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 Wonder

I first encountered Emma Donoghue’s writing two years ago after a friend recommended I pick up her uncomfortable and riveting novel,¬†Room. I was immediately impressed by this author’s ability to tackle such a sensitive (and disturbing) topic with finesse. When I learned of her newest release,¬†The Wonder, via Book of the Month Club, it was easy to persuade myself to select that novel.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, the novel opens with its main character — no, not the title subject — nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a widow native to England and trained in the science of nursing by the renowned Florence Nightingale. Lib has been sent to Ireland for a two-week job, parameters largely unbeknownst to her. Upon arrival, she discovers she is to be a “warden” of sorts for young Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t partaken of food or drink (other than water) in four months. Locals — and travelers from abroad — believe the young maiden is a miracle, living according to God’s will. After her first day in the poverty-stricken country, Lib is determined to prove the child is a fraud and wash her hands of the scandal before her two weeks are up, if possible.

Initially, Lib harbors feelings of great resentment — for her job assignment, for Anna’s presumed deceptiveness, for the gloomy conditions of Ireland, and for the zealous Catholics she can’t seem to escape. A nonbeliever, Lib finds the impoverished people of Ireland embarrassingly loony for their dependency upon church teachings and traditional Irish folklore. As the days pass, though,¬†she realizes there is more to these people than meets her hawk-like eye. While her watch winds to a close, Lib becomes ensnared in a frenzied race against time that will permanently alter the course of her life.

The Good:¬†The book is told by an outside narrator; but the narrative most closely follows Lib’s experiences and observations, providing readers with more ample insight into the perspective of the oft-irritating main character. Additionally, though the book is deeply rooted in religious themes, the novel never feels preachy or assuming. As a Catholic,¬†I was fascinated to read about a time period in which members of the Church relied so heavily (and often literally) upon the teachings of scripture and priests. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious feel of this story. During the last third of the book, I jumped from one theory to another, trying to determine how Anna’s story would end. I was not disappointed in the outcome of this novel. (Exception: See the last item on my Not-So-Good list.) Finally, The Wonder is a success due to Donoghue’s¬†contrasting characters and their ideals: the relationships between English and Irish, Catholics and non-believers, educated and uneducated, and so forth. Her novel’s greatest strength lies in the conflicts that she’s so craftily woven together.

The Not-So-Good: This book is a very, very slow burn. One might even say it smolders. . . . While I was intrigued by the premise of the story, I had a hard time truly getting into the book until after the first 3 chapters were concluded. This may¬†be, in part, because Lib is such a remarkably stubborn and one-dimensional character for so long. Her stubbornness is key to the story, of course; but the first two-thirds of the book was infuriatingly tedious. Also, on an admittedly nitpicky point, I was irritated by the volume of italicized phrases throughout the novel. Donoghue used italics frequently to emphasize particular ideas or revelations Lib had throughout the book, and these often just ended up feeling cheesy to me. Again: extremely nitpicky, but the excessive italics grated at me like sandpaper. One final “meh” moment: the epilogue of the book. Many laud the (very) end as the one redeeming quality of the narrative; however, I felt the epilogue was too convenient and not altogether necessary. I’m interested to hear how others feel . . .

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Not the most thrilling or engaging read, but an intriguing piece of historical fiction with a worthy conclusion and mysterious vibe.