Book reviews and the Ultimate Reading Challenge

At first I was resistant to it, because it seemed like a lot of work. But more and more people suggested that I should do it, so I caved. (By more or more, I mean two. That apparently is my threshold for peer pressure.) So I am now doing the Ultimate Reading Challenge 2015. It sounds pretty impressive, non? Well, so far I’ve just been reading books and fitting them in where I can on the list. It will be later on in the year where I’m going to actually have to put any thought into it.

Have you seen the reading challenge. It’s 52 books, with different categories like “a book you were supposed to read in high school but didn’t” or “one of your Mom’s favourite books,” stuff like that. So it’s all very subjective and pliable, but it still gets you reading new types of books. I’m nothing if not a fan of diversity in reading, so it seems great. You can see the full list and challenge here, at Pop Sugar. So far in 2015 (can you believe it’s 2015?) I’m on a reading quick, so I’m making quick progress through the list. SO FAR. I tell you, a couple of months from now I think I’ll be lucky if I remember how to read.

The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Reading Challenge Category: A book that was originally written in a different language

Book Description: Lucas Corso is a book detective, a middle-aged mercenary hired to hunt down rare editions for wealthy and unscrupulous clients. When a well-known bibliophile is found dead, leaving behind part of the original manuscript of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Corso is brought in to authenticate the fragment. He is soon drawn into a swirling plot involving devil worship, occult practices, and swashbuckling derring-do among a cast of characters bearing a suspicious resemblance to those of Dumas’s masterpiece. Aided by a mysterious beauty named for a Conan Doyle heroine, Corso travels from Madrid to Toledo to Paris on the killer’s trail in this twisty intellectual romp through the book world.

My review: I can’t really muster up much more than a resounding meh for this one. I had high hopes, it seemed really interesting. But other than having a lot of in-jokes for super literary folks (and if that’s your thing, kudos to you, it just seemed super pretentious to me), it left me a little cold. The plot line was improbably, maybe deliberately so, as Perez-Reverte bases the book on nineteeth-century adventure serials. What I just couldn’t get over was the old, grizzled, admittedly unattractive main character screwing his way through a bevy of babes, who were all out to seduce him or save him. *giant eye roll* I’m just over that whole story line. It’s not just implausible, it’s impossible. Old, ugly writers, get a life. Or at the very least make your male heroes attractive, so it makes sense that the 19 year olds want to jump into bed with him.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Reading Challenge category: A book from an author you haven’t read yet

Book description: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’ best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others.

My review: I loved this book. I was so worried about all the characters, I stayed up at night thinking about them (in a good way). This book actually made me realize that I’m changing as a reader. I used to be all about the plot – it was the only thing that interested me. I found character-driven novels dull. But now … all of a sudden I’m loving the character novels. Maybe I’ve just been lucking out with great books lately, but this one was a real gem.

Also, it is set in college, which I find a shockingly under-represented era in novels these days. Considering that nowadays, college or university is where people start to find themselves (as opposed to high school back in the day), it’s bizarre that novels seem to only be set in high school, or with fully-formed adults out in the world. In high school, I was a child, as was everyone else around me, and didn’t really start to develop into the person I was going to become until I was independent of my parents, out in the world. Maybe that’s not everyone’s experience, but I think it’s more true than not. Which is why I loved this book – newly developed people trying to feel their way through life as they grow up and make the big mistakes. Also, it’s about baseball. I’ll be the first person to tell you that baseball has got to be the most boring sport in the world, and yet the way this was written, it actually made me want to go out and watch a game. Now that’s talent. Read this book.

The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

Reading Challenge category: A memoir

Book description: J.R. Moehringer grew up captivated by a voice. It was the voice of his father, a New York City disc jockey who vanished before J.R. spoke his first word. Sitting on the stoop, pressing an ear to the radio, J.R. would strain to hear in that plummy baritone the secrets of masculinity and identity. Though J.R.’s mother was his world, his rock, he craved something more, something faintly and hauntingly audible only in The Voice. At eight years old, suddenly unable to find The Voice on the radio, J.R. turned in desperation to the bar on the corner, where he found a rousing chorus of new voices. The alphas along the bar–including J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike; Colt, a Yogi Bear sound-alike; and Joey D, a softhearted brawler–took J.R. to the beach, to ballgames, and ultimately into their circle. They taught J.R., tended him, and provided a kind of fathering-by-committee. Torn between the stirring example of his mother and the lurid romance of the bar, J.R. tried to forge a self somewhere in the center. But when it was time for J.R. to leave home, the bar became an increasingly seductive sanctuary, a place to return and regroup during his picaresque journeys. Time and again the bar offered shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak–and eventually from reality. In the grand tradition of landmark memoirs, The Tender Bar is suspenseful, wrenching, and achingly funny.

My review: I have a dislike of memoirs on the whole. Really, very few people’s lives are exciting enough to really be made into a novel. Particularly writers. And many writers write their memoirs (write what you know, you know?) You can throw this back in my face when I publish my memoirs.

The Tender Bar is well written, I’ll give it that. But a book about a man obsessed with a bar is kind of sad, pathetic really, and actually something you kind of see everywhere. Moehringer is great with words (that’s all in the book) but I think I prefer to read his fiction – or fictionalized accounts of other people’s lives, at least.

Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr

Reading Challenge category: A book set in high school

Book description: Rule #3: Don’t stare at invisible faeries.
Aislinn has always seen faeries. Powerful and dangerous, they walk hidden in the mortal world. Aislinn fears their cruelty – especially if they learn of her Sight – and wishes she were as blind to their presence as other teens.

Rule #2: Don’t speak to invisible faeries.
Now faeries are stalking her. One of them, Keenan, who is equal parts terrifying and alluring, is trying to talk to her, asking questions Aislinn is afraid to answer.

Rule #1: Don’t ever attract their attention.
But it’s too late. Keenan is the Summer King, who has sought his queen for nine centuries. Without her, summer itself will perish. He is determined that Aislinn will become the Summer Queen at any cost — regardless of her plans or desires.

Suddenly none of the rules that have kept Aislinn safe are working anymore, and everything is on the line: her freedom; her best friend, Seth; her life; everything.

Faery intrigue, mortal love, and the clash of ancient rules and modern expectations swirl together in Melissa Marr’s stunning twenty-first-century faery tale.

My review: This book was not very good. I’m starting to get way too old for YA, I think, at least the stuff that isn’t excellently done. And Wicked Lovely is not excellent. At times, it’s barely readable. Just as I’m tired of old, unattractive men being magnets for impossibly beautiful teenagers, I am also over whiny high school girls receiving the undivided obsession of perfect, immortal royalty. I get that it’s wish fulfillment, it’s just not very likely. The ingenue thing is starting to bore me. I must be showing my age, since all of a sudden I’m much more attracted to middle-aged women who are complicated and seductive and experienced. Any way, if you are a teen who wants to get off on having impossible men fall in love with you, and still are totally into faeries, this is your book. If not, then this book has been done before, and done better.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Reading Challenge category: A book set in a different country

Book description: January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

My review: I didn’t just love this book, I fell in love with it. When I first realized the entire thing was written in letter format, I was a little leery about the whole thing. And yet, it is done so well. Even though the topics being dealt with were extremely heavy: death, war, slavery, orphans, grief – it was done with such warmth and charm and wit that you couldn’t help but smile as well. I’ve decided we should definitely move to Guernsey, as life is just irreproachably better there.

The characters were superbly developed and very romantic, and their heartaches become your heartaches. This is without a doubt the best book I’ve read in 2015 – good to set the bar high, I think.

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