Reading Recap: October 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.

The books I read in October were all over the place—a lyrical, lovely historical novel; a thrilling fantasy-adventure; a collection of moody short stories of the English countryside; two dark and spooky novels, an elegant investigation with Miss Phryne Fisher—plus two thoroughly engrossing audiobooks.

I’m still thinking about the Tiger’s Wife.

In fact, I gave it 4 1/2 stars, but maybe it’s 5. Maybe it will eventually be bumped to my all-time favorites list because I keep thinking about it.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht | 4 1/2 stars
I don’t want to give too much away about the events of this book because the way it unspools as you read is so… perfect. And it’s a difficult book to explain because it’s definitely a novel, but it’s also a collection of beautifully told, interconnected stories.

The basics are in the flap copy: Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan country; from the descriptions, you can sort of figure out that it’s Serbia. She’s dealing with the aftermath of the civil wars when her beloved grandfather dies. As she’s trying to understand the circumstances surrounding his death, she tells stories: about herself, about her grandfather and retells stories that he’s told her… about a magical tiger and the tiger’s wife. As Natalia eventually learns, the stories her grandfather has been telling her are not fairy tales, but true stories of his life and the other villagers in Galina. Just as her grandfather’s youth was shaped by war, so was Natalia’s and her reality as a teenager during the Balkan wars echo the fable-like stories of his past.

This books takes you directly into Balkan villages—to WWI, WWII, as well as the fraught 1990s—and casts a spell while it explores the different kinds of love, secrets and dreams, the way the fallout of war spirals from the past into the present.

Favorite highlight: “Like everyone in the village, he had faith in the rituals of superstition. He gave money to beggars before traveling, put pennies in the shrines of the Virgin at crossroads, spat on his children when they were born. But, unlike his fellow villagers, he was renowned for having a deficit. He had been born in a lean year, without a ducat under his pillow. To make matters worse, an estranged aunt had once allegedly lifted him from his crib and praised heaven for what a beautiful baby, what a gorgeous, fat, blessed, rosy child he was—forever sealing his destiny to be impoverished, crippled, struck down and taken by the devil at some unexpected time, in some terrifying way.”

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss | 4 stars
This is a rollicking adventure with lots of feels thrown in along the way, which is my very favorite kind of story. It picks up where The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter left off. Our five kickass heroines, aka, The Athena Club—all the offspring of literary characters who are… SURPRISE!… real people in this alternate version of London—are off on a mission to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing from an insane asylum. The action involves, in no particular order, a daring asylum escape, sleeper cars on the Orient Express, hiding in a traveling circus, crashing a meeting of the Alchemical Society, and eating cake in the art nouveau cafes of Budapest. I love the Saturday-afternoon-serial feel of the narrative—coupled with lovely writing and characters I want to spend my time getting to know.

There are genuine emotions here among all the action, too. The girls, all technically monsters in their own way, struggle with their humanity and wrestle with what it means to do the right thing, how to find balance between toughness and tenderness, and making peace with themselves and the found-family they’ve formed together.

This would be a fantastic read-along with Dracula because there are plenty of smart, sly references to that novel. I read them back-to-back unintentionally, and it was a brilliant experience.

Favorite highlight: “If you have been up all night, escaping from a burning mental asylum or fighting men who refuse to die when you shoot them in the forehead, or both, coffee is the perfect beverage.”

Help the Witch by Tom Cox | 4 stars
This is a collection of short stories from one of my favorite nonfiction writers. Tom Cox is the author of books about cats that are not books about cats—they’re about nature and living in the country and the power of walking and family and basically everything that makes life good. Now he’s written a collection of spooky and eerie, unsettling—not scary—stories that put you right there in the moody Peak District of central England. The writing on his web site is also brilliant.

Favorite highlight: “Outside, the dark is very dark. But in the day, the whiteness is very dark too, sometimes ever darker.”

 

Melmoth by Sarah Perry | 3 1/2 stars
I’ve been thinking about this book since I turned the last page, and here’s where I’ve landed: It has a perfectly spooky gothic tone that I was super into. Throughout there’s some very moody, supernatural-ish stuff going on that was spine-tingly. I read this book in one day because I couldn’t put it down. It was an ignore-everything marathon of reading because I needed to know how it would all play out.

This novel is a series of stories told by different characters about the darkest times in their lives, and the stories they share are DARK, but not in the virginal-maiden-locked-in-a-castle way. They’re dark in a peoples’-lives-were-ruined way that was not fun at all. It was horribly sad. And I feel like that kind of serious subject matter is in direct contrast with the isn’t-it-spooky tone of the novel. Ultimately, I found the whole thing really depressing and when I closed the book, I was sorry that I’d devoted an entire day to it. But it’s so well crafted and well plotted, I feel like a jerk with my criticisms.

And there you have it. I still don’t really know how I feel about this book except that I for-sure won’t be reading it again. But also, I will never forgot some of its scenes.

Favorite highlight: “The Silence is something more than the absence of noise. If it is possible to hear silence, Helen hears it: a thick, soft sensation against the drums of her ears.”

Urn Burial by Kerry Greenwood | 4 stars
I adore Phryne Fisher—in print and in the TV series ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—because she’s a super feminist and her politics—and the politics of the book—are very progressive. The juxtaposition of 1920s slang and fashion with ultra-modern opinions is irresistible, and I cannot resist a found-family. Phryne has created a lovely family for herself with her assistant Dot and her housekeepers, Mr and Mrs Butler. In this particular book, there’s a murder at a manor house, which is like catnip for me: lots of listening through doors, scampering to lovers’ bedrooms in the middle of the night, forced cocktail hour… it’s fab.

Favorite highlight: “It took determination to be really strange. That, or absinthe before breakfast every day.”

The Witch Elm by Tana French | 3 stars
I think Tana French is excellent at what she does—I couldn’t put this down because I needed to know what was going to happen, and I had no idea how it was all going to resolve itself. Really, the writing craft should get 5 stars.

But man! this was really not for me. Even though I compulsively turned the pages, I didn’t enjoy the experience or the characters at all. The only character I liked died.  I thought everyone else was horrible: duplicitous, selfish, whiny, untrustworthy. I am grateful I don’t know people like this in real life, and I don’t enjoy spending time with them, even if it’s pretend and on paper.

Favorite highlight: “Hugo’s road has that effect; it gives the impression of being there only on alternate Thursday or to people with they mysterious talisman in their pockets, invisible the rest of the time and instantly forgotten when you leave.”

Dracula by Bram Stoker (audiobook) | 5 stars

I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, so before even opening the pages the first time I read this book, I was pretty much on board. Then when I got to know Mina and Jonathan, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing—I was smitten. This is a big, sweeping adventure story, and although it was published in 1897, it’s surprisingly modern. Unlike, say, the Brontës, which require a little work sometimes to get through the prose, this is very readable and the action moves at a good clip. But it’s not all desperate carriage rides and stake stabbings; there are a lot of genuine emotional moments in this book, and I love the way Mina turns out to be the heroine of the whole enterprise.

This audiobook version is fantastic. The voice work is very compelling and really brings the story to life.

Favorite highlight: “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the music that he make with that smileless mouth of him. Ah, we men and women are like ropes drawn tight with strain that pull us different ways. Then tears come, and like the rain on the ropes, they brace us up, until perhaps the strain become too great, and we break. But King Laugh he come like the sunshine, and he ease off the strain again, and we bear to go on with our labor, what it may be.”

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (audiobook) | 5 stars
I’ve read this book in print at least once, maybe twice? And I loved it for the reasons the NYTimes review didn’t… the beginning, before it gets into the heart of the story from the past, is a travelogue/love letter to Bulgaria—and that voice is part of what I loved so much about Elizabeth Kostova’s first book The Historian. This one has so many things I love: a mystery, foreign travel, a little romance, the love of a found-family, things that are not what they seem, shocking revelations over food, and regular people following mysterious clues to dangerous conclusions. At every moment I thought, “This is exactly what it would be like if *I* found myself caught up in a mystery” and since I’m always secretly hoping that will happen, I loved this story. There are plenty of surprises—I actually gasped a few times and shed a few tears. The big reveals aren’t obvious, but when they happened, I was, like, “Oh, yeah… that makes sense.”

The voice acting in this audiobook is awesome. Each character gets its own voice and is immediately recognizable. This is particularly effective when a character tells a story from the past—the accents, the aging voices, the emotion… it’s lush and moving and all-together engrossing.

Favorite highlight: “Always thinking. Thinking too much, and then sometimes not enough. You read a lot of books, yes?”

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Comments

  • Kathie says:

    Some of those books sound so fantastic! Dracula is a long time favourite of mine which is over due for a re-read too. I have been reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, I’m enjoying it but it is taking forever! It’s a big book and I only manage a couple of chapters a day. I recently read her “mirror world” series which I loved and I’m a fan of bing reading!