Quick Lit // July 2015

This has been a month of change for our family; we moved temporarily to a small town in southern Ontario so my husband can complete a practicum as part of his Masters degree. And the last two weeks have been even more tumultuous, as we wait (rather impatiently) for the arrival of our third child who is currently eleven days overdue. With all the ups and downs, I haven’t read too much; nevertheless, here’s another Quick Lit post with some brief reviews. Enjoy!

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garden spells Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allan ★★☆☆☆ – I chose this book from the library because it was included in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide. It was a disappointment. Maybe my expectations for this book were unrealistic after having read marvellous works like The Mill on the Floss, but I found the characters lacked depth beyond some pop psychology (my mom left me, therefore I fear everyone will leave me) and the magical element only served to heighten the emotion of relationships (which felt like a cheap trick). Not recommended.


wisdomThe Wisdom of Father Brown by GK Chesterton ★★★★☆ – for some reason this little batch of Father Brown detective stories went over my head and at the end of each I was confused about how the mystery had been solved. Is my ready-to-have-a-baby brain particularly un-penetrating at the moment? Or are these stories just subtler than the ones found in The Innocence of Father Brown, which I both enjoyed and understood? The jury’s still out. Despite that, I still found the writing rather marvellous, and for that I give it four stars.


Madam Bovary*Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert ★★★★☆ – now this was quite the story! The basic plot: a young woman gets caught up in a little romance and marries a doctor, only to find herself disappointed in love. The culprit for her lofty expectations? Books. Says Emma Bovary: “I adore stories that rush breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in Nature.” That right there is what I found so fascinating about the book: there’s this chasm between what Emma desires and what is found in real life. Her husband is happy because the simple things of life charm him: “a meal together, a walk in the evening on the high road, a gesture of her hands over her hair, the sight of her straw hat hanging from the window-fastener, and many another thing in which Charles had never dreamed of pleasure, now made up the endless round of his happiness.” But Emma can’t stand the mundane things of life, and it makes her miserable. The story’s a tragedy, but a true and moving one. (The four stars is for the particular translation I read, which was at times clunky and confusing.)


christyChristy by Catherine Marshall ★★★½☆ – the story of a young schoolteacher from the city who moves to a remote mountain village in Tennessee to teach sixty-seven (!!) uneducated students. I found the depiction of rural mountain life and society in the early 1900s captivating, especially some of the hand-me-down foibles of Scottish immigrants, like illiterate parents who believe Latin is integral to their children’s education. Totally fascinating! But Christy’s condescending attitude towards the women in Cutter Gap and about motherhood in particular was grating after a while; it would do her good to meet with GK Chesterton for some perspective:

“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.”


birds pardonable-lies-225Birds of a Feather (Maisie Dobbs #2) and Pardonable Lies (Maisie Dobbs #3) by Jacqueline Winspear ★★☆☆☆– the second and third Maisie Dobbs books are improvements on the first; the stories are not as tidily linear, and the mysteries Maisie untangles are more complex and interesting. But the Buddhist/new age climate is also stronger, as are the modern liberal sentiments on practices like homosexuality. I can’t say I’m interested in reading any further in the series.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

Quick Lit // June 2015

It’s time once again for Quick Lit, a recap of what I’ve been reading this past month. Here we go . . .

InnocenceThe Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton ★★★★☆– a collection of mysteries solved by a Catholic priest with a flair for detective work (the book jacket explains it this way: Father Brown has a “highly developed understanding of the criminal mind, derived from the hours he has spent listening to the penitent confessing their sins”). Engaging, enjoyable and so articulate – like Evelyn Waugh, Chesterton has a remarkable ability to find exactly the right word to use!


MillThe Mill on the Floss by George Eliot ★★★★★ – this book is a feast for the mind and the heart, the sort you mull over and contemplate for weeks. At its heart, it’s the story of a brother and sister growing up – Tom, with his rigid sense of justice and desire to set aright his father’s failures, and Maggie, with her brilliant mind and passionate, love-hungry soul. George Eliot excels in understanding human nature, appreciating beauty and reading the human heart. The best book I’ve read this year!


Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman ★★½☆☆– a brief story of a middle-aged man fleetingly remembering the nightmarish events of his childhood. The protagonist’s forgetfulness and the nightmare both left me feeling helpless and I can’t stand feeling that way when reading a book! Easy to read and highly creepy, if you like that sort of thing, but frustratingly lacking a satisfying resolution.


what-matters-in-jane-austen-john-mullan-2013-x-2001What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan ★★★★☆– author John Mullan examines all sorts of interesting tidbits in Jane Austen’s novels, such as what makes characters blush, what characters read, why her plots rely on blunders and the right and wrong ways to propose marriage. Fascinating and illuminating, it’s the sort of book that makes you realize afresh the literary prowess of Jane Austen. It was wonderful to read right after finishing Northanger Abbey last month.


RebeccaRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin ★★★☆☆– an enjoyable coming-of-age story with an endearing heroine, Rebecca, whose heart is moved by beauty and stirred by poetry. Very Anne of Green Gables-esque with its classroom dramas and small-town spectacles. The multiple Mill on the Floss references were an unexpected bonus. 🙂 I wish the story had had a few more chapters, though; the novel concludes with an unfinished air that leaves one looking for a sequel (there isn’t one, just a companion novel that fills in some more details about Rebecca’s childhood).


I’m linking up with Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy again today; head on over to her blog for more brief book reviews!

Quick Lit // May 2015

northanger Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen ★★★★☆ (re-read) – up to this point in my life, I haven’t paid much attention to Henry Tilney, but he really is quite a delightful character: handsome, intellectual, witty, and forever dissecting Catherine’s choice of words (which reminds me of my husband a little). The gothic satire gives the book a funny edge, too. Not quite Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion, but a wonderfully diverting read nonetheless.


dovekeepers The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman ★★★☆☆– half fascinating, half frustrating, this novel tells the stories of four women at Masada (Herod’s fortress in Israel) in the years leading up to the Roman siege in 73 AD. Both the setting and the time period are fascinating and provide plenty of dramatic tension. However, my main beef with the book is that the author presents pagan worship of the goddess Ashtoreth as something meaningful, natural and effectual, while not one character seems to have a genuine faith in the Jewish God (prayer to him is ineffectual and escapist, his laws are oppressive, etc.). For a book about Jewish zealots fighting against Roman oppression, that’s problematic.


voyage The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis ★★★★★ (re-read) – Lucy and Edmund are part of this Narnian story, but the real focus is on nasty cousin Eustace who’s inadvertently drawn into Narnia and the way he changes during his time there. I found Eustace’s education in facts, facts, facts (never stories!) thought-provoking; CS Lewis keeps apologizing for his inadequacies by explaining that “of course Eustace had never heard any stories about those sorts of creatures.” The book worked perfectly as a read-aloud for my 3-year old son as nearly every chapter unveils a newly discovered island with its own peculiarities. James (my son) was spellbound by the section in which Eustace is turned into a dragon; and who of us can’t sympathize with his profound desire for friendship just when it is most unlikely.


secret The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton ★★½☆☆– the first half of this novel is quite slow, as all the pieces of the plot are being set in place; the second half is more engaging and full of surprising plots twists. Those surprises are what Kate Morton excels at – but I’m more interested in characters than an “aha!” that catches me off guard. And the characters were either unappealing (Laurel, Dorothy) or caricatures (most of the male characters) . . . which is one of my pet peeves with modern novels: why are the men in today’s books so un-masculine and un-admirable? Where’s a modern Henry Tilney when you need him?


nestingThe Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to be Perfect to be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith ★★★☆☆- the second half of the title pretty much sums up the gist of this easy-to-read book on home decor. My favourite part: perusing all the photos of the author’s former homes (there are so many)!


I’m linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy for this month’s Quick Lit; check out her blog for more mini book reviews.

Quick Lit // April 2015

PeacePeace Like a River by Leif Enger ★★★★☆– a quiet, beautifully told story of fatherhood, character and courage. This novel reminded me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird, actually, as both involve a principled father, precocious daughter and older brother all caught up in a story of (in)justice. Swede is just as winsome as Scout; I loved her marvellous outlaw poetry and hearty appreciation of a fine turn of phrase.


FoodIt Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig ★★★★☆ – if you’ve been on the internet at all this past year, you’ve likely heard of the Whole 30. You know, where you cut out dairy, grains, alcohol and added sugar for 30 days? Sounds delightful, right? 🙂 My husband and I are on Day 29 and it was useful to read this book first as it gives a thorough rationale for the Whole30 program. Scientific and practical.


KimballThe Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art by Roger Kimball ★★★★☆- A scathing, often hilarious critique of the absurd flights of fancy that make up much of modern art criticism. Roger Kimball introduces the reader to several artists (Sargent, Van Gogh, Velazquez, among others) and to bizarre contemporary interpretations of their paintings. Straightforward, insightful and totally worth your while.


You Can StillYou Can Still Wear Cute Shoes by Lisa McKay ★★★☆☆- a light-hearted and practical how-to book for pastor’s wives. A group of fellow seminary wives and I read and discussed this book over several months. Not really my style (I’d have preferred something deeper), but there were some helpful pointers like: when moving, set up your child’s room first so that they feel settled.


Stuart LittleStuart Little by EB White ★★1/2☆☆- I read this with my 3-year old who didn’t seem to mind that it was more of a series of unrelated events than a cohesive story. He found it quite amusing, actually. But, being six months pregnant, I found the story of a woman giving birth to a two-inch boy that resembles a mouse downright shuddersome.

 


maisieMaisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear ★★★☆☆ – I’ve been in a reading funk this month; I started reading five or six books, but ended up tossing them all aside. I just couldn’t get interested! Then I picked up this one, the first in a series of mystery novels featuring Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Private Investigator and finished it in two days. It’s oh-so-readable – and yet left me feeling a little cold, like the characters were just a bit too starchy and careful to properly befriend.


I’m linking up with Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy for her monthly Quick Lit feature. Head on over there to read more short and sweet book reviews.

Quick Lit // March 2015

I’m linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy today for Quick Lit, where we share short and sweet book reviews.

16121977Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior ★★★½☆
A fusion of memoir and literary musings, Booked explores Karen Swallow Prior’s formative years through the lens of a variety of classic works ranging from Charlotte’s Web (her childhood days on her grandparents’ farm) to Jane Eyre (her awkward adolescence) and Milton’s Areopagitica (an encouragement to ‘read promiscuously’). The memoir is underwhelming, but the segments on literature make you want to scribble notes in the margins and haul out the highlighter. I found Prior’s thoughts on Charles Dickens, for example, really helpful, and her chapter on Madame Bovary is both brilliant and hilarious (the raspberry fight!).

17305016 Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier  ★★☆☆☆
A magical healer, Blackthorn, and her former prison mate, Grim, set up shop on the edge of an enchanted forest where she has agreed to help any who ask for assistance and to forego vengeance for seven years. This oh-so-predictable fantasy novel is twice as long as it needs to be, with characters each defined by a single attribute: Blackthorn is so angry, Grim is so taciturn, the Prince is so good-hearted, etc. I enjoyed Marillier’s earlier works, like the Sevenwaters series, much more than this book.

LionWardrobe3The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis (re-read) ★★★★★
Lucy enters Narnia through a wardrobe – and this is the story of what happened there. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to my 3-year old and we both relished every moment. He was caught up in the magic of the story and the struggle of good vs. evil; there were a lot of conversations afterwards along the line of, “Mom, can we please go to Narnia now? It’s okay to go, the White Witch is dead!” I was struck by the story’s gravity and profundity.

north-and-south-vintage-coverNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (re-read) ★★★★☆
Margaret Hale moves from a rustic village in the south of England to the smoky, industrial city of Milton-North, and her assumptions about both areas are challenged by the people she meets and the situations she encounters (mill strikes, young people dying of diseases caused by their work environments, etc.). Many think of the novel as Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience; I found the change in Margaret compelling, even if the spark between her and the commanding Mr. Thornton was less fiery than that of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

rilla-of-ingleside-9781442490208_hrRilla of Ingleside by LM Montgomery ★★☆☆☆
The story of Anne Blythe’s youngest child, Rilla, as she grows up and falls in love during the First World War. I enjoyed parts of the book, like Rilla’s brother Walter’s struggle for courage, but found it fell flat overall. The pacing of the novel felt tedious because it depended so much on the advances and setbacks of the war, and I found the romance between Rilla and Kenneth lacklustre. I’d recommend trying pretty much any other novel by LM Montgomery before reading this one.

51fDe0NaimL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt ★★★★☆
Affectionate is your dog, Bulky is a big bag of boxes, and Calamitous is saying no to the king; these definitions are uncontested, but there are squabbles in the palace over which food should stand for the word ‘delicious’ in the new dictionary. Thus a young messenger is sent to poll the kingdom. A fresh and delightful fairytale adventure that’s both funny and poetic without being sentimental. Highly recommended! (And for the record, I’d vote for “Delicious is hot apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.”)

715VLP6M-OL To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ★★★★★
The story of a white southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, defending a wrongfully accused black man, as told through the eyes of his precocious daughter, Scout. TKAM is a skillfully written book with a strong sense of place (“Somehow, it was hotter then. . . . Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum”), but the characters who ring true are the best part of the book, especially hot-headed, independent Scout, innocent in the ways of racial prejudice; and Atticus, her thoughtful and compassionate father.

before i burnBefore I Burn by Gaute Heivoll (did not finish) – I picked up a cutely packaged book from my library for their Blind Date With a Book feature for Valentine’s Day, and ended up with this Norwegian mystery/crime novel. I’m afraid I quickly ditched the bookish blind date as there were other books in which I was much more interested.

What were your favourite reads this past month?

Quick Lit // February 2015

I’ve been reading more than usual this month (winter doldrums) but unfortunately it was a month of mostly mixed or disappointing reads . . . so please leave your suggestions for high calibre & engaging fiction in the comments because, really, this needs to end!

bronze oscar first

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare – fascinating YA novel set in antiquity that tells the tale of a Jewish teenager who desires the overthrow of Rome because of the crucifixion of his father . . . and yet is drawn to the countercultural teachings of rabbi Jesus. A poignant and satisfying story.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey – part tragedy, part we’re-all-misunderstanding-each-other comedy, this novel is a depressing love story of sorts between a pair of gambling social misfits (one a priest, the other an heiress) set in Australia in the 1800s. The story is unique and the writing skilled and vivid; I’ve never read metaphors quite like the ones conjured by Carey: “She stood and moved towards the other stair, like a customer in a bank who feels there are bank robbers in the queue in front of her but is not quite confident of her intuition.” But the bleak and meaningless core of this book left this reader wondering if there are any excellent writers left in the world who actually believe in truth and goodness and beauty . . .

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett – a twofold story that explores Jane Austen’s fictional friendship with an elderly parson and a present-day bookstore clerk attempting to solve a Jane Austen-themed literary mystery. The pretentious writing, inane dialogue and the dull rendering of Jane Austen are problems enough, but the novel’s superficial understanding of Pride and Prejudice really made it tank. Elizabeth Bennett judged the character of two men based on her first impressions – and those assessments had sober consequences. Charlie Lovett’s characters, on the other hand, leap to conclusions based on appearances – and these conclusions cost nothing. This results in a deeply unsatisfying story with absolutely no character development.

Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers – mystery novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey meeting the woman of his dreams: fiction writer Harriet Vane, who, unfortunately, is on trial for murdering her lover. The mystery was all right, but the characters are certainly the most compelling part of the book.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers – mystery novel also featuring Lord Peter and Harriet, who somehow remain very intriguing characters despite the poke-your-eyes-out-it’s-so-tedious plot.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers – another Lord Peter & Harriet mystery novel, this one with a glacially paced plot, piquant dialogue and a beautiful setting (the unforgettable city of Oxford, England). Harriet’s slowly growing vulnerability towards the singular Lord Peter kept me reading and plagued my thoughts for weeks afterward.

storied light rites

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – my favourite part of this book was the thirteen short story reviews that served as chapter introductions. They were brief but evocative, giving a wonderful taste of the short story and glimpses into the heart of AJ Fikry, protagonist. The narrative itself began well, but grew boring and a little cheesy once Mr. Fikry’s rough edges softened.  Note: there’s a fair amount of swearing and blasphemy and an oddly worshipful tone when describing books, bookstores and reading.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – an interesting, detailed and well-written story with some memorable phrases (“the cords of his soul not yet severed”) set in the midst of World War II. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, but found the last half with its Scarlett O’Hara-type disintegration of the young man’s character bleak and ghastly; it left me longing for a much fuller redemption than the small act of grace it offered.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir as she awaits execution for participating in the murder of her lover. The author aptly describes her book as a “dark love letter to Iceland,” and, indeed, her portrait of the beautiful but desolate wintry landscape of rural Iceland is so skillfully rendered it adds a mournful pitch to Agnes’s story. But the characters themselves lack depth, nuance and believability.

charlotte sea

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – I read this charming story of the friendship between a pig and a spider to my three-year old son and we both adored it. James loved the silly antics of Fern’s brother, Avery, and I loved Wilbur & Charlotte’s sweet and selfless friendship and the quiet grace of day-to-day rural life.

The Sea of Tranquility by Katya Millay – an overwrought story of two ‘broken’ teenagers forging a friendship/relationship over disdain, silences and woodworking. Too pointlessly vulgar and promiscuous for my sensibilities.

I’m linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy today; check out her blog for more brief book reviews!

What recently read book has stood out to you? Any recommendations for novels to beat this slump of just okay and/or disappointing reads?

Quick Lit // December 2014 & January 2015

collage jan15

Here are a few mini book reviews of novels I’ve read over the last two months . . . Enjoy!

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – still my favourite novel. Brilliant dialogue, passionate emotion + moral fortitude = perfection.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – the story of a young boy becoming a man. Full of exaggerated characters, I found David Copperfield a little slow in places, but there were parts of the story that resonated deeply. For instance, near the end of the story David describes his first love as, “The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart” – and I can’t get that line out of my head. When was the last time the hero of a novel was admired for discipline and prudence? Our culture is all about ‘following your heart’ no matter where it leads . . .

Adam Bede by George Eliot – the story of a young man maturing – learning forgiveness, falling in love, experiencing sorrow. Eliot is so insightful about the way people act and think, plus her writing is really beautiful. I found myself frequently underlining thoughtful observations like this: “There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my everyday fellow-men, especially for those few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch, for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy.” Quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever read.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – this novel rests on a startling reveal about 70 pages in, and I certainly did not see it coming. So – points for surprise. But I found the jumpy narrative irritating, all the characters unsympathetic, and the persistent psychological trauma unconvincing.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer – a dystopian retelling of the Cinderella fairytale – except not really, as many of the plot points do not align. This YA novel is pretty engaging, but far too fluffy and unrealistic to be satisfying (Prince, why are falling in love with this cyborg for no discernible reason? And why are you telling her state secrets on your second or third meeting?).

Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery – another lovely instalment in the Anne of Green Gables series.

The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde – quite a fascinating story of a young man’s obsession with beauty and the growing corruption of his soul. The asides on art and philosophy were way over my head, as were many of the British witticisms, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless.

I’m linking up with Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy today; head on over for more brief book reviews!