To Say Nothing of the Dog (CBR8 #56)

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I really wanted to title this review “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego”. Not for any correlations to the bible story in To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis. Because the characters reminded me of former high school classmates of mine who received those nicknames our freshman year of high school from a very cranky history teacher. Much of the struggles of Ned, Terrence, and Cyril through the early portions of the book reminded me of them. But we should begin and the beginning, and I should stop confusing you with the way my mind works.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the second Connie Willis novel to exist in a world where time travel is used for historical study. With the inability to bring valuable items forward in time, everyone else seems to have lost interest in this technology. Enter Lady Schrapnell (who does send buckshot through the lives of the characters in this work), and her single-minded desire to rebuild Coventry Cathedral due to her family’s history there.

In order to rebuild the cathedral to its exact likeness before its destruction in World War II, Lady Schrapnell has been bullying the history department (strapped for funds) to send historians back to 1940 to research the state of the building, and has specifically assigned our main protagonist, historian Ned Henry, to find the Bishop’s Birdstump (an ornate, Victorian, vase). Several too many jumps have left Ned with the worst case of time lag anyone has ever seen, and historian Verity Kindle has accidentally brought an object forward through time while researching Lady Schrapnell’s great-great-great grandmother, and we have a situation where Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right–not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.

Once back, traveling separately, Ned meets Terrence (an undergrad at Oxford) and proceeds on a boat trip down the Thames. Terrence, along with my favorite character in the entire book Cyril the dog, are really on the hunt for Tossie, whom he met while she was looking for her lost cat. What follows is a comedy of errors as Ned and Verity attempt to keep the young would-be lovers separated, make sure that Tossie falls in love with an unknown man with the initial ‘C’, and that all incongruities are put right.

I listened to this book, and the audio was 21 hours long. There is a lot of plot to be had in this book. Connie Willis is seemingly incapable of letting a thought go unpursued. Which, as the novel continues allows Willis to build in repeated phrases, which are then in turn used to build the humor. This book was not as funny as I was initially led to believe, being more of a wry observance than anything else. But I did often smile reading this book, the humor is built up over repeating passages rather than the standard quip. Willis also spends plenty of time unpacking tropes, and the list accumulated on at TV Tropes is quite illuminating.

This is gentle, suspenseful, silly, romantic and sophisticated reading, I unfortunately just never really suck into it. I blame the audio narration.

But, even though I’m only rating this a three stars, it does appear that the best parts of Willis’ writing from The Doomsday Book make their way here. And much like that book, this one lives and dies by its characterization, which thankfully is wonderfully done. The historians are well-developed and multi-dimensional and we’re able to pop in and get some more information about Professor Dunworthy (he does in fact have a first name!) I confess I especially love Cyril, who is completely dog-like but provides a silent foil for Ned’s thoughts, and in a particularly canine manner serves as reader’s best friend.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 


The Rest of Us Just Live Here (CBR8 #55)

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I have been trying to read some of the runner up choices for book club in addition to the ones we pick. So far, I’ve read Venetia by Georgette Heyer and this book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. This one feels like a bit of a cheat, since I had already requested it from the library before I put it on the list of voting options (although I had also figured out how to procure The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian before the vote as well).

I was intrigued by the reviews here at Cannonball, and really wondered how the author would tackle the story of all the other characters populating the world in which vampires have already been a scourge, and for a while all those indie kids were dying beautifully of cancer. It sounded to me like it could be a YA version of Longbourn, and since I loved that book so much I should certainly give this one a try. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t spectacular in the way I was hoping.

Patrick Ness can write like a motherfucker. That is not up for debate. If I were reviewing for a more official review, I probably would have rounded this one up to four stars, and not down to three, based purely on his prowess with the craft. But, I am writing this review for myself, and for the Cannonball crowd, where we are equally as concerned with plot and execution as we are with wordsmithing and a good core idea, so this book is rounded down to three.

The story is pretty straightforward – our group of characters are in the final weeks of their senior year and they’re just hoping their high school doesn’t blow up before they have a chance to graduate. In blurbs at the beginning of each chapter Ness outlines the peril being faced by the indie kids (Immortals are trying to take over the world) and the reverberations of that story are felt in the day to day of Mel, Mike, Jared, and Henna. However, while these characters aren’t the indie kids whom are found at the center of crises points, that doesn’t mean that they are without interesting foibles, problems, and inner lives. Ness weaves a story where it is easy for us to realize that even if the things we’re dealing with are “ordinary” they are still ours to combat.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (CBR8 #54)

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of food memoirs as their own thing. I’ve read a few, and I have a whole shelf on my Goodreads labeled “food related”, but I just never quite made the connection until Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge included reading one and I had no trouble at all picking a couple to put on my to read list (most were there already). Cannonball Read loves Lucy Knisley, so I decided to start with hers.

Because graphic memoirs and novels aren’t really my cup of tea,I kept forgetting to stop and actually LOOK at the images that Knisley, a trained artist, spent so much time crafting for me to look at. I feel like a bad reader when it comes to this format. And it isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, I absolutely did (please note 4-star rating), I just knew the entire time that I was probably missing about half the humor, because it’s all in the visuals. Knisley’s art might appear simplistic, but in reality its layered and precise.

Knisley tells us the story of her life, from roughly birth (or actually, from before that) to about 22. She uses food, cooking, eating, and her mother as various framing devices for her narrative. Each chapter is its own story, and probably readable separate from the book as a whole. Each chapter is capped with a recipe, with fun, drawn instructions, that will be sure to make you hungry if the contents of the chapters haven’t already. (Seriously, I was not feeling 100% all weekend and not hungry at all, until reading this book on the couch all afternoon, then I was ravenous. The book may have cured me.)

I found the tone of this work to suit its contents, it’s a book about growing up, and the food memories that link that story together. It was also quietly charming and amusing. I don’[t know if I’ll be picking up more Knisley anytime soon (although her other books look great) but I can say that this one is worth your time.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

It’s in His Kiss (CBR8 #53)

In the continuing story of my bad travel experiences this past weekend (5 hours is a long delay, friends) I also started (and finished on the 8 am flight home) another book. When you need a warm blanket of a book, you go back to your comfort reads, which I am convinced are a different genre for everyone. For me, that meant it was time to pull up the next Bridgerton family book on my nook.

I love the Bridgertons. This book was starting on second base, if you’ll allow the sports metaphor. But, like some of the other later books in this series, which kick off with Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, I feel that Julia Quinn was relying on our affection for the characters. It’s in His Kiss is the seventh book, and chronicles the meet cute and engagement of youngest Bridgerton Hyacinth and Lady Danbury’s rakish grandson Gareth St. Clair.

Like the first book in the series, The Duke and I, it remained nice to read about characters that were meant for each other, and not in the star crossed lovers’ sort of way, but in the well matched people in intellect and interest who have the hots for each other way. I didn’t initially buy into Gareth and Hyacinth’s connection as much as much as Daphne and Simon. But, I’m on the record that I find Julia Quinn’s strengths to lie squarely with how well (and quickly) she is able to flesh out her characters. Hyacinth and Gareth are another in a long pair of fully realized characters who spend the time getting to know each other, and that’s where this work also shines. Quinn spends quite a bit of time in the Bridgerton books laying out the meaning of family – both having it and not. In Hyacinth and Gareth, we get both in each character. Hyacinth has a large and loving family, but was born after her father’s death and has had that hole in her life. Gareth had a small nuclear family, and a lot of fall out surrounding the identity of his father, and a terrible relationship with the man he grew up with, and his mother’s death. But he, like Hyacinth, does have a healthy relationship with a maternal figure. The characters are able to talk about these various relationships, and their ramifications, and grow together.

One of the weaknesses in Quinn’s writing, which showed up in When He Was Wicked, is that she will let a story stall out at an emotional point and spend more time there than strictly necessary. While this story is in danger of that on two different fronts (Gareth’s true parentage and why he proposed in the first place) Quinn manages to use the two to counterbalance each other and keep the story moving.

We are however missing the grand band of Bridgerton siblings in this outing. We see Gregory and Anthony, and get a name drop for everyone else. Hyacinth gives us a slightly more meaty mention of Benedict and Sophie’s marriage as a way for she and Gareth to overcome their own problems, which was nice. It was good to see the support between the characters, and the acceptance of struggles as surmountable.

This is a middle of the road Bridgerton book, but that is still a four-star book by my standards.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (CBR8 #52 – Cannonball!)

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Normally I have my Cannonball book picked out in advance. I know what my goal book is for the big reviews. 2016 hasn’t really worked out that way, so as I was packing my bags for a quick 48-hour trip to visit my family I had just finished book 51 and knew the next one would be *the* cannonball book. I of course grabbed Cannonball Book Club’s pick, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Can I just say that you all rocked this choice? It was great.

It’s my policy to do pretty vague/non-spoiler reviews of book club choices. Know that I really loved this book and it made my nearly 5-hour flight delay bearable (I probably finished this book in three hours).  Junior is great, Alexie writes him with such clarity, honesty, and truth. And in turn, Junior is able to relate a year in the life to us in precise, genuine, and emotional ways that suck you in. Also, it includes one of my favorite things… a list of favorite books (even if I worry about Junior’s taste).

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Here’s a summary for those of you still on the fence: Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from one life and replace it with another.

The discussion topics and reminder post will go up later this week and we’ll meet over at Cannonball Read on September 1 to chat about the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

It Happened One Autumn (CBR8 #51)

After being less than won over by the first book in the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas, I decided the thing to do was to keep going. I figured out later that my real issue was with the secondary plot line and have warmed to the style of Kleypas’ writing in the intervening weeks. In the Wallflowers series, Kleypas tracks the lives and loves of four women passed over by the eligible men of the ton and the friendship they develop along the way.

Book two, It Happened One Autumn features American dollar princess Lillian Bowman and the extremely eligible Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff. We met both characters in the first installment, Secrets of a Summer Night, Westcliff is best friend and business partner of the swoon worthy Simon Hunt. Westcliff’s protector personality and the adaptability of his character, while still being loyal to tradition, are made clear at the end of that book and I found myself quite taken with the character who is constrained by his title and position, and appears to be content with who he is, even if he knows he doesn’t always come up to the mark against his friends Simon and Sebastian (more on him later). Lillian comes from new money, and in the social landscape of the United States in the 1840s, it was at times difficult to marry off these women, as neither social strata wanted them. Using that, and adding some truly hideous previous behavior on Lillian’s part, Kleypas weaves in the recognizable history I appreciate in these, and gives us a clear picture of the characters we are dealing with, while simultaneously setting them up as diametrically opposed (although I really didn’t need to hear one more time how Marcus was the heir of the oldest noble line in all of England blah blah blah).

For the first half of the book, another house party at Westcliff’s estate, we the reader are supposed to be enamored of free-spirit Lillian’s take on life and how it keeps running at odds with Westcliff’s propriety and be won over by the chemistry they can’t seem to ignore, even though they can’t stand each other.

I was bored.

Boredom is a grave sin in nearly any genre, but it is particularly terrible in romantical fluff books. The set up was good… it was just reminiscent of the previous book in the series. Kleypas writes the hell out of her scenes and her characters, and as Mrs. Julien says “not-fantastic Kleypas is still very damn good”, but I definitely felt as though I was treading water. There were fantastic scenes in there… they just weren’t nearly close enough together to keep the tediousness at bay.

My other complaint is how evil our next hero was made.

Enter Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. A new character introduced at the beginning of the book and set up as Marcus’ rival for Lillian’s affections. He is in need of the money she brings to the marriage mart, and infamous rake that he is, the proper families likely won’t have him. Lillian seems to fit the bill, and she’s available, until Marcus makes his move (and it’s a good move).  If Kleypas had left it here, with the rake as legitimate competition for our heroine’s hand, and then let that play out as it did and leave him without the money he needed I would have been fine. I would even have been on board with *SPOILERS* Marcus’ mother orchestrating Lillian’s kidnapping and attempting to loop Sebastian in, and Sebastian not doing anything to help Lillian escape. *END SPOILERS* But with the lengths the last quarter of the book goes to in order to villainize Sebastian, I have epic Romance Trope Concerns. I adore a reforming a rake storyline (although Wounded Hero is really more my cup of tea), but Sebastian was already established as a rake… I don’t know that I needed more, and it’s never a good sign when you are editing a book in your head as you read it.

The next book, with Evie and Sebastian is universally loved (I think) around the Cannonball – I remain cautiously optimistic, but the two drawbacks combined on It Happened One Autumn keep this at three stars.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The House of the Spirits (CBR8 #50)

There is so much that Isabel Allende weaves into her writing, it is simply astounding. There is so much history, allegory, and personal stakes woven into the story of one family that it is almost impossible to know where to start. How have I not read this before? Why the holy fucking hell did I have to read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis when this existed in the world. I COULD HAVE DEMONSTRATED THE STUDY OF LITERARY WORKS IN CONTEXT THROUGH THE STUDY OF WORKS IN TRANSLATION SO MUCH BETTER WITH THIS THAN THAT TRIPE.  I feel like my International Baccalaureate teachers went with Kiss of the Spiderwoman because it was short and needed something translated from another language. C’MON THIS WORK IS ALL ABOUT CULTURAL ASSUMPTIONS, YOU DAMN IB TEACHERS OF MINE.

Ok, I promise to calm down and write a coherent review. I hate Kafka a lot, guys. And I loved this.

From Goodreads, here’s the synopsis:

Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies. Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future. The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.

I took a long time to read this book not because it bored me, but because each paragraph, each page, and each chapter need time to be digested and understood. This wasn’t a novel that I could power through, or skim, or even wanted to. This is a book that needed and deserved to be savored. Tracing nearly a hundred years of the life of a family, Allende unpacks the various forces that cause the sweeping and epic changes of a country, and the sorrows and triumphs of a family.

A lot is written about the magical realism aspects of Allende’s writing here. The book’s characters literally see ghosts and interact with the spirit world. But… it’s just another aspect of the book, the same as not referring to internationally recognizable persons by names and instead using titles. It’s all in the world that Allende is building, and feels as normal as anything else, in the best possible way. It’s not played for cheap thrills, it’s all just part and parcel of how these characters interact with their world, which is also our world.

I am so glad that the Read Harder Challenge this year included a task that fit this one, which pulled it up my to read list and onto this year’s plate.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Hark! A Vagrant (CBR8 #49)

I’m glad I lent crystalclear the Hamilton book when I had it out from the library, or I’d feel in real friend debt, since she has been lending me books all year. This is another delivery from her, and it served as a palate cleanser between Children of God, When a Scot Ties the Knot, and The House of the Spirits. Yes, I have weird reading habits, Casino Royale was in there too for a short time.

Its tough for me to review this book, crystalclear declined to, not being able to figure out how to say “just go read it, the cartoons are funny” in 250 words (did I get that right? I hope I did.) Since I have a rule to review everything, I’m sitting here typing furiously, trying to explain to you why I really liked this book, but I still only gave it three stars.

The problem, as usual, is me.

Comics just are not my thing. I’ve tried a couple different variations on graphic novel type literature and universally my brain just doesn’t process information that way. I also was never a big Sunday comics reader, I’d skim a few when I could pry the section from my parents or grandparents, but not much more.  Beaton, however, is exactly the type of writer who should hit my funny bone, and does, most of the time. Her writing is a wry, delightful, and shows an intelligent wit and her line drawings accomplish so much with so little. It’s no wonder to me at all that so many of you have liked this book a great deal.

If you’re in the mood for the comic version of Texts with Jane Eyre, then this is the book you are most rightly looking for.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

When a Scot Ties the Knot (CBR8 #48)

Okay, Tessa Dare finally got me.

The third book in the Castles Ever After series, When a Scot Ties the Knot (oof, the titles on these) hit all of my particular romance novel loves:

  1. Independent lady making her way in the world
  2. Marriage of Convenience plot
  3. Steamy sexy times
  4. Scotland
  5. Wounded Hero
  6. Historical setting
  7. Interesting, but not overtaking, side characters
  8. Comedy/quirkiness/whimsy in some regard.

Those eight things in some order will almost guarantee a four star review from me if executed well, and the truly wonderful ones will get the full five stars. For me, this was a truly delightful read and earned itself the full five stars (on rounding up).

Dare, for those not in the know, does not stay even remotely historically accurate. Sometimes I love a book that sticks to its time period, and sometimes I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel which takes the barest bones of history and adds what it likes too. In this case we have Captain Logan MacKenzie, recently returned home from war on the continent in the Napoleonic Wars, arrives on the doorstep of Madeline Gracechurch, prepared to marry her. After all, he has a half dozen  wounded men needing a place to settle, and what better place than the castle of the woman who caused him so much hope and anguish for so many years?

The only problem… Maddie thought she’d made him up, and had also killed him off.

In her sixteenth year Maddie had lied about meeting a Scottish officer in order to avoid having a London season, due to her crippling social anxiety (which Dare explains in place of letting her have a lesser, more realistic aversion to people and crowds). Unfortunately for her, the name Maddie pulled out of air belonged to a real man, and he’s not above blackmail.

Enter the marriage of convenience, which gets a bit of a twist as they go with a handfasting which doesn’t bear the full weight of law until the marriage is consummated, and Maddie manages to put off the full act while she tried to find the letters so she can burn them, and she can follow her dream of being an illustrator while figuring out how to give Logan his dream of safety for his men. But we are treated to some satisfying funky bass along the way, as sexy times are very sexy when men respect their lady’s ideas, mind and person – and Logan does. The other part of Logan’s personality which made me swoon? He has a tragic origin story, which puts him on par with Griffin from Any Duchess Will Do. (Bonus part three? Dare doesn’t really hid that Logan is verra similar to Sam Heughan’s Jamie from Outlander.)

This is a Tessa Dare book, and she writes good, charming, whimsical stories with characters that have great emotional chemistry. She also writes great side characters. Seriously, all of Logan’s men and Maddie’s aunt were amusing on the page and added to, but did not hijack, the story. Yes, there is a quirky subplot around mating lobsters, but it’s nowhere near as distracting as the traveling cosplayers of Romancing the Duke, or the terrible ermine. I rounded that one down to four stars, I round this one up to five, and they are both better than Say Yes to the Marquess, which I rounded up to a four. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting these eventually, they work for me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Children of God (CBR8 #47)

I read The Sparrow last year and was absolutely gutted by the story of Father Emilio Sandoz and the crew of the first mission to Rakhat. Having decided to work my way through Mary Doria Russell’s works, I knew that I would eventually read its sequel, Children of God. However, I knew very little about it, other than that it continued Emilio’s story.  Bonnie also read The Sparrow for Cannonball Read 7, and we had talked about reading Children of Men together this year. In our Book Club discussion of Doomsday Book, bonnie compared Father Roche to Father Sandoz, which led to a conversation about being ready to read this book this July. We did, and I’m glad we read it at the same time, because knowing that she was waiting for me to finish so we could talk about it kept my eyes on the prize and meant that I had someone to send my rambling email thoughts to.

Briefly, the plot of the novel can be summarized as such: We follow Father Emilio Sandoz, the only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth. He has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus basically blackmails him to help in preparing another mission to Rakhat. Emilio is done with the Church, the Jesuits, God, and Rakhat. Unfortunately none of them are done with him and he finds himself trapped in machinations much larger than one person.

Children of God wasn’t as powerful as its predecessor, but I remain enthralled with Russell’s ability to create new worlds, and recreate our own. I struggled with how to put my thoughts together about this book. The theme that stuck out to me was the redeeming value of choice, specifically of faithful choice. But, and this is both a strength and a weakness of a book this complex: it almost doesn’t hold true because more than a few of the redemptions which happen aren’t set up by choice at all. Or certainly not a personal choice.

My friends and I have a saying (which isn’t unique) that God keeps throwing us back into the molding fire when it’s time to learn something new, and that it’s painful. That is also written plain as day in these two books. It would be easy to see that theme in Emilio, as he is often physically suffering throughout the course of the book, but it stood out to me most clearly in the character of Ha’anala, who finds herself between all cultures and seemingly having to no other choice than to walk her own painful and rewarding path. The choice, and the pain of growth, are everywhere in her story and she was perhaps my favorite character in this work. I found myself hopeful for her when I had written off many other characters.

The Sparrow and Children of God function as a single narrative. You can’t read this one without having read the first. The story picks up immediately following the events of The Sparrow. I wouldn’t suggest picking up book two immediately upon completing book 1. However, maybe don’t wait the  18 months I did. You’ll still get the emotional wallops you’re meant to, and you’ll remember details more clearly.

I remain convinced that Russell is an innovative and philosophically provocative novelist. Her novels, the three which I have read, all make me think. I think long and hard about the themes, devices, and conversations she layers into her work. I’m only rating this book three stars, but I rate Mary Doria Russell five stars. Her prose is beautiful, she rarely (once in two book!) falls back on cliché, and expertly crafts relatable characters and expertly draws locations. I personally often have a difficult time seeing the worlds science fiction or fantasy writers create. I don’t have that problem with Russell.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.