Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Read in 2014

January:
1. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
2. The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, by Tony Attwood
3. Mozart and the Whale, by Mary and Jerry Newport
4. Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart
5. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
6. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
7. Them, by Joyce Carol Oates
8. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

February:
1. Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
2. I Was Told There'd Be Cake, by Sloane Crosley
3. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
4. Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton
5. Twirling Naked in the Streets, by Jeannie Davide-Rivera
6. Hungry Hill, by Daphne Du Maurier
7. Me, Myself, and Why, by Jennifer Ouilette
8. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by DH Lawrence
9. The Wise Virgins, by Leonard Woolf

March:
1. Out With It, by Katherine Preston
2. Never Have I Ever, by Katie Heaney
3. Look me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison
4. Beyond, the Glass, by Antonia White
5. Atypical, by Jesse Saperstein
6. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell
7. Chanel Bonfire, by Wendy Lawless
8. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
9. The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick
10. Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan
11. The Sack of Bath, by Adam Ferguson
12. It's Not You by Sara Eckel
13. Swallow the Ocean, by Laura Flynn
14. Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

April:
1. How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley
2. Three Little Words, by Ashley Rhodes-Courtier
3. A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton
4. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation, by Dawn Prince-Hughes
6. To Bed With Grand Music, by Marghanita Laski
7. Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
8. Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, by DE Stevenson
9. The Underpainter, by Jane Urquhart
10. Anne of the Island, by LM Montgomery
11. Farewell Spain, by Kate O'Brien
12. Modern Love, ed. by Daniel Jones
13. Up the Down Volcano, by Sloane Crosley

May:
1. The Shivering Sands, by Victoria Holt
2. The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell
3. The Rose of Fire, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
4. Raising Cubby, by John Elder Robison
5. Whisper of Jasmine, by Deanna Raybourn
6. Cashelmara, by Susan Howatch
7. Iberia, by James A Michener
8. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro
9. Fortune's Rocks, by Anita Shreve
10. Silent in the Grave, by Deanna Raybourn
11. The Room-Mating Season, by Rona Jaffe
12. Finding Kansas, by Aaron Likens
13. The Diary of Anne Frank
14. Open Access Publishing, by Peter Suber
15. The Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska
16. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
17. 16 Perssonality Types, by AJ Drenth
18. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne DuMaurier
19. City of Jasmine, by Deanna Raybourn
20. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy
21. The Great Silence, by Juliet Nicolson
22. Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

June:
1. Clover Adams, by Natalie Dykstra
2. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
3. He's Just Not that Into You, by Greg Berendt
4. An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson
5. Most Talkative, by Andy Cohen
6. The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch
7. Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns
8. The Best American Essays, ed. by Robert Atwan
9. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
10. Lit, by Mary Karr
11. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
12. The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton
13. The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates

July:
1. The Witching Hour, by Anne Rice
2. Bossypants, by Tina Fey
3. Dear Life, by Alice Munro
4. Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Diary
5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
6. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, ed. by Siddhartha Mukherjee
7. The Liar's Club, by Mary Karr
8. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
9. The Journal of Best Practices, by David Finch
10. On Writing, by Stephen King
11. Love Illuminated, by Daniel Jones
12. Become Your Perfect Matchmaker, by Patti Stanger
13. The Bitch in the House, ed. by Cathi Hanauer
14. Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell
15. The Sea King's Daughter, by Barbara Michaels
16. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

August:
1. Medical English Usage and Abusage, by Edith Schwager
2. What Every Body is Saying, by Jow Navarro
3. Be Different, by John Elder Robison
4. Getting a Life With Asperger's, by Jesse Saperstein
4. The Murder of the Century, by Paul Collins
5. Elephant Company, by Vicki Constantine Croke
6. Quiet, by Susan Cain
7. Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, by Marion Meade

September
1. Morgan's Run, by Colleen McCullough
2. The Fame Lunches, by Daphne Merkin
3. Pulped, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
4. Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon
5. Voyager, by Diana Gabaldon

October:
1. The Faith of a Writer, by Joyce Carol Oates
2. Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972
Originally published: 1944
My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press)
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, 2004


Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.


Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is an old dotard, her third locks her up in the house for days and won't let her out; and the last is a fop who allows himself to be cuckolded. Amber starts out in jail for debt, then becomes a thief, then moves on to the theatre, entertaining the college-age fops who attend. Her ambitions only rise from there as she sleeps with some of the most influential men in England.


Eventually Amber follows her ambitions using her two strengths: her personality and beauty, ending up as the mistress to King Charles himself. The last quarter of the book involves itself in the court scandals of the time, not the least of which were sexual. Winsor is a little prudish and shies away from the sex that occurs in the book, but she places most of her focus on the clothes the people in London wore in the 1660s. The details are lavish and gorgeous, and made me wish I'd lived in that time period.


Amber is NOT supposed to be a likeable character. She is probably has the most character flaws of anyone who appears in this book. Her desperate love for Bruce is the cornerstone of the story, and Amber seems almost too desperate. Even though she insists that next time she will act aloof and sitant, she throws herself at him like a puppydog. When she finds out that Bruce has a wife, whom he met in America, Amber becomes hysterical with rage. Eventually she and Lady Carlton will become acquainted at court--and the outcome is not good. Once King Charles finished with one of his mistresses, her never gave up on her. That is, he never turned her out of Whitehall Palace. Amber quickly becomes one of those mistresses, liked by absolutely no one at court. However, she continues to hang on. The plan that Buckingham devises to get rid of her for once and all is clever and leaves the reader hanging on the edge of thier seat in the final pages of the novel.


It was a beautifully written book that I will probably re-read over and over again. It gave a great insight into the lives people led at Charles's court, one that was decadent and sinful in comparison to the Puritans who had preceded him. A must for those who love this period in history or historical fiction in general. I also recommend: the works of Anya Seton, especially Katherine and Green Darkness; Slammerkin; and The Crimson Petal and the White.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Katherine, by Anya Seton

Pages: 500
Originally published: 1954
My copy: 2004 (Chicago Review Press)
How I acquired my copy: Borders, 2004

This book is more than just a good romance. It is an all-time classic. I am a younger reader, and so I don't have fond memories of the first time this book came out; but I'm glad that they broughtKatherine back into print. It is one of those books that all lovers of historical fiction should read, not simply for the history, but because this is an elegantly crafted novel; unarguably one of the very best I've read in a long time. This novel is a great introduction to the works of Anya Seton.

The story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt is set against a backdrop of chivalry and heroic adventure during the 14th century. I thoroughly loved this novel; there are parts of it that still stay with me two months after reading it. Whenever I read historical fiction, I always look to see whether the author has done her research- Anya Seton most definitely did hers.

I decided it doesn't matter whether or not you love the heroes of this book- they were real people, and that's what makes this book so much more vibrant. Thats what I loved most- I felt that I actually knew these characters, had actually sat down at a meal with Katherine Swynford or gone hunting with Prince John. The author Geoffrey Chaucer has become mythical in the annals of English literature; however here he becomes humanized, a real person with a wife and children of his own. I was absolutely amazed by it.

Another great thing about this book is that the author never mentions what will happen in the future for these people (even though she, and the reader, obviously know). Anya Seton simply let the story take itself along. For example, at the end of Katherine, Richard III is a little boy, newly crowned king. Even though historians have protrayed him as a tyrant, Seton never lets on that this is what, in fact, he will become. Richard seems like a lost, lonely little boy trying to fill shoes that are too big for him.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye


Pages: 667
Original date of publication: 2011
My copy:  2011 (Oxford University Press)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, April 2013

This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.

To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about people who lived in her neighborhood, the balls she went to, who wore what, etc. So you really get a sense that she was honing her observations skills in order to write her novels. Austen’s wit is sometimes caustic; she doesn’t always have the nicest things to say about people; but she had an eye for detail that would serve her well later on. It’s clear from Austen’s letters that she was nervous about putting her work out in the world, but she tried to cover it up by being self-deprecating. One of the things I like about people is the ability to laugh at themselves, and Austen does it here well.

About half the book is letters; the other half is notes on the letters (including information about postmarks), a glossary of the people mentioned in them and the places that Austen went to, and so on. There’s so much information packed into the back of the book about the letters that I had to keep flipping back to the end of it in order to get context (for that reason, I wish that the notes on the letters had been placed within the letters so that they could have been more easily referenced). Despite my minor problem with the way this collection is laid out, I really enjoyed reading it; it gives the reader, especially the Jane Austen aficionado, a glimpse into the life and mind of one of the English language’s greatest writers.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French


Pages: 259
Original date of publication: 2013
My copy: 2013 (Penguin)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013

In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.

At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but somehow everyone was thrown together in a tightly knit group, unified by a fear of what was to come.

The story of the murder itself is incredibly absorbing; what exactly happened on the night of January 8, 1937 that led to a young woman’s murder and mutilation? Pamela Werner comes across an independent, intelligent young woman, and her father was relentless in tracking down her murderer—even though the British government tried to cover it up and the case was never officially solved. Too, Peking had much greater things to think about at the time than the murder of a young British girl. French solves the crime, but I think he uses his imagination a fair amount in describing how the murder played out. French’s technical writing isn’t particularly good, but he tells an interesting story. I especially loved the superstition surrounding the Fox Tower—fox spirits that represent a woman’s ability to seduce and betray. It’s an interesting parallel, but it wasn’t worked into the story very well.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review: A Spear of Summer Grass, by Deanna Raybourn


Pages: 384
Original date of publication:
My copy: 2013 (Harlequin MIRA)
Why I decided to read: Copy offered for review
How I acquired my copy: Amazon Vine, April 2013

Set in 1923, the novel focuses on Delilah Drummond, a daringly modern woman who is forced to take a “break” from society when a scandal threatens her reputation. She goes to Kenya and her stepfather’s estate, Fairlight, and quickly becomes acclimatized to the way of life there—meeting, as she does so, Ryder White, a hunter/tracker.

I’ve had a taste of British colonial life in Kenya—Frances Osborne’s The Bolter is about a famous colonist of the period, Idina Sackville, and the five husbands she “bolted” from in order to set up a new life in Kenya (where she continued her adventures, many of them sexual). So there are pretty obvious comparisons to be made between Idina Sackville and Delilah Drummond, as there are between Dennis Finch-Hatton (of Out of Africa fame) and Ryder White. Still, there’s enough about each of these fictional characters to make them interesting, and I was interested to see how Delilah would develop throughout the novel. At first she seems to be a pretty stereotypical fish-out-of-water character, but I was pleased to see how she falls in love not only with Ryder White but Africa, too, and grow as a person in the process—especially since she has her past with which to grapple. So what we are shown is more than just the surface; we are shown the reason for why Delilah behaves (at least in her pre-Africa life) the way she does. So the focus is on reflection—reflection on one’s life, even though it might seem to be small in the grand scheme of things.

What I thought was especially good were Deanna Raybourn’s descriptions of Africa—the love story in the book isn’t really the one between Delilah and Ryder as much as it is about Delilah’s growing love for Africa. So Africa itself becomes a character, with its own flaws and advantages. I’m not usually a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s stand-alone novels that don’t feature Lady Julia Grey, but I thought A Spear of Summer Grass was especially well done. You even get a nod to Walt Whitman; what’s not to love?



Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Celia's House, by DE Stevenson


Pages: 367
Original date of publication:
My copy: 1978 (Ace books)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, November 2010

DE Stevenson’s books are quite hard to find, but I was able to buy a copy of Celia’s House a few years ago. The novel takes place over the course of about 40 years and focuses on the lives and fortune of the Dunne family and their family estate, Dinnian, in Scotland. Humphrey Dunne inherits the estate in 1905 from Celia Dunne, with the stipulation that Dunnian will be passed to Humphrey’s daughter, Celia, when she comes of age.

Some of the plot is a little predictable; for example, when the elder Celia states that Dunnian be passed on to the younger Celia, the younger Celia hasn’t even been born yet—so it’s pretty obvious that there will indeed be another Celia to carry on the family name. Because the book takes place over a larger period of time, there were also large gaps between events; for example, Stevenson doesn’t really describe what happens when Celia receives her inheritance or her reaction to it. In fact, the book isn’t so much about Celia as it is about the family in general.

Nonetheless, there are a few strong points to the book, including the romance—Steven describes perfectly the agony (and ecstasy) of young love. Still, I didn’t think this book was quite as strong as some of the other DE Stevenson novels I’ve read.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L Sayers


Pages: 403
Original date of publication: 1937
My copy: 2006 (Harper Mystery)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Barnes and Noble, May 2010

I have slowly been winding my way through the iconic Lord Peter Wimsey series, based on publication date, and I’ve wound down with Busman’s Honeymoon. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are newlyweds who decide to spend their honeymoon in the countryside at Talboys, a farmhouse in Herfordshire. But their idyll is shattered when the former owner of their house is found dead in the cellar…

The title is a takeoff on the phrase busman’s holiday; the idea being that, while of vacation or holiday, someone does something that’s similar to their line of work. Of course, Lord Peter and Harriet’s wedding is supposed to be a break from crime, but they nonetheless find themselves solving one all the same.

In all, I thought this was a strong ending to the series—Sayers wraps up a few loose ends in the Lord Peter/Harriet/Bunter storyline (and Bunter gets a more significant role in this book, which I was glad to see). Lord peter and Harriet don’t have a typical relationship; he likes that she’s not a typical woman and that she challenges him, but at the same time there’s a lot of tension between them. And it’s interesting to see how they try not to slide into the gender roles that they’re supposed to fill. We also see Peter’s shell shock (alluded to in previous novels) firsthand.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: Letters From Egypt, by Lucie Duff Gordon


Pages: 383
Original date of publication: 1865
My copy: 1986 (Virago)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Ebay, February 2011

A friend to George Meredith, Thackeray, and other notables of that time, Lucie Duff Gordon (1821-1969) was raised in a radical, intellectual family and imbued with a sense of adventure; her imagination roamed father than the usual Grand Tour. In 1862, she took a tour to South Africa, attempting to recover from tuberculosis; when that didn’t succeed, she went to Egypt, where her son-in-law was a banker. Although her daughter and son-in-law lived in Alexandria, Gordon spent much of her time in Luxor, living in a ruined house above a temple. Her letters were alternately written to her husband, Sir Alexander Duff Gordon; her mother; and her daughter.

Gordon’s letters reveal someone with a high amount of inquisitiveness and cultural sensitivity; Gordon frees herself from the usual ways that other Europeans stereotyped Egyptians at the time. She was there just as the Europeans were modernizing Egypt, represented by the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, the year Gordon passed away. Her letters reflect the changes to rural Egypt that were occurring, as well as observing social systems that were in place (especially criticizing the corvee, which was a system of forced labor that was used to build the Canal), and she was dismayed by the poverty that she witnessed while in Luxor.

Gordon’s tone is lively; perceptive; she had a keen interest in the Egyptian people and their history, and she interacted with the often, especially as an amateur doctor (Hakeemah). “I am in love with the Arabs’ ways, and I have contrived to see and know more of family life than many Europeans who have lived here for years,” she wrote. So we meet a wide variety of people, including Omar, her faithful servant. In all, a lively, entertaining collection of letters.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher


Pages: 268
Original date of publication: 1924
My copy: 2008 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, November 2011

Set in small-town America around the time it was written, this novel explores gender roles and how they affect families, and one family in particular. Lester Knapp is an accountant for a department store; his wife, Evangeline, is a housewife raising their three children. They both perform the roles expected of them by society, yet neither is suited to their role and neither is particularly happy. When Lester is injured in an accident that leaves him home-bound, his wife goes to work—to the benefit of everyone in the family.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher gets her reader deep into the heads of her characters, so we can understand exactly what they’re like and so that we get a three-dimensional view of the situation. Even the children’s point of view is well represented—especially Stephen, aged 5, who fears having his Teddy taken away to be washed. Therefore, we get the truth of a situation without the biases of your traditional narrator and so that the reader can see exactly what’s going on under the surface. While all the characters in the novel are lovable, my favorite is Lester—a dreamy poetry lover who turns out to excel as a homemaker and discovers a new-found appreciation for his children and their talents.

Fisher believed strongly in the strength of one’s internal personal life over external considerations. And the strength of this novel is what it says about American culture in general. Small town life is famous for being busybody-like; everyone knew your business and involved themselves in it, and if you strayed away from that, you’d be ostracized. So this novel serves as a sort of criticism of that way of life and what it represents. None of the Knapp family really has the freedom to do what suits them personally; they’re all at the mercy of what society dictates. In all, an incredible novel, with the wheelchair representing how social expectations can bind us all.

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