In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Wartime Judah

2015. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover. 257 pages.

Review:

British journalist Tim Judah’s book In Wartime is a collection of short dispatches from towns and regions around the country of Ukraine. These dispatches are mainly focused on current events – the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the east. However, the book is also an exploration of Ukraine’s history and its citizens’ framing and understanding of that history.

I was not keen on the structure of this book. The author could not seem to decide whether the chapters were independent pieces or part of a greater whole. That said, I learned a lot about Ukraine that I didn’t know before. It’s a country that has seen repeated upheaval of its population: the Holocaust, war, famine, forcible exile and relocation. Many towns and regions are full of residents who have only lived there for a generation or two.

There were also thematic through-lines, even if the structure didn’t develop those themes as much as it could have. Themes include the interpretation of history (as mentioned before), the complicated nature of national identity in the region, and the havoc wreaked by corruption.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns in Ukraine was a topic covered in the book that was of course of interest to me, considering their own disinformation campaigns in my country. I think people overestimate their independence of thought, and underestimate the power of such campaigns to influence popular framing of people and events.

Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Hadrian (from Goodreads): “Gives the locals plenty of space to talk about themselves, and takes pains to understand the historical roots (and the exploitation of history) behind current grievances. At turns gruesome and understated. Important stuff.”

Lance Charnes (from Goodreads) “The effect is pointillistic: a quote here, a poignant sight there, a bit of history to explain a particular point, some fact-checking. When you pull back, the dots become a picture. He reports what his interviewees say, but he later debunks their more egregious lies and fantasies (which are distressingly common; weaponized history and fake news are like air there, especially in the eastern part of the country).

Maphead’s Book Blog – “While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine.”

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

everyone-brave-is-forgiven

2016. ebook. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages.

Review:

The excellently-titled Everyone Brave is Forgiven turned out to be an excellent novel all the way through, proving that it is apparently still possible to write a worthwhile addition to the oversaturated market of WWII fiction. The book starts off briskly at Britain’s entrance to the war in September 1939. The three main characters are: Mary North, a young upperclass woman who signs up for the war and is assigned to be a teacher; Tom Shaw, an education administrator and Mary’s eventual lover; and Alistair Heath, an art conservator and Tom’s best friend who signs up for the Army. The novel follows the homefront characters (Mary and Tom) through the London Blitz, while much of Alistair’s story takes place at the Siege of Malta, which I admit I knew nothing about before reading this book. The book ends in June 1942, several months after the American forces arrive in England.

I loved Cleave’s writing, especially his handle on dialogue and characterization. There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together. An example passage:

His men headed for the pubs on the back streets behind the station, where the licensing hours had been quietly surrendered. The soldiers would drink ale until dusk and then switch to whisky and fists. They would fight the Navy if available, other regiments if not, and the RAF as a last resort since it was not good form to bother the afflicted.

Occasionally, Cleave’s figurative language was a little over-the-top for my tastes, but that is a small quibble when I consider how invested I became in the story. Cleave crafts some very harrowing scenes which had me spellbound. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing this book.

While the book honors the men and women who faced the war, it is no blind paean. As one character jokes to another in gallows humor: “This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.” Too many lives are lost, among them children. And those with brave and good hearts falter under the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon them.

One of the novel’s plotlines involves the ugly side of the children’s evacuation from London – the children who are rejected and/or mistreated by the homes in the country, often due to reasons of disability and race. There is no Narnian wardrobe, or Bedknobs & Broomsticks adventure for them, no Mr. Tom. Instead, these outcast children are eventually returned to their families in London, into the path of the Blitz. As Mary tells her mother late in the novel, “We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.”

Cleave was apparently inspired to write this book based on some of his own family history. One of his grandfathers fought in the siege of Malta, and was also assigned to be the minder of Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph Churchill. One of Cleave’s grandmother’s drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, as the characters Mary and her friend Hilda do in the novel for a time, but in London. Cleave’s other grandmother had been a teacher.

If you’re curious about this book, I recommend downloading the sample first chapter if you have an ereader. If you like the first chapter, you’ll like this book. It is reading the sample that pushed this novel higher on my to-read list, and I’m so glad I prioritized it.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Farm Lane Books – “This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light.”

Lit and Life: “Cleave’s writing grabbed me and held onto me with its honesty, intelligence, and emotion. More than once, I found myself thinking “oh, please no” and just as often “oh, yes, this.””

RuthAnn (Goodreads reviewer): “Unfortunately, the ending felt a bit flat to me, and the pacing was off, so not a great finish in my eyes. Overall, though, it’s a book that’s definitely worth reading, and I think it lives up to the hype.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

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2013. ebook. 308 pages.

Recommendation from: Iris on Books (though I can’t find her review now)

Review:

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord was the first book of 2017 that I really escaped into, and it was such a relief to fall under its spell, as my mind had become rather consumed by the news in recent weeks.

It is not a dark novel, but the premise of Lord’s book starts with a genocide. The Sadiri planet was fatally poisoned by a rival planet, and only the expatriate and off-world Sadiri (mostly men) are left to carry on their people’s culture and traditions. (In culture and mental capabilities, the Sadiri are reminiscent of the Vulcans from Star Trek.)

A group of Sadiri are sent to the Cygnus Beta colony to investigate it as a possible new home. The Cygnus Beta planet is inhabited by a variety of people groups, and the Sadiri hope to find prospective mates among them who can help keep the Sadiri ways alive for future generations.

The main character is a government scientist of the Cygnus Beta colony named Grace Delarua. Due in part to her rapport with Sadiri councillor Dllenahkh, Delarua ends up on a field assignment that takes her, Dllenahkh and a team of Sadiri and Cygnian government employees on an investigative tour of far-flung Cygnian settlements.

The structure of The Best of All Possible Worlds is episodic, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of like a season of television. Almost every visit to a new settlement includes a little mini-story arc. (Instead of mystery-of-the-week, a TV version of the story would have “settlement of the week”). The various cultures and traditions of the settlements are fascinating. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader in some ways.

The novel’s ensemble game is strong. Although the relationship between Dllenahkh and Delarua forms a major plotline, Lord has made the group dynamics just as important, and the growing bond between them is readily apparent.

Most of the novel is narrated by Delarua, and I was delighted by her humor and accessibility as a main character. It’s actually laugh out loud funny at times. Another amusing aspect: one of the people groups in this universe is called Terran, which is quite obviously of Earth origin, and it’s fun to see which cultural objects made it to Lord’s far-future setting.

I don’t think this novel will appeal to everyone, but I hope that if any of the story elements above sound intriguing to you, that you will give it a shot because it’s really such a lovely book. Also, I found out after finishing the book that Karen Lord is from Barbados, so if you’re looking to diversify your reading, this may be one to add to your reading stack. I hope to read her first book, Redemption in Indigo, at some point.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Lilia Ford – “… it proceeds with a remarkable absence of the usual melodrama, speechifying and point-hammering that you might expect to find in this kind of story. Instead the ideas and connections emerge almost invisibly through the sum of many encounters, many scenes, where the point is often not obvious.” (Lilia was sold on this novel by someone telling her that it was Jane Austen Star Trek.)

Me, You and Books – “…somehow, the whole of the novel is greater than its parts.  I can’t describe this or that aspect of the novel—its descriptions, characters, plots—as exceptional, but I was totally mesmerized by it.”

Wendy (Bibliosanctum) – “Reading this book gave me the feeling of being comfortable no matter where I was. I felt like I was sitting in my cozy reading chair with these characters, enjoying the story as it quietly unfolded. It’s probably not a coincidence that the story is told in the first person by Delarua, who has the innate ability to calm those around her, even while being a very emotionally expressive person with empathic abilities.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman

mrs-mike-freedman

1947. Paperback. 283 pages.

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon travels from Boston to live with her uncle in Calgary, Alberta. Soon after her arrival, she meets and falls in love with Sergeant Mike Flannigan, an officer in the Canadian Mounted Police. They marry and his job soon takes them to remote outposts in northern Canada. The novel is about Katherine’s relationship with her husband and it’s also about her relationship with the harsh country and the people who live there. Many of the people she meets are from First Nation tribes such as Dane-zaa (called Beaver in the book) and the Cree.

Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. In storytelling style, I found it reminiscent of my experience reading Larry McMurtry’s amazing epic Lonesome Dove. Maybe I found them similar because they’re both frontier stories, but I think it’s also the particular liveliness that both books possess that also connected them in my mind. Mrs. Mike is the warmer of the two books, however, and less cynical in its depiction of people than Lonesome Dove.

The cover of my edition of Mrs. Mike touts it as a love story, and that description is true. But Mrs. Mike also has elements of horror as well. There are things that Kathy witnesses and experiences that are raw and terrible, and there are also horrifying stories that are told to her second-hand. One woman tells Kathy of her family’s tragic journey from France to Canada. While on the boat, the storyteller’s sister sickens and dies of the smallpox. The boat’s crew locks the family in their cabins and one by one the woman’s whole family dies of the disease, leaving her the only survivor. It’s an evocative scene, and chilling. But then, tales of epidemics have always left an impression on me.

Mrs. Mike is based on a real person who Nancy and Benedict Freedman met in California, but the veracity of some of the details in the book are apparently questionable. I approached it completely as fiction, however, and enjoyed it as such.

Mrs. Mike is perhaps old-fashioned in some ways, but a number of Kathy’s observations come through fresh and clear. It’s a book that surprised me too in the directions it took, but classic novels are often sneaky that way, taking your presuppositions of the era in which they were published and dashing them.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Becky’s Book Reviews – “I enjoyed the historical aspects of this one. I also liked the romance of it. It was a good, clean read. A book that almost anyone of any age could enjoy–if historical romance is their genre of choice.”

It’s All About the Book – “While I liked this book a lot, I think I would have liked it even more as a teenager. Not sure why exactly. I just think I would have been very much caught up in the adventure and romance, whereas now, perhaps I’ve read too much at this point and the book felt lacking in parts.”

Okay, also must add, I ran across a Goodreads review that panned the book and said each chapter could have been the basis for an episode of a cheesy Hallmark series. Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Hallmark show, but I am pretty sure Hallmark productions are not featuring plots full of bear-maulings, disease epidemics and dozens of people being burned alive in a wildfire. Like, what??

 

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Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

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Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Recommendation from: Maphead’s Book Blog

A few years ago, I read Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology called Going Clear. I was impressed by his writing and research, and later took the opportunity to see him speak at the National Book Festival in 2015. At the Festival, he focused his talk on his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September which is about the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement struck between Egypt and Israel. This pushed up the book in my priority for reading (I had already had it on my to-read list from Maphead’s Book Blog – see link above).

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright provides details of what happened in the nearly two weeks that led up to the agreement, as well as historical context for the agreement. He provides profiles of the three very different men at the center of the negotiations (U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin) as well as for members from their respective delegations.

Though the book may sound like it has a narrow focus chronologically, Thirteen Days in September in effect covers the whole sweep of the Middle East conflict from the 1940’s to the present-day. Begin and Sadat’s experience during World War II shaped who they would become as political leaders. For example, Begin’s family and community were all killed during the Holocaust, and this horrific tragedy was a motivating force behind his extreme, uncompromising stances when it came to Israel.

Egypt and Israel had been engaged in war and hostilities with each other since 1948, but it was a drain on both of their countries’ resources. Carter hoped that by sequestering the two leaders and their delegations at Camp David (the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland), a peace might be struck between the two countries. All three leaders were risking their political careers to be there, and there were many times during the thirteen days that either Israel or Egypt’s delegation were on the verge of calling it quits. The U.S. delegation team ended up drafting a peace agreement that was then painstakingly modified based on feedback from either side. Names and wording had deep significance for all those involved, and creative solutions had to be made. (For example, slightly different wording in the Hebrew translation of the agreement compared to the English-language version.)

In the end, a historic and lasting peace was made between Egypt and Israel, and Begin and Sadat were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in it. (Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize many years later for different work and the Nobel committee acknowledged then that he should have received it earlier for his work on the Camp David Accords.) As historic as the agreement was, unfortunately the fate of the Palestinians was not resolved by the agreement. Based on the information in this book, this failure seems to lie mostly at the feet of Begin, who backtracked on part of the Accords soon after the meeting at Camp David. The lack of resolution for the Palestinians is a problem that continues to prevent peace in the Middle East to this day.

I found the passages about the Palestinians very helpful as a frame for understanding where we are presently in the Middle East conflict:

Arab refugees flooded into neighboring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilizing presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the whole world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The last phrase “the sacrifices that peace would entail” really caught my eye. I feel like public discourse is more used to discussing the sacrifices of war (the loss of human lives) than the sacrifices required for peace (e.g. the loss of power).

And this quote also connects the Camp David Accords to where we are today:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy. If you have an interest in this topic, or are a fan of Lawrence Wright’s previous books, I highly recommend reading Thirteen Days in September. Reading this book at the end of December proved very timely, as the United States had just controversially abstained from using its veto to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I was able to follow this news story with increased understanding thanks to this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Alan Chong (2/25/15 review from Goodreads) – “Lawrence Wright turns what sounds like a snore fest – the story behind an ultimately failed accord – and turns it into a political thriller, filled with intrigue, deeply compelling characters, and a rich, violent history that stretches deep into the mythologies of three religions. This is deeply interesting stuff, giving me a new respect for Carter, and a complex look into the deeply flawed characters of Sadat and Begin.

Christian (1/16/15 review from Goodreads) – ““Thirteen Days in September” is a blow-by-blow behind the scenes account of what happened during the negotiations. All the research he did was truly amazing. The conversations between all the leaders were told. Many were based on interviews with leaders who took part in the combative negotiations. He got a lot of reliable information on what happened through a variety of sources.

John DiConsiglio (10/12/15 review on Goodreads) – “It doesn’t hit the heights of Wright’s masterpieces, Looming Tower & Going Clear. Sometimes feels cluttered & wonkish. Mideast-lite perhaps, but still a page-turner.

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The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley

new-odyssey

2017 (US release). W. W. Norton. 368 pages.

In March 2015, UK’s Guardian presciently decided to ask one of its young journalists, Patrick Kingsley, to become a migration correspondent. Kingsley had already been working in Egypt for the Guardian and had been writing stories on the smuggling of Syrians from Egypt to Italy. Earlier in September 2014, a ship carrying 500 refugees had sunk off the coast of Egypt, killing everyone on board. Kingsley had interviewed a Syrian family who had been set to board that boat, but had been arrested before they reached the dinghy. Kingsley kept in touch with the father of the family, Hashem al-Souki.

When Hashem decided to try again to reach Europe, this time on his own, Kingsley asked if he could chronicle Hashem’s journey. Hashem agreed, and his story forms a narrative throughline in Kingsley’s book on the refugee crisis, The New Odyssey. In alternating chapters, we follow Hashem’s journey Syria to Egypt to Europe (with Sweden being his ultimate goal). He was arrested fairly early in the Syrian conflict and imprisoned in poor conditions without news from the outside. When he is released, a friend drives him home by a circuitous route. “What are we trying to avoid, asks Hashem. The front line, the friend replies.” Hashem and his family attempt to stay on in Syria, but as the situation deteriorates, they decide to flee to Egypt, which was still open to Syrian refugees at the time. Egypt becomes less and less hospitable, and so Hashem and his family, like many others, lay their hopes on making a life in Europe.

The other half of the book provides a larger context for Hashem’s journey – the political and economic realities that drove the mass migration as well as the decisions and factors that influenced the routes chosen by the refugees. He includes the stories of other refugees – Syrians, Eritreans, Ghanians, Iraqis, and others. He interviews smugglers and aid workers. Kingsley takes the reader from a outpost town in sub-Saharan Africa to the coasts of Greek islands to fields in Serbia where a stream of people treks across borders.

Kingsley’s main argument throughout the book is that Europe and other countries failed to manage the migration in a humane and organized way that would have benefited all involved. For mainly political reasons, they persisted in denial, assuming they could somehow deter the movement of increasingly desperate people. Instead, the people came chaotically, preyed upon and beaten by bandits and extortionists, rounded up like animals, dying by the hundreds in the Mediterranean.

An encapsulation of desperation: a former Syrian officer, Abu Jana, fled to Egypt after refusing to shoot unarmed protestors in Damascus. But due to Egypt’s rules about residency, Abu Jana risks being deported by the Egyptians back to Syria where he will surely be executed. ‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’

The Eritreans, meanwhile, are fleeing a country as closed-off as North Korea, which conscripts a large portion of its citizens into the military, where they are often paid very little or not at all, in unsafe conditions. Kingsley interviews one Eritrean teenage refugee who dropped out of school to support his younger siblings, but because free movement is prohibited without school enrollment, the teen was arrested by the police for being outside of his house.

At one point, Kingsley includes a quote from Jeremy Harding, who has also written extensively on refugees:

We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice.

I appreciated Kingsley’s interrogation of the supposed distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Throughout the book, he shows that people can’t be easily separated into these two categories. I also liked this pointed response from a Cameroonian (an “economic migrant”) on his way to a departure point in Libya: “The white man arrived in Africa by sea without a visa,” says the Cameroonian, “And we have learned to travel from the white man.”

I followed the refugee news story fairly well, especially in 2015, when the numbers and media coverage peaked, but this book still felt like necessary reading for me. Kingsley’s reporting and writing is excellent and humane.

I’ll close this review with another quote from the book:

It’s an odd experience, stepping across a border like this. On the ground, there is nothing to denote the boundary. On the Greek side, there is a field of sweetcorn and, on the Macedonian side, a vineyard. In the middle, there’s no marker that reveals you’re moving between two countries rather than two farms . . . In moments like these, you realise the absurdity of dividing the earth into fairly arbitrary parcels of turf. It’s a facile point to make, but sometimes even the facile feels profound when you’re wandering through Europe with people whose future depends on repeatedly flouting these invisible divisions, and whose own homeland is currently in the process of being divvied up into a new set of arbitrary parcels.

**Disclosure: I requested and received a digital copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review. (The digital copy expired today.)**

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Goodbye 2016: A Look Back at the Year in Reading

In a number of ways, 2016 was not an ideal environment for a good reading year. Unwelcome changes at work injected an undercurrent of stress that was exacerbated by alarming developments on the national and world stage. I found it hard to tear myself away from the news and settle down with books, though I still managed to read 73 over the course of the year. Books were still a mainstay – some provided escape, others challenged my worldview. I laughed and learned and was touched at the heart by books in 2016.

So here is a retrospective of my year in books, interspersed with photos I took throughout 2016, except for the last picture which was taken by my dad.

Two books that brought me home

One of my favorite books read this year was Ruth Moore’s 1946 novel Spoonhandle. Set in 1930’s Maine, the book follows various inhabitants of the community on fictional Big Spoon Island. Moore’s characterization and depiction of island life were wonderful. My early childhood was spent on Mount Desert Island, so that personal connection also added to my enjoyment.

Last week, as I was flying to Maine for Christmas, I read Susan Hand Shetterly’s Settled in the Wild, which is a short collection of essays about nature and community in coastal Maine. Shetterly’s writing was lovely and insightful, and put me in a perfect frame of mind for my holiday visit with my parents.

Classic reads

I know that I found parts of Henry Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, A Foundling humorous, but when I think of it now, I mostly remember how tortuously long it took to finish that classic 18th century tome.

I have much more fond memories of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage and Jane Austen’s Lady Susan / The Watsons / Sandition.

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Books without romance

Another classic that I read in 2016 was Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which I enjoyed and also had me asking where are all the novels about single, never-married adult protagonists where there is no romantic interest? From Twitter to Goodreads to Book Riot, the conversation that followed was engaging. I also came away with some book recommendations, one of which was Amy Stewart’s historical novel Girl Waits with Gun, which I quite liked. I’m looking forward to reading more of these recommendations in the future.

Along the same lines, but in the nonfiction realm, I thoroughly appreciated Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Books with romance

Of course I still enjoy reading books with romance, and read a handful in 2016 worth highlighting here. I liked Jill Sorenson’s gritty romantic suspense novels set in San Diego and Mexico (Edge of Night, Caught in the Act, Off the Rails). Rose Lerner’s below-stairs historical romance Listen to the Moon was a stand-out for me as was Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Shannon Stacey and Courtney Milan remained reliably good with their latest respective offerings Fully Ignited and Hold Me. The lively banter and savvy humor of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It was perfect entertainment on my return flight from Maine this past week.

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A pair of young adult reads

I still frequently think about Meg Medina’s young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass as well as the similarly-themed book I read soon after, Brock Cole’s The Goats. I really connected to the emotional realism of Medina’s and Cole’s books.

The start of something good

In the last couple of months, I read two books that are each the start of a series that I fully intend to continue into 2017. The first was Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, which featured excellent worldbuilding. I already have the sequel ready on my Kindle. The other book was Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, a family saga set in pre-WWII England. Howard’s book reminded me strongly of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings in its deft handling of the child characters. The Light Years is the first of five novels that comprise the Cazelet Chronicles.

Books I did not finish (and one rocky reading experience that paid off in the end)

The first book of 2016 to be abandoned was Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. It wasn’t a bad book, but I wasn’t very invested in it and dropped it fairly early. Later, I picked up Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street as it was a to-read for my classic club challenge. The satirical focus of the novel wasn’t feeling very resonant with me, so I took up with Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here instead. I thought it would be more timely and certainly a speech made at a town hall meeting early in the novel had parallels to today. But as I kept going, the book didn’t feel as freshly relevant as I’d hoped, and it was kind of boring to boot, so I dropped that as well. Sorry, Sinclair Lewis.

In more recently published books, two failures for me were Patricia Park’s Re: Jane and Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full. The former is a retelling of Jane Eyre, but the characterizaton was awful and without much nuance. I made a fair amount of progress in Swann’s Three Bags Full, but this mystery novel narrated by sheep turned into a slog after the initial novelty wore off.

Though I never considered abandoning it, I had a difficult time with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children due to the narrative style. The narrator kept incessantly interrupting the story to hint at future events and it was driving me nuts. It wasn’t until two-thirds through the 650-page novel that I begrudgingly saw the cleverness of this narrative tic, in the often unexpected way that the anticipatory hints were fulfilled.

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Books with friends

In terms of participating in bookish community, 2016 was a good year. In February, I participated in Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Book blogger events also led me to read the following books this year:

Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore (Reading New England)

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (#Weirdathon)

Haunting Emma trilogy by Lee Nichols, A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (RIP Challenge)

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, Wonder by RJ Palacio, Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole, others already mentioned earlier in this post (Book Riot’s #Read Harder challenge)

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Social Justice Book Club)

Thanks to the book club I’m in with Leslie and Teresa, I read these books: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

My cousin Phil and I decided to pick a book to read in common this year and it ended up being Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent Unbroken.

Along with several friends, I went to the National Book Festival in September this year. I saw several great authors, but I was especially glad to see Margo Jefferson, author of the memoir, Negroland, which I had read in February.

After the US presidential election, several bloggers I follow on Twitter started a Facebook book discussion group, which I joined. We started with Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. I know I’ll be referring back to quotes from this book as motivation in the years ahead.

My current read

While my Goodreads profile lists four books as “currently reading”, there is really only one book that I’m actively reading at the moment. It is Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. Wright uses the historic 1978 meeting as the framework for discussing the history and personalities involved, as well as the difficulty of forging peace. Wright’s book is well-researched, and who knew diplomacy could be so dramatic? This book has seemed especially timely considering recent developments in the relationship between the USA and Israel. It’s also timely as a year-end read as it’s about fighting for a better world, even when there’s baggage and seemingly intractable problems that beset us.

So, goodbye 2016! And Happy New Year everyone!

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