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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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I just loved the cover!

I picked Arabian Nights & Days by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to start off the Dewey’s Readathon in April, which fell on a drizzly, cheerless morning. As I love to travel to exotic and faraway places via books, I thought a trip to medieval Arabia would offer a nice antidote to such a rainy day.

Mahfouz wrote this as both a sequel and a tribute to the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the book picks up the day after Shahrzad has told her last story. Though billed as novel, it’s really a collection of interwoven short stories that feature many of the same characters as the original fables. I do suggest reading them in order as there are a progression of subplots.

Though the stories are told as episodic vignettes, I found myself invested in the fates of the characters—particularly of the families of both Sannaan al-Gamali and Gamasa al-Bulti—as they continued to make cameos. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shahrzad and her sister, Dunyazad, the only two female characters that are even remotely developed.

Despite the enchanting prose, the magical realism of his setting, and familiar characters like Aladdin and Sinbad, these stories feature somewhat dark and jarring plotlines. It felt a bit like the jolt one might get by turning to Grimm’s Fairy Tales after seeing the sugar-coated Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella (and Aladdin for that matter).

Except for one charming love story, Mahfouz uses his allegorical world to spotlight modern-day problems such as police corruption, dirty politics, unjust rulers, greedy power struggles, assassinations, and the misfortunes of the downtrodden. Genies here do not seem to grant wishes but rather wreak havoc on feckless humans, forcing them to do things against their will.

“We love what you love, but between us and people is a barrier of destinies,” explains the genie Singam.

I’m sure there are many layers and allusions that I missed because I am not versed in One Thousand and One Nights—so I would especially recommend this book to readers who have an appreciation for that classic. Still, I enjoyed being transported by Mahfouz’s alluring prose to the fragrant courtyard of the Café of Emirs, to eavesdrop on conversations and people-watch vicariously.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

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classics readathon 18:15 am ish Books down for now. Feeling rejuvenated by my classics read-in, though I did not make it 24 hours. Still, as the forecast is freezing rain today, I’m hoping to channel the #ccreadathon with more Wharton this afternoon.

7:17 am Picked up Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe to reread the sections about Mansfield Park. I’m not sure if this counts (pub’d in 2012), but he has some new and very interesting insights into the character of Fanny. Resisted the urge to go online, so as to maximize last hour of #ccreadathon time.

11ish pm Fell asleep reading Edith Wharton. Barely remember flicking off the light.

8:30 pm Finished MP and now completely absorbed by The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Reading about Old New York is almost like time travel.

6:55 pm Got slightly sidetracked looking at all the fun readathon updates at #ccreadathon and @ourclassicsclub on twitter. Back on the couch and nearly finished with Mansfield Park!

4:05 pm Had a lovely afternoon of reading with the sun streaming in through the windows. It’s fading now, and I must break to brave the crepuscular chill as the doggie is eager to go out before dark. #shortwinterdays

1:45 pm Took a break to walk the dog during the sunniest part of the day. The cold, hardened snowscape has me thinking I should be reading Ethan Frome, but I’m most content with Mansfield Park.

11:00 am Posting this response to the Classics Club Readathon Starting Post. Now back to Fanny Bertram… (Egad, spoiler alert, just realizing I wrote Fanny Bertram not Fanny Price!)

9:51 am Looked up from Mansfield Park to peruse #ccreadathon and @ourclassicsclub on twitter. Lots of great ideas for my target classics list.

8:17 am  Ah, coffee and Jane Austen … I should start every weekend morning like this!

7:58 am  Gasp. Rolled over to realize I’d slept in! Grabbed Mansfield Park off nightstand and flipped on the coffee.

Classics Club Readathon Intro Questions:

1.) Name and Blog: Sarah at WordHits

coffee choc3 picasa

Coffee, chocolate, and a classic.

2.) Snacks/Beverages of Choice: My readathon fuel will be Nespresso coffee (yes, pods, but so unbelievably delish!), Lady Grey Tea, and dark chocolate.

3.) Where are you reading from today? Frozen, snowbound Connecticut. It’s 14°F outside! Perfect day to spend reading.

4.) What books are you planning on reading? Am starting with Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Also on deck: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, and What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy. Here’s a bit more on my book choices.

5.) Are you excited? Yes! Well, inversely. I am excited to do nothing exciting but relax and read. I love that “this is a laid back, zero pressure readathon.” I always enjoy the @ourclassicsclub tweets about the Classics Spin and other classics memes. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get involved!

WordHits: Cosy Up for the 2nd Annual Classics Club Readathon

Classics Club Readathon Official Starting Post #ccreadathon

The 2nd Annual Classics Club Readathon

Readathon Sign-Up

#ccreadathon hosted by @ourclassicsclub on Twitter

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2 book bricksWhen 11/22/63 landed with a thud on my doorstep, I knew I was in for a hefty brick of a read. As I pulled the nearly one-pound beast out of the oversized shipping box … it loomed.

At 842 pages, however, this book is more than 200 pages shorter than the last Stephen King novel I read, Under the Dome, which is 1072 pages.

I decided to size them up together, and in this light, 11/22/63 does look much more manageable.

Still, I find it most ironic that King took a jibe at the length of Donna Tartt’s The GoldFinch, which clocks in at a mere 784 pages. “Don’t drop it on your foot,” he joked at the end of his review for The New York Times Book Review (in which he mostly gushed with enthusiasm).

I will keep that foot precaution in mind as I dig into 11/22/63 in anticipation of this Friday, Nov. 22nd, the 50th anniversary of that infamous date.

Even better, I am reading this as part of the #112263Along organized by Kristin of My Little Heart Melodies, and I love seeing all the tweets and posts from other readers.

The readalong goes for another month through Sunday 12/22 (did I mention it was a long book?) so please join us!

Click here to sign up via Mr Linky!

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Halloween Bats Full MoonThis month, I have been gearing up for Halloween by reading books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem, a spookfest from Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Here are some scary book suggestions for after the trick-or-treating. And don’t forget to give a book for #AllHallowsRead!

The First Books That Terrified Me

Join the Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Two Brilliant, Haunting Short Shorts

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read!

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OrangeCover“What was the first book to terrify you?” asks Jenn of Jenn’s Bookshelves.

For me, it was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

These two books first terrified me in a way that I hadn’t known reading could do. Neither is a typical horror story, but both of these books gave me nightmares… more

Read my guest post at Jenn’s Bookshelves!

 

What was the first book that terrified you?

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112263horizontalClick here to sign up via Mr. Linky

Today we kick off the #112263Along! This two-month readalong of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is hosted by Kristin, of My Heart Little Melodies. And, I am very excited to be her sidekick co-host. Check out Kristin’s introductory post:

Life Turns on A Dime—a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The group read runs until Dec 22. The midway point will be *the* date of the title, November 22, which this year is the 50th anniversary of the day JKF was shot (a pivitol plot point).

We thought this would be a perfect timing to read 11/22/63, which has a time-travel angle. Though its not a horror story, it does seem fitting to start a Stephen King book in the run up to Halloween.

More on the 11/22/63 by Stephen King Readalong

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Word Hits:

Join us in a readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King!! #112263Along

Originally posted on my little heart melodies:

Inspired by Natalie at Coffee and a Book Chick‘s summer 2013 readalong of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, the DomeAlong, Sarah at Word Hits and I decided to take on King’s 11/22/63 this fall! Special thanks go to Natalie at Coffee and a Book Chick for the inspiration and Sarah for getting things started on the back end for this readalong.

#112263Along

Almost everyone in the discussions during/after the DomeAlong agreed that 11/22/63 was one they either loved or wanted to read eventually. Sarah and I were thinking what better time then this fall, in honor of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, on which the book is based. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?

Jake Epping, 35, teaches high-school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries…

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Ghost Stories of Edith WhartonIf a book could at once be chilling and cosy, that is how I would describe The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. The settings of these tales will be familiar to Wharton’s readers: old New York, rambling country estates, wintry New England, and the Europe of American expats.

Moody and atmospheric, each story quickly drew me in, and I felt that wonderful, familiar pleasure in reading Wharton. But very soon, things begin to go off.

As I read, I grew tense and unsettled. While these are not horror stories, they leave you feeling creeped out and vulnerable. (I had to switch to lighter fare at bedtime.)

Wharton evokes the mysterious and supernatural. As she does to her characters, Wharton keeps the reader guessing about what is actually going on. These stories reminded me very much of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Ironically, this ambiguity gives the stories a realistic, firsthand quality. You get that same tingle that you would when sitting around a campfire in the woods. Except in Wharton’s version, it’s a dwindling fire in the dark library of a “damp Gothic villa.” Wharton sets one of these villas in Irvington, New York—named for Washington Irving (famed for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Wharton was also a great fan of Edgar Allen Poe.

In the book’s introduction, British crime writer David Stuart Davies explains that Wharton was at once terrified of and fascinated by ghost stories.

“I could not sleep in a room with a book containing ghost stories and that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library.”—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

Perhaps this fascination with the paranormal has carried on into Wharton’s own afterlife? Her home The Mount has been the scene of many ghost sightings. They’ve even posted online gallery of spooky images and offer “ghost tours.”

I highly recommend this book. It offers all the joy of reading Edith Wharton, plus some very spooky moments. Said Wharton of a good ghost story:

“If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”

She has achieved just that!

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

NOTE: There are several collections of Wharton’s ghost stories. I chose the Wordsworth Edition (paperback; published 2009;  ISBN: 9781840221640) as it had the most stories. I also really enjoyed the forward by Davies.

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Top Ten LogoGoodness, this Top Ten really made me think! Turns out, most of my favorite books are the ones that are peopled with distinctive, believable secondary characters whom I feel that I know. (Perhaps that also explains my addiction to the ensemble masterpiece LOST.)

Anyway, I could have easily rattled off 10 favorites from Jane Austen’s works, or from The Lord of the Rings. But, I didn’t even try to pick just one of G.R.R. Martin’s cast of characters from A Song of Fire and Ice, seriously?

1.) Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen—Austen’s books are rife with hilarious and memorable supporting characters, caricatures really. But, the haughty, domineering (and hilarious) Lady Catherine takes the cake. An authority on everything and everyone, Lady Catherine commands the spotlight. “I must have my share in the conversation!” She reminds Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam.

2.) Rusty Everett, Under the Dome by Stephen King—My great sorrow is that Rusty does not even feature in the Under the Dome TV show. But he is one of the most human and memorable characters from the book. Rusty is the everyman, the guy we all root for. Of course, there is Barbie the badass, ex-army superhero. But Rusty is someone whom you know you’ve met … thrust into unusual circumstances, who rises to the occasion.

3.) Peregrin (aka Pippin) Took, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien—It’s hard to pick a favorite hobbit, and I wouldn’t dare. But as literary characters go, Pippin is endearing, mischievous, and stellar. He elbows his way into the Fellowship, peers into the Palintir, and charms both Treebeard and the raving mad Denethor. “Fool of a Took!” cries Gandalf, after one of Pippin’s signature gaffs in the Mines of Moria.

4.) Just about everyone in the Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling—Really these books are a cornucopia of delightful, palpable secondary characters. That is why they were able to get so many British greats to take cameos in the films. There are the scene-stealing twins, Fred and George Weasley; the feared and revered Professor McGonagall; the ditzy and dreamy Loony Lovegood; everyone’s favorite fugitive, wizard godfather Sirius Black, Tonks the ass-kicking, punk auror, oh and also Dobby, the house elf, and then Winky, the drunk elf. Really, I must stop, but it’s not easy…

5.) Nelly Dean, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë—I actually do not like Nelly very much at all. She is the original unreliable narrator, presenting her story as if she were not taking sides while in reality she drives along the friction between characters. Knowing Heathcliff is in earshot, Nelly prods Cathy to say it would “degrade her” to marry him.” Decorum prevents me from using the apt word describe Nelly, but it rhymes with witch.

6.) Aunt Dahlia, The Jeeves and Wooster books, by P.G. Wodehouse—Again, I could have picked Aunt Agatha, aka ‘the nephew crusher,’ (or the simpering Madeline Bassett who calls stars “daisy chains,” or the completely daft Barmy Fortheringay Fipps, or Harold ‘Stinker’ Pinker). But Dahlia is the one of my favorites partly for the many whacky schemes into which she ensnares Bertie, but also for her line, “curse all dancing chauffeurs,” uttered after she gets locked out of Brinkley Manor during the servants ball. No wonder, Wodehouse titled a book, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.

7.) Everyone, Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky— Némirovsky planned this as a sort of paean to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a wonderful, shattering novel about the early days of World War II in France, as the Germans roll through Paris and the small villages. There are so many finely drawn and distinct characters: the parents of a son missing in battle; wealthy Parisians fleeing to resorts; and the kindly, well-mannered German officer who is also a musician. It is so heartbreaking that this novel was never finished.

8.) Aloysius, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh—Sebastian’s teddy bear, who accompanies him to Oxford and upon most of his forays, is sort of a forerunner to Hobbes, the best friend of Calvin. Unlike that stuffed plush, though, Aloysius never comes to life, but often Sebastian can express his feelings, or avoid them, by attributing them to his teddy. “How silly, Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all.”

9.) Nick Adams, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway—Ok, so technically Nick is the *main* character. But he is so often the observer, giving us honest, at times awful, insights into those around him, like the brutal, clinical manner of his father in “Indian Camp.” Every few years I reread these stories because I always find something new in Nick’s view of the world. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there is so much brewing under his subdued reactions to nature. “He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.”

10.) Mma Potokwani, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series, by Alexander McCall Smith—This bossy, but lovable mistress of the orphanage is like the bizarro Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mma Potokwani orders people about and makes humorous demands, but all for the good of the orphans for whom she will go to (and push others to) just about any lengths. And of course Mma Ramotswe would not be happily married to the quiet, reserved Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, if Mma Potokwani hadn’t ambushed them with a surprise wedding!

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