Book reviews and lots of ’em

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I love taking walks with the kids out around my little village. It never fails to remind me that, holy crap, I live in Switzerland. Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you’re living your little life, stuck in the house with the kids or running to the grocery store. Sometimes you have to stop and look around and really take in where you are. It’s easy to take things for granted, something I think we all do a little too much.

I adore the poppies that grow wild in the fields I have to cross to get to the bus stop. I adore Mont Saleve, the backdrop to our life here, a crazy mysterious cliff face that rises straight up from the ground and announces in grand fashion where France begins. I love that yesterday I took the kids for a walk to the post office and stopped short when I heard the deep bleating of a herd of sheep. It made me giggle. Sheep baa-ing sounds really fake if you’re not used to it. Then X started baa-ing back and it just made my day. I’m not used to being in this kind of environment and I love it. I love my kids get to be surrounded by it.

So that’s me appreciating life today. Now down to business. I can’t remember the last time I put in some book reviews, apparently because I’ve been reading too much! I’ve been on vacation, where I read even more than I usually do. So there are more books here than I know what to do with. So, before I forget what I’ve read, here we go. There are some (well, one), truly spectacular books here. In fact, I’ll put the good ones first, in case you don’t want to read any further.

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Book description: Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses, even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages lurid with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman–self-described little man, city boy and Jew–first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam’s talent for pulp plotting meets Joe’s faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equaliser clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains”. Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicentre of comics’ golden age.

Reading Challenge category: A book with more than 500 pages

My review: This book is amazing. It was exciting and poignant and sometimes completely crazy, just like a comic book. One minute you’re in New York, the next your in darkest Antartica fighting Nazis (what?) I think my heart was a little bit broken when I finished this one, whether it was by the book itself or the fact that it was over, I’m not quite sure. This is a long one, but it’s worth your time. If you don’t believe me, trust the people who gave it the Pulitzer Prize.

 

The Waterproof Bible, by Andrew Kaufman

Book description: Rebecca Reynolds is a young woman with a most unusual and inconvenient problem: no matter how hard she tries, she can’t stop her emotions from escaping her body and entering the world around her. Luckily she’s developed a nifty way to trap and store her powerful emotions in personal objects – but how many shoeboxes can a girl fill before she feels crushed by her past?

Three events force Rebecca to change her ways: the unannounced departure of her husband, Stewart; the sudden death of Lisa, her musician sister; and, while on her way to Lisa’s funeral, a near-crash with what appears to be a giant frogwoman recklessly speeding in a Honda Civic.

Meanwhile, Lisa’s inconsolable husband skips the funeral and flies to Winnipeg where he begins a bizarre journey that strips him of everything before he can begin to see a way through his grief… all with the help of a woman who calls herself God.

Reading Challenge category: Book with nonhuman characters

My review: This was another book that was really weird, but happily so. It was fun, and kooky. You just had to set reality right behind you and go along for the ride. I liked that Rebecca was an obvious opposite-empath, and that there were these crazy frog people. I liked that it was set in Canada, in Manitoba no less, where very few books have been set. Yes, just an all around fun, sensitive book, I recommend it for when you are feeling a little goofy.

 

The Friday Society, by Adrienne Kress

Book description: Set in turn of the century London, The Friday Society follows the stories of three very intelligent and talented young women, all of whom are assistants to powerful men: Cora, lab assistant; Michiko, Japanese fight assistant; and Nellie, magician’s assistant. The three young women’s lives become inexorably intertwined after a chance meeting at a ball that ends with the discovery of a murdered mystery man.

It’s up to these three, in their own charming but bold way, to solve the murder–and the crimes they believe may be connected to it–without calling too much attention to themselves.

Set in the past but with a modern irreverent flare, this Steampunk whodunit introduces three unforgettable and very ladylike–well, relatively ladylike–heroines poised for more dangerous adventures.

My review: I had a great time with this book. It was fluffy and fun, a very irreverent take on the steampunk genre. I also love the female heroines in it. Kress was able to capture a fun spirit of girls enjoying being girls, while still saving the world. I’m sure this isn’t for everyone, but I liked it.

 

Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

Book description: Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London. But when her debilitating tuberculosis means exile, she and her devoted lady’s maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt. It is Sally who describes, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation, the odd menage marshalled by the resourceful Omar, which travels down the Nile to a new life in Luxor. When Lady Duff Gordon undoes her stays and takes to native dress, throwing herself into weekly salons; language lessons; excursions to the tombs; Sally too adapts to a new world, affording her heady and heartfelt freedoms never known before. But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill-afford, and when Sally grasps more than her status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.

My review: I read this right after reading The Friday Society. It was funny reading about the same historical period, with entirely different treatments. Mistress of Nothing is much more realistic, gritty, and often sad. But it painted a beautiful picture of Egypt during an era of Victorian exploration. More so than the other one, it made me want to travel to exotic places. The descriptions of the setting made me feel as though I was drifting down the Nile as well.

 

George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Book description: When General George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring.

Washington realized that he couldn’t beat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. So carefully guarded were the members’ identities that one spy’s name was not uncovered until the twentieth century, and one remains unknown today. But by now, historians have discovered enough information about the ring’s activities to piece together evidence that these six individuals turned the tide of the war.

Drawing on extensive research, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger have painted compelling portraits of George Washington’s secret six.

Reading Challenge category: Non-fiction book

My review: I thought a book about historical spies would be exciting. But it wasn’t. At all. Maybe it was the subject matter. I know next to nothing about the American Revolution. Maybe if you were really into that, this book would be compelling reading material, but I just couldn’t get into it myself.

 

Into the Deep, by Samantha Young

Book description: Charley Redford was just an ordinary girl until Jake Caplin moved to her small town in Indiana and convinced her she was extraordinary. Almost from day one Jake pulled Charley into the deep and promised he was right there with her. But when a tragic incident darkened Jake’s life he waded out into the shallows and left Charley behind.

Almost four years later Charley thinks she’s moved on. That is until she takes a study year abroad in Edinburgh and bumps into none other than Jake Caplin at a party with his new girlfriend. The bad-boy-turned-good attempts to convince Charley to forgive him, and as her best friend starts spending time with Jake’s, Charley calls a truce, only to find herself tumbling back into a friendship with him.

As they grow closer, the spark between them flares and begins playing havoc with their lives and relationships. When jealousy and longing rear their destructive heads, Charley and Jake struggle to come to grips with what they mean to one another.

My review: This is a “new adult” book, which covers the scandalously under-written about period of kids in university. So I fully support this genre, as well as this book. It actually made me laugh, how accurate a lot of it is. Even the study abroad thing at Edinburgh. I did a study abroad summer in England, and took a trip to Edinburgh, and visited every single one of the places the author wrote about. So, maybe not super imaginative, but very authentic. And just how relationships are in college. God, when you’re in your early twenties, you can just be so dumb. And dramatic. And everything seems SO important. And it is, because you’re learning so much, because you’re all a bunch of dumb kids. From my superior age now,  I can look back on that part of my life and see I was a dumb kid, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. Anyway … this book reflected all that. So, it’s well done for what it is.

 

Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins

Book description: “Jitterbug Perfume” is an epic. which is to say, it begins in the forests of ancient Bohemia and doesn’t conclude until nine o’clock tonight [Paris time]. It is a saga, as well. A saga must have a hero, and the hero of this one is a janitor with a missing bottle. The bottle is blue, very, very old, and embossed with the image of a goat-horned god. If the liquid in the bottle is actually is the secret essence of the universe, as some folks seem to think, it had better be discovered soon because it is leaking and there is only a drop or two left.

My review: Jitterbug Perfume is about scent and immortality. All around kind of weird. I tend not to enjoy “novels” that are so clearly a vehicle for the author to write about their beliefs. Like The Celestine Prophecy and The Shack, I found the open discussion of religion that didn’t tie into the plot to be annoying. But, unlike those other books, the plot was adequately exciting enough to pull me along. I didn’t agree with all the author believes, or wrote about anyway, but the story was indeed epic, so it was enjoyable enough to finish.

 

The Marriage Plot, by Jeff Eugenides

Book description: It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Reading Challenge category: A book at the bottom of my reading list

My review: There was no reason for this book to be at the bottom of my reading list. It’s just been on there for a long time and I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Not like – these are the books that I think will suck category. Because then they wouldn’t be on my reading list. Anyway, I like this book a lot. It was funny reading something that was set the year I was born. Like, SOOOO dated. In a good way, though. Books are magical in a way that they don’t get stale the way movies, or even music, does. Instead, they offer slices of what life was like at a certain time in history. Not that I want to consider my birthyear to be historical, per se, but wow have things ever changed in thirty years. Remember when you had to call people on pay phones? And I can’t even imagine what international travel would be like without smart phones and facetime. And no social media?

Besides the point. This book was smart, and the characters, while being intensely flawed, were also understandable and even likeable. I think it takes real talent to show that. For some reason I’m always nervous to read Eugenides, thinking that his work is going to be pretentious somehow, but I’m always pleasantly surprised.

 

More Good Old Stuff, by John D. MacDonald

Book description: Offering indisputable evidence of the early talent that was to lead him to the top of the bestseller lists everywhere, these fourteen tales of crime and corruption, of sleuthing and suspense, of treachery, intrigue, and revenge, by the incomparable John D. MacDonald, were selected from the hundreds that originally appeared in the immensely popular pulp magazines of the late 1940s. Superb entertainment from one of crime’s most famous and accomplished writers.

Reading Challenge Category: A book of short stories

My review: I am not a huge fan of short stories. I was kind of dreading this book for the reading challenge, but when I found this compilation of MacDonald’s early work in the late-40s for pulp detective magazines, well, I had to read it. And many of his stories are very good. Usually about mobsters, they all have a psychological thriller feel to them. I appreciate his ability to set up setting and characters in one page flat then run with an exciting story line. It almost makes me want to start reading short stories. Almost.

And speaking of historical! The lingo from the 40s is hilarious. I’m assuming it’s accurate, since it was written contemporaneously, but I kept on wanting to be like: people actually talked like that? And the rampant sexism, slightly less funny. I’m not accusing MacDonald of being a misogynist, I understand that that was just the way things were back then, he actually treated his female characters with some sensitivity, but holy god. Am I ever glad I was not a woman in the 40s.

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2 thoughts on “Book reviews and lots of ’em

  1. My theory as to why Eugenides puts people off (I havent read The Marriage Plot either, and I loved Middlesex!): every person that I actively dislike says The Virgin Suicides is their favorite book. What up with that??

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