Monthly Archives: April 2018

Judging books by their samples Round 2

I recently rediscovered a list I had made last year while on a trip to Jordan. During my long plane flights and layovers, and in my downtime while in Jordan, I read book samples on my Kindle and wrote down quick thoughts on each. This was not the first time I have done this sort of sample blitz. I’m listing them in the order that I read the samples and including the stars that I had placed on the samples that most caught my attention last year. As you will see, I struck out for a while but then hit a good streak.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – actual quote from my list “nopety nope.” I was not a fan of the style and I wasn’t getting on board with a serial murderer as a protagonist.

A Killing in the Hills (Bell Elkins #1) by Julia Keller – the prologue didn’t excite me, but I became intrigued by the initial crime that kicks-off the narrative and the main character’s response to it. Set in West Virginia.

Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West – From what I read, the book seemed to be shaping up to how a ragtag HS basketball team brings together various members of a depressed Montana town. The adults’ backstories provided were quite bleak, but I liked the kid. Not in a rush to read this one, but it’s still on my to-read list.

The Chateau by William Maxwell – A 1961 novel that starts off with a young American couple arriving in post-WWII France. I liked the details of their journey as they bumbled about and I felt that I would like this book, as long as I was in the right mood for it.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer – an epistolary novel about two artists who develop a friendship through their letters. The writing style and subject matter is not my usual fare, but I think I would like it overall.

Solar Storms by Linda Hogan – I read the sample without refreshing on the synopsis, and was really confused about what was going on. (Goodreads synopsis: “At seventeen, Angela returns to the place where she was raised—a stunning island town that lies at the border of Canada and Minnesota—where she finds that an eager developer is planning a hydroelectric dam that will leave sacred land flooded and abandoned.”) I think it will be worth giving it more of a try.

Sugar by Bernice McFadden – The novel sets the scene with a depiction of a small gossipy Southern town and I did not like it. For whatever reason, I was/am feeling tired of the small gossipy Southern town in fiction. Not for me.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold – Prologue was a Grimm fairy tale. Narrator was a cynical young adult, and the narration felt like it tried too hard. That can happen with beginnings of books, though, and may settle out. I could see picking this up and reading further than the sample went, to see if it was for me.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh – Irish-American family saga. Didn’t feel fresh to me.

A Brief History of Montmaray – in a world where Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle exists, this novel felt quite unnecessary

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – I enjoy the covers of Jenny Lawson’s books. I didn’t enjoy the writing style.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – Not for me

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller – a YA boarding school story. Not for me.

*Conquistador by S. M. Stirling – I was impressed by the sample, which sets up an intriguing time-travel premise. I later picked up the book from the library and soon found that the story itself had some insufferable bits (like one of the main characters) and I abandoned it.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis – The premise of this book is fifteen dogs overnighting at a vet clinic given human consciousness by the gods. The sample didn’t take me much beyond that premise, so I still remain intrigued by the premise but not sure where it will take me.

*Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho – I liked the writing and specificity displayed in the sample quite a bit. I’ve never read anything by Coelho.

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen – Book is about a Pacific NW town that quarantines itself during the 1918 flu epidemic. I was liking the historical aspect but feeling like the characters weren’t quite popping on the page.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts – All the Mumbai setting details were interesting, and the characters too. The main character’s instalove thing with a girl he meets sounded a small alarm in my mind, but I’d have to see how it plays out.

*Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth – Enjoyed the first-person narration of this zombie novel. Seemed like it would be a fun read

*The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty – After being cooped up in the car together, my family spread out for some solitary time at the Shobak crusader-era castle in Jordan. I brought my Kindle and this is the sample I read in the castle ruins. (Later my sisters and I traveled down a ‘secret’ very worn stairway from the castle to the bottom of the hill, with only the light of my cell phone to show the way.) The story’s initial setting – 1920’s Wichita, Kansas – couldn’t have been more different than my own. The main character, Cora, who will end up chaperoning Louise Brooks to New York City, was intriguing. I’ve read two books by this author previously, but that was a long time ago.

*Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty – I’m not much of a YA reader, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself drawn in by the beginning of this epistolary Australian novel.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – The Thatcher-era British setting was good. I couldn’t quite tell yet if I was interested in the characters though.

City of One by Francine Cournos – I’m not sure why I added this book to my to-read list. It’s the author’s psychoanalysis of herself. No thanks.

*These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy Turner – I was engaged from the start in this tale of a young woman in the Arizona territory. I picked up the book from the library later and enjoyed it, though it was a smidge too long.

*Forever by Pete Hamill – Though the book will eventually follow its main character to New York City, the sample all takes place in 18th century Ireland. The details of the family’s routines and life are fantastic if a bit overwhelming in volume, but the book was starting to grow on me as I finished out the sample.

*The Street by Ann Petry – The sample presents the main character, Lutie, at a crossroads. She is determined to get out of her mother’s home, which she feels is not a good environment for her young son. But she is a young Black single mother and it’s the 1940’s, so she doesn’t have many good options for housing in Harlem. The sample shows her considering a terrible apartment with a terrible landlord and we know she will probably take it. I left the sample wondering what would happen next for her.

*Ratking by Michael Dibdin – the phone call dialogue that starts off this Italian-set mystery in this book was great and promised a lively writing style throughout.

*Absent by Betool Khedairi – this story about a young woman in Baghdad intrigued me though the jury was still out about the chronology-hopping style on display in the sample.

What Angels Fear (Sebastian St. Cyr #1) by C. S. Harris – from the sample, I thought this was just ok. The instigating crime is a brutal rape and murder of a young woman in a church. I haven’t figured out the exact factors that turn me away from some violent murder stories, while I continue on with others, but this book had the factors that made me say “not for me”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My March reading

March was a great month in reading. I read Slavenka Drakulić’s 1992 book of essays,  How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Drakulić grew up and lived in what is now Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. Her essays detail and reflect upon daily life – particularly women’s daily life – under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a snapshot of history, but more than that it’s a reflection of the intersection between the personal and the political.

But communism created this lack of any kind of privacy – in crowded communal apartments; in its morals, where everybody was comrade to everybody else; in the Communist Party, where every member watched over the ‘correct’ life of the others – because only when there is no privacy can there be total control. p71

The state wants it all public – it can’t see into our apartment, but it can tap our telephone, read our mail. We didn’t give up: everything beyond the door was considered ‘theirs.’ They wanted to turn our apartments into public spaces, but we didn’t buy that trick. What is public is of the enemy. So we hid in our pigeonholes, leaned on each other in spite of everything, and licked our wounds. p91-92

In one of her last essays, she writes of the war that has just begin in the former Yugoslav states. After the fall of Communism, the wounds from World War II resurface and everyone is at each other’s throats. War is approaching Drakulić’s city and she writes of her fear:

No thoughts, no movements, nothing but this crystal moment of pure fear shining inside you. It’s not the fear of death but of planned death, death invented in someone’s head, death as a statistical number, a mass death in a deadly game of power. p. 177


I finished Min Jin Lee’s excellent family saga Pachinko. I loved the characters, particularly Sunja and everyone from her generation. The story is about a Korean family living in Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s. They moved to and stayed in Japan for the future of their children, as Japan sucked out the life of their native land. The Japanese government and society treated them like second-class citizens, but Korea was no longer their home either. I appreciate that Lee’s story doesn’t downplay the effect of these oppressive societal forces on the characters’ emotional health and success. Systemic injustice is not an external force that can be overcome by pluck and will. Insidiously, it worms its destructive way into the characters’ heads and hearts as well.

I loved how Min Jin Lee wrote about people. Particularly with the earlier generations, she is able to write about the kindness and love of people in a way that moved me to tears several times.


I put down Michael Waldman’s book The Second Amendment a couple of weeks ago. What I read was good, but it is very focused on the detailed Constitutional history behind the amendment. After the energy of attending March for Our Lives in D.C., this book just didn’t feel like the right book to match the current moment for me. I just bought Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge. The ebook was on sale and it’s been on my to-read list since before it was published. Younge’s book tells the stories of ten American children and teens who lost their lives to gun violence on November 23, 2013. At the March for Our Lives, one girl from Chicago told the story of a man waving a gun in her face at a convenience store. Another teen from D.C. told the story of his twin brother’s murder. Younge’s book sounds like it will be tough, but like the March, it is focused on telling the stories of individual lives cut short by gun violence.

My escape reading was Mary Balogh’s Irresistible. It was a sweet friends-to-lovers romance. I was also a fan of Balogh’s The Escape and A Summer to Remember, so she’s likely to stay on my reading radar.

I’m almost finished with Rachel Pearson’s No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. It is very well-written (Pearson pursued an MFA before quitting to pursue her medical career). Medical students learn their skills on the bodies of the poor and the imprisoned, and Pearson grapples with this reality throughout the book in a nuanced way.

I am also in the middle of Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue. My friend Cindy’s been a fan of this urban fantasy series for a while, and I’ve heard good things from others. I like that it’s set in San Francisco, and I’m enjoying it.

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