Reading Recap: March 2018

At the end of every month, I take a look back at my reading journal and share the books and my thoughts on them here. The comments below are excerpts from my full reviews on Goodreads; you can always keep up with my reading in real time over there.

I took a free 6-week course online called the Literature of the English Country House at the beginning of the year, and you can see its influence on my reading.

Feel free to share your best recent reads—or a book that made you want to throw it across the room—in comments!

Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Anstey | 3 stars
This novel was a cute, pleasant read: a sort of YA thriller-romance about a strong-willed girl trying to buck the conventional lot of a young girl in Regency England. During my online course, I was involved in a lot of discussion about the manners and expectations of young ladies in the 18th century, and this book fit perfectly into that context. It was not a life-changing novel, and I probably won’t remember a year from now that I read it, but it was fun and kept me engaged. Plus, who doesn’t love a happy ending?

Perný Den by Jiřina Bartošová | 4 stars
This is a very simple story in Czech, but it’s a complete story—beginning, middle, end—and it’s all in Czech… and I read it. So, that’s pretty awesome. David and I read it along with our Czech teacher Silvie, then—because the fate of two of the characters in the story was left unresolved—we each wrote our own endings to the story.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing  | 4 stars/2 stars
This book about Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole is very well reviewed, and I wanted to love it, especially because I was enthralled with In The Kingdom of Ice, a big adventure tale about a North Pole exploration in the late 19th century. And I had a really hard time deciding how many stars to give my review; I settled on four for the writing, but for me personally, it’s a two. The writing is excellent, and the story is, of course, very compelling—but I got to the 50% mark and stopped reading because the repeated killing of animals was really bringing me down. I feel like a hothouse flower making that comment, but I was so distracted by the clobbering of seals and the demise of other animals, I couldn’t go on.

Harmony Black by Craig Schaefer | 3 stars
This has a great premise: A witch is recruited into a clandestine branch of the FBI to help fight supernatural baddies. I am all over that! Unfortunately, this book was just entertaining enough to keep going with it, but I it didn’t move me or make me feel committed to reading the rest of the series. I really wanted to the witch to be witchier, and the tone to either be scarier, funnier… something-er.

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde  | 3 stars
The Picture of Dorian Gray is in my top 10 all-time favorite books, but I haven’t read any other Wilde—which seems weird, now that I think about it. This was one of the texts we studied in my literature class, and after working with an excerpt, I decided to read the whole thing. It’s a fast read—under an hour—and in addition to being a delightful story, is a sharp commentary on how the relationship between Americans and Brits was changing in the 19th century. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I will also be reading The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Vanishing by Wendy Webb | 2 stars
Oh, man. I hate to be harsh, but this book was…. not good. The premise is great—a mysterious stranger offers a newly widowed woman a job as the caretaker for a famous author, who is presumed to be dead, in an isolated manor house. I mean… YES, please! But the characters do not do things that real people do—and my assessment does take into account that this is a ghost story, so people might do weird things. Even given that, nope. The story is the first-person tale of Julie, the heroine, and she has no defining characteristics at all. I can’t tell you anything about what kind of person Julie might be, so it’s impossible to feel any emotions when things happen to her—and the stuff that happens to her is inexplicable. Not in an “oh, this is ghost story so there are unusual happenings” way. It’s in a “this book has not internal logic” kind of way. But in spite of my criticisms, I finished it—and in less than two days. It was a page-turner—I really did want to know where it was going—but at the end, it kind of went nowhere. And the Epilogue?! Just no. I was sitting on the couch next to my husband David when I finished it, and I looked at him and said, “Oh, that was really dumb.”

Instead of this silly thing, I whole-heartedly recommend The Thirteenth Tale.  It’s basically an old-fashioned ghost story: There’s a mysterious old lady in an eerie manor house. A heroine with secrets of her own. And a decades-old mystery that brings the two together. But to dismiss it it as ONLY a ghost story would be a mistake. It’s beautifully-written, sophisticated and elegant without being stuffy. The heroine Margaret Lea loves books deeply and lists among her favorites several of my favorites (Jane Eyre, The Woman in White). Her affection for books will help you recall your favorites and make you yearn for uninterrupted hours curled up somewhere comfortable with a book in your lap. And it’s a relentless page-turner. I’ve read it at least twice, and it’s been gripping, spooky, amusing, and surprisingly moving.

At this point in the month, I was concerned because I had hit a string of very meh reading experiences. Then I read Less: A Novel, and everything turned around.

Less: A Novel by Andrew Sean Greer  | 5 stars
To make it to my “All-Time Favorites” shelf, a book has to be something that I can’t wait to read again and feel like everyone I know needs to read. I added Less: A Novel to that shelf—and at the moment that I finished it, I wondered if it would be wrong to just go ahead and start it from the beginning again right now. It’s the story of an almost-50 gay author who books himself on a world tour to avoid his ex-lovers wedding. Based on that description, I wouldn’t have thought this book was for me, but Michael Chabon recommended it, and it made all kinds of year-end lists. I took a shot, and I’m so glad I did because I found a new favorite. This book is beautiful, sweet, wistful, fun, funny, life-affirming, and true. As I was reading it, I kept telling my husband Dave, “It’s sad… wait! That’s not right. Some sad things are happening, but it’s… I don’t know. It’s sad but not sad.” Then when I got further along, I couldn’t even say how it was. It was great and emotionally moving—but not heavy. It’s light and fun, but packed with subtext and intelligent, thoughtful characters who love each other and make messy mistakes. As I traveled around the world with Arthur Less and—like so many of the characters in the book—was thoroughly charmed by him, I began to feel like I really knew Arthur and what he needed. I began to hope for a particular conclusion. In the last 10 minutes of reading, I had one hand clutched at my chest the whole time, hoping. At five pages from the end, I started sniffling; at three pages from the end, tears rolled down my cheeks. Dave was worried! I could only say, “It’s so good.” *sniff* “It’s really, really good.” I’m hooked.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë  | 4 stars
I read this book to round out my Brontë education and because it fit so neatly into my literature course. I’m very happy to report that this did not feel like homework reading. The writing style is a little more accessible than Charlotte and Emily Brontës’, and some of it felt quite modern. The structure is interesting—it’s essentially a looooooong letter, broken up with a personal diary. I wish very much that I wasn’t already familiar with the major plot points of the story because it would have held several surprises and twists if I didn’t already know what was going to happen. I like to imagine what it was like for readers in the mid-1800s to crack it open without knowing anything about it. Helen, our heroine, is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but she wasn’t always that way—circumstances reshaped her into a character she never intended to become. But, she’s also a mid-19th century badass: brave, honest, strong-willed. I wouldn’t mind an afternoon of tea and walk with her and Jane Eyre.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen | audio narrated by Rosamund Pike |4 stars
I’ve always been #teambronte and felt a hole in my literary education where Jane Austen should be. A few years ago, I tried a Jane Austen reading project that went exactly nowhere… that seemed weird and kind of bugged me—there are many people who are dear to me, whose taste in books I trust implicitly, who love Jane Austen, and I felt left out. Plus, I adored the movie version of Jane Austen Book Club. I could see how much Austen meant to people, but I couldn’t get there myself. A few months ago, I decided to try again. I bought the audiobook narrated by Rosamund Pike and started listening… and couldn’t get past the first few chapters because Mrs. Bennet was so off-putting to me. But then I took that literature class, and we did a close reading of a few passages from Pride and Prejudice. Then I listened to a podcast devoted to discussing the novel. As I learned more about the context in which it was written, my curiosity grew. I decided to take the easy way out of my ignorance and watched the BBC mini-series; I did not love it. (Don’t come after me, Colin-Firth-as-Darcy fans!) But it was enough to send me back to the audiobook, this time with a deeper understanding of what I was listening to. On this last listen, I got it. I finally saw Lizzy’s spunk, Darcy’s spark, Jane’s true sweetness, Bingley’s charm. How I loathe Mr. Collins and have learned to dismissively laugh at Mrs. Bennet. And Mr. Bennet! What a good father he is! So now I guess I’m at least in the same room as the Jane Austen fans, if not quite yet at the same table. I have P and P on my Kindle, and I may read it next time to make it all official.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James  | audio narrated by Emma Thompson | 3 1/2 stars
I’ve recently discovered that I love audiobooks for 19th century literature because the narrator helps with what can sometimes be a slog through convoluted language. A good narrator helps me understand where the emphasis lies in the words and makes it a really fun listening experience—especially when it’s a ghost story and the weather around Prague is gray and gloomy. It was a particular thrill to walk along the river in the dusk while listening to Emma Thompson tell this story of a governess that may or may not be seeing ghosts at Bly mansion.

I didn’t love the story at first: the narrator soon shows herself to be unreliable, and I’m not a fan of narrators I can’t root for. And the ending! I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the ending is… WHAT?!?!?! While I was still floundering in my “what did I just listen to” state of mind, I read this piece from The New Yorker and that sent me down a rabbit hole of essays about the novella, then watched the deliciously spooky BBC production, starring Michelle Dockery. The story has definitely grown on me as I go back and forth on the debate—are there really ghosts or is the governess merely losing her mind, poor dear.

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George  | 4 stars
I’m a long-time fan of this series and always enjoy spending time with London detectives Lynley and Havers. Lynley is handsome, rich, sophisticated, and very, very kind; Barbara is whip-smart and always getting in her own way. The way they spar on cases but love each other deeply as friends is a true delight. I wasn’t as enthralled with the mystery in this installment as I usually am—and Barbara, bless her heart, was even more infuriating than usual. She made surprisingly bad choices, even for her. But Elizabeth George really landed this one nicely—I love the way she tied up all the loose ends, but left one important strand kind of dangling. The descriptions of Lucca, Italy made me want to visit, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can give a novel. Now I’m on to the newest release in the series The Punishment She Deserves.

Up Next

We’re going on holiday to England in May, so I’m continuing my immersion on English literature, the world of the Brontës, and books set in London. I’ve kicked off April with another Elizabeth George and a Charles Dickens audiobook. Dave and I are replacing TV for a week or so while we listen to the audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo together—and I’m following along in the print book, thanks to the generosity of one of my lovely followers. (Hi, Lucy!)

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  • Kathie Gray says:

    I love that you are sharing your reads and it has been instrumental in getting me back to reading after a break from it, so thanks for that. Having said that my reading last month consisted of all the “Little House” books and two autobiographies by Roald Dahl, so not really very grown up anything but it’s a start! Roald Dahl had a fascinating life and writes just like he talks, which I really enjoyed. I had the great privilege of meeting him as a child and so I could actually hear him talking in my head while I read, hope that doesn’t sound too crazy! Big classic literature fan too and from England :-).

    • I love the Little House books. I distinctly remember a description of a smoke house from one of them, and I think about it every time I smell smoked sausage or see a ham in a butcher shop. How fantastic that you met Roald Dahl! That must give you a really nice connection to his work. I love that!

  • HMG says:

    Just a note to say how very much I appreciate you sharing your book choices. I made a resolution this year to read more — and in hard copy — and your lists and reviews have not only been invaluable but also have enabled me to stretch beyond my usual genres. We share a love of all things Bronte so that is a great foundation to build upon. I used to make the trek to Haworth when I lived in England and, like you, reread Jane Eyre on a regular basis. So thank you again!

    • This is so great… yay! I’m really glad you’ve been enjoying my reading recaps. Thanks to being on What Should I Read Next? podcast last year, I also starting trying more genres, and it’s been very rewarding. I’ve also been trying to remember to read when I have a free minute, instead of looking at social media or TV. I have the Kindle app on my phone and just jump into a book when I’m waiting in a line or something. It’s definitely upped my reading game.

      I can’t wait to go to Haworth in May. Any suggestions for stuff we absolutely shouldn’t miss?

      • HMG says:

        I could honestly spend all the time in and around the parsonage and it’s so well preserved that you can absolutely imagine the sister’s day to day. Since you will be close by, you should definitely go to the Lake District. Particularly Grasmere. You can see Wordsworth’s home and where Shelley lived. It’s so beautiful. There’s also an incredible stone circle in Castlerigg that should not be missed. Lastly, try the Grasmere ginger bread!

  • Susannah says:

    Love your reading recaps! I will definitely seek out “Less” and I’ve signed up for the Jane Austen online course, thanks to your email today. I was really intrigued by the English country house course you did but just couldn’t fit it in. I *will* fit this one in and it’s a great excuse to re-read Jane Austen – wow my reading list has expanded ?
    And congratulations on finishing a book in Czech!! I study French and Spanish and it’s a big deal to stick with a book AND to write your own ending.
    Thanks so much (off to eat leftover Chinese 5 spice ribs for dinner!)

    • I’m excited that you signed up for the Austen course. It shouldn’t take up too much time, and I hope will deepen my experience if/when I read another Austen novel. Thank you for the congrats on finishing Perny Den—it’s pretty funny because it’s SO elementary, but it’s something. Czech is really challenging.

  • Gretchen says:

    I read Less based on your suggestion and loved it. Now I see it won the Pulitzer. Thanks to you, I feel really up on things 🙂 I really enjoy your book recommendations. I could also mention, I cook from Well Fed all the time.

    • I was so excited when Less won the Pulitzer Prize, you would have thought that *I* won. I feel so invested in that book; I’m so thrilled for Andrew Sean Greer, even though he has no idea 😉 I’m really glad you loved it, too. YAY! And thank you for buying our cookbook!

  • Molly says:

    So excited to find and read Less. Thank you for the recommendation. I read “We have always lived in the Castle” based on your recommendation. Now on to Less. Like others, you have inspired me to read more. I have a list of books on my office door of books that need to be re-addressed like Madame Bouvary!! Fun. In this age of Netflix, I need to do something other than stare at the TV.

    • Ooooh, so exciting. I hope you enjoy Less. My husband Dave is going to read it soon, and I’m going re-read it with him so we can discuss.

      Wasn’t We Have Always Lived in the Castle deliciously weird?! Shirley Jackson had a singular imagination.

  • Sarah says:

    Hey, I just wanted to say that I’ve read the Harmony Black series, and I agree that the first book was a disappointment. But the series gets continuously better….Harmony starts using more of her witch powers, and her relationship with her partner (the half wolf) gets more interesting. The fourth book was the best of the series so far. I guess it was just a slow build. And usually it bugs me when male authors have female protagonists, but this author does a good job. But I totally understand if you need to give up the series. Usually it takes me 6 books before I give up…

    • Thanks for letting me know—that’s good intel. Maybe I’ll just jump ahead to book four.

      I have been quitting books much more liberally lately, and it’s really working for me. I’m reading more books that I love, and the ones I abandon can be found and loved by the right person for them. 😉