hilarious and others that were touching, and sometimes they were both. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf - Ntozake Shange

This is a series of poems presented as a stage play, telling the stories of the titular colored girls. It's a deceptively simple read that packs a lot of emotion into each line. The edition I read had a great introduction by the author, discussing how the book came to be, early stage productions, and other fascinating background information. This book is a living document, and has been updated with new material over the years, so that it's stayed relevant. Each story breathes with life; the characters seem real. Their experiences are specific and yet universal. This book is definitely one that will stay in my mind for a long time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The King's Gold - Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Spoilers?)

This book in the Captain Alatriste adventures series is a return to form, in that it's more about a swashbuckling adventure than about war or politics (although both of those things are present one way or the other in the story). At this point I have to wonder what our narrator sees in his beloved, because I see nothing but a snake who causes trouble for no reason - so obviously I am missing something - ?

An interesting thing about reading this book so soon after reading the Inspector Chen book is how both of these books quote poetry a lot in the course of the story. Despite the difference in setting (1600s Spain vs 1990s Shanghai), there is a cultural similarity that I find fascinating. Just like some cultures are what I call "singing cultures" or "wine cultures" others value poetry. American society doesn't, really, but it's nice to see poetry quotation as a feature in books as diverse as these two, as well as the Arabian Nights, etc.

But back to the topic at hand - the adventure part of the latest installment in Captain Alatriste's story is well done and fast paced. And the next book in this series is sitting on my TBR pile - hooray!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

When Red Is Black - Qiu Xiaolong

The third book in this series is the best one yet. The mystery kept me wondering, and I really liked how the author described the process of solving the case. In addition, we got the usual fascinating background information about China in the 1990s, as well as a look into the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes it does make me uneasy to sit in my relatively luxurious (by 1990s Shanghai standards) American home, reading about families who all have to share a room and cook and wash clothes and use the restroom in common areas. But these books also make me hungry, with their descriptions of meals I'd love to try, and they make me want to look into Chinese poetry; the author includes excerpts from many poets and I feel like this is something I should learn more about. All in all I am so happy I stumbled on the fourth book in this series at Borders, since that led me to read this series from the beginning, and it's a real favorite. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov

Readers, I have to open this review with a confession.

Back when I first started using NetGalley, I sort of bit off more than I could chew. I requested and got accepted for a bunch of books all at once, and I just wasn't able to prioritize my reading in a way that I could read all of those books. So some of the books I requested, and was generously given access to,  I wasn't able to finish in the allotted time and so I didn't post a review. 

This is one of those books. 

I remembered the title and the other day I decided I should see if my library had this book, so I could assuage my guilt and read and review it. Surprisingly, my library did have it, and I finally finished this book. Ура!

This book is a really black comedy, and it's very.... Russian. The story is a slow downward spiral and everything feels inevitable. It seems like things happen to the main character and he has little or no agency. But I enjoyed the story and I am still thinking about the ending.

I am really embarrassed that I couldn't get my act together and read this book with NetGalley, but I hope that this review makes up for that mistake. And I can happily recommend the book. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Petticoat Affair - John F. Marszalek

You know how I mentioned in my review of The Queen Jade that I like stumbling on books through serendipitous library catalog searches? This book was one of those searches - it came up in the results when I searched for Manners & Mutiny since its subtitle is "Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House" and I felt like that was a sign that I should read it. So I did!

I have to say I'm not sure about the "sex" part of the subtitle - I guess that was to grab potential readers' attention, since there doesn't seem to have been much sex in the White House at this time (Jackson was a widower, but then again, who knows, right?). Rather, this book focuses on the scandal centering around Margaret Eaton, a friend of Jackson's who was shunned by proper Washington society because she had the nerve to be herself and not conform to the behavioral expectations women were held to in this period in time. To be fair, she was apparently quite a beauty, and there were nasty rumors that circulated about her alleged promiscuity, but these sound like the work of jealous fabulists and unsuccessful suitors' sour grapes to modern ears. Jackson decided that Eaton's shunning was a conspiracy perpetrated by his political enemies, and he took action, which caused a ruckus. It's quite a tale!

This well researched book was an interesting trip into a part of history that I know little about. It confirmed for me that politics has always been a dirty game full of dirty tricks, nastiness, and lies. It also confirmed for me that women can be worse about enforcing their supposed societal roles than men are. Despite our bizarre current political environment in the U.S., I'm thankful to be living in this era rather than the early 1800s - at least I can vote now! And I don't have to have visiting cards.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Queen Jade - Yxta Maya Murray

The library is such a magical place. Where else can you stumble on great books and then take them home and read them for free? I came across this book because the sequel has the same name as another book I am going to read in March, and as you know I can't read a series out of order, so I had to start at the beginning with this fantastic adventure story.

And what a great find this was. As if it's not enough that we get a cool adventure complete with missing family members, ancient puzzles that need solving, jungle treks, treasure hunts, and etc., we also get a great story that centers on women. Yes, women stepping out of the "wet blanket"/"exists solely to create 'conflict' by hampering a man's desire to have fun and excitement" role and actually initiating and participating in adventures - what a concept!

The story moves along at a good pace, the writing is great, and the characters are multi-dimensional. If you're a fan of a certain overrated author who writes (poorly) about this type of thing, you should love this book. Highly recommended.

Side note: the jade in the title is actually blue (see a beautiful example below), so I am going to use this for my "blue" category in the Color-Coded Reading Challenge.

I hope nobody minds my using this image, I "borrowed" it from the Internet

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Redeemer - Jo Nesbø

Has an author ever made you so angry while reading that you've wanted to (at least) write a strongly worded message detailing all the ways in which s/he has upset you? Something happens in this book that has made me so angry I could seriously spit tacks. I think steam might be coming out my ears. I will even confess that I made faces at the author's photo on the back of the book, which is super childish but I couldn't help it. Let me just scream it out here


Thanks, I feel a little better.

Aside from making me Very Upset, this book was entertaining. The story is super fast paced and keeps moving. I still really like Harry Hole as a character, even when I want to grab him by the shoulders and give him a good shake. The slow resolution (?) of some past events is great. And the best part is that I can FINALLY read the 7th book in the series, which has been waiting in the TBR pile. So all in all I am still angry but also entertained.