Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: The Night Strangers

Phew! It's been a long time since I've read a book as eerie as Chris Bohjalian's The Night Strangers. The night I began reading it, I had actual nightmares—the creepy, ghosty kind of nightmares. I know: this isn't a rousing endorsement of the book. But this book is creepy!

The story opens with a terrible plane crash. The pilot, Chip Linton, faces paralyzing guilt after his plane crashes, killing 39 passengers. He and his wife and twin daughters move to a small New England town with hopes of restoring some peace in their lives. But, well, there's an old house with a basement. And ghosts. And twins. And a coven of witches. And did I mention New England, where all creepy stories take place? Yep.

I was terrified, but I couldn't stop reading. OK, this isn't terror on the level of 'Salem's Lot or The Shining, but for me it was reminiscent of that love/hate relationship I once had with Stephen King's horror novels. (I saw "once had" because I've generally stayed away from horror novels in the past 25 years.) I loved to get scared, and yet I hated to get scared.

This novel went in places I wasn't expecting at all—murders, poisoning, seances, and all kinds of crazy stuff. But Chris Bohjalian is an incredible storyteller, and I kept reading in spite of my queasiness. Am I glad I read this book? I'm not sure. It was much different than anything I've read in a long, long time. The Thirteenth Tale would be perhaps the only story I've read in a while with scary ghosts and twins. (Why are twins often in horror stories?)

So, my recommendation: it's eerie and dark, incredibly well written, and mesmerizing. I mean, just look at that book cover. You decide.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: This Boy's Life

I've had this memoir by Tobias Wolff on my TBR list forever. I saw the movie years ago and always meant to read the book, but I just never got around to it. I'm so glad I finally did. I love memoirs, especially ones that read like this— poetic but not sentimental, filled with insights but not didactic. It's really exactly what the title promises: one boy's life.

As the book opens Toby Wolff, soon to become Jack, and his mother are running away from an abusive man. She's divorced from Toby's father, who lives on the East Coast with his older brother. Toby and his mother clearly adore each other, but he can't seem to be "good," in spite of his desire to please his mother. Toby gravitates toward the wrong crowd and finds himself doing all the things he knows he should do: fighting, vandalizing, lying, cheating. Eventually his mom remarries, and they move to a desolate town in Washington. Dwight, the stepfather, is a controlling dictator who is often proud of Toby for his transgressions, yet punishes him severely. Much of the tension in the book is between Toby and himself and Toby and Dwight, his stepfather.

Toby isn't a run-of-the-mill bad boy. He's smart about things. He carefully erases his report cards to show excellent grades, makes excuses that somehow seem legitimate, and even forges recommendations so that he can get into a prep school. In his heart he truly believes that he's a good kid, a smart kid, one destined for a better life as soon as he gets out of his podunk town. But he just can't stop making bad decisions.

I read in an interview with Wolff in The Paris Review that "Though a private man, Wolff is open about his nagging suspicion that his good fortune in life—his arrival at the age of fifty-eight with his family intact, a home in a warm climate, a place to write and teach, even a dog—is a fabrication that could burn to the ground at any moment." That makes perfect sense after reading this memoir. A good, stable life seems always just out of reach to the boy Toby, and yet he knows that he is somehow made for that life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wolff's boyhood story and plan to add the memoir of his tour of Vietnam to my TBR list.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: The Beekeeper's Apprentice

One of the best things about being part of a book club is that I get to read genres that I wouldn't usually read. We are a diverse group in terms of our preferred genres; and in order to give everyone an opportunity to read from "their" genre, we have a yearly meeting in which we pick our upcoming reading year. We each come to book club with three books we'd like to read, and we explain our books. From there, we vote on one book from each person's list, so we end up with 10 books for the next year. We've been doing this for two years, and I've really enjoyed stepping outside my reading zone. But at the same time, this has reaffirmed my love for my usual reading zone!

All that to say, Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a mystery—not my usual genre—and I loved it. I didn't love it so much that I'll rush out and read any others in the series, but it was refreshing, fun, engaging and quite well written. This novel introduces Mary Russell, a brilliant teenager who is soon to become the apprentice of none other than Sherlock Holmes. I am not a Sherlock Holmes aficionado, and I'm sure this book would be even more meaningful to those who are, but I loved the concept of fiction taking place inside another fictional world.

When I was a teenager, I read through nearly all of Agatha Christie's mysteries in one summer, and this novel reminded me of those wonderful days when I had nothing else to do but bask in the sun (ignorant of the harmful UV rays) and read, breaking occasionally for a dip in the lake. My reading is done now in 30-minute chunks at most before I go to sleep each night. This novel, however, did absolutely hold my attention.

And I take it back. I just might read through all the Mary Russell books. There is something intensely comforting about a solid, clean, well written mystery.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

My Ever-Growing TBR List (2015)

*Indicates books added in 2015

41 False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
Alena by Rachel Pastan
*All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
Americanah by Adichie.
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg.
Aprons on a Clothesline by T. DePree
Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D. (reviewed at Musings of a Bookish Kitty)
The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy 
Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar (reviewed at Bookworm's Dinner)
Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala (reviewed by Semicolon)
Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield.
Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio
Blood Hollow by W. Krueger
Blood of Flowers
by A. Amirrezvani
Blood Work
by M Connelly
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior.
Book of a Thousand Days by S. Hale (reviewed on Semicolon and Maw Books)
Book of Lost Things by J. Connelly
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Bootletter’s Daughter by M. Maron
Born on a Blue Day by D. Tammet
*The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [read 2015}
*The Children Act by Ian McEwan
China Dolls by Lisa See
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. 
Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eye Ward
*Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry
Commoner by J.B. Schwarz
Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
A Country Doctor’s Casebook by R. MacDonald
The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale by Haim Sabato
Departed, The by K. Mackel
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by D. Gregory
Dough: A Memoir by Mort Zachter (reviewed by Lisa at 5 Minutes for Books)
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (The World As Home) by Janisse Ray.
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Reviewed at S. Krishna's Books)
*Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (read and reviewed 2015)
Executioner's Song by Mailer
Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Darie (reviewed at Maw Books)
Far to Go by Alison Pick (Reviewed by Kristina at The Book Keeper)
Family Nobody Wanted by Doss
Fatal Vision by J. McGinnis
Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
First Wife by Emily Barr (recommended by Fleur Fisher)
Flowers by D. Gilb
Fortune Cookie Chronicles by J. Lee
Franklin and Lucy by Joseph Persico
Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith (reviewed by Leah at Good Reads)
Ghost Map
by S. Jackson
Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes 
Ghost Writer, The by J. Harwood
The Girl in the Italian Bakery by Kenneth Tingle
*The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins [read 2015}
The Girls by Lori Lansens
Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Guests on Earth  by Lee Smith
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Hava: The Story of Eve by Tosca Lee
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent (reviewed by Gautami at Reading Room)
High House, The
by James Stoddard
by John Hershey
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan C. Bartoletti (reviewed by Natasha at Maw Books)
Hot Zone by R. Preston (reviewed by Semicolon)
The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen (mentioned by The Magic Lasso)
Human Cargo by C. Moorehead
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams.
I Am Scout by Charles J. Shields (reviewed by Becky)
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
In My Father's Country by Saima Wahab 
Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh
The Invention of Wings by  Sue Monk Kidd
Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas
by E. Southwark
Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me
by Ian Morgan Cron (reviewed at Rachel Held Evans)
Keeping the House by E. Baker
Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones (reviewed by Bookeywookey)
Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (reviewed at Thoughts of Joy)
Last Storyteller by D. Noble
Leave it to Claire
by T. Bateman
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan (reviewed by Literary Feline)
Left To Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza (reviewed at Maw Books and Just a Reading Fool)
Liar’s Diary by P. Francis (reviewed by Semicolon)
Life Among Savages
by Shirley Jackson (reviewed at Dwell in Possibility)
Life Is So Good
by R. Glaubman
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian. 
Lila by Marianne Robinson
Little Altars Everywhere by R. Wells
Living End
by L. Samson
Look Me in the Eye
by John Elder Robison
A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (reviewed at The Lost Entwife)
Lost Children of Wilder by N. Bernstein
Love Anthony by Lisa Genova (read and reviewed 6/15)
Loving Frank by N. Horan
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Mad Girls in Love by M. West
Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
Many Sleepless Nights
by Lee Gutkind
Mariner's Compass
by E. Fowler
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Mercy Falls by WK Krueger
*Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
*Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Minding the South by J. Reed
Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Moloka’I by A. Brennert [read 2015}
Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Reviewed at The Bluestocking Society)
Murder in the Name of Honor by Rana Husseini (Reviewed at Reading Through Life)
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Reviewed by Reading to Know)
Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian (read and reviewed 2/15)
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
Not without My Daughter
by B. Mahmoody
The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley
Papua New Guinea: Notes from a Spinning Planet by M. Carlson (reviewed by Clean Reads)
Perfect Example by John Porcellino (reviewed at The Hidden Side of the Leaf)
The Plague of Doves  by Louise Erdrich.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (reviewed at Reader Buzz)
*A Pool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
Prairie Tale by Melissa Gilbert
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor
Promise Not To Tell by Jennifer McMahon (reviewed at Missy's Book Nook)
Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett
Property by Valerie Martin (reviewed by The Magic Lasso)
Quaker Summer
by Lisa Samson
Quilter’s Apprentice
by J. Chiaverini
*A Quilt for Christmas  by Sandra Dallas
The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Reading Lolita in Tehran by
Azar Nafisi
Refuge on Crescent Hill by Melanie Dobson (Reviewed at Reading to Know)
The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson
The Rest of the Story by Phan Thi Kim Phuc.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Rises the Night
by C. Gleason
*Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Schwartz (reviewed on Shelf Life)
by Shactman
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins (reviewed by Just a Reading Fool)
Same Kind of Different As Me
by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (recommended by Stray Thoughts)
Saving Levi Left to Die
by Lisa Bently
* The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Reviewed by Word Lily)
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian {read 2015)
Seven Loves by Trueblood
She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William J. Webb 
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
 So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy (reviewed at Polishing Mud Balls)
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf (reviewed at Maw Books)
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren (reviewed by Book Club Classics)
Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi
Song Yet Sung
by James McBride
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture by Donna Partow
Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner:
Stillwater by William Weld
by John Williams (suggested by JoAnn at Every Day Matters)
The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (reviewed by CaribousMom)
by M. Cabon
Teahouse Fire, The
by Ellis Avery
Stones Cry Out
by M Szymusiak
Testament of Youth
by Vera Brittain (recommended at Musings)
There Are No Children Here
by A. Kotlowitz
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
by Alan Alda
This Boy's Life
by Tobias Wolff (read and reviewed 2/15)
Thousand Years of Good Prayers
by Yiyun Li
The Threadbare Heart
by Jenny Nash (reviewed at Maw Books)
Three Cups of Tea
by G. Mortenson
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
Time Between by Mary Duenas
To My Senses by A. Weis (reviewed by J. Kaye)
Tomorrow, the River by D. Gray
Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur
by D. Hari (reviewed by CaribousMom and Maw Books)
Trauma and Ghost Town by P. McGrath
Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera
Uprising by Margaret Haddix (reviewed by Semicolon)
Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman (reviewed by Book Zombie)
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
*We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Well and the Mine, The by Gin Phillips (reviewed by Semicolon)
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
What I Though I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen
What Is What by D. Eggers (reviewed at Maw Books)
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
What Peace There May Be by Susanna Brarlow
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Reviewed at Big A, Little A)
When I Lay My Isaac Down by C. Kent
When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewalt
Wherever you Go by Joan Leegant (reviewed by Bibliophiliac)
Whistling in the Dark by L. Kagen
Who Killed My Daughter by Lois Duncan (Reviewed at Nonfiction Lover)
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
Winter Seeking by V. Wright
Winter Walk
by L. Cox
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (recommended at Rebecca Reads)
Women of the Silk by G. Tsuriyama
Year of Living Biblically
by AJ Jacobs (reviewed by Andi Lit)
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes  
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls  by Anton Disclafani {read 11/15}

2014: The Year in Books

This was my worst reading year, quantitatively, in years. I read 36 books, down 2 books books from last year, which was a considerably slower year than others. I'd like to say I'm starting off better this year, but so far I've only finished a few books by mid-February. Nonetheless, I read some great books this year and a lot of OK books.

Top 10 Books Read in 2014
Blessings (Anna Quindlen)****
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)***** {multiple reread}
Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)****
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)*****
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)****
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Neil White)****
Last Girls (Lee Smith)****
Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)****
Riding the Bus with my Sister (Rachel Simon)*****
Sycamore Row (John Grisham)****

I think I would have to say that Gone Girl was my favorite book of 2014. It's a super disturbing book, but absolutely engrossing and so well written. I thought the movie was quite well done, too.

I added 34 books to my TBR list in 2014, and I crossed off only eight.

Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction and most of the classics. Each link leads to a review or, rarely, to if I didn't get a chance to review it. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel

I've heard this book title for what seems my entire life, and I at last read the novel at the encouragement of a friend who said it was the book that made her start loving to read. I was looking for the perfect book for my 9th/10th grade British Lit class, which is composed of 15 boys who shrivel at the name Jane Eyre and six girls. Pride and Prejudice was just not going to work for this particular class. Fortunately, The Scarlet Pimpernel turned out to be exactly what this class needs.

The story takes place in the midst of the French Revolution, when the guillotine seems to never stop its grisly job. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the English hero, a master of disguise who rescues French nobility from their fate right just at the last moment, much to the embarrassment and fury of the revolutionaries. Lady Blakeney is the brilliant but unhappy young wife of Sir Percy, a dunderheaded English aristocrat. In her zeal to save her brother from the guillotine, Lady Blakeney comes up against the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the story goes from there.

I'm starting my students off with a bit of French Revolution history before they begin the book, and I think we'll need a chart to keep all the characters straight at first; but I anticipate that once they are several chapters into the book, they will really love it. We'll plan to watch the movie together when we finish the book.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (by Baroness Orczy) is not on a single "classics" or "top 100" books to read list that I have ever run across, and I'm not sure why. This is a fabulous, entertaining story. True, it's a little slow at places and somewhat contrived, but what a great novel: it's full of adventure, romance, suspense, and history. It really is a perfect British lit book for reluctant readers especially. It's easy to read, although the first part moves slowly, and the twists and turns just don't stop. Highly recommended.