MG Book Review - The Great Cat-Nap by A.M. Bostwick - A clever take on noir for mystery lovers of all ages.

the great cat nap
the great cat nap

Take a clever, determined reporter who moonlights as a detective, a sidekick who spends most of his time flirting with the ladies, a kidnapped beauty, and a host of lowlifes who just might hold the key to unlocking the case and what do you have?  You have The Great Cat-Nap, a delightful middle-grade mystery in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. With cats. Yes, you read that right. Cats. And really, what better animal to have as a stand in for Sam Spade than a slick, black cat with green eyes? Reading this novel as an adult was pure pleasure. The cat puns are thick on the ground, but somehow not overdone. You'll find yourself laughing at loud at how Bostwick turns even the most pedestrian cat stereotype on its head, and sometimes into something vaguely seedy, but still age appropriate. Cats that need to switch to water from heavy cream late at night. Dilated pupils from too much catnip. A crazy-cat lady beloved by the cats she rescues from the streets. Then, Bostwick will throw in a reference to noir canon which will go over kids' heads but will have adults nodding their heads and laughing at its ingenuity.

"Of all the rundown newspapers in all the cities, she had to walk into mine."

But, let's not forget the kids. They will love this book. It's a clever mystery which will keep them guessing but is also so well laid out they might be able to come up with the solution to the mystery just before Ace does. Any child who loves animals will love this book. Cats, dogs, a mink and a rat all play prominent roles. There's enough danger to keep them on the edge of their seat and enough humor and cleverness to keep them engaged and reading. It's not hard to imagine children who have their own pets, cats especially, putting this book down and imagining their pet as the star in their own adventure.

The Great Cat-Nap by A.M. Bostwick

Ace is a hard-core newspaper reporter. He's tenacious, confident, and assertive. He's also a cat. When the famous show cat Ruby the Russian goes missing, Ace is on the story. But he bites off more than he can chew when he agrees to play detective and find the prize-winning cat, believed to have been kidnapped by animal smugglers. Calling on his feline friends, a few dogs, and even a boastful rat nemesis, Ace’s investigation will lead him from the most respected parts of town to the lowly haunts of the underground alley cat system. He’ll have to try to break a cat out of the pound for priceless information and get into a single-pawed battle with smugglers before getting his shot at solving the dangerous crime, culminating on a chilly October night in the gray and lonely streets of downtown.

The winner of the 2014 TOFTE/WRIGHT CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AWARD, this 55,000 word middle-grade mystery is filled with adventure, suspense, and humor -- all told from the point of view of a cat!

E-Book available from

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

Kobo

About the Author

A.M. Bostwick writes Middle Grade and Young Adult novels. An early draft of her young adult novel, Break the Spell was a finalist in the 2013 Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fab 5 Contest. The Great Cat Nap, winner of the 2014 Tofte/Wright Children's Literature Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, is her debut novel. Abigail lives in Tomahawk, WI, with her husband, dog and thrill-seeking cat. Follow her on Twitter @BostwickAM

Wife, Mother, Writer, Reader, Ice Cream Lover

A post on Book Riot (my new favorite website about books and reading), The Reasons I Don't Read: Causes of the Dreaded Book Slump, hit home with me this morning because I am in a book slump. In fact, I'm so bothered by my book slump it made the list of things that are pissing me off that I bombarded my poor husband with on Tuesday.

  1. I'm procrastinating.
  2. I'm not writing.
  3. I hate our gym.
  4. I can't lose weight.
  5. I haven't lost myself in a book in months.

I won't bore you with talk about the first four because they are all on me and things I could fix if I put my mind to it. Though, in my defense, our gym isn't a gym, but a rec center with all the weird little quirks that comes with that. That place pissed me off from the word go with their weird childcare hours (at a crucial time in my life when working out was my only avenue to sanity), stupid rules and the fact it didn't have a water fountain on the workout floor. I mean, come on. What the hell kind of design is that?

*takes a deep breath*

Anyway. Reading. I talked to writer friends about this last night at happy hour.

And, can I just stop down right here and say how amazingly awesome is that I'm having happy hour with writer friends? Slowly but surely, I feel like I'm a part of a larger community, an industry, that I'm a professional. Crazy how much I missed that.

Anyway. Reading.

I can't read a novel without analyzing it from a writer's point of view. Without thinking,

"Oh! I should do that!" or

"Good God! I would never do that!" or

"Oh my God! Do I do that?" or

"If I did that, Workshop would cut me off at the knees."

Let me tell you, it sucks the enjoyment right out of reading.

"Come on, Melissa. Not reading isn't the end of the world."

To that I say, "You obviously aren't a reader." It is the end of the world. I love reading. It's who I am. Reading has educated me, comforted me, angered me, inspired me. One of my biggest joys in life is recommending a book to a friend and that friend loving it. It's a Twitter descriptor - wife, mother, writer, reader, ice cream lover - the last of which explains #4 up there. It's not like reading is a bad habit I need to kick. In fact, it's something I have to do to be a good writer.

Therein lies the problem.

I haven't been picking up books that grab my interest, but books I feel like I should read, specifically mysteries.

Here's a little quirk of mine: I write mysteries but I don't read a lot of mysteries. In fact, I write mysteries that I want to read. Fodder for another post.

As a result, instead of focusing on enjoying the story, I've been over-analyzing the text, the writer's style, how it differs from mine, what I can learn. In the last six months, reading has become homework and no one likes homework. My writer friends suggested I should get completely out of my genre which is, of course, the common sense response and one I should have seen myself, and would have if the other four issues up there hadn't sent me spiraling into irritation overload.

Will I continue to analyze everything I read. Probably. I fear it is the curse of being a writer. But, I still believe there are books out there that I will lose myself in, that I will forget to think of scene structure, tension, dialogue and plot. There's only one way to find it.

Keep reading.

Guest Post: Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Books on Camey's Summer TBR List

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish. Since I posted My Top Ten Books In My Backpack a couple of weeks ago, I asked my good friend, Camey, to write a guest post about her summer reading list.


I’m just going to start out by being vulnerable. (I’ve been working on that lately.)  Coming up with 10 books to read was a stretch. I’m currently working on my masters and could come up with a separate post called “Top 10 Leadership and Curriculum Books for the Summer”. Unfortunately, those will trump the below list, but I can dream, can’t I?

Great list, Camey! Thanks for posting!

Top Ten Tuesday/Thursday - Top 10 Books I've Read This Year

toptentuesday After reading 100 books last year, I've only read 20 this year. I'm three behind my goal of one per week. As a result, this Top Ten Tuesday (shut up, I know it's Thursday), Top 10 Books I've Read This Year, will encompass half of my reading accomplishments. Yikes. I need to stop watching tv and start reading. Though in my defense, I've abandoned more books than usual this year. Regardless, these ten stood out.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday - 10 Books That Will Be in My Backpack* This Summer

image from danshamptons * I have mountains and rivers in my future, not beaches. Maybe one beach, but it'll be cold. I'm still using the beach picture...oh, never mind.

From The Broke and the Bookish: Ten Books That Will Be In My Beach Bag This Summer...Until I go to Barnes and Noble and hear the siren song of the buy 2 get 1 free table.

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass - I bought this at DFW Con a month ago and have been reading it in fits and starts. I need to dive into it.

Calling me Home by Julie Kibler - another purchase from DFW Con.

Ashenden, or The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham - part of my Reading Hitchcock series

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy - I've never met Murphy personally, but she's friends with writers in my workshop. Plus, the book has received good reviews.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell - I should probably add Attachments to the list as well.

The Smoke at Dawn by Jeff Shaara - Civil War historical fiction

The Lumineers by Elizabeth Catton - the 2013 Booker Prize Winner has been on my bedside table for three weeks, getting dusty. I'm 100 pages in and am enjoying it...?

Silas Marner by George Eliot - for my 23 Short Classics Book Club on Goodreads

Whack Job by Kendel Lynn - Second in the Elliot Lisbon series, and a book I gave away a couple of weeks ago!


 

Your turn. What's in your suitcase/beach bag/backpack this summer? Share in the comments.

It's Summer! Time to read.

image from danshamptons Welcome to June. The month where temperatures start to rise outside and I buy a jumbo Ibuprofen from Costco to alleviate all the headaches my constantly fighting 12 and 15 year old sons will give me until August 25. But, refereeing fights is not what this post is about. June is also the official start of reading season and I'm here with links to all the Summer Reading lists that have hit the internet like Old Faithful. But, wait, Melissa. Why aren't you recommending books to read for the summer? One, I'm lazy. Two, I have a smidge of a headache (my body prepping for the summer, no doubt). Three, it's almost nap time.

Enough about me. On to the book recommendations and general bookish type links!


 

The LA Times decides to make every other book list feel inadequate from the word go and  previews 143 books. 143!

Also on the LA Times, David Ulin muses about unfulfilled summer reading projects.

Worried they'll lose their literary street cred if they admit to reading a book with a picture of sand and water on the cover, five best-selling authors' tell what they're reading this summer, and it's heavy on the thinking and learning. (CNN)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune gives five mysteries you must read, then 10 more. That's 15 recommendations, btw. You're welcome.

USA Today Profiles Rainbow Rowell, as they should because she is made of awesomeness. They did not confirm, nor deny, the rumor that rainbows shoot from Rowell's fingers and unicorns dance on her keyboard when she is writing, but anyone who's read her work already knows the answer.

USA Today HIghlights 30 Hot Summer Reads. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say these are duplicated in the LA Times Summer Preview of 143 books. 143!

The thought of scrolling through 143 (143!) or 30 book recommendations stress you out?  Hollywood Report has you covered with a measly 10 recs for you ADHD suffering fools.

Huff Po, that bastion of the long read, decided 30 was too many but 10 was not enough, so they went with 16. They don't know why they chose 16 instead of 15, or 20 either, but they sure as hell never considered 143. 143! Though now that they think of it, a 143 picture gallery would pull in a helluva lot of page views...

Then, the NY Post goes and chooses 29. Where do these people come up with these numbers? I like the variety in the Post's choices, though.

The St Louis Post Dispatch wins for organization: they've divided their list out by month of release. Or maybe they win for the lazy. Trust me, I'm a well-qualified judge (see this post you're reading). We'll be nice and call it the Cut and Paste Award.


Don't worry. I'm trying to post on my blog every weekday during June. I'll be back with more links to book recommendations soon. Probably sooner than I should.

 

 

Book Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

jasmine

There are a few things you can always count on with a Deanna Raybourn novel: a plucky heroine, stellar dialogue, wonderful descriptions, copious amounts of wit, a smouldering romance and a bit of history to ground it all in reality. City of Jasmine (★★★★) has all of that, as well as a textbook MacGuffin to keep the plot moving forward through the Syrian desert in 1920. Raybourne's greatest achievement might be always making me want to visit whatever setting she's selling. Since vacationing to Syria isn't an option right now, I'll just round up some friends and head to the hooka bar down the street. What I loved most about City of Jasmine, though, were the little connections to her Lady Julia Grey series, as well as her Africa novel, A Spear of Summer Grass. I can get easily bored by a series - the same characters doing the same thing over and over - but connecting her books through past characters (Tarquin March from Lady Julia, Ryder from A Spear of Summer Grass) gives readers the series they crave while keeping the characters, plots and settings fresh. Plus, sussing out all of the connections is like hunting for little Easter eggs. If I'm not much mistaken, Raybourn obliquely mentioned Nicholas Brisbane in the City of Jasmine denouement. These little tidbits make me want to go back and re-read her previous novels to see what other connections there might be. (It is also going to drive me crazy if I don't figure out how old Julia and Brisbane would be in 1920. Are they still alive? For someone who hates math, I am constantly trying to figure out ages and dates in novels. It makes my head hurt, but it weirdly makes me love a novel more.)

If I had one complaint, and this is a complaint I have for almost all Historical Fiction novels: there wasn't a map! Publishers listen up: It should be the Golden Rule of Historical Fiction to include maps, especially in novels where there's a journey. Please?

In short, if you are looking for a fun read with enjoyable characters doing adventurous things in lush settings, you can never go wrong with a Deanna Raybourn novel and City of Jasmine fits the bill nicely.

(I received an Advanced Reader Copy of City of Jasmine through a contest on Raybourn's blog.)

Reading Hitchcock - Psycho by Robert Bloch

Psycho-Overlook
Psycho-Overlook

The problem with reading a book after seeing a movie is constantly comparing the visual medium with the written. In the case of Psycho, the movie is so ingrained in the pop culture consciousness generally, and my mind specifically, it was impossible to read Bloch's psychological mystery fresh. And that's a shame, because it's a very good book with a nice twist. Hitchcock isn't known for faithful adaptations of source material but with Psycho, he stayed true to the book. That's probably because it's a damn near perfect psychological horror novel so well-written I can easily imagine the shock readers felt in 1959, when Psycho was published, when they discovered who the killer really was. As perfect as the movie is, as much as I loved the shock of the movie twist, I'm disappointed I didn't read the book first. For me, there is nothing better than a book that takes me by surprise. Fifty-five years on, with the movie as what people think of when you say "Psycho," and with the shower scene an iconic horror movie moment, there was no way to capture the happy astonishment you feel when a well-crafted story takes an unexpected turn.

Still, Psycho is well worth reading. The characters have a depth not shown in the movie and if you're a writer, you're bound to learn something reading Bloch's tight prose.

I resolve.

iresolve

The prefect New Year's resolution. It hits on every aspect of my life.

Write more.

In my profession, I need to focus on writing with determination. Even on days when I don't want to. Even when I think what I'm writing is crap. Even when it won't be seen by another person. The only way to get better is to practice. Plus, writing makes me happy.

Eat less.

Even though I don't feel like I over eat, I somehow manage to gain ten pounds (or more) in a year. I know what I need to do, how to eat healthy, I just don't do it. This year, I am going to focus on eating smaller meals more often, and eating clean. I know better than to set an exercise goal in stone. I'll just ignore it. But, I can't ignore eating.

Read more widely.

I read 102 books in 2013, an accomplishment I'm happy with if not entirely proud of. I liked many of the books I read and even loved a few. But, overall I was reading less for enjoyment or enlightenment or education than for speed and numbers. Call me pretentious, or a book snob if you like, but I don't read for entertainment, or at least not primarily. Entertainment is a byproduct, not the goal.  I enjoy books best when I have learned something or felt something. With too many of the books I read this year, I learned and felt nothing. I was entertained, for sure, and that was fun and fine, but less than satisfying. In 2014, instead of setting a number goal, though arbitrarily I'd like to read one book a week, I want to read more widely. Books from other countries and cultures, specifically. More non-fiction and classics. I want books that will make me feel intensely - love, hate, anger, happiness, horror, astonishment, disgust. I want to read books that will stay with me days and weeks and years later. You know what? I think this goal will be more difficult than 100 books in a year.

Some of you may be wondering why I didn't set the goal of being published. Of course that's a goal, but unlike these three whose attainment I control, so much of whether or not I'm published is out of my hands. I'll do whatever I can do make it happen, but the achievement of that goal doesn't rely solely on me or my actions. However, I firmly believe I will sign a publishing contract this year.

Do you set New Year's resolutions? If so, what are they?

Book Review - Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

counting7s
counting7s
counting7s

I am a contrarian. Not about life. I'm not going to say the glass is half full. There is water in it. You're thirsty. Drink and stop analyzing.

I am a contrarian when it comes to books.

I'm turned off by quirk.

By lack of punctuation.

By single sentence paragraphs.

By substituting writing style for characterization.

Tell the story. Don't let the writing get in the way. Or the voice.

Counting by 7s (★★★) is a run-of-the-mill YA story. You know how it will end. Nothing will shock you. Though you will get choked up.

Unless you have a heart of stone.

The voice is quirky, though with correct punctuation.

Single sentence paragraphs abound.

If you like that kind of stuff, then this book is for you.

If you don't, you can read it to pad your yearly reading goal. It's a fast read.

Because of all those single sentence paragraphs.

You won't regret reading it. You may even love it.

You definitely won't forget it.

Reading Hitchcock - Marnie by Winston Graham

Marnie_book_cover
270px-Marnie2
270px-Marnie2

Reading Hitchcock is an occasional series where I review the source material of Alfred HItchcock's movies.The Sixties are in interesting decade for Hitchcock. He started the decade strong, with Psycho and The Birds, and had a rough end with Topaz and Torn Curtain. Smack in the middle is Marnie, a movie that is thought of more fondly now than it was when it was released in 1964, though I don't know why. I don't remember much about Marnie the movie, only that I thought it was a ballsy career move for James Bond to play a rapist. Turns out, that was the scene that made Hitchcock want to adapt the book.

from Wikipedia:

Evan Hunter, who had written the screenplay for The Birds, developed Marnie with Hitchcock, and wrote several drafts. Hunter was unhappy with the rape scene in the original novel as he felt the audience would lose sympathy for the male lead. The director, however, was enthusiastic about the scene, describing to Hunter how he intended to film it.

"Hitch held up his hands the way directors do when they're framing a shot. Palms out, fingers together, thumbs extended and touching to form a perfect square. Moving his hands toward my face, like a camera coming in for a close shot, he said, "Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face".[3]"

Hunter wrote a draft containing the rape scene but also wrote an additional, substitute sequence, which he pleaded with Hitchcock to use instead. Hunter was dismissed from the project on 1 May 1963.[4] His replacement, Jay Presson Allen, later told him that "you just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for making the movie. You just wrote your ticket back to New York."[3][5] Just as Hunter had been unaware of Stefano's earlier work on Marnie, Presson Allen was not informed that she was the third writer to work on the adaptation.[6]

I imagine Winston Graham had a major headdesk moment when he saw what Hitchcock did to his book. Though, maybe he just cashed the check and didn't care.  But, Hitchcock wasn't known for faithful adaptations, but by using source material as inspiration. Sometimes, the result was good (The 39 Steps, The Lodger), sometimes it wasn't so good. His adaptation of Marnie is the latter.

Marnie in the movie is sexually frigid due to being molested as a child. Oh, and she steals stuff. Hitch focused on the sexual dysfunction when in the book, it is but one aspect of a very complicated character. Marnie on the page is a rich, complex character who finds herself in a situation she cannot control and, as a result, starts to unravel. What's much more interesting than her inability to get close to men sexually is her inability to get close to anyone, male or female, to form any sort of close bonds with humanity. While I had a problem with a couple of the events in the novel* -  the twisted logic Mark used to find her and that Marnie wouldn't extricate herself from the situation by doing what she does best, running - the book is an interesting character study of a woman who was unknowingly molded by a mother who was flat-out crazy but seemed normal. The ending was a little heartbreaking but perfect based on the tone of the book. Good all the way around, but the writing style seemed a little dated. It's a "I doubt this would get published now" book.

* Of course, the rape scene bothered me, especially when Mark blamed Marnie for it after. I rolled my eyes at his justification for Marnie seeing a psychologist being that is just isn't normal for a woman to not want to have sex with someone who loves her. But, the book was written in the late fifties, check your modern sensibilities at the door and all. I'd like to be able to say those attitudes (no such thing as marital rape and not understanding an aversion to sex) are obsolete, but yeah. Not enough has changed.

Previous Reading Hitchcock Posts:

Suspicion / Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Reading Hitchcock: Before the Fact by Francis Iles - "A terrible book with a good ending, a good movie with a terrible ending."

hitch2

Hitchcock put a light bulb in the milk to make it glow. Suspicion (1941) is Hitchcock's worst movie.

That's a bold statement about a movie nominated for Best picture, won Joan Fontaine an Oscar for her portrayal of Lina Aysgarth and allowed Cary Grant to play more than just a romantic lead for 95% of its run time. Grant carrying the glowing glass of milk up the stairs to an ill Lina is a standout among the plethora of Hitchcock's enduring images. Still, the movie drops to the bottom of my list because the ending is a slap in the face to all that had gone before.  All of the tension Hitchcock masterfully built, all of the lurking evil Grant brilliantly played was ruined by the glaringly bad ending Hitchcock was forced by the studio to tack on for fear of ruining Grant's "heroic" Image with the public.

 

beforeBefore the Fact (★★★), the 1932 psychological thriller Suspicion is based on, has great intentions and almost delivers. From the very first line, the reader knows who the murderer is,  the question becomes who will he kill and will he get away with it? Iles tells the story from the victim's point of view - another unique choice - but any sympathy you might feel for Lina Aysgarth has evaporated by the end of the novel. She is a born victim who only half-heartedly tries to get out of her situation before using tortured logic to absolve Johnnie of past and future crimes. Lina isn't sympathetic, merely pathetic, and as I neared the end, I was openly rooting for Johnnie to kill her already.  The ending, famously different from Hitchcock's adaptation, was bold and would have been unsettling and affecting if the reader had been able to root for or sympathize with Lina even a little. I admire Iles for committing to it, but wish the execution of the characterization of Lina had been stronger so I would have cared what happened to the character.

Classics Club Spin - The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

augie

I did not like this book. I did not finish this book.

I will never pick this book up again.

Besides not having enough story to keep me interested past page 60, Bellow describes every character in detail. In so much detail my mental snapshots were muddy, confusing and seemingly contradictory. These complex descriptions bogged down the narrative - what little narrative there was. So, I won't be checking this book off my 1001 Books list. I suppose it's in good company, with Moby Dick and Middlemarch.

In the good news department, I did learn something from what little I read:

In writing, less is more.

Classics Club Spin Book

The number selected for the Classics Club Spin is #4, which means I will be reading The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. augie

Description from Amazon:

As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this gem by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Bold, expansive, and keenly humorous, The Adventures of Augie March blends street language with literary elegance to tell the story of a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Depression. A "born recruit," Augie makes himself available for hire by plungers, schemers, risk takers, and operators, compiling a record of choices that is—to say the least—eccentric.

Doesn't tell me much about the book. Let's try Goodreads:

Augie comes on stage with one of literature’s most famous opening lines. “I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.” It’s the “Call me Ishmael” of mid-20th-century American fiction. (For the record, Bellow was born in Canada.) Or it would be if Ishmael had been more like Tom Jones with a philosophical disposition. With this teeming book Bellow returned a Dickensian richness to the American novel. As he makes his way to a full brimming consciousness of himself, Augie careens through numberless occupations and countless mentors and exemplars, all the while enchanting us with the slapdash American music of his voice.

Hmm. The "Call me Ishmael" of mid-20th-century American fiction, as if there is an iconic opening line in every phase of American literature. Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis both call The Adventures of Augie March the "Great American Novel." Somehow, all of the accolades and hyperbole aren't exciting me. Still, I'll read it. I have it on my bookshelf, in fact. No idea why.

It's good, then, that the non-fiction book is one I've long wanted to read: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

cagedbird

A phenomenal #1 bestseller that has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years, this memoir traces Maya Angelou's childhood in a small, rural community during the 1930s. Filled with images and recollections that point to the dignity and courage of black men and women, Angelou paints a sometimes disquieting, but always affecting picture of the people—and the times—that touched her life.

Since I'm reading two from the lists already, I've decided to choose my September reading from The Classics Club and Non-Fiction Challenge lists. I have two books left on my bedside table for August and I haven't bought one book this month. It's a record!

The Classics Spin #3

From The Classics Club:

It’s time for another Classics Spin for any who are interested. What is the spin?

It’s easy. At your blog, by next Monday, Aug 19, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list – in a separate post.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in August & September. (Details follow.) So, try to challenge yourself.

Below is my list.

  1. The Shining by Stephen King
  2. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
  3. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey
  4. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  5. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
  6. The Third Man by Graham Greene
  7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  8. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  9. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  10. They Shoot Horses Don't They by Horace McCoy
  11. The Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  12. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  13. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  14. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
  15. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  16. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  17. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  18. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  19. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  20. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Why not add 20 from my Non-Fiction Challenge List, too?

  1. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  2. Storm of Steel
  3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  5. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  6. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  7. The Best and the Brightest by David Halbersham
  8. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - by Dee Brown
  9. The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  10. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  11. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  12. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer
  13. The Executioner's Song by Normal Mailer
  14. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  15. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  16. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  17. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  18. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  19. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  20. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

"Speech is sliver, but silence is golden." Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

  I picked these books because of their length. It is a sad fact I have to pad my reading stats with short books with my 100 books read goal for 2013. The good news is one of these books is also part of my 1001 Books/The Classics Club Challenge and the other is by an author I've heard of but have never read.  The bad news is, I didn't care for either book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparkbrodie

Synopsis: Jean Brodie is a teacher with advanced and unconventional ideas that put her at odds with the other members of staff at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, as she endeavours to shape the lives of the select group of girls who form her "set".

What saved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (★★★) from a two star rating was the writing. Spark has a unique style, omniscient narrator, jumping back and forth in time  between paragraphs. She so casually drops into the story who "betrayed" Miss Brodie I had to go back and read it a few times to make sure I read it right. I liked her writing style enough I will read more of her work, but the characters in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were less than appealing. Thank God it was a short book.

 

 

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

bolanoSynopsis -Paris, 1938. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo is in the hospital, afflicted with an undiagnosed illness, and unable to stop hiccuping. His wife calls on an acquaintance of her friend Madame Reynaud: the Mesmerist Pierre Pain. Pain, a timid bachelor, is in love with the widow Reynaud, and agrees to help. But two mysterious Spanish men follow Pain and bribe him not to treat Vallejo, and Pain takes the money. Ravaged by guilt and anxiety, however, he does not intend to abandon his new patient, but then Pain's access to the hospital is barred and Madame Reynaud leaves Paris.... Another practioner of the occult sciences enters the story (working for Franco, using his Mesmeric expertise to interrogate prisoners)-as do Mme. Curie, tarot cards, an assassination, and nightmares. Meanwhile, Monsieur Pain, haunted and guilty, wanders the crepuscular, rainy streets of Paris...

On the other hand, there wasn't much of anything I enjoyed about Monsieur Pain (★★), except the Paris setting and recognizing streets I visited on my trip there last year. There was no plot to speak of (the above summary is technically accurate, but it makes the plot sound more interesting and cohesive than it was); it seemed to be mostly about Pain walking around Paris, getting drunk and having hallucinations and nightmares. I found it a rather difficult read, as if Bolano worked so hard to write deeply he ended up with a story without a point. At the very least, the point or theme was so camouflaged I didn't get it. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind for Monsieur Pain, or maybe I'm just not bright enough to "get" Bolano. It definitely didn't make me want to read his 1000 page posthumous novel, 2666.

Book Review - City of Women by David Gillham

city of womenSynopsis: Whom do you trust, whom do you love, and who can be saved? It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.

But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.

A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit.  A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions.  And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.

Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two.

In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.

It seems the new trend in World War II historical fiction is to show how everyday Germans lived through the ordeal, to illustrate that not all Germans were high-stepping SS officers, or informants or persecuted Jews. Some were normal people, trying to keep their heads down and their families safe under a repressive regime. How well  this new paradigm is being received I don't know. I suppose it depends on your relationship to the events.

It is this area of the war that David Gillham mines in City of Women (★★★★). It is a very good book. Well-written and tense with expectation. Sigrid Schröder is a well-rounded character, full of faults, passion and intelligence. I would absolutely recommend City of Women to readers who enjoy WWII fiction. However, what kept me from giving it five stars (and made me consider giving it three) is I felt Gillham chose the safe route with creating Sigrid by giving her a Jewish lover (which provides her motivation for helping the Jews, I suppose) and by not giving her children. When she decides to help, she is only risking her own life, and the life of the mother-in-law she hates and the husband on the Eastern Front she doesn't love. The tension comes from the readers innate knowledge of the Nazi regime instead of fear for innocent life, because Sigrid isn't innocent. She has been complicit by burying her head in the sand for years. Yes, she opens her eyes and decides to help and, of course the reader wants Sigrid to succeed. But wouldn't the risk have been greater, and meant more, if she put her own children in danger, or at the very least, people she loved?

A few years ago my book club had a discussion about World War II, the Jews and what we would all do if a similar situation arose today, in America. Of course, we all want to believe we would do the right thing, stand up for the oppressed and do whatever we could to save them. Who wouldn't want to be the hero to that story? But, truth and reality are murkier than fiction. Would you put your family in danger to save someone else or would you keep your head down and ignore the atrocities going on around you?  In Sigrid, Gillham tries to write that heroine and almost succeeds.

Book Review - The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

beautiful mystery
beautiful mystery

Synopsis:

No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. They grow vegetables, they tend chickens, they make chocolate. And they sing. Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”
But when the renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery’s massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec. There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony. One of the brothers, in this life of  prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder. As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors. Before finding the killer, before restoring peace, the Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in between.

The eighth book in the Inspector Gamache mystery series, The Beautiful Mystery(★★★★) didn't captivate me until about 3/4 of the way through. Obviously, it was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I found the mystery uninteresting and a bit redundant, as if Penny was padding the book with mystery until she could get to the real point of the novel: the long, slow dissolution of Gamache and Beauvoir's working and personal relationship.

I wish I'd picked up the first book in this series instead of the eighth, because it is just the type of series I enjoy. Penny is an amazing writer, with an ear for dialogue and a deft ability with descriptions. But, where she really shines is her characters. Though I started with the eighth book, it didn't take me long to get a feel for these characters and the rich history they shared. It's obvious Penny has been building to this point for a while. I'm torn between despondency and excitement at having seven books to catch up on, with excitement slightly out front. It's nice to know such a rich, well realized world and characters are waiting for me, I'm just not sure when I'll get a chance to visit.

Life is too short to read bad books.

Tuesday, Goodreads posted an infographic "The Psychology of Abandonment," detailing what books are most commonly shelved as Abandoned, Not Finished or Unfinished, as well as the reasons why. I suppose you should take the infographic with a grain of salt, especially the percentages at the bottom, since there is no explanation of their methodology or a given sample size. Were 1000 people surveyed? Ten? Twenty? Did they email the survey (I never received one) or was it stuck on a page somewhere in their somewhat un-user friendly website that could only be found by a determined search or a lucky stumble? Those questions aside, the results are interesting and somewhat telling. The most common reason books are abandoned is "Slow, Boring" coming in at 46%. The next nearest reason is "Weak Writing" at 18.8%. That's a pretty big disparity and helps to explain why so many poorly written, but fast paced books top the best seller lists year in and year out (I'm looking at you, James Patterson). It also explains that while literary fiction will get the critical praise, it won't ever get the popular acclaim, it being more thought provoking and methodical as a general rule.

I wonder if all of those series obsessed publisher's hearts dropped at seeing only 2.5% of readers are compelled to finish from a dedication to the series? A whopping 36.6% sound obsessive compulsive, "As a rule, I like to finish things" and 25% are insatiably curious, "I have to know what happens."

Nearly 40% of readers finish a book regardless. That is astounding. I decided long ago life was too short to read a book I didn't enjoy. If a book hasn't caught my interest by the first turning point (which is usually at the 1/4 mark) then it's not going to happen. Those are the well-written books. If a book is poorly written (bad dialogue, canned characters, stupid plot) I'll dump it earlier. It's extremely rare I read a whole book I thoroughly dislike, though it has happened.

I'm not surprised Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the top five abandoned, nor am I surprised about The Casual Vacancy.  I haven't read the latter, mainly because the story doesn't interest me that much, but am not surprised the shallow reason "it's not Harry Potter" was so often cited. That was rather the point of the book, wasn't it? And, as I said a month ago, I tried with Fifty Shades.

My top two reasons for dropping a book is 1) bad writing and 2) boring. What makes you abandon a book? Or, are you one of the many who must finish no matter what?

The Classics Club/1001 Books - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

innocenceLast month, I cheated a little bit on my Young Adult read. Car sickness, boredom and my inability to think ahead meant I had to listen to audiobooks I had already downloaded from Audible on the 12 hour car ride through flat, featureless though starkly beautiful New Mexico and west Texas. Since I wanted to be able to finish the book on the ride, or soon after I got home, the 12 hour reading of The Age of Innocence was the choice. Though I haven't read much Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth years ago and Ethan Frome recently), I knew what I was getting into when I started. SPOILER ALERT: Wharton doesn't do happy endings. Laura Miller, book reviewer at Salon, wrote a great piece last year: The Tyranny of the Happy Ending. The whole post deserves a read, but this stuck out (emphasis mine):

Some aspects of the human experience can only be addressed in a tragic mode, and the truth of “Romeo and Juliet” — that the intransigence of elders often leads to the sacrifice of youth — is one of those aspects. The tragic Victorian novels of Eliot and Hardy deal with, among other subjects, the restrictions that class and gender roles impose on heroes and heroines who are capable of much more than their allotted place in society permits. Seeing the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Maggie Tulliver (in “The Mill on the Floss”) and Jude Fawley (in “Jude the Obscure”) being crushed is agonizing, but providing either character with a miraculous escape from that fate would render the novels themselves pointless. Their point is precisely that sometimes the best people will fail, and fail utterly.

This sums up Edith Wharton's sensibilities to a 'T.' Reading Miller's critique should make me appreciate The Age of Innocence's ending and while it does take a bit of the sting out of it, my dislike for the main character, Leland Archer, keeps any sense of awe or loss at the resolution at bay. Yes, Archer was restrained by society and the time he lived, but in the end, when the restraints were lifted, he was a coward. His final act transformed him from a tragic and noble character (at least I think that's what Wharton was going for) into a spineless weakling.

Still, Wharton is a master as depicting upper middle class New York and illustrating the mores of a group that rarely gets the attention. Think about it. When you think of fiction set in the 1870s, what comes to mind? England in the Victorian Era.  There is a real dearth of fiction set in the US during that time (save The Civil War era which usually always deals with the war, slavery and politics instead of class), either contemporary (written during the time it is set) or modern (or what we would call historical fiction, now).  And, what fiction there is is always overshadowed by their British counterparts, even in modern times. (It is telling that in Miller's article linked to above, she uses only British works as examples when Wharton would work as well.) Though American history is littered with examples of us rejecting England's religion, political structure and class structure, we have always been enthralled with their society, and the fiction that depicts it, to the detriment of our own.

I don't mean to suggest you must read The Age of Innocence (★★★★) because of a jingoistic zeal to support American writers and setting. Or that my four star rating is a result of a fist pumping celebration of 'Merica. Rather, you should read The Age of Innocence - as you should read any and all Edith Wharton's novels - because she will show you an America many of us haven't bothered to learn about, as well as make you wonder how much has truly changed in the subsequent 140 years.