2020 Book Reading List with Comments
#8 Expeditionary Force, Book 9: Valkyrie by Craig Alanson, performed by R. C. Bray
The Merry Band of Pirates pick up where they left off in Book 8 (which I failed to record on last year’s list, but I did indeed listen to). Earth is still blockaded by Maxault warships, several key members of the team have been killed or are suffering dire injuries, and Joe and his team are flying the stolen Maxault warship, christened Valkyrie. With help from The Flying Dutchman and team members from Avalon, the planet that may become the future home of whoever remains of the human race, the Pirates perform Ghost Ship operations against the Maxault. When a plot to use captured humans to create biological weapon emerges, Colonel Joe Bishop takes the ships to rescue the humans. Of course, the attack takes place on a Tuesday, and as Joe and his team have proven over and over again, nothing goes as planned on a Tuesday.
The story ends with a true cliffhanger as Skippy, the alien AI, recovers his supressed memories and realizes his true goal, as the Theranon target Bishop’s shuttle with the intent of taking him prisoner, and as a hostile AI threatens the human crews trying to take the rescued prisoners to safety.
This series is great for so many reasons. First off, the interaction between Joe and Skippy is priceless. It’s like a sibling relationship, with each of the two characters alternating in the big brother-little brother roles. Second, Alanson has ramped up the romance between Joe and Gunnery Sergeant Margaret Adams. I know I’m rooting for their relationship, and I must not be alone in that. Alanson continues to create new dangers and new solutions. The author comes up with very “real” imaginary problems and treats the facts of his made up universe realistically, so the novels have a “hard science” feel to them, even though they include technology that cannot probably ever exist. I think this is one of the best books of the series, and I am dying for book 10 to see the outcome of the cliffhangers.
#7 The Gown by Jennifer Robson
a Candlewasters Book Club read
Explicit Alert: One scene depicts a sexual assault on one of the main characters. It is important to the plot. If you’d like to bypass it, skip the last 4 pages of chapter 22.
Jennifer Robson takes readers into the world of post World War II England and follows the steps of two specific embroiderers who have the good fortune to work on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. We get the advantage of Robson’s extensive research and her ability to interview one of the living embroiderers who worked on the gown. That said, if you’d like to dive into some technical aspects of sewing, the fashion industry of the time–Hartnell and Dior–and life in post-war England and France, Robson includes a list of further reading to take you there.
Overall, the book is easy to read. I got through it in under six hours. The writing is simple, at times too simple for my taste, but other than some technical jargon surrounding sewing and embroidery, nothing slowed me down. The characters are appealing, despite the fact that you can see the plot coming from a mile away.
#6 Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse by David Mitchell
In this collection of Satiric essays first published in The Observer between 2008 and 2012, Mitchell shares his take on everything from the British habit of saying sorry to the complex world of British politics to all sorts of idiosyncratic English habits. It is laugh-out-loud funny at times. I didn’t know many of the political players beyond the major names: Blair, Majors, Johnson, May, Nigel Farrage, Thatcher, and Churchill. Still, his perspective on life for normal people, advertisers’ ploys, and the politically correct and/or political party posturing on the occasion of anything interesting happening made the book quite enjoyable for me.
#5 Everybody Always by Bob Goff
Christianity-lite book about showing Christian love to difficult people. It’s the kind of book where Goff shares an amusing anecdote from his own life before turning the instance into a preaching moment. I’m sure he’s trying to be relatable, but I don’t have that much in common with a guy who commutes from San Diego to Seattle daily for twenty years (instead of moving his family??), who learns to skydive to impress his twenty-something son, who has a cabin in a secluded valley that is accessible only by aquatic airplane, who flies said aquatic airplane himself, who barges into the Supreme High Justice’s office in Uganda, and who seems to have unending adventures from which to draw sermons. Also, some of his lessons are contradictory. In one story, he encourages readers to just go for it because Jesus trusts us. No need to wait to “hear” from God. Then two chapters later, he chides readers for trying to run ahead of the Good Shepherd. Which one is it, Bob? Go for it or wait?
#4 The Grip of Film by Gordy Lasure as told by Richard Ayoade
Language Alert: Profanity and sexual words. Lasure is disgusting at times while Ayoade is the perfect gentleman.
This book reveals a small glimpse of what Ayoade’s mind is like, and it is a complex, dark, and fascinating place. The premise is that Gordy Lasure, a coked-up, not super successful Hollywood type, shares his lecture notes on the film industry in Almanac form. As a persona, Lasure is despicable and rather stupid. What really fascinated me is how clearly Ayoade developed this character. And at times, Ayoade adds footnotes as himself responding to things that Lasure has written. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope where the ideas are both the same and fractured concurrently. It was weird and wonderful.
#3 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Yuck! Rom-com meets Aspergers. Not interested at all in finishing the trilogy.
#2 The Guardians by John Grisham
A Candlewasters Blind Date Book
It’s John Grisham, so it’s about legal things, it’s clean, it’s moral, and it’s interesting. In this book, a man falsely accused of murder finally becomes exonerated due to the work of a lawyer who is also an Episcopal priest. This book reminds me of one of the reasons I am opposed to the Death Penalty.
#1 Father Brown: The Complete Collection by G. K. Chesterton
These stories, all 53 of them, are much more interesting than the TV series, including the current one. They are also nowhere as politically correct as the current series. In fact, at times they are downright racist in their views of brown-skinned or Asian characters. I guess they portray the attitudes of the British and of the clergy in the early 20th century, but I found that casual racism distasteful. The mysteries are interesting for the most part.
2019 Book Reviews (goal: 50 books)
Reflections on 2019 = Well, I managed to read or listen to 53 books for the year, but had a tough time getting reviews written. This makes me rethink 2020. I’m going to try for a quick note of some sort for each book and save the longer reviews for the books with the most impact.
#53 Ask Me No Questions by Shelley Noble
Promoted as Downton Abbey meets Miss Fischers Mysteries, this book by Ms. Noble is somewhat interesting and sets up a series set in New York and featuring the Dowager Countess who’s all of twenty-eight years old. It’s your standard cozy with early 20th century references. I do not plan to read any more of the series.
#52 Will Destroy the Galaxy for Food by Yahtzee Croshaw
so-so Science Fiction with holes big enough to drive a space shuttle through.
#51 Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade
A devastatingly piquant review of the Gwenyth Paltrow film “A View from the Top.”
#50 Idiot by Laura Clery
Language and Content Alert: Clery takes you into her life. She was raised without boundaries and left to find her own way. Consequently, her language is not always ladylike and some of the situations are kind of harrowing.
I enjoyed this book for so many reasons. Idiot is like a parallel-universe version of Educated by Tara Westover. Unlike Westover who was raised in a strict, dogmatic home where she was denied knowledge of the wider world, Clery was raised in a home without boundaries and rules. Instead of preaching survivalism and religious dogma, Clery’s father always said, “F*** organized religion!” And when Clery was a young teen, her father asked if she was smoking pot. When Clery demurred, he handed her $20 and requested she pick some up for him the next time she visited her dealer. Clery had much to unlearn, and unfortunately, she almost died from drugs and alcohol. Clery has a great sense of humor. She is very honest in her descriptions of addiction and its consequences, and she offers the lessons she has learned from her trials and her triumphs in recovery.
#49 The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay
#48 The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay
#47 The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling and Jim Kay
#46 Persuasion by Jane Austen
#45 Armageddon: Expeditionary Force, book 8 by Craig Alanson
#44 The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, Louise Penny, Ed.
#43 The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal
A book by Youtube sensations Rhett and Link, hosts of Good Mythical Morning and Founders of The Mythical Society. This novel centers on the fictional southern town of Bleak Creek and the mysterious occurrences surrounding the local reform school. Rhett and Link infuse their story with references from their childhoods in the 1990s. They also have created a good tale of friendship, loss, sacrifice, and courage. The town is populated, in good Southern literature fashion, with memorable and quirky characters. Yet, there is something amiss, something otherworldly happening, and it’s up to the two plucky protagonists, Rex and Leif, to solve the mystery, face down the forces of evil, and free their friends from the grasp of the unimaginable.
#39 Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah
#40 The Eyes of Max Carrados
#41 Max Carrados Mysteries
#42 The Bravo of London
I had never heard of this fictional detective, a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. Max Carrados is blind, yet highly skilled at detecting criminals. He has trained his other senses to operate at such a high level that oftentimes the people he meets don’t know of his vision loss until he tells them. Other times, he exploits his blindness by bumping into or dropping things to elicit suspects into giving information away because they think he’s a pitiful, bumbling handicapped man. He’s aided by a butler who’s actually an experienced spy/bodyguard, and an efficient, intelligent secretary.
#38 Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
Qureshi recounts his shift from being a devout muslim to coming to believe in Jesus as the messiah and the Bible as a faithful scripture. He details his very personal and emotional struggle to hold true to his faith as he debates Christians with the words of the Q’ran and historical teachings of the imams. I enjoyed learning quite about about Islam.
#35, #36, #37 Awakening: The Twinborn Chronicles, Books 1-3 by J. S. Morin
What can I say but that I’m a fan of Morin’s thinking and creative output. In this series, Morin marries Science Fiction with Fantasy by overlapping two dimensions. A few characters are aware of their counterparts in the other dimension, while a still luckier few can actually cross between the two worlds. The plots revolve around themes of power, love, and political intrigue that read all too human regardless of the species and otherworldliness of the setting.
#34 The Library Book by Susan Orlean
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
I found the history of the Los Angeles Public Library system to be very interesting. Women led and grew the system quite competently during the Victorian age, but alas, when it was time for the city leaders to endow the Library with greater funds, those leaders went searching for a larger-than-life man to replace the very capable and compassionate female supervisors.
Orlean is not a great writer. Her prose reminds me way too often of high school level sentence structure and vocabulary. Plus, she peppers the book with scatalogical examples of works destroyed by the fire in the Los Angeles Central Library. However, the colorful characters kept me entertained.
#33 Robot Geneticists: Engineered Tyrant by J. S. Morin
The cloned Humans have grown up, are raising families, and fighting for greater representation among the committees of robots who decide all policies, including the ones that detail human lives.
#32 Robot Geneticists: Rebel Robots by J. S. Morin
#31 Robot Geneticists: Weaponized Human by J. S. Morin
#30 Robot Geneticists: Brain Recyclers by J. S. Morin
#29 Robot Geneticists: Extinction Reversed by J. S. Morin
True science fiction of the hard type. In this first novel of the complete Eve 14 series, Morin introduces the readers to the future of humanity, embodied in robots whose “brains” are combinations of the last remaining humans who were scanned before the coming of an alien force who destroy the earth’s ecosystem. We meet Charlie 7, the deux ex machina, and various other robots with their own agendas, including raising cloned humans into which they plan to download their own robotic consciousnesses to regain the human senses they’ve lost.
#28 The Adventures of Tom Strange by Larry Correia
I think this was supposed to be clever sci-fi, but it’s more of a name-dropping, culture-hopping, meme-explaining kind of a book. Unpleasant to read and not recommended unless you really want to waste your time.
#27 Hard Luck Hank: Dumber than Dead by Steven Campbell
The latest volume in the Hank series. I’m afraid all of the stories tend to blend together in my mind, and now seven months later, I cannot remember exactly what happens.
#26 Hard Luck Hank: Delovoa and Early Years by Steven Campbell
I’m a big fan of the Hard Luck Hank series. They are funny and clever and goofy sci-fi. This slim book shares the backstory of how Hank and Delovoa meet and come to work together. Delovoa is a mad scientist of the worst sort, so Gruesome Alert.
#25 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
A novel based on rural tribal tea growers in China. By the end, I felt as if I were reading an extended commercial for Pu-er, chinese fermented tea.
#24 Everything in Its Place by Oliver Sacks
Sacks is famous for his work with patients locked into Parkinsonian coma states. In this book, he shares some of the stories of his medical adventures and research that had not previously been published. I enjoyed gaining a greater understanding of Tourette’s Syndrome through the book. I also found his writing style engaging in its wistfulness and enlightening in its intelligence.
#23 Educated by Tara Westover
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
Lots of trauma, lots of searching on Westover’s part to understand a wider existence that was denied to her by her parents’ strict, fundamentalist understanding of the world and their place in it. This book reminds me once again about the allure and the danger of certainty. God spare me from people, mostly men, who are so sure that what they believe is right just because they believe it!
#22 Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
I really enjoyed reading about the creation of The Message bible and Peterson’s philosophy of the commoness of Jesus’ message of the divine. There’s so much history of the bible, and the KJV, which formed the backbone of much Christian belief throughout the centuries. I also enjoyed the recursive philosphical nature of the writing in which Peterson introduces a big idea, discusses it through one particular perspective, and then returns to the big idea again with the new understanding before exploring yet another perspective.
#21 Outland by Dennis E. Taylor, performed by Ray Porter
I first experienced Dennis Taylor’s writing in the series of books set in the Bobiverse, a future Earth where consciousnesses are downloaded into artificial intelligences (AI) in order to operate national weapons and defense systems. The Bobiverse books are clever and intricate and explore what it means to be human, especially when one lacks a human body. Questions of personality, soul, and longing are at the forefront, while plenty of Sci-Fi shoot ‘em action takes place as well. I was hoping Outland would be as profound. It isn’t, but I can recommend it for its allusions to Michael Crichton and one of my most beloved reads, Jurassic Park.
Outland takes place in modern day, but with one major difference. The super volcano on our North American continent—Yellowstone—begins to rumble to life. At the same time, some outstandingly intelligent PhD students have discovered a means of opening a portal to one of the multi-dimensional Earths. These students need to acquire funds to take their project private, away from the university, so they don’t have to share patent or ownership rights. And what do you know? The Earth on the other side of the portal is loaded with precious metals just waiting to be mined.
Bad Guys, a Super Volcano, Insurrection, Science, a Range of Characters—this book has it all. Taylor clearly designed this book to be in the same vein as Crichton’s writing. It’s a nerd feast, to be sure. Characters directly refer to Star Trek and Jurassic Park by name as they compare their situation to the television series and novel.
Taylor isn’t quite as masterful as Crichton was as creating those short, punchy scenes that compel a reader forward into the increasingly complex and, dare I say, unbelievable plot. I also found the narration too slow and almost gave up on the book three separate times. Then, mercifully, I found the speed setting and listened at 1.35x. The narration was just right at that speed with no one speaking too quickly to be understandable. I think this would be one of those books I would have enjoyed more in print so I could control the reading speed. Alas, my public library doesn’t have it or the follow up books in the series, so Audible and speed settings will be my option for following the adventure.
#20 The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
Kate Morton’s latest book has all of her trademarks: false or assumed identity; a female protagonist investigating a family mystery; multiple generations either involved in or hiding the mystery; confused history; multiple streams throughout the story that come together in a big reveal near the end of the book; and a reference to clocks or time.
Morton’s writing, as usual, is beautiful. Her descriptions capture the essence of a place and evoke mood. I always appreciate a writer who can craft an experience rather than give a list of sensory details.
I would classify Morton’s books as cozies in the sense that the mystery frequently involves a death that occurs out of sight or lost to history. The books may have scenes of slight violence but nothing too brutal up close for the reader. They are also fairly free of profanity and sex.
The plot of this novel spans from the late 1800’s to the current day and weaves together a childhood story of a fantasy manor house and the reality of a tragic summer near the Thames. Some readers might find it helpful to jot down the names and relationships of all the characters because of the assumed identity issue and the mere scope of the story. I found the characters compelling, and Morton uses different narrative voices (in first and third person) to distinguish the characters and time period. My more astute book club sisters did take issue, and rightly so, with one Very Important Plot point that stretched our suspended disbelief to the breaking point. Yeah, Morton should have thought of that. Although, I confess that I support the theory of the air tight nature of the location masking the evidence.
If you haven’t read any of Morton’s other books, I’m not sure that this is the book to start with, unless you have no trouble with complex stories. As I was trying to find the ISBN for the Kindle edition, I hopped over to Amazon. Scrolling down the page, I ran into the reviews and see lots of one and two stars, mostly with the comment that the readers are lost. Some people want everything to be clearly explained with big road signs and cannot tolerate having to suspend understanding until a future point in the book. For me, the complexity of the novel made it my favorite of hers so far. That just goes to show how very different readers are. If you prefer a less complex story but want to try Morton’s writing out, I recommend The Forgotten Garden.
# 19 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World by Eugenia Cheng
(hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-5416-7248-2)
“…the aim of intelligent rational humans shouldn’t be simply to be logical, but rather, to be logical in a useful way.”
As a writing teacher, I am always on the lookout for ways to introduce logical thinking into my high school classes. Thus, when I ran across this title, I was intrigued. Eugenia Cheng, Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, strives to show that while “logic makes our arguments rigorous, . . . emotions make them convincing.” I see this combination of logic and emotion as the key to powerful writing, the kind that makes a difference.
Cheng divides the book into three parts. First, she takes the reader on a tour of formal logic, you know, syllogisms, premises, opposites, etc. The chapter on “How to be Right” is useful is showing the problems with sweeping statements and the importance of precision. I think this critical issue is what lies behind so much of the fraught communication taking place in our political realm today. Precision and narrowing the scope an argument would allow people with different beliefs to find a common ground—not because they are compromising, but rather finding the truths at the core of the issues that they can both agree on.
The second section of the book introduces the limits to logic, including paradoxes. I had, of course, studied some of the major paradoxes, Liar’s and Zeno’s to name two, in my courses as a philosophy minor. However, Cheng introduced me to several I had never heard of. Paradoxes, always fun to explore, clearly show how logic is a system of thought and not necessarily the real world, an idea which leads nicely into the third section of the book, Beyond Logic.
This last section of the book gets to the heart of applying logical thought to reality. By exploring equivalence and analogies, to name two of the chapters, Cheng points out that as we are all trying to make sense of our experiences, we sometimes have to dive into the grey and create a metaphor, simile or analogy that hopes to capture the essence of an experience or issue. These figurative endeavors, of course, are no more reality than the logic is. However, when logic and metaphor combine in an intelligent and precise manner, truths will come to light.
Personally, I would not use much of this book with my high school students for a couple of reasons. Cheng is writing for adults who have more life experience and a higher reading level than the average 15-year-old sophomore. Also, Cheng is firmly embedded in the current liberal paradigm, so all of her major premises reflect that view. Her logic is sound, but for anyone not enrolled in that paradigm, the argument—and thus the logic—is going to be discounted. This is always the problem with logic and philosophy books that try to teach the art of argument.
# 18 Renegades: Expeditionary Force, Book 7 by Craig Alanson, performed by R.C. Bray
(Audible.com, © 2019 Podium Publishing)
Yay! Finally, Skippy and Joe return to earth after successfully thwarting a plan to poison an entire planet’s population. Unfortunately, they also bring the bad news that a senior species, The Maxalt, are on their way to investigate wormhole anomalies. Knowing that defense against advanced technology is impossible, Earth’s leaders wants to broker a peace with a species they think will protect them. Joe and his team understand what the UN and all of Earth’s combined presidents/prime ministers/chancellors cannot: humans are no more than a slave commodity, and our planet, a storehouse of resources. Therefore, it’s Colonel Joe, the merry band of pirates, and Skippy the Magnificent to the rescue once again.
Alanson creates some rather tricky situations for his gang of heroes and then proves himself a worthy author by finding inventive solutions for the problems. My only complaint is that we readers don’t get to see the reunion between Joe and Margaret Adams!
# 15, 16, 1 7 The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer
Book One: Annihilation
(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-374-53715-9)
Always the sucker for science fiction, I kept seeing the movie version of this novel pop up in my suggestions on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Of course, I’m always going to read the novel instead of sitting through the movie—that’s why I’m ignorant of what Top Gun is really about; if it had been a book, I’d get the references.
The novel is strange and rather cryptic, filled with imagery that’s hard to comprehend, at least for me. Apparently, expeditions are being sent to Area X, kind of a no-man’s land that once was populated. Something strange is happening involving glowing, hand-shaped fungi and moaning sounds coming from the swampland during the night.
The story of expedition twelve is told by the biologist. The only name we have for her is the nickname her husband gave her: Ghostbird. She is both able to lose herself completely in the landscape and yet remain detached. This didn’t serve her too well in the real world, especially in terms of employment and relationships; however, it seems to save her life in the face of a being and/or force that is remaking the landscape into some kind of extension of itself. I can’t be more precise or clear than that because, well, frankly, that’s all I understood.
Annihilation is Book One of the Southern Reach trilogy. I plan to check the others out of the local library and complete the story. Vandermeer’s writing style flows pretty quickly, so I was able to finish the book in short order even with the end of the semester and other responsibilities taking my time.
Book Two: Authority
(paperback, ISBN: 978-1-374-10410-8)
This second book in the trilogy picks up after the biologist’s expedition is over. Some of the members have returned and are being interrogated. The protagonist for this book is known as Control, and he’s finding life difficult after being put in charge of the Southern Reach Research facility.
Because most of the action takes place inside of the research facility, the imagery is way more straight forward, lacking the druggy-trippy feeling of the first book. Instead, the plot is more cloak and daggers, resembling a spy novel where we readers don’t know whom to trust. There’s hypnosis involved and backstabbing staff who fail to appreciate the newcomer, Control, as their acting director.
This novel hints at some of the far-reaching effects of Area X and possible infiltration into the “real” world by something or someone from the forbidden area.
Book Three: Acceptance
(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-374-10411-5)
Well, the title should give any clever reader a clue. Finally, in this book, we get the full backstory about the creation of Area X. There’s tragedy, for sure, but love and relationships in the midst of the phenomenon.
The story is told from multiple points-of-view across a 30-year span, from the inception of Area X to the ultimate end of the biologist who starred in the first book.
If you like sci-fi that includes imagery that mimics a drug trip, psychological conditioning, angst, and a touch of horror, then this series may be for you. It is way short of science in its fiction, but has compelling characters and a terse writing style that suits the themes of the trilogy well.
#14 Snobs by Julian Fellowes
(paperback, ISBN-10: 0-312-33693-4)
Why did I read this book?
Let me pretend for a moment that isn’t a rhetorical question. At the time Snobs was published (2006), Julian Fellowes was best known for his screenplay Gosford Park. Now, of course, he is famously the genius behind Downton Abbey. It was that credential that caused me to pick the book up and give it a whirl.
And since I am certain that Mr. Fellowes will never read my little review, let me be absolutely honest. This book is b-o-r-i-n-g! The characters are so stereotypical, the plot is pointless–a story of gold-digging and movie stars and rich people and name dropping and lots of very expensive London establishments–and it’s told in an old-fashioned style by a narrator who finds himself at times on the fringes of the action (kind of like what happens in The Great Gatsby or early 19th century works by Nathaniel Hawthorne).
To be honest, at the 3/4s mark in the book, I skimmed as fast as I could just to conclude the thing. The characters don’t seem to learn anything other than that they are indeed dull or venal or snobbish. The gold digger ends up getting just enough elevation by her marriage to secure the glamorous kind of life she always wanted. I saw little to no growth and certainly no redeeming value to the book.
#13 A Jane Austen Education by Willian Deresiewicz
(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-14-312125-1)
A Candlewasters Book Club Read
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. – Albert Camus
We get so used to the stories we tell about ourselves. This is why we sometimes need to find ourselves in the stories of others. – Essayist Leslie Jamison
William Deresiewicz, a bright young man studying “important” modernism works that deal with important metaphysical and philosophical questions, had no interest in Jane Austen’s novels. And why would he? Women swooning as Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy dives headfirst into the estate lake? Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden breathlessly squaring off in the gazebo, in the rain no less? The Dashwood mother and sisters all retreating to their respective rooms to sob behind slammed doors? These overwrought images from the movies seem to confirm Deresiewicz’s worst fears about the rom-com nature of Austen’s works.
Imagine his surprise, then, as he is forced to confront the actual words of Austen, and miraculously finds himself in her pages. As part of this doctoral work in literature studies, Deresiewicz is led into the world of Austen by Karl Kroeber, one of those professors who comes along at just the right time to change the course of a life.
As Deresiewicz comes to see the value and timelessness of Austen’s novels, he discovers that while she is quietly writing about life among a certain class of peoples at a certain moment of English history, she is also dissecting humanity and teaching important lessons about how to live among others. And we, lucky readers, are taken along on his journey as he discovers the truth about himself.
I am not going to spoil the book. I have too much respect for Deresiewicz’s writing and insights to give them away. Suffice it to say that traveling along the path with him as he confronts Austen and himself is rewarding.
If you are not a fan of Austen because of what you have seen in the movies, please read Deresiewicz’s book and then pick up Emma, or Sense and Sensibility, or even Pride and Prejudice and discover the humanity within the stories and yourself.
#12 Sense vs Soul by Mark K. Campbell
(paperback, ISBN: 9781463602291)
I was so intrigued when Mark Campbell used his weekly column in The Azle News not long ago to tell about his first book being published. I’ve been reading his essays ever since I moved here and usual enjoy his wit, his perspective, and his humor. I’ve even used portions of some of his humorous essays (“Birthing Trends”) as demonstrations in my writing classes (and no, Mr. Campbell, I’m sorry, I didn’t ask for copyright permission, though now that I’ve met you, I’m sure you would have allowed it.).
In his promo column for Sense vs Soul, he wrote about how this book would have trouble being published. In a paraphrase of his words, “It’s too preachy for the pagan crowd and too blasphemous for the church folk.” Well, that was all it took to sell me on giving the novel a try.
The premise of the novel is that a man claiming to be Jesus, the Christ, wanders into a sleepy Colorado mountain town. He shows up at Tom’s door, the protagonist, and offers to prove he’s Jesus by answering one question for Tom. The rest of the novel is Jesus’s (J.C.) interactions with Tom and his close friends. Through their different perspectives and life struggles, they each ask their own questions—though J.C. doesn’t directly answer them–and eventually come to their own terms with the man claiming to be The Jesus.
Campbell does a thorough job of having all the characters address the BIG questions that plague people of faith: What about suffering? Why do children die? How come God punishes people? How come some people believe and others don’t? Why do so many Christians seem selfish with their time, talent, and money? Campbell recognizes these questions are real and important, but he doesn’t preach answers to us. In other words, he doesn’t tell the readers how they should believe as a Christians. Instead, he reinforces that our journey of faith begins with the ultimate question: Who do we say Jesus is?
Another aspect of the novel I really, really appreciate is that Campbell doesn’t try to manipulate the readers’ emotions, unlike William Paul Young (The Shack), who engages in emotional mind control, if that’s a thing, from the beginning to end. In Campbell’s book, conflict occurs and (spoiler) even a death, but these events seem reasonably based in reality, rather than designed to break the reader down in order to then fill them with a set perspective. (Can you tell I don’t respect The Shack?)
Lots of wit and humor plus lovable, colorful characters keep the novel fun, even when dealing with some of life’s thornier issues. There is an ongoing song reference battle between Tom and J.C. with an emphasis on Elvis Costello. One of the funnier tropes of the book is that for the entire time J.C. is visiting, every time Tom turns on the radio, the song playing, regardless of station or genre, references Jesus or God in some way. Campbell certainly has an extensive knowledge of pop music throughout the decades.
The only thing I wish Campbell had included was a little bit more interior for the protagonist. The author follows the maxim “show, not tell” quite well through dialog and action. However, because of the topic and the internal nature of faith, I wish I could have witnessed firsthand a little more of what was going on in Tom’s heart.
I think this book would be great for a discussion group, religious or secular. I’d love to hear what my book club members would make of it. Together for 14 years now, we are all people of faith, though from very different backgrounds and current practices. I’m certain this book would be a good jumping off point for many a deep conversation.
#11 The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
(paperback, Barnes & Noble Classics edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-59308-088-4)
I’m pretty sure I was supposed to have read this book somewhere along my college career. It may have been part of the extensive reading list for my Master’s Comprehensive Exam, and if so, knowing the professors who were on the examining committee and further knowing that none of them would write a question concerning the book, I’m pretty sure I did one of those Cliffs Notes’ fly-bys just to check it off the list.
Now, many decades later, I’m filling in the gaps by having read the novel in this Standard American English translation.
What a trip! Intrigue, innocence, self-interest, compassion, despair, hatred, true love–and that’s just in the first few chapters! The story centers around young Edmond Dantes, a capable, mostly well-liked, ambitious young man, who runs afoul of a couple of bad characters consumed by professional and romantic jealousies. These fellows conspire to accuse Dantes of working as a Bonaparte spy at the time the failed emperor was imprisoned on the Isle of Elba. The result is that Dantes is sent to Chateau d’If, the prison island off the coast near Marseilles. While he contemplates suicide, he is emotionally rescued by Abbe Faria, an Italian priest, who teaches Dantes and bequeaths to him the secret of the treasure of the Isle of Monte Cristo.
Once free of the prison, and that’s an exciting bit of action in itself, Dantes recovers the treasure and adopts various identities to discover the truth behind his imprisonment and to punish those responsible. Dantes’ complex and extensive plans, some of them taking years to execute fully, rely on the various psychological profiles of his targets. The changed Edmond Dantes was a little hard for me to believe, acting kind of like a super spy from the movies with superior knowledge and the ability to create disguises the others don’t see through. The villains and their behaviors, attitudes, and actions, however, rang true for me. I found their venality, jealousies, cowardice, greed, fraud, embezzlement, and arrogance quite in line with their egos.
The novel is long, comparing to some of J. K. Rowling’s more lengthy stories in the Potter universe. That’s a result of the serialization process of publication during the 1840s. But, once I reached the two-thirds mark, I had to stay up to keep reading and find out just how the plots turn out and who does or doesn’t survive. I also loved the history of the French revolution plus a detailed account of the various principalities in Italy which was not a unified country at the time of the novel’s setting.
As might be expected, a novel from this time period does have some issues that just don’t play in today’s “woke” world. For instance, one of the characters, Haydee, lives with the Count after he “rescues” her from slavery. The novel makes clear that they are not in a master/concubine relationship, but he introduces her as his slave to a group of young men and makes remarks that today would be considered sexist. Also, there’s the whole burning with hatred / revenge plot that makes for great story action but not a very admirable lesson for the youth.
I ended up liking the novel way more than I thought I would. I only wish my French were still up to snuff enough to read it in the original language.
Influenza, strain B
It Sucks! Steals three weeks of your life, fills your lungs and sinuses with gunk, plus leaves you both drained of energy and with a lingering cough that attacks at the most inopportune moments. Skip if if you can!
#10 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
(paperback, No Fear Shakespeare Edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-5866-6845-0)
Confession time: I’ve never liked Romeo and Juliet. As a teacher, a reader, and an audience member, I much prefer Hamlet and Macbeth. As a result of my own bias against pathos and irrationality, I have always found the impulsiveness and immediate passion of the two teenagers repulsive. Yeah, that’s a strong word, but truly, this tragedy fails to invoke the necessary sympathy in me that would, in turn, provoke the intended catharsis at their deaths.
In fact, I feel anger when I read this play. There was absolutely no reason for the two to die. If any of the adults in the room, and this is a long list, had just behaved like adults and guided the two lovers properly, then their deaths would have been avoided and in time, the feud would have been dissolved, especially if R & J had produced a co-Capulet/Montague heir.
Intelligent readers, I hear what you are saying: “Yes, but the fact that the adults didn’t steer the young lovers into better decisions and they ended up committing suicide IS the tragedy and why we should feel sorry for them.” To which I reply, “I’m sad that the kids resorted to suicide because they didn’t have enough life experience to think their way out of a paper bag. But, they did allow themselves to be carried away by their passions born out of a couple of conversations, and one of those out a window. They might very well have done something rash on their own. All that proves to me is that teenaged hormones run amok are dangerous things indeed.”
Shame on the Capulet and Montague parents for behaving like spoiled children themselves, holding onto grudges and becoming bullies when they don’t easily get their way. Shame on Tybalt and Mercutio for being hot-heads and slaves to the family feud. Shame on Friar Lawrence for not counseling the young couple better and for his strange, dangerous, elaborate plot with the elixir. Ironically, the nurse praises him as an educated man, but he behaves more like Tom Sawyer, thinking up “romantic” solutions to real life-or-death dilemmas.
If I could travel back in time, I would be sure to stop in and see this play as it was presented to the Elizabethan audience. I’d give anything to hear the discussion at the pub after the show and get their take on the tragedy. I do feel like a traitor to my profession to dislike this so much, but not enough to repent and embrace it.
#9 Mavericks: Expeditionary Force, Book 6 by Craig Alanson, performed by RC Bray
(Audible.com, © 2018 Podium Publishing)
Language Alert: This book contains soldiers who cuss. The swear words are ordinary and not overdone. It make total sense that soldiers under fire from alien enemies would curse. I know I would under the same circumstance.
I love the Expeditionary Force series. The overall series arc in brief is this: Some ancient aliens created wormhole technology for moving across the vast distance in space. When one of these wormholes shifts positions and opens near Earth, aliens come calling and soon recruit the humans to fight for their side in a war. The human force finds itself very far from Earth, training on a harsh planet and soon taking the fight to the opposite side’s world. It doesn’t take long, though, for the humans to understand they are literally cannon fodder and that they’ve chosen the wrong side in the battle. One of the humans, Sgt. Joe Bishop, U.S. Army, discovers an alien A.I. stranded on the planet who helps Joe and other noble soldiers escape torture and death at the hands of their employers after they refuse to shoot civilians.
The A.I, nicknamed Skippy, and Joe begin a series of adventures, taking humans into the far reaches of space where they face almost every hazard imaginable. To say any more will give the series away. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Joe and Skippy is fascinating and what keeps lots of people coming back to this series.
Some people on Audible have complained that this particular book is too short of Joe/Skippy and focuses too much on a side group of soldiers, Lt. Colonel Emily Perkins and her team, the Mavericks. I, for one, appreciate hearing how other humans are coping with the machinations of various space-faring species, and how the plucky band of Mavericks use their very clever “monkey” brains to outwit plots for genocide and survive when things go wrong. The user names of the reviewers who didn’t like the additional characters skew heavily male, so it kind of makes sense to me that they don’t want to hear about a female commander and a team that is at least 50% women. Also, some people just want the same old thing every time. That desire for sameness explains the success of laugh-track added sitcoms that run for many seasons with characters who spout their well-worn catch phrases right on cue. I much prefer the further character development and world building that is done through these side stories. Plus, Skippy and Joe picture frame the whole story—it starts and ends with them.
Now, one other complaint I see in the reviews on Audible.com does need addressing. A big plot development was teased at the end of Book 5, and that element was NOWHERE to be found in this book. My guess is that Alanson may need a little bit more time to figure out how the humans are going to survive, because everything he’s written so far about that particular species means game over for the humans on earth. He literally needs to buy time, hence the side story. It’s kind of funny to me that the book ends with a discussion between Joe and Skippy about the necessity and value of buying time in the face of certain future doom, and that’s exactly what Alanson has done with this book. Maybe he overestimated his audience’s ability to read between the lines.
#8 The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-316-17566-1)
A Candlewasters Book Club read
I’ll have to admit it: this novel’s synopsis did not immediately appeal to me. It sounded too similar to A Light Between Oceans, another novel about a childless couple with fertility issues living in a harsh remote environment. I didn’t care for that book at all. Both books share similarities that made me do that nose crinkly thing you do when something seems icky—(potential spoilers alert) a husband who gives into his wife’s insistence born from her grief and feelings of inadequacy, a child being perhaps kept away from her true family, and an unforgiving setting that mirrors the feelings of the female protagonists in some ways.
Luckily for me, Ivey’s The Snow Child is a delight in which characters find redemption and build relationships. Yes, there’s sorrow but glady, there is also healing. Everyone’s heart is touched by Faina, a young girl who seems to embody the beauty of an Alaskan winter. She charms both the humans and the wild animals. Mabel and Jack, the childless couple, rekindle their hearts after tragic loss while young Garrett, a neighbor boy, learns the meaning of honesty and responsibility. The story manages to cut across class and generational lines, and because of that, I think people of all ages would like it..
Ivey’s love of Alaska, her homeland, shines through. Both the starkness of the winter and the lushness of the brief but abundant summers are drawn with such tender realism that readers will feel transported. I wouldn’t even be surprised if people started looking at potential cruises or overland trips into the state based on the details, seen with such love through Ivey’s writing.
The temptation is great to tell you more of the story, but I must not because part of the cleverness of the book is that Ivey leaves a big question for the readers to ponder and decide for themselves. In that, this novel reminds me of Henry James’ “A Turn of the Screw” (although the question is a different one).
Thus, the book is compelling on so many levels. It has detailed descriptions that bring Alaska’s rugged beauty to life before our eyes. Its sympathetic characters grow and heal and draw our hearts into compassion for their struggles. And, it includes a mystery to engage our minds and give us something to talk over. That’s a win-win-win right there.
#7 According to Yes by Dawn French
(paperback, ISBN: 978-1-405-92155-8)
EXPLICIT ALERT: While this book contains way less swearing than Ms. French’s first book, it does include scenes of a sexual nature. These are not gratuitous but have definite plot importance and derive from character complexities. I absolutely cannot recommend the book for adults, either young or older, who are struggling with sexual sin, adultery, or unresolved identity issues.
#6 The Jeeves and Wooster series by P. G. Wodehouse
(Kindle, ISBN: 978-80-268-9712-5)
Bertie Wooster, independently wealthy and possessing a sound digestion, moves through an idyllic world much of the time, except when he is beset by his dominating Aunt Agatha or finds himself in the thick of an unexpected (on his part) engagement. Fortunately, Reginald Jeeves, the almost-too-good-to-be-true valet, comes to the rescue. This collection contains one of the longer novellas as well as many short stories, including how Bertie and Jeeves became a team.
Inhabited by colorful characters like Honoria Glossop, Bingo Little, and Lord Bickersham, the tales weave their intricate dilemmas into puzzles of motivation and potential disaster. Thankfully, Jeeves is smarter than most of these blighted coves, and with his superior intellect and knowledge of human psychology, he sets things to right while never missing the proper timing of bringing the tea or mixing a whisky and soda.
The stories are loaded with colorful dialog, much of it in both British and American slang of the 1920 and the Broadway scene of New York. I think someone who consumes a regular diet of British comedy will find an easier time to understand the rhythm of speech and colloquialisms. Some people find Bertie and his dense pals not worth the trouble. I, on the other hand, find the sarcasm and verbal wit delightful, but I can understand why others won’t find this their cup of tea.
#5 A Tiny Bit of Marvellous by Dawn French
(paperback ISBN: 978-09141-04634-1)
Language Alert: I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the book to people who are sensitive to profanity. The teenaged daughter is vulgar, coarse, idiotic, and quite profane in her language. Yes, this is mostly for comic effect, but swearing plus coarse words and imagery are prominent in her speech.
Dawn French, national British treasure and accomplished comic actor, has created a book that captures her voice and comedic essence in A Tiny Bit of Marvellous. (and yes, she spells marvelous with two “L”s; I don’t know why—maybe a British thing?) The novel, her first, relates the story of a family, each member facing his or her own inner and outer conflicts. The Battles—Mom=Mo, Dad=Denys, Daughter=Dora, and Son=Peter/Oscar—seem like pretty typical dysfunctional characters. The story is told in diary style with dialogue thrown in, and the conflicts wrap up almost too neatly by the conclusion.
As someone who is a massive fan of Ms. French and who has viewed most of her work, I can easily identify her voice in each of the novel’s characters. I know, for instance, exactly how Dora sounds when she expresses her lack of confidence and despair for a truly “fit” guy to call her own. It was like Ms. French were reading the novel in my head.
This is a story, a novel, not a piece of literature. In fact, I would rate its literary merit in the middle of the spectrum. Sure, the characters are well defined, albeit a bit too stereotypical. Plus, the inner conflicts of the characters are feelingly expressed and, at least to my mind, reflect the kinds of vulnerabilities and disappointments we all face in ourselves at one time or another.
In fact, the main weakness I see in the book is with the antagonist. His actions are displayed but his motivations remain totally hidden. I realize that in real life we frequently do not understand why people do what they do. However, it’s really dissatisfying for a reader not to understand the antagonist at all. That lack of connection undermines some of the conflict and tension of the novel. Because the antagonist isn’t real, his threat doesn’t seem as real. Imagine Othello without knowing Iago’s inner thoughts and jealousies. Desdemona’s death and Othello’s fall from grace would still be tragic, but the tragedy feels greater because we know more about the author of the destruction.
Ms. French has published two other novels, which I’m probably going to read. My hope is that with her brilliant flair for comedy and her obvious genius in so many other areas, she will only get better with each book.
#4 The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett
(paperback, ISBN: 9780143109853)
Mr. Lovett draws direct inspiration from Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol in this equally lovely novella. Set on the summer solstice 20 years after Scrooge’s redemption, the story once again involves the spirits of Christmas, this time to assist in a larger scheme of recovery and charity. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I won’t give away the particulars. I’ll just tempt you with the knowledge that the reclamations occurring in this follow-up are just as satisfying as Scrooge’s was all those years ago.
Mr. Lovett has a proficient ear for Dickens’ style and language, and this book, for all its modernity, captures the essence of the original tale. The scope of the story includes both the micro and macro of human interactions, and so achieves heart-warming family reunification plus some bloody good ideas about how to decrease suffering caused by poverty and lack of work opportunities. Accompanying the tale are illustrations by Doug Smith that resemble line drawings or woodcuts one might have found in England in the 1840s.
Thematically the story rings true; practically it offers real hope and advice. And, more than anything, it reminds us to keep “the true wealth of love, of family, of Christmas joy . . . all the year round.”
#3 The Miracle Worker, a play in three acts by William Gibson
(paperback, ISBN: 0-553-54778-6)
Drawing on correspondence and journals in the autobiography by Annie Sullivan, William Gibson created a play celebrating the “miraculous” moment when Helen Keller, blind and deaf from about a year old, made the connection between sign language and real objects. The play is filled with tension, suspense, action, love, and hope. It’s no wonder that it won awards: a teleplay award (precedent of Emmy), a tony, and an Oscar nomination for screenplay. Anne Bancroft won an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan while Patty Duke won best supporting actress for Helen.
From the harrowing opening scenes with the discovery of Helen having gone blind after an intense fever to the fight scenes at the dinner table where Annie imposes normal social behaviors on Helen, the drama and action are riveting. Again, I wish I had never seen the movie decades ago and were just now reading the play for the first time. Because I know the ending, the despair loses some of its poignancy. However, the writing and language and action are so strong that I am still swept under the spell of Annie Sullivan’s strength of character and determination–some might say stubbornness. She works a true miracle that allows Helen to grow into her powerful destiny as a speaker and writer who brings hope to countless people throughout the centuries who struggle with seemingly debilitating differences.
#2 Praying the Scriptures for Your Adult Children by Jodie Berndt
(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-310-34807-8)
Reviewed updated 27 January 2019: After considering some more the lapses into what seem to me as Post Hoc, I have reached another conclusion. I believe that Berndt was simply trying too hard to be relatable and also reaching too far to fill a book. Because she had to include X number of anecdotes and X number of words, she simply overtold the story. I choose believe this is closer to reality than superstition masquerading as sound doctrine.
I received this book as my Blind Date at our book club’s December 2018 party. Every year we each bring a book, wrapped or in a gift bag, and someone at the party chooses it anonymously to read and then report on for the January meeting. This is a book I had heard about and wanted to read, so I was very excited to get started on it.
I appreciate several things about the book. First of all, each chapter is filled with non-judgmental encouragement for parents to continue to pray for their adult offspring. In fact, Berndt encourages prayer over offering advice or doing helicopter parenting. The book is organized into areas of need that might be part of one’s adult child’s life. The ones that resonated with my life are praying for good friends, future spouse, young marriage, a place to live and protection from harm. The book offers anecdotes apparently from real people designed to reveal the emotions parents feel in each situation. One thing I really liked were the sprinklings of principles for prayer derived from the scriptures that give a sense of direction and the bigger picture in the midst of specific anecdotes. Valuably, each chapter ends with sample prayers drawn directly from scripture verses that the reader can apply verbatim to their own children’s situations.
A few things about the book didn’t work for me, however. First of all, once again I felt the odd man out, as I do so often when I read these kinds of book written by women. There’s an emotional level to them that just isn’t me in any way, so I get tired of the angst and hand-wringing. I would like to be able to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, but the stories just wear me out. I ended up skimming through the anecdotes, looking for the principles and the scriptures instead. And speaking of scriptures, Berndt cherry picks verses (out of context) and in versions that prove the point she is making. That kind of stuff really bugs me. It doesn’t negate the power of scripture to teach, encourage, and correct, but I find it annoying and have to go look at the context for myself before I can decide on the aptness.
One other thing that really irked me is that in a couple of the stories, ones she tells about herself, she implies pretty heavily a post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship about the quality and correctness of her prayers and the results. Not to spoil the book, but in one instance, it seemed that her daughter didn’t get the dream job until she, the mom, quit praying “wrong” and repented with confession. In other words, the mom’s prayer delayed God’s work?! What!?
I plan to keep the book and make use of the scriptural prayers that seem fitting and contextually correct. The book has value, I just wouldn’t recommend swallowing it whole.
#1 The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay
(hardcover, ISBN: 9780545790352)
I never expected what a novel experience reading this illustrated version would be. I wanted the book as part of a completionist goal for the Harry Potter series. Going into it, I did think that the illustrations would be fun. But, I was amazed at how the different layout on large pages, each with a textured background look, would affect my reading. The new format created an entirely different reading experience.
First of all, the four-column layout made me able to read faster yet slowed me down at the same time. The narrower column enabled seeing almost an entire row of text at one time. But, because my eyes had to travel up to the top of the same page to read the second column, my reading time on each page increased as well. The textured background–parchment, vellum, whatever it was supposed to be–also caused me to linger a little longer. Whether or not a large illustration was included, each page was delight for the eyes.
The portraits of various characters (Dumbledore, Harry, Hagrid, Hermione, the troll, etc.) were colorful, vivid, and true to the text rather than the movie. The delightful Diagon Alley pages included shops purely from Kay’s imagination with a small hint to some of the more important ones found in the text (Madame Malkin’s, for example).
I wish I were a kid again and could read the illustrated version of the first three books as my entry into the world of Harry Potter. Readers always say that books are better than the movies, and in this case, there is no doubt for the illustrated version is far superior to any movie.