Book review bundle

I was inspired to start this post by Beth‘s 2014 book list, and to finish it by Stephen‘s – although my list spans 20 months rather than 12! Bad blogger.

Beth also invited me to join a newly-formed book club a few months ago, which is a first for me. I was ambivalent at first, thinking that I don’t seem to get around to reading the books I’ve chosen myself let alone the ones other people select for me, but I’ve enjoyed the two meetings I’ve managed to get to so far and I’m hosting the next one in a couple of weeks. Yay, new friends! Who like books! And wine!

Fiction

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. This was the first book selected for the new book club; we decided that a short kids’ book would be an ideal way to get us into the swing of things. It’s a pretty simple story of a friendship between a young boy and a young girl, in a rural part of the US where the two friends’ love of books and the world of the imagination marks them as outsiders. It’s very well written, and the ending made me literally cry (damn PMS! That’s my excuse, anyway). Several months later I’m still angry at basically all the adults in the book, except one teacher.

We Need New Names: A Novel, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Also a book club selection – my choice, as I’m hosting the next event. My sister got me this book for Christmas last year and I hadn’t got around to reading it yet, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone! The novel falls into two halves: the narrator’s life in an impoverished part of Zimbabwe, stealing mangoes and playing games with her friends, and then her life after moving to Detroit to live with her Aunt. I enjoyed reading the book, especially the first half with all its colour and life, but I felt like it didn’t really have a strong storyline and then it just ended abruptly, seemingly mid-chapter (Beth and I both wondered if we’d accidentally read a misprinted copy with the last few pages missing, but apparently not). Thinking about it more, the main character was at something of a crossroads at the time the book ended, finding herself with deep connections to two countries but belonging to neither (an accurate reflection of the immigrant’s experience, I think), and facing an imminent decision about her future education, so maybe the indecision and ambivalence are the whole point. If not, then I’m not sure what is…

Burial Rites: A Novel, by Hannah Kent. Also a gift from my sister, who consistently has very good taste! I absolutely loved this book, which transported me to the unfamiliar world of 19th century Iceland. An accused murderess is sent to live with a local family while she awaits trial and sentencing. She’s shunned at first, before her hard work gradually encourages the family and the wider community to begin to accept her. Parts of her story gradually start to come out as the community prepares and then hunkers down for the long, cold, dark winter – although no-one hears the full story until the very end. Beautifully written, with an absorbing story – definitely my favourite of the books on this list. 

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. I loved Boyden’s first two books, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, so I was excited to read his new novel. The Orenda is set during the years when the first French missionaries were beginning to contact Canadian First Nations people, and uses a rotation of three narrators (a Huron leader and his adopted daughter, and a French missionary) to tell the story of the ongoing wars between different First Nations groups, the toll of the diseases brought by the newcomers, and the growing influence of the French. This book is not for the squeamish, as it features a lot of bloodshed, torture, and sexual violence (the first two described in graphic detail, the latter left more vague); I have a pretty strong stomach for fictional violence, and I found the torture scenes in particular to be a bit too much. This is probably why I kept putting the book down for a few weeks at a time, before the strength of the narrative drew me back. Overall I didn’t find the characters or the book as a whole to be as compelling as Boyden’s previous novels, but it’s very well written and again brings a very different voice and perspective to those I’m used to reading.

Cloud Atlasby David Mitchell. I decided to read the book after being delightfully confused by the film, which I had to watch twice to (kinda) figure out what was going on. The book stays on one story for much longer at a time than the film does; as a result it makes much more sense, and adds a lot more context, especially to Sonmi’s story. The connections between the stories from different time periods also seem clearer now; I think the use of the same actors to play multiple roles in the film version set me off on the wrong foot in a couple of instances. I enjoyed both versions very much, but the book more, and I do now see why people who read the book first weren’t very happy with the adaptation. I’m very much looking forward to reading Mitchell’s other books now!

The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak. I didn’t love this book, which I know is a minority opinion. The story of a young Jewish man hiding in the Munich house of his father’s WWI buddy during the Nazi years, and of the young girl of the house who befriends him, was fine; it was well written; I loved the characters, especially the little girl’s father; and I really did enjoy the device of having Death as the narrator – but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts. A large part of the problem was that too much was given away too early – a little foreshadowing’s one thing, but outright telling you “this character will die soon, you know” is another – so there was zero sense of tension and anticipation. Disappointing.

Accordion Crimesby E. Annie Proulx. Recommended by Henry, for which thanks! I really enjoyed the structure of this book, which follows the lives of the various owners of an accordion as it passes from its Italian immigrant maker to a series of people of all races and cultures all over the US. The last Annie Proulx book I read, Postcardswas unrelentingly depressing, and Accordion Crimes has some similar elements of people falling on hard times, but at least there’s a reset in the misery levels every time a new owner’s story begins, and the quality of the writing more than makes up for the sadness. Definitely one of my top picks from this list.

The Windup Girlby Paolo Bacigalupi. I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand it’s an incredibly visual novel, describing a fully-formed future world into which you’re suddenly dropped with no explanation for how things have come to be the way they are; you infer the story of genetic engineering gone wrong, food crop pestilence, and mass starvation gradually as the story progresses, which is the way I like it. On the other hand the thinly-veiled anti-GMO message is too preachy at times, there are vanishingly few sympathetic characters, and the sexual violence scenes were gut churning (although thankfully brief). Apparently there may be some sequels coming out, and I really don’t know yet whether I’ll bother reading them or not.

Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish – A Novel by, David Rakoff. I saw Rakoff perform at the This American Life live broadcast I mentioned a while ago; he was talking about how he’d lost the use of one arm due to cancer treatment. He sadly did not survive the cancer, and although I’d heard of him before the live show, I didn’t truly appreciate how good a writer he was until after he died and TAL, Wiretap, and other podcasts I listen to started to air their tribute episodes. Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die was published posthumously. It’s a short novel told entirely in rhyming couplets, and while it’s very clever indeed (my favourite rhyme was seance / crayons), it’s probably not the best introduction to Rakoff’s work. It made me smile, I admired the cleverness, but overall it felt like eating too much junk food – filling, but not entirely satisfying. Still worth a read for those who appreciate unusual structure and clever wordplay though!

The Selectby F. Paul Wilson. This is the best by miles of the StoryBundle* books I’ve read so far, and the only one I’d consider reading again. The plot features a female student who wins a scholarship to an extremely selective private medical school, where there’s much more going on than meets the eye in both the instruction and the research spheres. None of the big twists are all that earth shatteringly surprising, but it doesn’t really matter because everything else is so well done, and I found myself racing to the end to find out how it would all end.

The Hour Before Darkby Douglas Clegg. Also from StoryBundle, a decent enough supernatural/horror thriller. Not my usual genre, but I found this book to be sufficiently creepy and well-executed to keep me reading. It’s a little predictable, but entertaining.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boyby Helen Fielding. I absolutely loved the first two books, which made me literally laugh out loud in public several times. I downloaded and read this third instalment one sleepless night at my mother-in-law’s this summer, when I wasn’t feeling well, hoping that the lighthearted humour would cheer me up. Unfortunately, large parts of the book were actually heartbreakingly sad – Bridget is now widowed with two young children – and the humour that was present just felt repetitive and out of place in the new context. I’m still glad I read it – it felt like catching up with an old friend – but it wasn’t funny. My brother-in-law walking buck naked into the kitchen where I was reading at 2am, on the other hand, was hilarious, after we’d both got over the surprise of seeing each other there!

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governorby Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. Look, we all have our moments of weakness, OK? I was on a long flight home, I’d finished my own book,  Mr E Man had picked this up in the airport on our flight out, and it was right there. (It was surprisingly entertaining actually, although I will not be rushing out to buy the sequels).

Non-Fiction

A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. Our second book club selection was this memoir written by Canadian journalist Lindhout, who along with an Australian colleague was held hostage for more than a year in Somalia. She was treated horribly by her captors – beaten, isolated, sexually assaulted – and it made for harrowing reading. Lindhout came across as pretty naive, and we all agreed that something about her narrative didn’t seem to quite gel; I’d be interested to read the book her colleague wrote, as apparently his version is quite different from hers and the two of them are no longer in contact. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book, as the stress of reading it isn’t quite balanced out by any strongly positive features.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. Now this is a gem. I laughed so hard throughout the descriptions of how human cadavers are used in various flavours of research that it didn’t seem quite decent. The only part I didn’t find hilarious involved in-depth descriptions of plane crashes, which I do not recommend reading while you’re on a plane as I did. The rest of the book was brilliant though. As soon as I’d finished I immediately downloaded all of Roach’s other books and am currently halfway through Bonk. I also looked into local cadaver donation options and have received (but not yet completed) some paperwork from UBC. I do plan to go ahead though, if Mr E Man agrees. Now that’s what I call a book with an impact!

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkby Deborah Blum. I’d heard great things about this book, which tells the story of how one man revolutionized New York’s approach to forensic toxicology and thereby set the standard for the rest of the world. Stories about individual poisoning cases are interwoven with chapters about forensic method development and the politics of policing and prohibition. It’s well done, but reading it immediately after Stiff made it feel somewhat flat. I also hadn’t realized how much of the book is about prohibition, a very US-specific obsession that has never particularly interested me.

Half Emptyby David Rakoff. This collection of personal essays is a much better introduction to Rakoff’s dry wit than the rhyming couplets novel reviewed above. The book inspires more wry smiles than actual chuckles, but it’s very amusing and has more substance to it than the clever rhymes do. It really made me wish I’d read more of his work while he was still alive.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I guess this is non-fiction? The book version of one of my favourite blogs of all time comprises a mix of new stories and stories already told on the blog. I wanted to love it, but unfortunately the old stories are the best entries, and the new ones aren’t as good. You should read the blog instead. All of it. The stories are a better fit for that medium, and I’ve never laughed more at a website.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition, by the Project Management Institute. Not recommended.

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I usually end my book review posts with a request for new book recommendations, but I’m currently swamped with unread books and un-acted-upon recommendations! So don’t you dare suggest any new titles to me. Unless they’re really good or something.

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*StoryBundle is the site I’ve mentioned before that sells monthly selections of books by independent authors, all on the same theme or from the same genre; members can pay whatever they think the books are worth, and can split the profits between the authors and the site however they wish. As you’d expect the results are a mixed bag; I’ve bought two bundles and only read two books all the way through, if you don’t count the several extremely short stories written by primary school children (I’m sure it was a thrill for the kids, their families, and the school to see the stories published and sold, but there is no thrill involved in reading stories written by young children to whom you have no connection!). The rest were so bad I couldn’t get through the first few pages. There haven’t been any bundles that interest me for a while, but I’ll probably buy another selection at some point.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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9 Responses to Book review bundle

  1. Thanks, Cath. I’m not sure how many books I read last year but for sure there were no novels among them(!).

    However… since you didn’t ask, Bombay Bhel by my friend and sometime OT commenter Ken Doyle is a rather excellent collection of short stories, as are his others (standalone story Saturday Date and part 1 of his new collection, Gateway of India).

    Happy New Year, and lots of Happy Reading to you. 🙂

  2. chall says:

    THanks for all the recommendations! I will take a few and add to my Kindle.

    I’m left to wonder though, why were you buck naked in your MIL’s kitchen in the middle of the night reading? (clearly this says more about me than you since I’m wondering… I’m super fidgity about getting dressed at other ppl’s places and especially at other’s older relatives… hence my curiousity 😉 )

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Nooooooooo he was naked, not me!!! I’ve now edited the post to make that clear – the original wording was indeed ambiguous! Oh deary me, and I did proof read, too! Just clearly not well enough 😀

      • Chall says:

        Ahhhhhh, I see. You can always blame me for being non-native English and maybe misunderstanding who was naked…. It was a fun story though 😉

        • It does, however, still beg the question… what was your BiL doing being buck-naked (a) in his mother’s kitchen, and (b) when there were houseguests?

          Then again, perhaps I don’t want to know after all.

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            He was getting some water for his cranky, crying 18-month old daughter, and probably didn’t expect anyone else to be up at that time!

  3. Alyssa says:

    Great idea to do all the reviews in one post! I found doing them separately wasn’t very useful or interesting (and they never got many comments/readers).

    I’ll have to add some of these to my list! I have wanted to ready Cloud Atlas, but wasn’t really sure about it!