Reading Recap: June 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 really got into some fun series in June! I re-read the first two books in the Themis Files trilogy in preparation for the last installment: Only Human. And I dove deep into the Veronica Speedwell series because they’re just pure fun—a sassy Victorian heroine who just cannot keep her nose out of trouble, plus her hunky, masculine-but-vulnerable sidekick—and this summer needs as much fun as possible. The most powerful book I read in June was The Glass Room, a WWII story told through the lens of a groundbreaking modern house in Brno, Czechia. We visited the Villa Tugendhat for a tour, and it was fascinating.

Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne | 3 stars
As you probably know by now, Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time, and I try to read as many of the prequels, sequels, and retellings that are published. This one is a YA sci-fi retelling of the story, and while it hews fairly closely to the major plot points, Alexa Donne does a nice job of throwing in some surprises. I especially liked the way she played with characters’ names and her twist on the madwoman in the attic.

The only (small) criticism I have isn’t really a fair one: It’s impossible to write a Jane Eyre-ish character that embodies the essence of Jane as wonderfully as the original. Stella, the Jane-alike in Brightly Burning, is intelligent, determined, and has a good sense of herself, but it was difficult not to compare her to the original Jane. But… I liked the romance, and I liked the way Alexa Donne updated the social issues addressed in the original to be relevant to today.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida | 2 stars
I really did not enjoy this book. For content, it’s important to know that I read because I like to find characters I want to spend time with–and I like to vicariously have adventures with them that show me new things. The premise of this novel seems right up my alley: a young girl goes on a personal quest to Lapland to dig into her family history. I love stories with family secrets, unexpected journeys, and geography that becomes a character in the book—but the things this poor girl uncovers are so ugly. The subject matter made it hard to read, but the structure propelled the story forward with undeniable momentum, so even though I didn’t enjoy my time with these characters, I was compulsively turning the pages to see what would happen next. I stayed up way too late to finish it. If you don’t mind reading about ugly things and you can connect to characters who seem morally ambiguous, this might be for you. The quality of the writing—the word choices, the structure—are great.

Favorite highight: “She couldn’t understand what I was saying. I didn’t think I’d ever been so close to someone so old. Her eyes were the soft brown of suede, and her breath was sweet, as if exhaling air from a happier time.”

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster (Audio read by Joanna David) | 5 stars
This is one of my all-time favorite books—one I return to when the outside world is too difficult or ugly, and I need a reminder that beauty and love are as real as the pavement under my feet. Lucy Bartlett, George and Mr. Emerson, Freddie, Charlotte Bartlett, and Mr. Beebe… such delightful characters.

Poor Lucy is adorably spunky but almost always in a muddle, and Mr. Emerson spews forth beautiful truths, much to the chagrin of all the “proper” people. It is irresistible.

This is an excellent recording, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Favorite highlight: “Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.”

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel | 4 stars
I loved this! It was recommended to me by Anne Bogel when I was a guest on her podcast What Should I Read Next?, and it was an excellent choice for me. It was super-fun and a fast read—the structure makes it impossible to put down! Like an action-adventure/thriller movie—like a mash-up of X-Files and NCIS. The story plays out in military reports and interview transcripts, and while the story didn’t hit me in the feels until close to the end, it definitely kept me engaged and curious the whole time.

Favorite highlight: “They weren’t really my friends though. I was never really good at making friends. I liked reading; I liked walking in the woods; I liked being alone.”

Waking Gods (Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel | 4 stars
The events set up in Sleeping Giants have interesting twist and turns in this installment. I enjoy the characters a lot—and there are some good punches to the feelings in this one. The relationships among the characters evolve a LOT and take on great depth and resonance—there’s also a big, emotional surprise. I’m excited to see what’s in store for the final book in the trilogy Only Human.

Favorite highlight: “If I grab a bunch of matter, anywhere, and I organize it in exactly the same way, I get… you. You, my friend, are a very complex, awe-inspiring configuration of matter. What you’re made of isn’t really important. Everything in the universe is made of the same thing. You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information. It doesn’t matter where the material comes from.”

Only Human (Themis Files #3) by Sylvain Neuvel | 2 1/2 stars
Sadly, this final installment lost the magic of the first two books and devolved into preachy speeches about racism and parental love (and childish push-back). I ended up skimming the last two hours because the speechifying was going on and on. The ending to the trilogy was satisfactory, but getting there in this last book was a slog. One very bright spot: The character of Kara—the way she behaves, the things she says—are pure gold.

Favorite highlight: “If you see something wrong with the world, fix it. Fight. Resist.”

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn | 4 stars
I am totally smitten with our heroine Veronica Speedwell and her partner-in-crime and would-be romance, Stoker. These two! Always bickering and flirting… and, of course, solving some kind of crime while also putting together a natural history museum, as one does.

These books are thoroughly charming and engaging—a lovely distraction from the real world. The Victorian setting and associated social mores are skewered on the regular, and Veronica has plenty of sass. Stoker also has an endearing softer side to balance his brawny appeal. In this installment, they investigate a scandalous secret orgy den! (The first book in the series—A Curious Beginning— is only $2.99 on Kindle and is really great, too.)

Favorite highlight: “When I most had need of you, you did not leave me. Whatever this thing is that makes us different, this thing that makes quicksilver of us when the rest of the world is mud, it binds us. To break that would be to fly in the face of nature.”

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn | 4 stars
In the third installment in the series, Veronica and Stoker grow even closer—and, of course, stumble up against even bigger emotional obstacles as they investigate a murder set in the world of Egyptology. Plenty of sparks and double-crosses. So. Much. Fun. (I am super excited about the upcoming fourth book A Dangerous Collaboration—and I’m about to start Deanna Raybourn’s other series, the Lady Julia Grey mysteries.)

Favorite highlight: “How, you may wonder, did I—a woman of diminutive inches and slender build—manage to rescue a man of Stoker’s prodigious size from a burning building? Reader, I carried him.” [Nice reference to Jane Eyre, right?!]

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer | 4 stars
I decided to read this novel after visiting the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, the house that is a pivotal character in this story. The novel is set in and around the villa—named the Landauer house in the book. Everything in the story about the villa itself is true, and the people—and the things that happen to them—are fiction, although many of the details around the events of WWII and the Communist regime are based in fact.

This is a beautifully brutal WWII story that closely examines betrayal, the various kinds of love, family, sexuality, power dynamics, fear, and wealth. The ugly events are handled with delicacy and there are genuine moments of tenderness, too, but the emotional palette is mostly grays with occasional punches of red.

The structure of the novel is very effective: the stories of the people and world events are essentially told through the point of the view of the house. The house itself frames the narrative and is central to the whole story. The villa is open and airy, literally a glass house that barely separates the people inside from the world outside; everything is on display. But the glass also acts as a mirror, reflecting them back to themselves. And the foreboding atmosphere—of the coming war, of dishonesty—give the novel a claustrophobic feeling that neatly contrasts with the transparency and optimism of the house.

It’s dark and unsettling—how could a WWII story be anything else?—but it’s beautifully written, and it’s a real page-turner, too… literary, engaging, and gripping.

Loving Reminder: You can find all my book recommendations. as well as my favorite paleo products and cooking gadgets, on my Amazon store.

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  • Allison Compton says:

    Dear Melissa,

    Though I love looking at your recipes, I mostly look forward to your book reviews! I have followed you since discovering your “Clothes Make the Girl” site via Mark Sisson’s site/article several years ago.

    I want to thank you for your glowing love of the “Gentleman in Moscow” book by Amor Towles. I finished it over three weeks ago, and still return to the story and characters with a longing for more. I listened to the audio version and the reader, Jim Dale, was phenomenal. I immediately searched for any other Amor Towles novels, and hope to secure an audio version of “Rules of Civility.”

    I also enjoyed, “Less,” one of your other recent recommendations. After your heartfelt review, I couldn’t not read that book. I happened to snag a library copy before the Pulitzer’s were announced, and read it on an airplane. Sniff, sniff for Less.

    Reading of your adventures brings me happiness. Keep up the great work of creating your magical life and sharing it with the universe.

    A fan,

    • I’m really glad you’ve been enjoying my book recommendations! I’m SO grateful for reading right now… it’s very hot and steamy in Prague, so all I want to do is lie in front of the fan with a good book. I also keep thinking about A Gentleman in Moscow—I’ve been thinking about re-reading it even though I have so many other books on my TBR pile. I liked Rules of Civility a lot, too, but I felt a much stronger emotional tug from AGIM. And Less! OMG. Another one I want to re-read right now. Arthur Less has my heart forever.

      Thank you so much for your sweet comment. Keep in touch!

  • Trish says:

    I have something to confess–I didn’t like “Jane Eyre.” It took me three tries to get through it. Then again, I often have a hard time with nineteenth-century literature. Irony–I was an English major in college. 😀

    I also greatly enjoy your book reviews. I’m fortunate that I live in a city with a surprisingly good public library (Orlando) so I can place your recs on hold–or at least on the wish list since I can only do ten holds at a time. I did luck out and was able to get the three Deanna Raybourn/Veronica Speedwell books, so I’m looking forward to cracking open the Kindle on them!

    • Have fun with Veronica Speedwell! I hope you enjoy her adventures 🙂

      • Trish says:

        I’m LOVING Veronica! I devoured the first two books and am just starting “A Treacherous Curse.” Also, Deanna Raybourn has another mystery series that looks to be kind of along the same lines. Thanks for the introduction to these fun books!

        • Hooray! I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I can’t wait for the new one! I wish I knew a Veronica like that in real life… imagine the semi-dangerous situations we could get into.