January Reading Roundup

January: A month of renewal, self-improvement, and firmer resolve. I’m speaking about reading habits, of course. ūüėČ

At the end of last year, pregnancy hormones took over and I was quite literally too tired to even¬†read most days after school. (A tragedy, I know.) At the end of December, I realized that September, October, and November had skated by without so much as the completion of one book per month; and friends, that just isn’t right.

Now that the second trimester is well underway, my feverish need to sleep 70% of the day subsided somewhat and¬†I was able to tackle several new reads in January! As a teacher, free time for reading isn’t exactly a luxury; I’m pretty content with my little stack ‘o five! I’ve officially averaged one book per week this year . . . and I’ll drink (grape juice) to that any day.

The Roundup, in particular order (most enjoyed -> most meh):

  1. Descent by Tim Johnston. Genre: Mystery/thriller. I picked up this eerie-looking novel at the local Hastings store as the store heaved¬†its last, sobering, death-rattling breaths. At 70% off, I couldn’t have landed a better deal (unless the book had been given to me, of course). Johnston’s novel opens with an 18-year-old girl and her brother heading out for a run/bike ride in the mountains of Colorado as their parents drowse through the early morning hours of their family vacation. When an accident occurs on the mountain, Caitlin is taken and her family is left to their own devices in the grueling disconnect that comes with her absence. A once-seemingly typical family unit (though not without their flaws) disintegrates at the seams in the months that follow Caitlin’s disappearance. Although the novel was difficult for me to engage with initially, I came to appreciate Johnston’s unique storytelling ability and intentional use of language. The writing¬†became a treat (once Mr. Johnston and I had acquainted ourselves better), and I became entangled in the greatly unexpected complexity and depth of this contemporary thriller. Where so many others have fallen short,¬†Descent holds its own with motifs of distrust, forgiveness, personal anchoring, strife, and familial relationships. At 100 pages, you’ll be invested; at 200 pages, absorbed; and at 250 pages, feverishly racing to uncover the treasure that is¬†Descent. Rating: 4.5/5 — Verdict: You will not regret this one. Unless, of course, you don’t read it.
  2. A Man Called Ove¬†by Fredrik Backman. Genre: Fiction/humor. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Backman’s writing, it became inevitable that at some point in time, I would pick up one of his works.¬†A Man Called Ove is a charming and quick read about Ove (Ooo-vuh, I’ve been told), an elderly-isn man living in a Swedish suburb. Persnickety, irritable, and stereotypically grumpy-old-man-ish, Ove lives alone in a house that once also held his beloved wife, Sonja. Without her, Ove spreads misery wherever he goes. (Truth be told, even with her, he seems to have been a bit sour.) When a new family moves in next door (and breaks about a dozen rules as they go), Ove has no choice but to interact with these imbeciles who can’t back up a trailer, can’t use their own bathrooms, and can’t use a ladder properly. Humph! I won’t share any further plot details at this point, as doing so would give away the premise of the novel; however, I can assure you that this book will make you chuckle, smirk, sob, and laugh out loud a time or two. Ove’s prickly-but-loveable persona are easy to latch onto in this book about friendship,¬†loyalty, death, and living in the wake of death.¬†Rating: 4/5 — Verdict: Cute, sweet, and heartfelt; this book has all the components of a perfect weekend read.
  3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Genre: Historical fiction. I reviewed this one¬†earlier this month, so I’ll just offer a few brief thoughts here.¬†The Wonder felt like a complex read to me. Not because the language was difficult, or the plot all that challenging; but because the issues of morality, faithfulness, skepticism, and duty created such strong foundation for this novel. Although I didn’t find this book an equal to Donoghue’s¬†Room in terms of interest and “wow-factor,” I really appreciated her intense portrait of unfailing piety contrasted with ceaseless skepticism.¬†Rating: 3.5/5 (I’m adding a half star, FYI) — Verdict: An intriguing and not even remotely preachy novel about sticking to your guns in the face of great pressure? Yeah. Count me in.
  4. The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Genre: Historical fiction. I’ve also already reviewed this book thoroughly here, so I’ll save you some time and spare you the long synopsis. Writing is¬†a bit clunky throughout the novel, and characters are¬†fairly predictable; but the story offers a unique twist on a widely written-about topic: the persecution of Jews during World War II. While¬†the novel lacks complexity, Belfoure makes up for this shortcoming with an interesting storyline and characters worth rooting for.¬†Rating: 3/5 — Verdict: Worth a read, but not a book that will land on your top 10 list (or even your top 50, if I were to venture a guess).
  5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Genre: Dystopian/science fiction. A slow-moving tale about a group of English boarding students who are seemingly living the dream at Havisham, an immense property tucked away in a secret corner of the country. Readers discover the nature (and purpose) of main character Kath’s life as she reflects on her upbringing at Havisham and her relationships with her peers and teachers. The novel is maddeningly cryptic throughout. Ishiguro’s slow reveal of the mysterious truths that Kath spends her life trying to uncover is purposeful — and enormously frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed the¬†questions this book forces one to consider; namely, what makes us human? And just how great and terrible can our losses be when we wait for the safest opportunities to act?¬†Rating: 2.5/5 — Verdict: Sadly, a “meh” book for me.

The great thing about reading books? You can always find a reader that has uncovered an entirely different layer of meaning and value in a work you consider beloved or unworthy. Read any of these titles and have some insight to share? Comment below!

As always, happy reading, friends — and happy February!

Review: The Paris Architect

Note: This post was originally posted on my school blog, which is just a sample site that I post on infrequently as I guide my students through their own blogging processes.¬†These words are mine. Promise. ūüôā

As an avid reader of WWII fiction, I was excited to discover The Paris Architect by author Charles Belfoure. The concept was appealing immediately: a Parisian architect, Lucien, is out of work in Nazi-occupied France and desperate for some cash. When he is approached by a fellow Frenchman with a daunting request: Will Lucien design a hiding place for a Jew within the confines of an already-constructed building?

Lucien’s self-serving nature is appealed to when his French contractor, Manet, also approaches Lucien with several jobs building armaments facilities and warehouses throughout Paris for the Nazi regime. Although Lucien is conflicted about working for the enemy (and is certainly fearful of being “found out” by the Gestapo for aiding Jews), he agrees to both jobs — the hiding place and the warehouse — on the basis of survival. He has one condition, though: Only one hiding place for Manet. No others.

As the novel progresses, Lucien’s morals are called into question on a number of occasions as he grapples with what it means to be human in a city and era dictated by monsters. Tensions rise as lives are put at risk and the Nazi regime’s chokehold grip tightens around the people of Paris.

The Good: This story was compelling and fresh. While the moral dilemmas of Nazi collaboration and fugitive hiding have certainly been broached by writers of WW2 fiction, Belfoure put an intriguing spin on the topic with his use of an architect as the main character. Indeed, in the epilogue of the book, the author notes that he actually borrowed the concept of priest holes from the 16th Century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England and persecuted those of the Catholic persuasion. This marriage of historic events created an engaging plot.

The Not-So-Good: Writing felt sluggish and forced in several places, especially during character dialogue. I marveled at this for a bit, given the fact that this book had garnered so much hype from reading circles that I am privy to; but upon reading the author’s bio, I discovered the writer is a historian with extensive knowledge in architecture. While his background contributed to the intriguing premise of the novel, the writing felt clunky throughout.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Worth a read (the story is both quick and interesting), but not necessarily a text that will stick with you forever.