Monthly Archives: February 2013

Year of 52 Books: Rounding up, rounding out, rounding off

So things got kind of crazy there for awhile and even though I was reading like crazy, the already-way-behind-schedule reviewing process went from a slow trickle to nothing at all. Cap it all off with a more-than-a-month-long stint as The Plague House, where at least one member of our family of three was sick at all times, and yeah. The final tally never happened.

But life is slowly getting back on track and here’s the final tally.

Yes, I did read 52 books this year.

In full, I actually read 61, but some of those were what I considered “aside” books; ones I wasn’t going to count toward the final tally in any event because it felt like taking a break from a project to read them. Some of these additional 9 books were fluffy free-on-the-Kindle self-published chick-flick-lit type books that I read in an afternoon, a couple were re-reads from earlier in the year, etc. Because I told myself they weren’t for this project, I won’t list the titles here.

I also started a handful of books which I did not finish for various reasons such as lack of interest at the time, distraction, prioritizing, the fact that my life took a crazy turn and suddenly I just wanted to read YA and not depressing classics for awhile, etc. I will probably finish all of these at some point, though. These books were as follows:

  • The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller
  • The House of Mirth (reread), by Edith Wharton
  • The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, by Doug Stewart
  • As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, by Joan Reardon

I did “read” several books in audiobook form. All the audiobooks I listened to were produced and read by B. J. Harrison of The Classic Tales podcast. If you haven’t already subscribed to this podcast, I strongly suggest you do so because, hey, free, but also really great productions. I’ve been listening since 2007ish and the quality is consistently great. (And no, Classic Tales has no idea I exist; these opinions are all my own.)

If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not ever going to finish posting full reviews for all of the 52 books, so I’m including a list here of the full 52, plus stars and mini-reviews where I feel like it. I may come back in the coming weeks and write a more complete review for some of the ones I found most interesting (either in a good or bad way), but for now, and without further ado, I give you…

The LitGroupie 2012 Year of 52 Books List!

  1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson. 4 stars. Review here.
  2. The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, by Karen Karbo. 1.5 stars. Review here.
  3. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. 5 stars. Review here.
  4. Longitude, by Dava Sobel. 4 stars. Review here.
  5. Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson. 5 stars. Review here.
  6. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. 5 stars. Review here.
  7. Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale. 4 stars. Review here.
  8. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. 4 stars. Review here.
  9. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. 5 stars. Review here.
  10. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. 3 stars. Review here.
  11. The Shakespeare Manuscript, by Stewart Buettner. 2 stars. Review here.
  12. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. 4 stars. Review here.
  13. The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas, père. 3 stars. Review here.
  14. The Moonspinners, by Mary Stewart. 4 stars. Review here.
  15. How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. 3 stars. Review here.
  16. Bridget Jones’ Diary, by Helen Fielding. 3 stars. Review here.
  17. The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. 4 stars. Audiobook. Review here.
  18. The Game, by Laurie R. King. 4 stars. Review here.
  19. Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde. 5 stars. Review here.
  20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike. 5 stars. Review here.
  21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz. 4 stars. Review here.
  22. Enemies: A Love Story, by Josh Schollmeyer. 3 stars. The story of the relationship between Ed Siskel and Roger Ebert. It felt like reading one of those documentaries they show on TV with the quotes from various people who knew the interested parties.
  23. Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer. 3 stars. My first experience with Heyer and it was delightful. Good, clean Regency fun, although I did want to smack several characters upside the head at several different points. But, you know, in a good way.
  24. The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan. 3 stars. Read this for book club and enjoyed it. The prose was more lyrical and less forced than my previous Amy Tan experiences and I thought the story was well-told.
  25. A Breath of Eyre, by Eve Marie Mont. 4 stars. Clever re-imagining-ish of Brontë wherein a girl who is a scholarship student at an upscale boarding school manages to read herself into the Jane Eyre story. Fun parallels between the two stories, although some of the in-book portions felt like too much text had been lifted straight from Brontë and made the pace drag a little. Believable conclusions and romance, given the premise.
  26. Chalice, by Robin McKinley. 5 stars. This is a perennial re-read for me and I still think the best word for it is “incandescent.”
  27. A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster. 4 stars. Audiobook. It was good to re-visit this, and some of the longer passages in the book seem less trudgy when you’re listening to them rather than reading them yourself. George Emerson is still dreamy.
  28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King. 5 stars. Review here.
  29. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. 5 stars. Audiobook. I’ve always loved this book and the recording buckled several swashes thoroughly.
  30. Dragonhaven, by Robin McKinley. 5 stars. Another perennial re-read. Seriously, if you haven’t read any Robin McKinley, just go read all of her books right now. (Except maybe Deerskin, which is wonderful but not for the faint-of-heart. Think gut-wrenching like-unto-but-still-way-different-than Wintergirls.)
  31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King. 5 stars. Review here.
  32. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. 5 stars. Seriously, how had I not read this before? A WWII story told from the POV of Death, which sounds like it would be awful but is the very opposite. This book also made me cry. So, so, so good.
  33. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. 3.5 stars. This book was good but it makes me exhausted to think of reading it, let alone writing it. Another book club pick, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with this while I was reading it, especially with some of the choices in how religion is portrayed, but it all sorted itself out in the end. Worth the time investment to read.
  34. The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley. 3 stars. Audiobook. Another dashing tale of derring-do wonderfully read by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales.
  35. Endlessly, by Kiersten White. 5 stars. Can I just say how much I loved the Paranormalcy series (this is the final book in the trilogy)? Inventive, hilarious, swoon-worthy, and endlessly creative (you see what I did there?) without being over-the-top or fluffy. And oh, the snark. The glorious, glorious snark. A most satisfying conclusion.
  36. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. 5 stars. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book but I still love how creepy and awesome it is.
  37. The Actor and the Housewife, by Shannon Hale. 5 stars. Yes, I know. The title makes it sound like the chickiest of fluffy chicklit ever. But this book has substance and soul, wit and heart, and takes a deep look at some difficult questions. No, I’m not joking. You absolutely should read this book. It is one of the few books that makes me laugh until I cry and also produces real, for-truly sobbing tears, of both the heartbreaking and cathartic type. Did I mention you need to read this book?
  38. Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, by Bill Bryson. 1 star. Oh, how I wanted to like this book, because of all the traveling and neat places and things he sees (hence the fact that I actually finished it). But I couldn’t get past, well, Bryson. He is not a pleasant traveling companion. I know we were supposed to share Bryson’s contempt for his travel buddy Katz (from his college-aged Grand Tour, as it were), but I mostly just felt sorry for Katz and could easily chalk up Katz’s bad mood on his being stuck with Bryson. The humor was of the smugly superior sort that assumes the reader also wants to sneer at everyone the author personally happens to disagree with (“I needed coffee like Dan Quayle needs help on an IQ test”); the tone bounced back and forth between hating this city for not going ahead with any development projects and hating that city for having over-developed in exactly the way he just said city A should do things; and the itinerary seems to have a contractual obligation to stop and discuss the red-light district in every city he visits (no actual paying trips to the red-light district, mostly just academic descriptions of it. Oh, and of any topless sunbathing in the vicinity). My disgust for the author and the book as a whole deepened when I found out in the fourth-to-last paragraph of the book that, rather than being a single man who goes on this months-long trip with the frequent fixation on said topless sunbathing and other woman-objectifying commentary throughout, the author was not only married but a father (he decides against continuing his tour into Asia in part because “[m]y long-suffering wife was pregnant with her semiannual baby”). Way to be classy. I’d love to take this tour of Europe again with someone I like and who is actually enjoying the voyage rather than sneering at everyone and everything.
  39. Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 5 stars.
  40. The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 4 stars.
  41. The Mislaid Magician, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 4 stars. This charming trilogy was the antidote I needed after read #38. This trilogy is basically Regency fantasy. Think Jane Austen, but with enchanted chocolate pots and charm bags. And swoony magicians and such. The first book is the best, but the others are delightful as well.
  42. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. 5 stars.
  43. Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones. 4 stars.
  44. House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones. 3 stars. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is another perennial re-read, I had only read Castle in the Air once and had never read House of Many Ways before. I liked both of the sequels, but my favorite part of what I guess I’ll call the Ingary trilogy is the Howl-Sophie dynamic, and you just don’t get that as much in the later books, even though these books are delightful in their own rights.
  45. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. 5 stars. My favorite of the three books. This is the one that deserves to be two movies, rather than Mockingjay, but that’s a story for another post.
  46. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 5 stars. Audiobook. I love this story, and it had been long enough since my last reading that I couldn’t quite remember all the twists and turns. Spooky and awesome.
  47. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. 3 stars. I love the way the series ends, but I had forgotten just what a horrible book this is in terms of what has to actually happen to get to that ending. The book as a whole I think is more of a 1.5 star until she wraps things up and then I’d give it 4.5, so we’ll average it out to three. But really. Horrible. (The events, not the writing, which is still good.)
  48. The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 3 stars. Audiobook. I enjoyed the adventuresome parts of this story, although Jurassic Park may have ruined some of it for me. It also took a little while to get past the automatic squick reflex of any talk of “species superiority” as regards ethnicity and just enjoy the rest of the adventure. Yes, I know, different times and all, but the racism (although benign in its intent) got rather uncomfortable in places.
  49. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. 5 stars. Wow. I just. I can’t. This book. Yes. Very yes. Snark, wit, cunning, planning, boarding school, boys, the dilemma of I-want-to-be-respected-and-recognized-as-being-as-smart-and-resourceful-as-I-am-but-I-also-like-having-a-boyfriend, secret fraternities, and grammar. Yes, you read that right. Smart, sexy, feminine and feminist, Frankie is one of the best I’ve seen in the “girls who do things” canon. And not just because she’s kind of an anarchist grammarian. READ THIS BOOK.
  50. The Yellow Room Conspiracy, by Peter Dickinson. 4 stars. A really great mystery that doesn’t feel like a whodunnit. I don’t know how else to describe this except that if you like Downton Abbey this feels kind of like that but really not at all.
  51. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. 5 stars. Audiobook. Because how could running Christmas errands be better than doing it while listening to Dickens? A sentimental but deserved favorite, and a really great reading, again by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales.
  52. The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. 5 stars. This is my other traditional Christmas read. I still get indignant when I read it about the travesty of a movie adaptation they made (which, full disclosure, I haven’t watched, but having read the spoilers and seen that they’ve made a smart English boy a brooding American teen, there’s an EVIL TWIN conspiracy thrown in and for some reason there is now a chase through a shopping mall—?!—I still feel qualified to judge it). Every chapter, nay, every paragraph and sentence, just screams out cinematographically. It’s like reading a movie. It’s all there. Why on earth would you change it, especially in post-Harry Potter days when you KNOW that audiences have NO PROBLEMS accepting a British pre-teen boy as a hero? But anyway. This is another book that you should read if you have any love for fantasy, especially fantasy that builds off of (but is not) the Arthurian canon. And, bonus, it’s part of a series! More books = more enjoyment!

And for the winner of the coveted Six Stars, I’ve limited it to books that I read for the first time this year, because otherwise my perennial re-reads would be unfairly represented (and we all know that Persuasion gets at least ten stars anyway). So I’m going to say the Six Stars winner is a tie between two books:

  • Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King (#31)
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (#49)
  • Honorable mentions to: I Capture the Castle (#3), Destined (#20), and The Book Thief (#32)

So there you have it, folks. The Year of 52 Books challenge has been completed. What a great year of reading, and it was fun to look back at this list and remember what I was doing during the year based on what book I was reading at the time. I’m already on book I think 9 or 10 this year (being sick leaves a lot of time for reading) and am looking forward to next year’s literary reminiscing.

(Thanks to everyone who actually stuck around this long!)

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19, 20, 21: Thursday Next, Destined, and Jane Austen Education

19. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

*****

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I truly think that there is no more brilliant writer working today than Jasper Fforde when it comes to the sheer magic, creativity and genius of building alternate worlds and dimensions and realities. (If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.) That being said, I still haven’t made it all the way through the Thursday Next series (this is book #2 and this was the first time I’d read it). I think probably it’s because I know there is only so much Thursday Next in the world and I want to savor it all, and have the joy of anticipation in looking forward to reading more.

For those who don’t know about Thursday Next, she is a detective working for the SpecOps police force in an alternate dimension-type universe where there are such things as Literary Police, the Crimean War is still going strong (well, at the time of the books, which take place in the mid-1980s of this particular universe), people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show-type productions of Shakespeare plays (audience participation galore), and rogue Baconians go door-to-door to try and convince people that Francis Bacon was the REAL author of Shakespeare’s plays. Time travel is possible (there’s a whole police division called the Chronoguard) and with the right inventions you can actually step into the printed word and meet literary characters. This ability comes into play in this book as Thursday joins JurisFiction, the intra-literary police force (her mentor is Miss Havisham, yes that one), and starts learning the ropes to solve literary crimes.

To say this book and this series was completely lovely and brilliant and amazing just doesn’t quite cover it. Trust me, just start reading the Thursday Next books for yourself if you haven’t already done so (Book One is The Eyre Affair). Five stars.

 

20. Destined, by Aprilynne Pike

*****

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I started reading Aprilynne Pike’s Wings series last year, just as book three came out, in the mistaken belief that it was a trilogy and I wouldn’t have to wait months for the resolution of any evil cliff-hangers. Hah. It became clear to me about 5 pages from the end when things reeeeeeeaaaaalllly weren’t winding up fast enough that I’d been mistaken and yes, book three ended on one of the most evil cliffhangers I’ve seen since Catching Fire.

I’ve talked elsewhere about my feelings on Twilight, but I’ll sum up here by saying that, yes, I do love the Twilight books like I love cotton candy: it’s sweet, it’s fluffy, it reminds you of dates at the amusement park with your high school crush, and it’s not something you should eat all the time or you’ll get sick. Also, the main character bugged the crap out of me until book four when she finally became interesting to herself and therefore to me.

So when I say that the Wings series is kind of what Twilight would have been like if the main character were strong and assertive and solved problems and could take care of herself and had other things going on in her life besides an all-consuming love for a boy, that’s a compliment. Laurel is everything I wished Bella was and more. The mythology that Pike has created for this world is fascinating, the prose is fluid and clear, and yes, the boys in the inevitable YA love triangle are both amazing. (Although I really wish I could figure out how to pronounce “Tamani.”)

So much for the series as a whole. Destined was the best capstone to a series that I’ve read in a long, long time. I can’t imagine a more perfect way for this story to wrap up. The action of the book takes place mostly in a 24-hour period immediately following the evil cliffhanger from book 3 but never feels drawn-out or clunky; you’re turning pages as fast as possible to see what happens and how on earth can they possibly get out of this horrible mess? But everything works out just as it should. Nothing feels forced or contrived; nor does it feel like Pike wimped out or pulled any punches. And the epilogue, oh my goodness. I may cry gratuitously at movies and Taylor Swift songs (that’s a whole ‘nother story), but it takes a lot for a book to make me cry. So when I say that I cried at the epilogue—not ugly Bridge to Terebithia tears or wrenching middle-of-Hunger-Games tears, but cathartic tears and those tears you get when everything is just filled with a sense of rightness—that’s high praise.

Even if you think you’re sick of the whole YA paranormal romance type of series, I suggest you check out the Wings books. They’re a prime example of the genre done right. I’m looking forward to finding out what else Pike has up her sleeve in her career; this series is a most auspicious beginning. Five stars.

 

21. A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz

****

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I really enjoyed seeing Jane Austen from the perspective of a male grad student skeptic and how he came to learn to love Austen, as well as learning life lessons from her books. His takeaway lessons from the novels were not the same as mine in a lot of cases (and a few points he brought up I don’t think I quite agree with), but in some other cases he put something so brilliantly that it was what I hadn’t realized I’d been thinking all along. His comparison between the writing voices of Austen and Joyce, for example, nailed exactly what I’ve thought about the two styles for quite some time.

Deresiewicz’s writing style is friendly and comfortable but also very smart, and I thought the personal anecdotes and relations he made between his life and how he came to Austen were quite interesting. I don’t know if this book will convert any non-believers (which seems to be at least part of the point he’s writing from), but it’s worth picking up if you are even a casual appreciator of Jane Austen. Four stars.

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