City of Ghosts (CBR10 #61)

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I read a bit of YA, but middle grades is not something I usually think to pick up, or even necessarily think of as a distinct genre. But as is often the case in my reading diet of the past few years the Read Harder Challenge had a task that needed sorting. Enter Leedock and her review of City of Ghosts – the perfect book to fulfill the “read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series”.

Now is when I admit to having never read a Victoria (or V.E. as she is sometimes known) Schwab book before.  She’s relatively well-reviewed around Cannonball Read and now that I’ve been initiated I can see why. Her writing is inventive and immediately sets the reader into her world. In the case of City of Ghosts we’re joining Cass and her best friend Jacob (who is a ghost, by the by) as the easy summer vacation at the beach away from the tap tap tap of ghosts on the otherside of the Veil is replaced by a family trip to Edinburgh, Scotland so Cass’s parents (writers of a series of books about paranormal happenings and ghost myths) can host a new travel show about the most haunted places in the world (an easy series maker, that).

The only thing keeping this from having been a one sitting read is that I was falling asleep the first night I picked it up and no amount of page-turning writing was going to keep me awake. The next time I sat down with the book I was however sucked in, and since this is a book aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although I think Schwab slightly missed the mark on this, it reads more 12 to 14 to me edging into the YA zone) I plowed through the adventures Cass and Jacob get into and the new friends they meet, and new dangers they find. The book was both a good story and a good book for building a reader’s skills – truly what I’m looking for in books aimed at this age range.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. You can join our bunch of ragtag readers and reviewers and help us raise money for the American Cancer Society. Every little bit helps, and goals of 13, 26, or 52 are available!


Daughter of Fortune (CBR10 #54)

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It took me a long time to read Daughter of Fortune. By some cosmic joke, which the reading gods seem to enjoy, I had paced my book choices in such a way that this book overlapped with Jane Eyre and that is quite a lot of heavy book to process all at once. What it did for me (besides slow me down a bit) was provide an opportunity to compare and contrast two different powerhouse women writers writing about the self-determination of their female leads. Isabel Allende is a white whale author for me. I first tackled her The House of the Spirits two years ago, and was simply blown away by it. She writes in an incredibly dense style, using history, allegory, and incredibly high personal stakes to weave her narrative together. Like The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune wasn’t a novel that I could power through, or skim, or wanted to. I felt the self-imposed deadlines nipping at my heels, but this remained a book that needed and deserved to be savored.

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers. It starts as the orphaned girl who was left on the doorstep of the Sommers home in Valparaiso, Chile and is raised in Valparaíso’s British colony by well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her rigid elder brother Jeremy enters her teenage years. At the tender age of sixteen she meets and falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor clerk who works for Jeremy and is not an appropriate suitor for a girl raised as a high class English lady. Then, as neither Joaquin or Eliza know how to proceed,  gold is discovered in the hills of northern California and Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune. Eliza discovers that she is pregnant and decides to follow and try to find him in California. The first half of the novel displays the magical realism that I expected from Allende, and we are deeply rooted in the story of Eliza and her town.

Then, we have the fortunate meeting with Tao Chi’en and Eliza’s escape in the hold of a ship to California, and her terrifying miscarriage. At this point, the tone of the novel shifts entirely, we leave behind most of the magical realism components (Tao’s faith still play into that arena) and are instead on a journey with Eliza as she truly leaves her girlhood behind, first in search of the elusive Joaquin, and then as she discovers her true self and the kinds of relationships that are truly soul-filling. As I got to the end of the book it became a little easier to call, a little more by the numbers than I was anticipating. While I was deeply engrossed in Eliza and Tao’s intertwined stories the narrative felt unfinished. We are left for the most part without definite conclusions, and while that is certainly the author’s prerogative and a sign of surety, it left me a bit cold at the end of the day. But this is still a stunning work about what defines being fortunate, what lives can be carved out of seemingly limited possibilities, and the strength of faith in oneself.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

Jane Eyre (CBR10 #53)

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For many, Jane Eyre is part of the reading undertaken during their education. For some it is read in high school, for others college, but for me it never joined the reading lists of my various courses. In fact, until several years ago when I read Agnes Grey I had read nothing at all by any of the Bronte sisters. It is however fully in the milieu of a reader’s culture; I understood it enough to get the jokes in Texts from Jane Eyre and Hark! A Vagrant.

I have seen cinematic versions of the story (quite enjoying the Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender version and the visual world built around them by Cory Joji Fukunaga) but I don’t know that even those had prepared me for the version of the story written by Bronte. I had been meaning to read this for years, and had the audio version read by Thandie Newton (a lovely narrator) waiting for me in my Audible account. With the advent of CBR10 Bingo one of my white whales became This Old Thing, as it was published in 1847 – 171 years ago.

I suppose this story is well known, the orphaned Jane Eyre is expelled from her aunt’s home at age 10 and sent away to school. Eight years in residence there prepares her to be a governess and she finds a position at Thornfield Hall as the governess of Adele, a young French orphaned girl. She enjoys her life there, even if it is a bit quiet and mundane. The owner of Thornfield returns, the house becomes livelier, and over time and conversations a love connection is formed between Rochester and Jane Eyre.  Rochester’s past and the madwoman in the attic prevent their marriage and Jane leaves Rochester to attempt a life of her own on her own terms. Events however bring her back to Thornfield Hall.

While the gothic elements of the novel do place this firmly in its time, it also has incredibly beautiful and descriptive turns of phrase throughout, and such language makes this a classic which has kept its place in the great pantheon all this time. The book moreover doesn’t sound its age, if that makes sense. It is of course more formal than our writing is today; there are references and allusions that no longer match our daily lives, but this is in so many ways a modern novel.

Its modernity does not prevent it from being both long (over 19 hours of audio or about 600 pages) and slow. While on the whole I enjoyed my time with the novel, and with Thandie Newton’s voice portraying Jane as she often broke the fourth wall to refer to me as “dear reader”, it did not prevent me from finding myself needing to be at a secondary task while listening: I needed to drive, to color, to cook, or clean while I was reading with my ears in order to keep myself engaged.  As Jen K said in her review “these people don’t have conversations, they monologue at each other”, and there was one point following the discovery of Rochester’s attempt at bigamy where his character spoke for nearly an hour straight.

In addition to being incredibly personal, Jane Eyre is a novel of intensity; it is a passionate depiction of a woman’s search for equality and freedom. We see Jane become an individual and stand up for herself as a person worthy of whatever agency and independence she can carve out for herself. That, for me is the crux of the novel – it is at its core the story of a young woman who chooses herself above all else. When her principles and sense of self were going to be compromised, she removed herself from the harmful situations causing them to be so time and time again, from that of a small child begging to go to school to walking away from two proposals of marriage. Yes, there is romance, an exploration of passion and sexuality (fire and ice abound), and an examination of the extremes of masculinity (Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, St. John Rivers), but those are merely elements surrounding the center. We see in Bertha (the woman the book locks in the attic) the dearth of agency and independence that was possible and probable. Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed, Miss Temple, Helen Burns, Mrs. Fairfax, Bessie, and the Rivers Sisters show the smaller continuum of expectations available to women and the vagaries of life Jane is navigating.

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This book is read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

A Study in Scarlet Women (CBR10 #52 – CANNONBALL!)

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I had read quite a few reviews of this book, and still I don’t think I fully grasped what to expect. Back in January both yesknopemaybe and sistercoyote’s reviews of this book got me to add it to both my to read list, and found it a home on my Read Harder Challenge. My exact words were “Okay, that’s it, you all win. On the to read list it goes. I’m not even that big a Sherlock Holmes fan (hush, I know, I know.)” At the end of my reading experience I’m left feeling a little unfulfilled, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan (narfna is quietly sighing in a corner somewhere, I can feel it) or misplaced expectations, or first book in a series hiccups, but while I did eventually fall in deep like with Charlotte Holmes and her compatriots, it never really sang for me and I’m landing at 3.5 stars.

Like the Arthur Conan Doyle novels it grows from, A Study in Scarlet Women takes place in Victorian England. When we met them, the Holmes family is upper class and struggling to keep up financial appearances due to poor choices of the patriarch. Lady Holmes is therefore eager to get her eligible daughters wed. Unfortunately, her younger daughters have other agendas. Following a betrayal by her father, Charlotte enacts a plan to make herself independent by becoming a fallen (or scarlet) woman and, being caught in flagrante, is to be sent away. Instead she runs away and is living as a social pariah, trying to figure out how to earn her own living in London with no training, no references, and meager resources.

Initially I had a terrible time following some of the lengthy background we’re given. Charlotte Holmes, already under the guise of Sherlock Holmes, has helped solve crimes with Lord Ashburton working as an intermediary to bring information to and from Inspector Treadles. I could not for the life of me keep the timing straight, or initially keep Ingram separate from Roger Shrewsbury, which now seems silly to me as they were written very differently. We’re meant to be joining a plot already in action, but when Thomas took a step back for a large infodump of the Holmes’ past and laying out the relationships amongst the sisters I lost the thread of the “present”.

There was also much I enjoyed about the novel. The world Charlotte lives in is complex and finely drawn, we are introduced to various characters and locales and once Thomas gets going everything is beautifully distinct. Thomas uses three voices to tell the story of the scarlet women – we hear from Charlotte, her sister Livia (although I would have liked to hear from her more in the second half of the book), and Investigator Treadles. It was always clear which character is delivering the narrative, each with rich interior and exterior lives, and learning things about themselves and the world around them in all its splendor and dinginess. But, the parallel narrative of the deaths Treadles is investigating and the life Charlotte is hoping to build to have financial independence for herself and her sisters didn’t always line up, or feel equally strong.

It is unsurprising to me that it is the characters that shine and really drew me in. Charlotte, for all her massive intellect, observational, and deductive skills, is still quite a sheltered young woman. She makes youthful mistakes and doesn’t know everything and is in need of community. The eventually revealed Mrs. Watson is thus the perfect foil for Charlotte because she has life experience and self-awareness to bring to the table. It was this novel’s version of Watson that finally sold me on the book, and the way in which she was further woven into the structure of Charoltte’s life was artfully and gently done.

I’ve added the next in the series to my to read list. The book got stronger as it went, and that’s the kind of thing I’m always willing to reward.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

All-of-a-Kind Family (CBR10 #48)

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I have no recollection of how All-of-a-Kind Family arrived on my shelves. There’s no inscription in the front, no library book sale note, I didn’t write my name in it so I can’t do handwriting sleuthing. All I know is that I read this book over, and over, and over again in my youth and the book shows my care and use. Still, probably 20 years since the last time I read it, I know the story backwards and forwards and the lilting nature of Sydney Taylor’s writing came immediately back to my mind’s eye.

The book was first published in 1951, but the edition I have is from 1989. This book kicks off a series, and in it Sydney Taylor introduces us to a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1912 – with five daughters ranging in age from 12 to 4. The book follows the five girls, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie through a year in their life We are treated to things small, such as searching for hidden buttons while dusting the front parlor, or childhood traumas of lost library books and being quarantined and not allowed to see your friends so you don’t give them scarlet fever.  The book also doesn’t shy away from the family’s faith, and  is a primer on how to celebrate the Sabbath, Purim, Passover, and Sukkoth. Fast forward to my thirties when I’m the only non-Jewish person at my job who knows that Sukkoth (Succos) is the thanksgiving for the harvest lasting nine days and generally falling at the end of September after the heavy hitters of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This re-read had me interested in the author, so I did a little digging. As I suspected, this book is a version of the author’s own childhood. She became a writer by jotting down notes about the stories she would tell her daughter of her own life, following her career as a secretary, then working with the Lenox Hill Players theater group, and dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After Sydney Taylor passed in 1978 the Sydney Taylor Book Award was created in her honor and is given each year by the Jewish Association of Libraries to a book for young people that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guideline), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Homegoing (CBR10 #47)

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Confession: I took this book out of the library no less than twice before I managed to read it. I was intimidated by the book, both by its content and its acclaim. It has a near perfect five star rating on Cannonball Read and high rating on Goodreads where literary fiction doesn’t normally do so well. I shouldn’t have been hesitant – the book earns its high rating by being one of the most accessible works of literary and historical fiction I have possibly ever read.

In her debut Yaa Gyasi tells a story which is both grand in scope and intimate in its execution, which is often attempted and rarely executed to this level. The book is also nearly flawless. Homegoing follows the descendants of a single Asante woman, Maame, living in late-18th century Gold Coast Africa. Structurally the novel traces the descendant generations of each of her daughters on two continents. One of her daughters, Effia, marries a white Englishman stationed at the fort and her descendants stay in Ghana. Her other daughter, Esi, is captured in a raid and sold into slavery in America. Adding to the nature of the story being told is that each daughter comes into the world into different families and different tribes, completely independent and unaware of the other.

The chapters are vignettes of one person per generation in each line, starting with the two half-sisters.  The chapters follow the next six generations in Ghana and America.  These generations  span over two hundred years of African and American history which includes some of the ugliest chapters each has to offer: colonialism, explicit and implicit racism, and the list goes on. One line has found itself in a land not of its choosing, unwelcome and continually oppressed; the other in the land of its ancestors, but searching for something new and meaningful and struggling to achieve either. The two lines move in concert with one another, across an ocean and in vastly different circumstances, but their shared past unites them in ways they cannot be aware of, and that are gently uncovered for the reader to connect.

Overall, Homegoing took my breath away. The book takes on the big issues that initially scared me away; slavery and the involvement of both the British and African civil unrest, familial ties both pride and resentment, racial identity, segregation, the value placed on female bodies, child raising, and more head on, without blanching from the truth. This is a book that it isn’t afraid of its contents and keeps them from overwhelming the reader.  The characters, the themes, and the sheer ambition of tackling so much time is astounding and could have easily gotten away from Gyasi, and she touched on the possibility briefly through her characters in the final chapters. Gyasi manages the tightrope by keeping the chapters crisp.

The most beautiful part of this book is how wonderfully the whole turns out to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  Each individual story is interesting, well-researched and developed in order to be compelling even in the quiet moments.  As a whole, the interwoven stories are a sparklingly nuanced, producing a thought-provoking picture of race, the past, and inheritance.  You can tell Gyasi put an ocean of thought into the whole thing and took greatest advantage of the fellowships she was awarded to put the time in to craft this work. The evidence of the mechanics falls away and we are left with the world, the story, and the characters; and a plain prose that could be confused for simple and unskilled but that would be confusing density with expertise.  Gyasi’s expert craftsmanship shows in the lack of obvious work, which is quite the trick.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

The Sisters Brothers (CBR10 #42)

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I have an enormous backlog. My Goodreads account tells me as of today, I have 649 books on my Want to Read shelf. I still have 62 that I added on the day I joined, January 6, 2012 during my first year participating in Cannonball Read 4. What better book to knock off the Backlog square than something I was introduced to in my first week of Cannonball Read and has been languishing for more than six years on Mount TBR (and also has a movie adaptation coming out later this month).

The Sisters Brothers of the story are Charlie and Eli. They are infamous mercenary killers traveling the 1850s Gold Rush west, hunting down the enemies of their boss, the Commodore. Their reputations precede them and the mention of their names makes people pay very close attention because no one survives when Charlie and Eli draw their weapons. Through them we have deWitt building a story about the nature of greed and the illusion of dreams and what is sacrificed to both.

The story is told by Eli, the younger of the two who has been following older brother Charlie’s lead since they were kidsyoung. Eli, however, is getting tired of life as a paid assassin and thinks it might be nice to settle down, run a store, and have a family. But they’ve got an assignment from the Commodore, so there’s not much he can do right now except for dream. The book follows the brothers from Oregon City to San Francisco as they seek out their latest target, and Eli is working towards this being their last target.

The predicaments they find themselves in as they travel towards then man they are supposed to kill are studies in the two different personalities of Eli and Charlie, how they see and interact with the world, and what those interactions cost them. Where Eli spends pages with his mind spinning out romance and back story of what was and will be, Charlie takes half a moment to figure out where he can get his most basic of needs met. The reader is left with the feeling that for every one of Charlie’s thoughts, Eli has one hundred, and very little of them have to do with reality in front of them. Eli’s life is in his mind, and Charlie’s life is the gun in his hand.

I appreciated the portrayal of the West and life therein. Patrick deWitt is riffing on the classic Western structure, and while I wasn’t completely sold on the “comic tour de force” the blurb was trying to sell, this is a book that is willing, wanting, and able to unpack the absurdity of life.  It doesn’t villainize nor romanticize violence, the old west, or the life of an outlaw but rather those components become well-rounded characters in their own right. Many characters are not human, and the horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter, is integral in the growth of Eli.

While I’m not using this for my Snubbed square, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I found it to be a much more cohesive and engaging book than that year’s winner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes so if you’re looking for a choice for that square, I can suggest this one for you.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.