Tag Archives: Year of 52 Books

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

*****

fforde-lost_in_a_good_book

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

*****

destined2

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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Skipping around: Three Mary Russell books (Yo52B #18, 28 and 31)

I’m skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren’t those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven’t, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I’ve spoken to you at all in the past two years there’s a 90% chance I’ve recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910’s and 1920’s who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King’s Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I’ve read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King

****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O’Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what’s coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I’d heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that’s because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn’t work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary’s parents’ estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can’t think of anything else to say that won’t give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven’t started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You’ll Be Glad You Read list.

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Year of 52 Books #13: The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, père

***

 

I love the idea of gardening but I am an irredeemable plant-killer.

I can back up this assertion.

Ninth-grade biology was traumatizing in many ways (anyone else who took Mr. Ekberg’s class can attest to this), but one of the assignments I actually was looking forward to was the project for the asexual reproduction unit. We had to grow and tend an asexually-reproducing plant and keep it alive until it reproduced asexually (yes, I am deriving a disproportionate amount of amusement from typing “asexual” so many times. In some ways I might still be in ninth grade).

“If you’re not so great with plants,” Mr. Ekberg told us, “try a bryophyllum. They’re pretty much impossible to kill.” My ears perked up. My previous biology project—growing a flower from a seed—had failed spectacularly. Come to think of it, all my elementary school and primary class bean sprouts had met similarly sad fates. Bryophyllum sounded right up my alley.

For those of you who don’t know what a bryophyllum is, it looks a-like this:

Cute, right? All those little flowers on the edges are the asexually-reproduced new plants.

I marched up to Mr. Ekberg’s desk with the other students to get my bryophyllum starter. I cradled it carefully all the way home. This was going to be my first real, successful plant, I just knew it. I’d keep it alive until it reproduced and get an A on my assignment but then I’d also keep it alive FOREVER. This plant was going to come to college with me, just you wait and see. Hadn’t the teacher said they were impossible to kill? Yes. Yes, he had. He had even gone further: “If you can manage to kill a bryophyllum, you should probably just give up on plants altogether.”

Well, I did get an A on my assignment. Two days later the bryophyllum went from beautiful, A-grade flowering to brown, dry, dead practically overnight.

I pretty much gave up on plants altogether. Except in books. Because, as we know, the plants in books cannot die merely from being in my presence. (They may not have taught you that in biology, but I am here to share important tidbits like that.) This is part of the reason why I like books which feature gardens or plants or growing things.

So I was excited for this book. It was another book club read. Kristen already described it (aptly) as a horticultural thriller. It follows the efforts of a tulip breeder, Cornelius, to create a perfect black tulip and win the national prize. He must battle his neighbor’s jealous efforts to thwart Cornelius and steal the prize for his own. He must deal with false imprisonment. He must learn to balance his love of tulips with his love of Rosa, the prisonkeeper’s daughter. And he must not get too entangled in political drama. Can he do it? Will his fortunes and love affairs flower like a prize black tulip or wither like my ninth-grade bryophyllum? Will the reader accidentally learn some history on the way? Will good times be had by all?

This book moved much more quickly than the other Dumas works I’ve read, but felt slightly less richly developed. It was still an enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone else who, like me, dreams of the flowers they cannot grow. Or, you know, who just likes a good horticultural thriller. Three stars.

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Year of 52 Books #12: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

****

Not too much to say about this one, since everyone has read it or seen the movie and I have little to add.

I re-read this book in preparation for the movie, as it had been about two years since the first time I’d read it. I was impressed again by the urgency of the writing, how the pace keeps moving the reader along, as if by staying in one spot too long the reader, too, will get attacked by giant flying fireballs. As before, I cried for Rue (even though I cry at the drop of the hat where movies are concerned—it’s ridiculous, really—it takes a lot for a book to make me cry, so this is fairly high praise). Katniss frustrates me some of the time because it seems like she switches back and forth very quickly at times from competent kick-ace huntress to “wait, what, you actually like like me?” and the contrast seems choppy and uncharacteristic. But that’s probably just me. All in all I still really liked it. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to unpack my boxes of books and re-read the rest of the trilogy. Four stars.

If you’ll indulge my other nerdy obsession, I would like to take a moment here and move away from books to comment briefly on the movie. I thought it was well done—the visuals (when they weren’t obscured by shaky cam) were spot-on; the actors were well-cast, and I loved the adaptation choices they made to help move the story out of Katniss’ head and onto the screen by showing the games control room and the commentary by Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith (see, e.g., the tracker jacker scene). That last bit may have to do with my personal opinion that anything which introduces more Stanley Tucci into a situation is a good thing, though.

I had issues with the overuse of the shaky cam. To clarify, I have absolutely no complaints with the use of shaky cam during the actual games portion of the movie. It lends a good sense of realism to the situation, fits with the emotion of the scene, and also keeps me from having to see too many gory details (and, let’s be honest, kept it a PG-13 rather than an R so more of the books’ target audience could see the movie). HOWEVER. There is no need whatsoever to use the shaky cam while showing opening expository shots of miners walking home from work. If you’re giving your audience a miner-induced headache from immediate shaky cam two minutes into the movie, you’ve got a problem.

Shaky cam aside, though, I liked the movie, but was slightly disappointed in it. It seemed like with all the positives they had going for it—the right cast, right director, right adaptation, right visuals, etc.—they still somehow missed giving it that elusive element called “heart.” I enjoyed the film but it rang a little bit hollow for me. I never truly connected with it. I don’t think I would have sponsored any of the Tributes except possibly Rue, and even then I didn’t cry half so hard for her in the movie as I did in the book. And if you know how ridiculous my crying-at-movies level has gotten, that’s the best example I can give. I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t grab me by the shoulders and make me care like the book did.

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Year of 52 Books #11: Shakespeare Manuscript

The Shakespeare Manuscript, by Stewart Buettner

**

I picked this book up by browsing through the Kindle Top 100 selling free books list. The premise looked interesting to me—an old manuscript that appears to be an earlier draft of the Hamlet story, or more accurately, a prequel to Hamlet, shows up in a trunk of old documents and a struggling theater troupe decides to mount a production in hopes that it will bring them the boost they need. And it was interesting, and even bordered on can’t-put-it-down (I really wanted to see what happened next), but ultimately it was more frustrating than anything else.

You see, one of the ground rules of writing is Show, Don’t Tell. From reading the description of this book and the author’s experience in writing, I don’t know if he’s a trained writer; I got the impression that he’s something else (a theater type, maybe?) who got an idea and decided to write a book about it. I think it’s also semi-self-published, which, good for him. But at any rate it seems clear that even if he is a trained writer, he missed class the day they explained Show, Don’t Tell.

I’m not talking about his descriptive diction or his approach to writing individual scenes. I’m talking about plot. Put simply: too much of the action took place offstage. There were so many times in this book when MAJOR plot points were not shown; someone told us about them later in passing. I felt severely cheated in a lot of instances because even the telling tended to gloss over what I thought were important parts. One of the more egregious examples: one chapter ends with one of the major characters being rushed away from the rehearsal retreat in an ambulance. It’s not until several chapters later that anyone even mentions him again and we find out what happened. And those intervening chapters are full of scenes and incidents where all the people who watched the ambulance leave are together; where it would be natural and right to explain what the resolution of that particular piece of drama is; where, in short, it feels unnatural to NOT mention it. This isn’t creating an aura of mystery or suspense to serve the plot of the story; this is straight up withholding information from the reader just because you want to have a big shocking reveal later.

(It’s like starting Gone With the Wind with the picnic at Tara and then skipping ahead to a scene where Scarlett, in between wondering if Rhett really loves her or that Belle Watling character, thinks in passing that he just hasn’t been the same since Atlanta got burned down and everything was destroyed and I nearly starved to death in the ruins of Tara, and does he really like me or is it just in my imagination?)

Other scenes of omission (sorry; my dad is hopelessly addicted to puns and sometimes I just can’t help myself) aren’t as obvious, but they are just as annoying. Yes, sometimes it’s a good and effective trick to show a scene through its aftermath, but you actually have to 1) explain enough of what happened in the scene that the aftermath makes sense and 2) have the aftermath actually move somewhere and have some sort of action or resolution in re: said scene. I feel like I got half of a good novel: the anguished uncertainty of love interior monologue half. There were so many words spent on what the two main viewpoint characters thought of their respective love interests that it really underscored how many words WEREN’T said about actual plot or action scenes.

Things I would love to have seen or to have had explained:

*What is up with the main character’s sudden-onset agoraphobia anyway? As in, how did it get started and how is she suddenly miraculously okay enough with it to function?

*What is up with the dead brother/son that nobody ever mentions? Even when they finally get to this explanation, it isn’t explained.

*What was the horrible thing the professor said to the love interest that caused the major insurmountable fight that is then surmounted in roughly two minutes of interior monologue?

*What’s the backstory between main character and skeazy actor? It’s mentioned so many times that there IS a backstory but we are NEVER given any details.

*Did the wife really flirt with the brother-in-law or was the husband just really drunk?

*Where the heck did that divorce come from? (Oh, wait, left field is where.)

*What happened after said divorce came out of said left field?

*Why is main character still fighting with older brother? Why does older brother put up with it? Why does he work for a politician?

*While we’re at it, what’s the deal with brother-in-law? Or with secretary? Or with any number of people, all of whom seem to be important cogs in this book and have important scenes that ALL HAPPEN OFFSTAGE?

*Is British bookseller actually creepy or is it just the aftereffects of crazy dad’s amnesia?

*Who really wrote the manuscript? (Actually, this one I was okay with the ambiguity on—this book is more about the waves the manuscript causes than the actual manuscript itself. It’s just that, with all the other stuff that got left out, I felt like maybe the author could have thrown us a small bone on this one.)

In short: just because one character gets major amnesia doesn’t mean you have to make the reader feel like she also got amnesia and forgot half of the book.

I can only give this book two stars, which really makes me sad, because I wanted so badly to like it and because it really was gripping enough that I read it straight through in a fever of wanting to know what happens next. But if a book refuses to tell you what happened before, what’s happening now or what happens next, the best premise in the world can’t save it. Two stars.

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Year of 52 Books #10: Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

***

Surprisingly, this was not a re-read for me. I know this book has been around forever and I had been hearing of it for a long time. What may be more surprising, though, is that with all the buzz, I really didn’t know anything about the plot going into this book. I picked it up as a Kindle Daily Deal (oh, KDD, how I love thee!) because I like buying titles I recognize for cheap as free.

I feel that a little context is necessary for my review. The week before we made the big cross-country move, my husband was already in Florida getting things set up and starting his job. I was back in Utah packing up everything and taking care of our 18-month-old son, who decided to get RSV exactly eight days before we were scheduled to fly out and two days before my husband was supposed to come home to help me with the final arrangements and such. Long and harrowing story short, I ended up spending a very long and very bad night in the hospital as they monitored my son’s breathing and heart rate (fortunately they didn’t end up having to put him on oxygen and he was better enough to go home the next day). I got very little sleep, due to both the assorted blinking and beeping coming from the monitors and an overabundance of worry from various sources, listed here in roughly descending order: 1) my son, 2) the fact that my husband was out-of-state, 3) the fact that I didn’t have time for this emergency what with the tight packing schedule, 4) the fact that I was moving cross country soon, and 5) the fact that I was hungry and thirsty and suspected that the hospital staff had forgotten their promise to bring me some cheese and crackers and a cup of ice water.

To try and get my mind off of these various issues, I started reading a new book on my Kindle app on my iPhone, and happened to choose Life of Pi. Thus I did not start reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances, nor did I finish reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances. Turns out that a toddler with RSV tends to pass it on to you if he coughs in your face repeatedly because he’s too exhausted to turn his head away from you and is so sick and sad that you can’t put him down for more than 30 seconds at a time. So, three days after our hospital stay, I was fighting through RSV myself while packing up two moving pods. Fortunately my bout did not require any hospital time, but I did spend the bulk of the next day curled up with my iPhone on an air mattress, a lump of pathetic misery, finishing this book. (Needless to say, this move was not the smoothest or most organized one we’ve ever made.)

But as for the book itself: I liked it. It was able to distract me enough from the crappy situation I was going through and entertain and even uplift me. My favorite part was the description of the events leading to Pi’s becoming a devout follower and active practicer of three different religions at once (Hindu, Islam and Christianity). I loved his descriptions of his first encounters with other religions and how he came to love his two adopted religions as well as the religion of his birth. I wish that this theme had been kept up a little more throughout the section on the Pacific Ocean. Not that the Pacific Ocean wasn’t exciting and enthralling as well; but it didn’t have the heart of the book that I had fallen in love with at the beginning, the tripartite faith of this young man.

Like The Princess Bride, this book is written as a frame story, with the narrator ostensibly interviewing an older Pi about his life story. Since, as I said, I knew basically nothing about this book going in, and my Kindle edition didn’t specifically say “A Novel” on it, I wasn’t sure at first if this was fiction or non-fiction. It added another layer to the reading experience for me, wondering if it was actually true or not. I know that part of the point of the book is to look at what is or isn’t true and choose the story that means the most to us, but it still was sad to determine for certain that this book was fiction after I finished reading it, and I think that revelation made me like it a little less than I had. That’s not really fair to the author, of course; but that’s the way it is.

All in all, this book was a solid good read and a much-needed distraction for me during that last horrible week before the move. I don’t know if I would have liked it more or less if I’d read it in different circumstances, but as it is I can recommend it as a good book, as long as you don’t get too squeamish (certain of the lifeboat scenes are a bit gruesome). Three stars.

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