Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Books of 2014 - June

June was a great reading month for me - lots to driving means more opportunities for reading, especially now that I have a Kindle and can read in the dark (oh, happy day!).

What made it out of my "to-be read" stack and into my finished list? Read on:

1. Life After Life. Fiction by Kate Atkinson. I actually read most of this one at the end of May. Here's the review I left on Goodreads: The story draws you and resists being put down. Ursula Todd is fascinating: vulnerable, strong, self-aware, muddled, wise, naive, cautious, bold.

Anyone familiar with movies like Sliding Doors (which I think is one of Gwyneth Paltrow's best) or Groundhog Day (a triumph), will catch on to the device in this book. You can also find shades of the Mitfords here, particularly in the sisters and their mother. Sylvie Todd shares several characteristics with Sydney Mitford - right down to the "healthy brown bread" she insists on. Pamela Todd seems based almost entirely on Pamela Mitford (the steady, quieter, least known sister).

The research is well done - particularly the Blitz sections and the parts dealing with war torn Germany (which I found the most moving part of the book).

So, why not five stars? Two main reasons: I deducted one star for the repetitive use of sentence fragments. I particularly noticed this in the early sections of the book and it wore thin quickly.
I deducted another star because the rules for this device are never quite clear. Ursula sometimes knows what will happen, sometimes she does not. She can often change the outcome but sometimes things are not the same, even before she acts (such as the son of her therapist existing or not existing).

Finally, as well written as the story is, and as well rounded as the characters are, we are still held aloof from the story by its construct. The many different outcomes, and starting all over again, make it feel like a choose your own adventure book for grown-ups. Instead of feeling loss when something happens to Nancy or Teddy or anyone from the Todd family, you suspect they'll be back again and you are correct.
The author admits she has been influenced by Forster. Unfortunately, under the Forster dictum, she is not successful: "Only connect." We connect to Ursula Todd in some of her lives (and the Germany bit felt truly poignant, maybe because Ursula has something greater than herself to worry about) but her family and friends are just so many moving parts.

I've never read an Atkinson book before this. My husband and I have thoroughly enjoyed Case Histories starring the amazing Jason Isaacs and I only realized she was the author of the source material for that show as I finished this book. So, despite my reservations about some of this book, I will certainly be looking to read more by this author.
2. Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs. Nonfiction by Albert Jack. Fun. I seem to be a sucker for these "unsolved mysteries" type of books. Albert Jack shares several sensible theories and a few head scratchers where we may never know for sure what happened.

Recommended for: fans of real life mysteries.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fiction by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is hard to review. There's no one quite like him and his writing is somehow familiar and yet slippery as an eel. I finished this book with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I felt like I never quite grasped the rules of how this world worked. But I don't regret reading it. If you're tired of the usual fare, this might be a book you need to read.

I gave this one to my husband when I was finished and he liked it more than I had.

4. Whose Body? Fiction by Dorothy Sayers. The first mystery starring Lord Peter, the incomparable Bunter, and a few other familiar faces. This is not an origin story. Sayers throws you in as if the series has been going for a bit before this book. (I had to check!) Sayers is a master, that's all. Highly recommended.

(Only $0.99 for Kindle right now! Whose Body? (The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries Book 1))

5. Clouds of Witness. Fiction by Dorothy Sayers. Second in the series. Introduces the reader to Peter's brother (the Duke) and sister (Mary), who both act foolishly yet understandably in this story. Lord Peter's close call in the swamp or whatever it was is a bit melodramatic, but Bunter gets to be the hero of the day so I'm OK with that.

6. Crazy Busy. Nonfiction by Kevin DeYoung. My husband and I both read this one in June. DeYoung is one of our favorite Christian writers - he's practical, concise, and what he says makes sense.

7. Unnatural Death. Fiction by Dorothy Sayers. Third in the series. Our first introduction to Miss Climpson. Quite well done and quite good fun.

8. Mrs. Hemingway. Fiction by Naomi Wood. Inspires more reading, which is one way I measure whether a book is "good" or not. I felt quite a bit of impatience with many of these people. Their self indulgence, obsessions, and just plain selfishness could have become unbearably tedious but Wood is a good enough writer to wring a bit of sympathy for her characters from my critical, skeptical heart.

9. Strong Poison. Fiction by Dorothy Sayers. This would be the reader's first introduction to Harriet Vane, except I've read the books out of order. Miss Climpson's adventures are probably the best part of this book. Sayers has some fabulous characters though I felt the plot of this one had several large holes in it. So, not my favorite Wimsey mystery but certainly still good fun and worth it if you love the series.

10. The Mangle Street Murders. Fiction by M.R.C. Kasasian. First in a new series. Excellent for a first effort.

This is not a "cozy" mystery. It is gruesome and graphic and the two main characters have their own besetting sins which they seem to revel in. She is no ordinary Victorian maiden, and not just because of the smoking and drinking. He is no kindly benefactor. (Try to imagine A grumpy old man, Sheldon Cooper, & Sherlock Holmes in one disreputable figure.)

The backstory is alluded to but never takes over the present plot. The plotting of the mystery is not watertight and some of the actions and conclusions seem rushed or out of placed.

All in all, an intriguing effort.

Recommended for: fans of Anne Perry's mysteries (although this is wittier than those), Conan Doyle buffs, anyone who finds stories like Jack the Ripper fascinating.

11. The Silkworm. Fiction by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling). In some ways stronger than the first in the series. The writing style is still an odd mix of formal sentence structure and frequent profanity.

The characters are well formed and Cormoran Strike is a fascinating man (although the angst over his on / off girlfriend was tiresome before the first book finished and is still annoying now).

The mystery is centered on a writer, and the people he knows in the publishing industry. This allows Galbraith (Rowling) to make some pointed comments on the publishing industry and writing. One gets the impression that she is either bemused or ticked by all the people calling themselves writers now. YMMV on these points. I found her attitude condescending and beneath her, but it didn't ruin the book for me.

I think the plotting is tighter this time, and the compressed timeline helps with that.

So, it's not a cozy. There is far more profanity and gore in this than I would like. But the writing is compelling and it's hard to put down. I find myself hoping Rowling will put on the Galbraith persona again and continue to add to the series. Recommended for: fans of Elizabeth George (the suspense writer, not the Christian living one) or P.D. James.

12. Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Nonfiction by Lucy Lethbridge. Well researched. An enjoyable read, documented and footnoted but not bogged down. If you're planning on writing fiction set in Britain during from the 19th century on, you will need to read this. (Please, as a reader of historical fiction, I'm begging you: read this. There are so many inaccuracies from American authors who don't know anything about Britain, the class system, servants, or nobility.)

Even if you're not planning on writing any British fiction, this is a great book to read if you like Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey or similar stories.

13. How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. Nonfiction by Ken Ludwig. Read for review. Highly recommended.

14. Five Red Herrings. Fiction by Dorothy Sayers. Not my favorite Peter Wimsey mystery. Not enough Bunter. No Miss Climpson or Harriet Vane. Set in Scotland and much of it is written in dialect. Interminable timetables for trains. Definitely lacks some of the Sayers magic, but it's still better than many other mysteries of the period. Still, you could easily skip this one without hurting your enjoyment of the rest of the series.

If you're beginning to think it was a Peter Wimsey heavy month, you're right. Our library had digital copies available so I put most of these on my Kindle so I could catch up on the books I missed the first time. I had read the first book in the series (WHose Body?) but the rest this month were for the first time.

15. The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference. Nonfiction by Shaunti Feldhahn. Quick read, practical, encouraging, and a few surprises. If a husband or wife is not a great reader I would suggest this book instead of some longer books about marriage because it's easy to read and it won't take long but it could definitely change your relationship for the better.

Totals for June: 15
Fiction: 10
Nonfiction: 5

What did you read in June?
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