Sunday, June 04, 2017

Book Log: May 2017

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them. This is my second year doing this; here is a page containing the 2016 posts (or here is a list of all 2016 books, without the commentary on each one).

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

20) 5/7: R My Name Is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff
I was introduced to this author when I read Pictures of Hollis Woods about ten years ago, when I was still teaching (hmm, that makes it more like 12 years ago). It was a captivating book.

This falls into the classification of Young Adult fiction. It's set during the Depression, so I could see it fitting in during such a unit in school. It wasn't as gripping as Pictures of Hollis Woods, but students especially could connect with the characters and it would make that time period more alive to them.

21) 5/9: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
It's perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I couldn't help but be reminded of The Breakfast Club while reading this Young Adult book. Three misfits find themselves crossing paths at baton twirling lessons, coming with plans to win a talent contest to further their various agendas. One girl has a father who has just left her mother to run off with another woman, another is being raised by her grandmother after her parents' deaths, and the third hides under her tough exterior.

Over the course of the book (when no real baton lessons take place), these very different girls get to know each through shared adventures.

22) 5/12: Bossypants by Tina Fey
Another light read (or, rather, listen, as I accessed the audiobook read by Tina Fey). Clearly I find myself in need of a break from heavier texts (I'm still chugging through some good ones, but they're slow going).

Tina Fey is self-deprecating, which can be part of the draw. This was okay for me, but not typically something that had me rolling around in fits of laughter. And if you're sensitive to language, you probably want to skip it.

23) 5/12: The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
I was added to an online book group that specializes in quality literature (while I don't homeschool, it seems many in the group do, and there's a focus on reading aloud to children, etc.). I was added by a friend because their namesake is taken from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book I had raved about and recommended to friends when it went on sale.

The Awakening of Miss Prim has been mentioned repeatedly as another group favorite, so I decided to check it out.

Miss Prim enters a village, being hired as the librarian of a private estate to put the books in order. She's unaware that she's entered into an enclave, a refuge from the busyness and chaotic nature of life. She's intrigued by the village, and through her relationships with individuals there, she learns more about what brought this village around a common aim of being self-sustaining and slowing down.

I was intrigued by aspects of it, but it feels light on details. Miss Prim's boss is never named beyond the Man in the Wing Chair. The villagers, while named, all gel together in a way (although I saw one person defend this as intentional, a way to make the village be the character in the story). I couldn't help but wonder about the underbelly of the town - is there poverty? How are elderly cared for? Are those who can't fit in or contribute sent away? But I recognize answering those questions were likely not the aim of the author, and I'm getting away from her intent.

Miss Prim is forced to decide whether to embrace the ideals of the village or leave it behind (this struggle of self and meaning made me wonder if the "Awakening" in the title was an homage to Chopin's book, even as they're coming from very different belief systems). Prudencia Prim's name, as well as some of the conversations had in the book, make me think of this as an allegory, in the vein of Pilgrim's Progress (I suspect this was intentional). It was an intriguing read, even if not destined to be a favorite for me.

24) 5/18: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
I initially read this book a couple years ago, but it came up again since it was this month's book club selection.

I confess that upon first read, although it is a series, I was happy to leave it at this one. The protagonist is a precocious eleven-year-old girl who is brilliant with chemistry, poisons, observations, and solves the mystery before the police, like every good detective story.

The book is quite well written and researched, but I got hung up on that point. Going into it for a second read remembering her youth (and now with a six-year-old that can school me in all things space related), I was more willing to consider that in 1950, such a girl as Flavia de Luce could exist (and perhaps, with the same level of independence and resources, such brilliant 11-year-old girls also exist even today).

Flavia isn't without faults, as the strained, often antagonistic interactions with her sisters attest, and that helps humanize her. I haven't committed to pursuing more of the series, but I understand why they're popular with the details and character development. And I appreciate how each book title is poetic in its own way (seriously, each one is memorable - consider A Red Herring Without Mustard or I Am Half-Sick of Shadows or The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches or .... You get the picture).

25) 5/19: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
This book takes place towards the end of WWII and is written in alternating viewpoints from four different individuals in East Prussia. It is classified as Young Adult fiction, but I think adults would enjoy it just as much. It culminates in the true historical account of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the infrequently discussed and yet worst maritime disaster in history.

Each chapter tends to be very short, which made it easy to feel like I could read some and end at a convenient break even if I only had a couple minutes, but I admit it took a few chapters to get a good feel for each of the characters. Once I had them down, it was a solid read.

I could see this naturally becoming a part of a classroom curriculum and is bound to appeal to a wide range of students.

This reflection sounds dry even to me, but I really did enjoy this book and the four perspectives are different enough in personality and motivation (and nationality) to make this an excellent read.

26) 5/24: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
I am quite familiar with the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie, but I've never read the book. My older daughter enjoys drawing while listening to audiobooks, and since she's exhausted nearly every book in the Boxcar Children series that our library has, I'm looking to other options. Then I learned this version was read by David Tennant (my favorite Doctor), so it became my go-to listening choice while cleaning.

If I once knew this book was also written by the creator of James Bond, I had forgotten. The book, like the movie, is a fun adventure story with a magical car. There is a series of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books, but as I haven't read them, I don't know if some of the movie plotlines are borrowed from later books. All in all, a pleasant read, and it may make its way into my daughter's hands soon.

27) 5/26: A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A couple years ago I discovered this author with her debut novel Dear Mr Knightley, an updated adaptation of Daddy Long-legs (which I read afterwards, having not been aware of it before). I truly enjoyed Dear Mr Knightley, and I have picked up her other novels when they've been discounted on Kindle. This was the second book of hers I read, but I admit it fell flat for me.

Take Emily, an accomplished, typically overly responsible girl, who acts rashly, if not necessarily wrongly. When that action leads to major changes in her life, it forces her to change and reflect, and she can come off as whiny. I wanted to mutter, "Well, what did you expect? Get over yourself!" The relationship she finds herself in (a central part of the book) doesn't seem convincing to me, either. Other characters are better developed.

Clearly I'm in the minority with my "just okay" opinion, if Amazon reviews are a dependable guide (when I'm writing this, it's at a staggering 4.4 out of 5 stars). But I wanted more, after my first positive impression of her. If you want to get lost in Italy and descriptions of food and art restoration, though, you could do worse.

28) 5/30: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
I heard enough recommendations for this book that I finally requested it through my library. It's set during WWII, told from the perspectives of three women: in the United States we have the once-famous stage performer now turning her attentions to donating time and money to providing for French orphans impacted by the war; in Poland, we meet Kasia, a teenager trying to adjust to German occupation and finding ways to work underground; finally, there's Herta, a female doctor in Germany wanting to be recognized for her skill, even if it means compromising her morals.

Their sympathies and loyalties vary, but together they make a well-done story and their paths cross. Given the setting of WWII, it should be understood that there will be some gritty descriptions and events.

I learned at the close of this book that the American character - Caroline Ferriday - was an actual person and the author's visit to her home led to the research that became this book. The other two characters were inspired by actual women, but changed enough that the names were fictionalized.