Because my online life is constantly out of synch with my real life—reading or otherwise—I decided to read The Sweet Life in Paris not while we were actually spending a week in Paris, but one week later when we touched down in Italy (and I’m now writing this review while sitting at home in Toronto, Canada). Although there is part of me that likes the idea of my reading mirroring real life, I think the truth is—as I have discovered so many times during our world travels—that things often work out better than I ever could have planned them. I’m not sure—had I read this book before arriving in Paris, or even while we were in Paris—that I would have responded to it precisely as I did.
Note that I have purposefully used a neutral verb—respond—to categorize my feelings about this book. In truth, I found The Sweet Life in Paris a perplexing and, oft times, frustrating read… but as far as fiction matching reality, the same could be said about how I feel about the city of Paris itself. Although our recent visit was actually my third time in the City of Lights, my response to it this time was entirely novel: on previous trips, I had found myself reveling in the city and the rhythms of life and the idiosyncrasies particular to Parisians/the French, swept away by how “worldly” it all was. This time, however, I was the worldly one, and while I don’t pretend I’m too cool for Paris/France/Europe, I found myself flooded with ambivalence for the place. Now, as much as I found things that I legitimately enjoyed and loved, there was a bitter frustration and impatience that adulterated my feelings as well.
Despite my genuine desire to keep some semblance of regular content flowing on this site, I’ve obviously been having a tough time of it. I have actually been reading books, though not as many as I would like, and not all of them great. I think I partially feel pressure to write reviews/musings of the same caliber/scope/tone as I used to, when the reality is that even when I manage to squeeze in time for reading amidst all of this traveling, I don’t then tend to have too much time to ruminate over everything I have read. I feel pressured to write something meaningful and insightful about every book that I finish (or make substantial progress on before abandoning) here as that’s what I’ve always done, but perhaps that’s been the wrong tack to take. Perhaps I should just return to the original purpose of the posts I used to write here when I didn’t think anyone else out there was reading, which was simply to document whatever thoughts I might have about whatever it is I might have read, without fear of these thoughts being incoherent or not highbrow enough to worth documenting. I’m glad I’ve been able to track my reading through my GoodReads profile (are we friends on GoodReads? If not, we should be!), but I’d like something a bit more than what I read, when I read it, and a somewhat arbitrary star rating.
So once, again, I’m going to start fresh and, much like Thomas at My Porch with his Bits & Bobs posts, will simply say whatever comes to mind about the few books I’ve read since I last updated.
With The Dinner and Long Division, the streak I kicked off with A Tale for the Time Being continues. Which is to say that I keep finding myself knee deep in books about which I have practically no opinion. It’s like they’re bouncing off me, like I’m made of reading impervious Teflon or something. I though that this was perhaps the unfortunate consequence that tends to arise when I let the ToB brackets guide my reading selections (as whenever I’ve tried to read the entire list of contenders in the past, I’ve generally wound up being unimpressed by more titles than not), but I’ve swapped in a non-ToB title (about which, more in a later post) as well, and it didn’t fare much better. So I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s not these books, but something wrong with me instead.
Still, even though neither of these books provoked any great reaction in me and I feel like I don’t have tons to say about either, I want to write down some of my thoughts on them. For posterity or vanity… you be the judge. I normally don’t do mini reviews like this, but I’d rather write something than nothing, so reviewlets it shall be!
Is there anything worse than a book you expected to love but didn’t? Since setting out to travel the world, the frequent discrepancy between reality and one’s lofty expectations is something I’ve become accustomed to, but I still think I am most disappointed when I’m prepared for a book to sweep me off my feet only for it to leave me rather cold instead.
That’s pretty much what happened with this book: I wanted to love it, and by all accounts, I should have loved it, but I didn’t. It has many of the literary elements and quirks that are like cat nip to me such as discussions of quantum physics and parallel universes (I’ve never met a book that grapples with these ideas that I’ve been able to resist; see: my love affair with Scarlett Thomas, for starters), while also delving into a topic that has become near and dear to my heart over the past few years—meditation and the struggle to live in the present moment. Truthfully, I didn’t even know the book dealt with any of this before I picked it up, so all of these things should have been a delightful surprise. They were, and yet, they still couldn’t tip me over into unabashedly loving this book.
I never expected that traveling would change my reading tastes. All my life I’ve been a devoted reader of fiction and not really much else, and that’s honestly suited me fine. Don’t believe me? Of the 300+ posts that I’ve written about books on this site, less than 10 of them feature non-fiction titles. I’m all for reading broadly and diversifying one’s tastes, but I clearly also know what works for me and don’t stray too far from my literary predilections very frequently.
And yet, ever since we’ve been traveling, I’ve found I have the attention span of a gnat, which not only makes it difficult to coherently synthesize and discuss the books that I do read after the fact, but it’s made focusing on my reading material a lot more challenging too. Part of why I failed to read very much last year is because I frequently found my attention waning and shifting whenever I picked up a book, except in the rarest of occasions, and I found that most novels simply did not capture or engage me in any real way. I’d put down books for days at a time without picking them up again, only to find that when I did, the story had pretty much fallen completely out of my brain. I couldn’t just peck at books sporadically, and my memory didn’t seem to have the capacity to retain enough plot to allow me to follow any novel in a lucid manner, and so I’d abandon one book after the next as I hunted (mostly futiley) for things that I could focus on.
During this time, I discovered that I often had an easier time with memoirs, as they tended to pull me into their stories quickly and I could dip in and out of them over the course of several weeks and their coherency never suffered despite my haphazard reading schedule. I’d hate to cast aspersions on the memoir genre as a whole having, admittedly, not read much from it, but I think in part, the writing in the average memoir tends to have a lower difficulty threshold, so the cognitive demands placed upon the reader are perhaps less and the barrier to reader engagement is reduced. Or maybe there’s something about the conversational approach that memoirs tend to take, so that you actually feel like the author is speaking directly to you, like a friend would, and you’re just sitting down to a (somewhat) one-sided conversation and can enjoy the ride. (more…)
This book is a great example of why I probably shouldn’t let other people’s reviews have too much sway when it comes to choosing my next read. Truthfully, despite having heard a fair amount about this book when it was first released, I never had any interest in it, and I’m not afraid to say that this decision was based entirely on the stupid spelling of the title alone. That may be superficial, but I feel ok about it because, come on. I’m one of those people who uses full words and sentences (with punctuation, even!) when I text or tweet, so there was no way I was ever going to get behind a book named “NOS4A2” on my own.
So you can imagine my surprise when, reading through end of year best of lists on GoodReads, this book kept popping up again and again. Even more shocking, it had garnered a 4+ star rating on the site, and most reviewers were positively slavering over it. The near unanimous praise to high heavens piqued my interest and I assumed that the book must be much cleverer than its dopey title implied. (Also, there was some speculation in the Tournament of Books forum prior to the actual roster being released that this book might make the final cut.)
Well, non-sports fans, it’s that time of year again: the time when The Morning News releases the titles that will be competing in this year’s Tournament of Books. For people like me who can tell a basketball from a baseball but don’t particularly care to do so, this is the one sports adjacent piece of pop culture worth actually getting excited about.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the tourney ever since I discovered it back in 2008. Wanting to be able to participate in an informed way, I tried to read all of the finalists… and failed miserably. I couldn’t get my hands on a large portion of them, and what’s worse, many of the ones I did manage to read I wound up really disliking (see my review of A Partisan’s Daughter, for an example of what I’m talking about). Ever since that first experience, I’ve approached subsequent ToB throwdowns with excitement but tempered expectations and under no circumstances do I vow to read all the contestants.
One of the biggest delights about the ToB is that even for avid bibliophiles, the men behind the curtain in charge of selecting the books always manage to sneak in a few titles you’ve never heard of never mind read. Many hardcore ToB fans spend a lot of time trying to guess what books will make the cut and even try to strategically plan their reading around what they think might be deemed worthy. Given how out of touch I was with the book world last year, I didn’t have high hopes that when the list was released this year that I’d recognize many titles and I’d have to be pretty lucky to have read any of them.
Well, yesterday the list was revealed, and I have to say, I was surprised.
Given that the site is newly raised from the dead, it somehow seems fitting that my first review is of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Not only is the book about a series of decades-old cold cases, it’s also a book I read many moons ago, well before this site ever existed and was one I had long left for dead. As a re-read rearing its zombie head, I probably couldn’t have picked a better book for a reboot if I had been trying.
Case Histories is the first in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, which, to date, consists of four books. I am previously on the record as having a big girl crush on Atkinson and loving her non-mystery fiction, and being far more ambivalent (though that might be putting it nicely) about her forays into whodunit fiction. Because I first read this book before I started writing reviews here, I don’t have any in-depth analysis or record of my thoughts on the book then, but I do remember that I was wildly underwhelmed by it and might even go so far as to say I did not like it very much at all.
So why read it again if I found it so dull the first time round? Mostly because although I’ve been living under a literary rock for the past 16 months, I still keep up-to-date with some of the book world’s news and I’ve been reading a lot of buzz about my girl Kate’s latest book, Life After Life. I didn’t have a copy of that on hand, but I was able to get access to this and decided to test the waters to see if it was as disappointing as I remembered.
Well, there’s no way around it. This blog has been on life support for so long that it was time to make a choice: either zap it and see if I could kick start its heart once more, or pull the plug.
After some soul-searching and late night tossing & turning, I’ve come to a decision…
Well, I still do that from time to time, though I’ve been very bad about keeping S&TI! readers up-to-date on that front. I full-on admit that the past two months have not been as relaxing and full of reading as I would have liked (rather, they have been filled with stressful moves and mad-dash planning as we prepare to head off for Japan… just 1.5 weeks to go at this point!), but I have managed to keep up a steady stream of reviews for BookPage (and plan to continue to review for them while we are on our big trip… though I will be taking the month of August from professional reviewing as I adjust to life on the road in Asia!). As we finish up the tail end of our time here in North America, I am hoping to rediscover the joys of personal pleasure reading (need to get back into the swing of it before our 12 hour flight to Tokyo on Aug 8…), but for now, I’ll bring you up to speed with my BP reviews for the months of June & July.
Maybe it’s a hold over from the days when I had summer holidays, but for me, the summer is the perfect time to indulge in books that are unadulterated fun to read. We all know I have the tendency to gravitate towards highbrow literature, but sometimes you just want a book that will entertain and thrill you. If you find yourself on holiday this summer and need a book that you can read for hours by the pool and late into the night, then I highly recommend that you check out my review of debut author, Elizabeth Haynes’ novel Into the Darkest Corner. It is the ultimate “relationship gone wrong” story, and despite its length, this was a book I stayed up reading even when it was far past my bedtime. I particularly enjoyed the attention Haynes paid to the psychological trauma that can result following an abusive relationship, which I personally felt helped set this book apart from your standard run of the mill thrillers. Terrifying and utterly absorbing, this is a book that will hold you rapt from beginning to end.
If massive doorstops are your preferred beach reading material, then you could do no better than the second installment in Deborah Harkness’s wildly popular “All Souls Trilogy”, Shadow of Night. This book hardly needs a review given that it is the hotly anticipated sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which readers have been breathlessly waiting for since 2011, myself being no exception! Shadow of Night sees Diana & Matthew traveling back to the 1590s in order to give Diana a chance to master her burgeoning magical powers and also give our favorite vampire-witch duo the opportunity to intercept the elusive Ashmole 782 before it is enchanted. Fans of the first book will know that Harkness is not afraid to tell her story on an epic scale, and Shadow of Night is no different. Even the most voracious readers will likely need a few days to fully digest this massive story, which manages to address many of the pressing questions that were left dangling at the end of the first volume while still setting up a set of new questions for the final book in the series. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but this book is just so much fun! You can read my full review here.
I also had the extreme pleasure of reviewing a stunning debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I have no idea why this book is not getting more buzz, because quite honestly, it had me in tears within the first 10 pages. I was not exaggerating in my review when I said that “Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not only one of the best debuts of 2012, it’s one of the best books of the year, plain and simple.” It really, truly is. It manages to be moving without being maudlin, not an easy feat when you’ve got a teenager as your narrator, and was just such a lovely, heartbreaking novel. One of those books you hardly want to write about because you feel your own words can’t do it justice. As much as all of these books I’ve reviewed are fantastic, if I could only pick one of them to read again, it would easily be Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Do not miss this book, or you will feel like a complete fool!
Finally, although the August issue of BookPage isn’t out for a few more days, I figured my loyal readers deserved a treat for bearing with me over these past few months, so here is a sneak peak of my review of Tana French’s latest Murder Squad novel, Broken Harbor. Like many fans of the series, I was dubious about Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy taking the reins in this book, but: OH. MY. GOD. So deliciously creepy and twisted. This may be French’s best book yet: Kennedy winds up being a wonderfully nuanced character (hardly surprising given her track record) and his fate at the novel’s end is honestly like a swift kick to the gut. Perhaps the most compelling thing about the book is how terrifically atmospheric it was, the ghostly tendrils of the Brianstown housing estate deftly entangled themselves around my brainstem. This novel haunted me both during and after reading it, so make sure to clear your reading schedule to make room for this one!
So although 2012 continues to be something of a reading drought for me, I can’t complain about the quality of the books I’ve been reading thus far. All of these books would likely make it onto my “best books of the year” list, even if I were plowing through double the number of books, so they’re definitely well worth your while!
But, please tell me: what book(s) have you read in the past 2 -3 months that you think is absolutely unmissable? I’m definitely looking for something to kick-start my personal reading engine and need suggestions! I feel like all of my trip planning has thrown me squarely out of the book blogging loop!