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Recent Reading Roundup

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I’ve read a few books lately, but haven’t had time to do individual posts on each one so I’m just sharing my brief thoughts on them here:

The Good People by Hannah Kent – I read this for one of my library’s book clubs and though I found it riveting, it didn’t inspire a very good discussion. And I’m not sure why. It takes as its subject the conflict between folk superstition and Catholicism in a rural village in Ireland during the early nineteenth century. The writing flows really well, the historical details are rich and descriptive and the central conflict is truly complex. But the book club members didn’t have much to say about it. This might have colored my enjoyment a bit, but it is well worth a read.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – This is another library book club choice (I now lead two book discussions a month at my library) and was one of the most praised books of last year. Alas, I didn’t care for it very much. The writing is poetic and the story is told in vignettes, which I quite like, but the characters were almost solely depicted in terms of their sexuality and physical desires and that put me off. Not the descriptions of sex, but the fact that the characters aren’t defined by much else.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – Like many readers I loved Station Eleven by this author and was so excited when I saw that a new title by her was to be published this year. I was fortunate to get a review copy and spent a lovely few days savoring it. This book is not a disappointment at all but it is a very different sort of book from Station Eleven. It centers on the fall-out from a Ponzi scheme collapse and how it affects different people who’ve invested in the scheme and who’ve been involved in it. I loved the interconnectedness of their stories and St. John Mandel’s quiet writing style. It really is a book to linger over.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – This is one of the “hot” books of spring and is another review copy I gobbled up. But not comfortably.  It depicts the abuse of a fifteen year old girl by her forty-something teacher. And it is very hard to read at times. It is very nuanced and the author does an admirable job of making us see how sick these attachments are. They are not love stories. They are full of manipulation, gaslighting and abuse of authority. A very unsettling yet timely novel.

On Wednesday I am going to Nashville for the Public Library Association conference and am really excited to get lots of review copies from all the major publishers who will be there. I’ll share what I am able to snag next week!

1920's Fiction · Classic Novels · Novels Set in England

Expiation by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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Expiation is the seventh title by Elizabeth Von Arnim that I’ve read. Published in 1929, it is written with Von Arnim’s typical humor and sharp observations of human nature. It begins with the death of Milly’s husband in a street car accident. A fairly well-off man, it comes as quite a shock when he leaves only 1,000 pounds to his beloved wife and the rest of his wealth to a home for wayward women. But it is not a shock to Milly. For she has “sinned” and she now knows that her husband was aware of it and has decided to punish her for it. His tight-knit family, the Botts, now have to decide how to think of this strange decision: think the worst of Milly (which most of the women do) or think the worst of her husband (which most of the men do). Unfortunately, their thoughts mean everything as Milly is now not only poor but homeless. It is up to the Botts to absorb her into their lives but how do they do this and maintain their standing in society? Milly does try to find her own way, to break from the Botts and make it on her terms but they ultimately hold her fate in their hands.

This book is an interesting exploration of polite society and how any deviation from the code of polite society causes turmoil and insecurity among its members. The Bott family nearly implodes with speculation and exaggerated fear of Milly and what they think she has done. Von Arnim is definitely damning this attitude, but attempts to do it with a light touch. However, though this novel is very funny in places, I felt a mournfulness to it that was quite heavy. I think it is sad on many levels. Sad for Milly, for her lack of choice, sad for the Bott women who can’t accept Milly out of fear, sad for the Bott men who want to help Milly but can’t risk being charitable to a sinner, sad for women in general for their lives being so strictly prescribed. Does Milly receive expiation? Is it something that is even possible or necessary? I will leave that for you to discover, but I will say that I left this novel with such relief.

Though not my favorite of Von Arnim’s books, Expiation is a novel that has left me thinking and has made me see that her books are so much more political and concerned with social justice (especially for women) then I have realized.

I read Expiation as part of the Mini Persephone Readathon a couple of weekends ago. I intended to also finish Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple that weekend, but I am a slow reader and it didn’t happen. Young Anne will have to wait for another day.

Historical Fiction · Novels Set in England

Mr. Godley’s Phantom by Mal Peet

I bought Mr. Godley’s Phantom by the late author Mal Peet a while ago on a recommendation from someone on Twitter (I think), but I couldn’t remember why it had appealed to me enough to buy a copy until I started reading it. Set in the 40’s? At an isolated estate in Devon? With possible ghosts? Yes, to all of these!

A short, yet intense story, Mr. Godley’s Phantom centers on Martin Heath, a young man who served in WWII and is finding it hard to readjust to civilian life. He was among one of the first troops to arrive at Belsen and has recurring nightmares of the atrocities he witnessed at the concentration camp. He lives with his widowed mother and doesn’t work, spending his time playing cards and drinking too much with her.

Salvation comes in the form of a letter from an old army friend who offers him a position as a chauffer for Mr. Godley, an elderly and wealthy man who lives at Burra Hall. Heath settles in to his new position, driving the frail man and also helping around the house and garden when required. He also strikes up a friendship with the housemaid, Annie, but he still has nightmares. He still sees visions.

And I won’t go beyond that because if I said more it would ruin the story for you. I’ll just say that some eerie plot twists then commence and the suspense and disquiet are really well done. It might be ambiguous or not – depending on how you see it. You should all read it and tell me what you think!

If you like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters or A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, you might like this. It is a powerful little gem.

Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Non-fiction

My New Year, New Reads Recommendations

As I mentioned in my previous post, last Saturday was my bi-annual book buzz program at the library where I work. After reading about 15 books for the program I narrowed down my picks to the following titles. I do try to choose a variety of books, but I also want them to be a reflection of my style and taste – after all they are my personal picks. My co-presenter, Melissa, reads much different books then I do and between us I think we do a good job of providing something for everyone!

Here are the books I recommended for the first quarter of 2020. All publication dates are for the US:

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You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy – If you like Quiet by Susan Cain, You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen or just want to improve your listening skills this is a perfect book for you. Published January 7th.

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore – This novel held me in thrall and I absolutely enjoyed reading every page. If you like the crime novels of Tana French and Laura McHugh or the character driven family dramas of Celeste Ng and Jean Kwok you should try Long Bright River. Published January 7th.

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The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare – If you like stories about triumph over adversity with strong female protagonists you will love The Girl with the Louding Voice. Published February 4th.

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Independence Square by A.D. Miller – This is a novel about power, corruption and money and how all of those combined can not only impact governments but change the lives of ordinary people caught in the machine. If you like novels about political intrigue and novels by Robert Harris and John Le Carre you should try Independence Square. Published February 4th.

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House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild – If you want to know what Downton Abbey might turn out like 80 years on if Lady Mary’s son George happens to be a womanizing, ineffective buffoon incapable of hanging on to his money than you should read House of Trelawney. It’s also a good read if you love satire and plots that are proudly over the top. Published February 11th.

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Firewatching by Russ Thomas – This new police procedural series features a fascinating main detective, colorful supporting characters and a clever plot. It’s set in Sheffield, Yorkshire and reminded me of the Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson (also set in Yorkshire) so if you like the Banks series you will like this one. It will also appeal to readers who like Susie Steiner and Dervla McTiernan or any of the British police shows like Shetland or Broadchurch. Published February 25th.

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Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner – If you like to read aristo-lit, books about royalty and fabulously rich people and if you are a fan of The Crown you will love Lady in Waiting. Published March 24th.

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House of Glass by Hadley Freeman – I enjoyed this unraveling of the mystery of Freeman’s paternal family combined with her concise and insightful description of twentieth century Jewish history. If you like Catherine Bailey and the WWII histories of Caroline Moorehead you will enjoy House of Glass. Published March 24th.

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Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – With humor and compassion Gill Hornby has brought Cassandra Austen to life and created a compelling portrait of a single woman in the early 19th century. If you liked Longbourn by Jo Baker, The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn or are a Janeite you will enjoy Miss Austen. Published April 7th.

Are there any books on my list that you’ve already read or look forward to reading?

Is anyone participating in the Mini Persephone Readathon this weekend? I am going to try to read two Persephones over the next few days. We’ll see how it goes!

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Happy 2020!

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Hello and happy new year to anyone who is still reading this blog! How is the year treating you so far? Mine is off to a busy start, mostly at work, but I now have this week off and no reading obligations for the library so I am able to read anything I want for a blessed week. It feels exciting yet almost uncomfortable at the same time. And I can’t decide what to read! But I’m sure I’ll sort that out soon and find a book to lead me into my lovely vacation week.

Yesterday I presented my “New Year, New Reads” program to library patrons, recommending 10 books for them to consider reading in the next few months plus sharing three of my favorite books from the last decade. We had 40 people attend once again and the room was full and buzzing with happy readers and book lovers. This is the 5th year I have been presenting these programs at my library and it has slowly become one of our most successful adult programs throughout the entire system. The first time we gave the program I think we had 8 people show up. So to now regularly have an attendance of 40 people who love us and our recommendations is very gratifying.

Because of this I will continue to read buzzy contemporary literature in 2020 in order to fulfill my work obligations, but I also want to read more books just for me this year. Without guilt! And I know I say this every year but please indulge me – I also want to start blogging more regularly in 2020.

What reading or blogging goals have you set for this year?

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Sunday Bulletin – September 22

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Hill Top – the home of Beatrix Potter in the Lake District

Hello, friends! I hope you are all having a great September. Mine has been busy – it seems to have gone so quickly. There hasn’t been anything exciting going on, just the usual day-to-day of living. Sadly, though, I haven’t been reading as much as I would like to. I think our continuing heat has addled my brain and made me too lethargic to even read books I have been excited about for months. Such is the reading life. Sometimes we are ravenous, sometimes we can barely swallow a morsel.

So, I don’t have any books to chat about but I would like to know – what is the best book that you’ve read recently? Though I’m not reading much right now, I still love to hear about what others are loving.

Have a wonderful week!

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Sunday Bulletin (on a Monday) – July 22

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Sheep in Haworth

Hello, everyone! I hope you’ve had a lovely couple of weeks. Our weather has been unrelentingly hot and oppressive. Usually by this time in the summer we have had a couple of monsoon storms, but there has been nary a drop of rain yet. It is so unusual and a bit frightening, especially as we have a large forest fire blazing near Flagstaff. We are supposed to get rain tonight so I’m crossing my fingers it really happens.

I’ve not been reading much lately and I never do in the summer. Life seems more hectic and work is definitely all- consuming. We’re busier and staff naturally want to take vacation so I am usually left behind. Plus, I think I am a bit weary of contemporary fiction though I keep trying to find something that will click. And when I turn to classics my old guilt creeps in. So I end up reading nothing. One day I hope I figure this out!

Books finished this week: NONE, sadly. What have you read lately?

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Sunday Bulletin – June 23

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On my second day in Manchester we visited Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, another place that had been on my “want to see” list since my last trip to England. It is in a busy residential area of Manchester with houses and apartments and a big park with basketball courts surrounding the pretty Victorian dwelling. Despite the encroachment of the modern world, once you step into the house, you step back in time into a comfortable, high ceilinged-friendly space that is a good representation of what the house would have been like when Gaskell, her husband and four daughters lived there in the nineteenth century.

I really enjoyed my visit to this house where Mrs. Gaskell wrote most of her novels and stories and where she entertained many friends including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and John Ruskin. It is a very “go at your own pace” type of museum where no one hassles you or bombards you with information. I felt more like one of Gaskell’s welcomed friends than a tourist. And there is a lovely tearoom and second-hand bookshop in the basement. I had a cup of tea and a delicious slice of pear tart while deciding which gifts and books to buy. If you are a fan of Gaskell or of Victorian fiction this is a great place to visit if you are in Manchester.

Here are a few more photos:

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Books finished this week: 

Only one! I finished the very short Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita-Sackville West which is a monthly compilation of some of the gardening articles she wrote for The Observer newspaper in the forties and fifties. As I am now obsessed with gardens after my visit to England I devoured her advice and tips though I can’t grow any of the plants she mentions or even really go outside right now without getting heatstroke!

Have a great week!

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Sunday Bulletin – June 9

IMG_0941.JPGHello! How was your week? It was a busy one for me as I spent it preparing for my Sizzlin’ Summer Reads program at the library, which took place yesterday. We got 40 people – our biggest crowd yet! We had planned for 15 so I had to re-print my handout several times and we ran out of refreshments. It was heartening to have so many library patrons eager to hear about our summer recommendations (which I will share with you later) and to chat about books to each other. It was worth the hard work.

The above photo is of one of the places I visited in England, Biddulph Grange Garden in Stoke. When I was in London in 2014 I stayed up late one night not able to sleep and watched a program called “British Gardens in Time” on TV. Biddulph Grange was the garden featured on the program that evening and I knew that I needed to go someday as it looked so beautiful and peaceful. It wasn’t realistic on that trip, but since Stoke is only about an hour from Manchester I was able to realize my dream when I was there in May.  And it exceeded expectations! It is such a varied, rambling, yet well-planned Victorian garden. There are different areas of the garden: the Italian garden, the Chinese garden, the Pinetum, Lime Walk, Woodland Walk, etc. It is really like seeing several gardens in one. The weather the day we went was cool and refreshing and there weren’t many visitors. It was so calming and restorative. It was the height of tulip season when I was there so I saw lots of different varieties and was also able to see bluebells and wisteria. Absolute heaven!

Here are a few more photos of Biddulph Grange:

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Books finished this week:

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield – I read this really quickly over the first part of the week as I had to lead a discussion on it in one of the library’s book clubs. At first, I wasn’t enjoying it because it seemed too slow, too whimsical. But as I continued on I really grew to love it. Setterfield keeps the story moving and flowing like the river that is central to the novel and all of the secondary stories end up making sense as a whole. The characters were good-hearted (for the most part) and I loved the contrast of the modern concepts such as photography and evolution against the superstitions surrounding the river. All in all, this is a beautifully told and well-written old-fashioned story.

What did you read this week?

 

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Sunday Bulletin – June 2

Circe

Hello all! How have you been? It’s been three months since I posted here and I have no good excuse for my absence. Life just got in the way.

I did go to the UK for two weeks the first part of May and it was heavenly. Everything was so green and shining and the tulips, wisteria and bluebells were blooming in every garden I went to. I stayed in Manchester this trip and adventured around Northwest England, which I absolutely loved. It is gloriously beautiful and the people are so friendly and genuine. I visited some literary locations (Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, the Bronte Parsonage) –  I’d love to share my impressions with you so I will plan some travelogue posts in the coming weeks.

This week I’ll be furiously preparing for the Sizzlin’ Summer Reads program I do at my library every year where I recommend my summer picks to library patrons. I’m really behind in making my PowerPoint, creating my handout and writing my blurbs so wish me luck getting it all done before Saturday!

Books finished this week:

Circe by Madeline Miller – I flew through this lyrical retelling of the story of Circe, a witch in Greek legend, who was apparently a “minor” goddess. Miller takes her scant story and turns it into a fierce tale of a woman living life on her own terms. I really enjoyed this take on a character from mythology who I didn’t know much about (not that I know much about mythology in general) just as much as I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, her debut novel.

This is the second book I’ve read from the Women’s Prize Shortlist – have you read any from the list? Any predictions on which book will win the prize this Wednesday?

Have a fantastic week!