01 March 2012

January and February Book Report

Looking over the books I've read so far this year, I'm amused by their variety.  Lots of the time I tend to get on a roll with certain things - mysteries, biographies, etc., and I am primarily drawn to reading those one after another.  Apparently the past couple of months have not fallen into that pattern.  But I have read some things I've really liked.

A Hoe Lot of Trouble, by Heather Webber.  Since I came down with pneumonia shortly after Christmas, I haven't really been able to concentrate well enough to read anything.  I am slowly but surely feeling better, and I saw this book was available (inexpensively) for my Nook Tablet, so I thought what the heck.

The main character is Nina Quinn, a landscape gardener who owns her own business, Taken By Surprise.  Their specialty is one-day makeovers of peoples' yards and gardens.  As the book opens, Nina has just found out that her police officer husband Kevin, is having an affair with his partner, and has kicked him out of the house.  Her stepson Riley (a teenage boy) is even more surly than usual, and she learns that he is involved with a gang at his high school called the Skinz, who seem to be pretty serious troublemakers.

As if that isn't enough going on, her friend Bridget (!) contacts her.  Bridget's father-in-law recently died, and the family is beginning to think it was murder, because the family would not sell the family farm to a developer.  Bridget asks Nina to investigate.  Things get confused right away, as Bridget's husband Tim (!) tries to demand that she step away from the investigation.

Between the cheating husband, the surly stepson, and her investigation, there is plenty going on.  But there's also a problem at her business, where tools have been mysteriously disappearing - so Nina is also trying to figure out which one of her employees is stealing from her.  Oh, and the stepson's pet boa constrictor has escaped from its tank, and is someplace in their house!

This was a really enjoyable read.  It moved along quickly, and the characters were both amusing and realistic.  Nina is a pretty amusing heroine, and her friends, neighbors, and family were all interesting.  I think this was just the sort of thing I needed as I was recovering, and I really want to read another book in this series to see if I still enjoy it.

Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde.  This is the second installment in the Thursday Next series, and another enjoyable read.  Just as Thursday and Landen, the love of her life, and the father of their unborn baby, are able to have a life together, the Goliath Corporation eradicates him.  So Thursday has to become a Prose Resource Operative (PRO) in a section called Jurisfiction, where the inside of books is regulated.  She becomes a protege of Miss Havisham, who here is shown as a real man-hater, and a crazy driver!  Thursday is - at the same time - trying to prevent coincidences, using a tool her time-traveling father gives her, and trying to find authentication for a newly discovered play by William Shakespeare.

Once again, the story goes back and forth in time, book titles, and the weirdness that is the daily life of Thursday Next.  Again there is a lot of amusing wordplay, and of course Thursday's family and her pet dodo, Pickwick.  I'm pretty sure that there were things I missed in this book, but there were enough things that I understood to make it interesting and amusing.  At one point, Thursday even finds herself in "The Raven," after a series of events leads her to agree to try and rescue Jack Schitt from spending eternity there.

Oh, and the villain from the last book, Acheron Hades, has a sibling show up who is trying to kill Thursday.  Plus, she has to try to remember to not allow a pink, gooey substance to end life on earth.

It's all very ridiculous, but so much fun!  I will definitely read another one in this series.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.  Well.  I don't know what to say exactly about this book.  I've been meaning to read it for a while, and finally got around to it.  It is very well-written, and evocative of 19th-century China.  But between the constant reminders that women and girls were useless, and the footbinding, it just about did me and my sensibilities in!

The story is narrated by Lily, who is the second daughter of rural family in 19th-century China.  As a young girl, she is matched up with Snow Flower, a "laotang" or "same" - meaning they share a birthday and several other characteristics.  Lily and Snow Flower become like sisters, and share a lifelong love.  They experience footbinding together, preparing for marriage, becoming wives and mothers together, and seem like they will never lose touch.  They also learn "nu shu" which is a secret writing used by women.  They exchange notes using this secret writing system on a fan that goes back and forth between them throughout the story.

As I said, I wanted to keep reading, because the story was overall very good and so well-written.  But Lily and Snow Flower had pretty depressing existences and there were times when it was especially hard to take.   I know that the writer was portraying life as it was at that time, but it was often so disturbing and/or depressing, I'd have to put the book down for a while.

The whole process/meaning/practice of footbinding itself can send you into a whirl.  I remember reading several very graphic descriptions of what was involved in the whole practice, and that was bad enough.  But then a few years ago, I went to a program at a local museum, where they had an actual shoe on display that a woman whose feet had been bound would wear, and seeing it actually made me sick to my stomach.  As mentioned in the story, the "ideal" lotus flower foot was about the length of a human thumb!  Lily's younger sister dies from an infection that is a result of footbinding in the book, and apparently this was not that unusual.

Anyway, it is a good read, and when Lily learns something that sends all of her thoughts/ideas/beliefs about Snow Flower out the window, you really want to find out what will happen to their intensely strong relationship.

I don't know that I "enjoyed" the book - but I am glad that I read it.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise : Stories, by Megan Mayhew Bergman.  I gave this book a two-star rating, because a) I didn't finish it, but b) it is nicely written.  I had a completely different idea of what to expect, or maybe it just wasn't the right phase of the moon to read it.  Who knows.

The biggest reason I didn't finish this book is because after reading the first four stories, I just found it too depressing.  None of the characters was really that likable, and the stories themselves were just far too sad for me to keep reading.

As I said in the first paragraph, the writing is quite nice, and I can see plenty of people I know really liking this book.  It's just not for me, so I'm stopping now and moving on.

The Mill River Recluse, by Darcie Chan.  I read a short review of this book a month or so ago, and it sounded interesting, so when I saw it was on sale for the Nook, I decided to give it a try.  

Mill River is a small town in Vermont - one of those places where everybody knows everybody else.  Mary Hayes McAlister grew up there, on a horse farm with her father.  A traumatic experience when she was in high school caused her to suffer such severe anxiety attacks, that she never finished high school.  Patrick McAlister comes to the horse farm one day to purchase a horse, spies Mary, and determines that she will be his wife.  Because he is a privileged, obnoxious lout with a plan, he manages to gain Mary's trust to the point where she marries him.

When the book begins, Mary is in her big marble house on a hill overlooking Mill Run, dying of cancer.  She hasn't left the house in years, and few people have ever seen her.  Through chapters of flashbacks told by her lifelong friend Father O'Brien (one of the very few people she would ever see in her adult life), and current-day chapters about the various townspeople, we learn about Mary's life over the years, and how being able to see the town from her window in the house on the hill has sustained her.  

The book is really a good read, and though it's not the most amazing thing ever written in the history of the universe, it is a good study of characters, and portrays the life of someone with extreme anxiety but a desire to be part of something larger really well.  Mary is not a saint, nor is Father O'Brien, or anyone else in the town; but you come to know them and accept them because they are all just human.  I also liked it because it is a story of generosity of spirit and kindness to others under difficult conditions.

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick.  I enjoyed this book.  It takes place at the turn-of-the-20th-century, when Ralph Truitt, an extremely wealthy businessman living in remote Wisconsin, meets his future wife, Catherine Land, at the train station in the town, after she answered an ad he placed for a companion/wife.  Truitt has had an unfortunate and somewhat violent past.  Catherine's past has been not quite on the up and up we suspect (and eventually learn).  Right from the start, Ralph Truitt is in a violent, life-threatening accident, and Catherine decides to take care of him.  But she keeps mentioning "the plan," and making sure she has "the blue bottle in her luggage."

I found this book not just very readable, but full of twists and turns that I just was not expecting.  The writing is very evocative of time and place, not just in the Wisconsin farmland, but also in St. Louis and Chicago when they are important to the story.  I tend to forget that many cities were pretty rough-and-tumble when they first started having large populations, and Goolrick manages to make you feel like you are witnessing events at the time they actually happen.  

Each of the characters has an interesting - and to some degree, mysterious - history, and none of them are 100% percent right/wrong/likable.  Which is one of the things that appealed to me - they were like real people.  

Now ... what to read next???

Let me know if you try any of these, or if you've read them - I'd like to know what you think!


sprite said...

Jasper Fforde is one of my favorite authors ever. Some of the Thursday Next stories are a little weaker than others, but I like each and every one.

Kathleen Dames said...

Wow, a lot of reading for you! I enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan some time ago, but you're right, the foot binding stuff is overwhelming (especially for me and my size 10 boats!). I also read the Thursday Next book. I feel like I read that one out of order with the other(s) because I'd get a little confused about some things, but the word play was fun and wicked clever.

Lorette said...

Lots of good reading! I've read the first in the Thursday series, but none of the other books. I'm reading 1Q84 right now, terrific book if you're looking for a new read...