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Reading Recap: January & February 2018
I believe with my whole heart that you absolutely do not ever need an excuse to escape from the real world via the pages of a book, but…
Yesterday was World Book Day!
And I thought I would celebrate by telling you about the books I read in January and February. It was fun doing the recap, so moving forward, I’ll post a recap here of the books I devour each month. The comments below are excerpts from my full reviews on Goodreads; you can always keep up with my reading in real time over there.
Feel free to share your best recent reads—or a book that made you want to throw it across the room—in comments!
What I Read in January
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
I read this based on Anne Bogel’s enthusiasm for it, and it totally lived up to my high expectations. A gripping story with plenty of glitz, raw emotion, and gasp-out-loud surprises. The language—gorgeous, evocative—advances the story, rather than being window dressing, so it’s never self-conscious, at the same time that I wanted to highlight a phrase on almost every page. I intentionally read it leading in the the new year because the action really kicks off in the book on New Year’s Eve, 1938. I can imagine wanting to read it again next year. It definitely seems like the kind of book that will reveal something new in each re-read. Sometime in the next few months, I’m planning to read another highly-recommended book by Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow.
In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
The premise of this story is right in my zone: WWII, secrets, lady spies, a little romance, a British manor house—so many things to love. And it was… good, but not great for me. I kept waiting to be swept up in the story, and it didn’t happen. There are tone issues: It’s neither a madcap adventure, nor Serious and Important. It felt unsure of what kind of story it was trying to be. Some of the dialogue is weak—real people just don’t talk like this—and that pulled me out of the story. On the upside, I always love reading about stodgy old British dads getting their comeuppance from “modern” daughters, and I was surprised by who turned out to be the baddie. The red herrings sprinkled throughout are very well done.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
I’ve written before about how much I love this book, and this was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve re-read it. I jumped into this story again in early January because we went on a trip to Budapest, and I wanted to visit the locations mentioned in the book. It was magical! Another sweeping, travel adventure story from Kostova that I adore is The Shadow Land (set in Bulgaria with family secrets, WWII tragedies, and a sweet, modern friendship).
Rick Steves Budapest
Rick Steves books are the best for orientation to a new city and insider tips for hassle-free trips to museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants. I visited Budapest just after Christmas this year, and his explanation of how to visit the thermal baths made it the highlight of our trip. We knew just what to do when we arrived at the potentially confusing bath house. Rick Steves self-guided walking tours are always excellent—they provide turn-by-turn directions and enough historical and cultural context to understand what you’re seeing, without bogging down in too many details.
The Spirit Photographer: A Novel by Jon Michael Varese
Jon, the author of this book, is a reader of my blog! The book jacket copy is practically a checklist of things I love in fiction: turn-of-the-century hijinks, cities I’ve visited, a flim-flam man, a ghost, secrets and betrayal, voodoo, court proceedings, and a story woven from the facts of history. I loved it! Available now for pre-order; releases April 17.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
The art in this book is breathtakingly beautiful, whimsical, imaginative… it pulled me into the story, and I wanted to stay in that world. And the story—told with no words—is tremendously moving. Its depiction of love, family, friendship, the immigrant experience, curiosity, and kindness is very restorative to my spirit, which is a bit beaten down by our current political environment. Fun detail: We checked this book out of our local library in Prague, so all of the cover text, author bio, etc. is in Czech. The title here in the Czech Republic is Nový Svět, which means “new world.”
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peer Sis
I’ve read many memoirs about life behind the Iron Curtain, and this thin, illustrated book packs more emotional wallop than 400 pages of text can. Sis’s art—black, white, and red illustrations—appear quite whimsical at first glance, but look closer, and you’ll see the burdens of living under a dictatorial regime. So many red stars and flags! But this story of Prague from post-WWII until 1998 is not heavy—it’s sobering, sometimes shocking, informative, but ultimately, hopeful and defiant. The snippets of the diary from his youth are evidence that everyday life found a way, even under the constraints of Soviet-style Communism.
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
I’ve been wanting to read The Baroque Cycle in its entirety since I read (and loved) Cryptonomicon—but I abandoned this book at 22% (276 pages). The quality of writing is awesome, as is always the case for me with Stephenson. For writing style alone, I’d give it 5 stars—I highlighted quite a bit of quotes that I enjoyed and I laughed out loud a few times in delight. The primary characters are charming and interesting—and they’re the ancestors of the characters I had such affection for in Cryptonomicon—but they’re buried in lots of asides that meander through the science, philosophy, and religion of the 16th and 18th centuries… and I’m not too proud to admit I got lost. A lot. I can imagine trying this book again some day after doing a little history refresher first. Stephenson writes thick, engrossing novels with big ideas and has lots of fun with language. Other Stephenson books I loved: Cryptonomicon, Reamde, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Rachel Kadish masterfully weaves two stories—the past and another set in 2000—and the two comment on each other in a really satisfying way. This is one of those rare books that made me talk to it OUT LOUD sometimes, and there were a few instances of tears, too. It’s really smart and some of the passages about philosophy require some work while reading, but it’s also very entertaining and readable: intelligent and lyrically written, without obviously drawing attention to its intelligence and writing. I was introduced to Kadish through this essay she wrote for Lit Hub—and I’m so glad I searched out her book after reading that piece. I was really pulled into the world of this book—specifically, the story thread set in 17th century London—that when I wasn’t actively reading it, I was wondering what Ester and the rest of the characters were doing. I finished this beautifully-written, truly moving novel between 3:00 and 5:30 a.m. one morning when I woke up and thought, “I’ll just read a few pages and go back to sleep” and couldn’t sleep until I’d reached the last page.
What I Read in February
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
This is super cute—like a rom-com movie in book form. It was a fun palate cleanser after the big feels and thinking of The Weight of Ink. I breezed through this book in about 36 hours and was just really entertained and delighted. It’s got some really sweet moments and is an unflinching look at how freakin’ confusing falling in love can be, especially in your twenties.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
It’s a book within a book—love love love—and the two stories weave in and around each other in a very fascinating way. Horowitz gives each its own tone and style; really remarkable writing. The mystery novel that’s at the heart of the story includes more than a dozen primary characters, and Horowitz has drawn them so clearly and so distinctly that I was never confused about who was who, where they were at the time of the murder, their other secrets, etc. It’s brilliant. Plus, there are shades of the TV show Midsomer Murders, and I am 100% here for that. I enjoyed every single page of this book, and I wish I could wipe it from my brain so I could read it again for the first time.
The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes
There’s so much to love: a nerdy vampire, a kickass paranormal agent, and a slew of sidekicks including were-animals, a necromancer, and a sweet-tempered zombie. I’m a sucker for stories about found-families—prickly personalities, painful honesty, and undeniable, unwavering loyalty. The writing is snappy, the characters are funny—it reminds me a bit of the Sandman Slim novels by Richard Kadrey, but with less angst.
The Great Passage by Shion Miura
This is a very sweet book that speaks lovingly of the power of words and the emotions behind them. Not much happens—a group of people work for more than a decade on a new dictionary called The Great Passage—but everything happens: people fall in love, live and die, feel things, question themselves and others, succeed and fail. Just when it seems like it might get too precious, there’s a a touch of sarcastic humor that makes the characters seem more real. The details of the process of making the dictionary made me curious about how English dictionaries are made, which sent me down an internet rabbit hole. If you’re curious, too, read this: A Journey Into the Merriam-Webster Word Factory.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Diaries by Kory Stamper
This is a memoir/history of working at Meriam-Webster. It’s compelling, entertaining, and I was really into it… until I wasn’t. It’s not the fault of the book. The book is great! I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and this is why: I love stepping into someone else’s shoes and getting lost in their fictional world. So I’m continuing to read Word by Word in snippets while I continue to dive into fiction.
T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton
I read a ton of these Kinsey Millhone mysteries when I was in my twenties and, while I didn’t make a deliberate decision to stop reading mid-alphabet, I just kind of moved on to other series and other types of books. I was saddened by Sue Grafton’s passing in 2017 and decided to revisit the detective Kinsey, her neighbor Henry, and their home of Santa Teresa one more time as a nod to Grafton. Kinsey is an endearing character and her relationship with her elderly friend Henry is very sweet, but I did not enjoy this particular mystery story at all. The villain was very unpleasant, as an effective villain should be, but the structure of the book means entire chapters from her point of view, and I hated spending time with her. I’m glad to have spent time in Kinsey’s world again, just as a sort of silent thank you to Sue Grafton for the hours of entertainment—and now I can peacefully return these books to my reading past.
The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow
There are dozens of novels set in Prague, and I understand why: the history, architecture, and magical feeling of this city are inspiring. But so many books embrace the locale and forget to write a great story. The Prague Sonata is not one of those books—the story is great! It’s a smart thriller with plenty of feelings and music-nerd vocabulary. The story weaves threads from the past and present, touches of romance, lyrical language about music and art, secrets and friendship, plus really moving accounts of some of the most important events in Prague’s history.
Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese
This story traces the relationship between the artist Gustav Klimt and “the woman in gold,” Adele Bloch-Bauer—then weaves Adele’s story with that of her niece’s harrowing experience under the Nazis during WWII. If you know my taste in books, you know this is like catnip for me. The story itself is fascinating, but I was not as entranced by the writing as I wanted to be. Sadly, the characters never felt like really people to me.
On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman
I’m a long-time fan of Elinor Lipman. She has an incredible talent for writing books that are light in tone, but deep in character and meaning. On the surface, they’re stories about (mostly) nice people living (mostly) normal lives, but her books are un-put-downable. The pages fly by, and it’s always like spending time with real people that you’re glad to know—even when they’re sloppy, messy, complicated humans.
Three of my other Lipman favorites are The Way Men Act; The Inn at Lake Divine; and Isabel’s Bed.