Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: My year in reading.

Well, bloggers, I've been kind of absent lately -- December was really hectic for me.  It ended well, however, with an incredible week in New York City -- I ate some great food, saw some amazing sights, and, naturally, came home with another stack of books.  But that should be another post.

Anyhow, before this year is officially over, I'm going to post a quick recap of my year in reading (questions and logo borrowed from Jamie at Perpetual Page-Turner).  First of all, I made my goal of 100 books!  I didn't blog nearly as much as I wanted, so some of the books mentioned below don't have reviews posted.  But these are my thoughts on my year of reading in 2012. 

1. Best book(s) I read in 2012: This is a tough one.  I read so many good books this year!  I think Anthony Trollope would win the prize as my favorite author -- I completed three of his books this year, and I've started another.  I just love him and hope to read all 47 of his novels someday.  

However, for my very favorite, number one book, I would have to say Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.  It was a reread for me, but it had been so long since I read it, it was just like reading it all over again.  And I was sorry I'd waited so long!  It was just as wonderful now as when I first read it as a freshman in college.  Just brilliant.  

2.  Book I was excited about and thought I would love but didn't: I'm sorry to say it was A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin -- because his Song of Ice and Fire series was my favorite discovery of 2011, and his books showed up on my 2011 Best of List over and over.  I'm hoping his next book doesn't take five more years -- and that it isn't another disappointment!

Second would be The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen.  Just meh.  

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012: Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.  Nobody ever reads this book, but it's full of great stuff.  Not the best Dickens, but definitely worth reading.  I thought it would be a complete slog but I loved it.  

4.  Books I recommended most to people in 2012:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  By far, one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read.  The story is both shocking and sad and heartwarming.  It should be required reading in schools.  Just brilliant. 

5.  Best series I discovered in 2012:  The Gideon Trilogy series by Linda Buckley-Archer.  It's a great historical children's series -- two thirteen-year olds get transported in time to 1763 and have to elude a scary criminal known as the Tar Man, while trying to get back to the 20th century. My daughter recommended it and I finally got around to reading it this year. 

6.  Favorite new authors of 2012:  I thought Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre was just wonderful.  He's written several books about WWII, so I'm looking forward to reading more of them.  

7.  Most thrilling, unputdownable book of 2012:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  It wasn't the best book I read in 2012, but I read almost the entire book in one day.  

8.  Book(s) I most anticipated in 2012:  Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles.  I started out reading Doctor Thorne, which I loved, and I'm currently in the midst of the final book in the series, the Last Chronicle of Barset.  I have about 600 pages to go, so there's no way I'll finish it this year -- works by Trollope will be bookends for the year, I suppose!

9.  Favorite cover of a book I read in 2012:  It's a tie:

I love this cover.  I think it's taken from a historical travel poster.  Doesn't it make you want to visit England? 

And I love this classic cover of The Hobbit

10.  Most memorable character in 2012:  Cathy Ames from John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Just creepy, one of the most evil villains in literature.  Amy Dunne from Gone Girl is also particularly memorable.  Just read the book and you'll see. 

11.  Most beautifully written book in 2012:  Probably Of Human Bondage.  I kept putting sticky notes in to save my favorite quotes.  

12.  Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for me:  The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I hadn't read it since middle school, and decide it was time for a re-read before I saw the movie.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it -- I never made it through the Lord of the Rings, though I liked the movies.  All I could remember was Gollum and the ring, so it was fun to reread it. Might tackle The Fellowship of the Ring next year!

13.  Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012:  Again, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, with Of Human Bondage as a close second.  

14.  Book you can't believe you waited until 2012 to FINALLY read:  A Bell for Adano by John Hersey.  It is by far, the book I have had on my to-read shelves the longest, for, ahem, close to 20 years.  It was wonderful.  Also East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  I love Steinbeck, I don't know why I took so long to read it!

15.  Book you read in 2012 that would most likely to be reread in 2013:  Probably a classic, most likely a short one.  Maybe Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham, which is really a novella.  Or A Room With a View by E. M. Forster. 

16.  Shortest and longest book of 2012:  Without doing an actual word count, I'm pretty sure the shortest is Up at the Villa -- my edition is 209 pages, but the print is large, double-spaced, and the margins are huge.  Seriously, you can read it in an hour or so.

By the same token, A Dance with Dragons could be considered the longest book at 1017 pages, but the print isn't that small, and there are only about 957 pages of text -- there are a lot of appendices at the back.  I think all the Dickens books I read this year are longer -- I read somewhere that Martin Chuzzlewit has 375,000 words, one of his longest works.  I'm sure it's the longest book I read in 2012.  I'm pretty sure it took me the most time.  

16. Book that had a scene in it that had me reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it?  (A WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc., etc).  No spoilers! 
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  If you haven't read it, go get it.  Buy it, download it, put yourself on the waiting list at your local library (I'm sure there are a LOT of holds).  That's all.  
Just for fun, here are some statistics of my 2012 reading: 

Here's a breakdown of what I read:

Number of books: 100
Approximate number of pages read: 34,758, slightly less than last year.

Nonfiction:  17
Children's:  9
Young Adult:  10
Rereads:  7
Classics: 29
Persephones: 9

Books by male authors:  41
Books by female authors: 59
Books in translation:  3

Repeated authors and number of books per author:

Suzanne Collins - 2
E. M. Delafield - 2
Charles Dickens - 3
Susan Hill - 2
George R. R. Martin - 2
W. Somerset Maugham - 3
Barbara Pym - 2
John Steinbeck - 2
Anthony Trollope - 3
Emile Zola - 2

And my favorite statistic. . .

Books from my own shelves:  50!!  (Okay, 7 were rereads, but it's a vast improvement over 2011 -- only 29 reads last year were from my TBR shelf.)

I also completed a bunch of challenges, details of which you can see here.

So how about you, bloggers?  Was 2012 a good reading year for you?  Which books were your favorites?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

TBR Pile Challenge 2013

It's time to sign up for the TBR Pile Challenge 2013!!  I really loved this challenge because it really forced me to read some of the books I've been ignoring for so long.  And it's very reasonable -- I pretty much read one off the list every month, and I finally finished it a few weeks ago.  I read 11 books from my original list, plus two alternates, and most of them were pleasant surprises -- with only a couple of exceptions, I was sorry I'd left them unread for so long.

Basically, you just look at your unread books and select 12 that you've owned for at least a year and still haven't read.  Complete details of the challenge can be found here.  It's a great way to read those neglected books, plus there's a drawing at the end -- if you complete the challenge, your name goes in a drawing for a $50 gift card from Amazon or The Book Depository!

Here's my list:

1.  Wild Swans:  Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  A book from my list of 50 Nonfiction Books in 5 Years.  Completed 10/28/13.

2. Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Berniers.  Purchased more than 10 years ago for a book group.  I read the beginning and liked it, but for some reason got distracted and never finished it.  I've since moved it to four different houses.  Completed 3/15/13.

3.  The Duchess by Amanda Foreman.  I was supposed to read this for my Jane Austen book group last year, but I just never got to it.  Everyone in the group loved it though, and I'm always trying to read more nonfiction.  Also on my list of 50 Nonfiction Books.  Completed 11/14/13.

4.  Fidelity by Susan Glaspell.  One of the first Persephones I ever purchased, for an online readalong about 2 years ago.  Never opened it, except to admire the beautiful endpapers. Completed 2/10/13.

5.  The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hacek.  Another book purchased for a (different) online reading group.  Completed 8/24/13.

6.  Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.  This was one of the books I received in the Big Box of Penguin Classics a couple of years ago -- I still have a few more I have to read (Moby Dick is another unread book from the box, but I think I have enough doorstoppers on this list!)  Completed 6/15/13.

7.  Collected Novellas by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Definitely, the book that has been owned-and-unread the longest.  My husband gave me this before we were married, after I read Love in the Time of Cholera.  This year I read the other book I'd owned the longest for the TBR Challenge, and I absolutely loved it, so I'm hoping this one will be as good.

8.  My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.  A Christmas gift from my friend Amanda couple of years ago.  She's the one who encouraged me to blog, so it's appropriate that I add it to the challenge.  Completed 6/19/13.

9.  Giants in the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag.  Another one I've been carting from house to house unread.  A good friend gave me this when I moved to Nebraska -- it's actually set in the Dakotas, but he also gave me O Pioneers and I think he was looking for something else besides Willa Cather.  Completed 7/9/13.

10.  The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.  Supposed to be sort of a Japanese version of Pride and Prejudice.  I'm always looking to read more Japanese writers so this is a good choice. Completed 4/25/13

11.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.   Bought the book shortly after I started reading about the TV adaptation on the blogosphere.  The TV series never aired here, but I haven't watched any of the DVDs, and the book is still untouched on the shelves.

12.  Kipps by H. G. Wells.  Bought after an author raved about it at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, back when I lived in Florida and began my quest to read more classics.  Since then I've read two other books by Wells and was underwhelmed by both; hopefully I'll enjoy his realistic fiction more than the sci-fi, which really isn't my thing.  Completed 12/4/13


Nella Last's War by Nella Last -- a Christmas gift from a couple of years ago.  It's also on my list of 50 Nonfiction Books in 5 Years. Completed 5/27/13.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton -- I have about thirty unread books of short stories on my TBR shelves.  I have no idea how they pile up like that!  Maybe I need to do an entire short story challenge next year.  Completed 8/02/13.

The list includes one Persephone; six books from my 75 Classics in 5 Years Challenge; one NYRB Classic; one book from my Big Box of Penguins; three books from my 50 Nonfiction Books in 5 Years Challenge; and four books in translation.  Plus, it includes four of the books I've had on the TBR shelves the longest:  I've owned Collected Novellas since (ahem) 1990; Giants of the Earth since 2000, Captain Corelli's Mandolin since 2001; and Kipps since 2005, so it'll be nice to finally get those off the TBR shelf.

Well -- good list or bad?  Which ones should I read first?  And who else is signing up for this challenge?  

    Monday, November 12, 2012

    Two Alternate Reads from the TBR Challenge List

    During the mini-break I took from blogging, I did not stop reading -- frankly, I can't NOT read.  As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing."

    Anyhow, whilst on my break, I was in need of some light entertainment to break up some of my heavier reads, including two books from my TBR shelf that happened to be alternates from my 2012 TBR Challenge.  It's been a few weeks since I read them, but I'm really anxious to post something so I can officially complete the challenge!!

    First, I read The Provincial Lady in America by E. M. Delafield back in early October, mostly while waiting in an emergency room for treatment for an ear infection.  (It's a very quick read -- lots of white space on every page, HUGE margins. And charming illustrations!)

    If you are not familiar with the Provincial Lady, this is sort of a 1930s version of Bridget Jones' Diary, but if Bridget were older and married, with two children, a husband, and a couple of servants in a small country house.  This is the third book in the series.  The first book is a thinly veiled account of her daily life; in the second, the Provincial Lady has had great success publishing the first book, and is spending more time in London, working on her writing and meeting the literati and all kinds of interesting people.

    In this third volume, the Provincial Lady goes on a whirlwind literary tour of America, crossing the Atlantic in rough weather, meeting all kinds of people -- some pushy, some fawning, but mostly very nice.  It's fun to read her impressions of America, especially when she visits the Midwest, from which I hail.  However, this having been published in 1934, it's somewhat racist, and I found myself cringing when she refers to Negro porters and makes some very un-PC comments.  It wasn't quite as fresh and funny as the first book, but I definitely enjoyed it overall.  There are two more volumes about the PL, in which she visits the Soviets, and then the final volume, during WWII, which do sound interesting.  My library doesn't have a copy of the fourth book, but they do have the last one, which is good because it's out of print and used copies are horribly expensive.

    The final book on my TBR Challenge Pile (well, excepting a book of short stories, on which I've given up) is another alternate read, Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford.  I had three unread Mitfords on the TBR shelf, purchased and received after I read Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love with great delight.  However, it had been several years since I read the first pair of Mitfords, and that made it harder -- I remembered Fanny, the narrator, who's now older, but I'd almost completely forgotten all the rest of the characters.  Also, quite a bit of time has passed -- Fanny's now middle aged, (though naturally she hasn't changed a bit and can still fit into the same dress size); and two of her three sons are all grown up now.  The third is at prep school with her adopted son, child of her late cousin, the scandalous Linda Radlett.

    Set in the late 1950s, Fanny's been leading a quiet life as the wife of an Oxford don when her life is turned upside down by the news that her husband Alfred has been appointed the Ambassador to France!!   Suddenly, she finds her self embroiled in diplomatic tangles, a clash of cultures with the French, government upheavals, a twittering social secretary, and relatives that are driving her up a wall. Hilarity ensues -- it's sort of like a low-key late 1950s screwball comedy, set in an Embassy.  Fanny is the voice of reason throughout, it's all the surrounding people that are constantly causing trouble.

    I did like it, though I had a hard time relating to what was going on -- I suppose it would help if I knew more about late 1950s French politics;  apparently, there were constant changes in government and votes of no-confidence and that sort of thing.  Also, since it had been a few years since I'd read the first two books, I had a hard time remembering who all the other characters were.  One side character, Grace Allingham, is actually the subject of a different Mitford book, The Blessing, and when I chose Don't Tell Alfred I didn't realize there was another book in between -- I wondered if I'd skipped a book.  Also, it ended really abruptly, and felt almost unfinished, like Mitford had run out of things to say.

    Anyway, this was a funny, light read, though I didn't enjoy it as much as the first two.  I will have to go back and read The Blessing, and another Mitford novel, Wigs on the Green, which is on the TBR shelf.  I also have a biography of the Mitfords, The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell; plus I picked up Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford on a bookstore sale table last year.  The Mitfords were such an interesting family and I want to learn more about them.

    So that's it!!  I've finished my TBR Challenge for 2012.  Time to make my list for 2013!  Is anyone else still participating in this challenge?  How is your progress?

    Friday, November 9, 2012

    Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

    Well -- I'm winding my way down through the TBR Challenge.  Finally, I have completed Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, a Persephone Classic, and one that's been on my shelves for a couple of years.  Normally, I love Persephones, and I don't know why I took so long to pick this one up.  I did try it a couple of months ago and it didn't grab me right away.  I finally gave it another shot and I'm so glad I did, because it was really good.

    Here's the setup:  on the eve of WWII, the Wiltshires are an upper-middle or upperclass family, and from the outside, they seem perfect.  Alex Wiltshire is working for the family business, engineering something for the war effort; his beautiful wife Lena is gorgeous and devoted to him; and they have four beautiful children, two boys and two girls, ages ranging from about 12 to five years old.  The war hasn't started, but there are rumblings afoot, and the family is taking a seaside holiday with the children's governess and nanny.

    At first, all seems idyllic, but Streatfeild quickly cuts to the heart of what makes this family tick:  Alex is a devoted husband and father, but his wife is more interested in her husband than her children.  The author makes insightful and fascinating psychological observations about the family dynamic and the personalities of each of the children, more so than I've ever read in any book about a family before.  Streatfeild has the amazing ability to get into the essence of these people, especially the children, and examine their personalities and foibles.

    Of course, with the onset of the war, this "perfect" family begins to fall apart.  The children are separated from their parents, sent off to the country to stay with their grandparents; the eldest go off to boarding school.  Later, a tragedy strikes that upsets the whole balance of the family, and things start to unravel.  The characters aren't necessarily likable, but they're so realistic, I couldn't wait to find out what happened to them.

    Apparently, Streatfeild was one of the first authors to really examine the psychological impact of the trauma of the war on children.  Of course I knew that millions of children were evacuated and separated from their families because of the war, and I'd heard that psychologically, it was probably more damaging for the children to be separated from their families than for them to be together.  I can't imagine having to make a choice like that!

    Another of my favorite Persephone books, Doreen, also deals with the story of an evacuated child, but in that situation, both the child's mother and the country family who host her love her and want to keep her.  It's interesting to compare the two.  I reviewed that book as well, and if you're interested, you can read my thoughts here.

    This is my 42nd Persephone -- I haven't read that many lately and I've been hoping to read more, especially since they recently published their 100th book!  So congratulations to Persephone, I look forward to completing the other 58 on my list.

    Has anyone else read Saplings?  Any other books by Noel Streatfeild?  Or any other Persephones that you love?

    Saturday, October 20, 2012

    The Univited Guests by Sadie Jones

    I am way behind on my historical fiction challenge, and since this is a book I think I've checked out from the library two or maybe three times and never had time to read, I thought it would be a fun break from from the classics I've been immersed in lately.  And of course, Downton Abbey is all over the blogosphere, even though I won't get to watch it on this side of the Atlantic until January.  So, a fairly short book about a country house party set in 1912 seemed like just the thing.

    I thought this book would be like Downton Abbey, but as if Cora hadn't had any money to save the estate.  In one respect this is right, because the eldest daughter, Emerald, is the hope of the Torrington family -- if she can snare a wealthy husband, they'll be able to save the family home.  However, any resemblance to DA ends right there.  

    I'll back up and give a better synopsis -- it's the weekend of Emerald Torrington's ninteenth birthday, but her stepfather is missing the party, since has to go off and try to borrow money to save the family's estate, Sterne.  It's to be a small party, just a couple of old friends, Patience Someone-or-Other, and her mother, and at the last minute, a handsome young landowner, John Buchanan, is given an invitation as well (since he has a LOT of money and is fond of Emerald).  It's a small shindig because the family can barely afford to pay for servants and coal, much less updating the house with electricity and modern plumbing.  

    However, things begin to unravel.  Patience's mother begs off with influenza and sends her son Ernest instead, and meanwhile, a railway accident has sent dozens of survivors up to the estate with nowhere else to go until things are sorted out.  What started out as a quiet weekend party for six or seven people quickly spirals out of control, especially when one of the railway refugees turns out to be someone from  the family's past. 

    This book had a lot of potential -- a historical book about a country house in England, one of my favorite settings, and some interesting and quirky characters.  Unfortunately, I thought the story itself began to spiral out of control.  I could spot some plot developments right away, and I thought the author got carried away with the quirkiness, bordering on absurdity.  One of my favorite blogs, Books as Food, described it as "Downton Abbey meets the Addams family," but to me the story just got silly, and towards the end I just started skimming pages to get through it.  And I thought the ending was just odd.

    I still want to read more historicals this year -- I have quite a few on the TBR shelves and even though I've made barely any progress on my historicals challenge, I've nearly finished all the other so I might make of a go of it anyway. 

    What about you, bloggers?  Read any good historical fiction lately?  Or is everyone sick of the Downton Abbey hype?  

    Thursday, October 18, 2012

    The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

    Well, this book has been sitting on my TBR shelves for at least five years, and I finally started to read it about a month ago.  It took me a long time to get through it, and I was completely perplexed.  I just did not get this book at all.  

    Here is the setup: set in 1930s London, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne, who was recently orphaned, moves in with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who have no children.   Thomas' father left him and his mother when he was a teenager, after he'd had an affair with Portia's mother, who became pregnant.  The first Mrs. Quayne magnanimously decided it was better for everyone if Mr. Quayne divorced her and married his mistress, so that the unborn child would not be illegitimate.  Mr. Quayne, the second Mrs. Quayne, and Portia lived cheaply on the Continent, until Portia's parents died one after another and she was left with no one but Thomas.

    Anyhow, now she's moved in with him and his wife, who are childless.  Thomas has an advertising agency, and a youngish friend of Anna's, Eddie, has gotten a job with Thomas' firm.  He's 23 but he starts hanging around Portia.  Basically, the story is about how Portia's innocence is lost.

    It all sounds like it's going to be very sordid and scandalous, but basically, this is a book in which nothing happens.  My last book, Barnaby Rudge, was a book that was all plot and very little character development, and this one seemed like just the opposite -- it's all character's and dialogue, and very little action.  I kept waiting for something really shocking to happen, like the underage Portia having an affair with someone much older, but nothing like that happened.  The most shocking things are that Eddie is (gasp!) holding hands with another girl;  and . . . wait for it. . . Anna reads Portia's diary!!!!  Ye gods!!

    Now, I know that this is a book that many people love.  Goodreads and the blogs are full of people who rave about it.  It has also been listed on Modern Library's Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, which is where I first heard of it.  It was not a difficult read, and I agree, some of the writing was very beautiful and insightful (I'll try to find a clever quotation to insert).  But most of the time I wanted to smack Portia and say Get over yourself!!!  There's a very brief mention of Mussolini at one point, and I wanted to scream at the characters, "Any day now, the Luftwaffe are going to start dropping bombs all over London.  Then you'll see what real problems are."  (Okay, that's unfair, since the book was published in 1938;  it's easy for me to make this judgement knowing what's about to happen since obviously Elizabeth Bowen couldn't.)

    Of course, I had a relatively uneventful, boring childhood.  Nobody died, nobody had any affairs or divorces;  I don't have any illegitimate siblings anywhere, so maybe I have no right to complain.  Really, I didn't see why Anna and Thomas didn't just ship Portia off to boarding school.

    And the ending just seemed very abrupt and unresolved.  Maybe I just need someone much less pragmatic to explain it all to me.  I don't feel like it was a complete waste of time, because parts of it were quite enjoyable.  I just don't see what the fuss is about.  If someone out there in the blogging universe is a huge fan, I apologize if I've offended you -- and please tell me if there's something obvious that I missed.

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

    Well.  It's been more than a month since I posted anything -- I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I've just been busy, work and travel and the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting, which was fabulous.  I've really been wondering if I need to give up blogging for awhile.  But fear not, I have been reading!

    Before I give up on blogging, I need to make a case for Barnaby Rudge, probably Dickens' most least-popular work -- yes, less popular even than Martin Chuzzlewit or Dombey and Son, both of which I've read in the past two years.  It's a shame really, because after I finally gave it my full attention, I actually liked BR better than the other two.

    But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Barnaby Rudge was published in 1841, just after The Old Curiosity Shop (one of the most popular) and before Chuzzlewit, one of the least popular.  Dickens was inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott to write a sweeping historical story -- his only other historical work is A Tale of Two Cities, and I can definitely see in BR glimmers of the great writing to come.  Barnaby Rudge is "A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty," but it's not just a historical novel.  It's about fathers and sons, a double murder, two feuding families, divided lovers, an abduction, even a talking raven -- tons of great stuff, right?

    The real Grip the Raven, Dickens' pet, now on view at the Free Library of Philadelphia
    It starts out in 1775, in a small village about ten miles or so from London, and much of the action centers around a inn called The Maypole.  John Willet is the proprietor and his son Joe is much-maligned and dissatisfied; there's also another unhappy father and son, the rich and sleazy Mr. Chester and his noble son Edward.  Edward is in love with the local beauty, Emma Haredale, but a long-time feud between the Chesters and the Haredales threatens to separate them forever.  Also, Emma's father was murdered years before under mysterious circumstances, along with his faithful steward Mr. Rudge, father of the eponymous Barnaby, the local village simpleton with a heart of gold, who owns a talking raven, Grip.  We also meet another family, the Vardens.  Gabriel Varden is a locksmith with a shrewish wife, a beautiful, coquettish daughter Dolly; a scheming apprentice, Simon Tappertit; and a shrieking maidservant, Miggs, who provides most of the comic relief.

    The first half of the book sets up all these different characters and gives some back story, along with a mysterious stranger.  Then, about halfway through the novel, the action jumps forward in time five years, to the beginning of the "No Popery" riots of 1780, also known as the Gordon Riots, which I'm sorry to say I knew nothing about.  My sincere apologies to any British readers, but is this a subject that anyone ever learned in school?  My shoddy Yank education regarding the 18th century was much more centered on the American Revolution.

    If you didn't know either, the Gordon Riots were a backlash against Catholics, that culminated in anti-Catholic mob violence and riots, including a mob of at least 40,000 that marched on Parliament in June of 1780.  Churches, embassy, and prisons were burned, including Newgate.  (If you want to read more about it, click here).

    I really think that's one reason Barnaby Rudge isn't popular -- honestly, a lot of people know enough about the French Revolution and the guillotine to make ATOTC a much more compelling subject.  And Barnaby Rudge is a terrible name, right up there with Martin Chuzzlewit.  I know Dickens has a talent for giving his characters goofy names to reflect their personalities, but surely he could have come up with something better!  Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and even Edwin Drood have mystery, romance, or some other interesting qualities to entice readers.

    My biggest problem with this novel is how it shifts.  The first half sets up the mystery and the characters -- there are so many, it's confusing and there really isn't that much development of any of them -- and then -- ta-da!!!  The story jumps forward in time five years, to just before the Gordon Riots, and we get very little information about what's happened to most of the characters.

    Don't get me wrong, the part about the riots and the mobs are extremely well-written, and I was riveted -- and I'm normally bored by big action scenes.  Dickens is really good at describing the mobs and the violence, and it's pretty scary.  But I really wanted more about the characters, and the story itself was kind of all over the place.  After the riots, things wrap up very quickly, and I just felt it was uneven.  Having read most of the Dickens canon, I can see hints of all the great stuff to follow -- Bleak House is a great murder mystery, and so many of his later novels have complex plots and multiple characters, plus there's all the great history in A Tale of Two Cities.  (Barnaby Rudge even has a little shout-out to Oliver Twist, with mention of a pick-pockets' gang).

    Anyway.  I'm really glad I finished Rudge;  I'm nearing the end of my quest to complete all the works of Dickens -- only three left to go of the major works:  The Old Curiosity Shop, The Pickwick Papers, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    Has anyone else read Barnaby Rudge?  What did you think?  Am I crazy to want to complete all of Charles Dickens' works?

    Thursday, September 6, 2012

    RIP 2012

    Once again, I have signed up for the RIP challenge -- R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril.  Participants read books or watch movies that are ghostly, ghastly, gothic, suspenseful, or sufficiently moody for the season.  Even though it's September, it's not even remotely close to fall weather in Texas, but his will help me pretend we actually have seasons (oh, who am I kidding?  It's going to be 100 degrees today!)

    But back to the books.  I've signed up for Peril the First, which is four reads over two months, which is quite manageable.  I have a lot on my TBR plate at the moment, so this year I've really narrowed down my RIP reads.  But I also got smart -- three of my four book group reads for September and October qualify -- probably because I chose all of them for the group.  I wasn't thinking specifically about RIP months ago when I made the schedule, but I did think it would be fun to read something a little creepy.

    First, the September read for my afternoon book group:

    Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.  Not sure if it fits the challenge exactly, but it has some kind of mysterious element, so I'm including it for now.  Been wanting to read this one for quite awhile

    Then, selections for both book groups for for October:

    The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  This has been on the TBR list for awhile, plus it's on my Classics Club list.  I really liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle which I read for RIP VI.

    The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.  I have selfishly reserved every copy in my library system for our book group.  (Well, if people want to read it, they can join the group, right?) It's short, and I might even work up the nerve to watch the movie adaptation, which looks really creepy.  I just hope it's not too scary for the group members -- oh well, you can't please everyone.

    And I'll have to choose at least one more read to complete the challenge.  I have this stack of mysteries, gothic novels, and short stories from my TBR shelves.  (Quite a few of these were on the pile from last year's challenge):

    Just in case you can't make out the titles, here's what's in the photo, from top to bottom:

    The Doll and Other Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier
    The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark
    The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant
    The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsey Ashford
    A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
    The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
    The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
    The Uses of Enchantment by David Liss

    Any recommendations from the pile?

    Has anyone else signed up this year?  What are you planning on reading?

    Monday, September 3, 2012

    The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

    I've been in a bit of a blogging slump lately -- all has been resolved with Blogger and the hijacker, and many thanks to everyone for the encouraging words -- and to the good folks at Blogger for taking care of it so promptly. And hopefully I'll never have to think about it again.

    Anyhow. . . . I've been reading a lot but not terribly inspired to blog much lately. But I did manage to finish another of the books from my TBR Challenge list, which pleases me greatly. This one is The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, one of five Cathers on my Classics Club list, and my fifth book by Cather overall.

    The Song of the Lark was published in 1915 and is the story of Thea Kronberg, a girl growing up in a very small town in Colorado. Thea is one of about seven children, the daughter of the local minister.  Since she was a small child, she's been mentored by the town doctor and everyone has recognized her musical talent. The reader follows her development, growing up in a rural community and finally going away to study music in Chicago, where her piano teacher realizes her true talent lies in her singing. It's about her struggle to rise from her humble beginnings and become a great artist.

    This book is divided into various sections, based on times in Thea's life. By far my favorite sections were set in Colorado, during her childhood. There are a lot of short chapters with vignettes from her life, almost like interrelated short stories about the people that shape her character and her life, from the beloved town doctor to her rivals at the annual music festival, and the railwayman who hopes to marry her when she's old enough. I loved Cather's descriptions of the town, its inhabitants, and its surroundings. I've never been to Colorado though I've seen the Rocky Mountains in Montana as a child, so I can only imagine it. Detailed descriptions of settings sometimes bore me, but Cather does it really well.

    I absolutely loved the first half of this book. The beginning really reminded me of two of my previous Cather reads, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, because they're about living in small Western towns. It also had little elements that I remembered from The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes From the Archbishop (1927). Thea takes a break from her singing studies and travels to the canyons of New Mexico, and Cather's love of the southwest really emerges in this book. For me, this is a sort of transitional book between her Midwestern and Southwestern books.

    About halfway through the book, Thea goes to Chicago to study music, and I loved that part too, partly because I spent ten years of my life in the Evanston/Chicago area, and for four of those years I lived very close to where Thea lives, in a Swedish neighborhood called Andersonville which is still there (and where you can get the best cinnamon rolls I've ever had). She also goes to the Symphony and the Art Institute, which is one of my favorite places in the world.

    However, the last quarter or so of the book kind of went downhill for me. Thea becomes a very successful singer and, honestly, kind of a diva. The focus changes from mostly her point of view to that of Dr. Archie and of Frederick Ottenburg, the man who falls in love with her. There's a lot of talk about The Artist and what makes her so, blah blah. I admit it, I am not an opera fan so I didn't get a lot of it (and I'm looking over my shoulder for lightning as I write this, since I have a sister and brother-in-law who are classically trained singers).  I just found Thea to be really self-centered and unlikeable at this point. Having grown up with a sister who's a performer, I know creative people have to believe in themselves and their talent to survive all that criticism, but I just didn't like Thea anymore.

    I have heard that this is one of the more autobiographical of Cather's works. I'm sure she's making a point about how hard it is to be An Artist, but I just didn't get it. However, I am going to send this to my sister, the professional singer, and hopefully she'll like it and maybe she'll get more out of it that I did. I do have several more by Cather on the TBR shelf, including a 1931 edition of Shadows on the Rock, a historical novel set in 17th century Quebec.

    I've now finished nine of the twelve reads on my TBR Challenge list, so I'm averaging one a month and I'm on track to finish by the end of the year. I'm getting really gung-ho about reading books off my own shelves -- my goal this year is choose 50% of my reading material from my own shelves, and I'm pretty close. The shelves still seem to be just as full but I am making progress, however slow.

    How are you doing with your Classics Club challenges, bloggers? And how about that TBR Challenge?Anyone finish it yet? And what other books do you recommend by Willa Cather?

    Sunday, August 19, 2012

    A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

    Of all the books I've read this year, I think this one is the most satisfying.  Partly because I really enjoyed reading it, but mostly because this is one of the books that has been on my shelves, unread, for the longest.  I know where I bought it, though not exactly when.  However, I can tell you that this book has been packed and unpacked at least ten times.  It's been in three different houses in Florida, three in Texas, one in Nebraska, an apartment in Chicago, and in storage with the rest of our household goods while we were stationed overseas in Japan.  Does that give you an idea of how long I've owned this book?

    I am delighted to report, also, that it was a really good book.  A Bell for Adano is a Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn't necessarily guarantee I'll like it, but I think that's the reason I never chucked it into the donation bin during any of my moves.  I finally started it the other day when I was looking for a good audiobook and realized that the library owned it -- I could listen to it on my commute to work, which would speed things along.  But after a few minutes, I really didn't like the narrator, so I picked up my own print copy and gave it a try.

    Happily, I was rewarded for all my tenacity.  This book is really a charming story.  Major Victor Joppolo, the American child of Italian immigrant parents, is put in charge of an Italian town called Adano after the Italian surrender during WWII.   Major Joppolo has to deal with military bureaucracy, cultural differences, and the looming threat of the Germans as he tries to get the town running smoothly again after years of wartime shortages, fascism, and corruption.  One of his goals is to replace the town's treasured bell, a 700-year-old relic that had been taken by the Fascists and melted down for bullets.  

    Honestly, I don't know why I put off reading it for so long.  It's not a very long book, and it's not a difficult read.  I'm not a huge fan of war stories, though I do enjoy reading about how everyday people deal with wartime on the home front.  A Bell For Adano isn't exactly a war story, since the war is mostly over when it starts, so in essence it is about the war at home for the Italians.  Parts of it did remind me a little of Catch-22, because it does poke fun somewhat at military bureaucracy.  It's not making of fun of the military per se, though it does satirize all the ego-massaging that has to go on in a big organization, which I'm sure isn't exclusive to the military.  

    I did really like the characters and the story, though I did find the ending a little abrupt -- it really left me wishing I knew what happened to all the people.  Parts of it are very funny, and parts were sad and made me tear up.  I did end up reading most of it in one day because I got so engrossed in it.  It was quite uplifting after some of the terribly depressing books I've read recently.  

    I am thankful for Roofbeam Reader's TBR Pile Challenge for inspiring me to finally get around to reading this book -- it was one of a dozen books I promised myself I'd read this year, and I've now completed eight of them -- one a month, right on schedule.   It's really inspired me to keep reading the books from my own shelves, and I've already started my list for the 2013 TBR Challenge.

    Monday, August 13, 2012

    A Blogging Dilemma

    I could not decide on an appropriate image for this post.
    Hopefully I'm not violating any copyrights with this one. 

    I've been a bit behind on book reviews lately -- had a long stretch of work (7 days); and on Friday morning, an unpleasant discovery.   A friend emailed that she had found a blogger who was lifting exact copies of my blog posts and publishing them on Blogger under a different name.  Word for word, images and all.

    Well, I was dumbstruck, then furious.  Seriously, who'd want to copy my blog?  I don't have that many followers or that much traffic.  I'm not particularly witty or insightful.  I don't make money off my blog, and I sincerely doubt I'll ever get a book deal.  I don't post a lot of personal stuff.    But I do put effort into my posts.  I know some bloggers can just sit down and type something interesting right off the top of their heads.  I am not one of those.  I start writing thoughts and then I have to edit -- a lot.

    So who is this blogger?  Well, I don't even think I want to dignify this person by mentioning specifics -- why should I increase traffic on her blog?  All I know is that she's on Blogger and that since February, she has posted every single one of my postings going back to 2010, and she has about FIFTY other blogs -- I'm pretty sure she's stealing all her content for those from other bloggers as well.  A google search of her name showed she's been stealing from blogs all around the country, personal stuff as well as book reviews.  I wonder if she even reads what she's copying -- how could a person have 50 simultaneous blogs and write about 50 different places at once?

    My one consolation is that the only comments on her blog are from me, telling her to cease and desist.  She's in a foreign country (if I am to believe what she posts about herself on the internet -- I don't know what to believe) -- and hopefully few of her countrymen care enough to read it.  And I'm not alone -- other bloggers have complained about her, but no results so far.

    I'm trying to think of ways to prevent blog plagiarism, but I honestly don't know if it's possible.  I've heard you can insert code into the blog settings to prevent cut and pasting, but I don't know if that would work.  I could cut off my RSS feed, but why should I cut off all my legitimate followers?  And now I'm also wondering if I've technically plagiarized anyone else myself -- not my writing, but I have lifted the occasional image from the internet.  Mostly it's book covers or images from film and TV adaptations of books, but once in awhile I use a graphic or image without attribution.  If I've stolen anything from anyone, I apologize profusely -- please let me know and I'll take it down or give credit immediately.

    It's making me think seriously about giving up blogging altogether.  What's the point if some jerk is just going to copy my stuff and pass it off as her own?  It's very discouraging.

    I wonder if she's going to steal this post as well.

    Sunday, August 5, 2012

    Classics Club Meme: My Favorite Classic Novel

    For the first meme of the Classics Club, we've been given a question to answer:  What is your favorite classic novel.  Seriously, how does one pick?  The one I've read the most times?  If so, I'd have to choose this:

    Beloved by many, Pride and Prejudice started my obsession with all things Jane Austen.  I'm now a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and I'm already planning my third trip their Annual General Meeting (this year it's in New York City!) 

    Or how about the one I've loved the longest?   Which would be this one:

    Jane Eyre, the first classic I read in college, which started my love affair with Victorian literature.  It's definitely a candidate. 

    Or, depending on your definition of a classic, it could be this one: 

    I loved this story after watching at PBS Mystery! adaptation when I was in the eighth grade.  I've read the novel many times, listened to the audio, and watched pretty much every adaptation since.  But is it really a classic?  Most people wouldn't consider it literature, but it has endured.  

    If that's your definition of a classic, then I'd also have to consider this one:

    I read this for the first time in the sixth grade.  I think it was about the same time the movie aired on television, I can't remember if I saw the movie first.  Probably.  Of course a lot of it went right over my head but I still loved it.  I think I finished it in two days.  (I'm a fast reader). 

    Again, many people don't consider it a classic because it doesn't have any metaphors and it isn't really taught in schools.  

    And I can't forget another candidate:

    This is the book that started my love affair with the works of Charles Dickens.  He's definitely over the top sometimes, but this novel has everything -- romance, mystery, satire, social commentary, and so many enduring characters.  If I had to choose only one book to take into exile, it would probably be this one.  

    Which is my favorite?  I have to say all of them -- it just depends on the day and my mood.  It's like choosing a favorite food or a favorite child.  I love them all, plus a whole lot more -- I haven't even included anything by Maugham or Trollope or Steinbeck or Edith Wharton. . . . I could go on for days.   Well, that's why I started blogging!  

    What do you think, bloggers?  Do you have ONE favorite classic novel, or are you like me and refuse to make that decision?  Which are your favorites?

    Saturday, August 4, 2012

    East of Eden by John Steinbeck


    East of Eden is one of the books I've had on my to-read list the longest, ever since I started on my quest to read more classics back in 2005.  Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and college without reading a single word of Steinbeck.  When I started to read classics as an adult, I knew I'd finally have to read his books, and at first I was very apprehensive -- Grapes of Wrath sounded so dire.  But I joined an online classics group and one of the first books I read with the group was Travels with Charley, which I absolutely loved, so I became a Steinbeck convert.

    I bought my copy of East of Eden at a library sale about four years ago, and I've packed and unpacked it in three different houses.  For about three years now, it's been the book I most wanted to read off my TBR shelves.  It was my daughter's assigned summer reading for her high school English class next year, so I decided to read it along with her.  And it was really worth it.  Why did I wait so long??  Was I saving the best Steinbeck for last?   

    It's kind of hard to describe this book.  It's long and sprawling, and spans about 50 years, from just after the Civil War to World War I, and the story is covers American coast to coast  from New England to California.  Inspired by the Genesis stories of Cain and Abel and Adam and Eve, it's the story of the Trask family, about sibling rivalry and fathers and sons.  It also contains some of Steinbeck's best characters, including what is probably one of the most evil characters in American literature.  

    Though it's Steinbeck's longest work at 600 pages long, I raced through it in just a few days.  The plot and the characters are really compelling.  It starts out with two half-brothers in New England, Adam and Charles Trask, who are competing for their father's love, living on a farm after the Civil War.  Just like Cain and Abel, their father favors one son over the other, and the less-beloved son takes his jealousy out on his brother.  

    In this story, there are two sets of brothers, and love for a woman also fuels the rivalry.  I don't want to give too much away, but Steinbeck weaves together Biblical allusions and California history in a masterful way.  He also incorporates characters based on his own ancestors.  Adam Trask moves out to the Salinas Valley, where Steinbeck grew up.  There's a lot of local color with a delightful Irish family, the Hamiltons, and a faithful family servant, Mr. Lee, who starts out as a cook but becomes much more to the family, a tutor, nanny, and he's basically the one holding the family together after things start to fall apart.

    I loved this book although I did find some flaws in it.  Steinbeck is pretty heavy-handed with the Biblical allusions -- not only are there two sets of brothers (with initials beginning with C and A) Steinbeck spends paragraphs with characters philosophizing about the Bible and Cain and Abel, just in case the reader didn't get it.  Also, Lee is sort of an amazing wise Oriental sage, spouting wisdom -- he's just too good to be true. But there is so much great stuff in the novel that I can overlook the parts that bothered me.  

    After finishing it, I really wanted to discuss it with someone else who was reading it with me -- my daughter is plodding along with it, but there's so much in it that I don't think she'll understand; in fact, I'm not even sure why this was assigned to high school sophomores!  I really wish I had chosen this instead of Tortilla Flat for my library's book group -- it's longer, but there's so much more in it and it's so much better!  It's more than twice as long but it's a far superior novel.  If you're interested in Steinbeck at all, do yourself a favor and don't bother with the shorter works.  East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are absolute masterpieces and everyone should read them at least once.  

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012

    A Victorian Celebration: Looking Back

    First, I want to thank Allie from A Literary Odyssey for hosting this blogging event.  I've had so much fun and read so many great books the past couple of months. Here's what I finished during The Victorian Celebration. 

    I posted nine reviews:  
    • Our Mutual Friend, my eleventh novel by Charles Dickens, and now one of my favorites; 
    • Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, which has been on my TBR shelves for about five years; 
    • Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome, author of one of my favorite books;
    • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, on my TBR shelves for two years;
    • The Odd Women by George Gissing, a Victorian author I'd never read before;
    • The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, a delightful Victorian children's book and one of my favorite reads this year; 
    • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, a neo-Victorian which I first read more than 20 years ago; 
    • The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles; a neo-Victorian on my TBR Challenge list; 
    • L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, a French novel written during the same period (my sixth novel by Zola and my fifth in the Rougon-Macquart series.
    I also hosted two giveaways.  I'm really happy with all the books I finished in the last two months -- I'm only sorry that I wasn't able to read more.  I still have a giant stack of books by Anthony Trollope unread!

    How about you, bloggers?  Did you get a lot of Victorians read this summer?  Which were your favorites?