08 November 2012

July, August, and September Book Report

Yeah, I know - it occurred to me the other night when I was updating my reading list on Goodreads, that I have failed to give you a post detailing the things I've been reading since June!  So, you'll get this report, and then another in January, covering October, November, and December.  Aren't you glad now that there will be something to look forward to after the holidays???   That's really why I'm doing it this way.  Yep.  And I will stick to this story no matter what ...

Anyway, here are the things I was busy with at the end of the summer.

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman.  This book was an [old] Advance Readers' Edition that I received last year, and never got around to reading.  So I decided the time had come to see what it was all about.

The story's main focus is a young girl, Alice Piper, who moved from Manhattan with her parents Gene and Claire as a baby to upstate New York, where the parents hoped to lead a simpler life, and grow organic vegetables.  From the beginning, you know that something is going to happen that is not pleasant, but it's hard to know what it is.  Another storyline has the people in the town looking for Wendy White, a young girl who disappeared mysteriously.  Alice and Wendy barely know one another, but their stories are incredibly intertwined by the end of the book.

Each chapter of the book is "told" by, or written about, each main character.  At first, it seems jarring, but as the story continues, it is an interesting way of reading about different people's viewpoints about the town, the people in the town, and various events.  It is Alice's story for the most part, but so many other people are involved, and for me at least, it gave me a clearer sense of the place.

I don't want to give anything away, so that's all I'll say about the story.  I can tell you that I was not prepared for the entire story to be as it was.  Other people may say that they had it figured out, but I have to tell you that I was surprised.

This book is disturbing, but well-written.  I would not recommend it for anyone who does not want to be reminded of what can happen in the real world, because though it is a work of fiction, the characters and events are - for better or for worse - familiar types to most everyone.

Canada, by Richard Ford.  I've never read any books by Richard Ford, though I know he has had a lot of well-reviewed books.  My husband brought me an Advanced Readers' Edition a few months ago, but I just got around to this now.

The story is told by Dell Parsons, in flashback form.  Dell and his twin sister Berner move from place to place with their parents.  Their father is in the air force, and once he retires, tries one kind of work project or scheme after another.  Their mother is a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent and appears to have settled - she and the father had to marry each other after making love once and then learning she was pregnant.  The family ends up in Great Falls, Montana, and just as the kids feel they are finally settling in someplace, trouble starts.  One of the father's business plans falls through, and against all odds, their parents end up robbing a bank.

The bulk of the book happens after that, when Berner runs away, and Dell travels with an acquaintance of his mother's to Saskatchewan, where the friend's brother has agreed to take him in.  The brother owns a hotel in a town that is hardly there anymore, but where Americans come up during the season to hunt geese.

Dell's plight is strange, but fortunately, he is not abused or forced to do anything really horrible.  He just lives a life that is lonely and extremely unusual from the time he is fifteen, until he has the chance to go to college.  By the end of the book, he is a university teacher, and happily married.  He never sees either of his parents again, and only meets up with Berner as she is dying.  It's clear that Dell actually ended up having the better life.

I found the book really interesting, not only because of all that happened, but because the family was unlike most others I've encountered in books I've read.  Dell tells the story in a factual, personal, and yet removed manner, but in the end he has survived to adulthood, and made a happy life for himself.

The Stolen Crown, by Susan Higginbotham.  Nope.  No stars.  This may be an amazing book but there's no way I'm going to go any further.  The first eight pages are a list of characters, nearly all of them with the same first names.  Nope.

Borderlands, by Brian McGilloway.  This is a new series to me, I heard about it from a co-worker.  It takes place in Ireland, in an area where the Republic of Ireland is on one side, and Northern Ireland on the other.  The main character, Benedict Devlin, is a police inspector in the Republic, who is working on solving the murder of a young girl in the area known as the Borderlands, literally one side of the street being in a different country.

Devlin is quite an interesting character, in and of himself.  He is married with two young children, and is far from perfect.  His personal flaws make him more realistic than many characters in other series.  In this book, the more he becomes involved in the murder investigation, the more complicated things become, turning out to be related to another murder, as well as the long-ago disappearance of a woman who - as it turns out - had an affair with Devlin's boss.  The story ends up having IRA involvement, even though it takes place in contemporary Ireland, where The Troubles are no longer the everyday violent activities that they once were.

I liked this book.  It's definitely something I had to be in the mood to read, since it is in no way a sugar-coated story, and the characters are not always likable.  But that was part of what also made it readable.  I will definitely read the next one of this series, as I am curious to see if Benedict Devlin's life, both personal and professional, becomes any more complicated.

Women from the Ankle Down : The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us, by Rachelle Bergstein.  I had read a review of this book, and was intrigued, so I borrowed a copy from the library.  I should qualify this by saying that a) I am fascinated with the history of clothing, and b) one of the ways in which I am a stereotypical woman is that I love shoes.

This is a very readable social history of women's shoes, and I found it to be really interesting.  For instance, I didn't know that until the mid-nineteenth century, only well-to-do people had shoes that we made for one foot or the other.  I also didn't know that for a while in France, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear shoes with red heels.  And numerous other factoids such as those.

But the book is more than a listing of interesting items that are fact.  It's actually a history of shoes, divided by time period, comparing the types 0f shoes that were popular to the events going on in the world at the time.  Granted, it is small in scope, concentrating on the U. S., with a few forays to England, particularly during the 1960s, but since it does not claim to be a definitive work, that's fine with me.

Bergstein is a good writer, and though I don't agree with some of her ideas and opinions, I really enjoyed reading this book.  It gave me a real appreciation for what goes into a shoe, and how in today's world, there are an overabundance of disposable, cheap shoes, but also ridiculously priced shoes like those made by Charles Laboutin.  I think if you enjoy social histories, written for the average reader, you will like this book.  It could have been incredibly dull and academic, but instead is simply engaging.

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam.  I have had this book on my Amazon wishlist for years, but only got around to reading it now, on my Nook.

Sir Edward Feathers (known to the members of the London Bar as "Old Filth" - "FILTH = Failed In London Try Hong Kong"), has had what seems like a successful life, having become famous in his field, living in luxury, with a wonderful wife.  But in this book Filth's life is outlined, starting with his reminiscences once he is retired and back in England, where he really never lived much as an adult.  His mother having died in childbirth, his father sent him from their colonial post, back to England to be raised by aunts.  "Raj Orphans" these children were called.  We learn that Filth's aunts had very little to do with him.  That his father pretty much abandoned him altogether.   That he had few true friends, and that once his wife dies, he realizes things about her that he never knew.  Still, after her death, his loneliness leads him to retrace some of the steps of his earlier life in England, and when things are not what he expects, he decides to return to the place he thinks of as his real home, having lived there longer than anywhere else.

The book is sad, poignant, funny, and well-written.  Filth is a complex man, not terribly likable, but once we learn his deepest secret, he becomes more understandable.  The main characters are memorable, and the descriptions of life in England before World War II - when Edward is a young man - are a sharp contrast to life in England when he returns upon retirement.

If you enjoy character studies, I would recommend Old Filth.

Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley.  I decided to give this book a try after reading a blog friend's review of it, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The story is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, but with a twist - the young princess is taken as a baby to a small village by a fairy who has attended her naming ceremony, and seen the evil witch put the spell on her.

The young fairy, Katriona, and her Aunt raise the princess (whose one of many names is Briar Rose) as just simply Rosie, a girl who grows up like any other child in the area.  Rosie's life goes along without incident until right before her 21st birthday - which is when the witch has vowed to return and have her final battle for the kingdom.  The problem is, when the time comes, Rosie has no desire to be a princess.  But she ends up doing battle anyway, to save the kingdom, the people she loves, and the chance to have a happy life.

This book was an interesting and enjoyable read for me.  Rosie is an engaging character, because she is not perfect or too "princess-y" as one might expect, being that it is a fairy tale.  The story is familiar but different, and the author manages to make it all seem so very probable.

One characteristic that Rosie has that I would love to have is the ability to speak to, and understand, the animals.  But she speaks to them and understands them as they are, not as humans might want to make them seem, which adds another level of interest, at least to me.

I recommend this book.  Sometimes it's a bit wordy, but overall, it's a good read!

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness.  This book had amazing potential.  But good Lord, it was just toooooo long.  The main character, Diana Bishop, is a young woman who is taking a sabbatical from her teaching job at Yale to study in the Bodleian Library.  She is also descended from a long line of well-known witches, and has made a conscious decision to try and do most things in a non-magic way.  While studying ancient alchemical texts, she does use magic to pull an old book from the shelf in the Library.  She notices someone is watching her, and her witch-ly sense (?) tells her the viewer is a vampire.

Sadly, her encounter turns into a love affair with the vampire, named Matthew.  That is one thing, but oh my God there are HUNDREDS of pages where it is nothing except descriptions of their love for each other, their longing, the problem of a witch and a vampire being in love, etc., etc., etc.  Ad nauseum.

This book could have been so much better, had an editor really trimmed it.  The premise is interesting, there are some really interesting passages, and it could have been so much more.  Unfortunately, the middle of the book turns into barely average chick-lit.

I finished it because I wanted to see if it ever returned to the interesting aspects of the beginning.  It nearly did, but I'm not sure if I'll read the next one or not.  Maybe I'll let some time pass and give it a try.  But nope, not right now.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I have to admit that I was predisposed to like this book.  When I was a teenager, and my mother and I were visiting her cousin in Boston, we went to see the movie version with Robert Redford.  I actually didn't pay much attention to the story, but I found it to be an aesthetically pleasing movie - the costumes, the locations, the houses.  I love that kind of stuff.

But one impression that it made on me that I do remember is the ending was not happy.  I think it was the first time I ever saw a movie and the ending didn't somehow end on a good note.  I was impressed to be honest.  But I never got around to reading the book until now.

The story of Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, and Jordan Blake fascinates me.  I think it's because they are so real.  Imperfect, not necessarily likable - or at least not all of the time - they are, I think, pretty unique in American literature.

In the event that you haven't read this book, and thought you might, I don't want to give away the specifics of the ending.  But I have to say that reading the last part made me sad to think that there are people every day who leave for their final journey with few, and often none, there to tell them goodbye.

I'm so glad I finally sat down and read this book.

Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam.  This is the story of Polly Flint, a young girl whose mother is dead, and whose father - a sea captain - leaves her in "The Yellow House" with two aunts, older sisters of her mother.  They live in a marshy area of England, and the house is somewhat remote from the nearby town.  Polly ends up spending the entire book except for a small amount of time in this house, and lives an extremely sheltered and lonely life.  Her one "friend" - Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe - a book she read as a young girl, and which gets her through her life.

This book is an interesting slice of life in England starting shortly before the first World War, and ending after the second.  Though many changes take place, Polly's life remains somewhat the same, and things that others would take for granted often surprise or puzzle her.

I liked this book, though it was somewhat sad.  Well, sad for the reader - Polly seems to accept her lot in life, and though she is not an overly active character in the sense of traveling the world, and having new experiences, she leads an  active life of the mind.  She clings to Robinson Crusoe as if he is flesh and blood, the one constant in her life.  From what I read in the preface, this book is the author's favorite, and is loosely inspired by the years growing up that her own mother told her about.  It is a very well-written book, and in some ways fascinating.  In other ways, though, it makes you realize how many womens' lives probably were in this time and place, when women were perhaps schoolteachers, but certainly wives and mothers.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but I liked this book quite a bit.  I did spend a lot of time wishing Polly would *react* to her situation, but then again, that is likely because I was looking at it from the outside, whereas she was experiencing it.

Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde.  Well, this one was not my favorite Thursday Next book so far, but it had its moments, and I've been reassured from those who have read beyond this that they pick up again.

In this installment, Thursday has taken leave from her post in Jurisfiction, and returns with her son Friday in tow to her mother's house in Swindon.  She has two things that she ends up doing:  1)trying to locate and catch Yorrick Kaine, a character from fiction who has escaped and is close to taking over the government of England, and 2) trying to get Hamlet - who has accompanied her to her mother's house - back into Shakespeare, after changes in the story have caused problems.  Of course, she also ends up coaching the town's croquet team in a championship they must win, because otherwise there will be dire consequences for the whole world, and she is continuing to try and bring back her husband, who was previously eradicated.

Oh, also - an assassin is after her.

So, the story takes its twists and turns and there are plenty of amusing events, and by the end, things are much improved.

Like I said, this wasn't my favorite, but it was enjoyable enough.

Unfortunately, I don't have any of these to offer to my blog readers, since some were Nook books, and some I have already given away to interested parties.  The rest I took to the public library for their book sale, in a fit of decluttering!

In any event, there are some here that are new-ish, and shouldn't be hard to find, and others that are likely at your public library.  Let me know if you read, or have read any of these, and just what you thought about them.


Ann in the UP said...

Thanks for the update! There are some pretty interesting possibilities here for me and I appreciate your honest appraisals.

I generally don't enjoy books with characters I don't like, but if the plot is compelling---who knows?

garret said...

I recently read the Great Gatsby, and I must confess that I really thought that it was less than it was cracked up to be. I was never 100% sure of what was going on. And sometimes the plot flew by, and other times it positivly dragged.

I haven't read any of the other ones.

Carrie K said...

The Stolen Crown - English royalty? Or really, any royalty? Honestly, I think they should be numbered.

Sounds like you had some interesting and some not so much reads!