30 October 2013

A baker's dozen of reviews (minus the two I dropped)

 
My reading life has been good lately. Not only have I read eleven books over the past 30 days, but I have enjoyed most of them and even loved some of them. As is the fashion these days on My Porch, my reviews will be on the short (but delightful) side. Coincidentally, the first three of these are about World War II.

Trapeze (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) by Simon Mawer
The story of a woman who volunteers to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France for a top secret mission. Overall this was an enjoyable read BUT the fact that our heroine kept divulging her secret mission to just about everyone she knew made it a little hard to believe in the story. It was so glaring to me (and to Teresa) that I was shocked Mawer could be so sloppy. Especially after having read his brilliant The Glass Room which I thought was nuanced and layered and so much better than Trapeze. Still Trapeze is worth it if you find a cheap copy or pick it up at the library.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
I only picked this one up because Simon Savidge kept mentioning it. He and Gavin and Rob and Kate read it and discussed it on the inaugural episode of their podcast Hear...Read This. I really, really enjoyed this book which tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heinrich, Himmlers right hand man who was also in charge of the Reich in Prague. Not only is the story fascinating in itself, but the way Binet tells it is also fascinating. Essentially he tells the story while also talking about the process of writing a historical novel. I just loved it. The four co-hosts of Hear...Read This have a wonderful discussion about the book which I listened to only after finishing reading it.



The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt
Two couples meet in 1940 in Lisbon as they wait for the SS Manhattan to arrive to shuttle stranded Americans back to the USA. I really wish I could say I liked this book but I found it really clumsy and not very believable on so many levels. Leavitt, who has written many things I have liked did a much better job pulling off the period in his flawed by likable novel While England Sleeps.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I thought this book was charming and funny and a wonderful, quick read. Young man in San Francisco takes a job in a very odd bookstore. And then lots of stuff happens. It is like a nerdy love fest. Books, computers, typography, archaeology, a yarn museum, and a dozen other things that will appeal to your inner nerd. This book was also part of the first episode of Hear...Read This. Two of the four co-hosts hated it. I can understand their critique, but I don't agree with it. They rightly point out that everything happens a bit too conveniently. Resources, clues, money, and romance all appear exactly when they should with not a lot of tension. But I loved it anyway. I liken it to a Nevil Shute novel or a DE Stevenson novel where everything turns out hunky-dory and you know it will the whole way through.

Supposedly the hardcover glows in the dark. I'm not sure if my paperback version does.

Fletchers End by D.E. Stevenson
And speaking of Stevenson, this one was like at the non-Buncle rest. Chaste romance, some sort of dwelling being set right, and likable servants whose only goal in life is to make their employers happy. I love all of her books, but I will admit that this one was perhaps one of the weaker ones.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
I have been a big fan of Wolitzer since I read The Wife several years ago. In The Interestings we have the story of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in Massachusetts in the 1970s and remain close well into their adult lives, in fact for the rest of their lives. One night when I was reading it one of the characters nostalgically makes up an address for their former summer camp where he can be reached. The thing that struck me was that the address included a zip code. Being a bit of a U.S. Mail nerd I was intrigued that Wolitzer had included a zip code. So, at 1:00 am I found myself writing a letter to the address to see what would happen. Not surprisingly the letter was returned as undeliverable. Unfortunately the days of the postal service stamping the envelope "return to sender" are over. Instead a sticker is affixed to the envelope largely covering the address. Luckily the sticker is removable so I was able to remove it and place it elsewhere on the envelope. After all the only reason I sent the letter was so that I could Tweet a picture of the returned envelope to @MegWolitzer. Happily she retweeted.

The letter I wrote at 1:00 AM

The returned letter.

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers
A few weeks ago I asked the Twitterverse which newish, readable novels in paperback by authors I may not have heard of I should read. I got four responses for which I am grateful. One was from Teresa at Shelf Love who not only recommended Dancing Backwards, but also gave me a copy. It is a shipboard tale of a woman sailing from England to New York where she plans to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for decades. On the voyage she wrestles with the baggage associated with this relationship. When I first started reading I was a little distracted by some details that didn't ring true to me and there were some plotting elements that didn't ring true to me either. Still, I totally enjoyed reading the book and got totally lost in it. Just what I had wanted.

If I had seen this at a bookstore, the cover image would have kept me from even picking it up to read the blurb.

A Time to Dance and other stories by Bernard MacLaverty
So far I have enjoyed everything I have read by MacLaverty. Nothing that makes me want to jump up and down and tell people about him, but he does write thoughtful books with sympathetic characters using very good prose. Some of these stories in this collection are on the dysfunctional family side of the spectrum but still enjoyable.

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
So far my favorite of the Palliser series. Shallow, climber, opportunist young widow decides that her dead husband's family diamonds belong to her not to his estate. Unlike the other Pallisers I have read so far this one is low on politics.

The Fur Person by May Sarton
The perfect little book for people who love cats or May Sarton.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I first read this book so long ago that I couldn't remember much about it except for the fact that it was set in New York. Before I included it on my list of ten books that represent the USA I thought I best reread it to make sure it was as brilliant as I remember. And it is. When I first started rereading I was struck by how much religion is in the book. I knew it had that element but I started to feel there was too much of it. In the decades since I first read the book my views on religion and faith have changed dramatically. I began to think I no longer liked the book because it was so heavy on the religious aspect. But I am so glad I stuck it out until the end because the book is still as brilliant as I remember. And it packs an emotional punch that rewards those who stick through to the end. I realize this makes it sound somewhat unreadable, which it is not, I was just impatient with some of the content.  But what is it about? A semi-autobiographical tale, young Black man in 1930s Harlem deals with family, religion, and being gay. But don't be fooled, the gay theme is never acknowledge but is, instead, just an undercurrent that resonates for those who recognize it.



16 comments:

  1. Hurray! Someone else likes The Eustace Diamonds! This seems to be the Trollope which people like the least, but I think it's my favourite (along with Barchester Towers and Mr Slope). And I know Lizzie is on the make, but I like her for being so feisty and trying to make the best of the life fate has dealt her.

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  2. I really adored The Interestings. There was just something about it that hit me close to home. I am still good friends with most of my college buddies and I am such a sucker for nostalgia. I love that you sent a letter to Ethan!

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  3. I love that you actually mailed a letter to the address! What a fun thing to keep tucked inside the book. I think I might've googled it in the middle of the night, but actually trying the mail seems more adventurous.

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  4. I love that you mailed a letter to Ethan! :) Such a great book.

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  5. I still get exasperated when I think about the poor spycraft in Trapeze. Someone along the way should have been a spy for Germany for it to be anything other than sloppy plotting.

    And I'm glad you enjoyed Dancing Backwards. I wouldn't have bought it with that cover either; it was a free review copy of a book I already wanted to read. The UK cover is much nicer.

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  6. I can't tell you how much I love that you wrote Ethan Figman a letter. The Interestings is one of my absolute favorites from this year and I'm already tempted to go back and read it again.

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  7. I love these little reviews. I've just ordered Salley Vicker's go at reworking the Oedipus myth (and Freud) - Where Three Roads Meet. I have only ever read her Miss Garnet's Angel (quirky and moving and slightly odd - all in good ways) so I think this next one will be somewhat of a change of direction.

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  8. I totally agree about from HHhH. What a great read. Thanks for the link to the discussion.

    Marianne from Let's Read

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  9. I was crazy about The Interestings, which I in the summer. It was my (belated) introduction to Wolitzer as novelist, although I've read her nonfiction(Fitzgerald Did It: The Writer's Guide to Mastering the Screenplay is at hand even now. Over the years I've listened to many of her radio interviews.

    At a secondhand bookshop last week I picked up Friends for Life in mass market paperback, and from the title expect to find some themes from The Interestings. (It has a chick-litty cover but the blurbs are promising.)

    The Eustace Diamonds is one of my favourite novels. Ever! By anybody.

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  10. A letter to Ethan Figman indeed! The Interestings was fabulous wasn't it? Big, substantial and satisfying.

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  11. I really liked The Eustace Diamonds as well, and don't get why it's not a more general favourite.

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  12. Christine: One of the reasons I love Trollope is because of his obsession with how much money people have. The Eustace Diamonds does not disappoint.

    Ti: It is the kid of summer camp I wished I could have gone to.

    Susan: I did Google the town and realized it didn't exist which is when I hatched the idea for the letter.

    Monika: I loved the book.

    Teresa: I was glad to see your review so I didn't feel alone in my outrage.

    Shannon: I think he had the best name in the book as well.

    Vicki: Based on Dancing Backwards I would definitely consider reading more by Vickers.

    Marianne: I even like the name.

    Margaret: You really need to read The Wife. Definitely her best.

    Vintage Reading: It was a great read.

    Hayley: It seemed very Trollopian to me. And a much more interesting focus than the cheque that gets talked about for the entire, huge Last Chronicle from B.

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  13. I'm a big fan of HhHH and I just took a pass on the new David Leavitt which I had on reserve at my library.

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  14. I am so impressed by how much you are able to read. I've added a few of these to my TBR (I'm most excited about HHhH).

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  15. cool titles! planning to read your # 2 and 4. Here is my recap: http://wordsandpeace.com/2013/11/08/2013-october-wrap-up/

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  16. I'm just about to begin The Eustace Diamonds, so I'm delighted that it has so many fans.

    I loved HHhH, which was a wonderfully playful novel, as if the author had invited you to sit with him as he was writing the book. He asked lots of profound questions, particularly about the veracity of historical fiction, but did it in a way that was amusing and unpretentious.

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