Reading Recap: April 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.

As you’ll see from my recent reading, I really dug into books set in England prior to our vacation to London, Leeds, and Haworth. All of these stories are set in London, Oxford, and the English countryside,and they examine life and love in wildly different decades. It’s fascinating to read them back-to-back and travel through time, as well as place.

The Punishment She Deserves by Elizabeth George
Whew! This is the latest installment in the Inspector Lynley series (#20!), and it is so good. The crime Lynley and Havers are trying to solve—was it *really* a suicide, or was it… muuuurrrderrrr—is fascinating with plenty of twists and likely suspects. The back stories of the people they interview are deliciously dark and I kept changing my mind about who I thought was guilty. The relationship between Lynley and Havers is one of my favorites in literature, and this installment deepens their friendship and has some truly moving moments. There just might be hope for Barbara yet. The ending of this novel also set up some interesting possibilities for future installments. I’m sad to have to wait another few years for the next one.

Favorite highlight: “The difficult part of coping with fears is facing them and walking through them. But the case is this: that’s the only way to dismiss them. And if we are never able to dismiss this fear or that fear—no matter what it is—then they tend to get larger.””

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
I rarely hold back from saying what’s on my mind, so stories like this one break my heart. Ishiguro’s butler Mr. Stevens is so bound by his notions of loyalty, propriety, and—most of all—dignity, that his actions or, more appropriately, inactions ripple throughout multiple peoples’ lives, not the least of which is his own.

The writing deeply immersed me in the mood and events of pre-WWII and just post-WWII England. And in the wake of finishing a course on the English country house in literature, it was fascinating to feel the insular, almost claustrophobic quality of a manor house during this dramatic time in world history. While the story is framed by the large issues of WWII, it’s also an intimate look at one man. Mr. Stevens would be unlikeable except that he’s so obviously trying to live by, and even up to, a code. The problem is that this code is woefully out of touch with what it means to be human. As we meet him, Stevens is spending a great deal of time reliving his memories and examining how he’s lived his life as he begins to contemplate a slightly different future. There are parts of this story that are gut-wrenchingly sad and troubling—it’s a very different kind of WWII story—and the writing is just beautiful in its restraint. But it’s not hopeless, and the ending opens the door to new possibilities for Mr. Stevens.

Favorite highlight: “They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity.'”

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
There are many things to admire about this play—and a few that made me snort a bit. First, every character speaks like they’re channeling Oscar himself, which, I guess, they are. But truly, I feel like Algernon, Jack, Cecily, Gwendolyn, and Jack all say the pithiest things; it’s like an Oscar Wilde quote-a-thon. And the ending! Oh, my. I can just see Jack winking at the audience as he says, “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”

Yikes.

But… it is a fascinating and skewering look at the changing norms regarding marriage, flirtation, money matters, and country vs. city life at the almost-turn of the century in England. I also wonder if it wasn’t commenting on other plays/novels of the time with saccharine-sweet endings.

I mean, it’s Oscar Wilde, so it’s smart and a pleasure to read. Can’t really go wrong with ol’ Oscar. (The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite books of all time, and when my husband David and I were just getting to know each other—before we were even dating—he gave me a beautiful copy because I’d mentioned I like it. *swoon*)

Favorite highlight: “When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.” (But, really, you could highlight the whole thing. It’s Oscar Wilde.)

 

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
This is the kind of fantasy I love: our world with magic at its edges if you look closely enough. It’s a big adventure story with deliciously evil villains, a team of heroes you can root for, and several surprises that genuinely surprised me. I read this book with my husband David, and about halfway through, I complained that I was enjoying it with my brain, but not really feeling it in my heart. But as the momentum increased toward the ending, my feelings got involved, and by then end, I was 100% in. And Gaiman really stuck the ending. Underneath all the daring situations and magical creatures, there’s a sincere examination of how we consciously (or unconsciously) make decisions about how to live our lives.

Favorite highlight: “You’ve a good heart,” she told him. “Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go.” Then she shook her head. “But mostly, it’s not.”

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
This is my favorite Austen so far. I love how so many of the characters have SECRETS and no one is untouched by betrayal and melancholy before the very satisfactory resolution of the end. Fanny and Lucy Steele are truly The Worst. And Colonel Brandon is a prince among men. I so identify with Marianne, but often play the role of Elinor in real life. (Pssst…. the movie version with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman is fantastic.)

Favorite highlight: “He listened to her with silent attention, and on her ceasing to speak, rose directly from his seat, and after saying in a voice of emotion, ‘to your sister I wish all imaginable happiness; to Willoughby that he may endeavour to deserve her,’—took leave, and went away.”

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
This book is on my all-time favorites list, and although I remembered really enjoying it the first time I read it, I didn’t remember all the particulars when I cracked it open to re-read. Our heroine Samantha studies at Oxford and is caught up in a literary mystery involving her distant relations: the Brontës. It’s a love letter to the work of the Brontë’s and very cleverly weaves gothic and romantic elements into its story in a way that echoes Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s loaded with family secrets, coming-of-age angst, romance with plenty of sparks, and a compelling literary mystery. It’s really fun, cute, and smart, without being twee or pretentious—and, not for nothing, has some of the best kissing scenes.

Favorite highlight: “Her greatest work and only novel was Wuthering Heights, considered the most romantic book ever written by those who had never read it carefully.”

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

You can find all these books—and more— in my Well Fed Amazon store.

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Comments

  • Bethany says:

    I love your reading recaps! I’ve read Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, but not Sense and Sensibilty. I’ll have to move it to the top of my must-read list! I’m currently reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. Before that, I read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I found that book to be just okay…interesting in parts, slow in others.

    • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark sounds really good! Let me know what you think of Sense and Sensibility. I definitely felt more emotional connection to that one than the others (but is that because i also love the movie?!)

  • Kathie Gray says:

    I’m reading Neverwhere right now! The “Author’s preferred text” version and so far I’m really enjoying it. So glad you liked Ernest and S and S, two of my favourites since my teens when I would only read the classics! Some of your other choices sound very interesting, must investigate. I also read “When God was a rabbit” by Sarah Winman (which is a bit oddball but fascinating in it’s study of love in all it’s forms), “Stung” by Bethany Wiggins ( bee-flu induced distopia) and Roald Dahl’s “The complete short stories volume one 1944 to 1953” ( adult stories previously published in magazines etc.) this month.

    • So many good books! I read the “author’s preferred text,” too. We tried to watch the TV version from the 90s, but the first episode was so bad, we had to throw in the towel. I wish I only had my book-inspired version of the characters in my head. I’m actively trying to forget what I saw on the screen 😉

      • Kathie Gray says:

        I haven’t seen the TV series yet so I’m grateful for the heads up! I rarely enjoy TV or film adaptations of books I’ve read, unless I try to see them ad a totally separate thing , they ate never as good SD what I saw in my head! I picked up a copy of Sense and sensibility and sea monsters yesterday, that should be interesting!

  • Robin says:

    Crazy, I just discovered the new Lynley book last night when I got bored with what I was reading. Didn’t discover the series until about book 16 or 17 so I binge read from the beginning…that’s the best, now I have to wait for each book, which is not the best!! So glad I discovered the new one but if I hadn’t you were there to save me 🙂 Starting it today!

    • The new one is FANTASTIC! Without mentioning any spoilers, how did you feel about what happened in With No One as Witness? I was so angry and hated it so much, I almost stopped reading them. And I never did finish What Came Before He Shot Her. I just pretend those two books don’t exist 🙂

      • Jill Porco L says:

        I gave up on the Elizabeth George when they got too long and tedious to read. If she switched editors, I can certainly tell as the earlier books were vastly superior to her more recent ones.

  • Mary says:

    Hi Mel! Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? A little fairytale + a little magical realism + a little horror (vampires!). I think you will like it 🙂

    • I bought that book and when I started reading it, it didn’t ‘take’ with me. But I agree with you that it sounds right up my alley, so I will probably try it again sometime. It took me four or five tries to get into Wuthering Heights, and the first time I tried to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I put it down after the first chapter… and now it’s on my all-time favorites list. Some books just need the right timing. Thank you for the recommendation; you totally get me 🙂

  • HMG says:

    Thank you again for the great suggestions. I am planning to buy the Lynley book and the Madwoman Upstairs. I just finished the Essex Serpent and really loved it. Very moody and strange but England at its finest!