Saturday, May 16, 2015

April Reading

 April was a busy month.   Here's what I was reading.

In the King's Service by Katherine KurtzThis article caused me to remember how I had enjoyed Katherine Kurtz when I was young.  I looked her up and realized that I had never read the last three books she published.   Kurtz is a fantasy writer who began writing back in the late 60s/early 70s.  She created a world of historical fantasy loosely based on medieval England, including a strong pre-reformation Catholic Church.  The fantasy involves a group of people with the ability to read minds and do some magic, called The Deryni.  I remember loving the world that she built.  Back in those days people didn't write fantasy novels that were 1000 pages long (a la George R. R. Martin) so, instead, she wrote in trilogies.  Each trilogy totaled about 1000 pages.  Each trilogy takes place in the world she created but often at different time periods.  It has been years since I read them and maybe that's why I found many of the "family trees" hard to follow in the first part of this novel.  But eventually I got into it and am ready to move on to the other two books.  The article compared her to Dorothy Dunnett but I don't really see it.  Her style and language is much simpler and, in fact, sometimes too simple; her characters are interesting but the side characters are not as deeply developed as Dunnetts' and her plots are not nearly as complicated.   And she tends to "tell" and not "show.   But I do love the world she created and am happy to go back to it. 

How to be Both by Ali Smith.   This Booker Prize longlisted novel has a gimmick.   The dual story of a teenage girl in the 21st Century and a yo;postID=4052206831820001768;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postnameung female artist in the Rennaissance, half of the book is told from the point of view of one character and half the book is told from the point of view of the other character.  That isn't really the gimmick.  The gimmick is that in some editions of the novel, one story is first and in other editions the other story is first.  I read it in the NOOK version so I was asked to pick which half I wanted to read first.  I ended up with the renaissance character first.   Since that character is a dead consciousness come back to life in the 21st Century, the first 20-30 pages are a little confusing; not to mention that you don't know that the character is female.  And the "ghost" thinks that she's following a boy, but she's really following George, the girl from the other part of the novel.  But once I caught on to what was happening, it worked fine for me.  A meditation on how the past is always with us, there was a lot to think about in this novel.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.   The sixth Flavia de Luce novel.   Turns out I wasn't quite right in my guess about Flavia's mother's demise but I was close.   Some loose ends were tied up, but not all.   Flavia's sisters are getting much more human and Flavia has grown slightly less annoying in her ways.  When Alan Bradley began the series he clearly did not intend to be writing a series.   He's done a good job of opening up the characters little by little, while still keeping them the stereotypes that girls of Flavia's age think people are.  Again, the mysteries are really beside the point.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.   An unexpected delight chosen by my reading group.  Eleanor is the new girl at school and Park is the only Asian American boy.  Both ride the bus and eventually become friends and then more than friends.  Rowell's depiction of the slow way in which people get to know each other was spot on.   The two studiously ignore each other on the bus until Park realizes that Eleanor is reading along with him as he reads his comic books.  Even then the conversations are limited as they very slowly get to know each other; each holding back from the other the harder aspects of his or her life.   Rowell does not tie up the ending with a bow, which seemed appropriate. 

Aimless Love by Billy Collins.   I received this collection of poems by the former US Poet Laureate for Christmas and I read it very slowly - one poem a day.   It is not, technically, a completely new book as two-thirds of the poems were previously published.   Collins is known as our "accessible" poet and he certainly is.  But his poems are humorous and sometimes poignant and often don't end where you think they are leading.   It seems that he can turn anything into a poem and, apparently, people are always pointing this out to him: 

In the afternoon a woman I barely knew
said you could write a poem about that,
pointing to a dirigible that was passing overhead.

West of the Revolution:  An Uncommon History of 1776 by Claudio Saunt.   In our Anglo-centric view of American history we focus on what the British and their colonists on the east coast of the North American continent were doing in the 1770's.   In Alaska, the Inuit were dealing with abusive Russian fisherman; in California the Spanish were moving up the coast to found San Franciso as a result of the threat that Russia would move down the west coast of North America.  In the north, British traders were exploring the vast Canadian wilderness in search of trade.  And in the south, the Creeks were seeking help from Spain to fight the English.   This relatively short book (about 200 pages before the end notes) gives a good overview of what the rest of the North American continent  was dealing with in 1776.   And what is clear is that they weren't at all concerned about the civil war that was going on in the East between the British.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

March Reading

Here's what I read in March:

1.  Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay.   I read this book of essays over the last few months while I was getting my hair colored or getting a pedicure or sitting in waiting rooms.  Many good topics, some good thoughts, but I found myself mostly unsatisfied with the essays.  And I can't explain why.

2.  My Dear I wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young.

Riley Purefoy is a young, working class boy, who becomes friends with Nadine Waveney and her upper middle class family who live near Kensington Gardens.  The Waveneys are friends with an artistic set and Riley meets and begins to study with an artist friend-of-the-family.  As he grows older, he and Nadine form a close friendship and begin to fall in love, but her family disapproves because of the difference in their classes.  Feeling rejected young Riley joins the army to go to France where the new war has started.  It is summer of 1914, everyone expects it will be over by Christmas.  Up until this point (which is fairly early in the novel) this is fairly conventional novel.  But more than almost any other novel about World War I that I've read, Young really captures the slow mental and physical disintegration that happened to men who survived the war, as well as the women who spent the war nursing the hundreds of thousands of casualties and also the women who stayed behind where life changed at a different pace than for those on the battlefield.  The mental states of Riley and his Commanding Officer, Peter Locke, are reflected while they attempt to appear "normal" on the outside.  Unlike other novels where the main characters make it through the war, these men don't come through undamaged either physically or mentally.  I very much enjoyed the last two thirds of this novel (although some the long descriptions of the medical procedures might have been a bit shorter for my taste).  I understand there is a sequel and I'm sure I will read it.

3.  Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley.
This is the next installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series.  I only have one more to go before I'm caught up and I'm not looking forward to the day that I don't have a Flavia de Luce novel to read.  Flavia and her sisters are getting along much better.  Feely (Ophelia) is engaged and Flavia spends some time trying to figure out which of Feely's beaus is the lucky winner.  Could it be the American, Carl, from St. Louis, Missouri?   "Carl's going to take me to watch Stan Musial knock one out of the park."  I had forgotten that Carl was from St. Louis and I wonder why Bradley decided to choose St. Louis out of all the obscure (to the British) cities in America.   The actual mystery revolves around the exhumation of the bones of the local saint from his vault in the village church.  Flavia is surprised that some of the history of the saint seems to have been forgotten and Bradley has a great line:  "History is like the kitchen sink ... Everything goes round and round until eventually, sooner or later, most of it goes down the waste pipe.  Things are forgotten.  Things are mislaid.  Things are covered up.  Sometimes, it's simply a matter of neglect."   How true. The ending has a twist that I've suspected was coming for some time but I did not expect it at the time it happened and the way it happened.  Can't wait to read the next book.

4.  Murder on the Champ de Mars by Cara Black.

The next in the Aimee Leduc mystery series, Aimee is now a single mother with a six month old baby named Chloe.  But she has a great child-minder and is able to spend all the hours she needs solving crimes, still dressed in her chic second hand designer clothes, albeit with a little baby spit-up on her shoulder, and wearing her red Chanel lipstick.  This mystery is a little more personal to Aimee because it might lead to clues as to who is responsible for the death of Aimee's father many years before.  I can't say I was completely surprised by the ending, I've seen it coming.  But I still liked it and it makes me want the next novel to come sooner.

5.  Hush Hush by Laura Lippman.  The long awaited next installment of the Tess Monaghan series, it picks up a few years after the last one.  I almost had forgotten where we were in Tess' life story, that's how long it has been.  In the meantime, Lippman has been writing stand-alone crime novels with a strong psychological bent and that comes through in this novel.  In some ways she seems more interested in all the characters other than Tess.  But I enjoyed it.  

6.  A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear.   Another long awaited next volume, this time in the Maisie Dobbs series (not as long as wait as from Lippman, but long enough).  One of the weaknesses in the last few Maisie Dobbs mysteries has been Winspear's reluctance to break off Maisie's relationship with James or to have Maisie commit to James.  She solves that in this novel.  I won't say how but you will know very early on in the novel.  And it works.  This novel takes place in Gibralter in the late 1930's with the Spanish Civil War raging just across the border.  Moving Maisie out of England works too - although I'll be content to have her return home eventually.  The mystery is serviceable but the picture of Maisie at this point in her life is very good.  Well done.

7.  Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.  The narrator explains to us, her readers, how her world was so normal but then it came apart.  She speaks to us directly in short little bursts, very much like a character in a play.  In fact I was very much reminded of those plays from the 1980’s that explored women’s “consciousness”.  The Vagina Monologues maybe. Except this was a lot about being obsessed with a child.  But then suddenly it becomes a third person novel, the narrator no longer, apparently, even able to speak directly about what happened in her life.  Finally it reverts back to the first person.  This is an odd little book.  Most of the time,  I just felt sorry for the narrator’s husband.   Which I’m thinking was not what the author was going for.

8.  The House Girl by Tara Conklin.  This was a book chosen by my book group and no one, including me, liked it.  Perhaps because we are mostly lawyers and roll our eyes at unrealistic depictions of first year associates in Big Law Firms.  Perhaps because some of us (me) have done a lot of genealogical research and it is NEVER this easy (this novel makes those people on the PBS genealogy show look like they are really working, and I never think that about them).  The novel is divided into two parts, one of which takes place on a plantation in the mid 1800s.  That part is fine and Conklin should have stuck to it.  She did create a compelling character and set up a good, tense storyline.  The other, modern, part?  Not so much.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I've been watching quite a bit of good TV lately:

1.  Vikings.

2.  Broadchurch, Season 2.

3.  Outlander, Season 1.

4.  Game of Thrones, Season 4.