The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (CBR9 #30)

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I have had this book on my to read list since CBR5 in 2013. This year I decided as part of my overall Cannonball goal of 78 books, that I was also going to work my way through my audiobook and owned book backlog. A little. With that goal in mind I set up a monthly goal list, with a book or two I already own, a book or two I have in audio form in Audible, and then I pick a couple more to take out from the library.

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In making up April’s goals, I came across The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in my Audible account and put it on the list. I promptly pushed it off the list to May and here we are. The fun thing about putting a book on your to read list five years ago and purchasing it two years ago means you often go into it completely forgetting why you added it in the first place. I mention this to say that I went in with zero expectations of what this book would be like, or what its format was.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, made up of letters, telegrams, and notes created by the characters inside its pages. I am generally unsure about this style, although I’ve quite enjoyed Sorcery & Cecelia, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Attachments (yes, that one counts). Which must have been why I decided to try it in audio with a full cast, since that approach has worked for me in the past. It worked this time. I will never know if it was the great narration or simply the beautiful language that pulled me in, but both are worth your time.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is structured around Juliet Ashton, an author who survived the Blitz in London, and her various relationships with old friends and new. The new friends are all on the isle of Guernsey, where one of her books ends up. Its new owner, Dawsey Adams, reaches out to Juliet for help in tracking down more books by the same author and the plot is off to a running start.

Cannonball Read’s own J Coppercorn mentioned to me on Twitter that this one reminded her in feeling to Anne of Green Gables, and I cannot disagree. It has the same unfolding feel of life on a country island. I also mentioned its similarities to Sorcery & Cecelia, but I’m leaning more towards Tall Pine Polka now that I’m done. In her only book, Mary Ann Shaffer balances between the realities of loss and suffering the island of Guernsey suffered during occupation in World War II, and the ramifications for her characters, but she also layers in the more lighthearted and humorous. That is one of the qualities I most appreciate about Lorna Landvik’s book.

Finished by her niece Annie Barrows after she passed, Mary Ann Shaffer is also working through what reading means to people in this book. So many of the members of the Literary Society were not readers before the alibi became a truth, that we as the reader (and likely word lover) get to experience the discovery of the solace, the enrichment, and the joy of books with these characters.

And for me, it doesn’t hurt a bit that there’s a little love story woven in as well. Get in now if you haven’t already, its currently being filmed and a movie version will hit theatres next year.

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

Seduce Me at Sunrise and Tempt Me at Twilight (CBR9 #28 & 29)

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I was told, repeatedly, not to read Seduce Me at Sunrise, otherwise known as the Win and Merripen book. I swear I was listening, but then someone mentioned that there were several Amelia and Cam scenes in the book worth seeking out. So… I checked it out along with the book I meant to read, Tempt Me at Twilight, and got to skimming.

More of the book was okay then I feared initially, but it is still only a two star/okay book, and that’s not great for a Romance. Usually the happy feelings push me to rate these about a half star higher than I would more traditional, non-genre fiction. What can I say, I’m not perfect and my emotions can and do get the better of me.

I am glad however that I got these books from the library at the same time, and didn’t do my usual habit of spreading out the series to savor it. These two books occur in rapid succession in the series’ timeline, and I have a feeling book 4, Married by Morning, is also set immediately after (I’ve requested it and book 5 from the library to arrive sometime late in May or early in June – don’t worry). This allowed me to sink into the family dynamic that Kleypas is building. I missed this same experience with Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books and in retrospect; I wish I had read them closer together.

These two books are set about two and a half years after the events of the first book and Kleypas is telling one large story. It is entirely typical of the genre to tell serialized stories of one family, or in the case of the Wallflowers one group of friends, but generally other than winks and nods and updates on previous characters there isn’t usually much interplay between each book’s lead protagonists. That is not the method at hand with these books: instead Kleypas is using the tight family she has created to tell a tightly woven story. I have to say, I prefer this method. There is story and plot points for everyone in Seduce Me at Sunrise, which means that while the main couple have major problems as a pair, there is still plenty of story to carry the book to a two star rating. When a better pairing happens, then we get a better book as well.

I do not know what exactly about Tempt Me at Twilight that won me over to a five star. The book teeters on the edge of too much, our self-made hero Harry is able to do all the things, and upsets Poppy’s possible marriage proposal in order to trap her into choosing to marry him. Kleypas is often playing with the themes of hard work and getting out of your comfort zones, and that is exactly what this pairing is built around. Perhaps the decisive factor was the inclusion of a not physically pleasing first experience for the virgin, which then puts other important plot points into action.

Kleypas isn’t afraid to make and keep her heroes and heroines imperfect, and that is more often a strength than a weakness for her writing.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, review it honestly, and help raise funds to support the American Cancer Society in the name of one of our fallen friends.

A Trick of the Light (CBR9 #27)

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When I finished this book, I quickly posted on Goodreads my placeholder review, as I do with all books. Usually it is just the star rating and the phrase “full review to follow”. However, that wasn’t enough to wrap up how I was feeling. Instead, I wrote “It is almost unthinkable that a series can be getting better, more nuanced, and satisfying in its seventh installment but that is where we are with Louise Penny and Inspector Gamache” because this might be the best book yet in the series.

Several days later, I feel the same way. I think kella, in her omnibus review of books 7-12 of this series, nailed it when she said, “[Penny’s] characters become more and more complex with each book, as their experiences keep building. The characters are growing and changing throughout, which is probably why I can’t put these down. I’m invested now- it’s as much about seeing these people grow and interact as it is about the murder at hand.” Penny, like other great series writers, has taken the time to flesh out all of her main cast of characters and isn’t afraid to allow them to grow, change, behave, and experience pain as anyone would given the situations surrounding them. These books are going somewhere, and it is plot based, but it is character driven. Penny is offering a meditation on the human spirit and its ability to recover.

The murder this time is of a former friend of Clara and Peter’s who is found dead in their garden. There was a large party celebrating Clara’s lauded solo show but, as is often the case the past slinks its way into the present. Throughout the investigation, each new avenue that Gamache and his team head down uncovers another person whose past is affecting their present. We head down a path exploring the art world, the people who make its community, people trying to forgive the unforgiveable, those who are fighting their addictions in AA, and the continuing power struggles within the Surete du Quebec.

The book also masterfully takes on what recovering from trauma like that which Beauvoir, Gamache, Lacoste, and the other officers of the Surete du Quebec faced in Bury Your Dead, never sugarcoating the reality of profound injury, loss, and the mental wounds. Penny has used this tragedy to set some characters more surely into themselves, and allow others to shake off decisions of the past, and to grow everyone. We don’t know yet what the long term effects will be, but as with any long-form storytelling the waiting is part of the experience.

I don’t know if I will be able to hold to my previous rule of reading these in the month/season they were set. I already bent my own rule with this one, as it is set in June, but I couldn’t find that information before I got started and based my start date on the flowers described in the blurb (yes, that is the type of nerd I am) and once I realized I was reading it early I just kept going. I believe the next book, The Beautiful Mystery, is set away from Three Pines and focuses on Gamache and Beauvoir. I am exceptionally excited to spend more time with these two characters based on where we left them emotionally, and hope the next one isn’t set too much into the fall/early winter and I can get started on it soon.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We read what we want, set personal goals, and review to our hearts content. Oh, and say “Fuck Cancer”, for good measure.

Dead Ever After & After Dead (CBR9 #25-26)

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I had divorced myself from the world of Sookie Stackhouse following the terrible twelfth book in the series, Deadlocked, back in 2012. It was, to me, a complete destruction of all the reasons I had been gamely reading along with this series since my friend Meika can across it in 2007 and we rapidly consumed all the available books. When I reviewed Deadlocked I thought I’d eventually read this book because I have series completion OCD, but in the intervening years I’ve avoided it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Southern Vampire Series, the character of Sookie Stackhouse, or HBO’s True Blood series these books have always been a bit of paranormal mystery fluff with a romance angle put in. These books are the definition of frothy, cheesy, relaxing reads that you can mostly turn off the world around you and sink into. In the beginnings of the series, Harris put in some social commentary, and that was fine.

The mechanics were never very good. My biggest problem with Harris as a technician is that she cannot naturally move a character from one place to another without a paragraph of exposition. Also, Sookie tells you exactly what she is thinking all of the time. There is no subtlety or nuance. The reader is also quite often treated to her daily to do list while Harris is working towards the next plot point.

However, as mental palate cleansers? Who cares!

So why did I read this book? Because ingres77 recently read the first book in the series,  Dead Until Dark, and it reminded me that I never did finish. There was a small amount of peer pressure from he and narfna, and here we are.

I drank a lot of beer while reading this. It was really the only way.

Listen, these aren’t good books. They aren’t all bad either, but other than bonkers werewolf, shifter, vampire, witch, and fairy shenanigans and a protagonist who cannot find the good in her ability to hear other people’s thoughts there isn’t much left. I’m sure there are better avenues to get your were/shifter/magic/vampire fix.

Or you could just watch the show, since for at least the first couple seasons it took and improved the core of the book series. Then it too went off the rails. However, it gave us Lafayette, so I cannot be mad.

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You’ll notice that this is actually a review of two books. Harris, bless her, couldn’t fit all the characters in her 13 book series into the end, and because fans are rabid things, she wrote a compendium which lists off many of the characters in alphabetical order and gives you their epilogue style update. When I found out about it I also requested it from the library because maybe my favorite character in the entire series, the only one I truly wish well (besides Sam) is the vampire Bubba. You know, Elvis. He did not make it into the last book so I checked out the other one just to get this half page of closure:

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Save yourselves the trouble, skip these.

With that, I have completed this year’s half cannonball and am one third of the way to my overall goal. Viva la Cannonball!

 

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (CBR9 #24)

As we’ve discussed before, I haven’t reread the Harry Potter books in over a decade. For Prisoner of Azkaban, that probably puts the last time around late 2003 or early 2004. This is where the darkness of my own timeline greatly affected my reading of the series, and the meaning I have pulled from the books over time. You see, my own dad passed away in 2003 and I had just been sent home from university for failing to maintain my grade point average, which was caused by the worst episode I’ve had to date of depression.

You all signed up for a personal review, right?

When I finally came out of the haze of profound depression and the immediate ramifications of the loss of my father, I was surrounded by the life I could still have, but it was no longer possible to have exactly the life I was on the path to before. I visualized it as a ball rolling down a hill, and as my ball of life headed down the hill, it had just hit an enormous boulder that prevented it from proceeding straight ahead. I could go back, I could go to either side, or I could go around and get where I was eventually going, but with some new terrain added in. This concept brought me a sense of peace. I imagined Harry in this story as experiencing the same kind of cataclysmic feelings. He could still be the Harry Potter who is building his life as a wizard with all of his new friends and found family, but following the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, it is impossible for him to get there in the way in which he thought he was going. A very large boulder (or several) was now in the way.

I do not know if I will ever be able to read this book through another lens.

Structurally Prisoner of Azkaban wastes not one drop of ink in its development. Everything is important, everything is linked, and the narrative is headed somewhere. This is still a book meant for a YA audience and its crisp, economic delivery of events is a positive, regardless of my feelings that it all comes together a smidge too neatly.

In traditional Potter plotting, Harry needs to get out of Privet Drive, but for the first time in the series he is the instigator of his own escape. In the previous books, Hagrid or the Weasleys have come to rescue him. In this book Harry inflates Mr. Dursley’s sister and takes off into the night to escape retribution. Through a bit of luck the Night Bus fetches our boy and gets him to Diagon Alley. During this time, Rowling is able to layer in the goings-on in the greater wizarding world while we’ve been away, including the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban.

The reality of Azkaban is made all the more clear to us, following its introduction in Chamber of Secrets, as the Dementors attack the Hogwarts Express and Harry (and the reader) glimpse for the first time the power of these beings. It is also the introduction of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to grace the halls of Hogwarts during Harry’s time: one Professor Remus Lupin. The debates amongst the Weasleys to tell Harry about the link between himself and Sirius Black, and Lupin’s hesitation to introduce himself properly or tell Harry what the Dementors are when questioned on the train, feed into what Prisoner of Azkaban is about. By the time we rejoin the characters, this is no longer simply a story about a boy finding out he’s a wizard, this is becoming a narrative about learning to be an adult. Rowling, through the lens of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, is looking at how in our teenage years we all need to learn that the adults around us make mistakes and underestimate the young.

The year at Hogwarts follows the traditional school year, as much as any Potter book does. We trail  our main three as they endeavor on new courses as they prepare for the eventual O.W.L.S. in their fifth year (this is another time when having the Weasley Twins two years ahead of our main three serves to introduce the larger world of Hogwarts to the reader), Hermione is working herself to the bone, everyone fights because they are 13, and the Dementors seem hell bent on ruining Harry’s life including their part in the destruction of his precious Nimbus 2000. As time progresses we track Harry’s progression to defiant youth – he is now in possession of both the Maurader’s Map and the invisibility Cloak and not afraid to use them to get to Hogsmeade even though everyone warns him against it. He is also so typically teenage in that he does seek a way to protect himself, and not rely on others, against the Dementors. But, he also does it largely so that he doesn’t let down his fellow Quidditch team players again should the Dementors return to the pitch.

But with this we get the introduction of the last crucial piece of magical know how that will be in great use in later books: the Patronus. It seems hard to imagine now that this is the first time we’re introduced to such an important piece of the Potter lore. I don’t know that Rowling gets enough credit for the heartstrings she is able to pluck and pull with her creative endeavors. We get our first glimpse of it when the solution to fighting a boggart is to make it ridiculous so that you are able to laugh at it. We can fight our greatest fears through the power of laughter. But then, with the Patronus, Rowling expands this idea that our happiest memories, full of love are what we need to fight what sucks the joy from our lives. It is a nearly perfect analogy for depression (with chocolate being the substitute for SRIs and the like).

Is this book perfect? No. I struggled the first time with monologue after monologue that is the discovery of the truth of Peter Pettigrew in the Shrieking Shack and it was only marginally improved by the audio version and my memories of the movie. Also, the fighting between Hermione and Ron. I understand it, but having the two go through virtually the same arc for two books was tough. We go from how happy Ron and Harry both are to see Hermione return at the end of Chamber of Secrets to instant bickering and fighting about the animals. Sure, we needed to focus on Scabbers, but ugh. Generally, it drags a bit in the middle and the final few chapters contain so much information it can be hard to process all of it.

With all of these things happening, it seems there couldn’t possibly be more, but there is. The past is still very much with us (those boulders again), and adults are dumb because they don’t tell us things we ought to know. Which gets us to the next point that what Harry doesn’t know can hurt him. By attempting to shield Harry from the painful truth, the various adults in his life simply ensure that he will hear about events pertinent to his life in the backhanded and incomplete ways, he will be isolated with his newfound information, and continue to feel as though he cannot trust the adults in his life. The adults in his life who do not keep everyone in the loop cause Harry’s isolation, which will grow to be his true weakness and failure to reach out to others. This happens to us all throughout our lives; it is a harsh but necessary truth. As we see time and time again with Ron, Hermione, and Harry when we have knowledge we are able to more ably fight our battles, even when we lose (Buckbeak).giphy

As to the movie adaptation. While I personally missed a bit of fluff about the edges that the book did still offer (the extended Night Bus scene, the squid in the lake at Hogwarts), the movie is heading in an interesting direction, if slightly thin. We are moving away from the kid movies of Christopher Columbus and into more interesting and intricate fare with the addition of Alfonso Cuaron as director. This is the last movie produced by 1492 Productions, with things handed off to Warner Brothers starting with Goblet of Fire. In its way movie three is the beginning of the teenage phase, shaking off its own childhood. But in that, it is itself looses a lot of its own identity. Cuaron focuses on the physical settings of Hogwarts, grounding the audience, but the screenplay functions as a cliff’s notes as opposed to proper adaptation.

As with the book itself, my favorite section of the movie is (like Angry Dimples) Hermione and Harry re-playing the previous evening as spectators and sometimes participants. My affection for these forty minutes of screen time had erased over time my memory of how much Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves carved out of the original story arc. Rowling’s vision for this sequence works so much better in the visual media, even if it is full of moments which leave fans annoyed (why can’t our heroes freeze Pettigrew? They did it to Neville in book 1!) We see practically no Quidditch, no House Cup, few classes, and no proper discussion of Hermione’s intense workload and Ron’s continuing concern about it.

Which brings me to perhaps my largest complaint about the book to movie adaptation problem: the Assassination of the Character of Ronald Weasley.

There are people who do not enjoy the character of Ron Weasley. I am not one of them. I love Ron, even when he is being a childish brat. Everyone is allowed to be a brat from time to time. The true measure of who we are, both in fictional realms and out here in the real world is how we learn and grow and pick ourselves up off the floor once we are done with our temper tantrums. Ron excels at the picking himself back up part.

I wrote extensively in my review of Chamber of Secrets about Rowling’s use of Ron v Draco, and by extension their families, to hammer home the theme. I also mentioned that one of Ron’s best lines was given to Hermione. In this adaptation when Professor Snape is subbing in for Professor Lupin, trying to drag the class to guess that Lupin is a werewolf, and being his terrible self (as usual) to Hermione, Ron is not given his defense of Hermione and instead speaks the childish answer that everyone thinks in the book. Even when they are fighting, even when he cannot stand her, she is his friend, he is loyal to her, and he will defend her. It goes for any of the other main people in his life. This is the Ron Weasley that we love, and it’s no wonder that only movie watchers don’t get always get him.

This is the only acceptable version of this scene, and I will not except any others.

But the movie does give us badass Hermione punching Draco in the face, so I will forgive it. Mostly.
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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Spectacles (CBR9 #23)

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I have a lady crush on Sue Perkins. I do not feel that this is an unheard of situation. I was introduced to her via my friend Ale, who was watching the series Supersizers Go from the BBC all about food history. We LOVE food history. This lead to my comfort television becoming watching Sue and Giles drink their way through terrible food.

The next great epoch in my Sue fandom was a late to the game discovery of the Great British Bake Off and Sue’s cohosting with her comedy partner Mel Giedroyc. I no longer watch many foodie television programs as I struggle with my weight and overeating and have learned over the years that watching someone cook/eat will inevitably lead to me cooking and eating an extra meal or an extra quantity of food that I do not need. Due to those reasons, I had initially avoided this incredibly popular juggernaut. And then someone sold it really hard, promised that it was more soothing than food porn and I gave in.

Just in time to get addicted before the hammer fell, as Sue and Mel announced they would not be following the series to its new home.

In solidarity with Sue, I tracked down her book and purchased it. Her standing up for what she believed in meant that I would absolutely throw a few dollars her way.

And then Ale read it first. Because I’m a slacker.

So, we’ve gotten over 200 words into this review and I haven’t said much about the book. Its really good friends, in the way that well written and thought out memoirs can be. I don’t know if its very Sue-ness would come across to the uninitiated, but if you are a Sue fan and are looking for more stories of her growing up in Croydon, or attending Cambridge, or breaking into the comedy/television presenter world then this is your book. She’s insightful and honest about her own strengths and weaknesses and you will absolutely fall in love with her parents. She uses her wit and comedic skills to unpack the world around her, and the way she sees it, and asks you to do the same with the world around you. Or just think of some really great double entendres.

Sue is very candid, and her emotions are allowed to shine through which I feel is the strength of the memoir genre. I nearly cried at the end of one of the chapters about her relationship with Mel. “But mainly we leave it alone, leave it all unsaid and carry on regardless in a thoroughly British fashion. What I do know is that this kinship will always remain. It is constant. It is a love that cannot be weathered, not by time, not by circumstance. Nothing can alter it.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, write about it, and raise money to support the American Cancer Society in the name of our fallen friend, Alabama Pink. 

Everything I Never Told You (CBR9 #22)

I don’t know how I feel about this book.

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There is so much that this book does well, starting with its beautiful prose. It’s loosely a mystery, but more in the ethereal way that mysteries exist in our lives when tragedy strikes. There are some questions that we will simply never know the answers. This book unravels the ambiguities of familial relationships and societal pressures which shaped its characters and leaves us with enough unresolved to feel real, and true.

Each character in this family is fully formed and three-dimensional, and our central character, the now deceased Lydia, carries the burden of the expectations of those other characters. Her parents, like far too many parents, place the pressure on her to be what they wished they had been. It is enough to choke whatever she would have wanted out of the realm of possibility.

Lydia’s death is not a spoiler; the book opens with its acknowledgement. The greater mystery of the work is how she could have died in the manner she did without anyone truly knowing what happened. No one in her family saw past Lydia’s serene façade.  Her parents viewed her through their own expectations and the show she put on, and her siblings knew her better, they knew of anger, they knew  she could be scheming but also deeply lonely. However, did anyone really know her?

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that does such a good job of capturing the complicated web of family dynamics, and that may be the reason that I was in some ways turned off from the novel. It all rang perhaps a little too true, a little too close to home for me to sink into this work of fiction. For that perhaps I should rank it highly? But what about my overall ambivalence to the work, and coaxing myself to read it? Should that not rank it lowly? Instead, I will demure, and leave it unrated.

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