Archive | February, 2013

Winter Storm 2013

25 Feb

I have spent a lot of time with my books this past week. Typically when I can’t get out of the house, that’s what I do. Rearrange them, re-stack them, reorganize my “to-read” pile. And, of course, reading them. Here are two from this weekend, and there will be more to follow in the next few days.

14780932I have seen this book here and there – nice reviews, comparisons to Richard Russo and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee. So I was curious. And – surprisingly?- I agree with all of those comparisons. Our young hero, Hilly (short for Hilton), is the son of a lawyer who makes his money by camping out in hospital waiting rooms. The ambulance chaser of lawyers. When a commercial flight crashes, our ambulance chaser lawyer Arthur makes a boatload of money suing the airline on behalf of the families of the victims. After his huge success with that first crash, he goes on to represent many others. Buys a big house, a couple of big houses, fancy cars, watches….All of the sudden young Hilly is no longer an average, struggling-to-get-by boy, he is now a millionaire. One of the houses Arthur buys is on the coast and it comes with its very own “house boy,” a man named Lem. Hilly and Lem strike up a friendship fraught with tensions – perhaps not even to be considered a friendship. Hilly winds up falling in teenage-love with Lem’s niece, Savannah, the sort of teenage love that will haunt him the next forty years and through to the end of the novel. It’s Gatsby-ish in that self-made-millionaire kind of way, Richard Russo-esque in its style and male-centric-ness, and Harper Lee-ish, of course, in the way that every novel that touches on racial equality can be. Overall, I liked it. Very much.

Book-Review-Above-All-Things-by-Tanis-RideoutAbove All Things was a great book to read while snowed in. Mostly because I could sympathize with the cold and the snow drifts (to a point). This is a fictionalized account of George Mallory’s third attempt to climb Mt Everest in 1924. The story goes back and forth between George and Ruth, his wife. I wanted to really love this novel. It has everything that a great novel should have – suspense, romance, danger – but for some reason I didn’t quite have that “I Can’t Put This Down!” moment. Really what I most wanted to know was whether or not George Mallory made his way back to Ruth (history that I didn’t know). If I had known the outcome, I probably would’ve skimmed a large section of Ruth’s missing-him-so-much’s. To rank it, I’d say 3/5 stars.

Back to the Grind

21 Feb

Now that the end of the Librarians Read Challenge is looming, I have decided I’d better read at least one or two more. And good thing I did, because the one I read yesterday was GREAT. I read Ruta Sepetys’s first novel, Between Shades of Gray, earlier in January and thought it was terrific. A downer, but a terrific downer. When I saw that her new one just came out last week, I decided to give it a go.

11178225It was nothing like her first. But I fell into it right away and read it straight on through. Josie is the 17-yr-old daughter of a prostitute. Not only is her mother a prostitute, she is also incredibly vain, incredibly annoying, and incredibly not above stealing things outright from her daughter. Her mother, Louise, works for one of the premiere madams of New Orleans – Willie. Long ago, Josie decided she wanted a different sort of life (the sort of life that is filled with books and intelligence and friendship) and went off to live in the overhead apartment of a dusty bookstore. She works in the store during the days with her friend, the owner’s son, Patrick, after cleaning the whore house in the mornings. Then things go all wonky. A handsome, wealthy, nice man comes into the bookstore and impresses Josie with talk of college and Dickens and Keats. She starts to dream that he is her father (a common pastime) and is shocked out of her fantasy the next day when she reads that he has died. Apparently of a heart attack. But he seemed so healthy! Of course things are not as they seem – and the mystery spirals onward, involving her mother, her mother’s no good suitor, Willie, Patrick and a handful of other characters. I really enjoyed it – prostitution is a major player though, so it’s probably not for every Young Adult reader out there.

Dragons & Dinner & the Holy Spirit

19 Feb

I read a really wide range of things this past week. Really wide and really weird. Publisher’s Weekly ran a nice review of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons and I thought it sounded interesting so I added it to my library cue. In came in right away (unlike the other two books in this post which took ages) and so I started it.


As you might imagine, it was a little strange. Here are the things I loved about it: I loved the idea that this was a phony memoir – written “by” Lady Isabella Trent, dragon expert and renowned  natural historian. I loved the creatures called “Sparklings” which are thought to be insects (though Lady Isabella proves them to be in the dragon family) that flit around the Victorian-feeling streets and meadows, blowing tiny huffs of sparks (lighting up like fireflies). When they die, their bodies turn to ash (although Lady Trent finds a way to preserve them in vinegar). I loved that Lady Trent was a reader, that she snuck into libraries, and that the main thing she looked for in a suitor was the extent of his library and whether or not she thought he’d let her read from it. The more I think about it, the more I like this weird little novel. It was sort of adventure-y, sort of romantic, sort of fantasy. I can think of a handful of (mostly young-adulty girls) that would really enjoy this.


Heading towards the other end of the spectrum, Herman Koch’s The Dinner is maybe one of the darker things I’ve read in a while. I finished it last night and I’m still trying to figure out in my head what exactly I think about it. Other than that it was dark and disturbing. The course of the novel takes place at a fancy restaurant (which our narrator doesn’t name, not wanting people to show up next week expecting to see them dining there) with an upscale clientele. Paul, our narrator, and his wife Claire stroll towards the restaurant holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes – seemingly oh-so-in-love. They are meeting Serge, Paul’s brother, and his wife for dinner. Serge is a bit of a political rock star, and neither Paul nor Claire seem particularly excited for the dinner – they would rather it was just a romantic date between the two of them. Each couple has a 15-year-old son. AND, it turns out that those 15-year-old sons have done something heinous. The details of the act come out tensely and slyly over the course of (a very expensive) dinner. Very twisted and dark as only a Norwegian novel can be.


Lastly, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer. Everything about this novel appeals to me. I love love the cover, all the fantastic blurbs on the back, the literary premise, the epistolary form. Frances and Bernard meet at a writer’s retreat in the early 1950s. She’s a novelist, he a poet. They find each other not because of an immediate attraction, but mostly because all of the other people at the writers’ colony are incredibly ridiculous and over-inflated. He asks if he may write to her, and she says yes. What follows is a novel of letters in which the two grow closer and closer – there is lots of talk about religion (what is the Holy Spirit? why did Bernard convert? what does Frances get from her weekly church visits?) but there is also a lot of talk about literature, about love, about madness. I swallowed this entire novel in an evening – putting it down a few times in an attempt to get to bed, but picking it back up telling myself “just one or two more letters.”

Laundresses and Ballerinas

14 Feb

Sometimes I think of books with famous historical figures in them being, I don’t know, sort of schmaltzy? Is that a word? I always think to myself that I won’t like a book if it has REAL people, famous people, in it. So you can imagine my low expectations when I picked up The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The jacket revealed that it was about one of Degas’s young ballet models – the one immortalized in his famous “Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer” statuette.


I have not be able to put this book down. And I realize that my bad feelings about books with notable figures are completely ridiculous – there have been so many I loved (The Paris Wife, The Aviator’s Wife, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. etc etc). Hopefully I can train my brain to realize that I actually really like historical fiction, even if it has a somewhat famous character or two.

The Painted Girls opens with a grotesquely robust man demanding payment for the past three months rent. His vest buttons strain as he rants and raves at the Van Goethem women (a drunk mother, three daughters), not caring that their husband/father has only recently passed away, that they do not have money even for bread. Antoinette, the eldest sister, has recently been turned away from the dance academy she’d been attending (too skinny, too ugly, too short to proceed to the next level) and sets out to find some other means of making money. Marie, the smart whip-sharp middle daughter, is forced to abandon her studies and enter the dance academy (needing the small stipend given to ‘petit rats’ of the Parisian Opera). The novel alternates between these two very different sisters – we follow Antoinette as she struggles to find respectable work and Marie as she struggles but begins to excel in ballet (she is good enough to catch the eye of Monsieur Degas, asked to come round his studio to model once a week – only a sliver of importance to the story). It was really good. Even if Edgar Degas and Emile Zola flit through a page or two.

Aviators & Aviatrixes

5 Feb

The single creepiest moment I have ever read came from Melanie Benjamin. It was in her first book, Alice I Have Been, and revolved around the slimy (imagined?) pedophile Lewis Carroll removing, slowly, his white cotton gloves before photographing half-naked young girls. Still gives me the heebies to think about it. And while I can see that it takes a mighty fine writer to evoke such pure heebie-jeebie-ness, I almost can’t forgive her for it. I almost had myself convinced I couldn’t read her again.

THANK GOODNESS I didn’t let that stop me from reading her newest, The Aviator’s Wife (thanks, STK)! I thoroughly, absolutely, completely enjoyed it.


I knew little to nothing about Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her heroic husband Charles. Basically just an outline of the facts – they were married, they had a small child kidnapped from their home and found buried near by, Charles was rumored to have favored Naziism during the beginning of the war era (and this last one only because of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America). I thought this story was so fascinating, so detailed, so ugh frustrating at times. I found myself wanting to shake that Anne by her shoulders and tell her to snap out of it a handful of times. Regardless of that fact, I was so interested in her story – there was SO MUCH more to her than I had known, and I spent an hour or so reading more about her online and looking at pictures of her family.

I have a good feeling about this book – I think it will be compared all over the place to Paris Wife and Loving Frank. Solid 4/5 stars.

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister

3 Feb

I am drowning in children’s literature. Seriously. 10,000 pages in 30 days and 28 days left to go. So, I’m taking a week off and just reading what I want to read – no matter what the target age group. I spent a lovely morning this morning with Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus.

images-3Hikikomori is a Japanese grief-driven hibernation – one that Thomas Tessler has been in for three years. He lives in an apartment with his wife – but hasn’t seen her in three entire years. He sneaks out at night to replenish his stock of frozen meals and returns without waking her. Driven to her breaking point, his wife Silke hires a young Japanese woman with a deep, personal understanding of hikikomori to sit outside his door day after day and try to break though to him. And she does.

This was a fast and interesting read – although set in New York City, you get such a refreshing slice of Japanese culture, plus a tangled and barbed love triangle. The chapters are short, so I found myself thinking “just one more, one more one more.” A solid 4/5 stars.