Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: December 2020


It's the last day of 2020, and good riddance I say. That isn't to say that nothing good happened in 2020, there were definitely good things (one very good thing this month alone, which I've talked about below). But as a year, it's been a challenging one and I am very glad to put it in the rearview. I know that vaccines being out doesn't mean it's all over, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel now and if we just keep our heads down and push through we'll get there!

In Books...

  • The Long and Faraway Gone: On paper, this is the sort of mystery/thriller should have been more for me, as it has a strong focus on its two lead characters and doesn't hide information from the reader that the characters know to build up suspense. But I kept expecting the two storylines (a nurse tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the sister who disappeared when she was a child, and a PI investigating a harassment case digs into what happened when the movie theater he worked in as a teen was robbed and everyone besides him was killed) to converge, and there was some lazy plotting in how things wrapped up. 
  • Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen is one of my favorite writers on the internet, and her article early last year about burnout among millennials felt like it put its finger on a problem I'd long knew about but never put my finger on. This book basically builds the piece out to book length, and while it's well-done and thoroughly-researched, it doesn't really feel like it says anything that different or more special than the original article. 
  • Brideshead Revisited: This seemed like a perfect book for me...I really like classics, and I'm really interested in the period between the World Wars. But in practice, this story about a young British man who gets caught up with an aristocratic Catholic family just never actually took off for me. I'm not sure exactly what it was trying to be about or what I was supposed to get out of it. It wasn't bad, just not actually good. 
  • Second Helpings: I loved the first book in the Jessica Darling series when I read it a few years ago, so was excited to dive into the second. For the most part, it worked for me...Jessica's humor remained lively and her story felt so familiar as someone who was a high school overachiever at the time the book takes place. But wow was there a LOT of slut-shaming in there. Having been an insecure teenage virgin at the same time, I know that this attitude was very commonplace, but reading it with today's eyes was very jarring. 
  • Men Explain Things To Me: This essay collection is grounded in the ways the world works to diminish and silence women, and while all the pieces kind of run into each other because of their similarities in tone, it's still very good and also infuriating. 
  • Overdressed: The idea that fast fashion (Target, Forever 21, H&M, etc) isn't really good is not a new one, but this book managed to still examine interesting angles about the way its proliferation has impacted the world for the worse. It's a little on the dry side, but it actually got me thinking about my clothes in a new way, so it was a worthwhile read. 
  • Mindhunter: Like basically everyone who has read/watched The Silence of the Lambs, I think criminal profiling is really fascinating. John Douglas was a pioneer in the field and this book details his conversations with killers and how he worked on then-active cases, which is super interesting. There are also autobiographical elements to the narrative, which I will be honest, I found much less compelling.


In Life...

  • My nephew was born: My sister and her husband welcomed their first child, a son. Since he's not my baby and info about him isn't really mine to share, I'll just note that everyone is doing well and it is an extreme bummer that COVID is happening right now because it is likely to be quite some time before I get to meet little T, but I am very excited to be an aunt!

One Thing:

I had more or less forgotten about Martin Shkreli until this truly insane article came out and if you have not yet been aware of it, I am jealous you get to experience it for the first time because it is BANANAS! I have so many questions about Christie, her motives, what her ex and friends/family really think, and how exactly this all happened. I've swung back and forth between feeling sorry for her, thinking she's a narcissist, thinking she's just as much of a manipulator as he's a fascinating story!

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

2020 Bonus Stats: Like I have for the past several years now, I bought the Rock Your Reading Tracker from Sarah's Book Shelves and got some interesting information out of it! I do my major statistics post on my yearly summary posts, which I put up on my birthday in October, but here are some cool stats that I was able to glean from Sarah's very useful tracker, which I highly recommend!

My number of pages read increased year-over-year (even as my book count didn't): I actually read one less book in 2020 than I did in 2019, but read 1,021 more pages! Obviously I went for longer books this year, with most of my reading still in the 300-400 page range but 25 were longer than 400 pages (and only 18 were shorter than 300).

I still read a lot more debuts than I think: I don't think of myself as someone who tends to especially enjoy a debut, but they made up more than a third of my reading this year (38%), as opposed to 29% last year. I would not have thought they'd be more than 20% either year since I do not set out to read debuts but here we are!

I didn't like my reading quite as much in 2020: My average rating for this year was a little under six stars this year, while it was between six and seven for 2019. If we look at books I rated at least 7/10, 53% of my reading last year hit that mark, while only 43% did this year, a 10% drop! I wonder if some of that is related to the "more debuts" thing? Some may also be related to struggling to connect with my reading at times during the pandemic.

I still read mostly backlist: At 83% both last year and this year, my fondness for a book that's already proven it will stand the test of time is well-established.

I enjoyed my book club reading more than I previously had: I didn't HATE anything I read for my book club this year, and rated a few books at least seven stars, which is a marked improvement. My book club is run by a local bookstore and has a moderator that chooses books for us, so I don't expect to love everything and appreciate the ways I sometimes get forced out of my comfort zone, but there was a point at which I was considering leaving the club based on the issues I'd had with the books we picked so I am really pleased to see the improvement here!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite 2020 Releases

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about our top 2020 releases. As always, I read overwhelmingly backlist, but I read about 15-ish new releases this year and these were my favorite ten (in order from more-to-less loved)!

A Luminous Republic: This short little book feels almost like folklore, telling a tale about a village on the edge of the Argentinian jungle that doesn't quite know how to react when it finds itself invaded by a pack of feral children. This really got under my skin and made me think.

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires: The title is campy, and it often engages in winking humor, but the real story here is about women who feel like they don't quite fit in to their homogeneous southern town finding community together...and also maybe tracking down a vampire.

Mother Daughter Widow Wife: This book was mismarketed badly as a thriller when it's actually much more a work of character analysis, about three women whose lives are forever impacted by the actions of a psychiatrist. 

Plain Bad Heroines: This book has a big story to tell, spanning multiple generations of queer women. It doesn't quite succeed at weaving all of its threads together into a tight pattern, but it's a very atmospherically creepy and entertaining read!

Hidden Valley Road: Imagine having 12 children. And then imagine six of those children developing schizophrenia. It's what actually happened with one family in Colorado Springs, and this book examines the impact of the illness not just upon the children who had it, but the ones who didn't as well. 

Can't Even: Anne Helen Petersen's Buzzfeed article about millennial burnout is fantastic. This book basically just takes the idea and expands it through research and original reporting without adding much that felt new or different. Better for explaining millennials to other people than to themselves.

Followers: This futuristic story based on social media/influencer culture, and it does some interesting things but can't quite sustain itself.

A Beginning at the End: A post-pandemic story about a family which has experienced loss might have landed a little better in virtually any other year. 

His Only Wife: This debut does not imbue the central relationship its narrative depends on with the believablity it needs, but it is otherwise quite promising!

Highfire: I thought this was a bit of a miss, honestly, but my hopes may have been disproportionately high. It's silly and enjoyable enough, if ultimately forgettable. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Book 265: Flip

"If he had got away with it so far, it was only because the truth was too bizarre for any of the people in Flip's world to figure out in a million years. They might not always know what to make of this version of Flip, but to them, he was still Flip. A weird, puzzling Flip, but Flip even so. They only had to look at him to see that." 

Dates read: October 1-3, 2018

Rating: 4/10

It's easy to look at other people, people who are wealthy, attractive, skilled, popular, and think they have it made. To wonder what it would be like to go through life as them. To wish you could switch places, even if just for a day or two. Rationally, of course, everyone has problems. Appearances can be deceiving, and someone who seems to have it made could be hiding issues we could never even guess.

In Martyn Bedford's Flip, fourteen year-old Alex Gray is a nerd. He plays music and chess, not sports. He's nowhere close to having a girlfriend. His family in London is working class. It would seem like waking up one morning in the body of Phillip "Flip" Garamond, who is handsome, athletic, and popular, would be exciting. But it's six months later than Alex remembers it being and he has no idea where he is, or why he isn't himself anymore, and he's terrified. He bumbles through life as Flip while trying desperately to figure out what happened to him before making contact with a mysterious stranger called Rob...who knows exactly what's going on with Alex because he's lived through it himself. Alex has to discover if things can be made right, or if he's fated to spend the rest of his life as Flip.

The first half of this book is really solid, with a sophistication in the prose style beyond that which is typical in young adult books. For as much as it can be enjoyable to daydream about living someone else's life for the day, the reality is that waking up in someone else's body would be absolutely horrifyingly scary, and Bedford skillfully conveys Alex's terror at this turn of events. I appreciated how Bedford laid out the confusion that would suffuse every moment of trying to figure out where you are, who the strangers you live with are, what you're "supposed to" be eating for breakfast, even where school is and what classes you're supposed to be going to. His longing to return to his real life, even though it's less desirable in almost every way, is very affecting, and makes Alex someone easy to root for. 

But it's in Alex's quest for answers, and the ones Bedford devises, that everything falls apart. I'm going to throw in a spoiler alert here, because I will be discussing the ending, because it is the culminating cherry on the downward slide of the book. After looks of searching, Alex stumbles across a message board for "psychic evacuees", people whose consciousness left their body, usually at the point of death, and took over another body that was "connected" to them in some way. It is here that Alex meets Rob, who shows up to hang out and talk about the life he's been living in someone else's body for years now. They discover that Alex didn't die, but was rather in a car accident that's left him in a coma...and his parents are about to take his body off life support. Alex devises a plan to "trick" his spirit back into his body by smothering himself and honestly it's all just bonkers.

For a novel that begins so pleasantly rooted in realism, it's disappointing the way it careens into plot angles that could be charitably described as "crackpot". I was genuinely curious about how Bedford was going to explain the body-switching, because it seemed like, from the way he was writing, it would be something that seemed at least quasi-plausible. He might as well have had Alex touch a cursed amulet for all the sense it made, though. And although the novel asks us to feel for Alex, it's shockingly unsympathetic to Flip, who must have gone from minding his own business to being stuck inside a strange body that's unresponsive, which is even more awful than Alex's situation, and then finally being freed only to face the mess that Alex made of his life...not just his social situation at school, but facing criminal consequences for his behavior! It tries to handwave this away at the very end, but I didn't find it at all convincing. I don't want to write this book off entirely, because there was some very solid stuff to start it off, but the ending is too preposterous and poorly thought-out for me to honestly recommend it at all.

One year ago, I was reading: Without A Prayer

Two years ago, I was reading: The Island of the Colorblind

Three years ago, I was reading: Rebecca

Four years ago, I was a reading: The Moonlight Palace

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Winter 2020-2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Yesterday was the first day of winter, so let's take a look at my seasonal reading list...well, most of it, there will be book club selections in here as well! I think it's a pretty good mix of genres, and features an extremely famous author I'll be reading for the first time!

Mindhunter: I know that this got made into a Netflix series fairly recently, but I've had the book on my list for quite a while now. I went through a phase where I wanted to be a criminal profiler so this seems like something I'll really like.

The Wife Upstairs: Rachel Hawkins is a fantastic Twitter follow, and having recently re-read Jane Eyre for book club, I'm really excited to read her take on it!

Go, Went, Gone: This is the book club selection for December, and I'm always excited when we pick a book I've already bought! I've heard great things about Jenny Erpenbeck's work and am excited to read it.

The Satanic Verses: I read his Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children about two years ago and thought it was wonderful, albeit very dense. I like his writing, and have to admit I'm curious about the work that meant a fatwa was issued against him.

On Hitler's Mountain: I don't much love memoir, but memoirs about important historical events are often the exception. This one is about growing up German during the Nazi regime by a girl who grew up wanting to critically examine her country's history and I think it will be very interesting.

Murder on the Orient Express: I have actually never read Christie before! I saw the movie version ages ago, so long that I can't actually remember the solution to the mystery, but remember it was very entertaining.

The Sea: I'm a sucker for a Booker Prize winner.

All Girls: Coming of age novels are an especially favorite of mine, as are books set in closed academic environments like prep schools, so this seems extremely up my alley.

The Secret Life of Bees: I have a cousin who loves this book, and several people I trust have really enjoyed it too, so I'm curious about it!

The Leftovers: I've never seen the HBO show, but I understand the premise and think it sounds interesting!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Book 264: The Things They Carried


"I remember Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checkers every evening before dark. It was a ritual for them. They would dig a foxhole and get the board out and play long, silent games as the sky went from pink to purple. The rest of us would sometimes stop by to watch. There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larger strategies. There was a winner and a loser. There were rules."

Dates read: September 27- October 1, 2018

Rating: 9/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

It seems like, when it comes to books about wars, World War II is the popular one. Fiction or nonfiction, there's no lack of written material about it. World War I also has plenty of reading to discover. There's a distance from these wars, and they have a moral clarity that's appealing. There are good guys and bad guys and it's not hard to tell who's who. But the more recent wars: Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq...they don't seem to have attracted the same kind of literary attention.

Which doesn't mean this kind of literature doesn't exist, though. When it comes to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is the standard-bearer. A collection of interlinked short stories, it explores a platoon of soldiers before, during, and after their service in Vietnam. It's told through the perspective of a young solider, also named Tim O'Brien, who is not only a writer but specifically writing these stories, and as the book is rooted in author Tim O'Brien's own experiences with the war, it's all very meta, even including a short story about figuring out how to tell a war story. Though O'Brien's character is the most central one, he explores several other perspectives besides his own.

The central plot, such as there is one (which is loose at best and completely out of chronological order), tells the story of Tim O'Brien the character. When drafted to fight, he's afraid, and very nearly crosses the Canadian border to escape. Ultimately, though, he returns home and then is shipped off to Vietnam, where he joins a platoon, gets to know his fellow soldiers, and watches them kill and be killed. He is wounded a few times, the second of which is serious enough that he's removed from the fighting and taken to the hospital, and shortly thereafter goes back to the US. After the war, he and his fellow veterans struggle to make sense of their experiences. While Tim finds some level of solace in becoming a writer, others can't make the readjustment.

As in any collection of short stories, some are particularly strong and others are weaker. The title story, the first in the book, detailing the baggage both physical and emotional that the soldiers carry with them through the jungle, is the standout. I'm not much of a short story person, but this one is about as close to perfect as any I've ever read. The language, the characterization, the pacing, all of it is amazing. It's the perfect way to start things off. "On The Rainy River", which details Tim's flight to the Canadian border and near-crossing of it, is also beautiful and poignant. And "Speaking Of Courage", about one of Tim's platoon-mates who can't seem to figure out how to fit into the world again after the war, is absolutely heartbreaking. On the weirder side, "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong", about an urban legends shared among the soldiers of a girlfriend who came over to visit and became more and more immersed in martial culture until she disappeared into the wild like a ghost, never to return, has compelling echoes of Heart of Darkness.

I will say that some of the more meta aspects of the book didn't quite work for me, like the "How to Tell a True War Story" piece that I mentioned earlier, as well as "Good Form", a story that reveals a previous story to have been told in a way that is factually incorrect but emotionally true. Though ultimately it didn't take away from the writing or its impact on me, I did wish the book was either straight fiction or straight nonfiction. That's a minor quibble, though. On the whole I thought this book was very well-executed and incredibly affecting. It gave me perspective into and empathy with the lives of those who have lived through something I never will, which honestly is one of the biggest points of reading for me. I would highly recommend this book for all readers.

One year ago, I was reading: House of Cards

Two years ago, I was reading: The Prince of Tides

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lady of the Rivers

Four years ago, I was reading: The Red Queen

Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Hope Santa Brings

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! I'm doing this topic slightly out of order, because I think next Tuesday might be cutting it a little close for here are ten books I'm hoping to see under the tree!

Maximilian and Carlota: I'm always interested in stories of royalty, so this book about the ill-fated emperor and empress of Mexico is very much up my alley.

Abominable Science: This book is about cryptozoology...i.e. the fantastic creatures of folklore, like yetis and bigfoots. It examines evidence of their existence as well as the science behind why people believe in them, and sounds like the kind of thing that would really work for me!

The Global Age: I own all the other books in this series about the history of Europe, so I want the last one to complete the set! 

Too Much: This book is about how women today are still impacted by Victorian attitudes about gender, and I am very into deep dives of this sort.

Shadow King: The Tudor era began with Henry VII, but the Wars of the Roses really began with the reign of Henry VI, who seems to have been an intensely odd person and I would love to learn more about him!

The Accusation: This is a true crime examination of one of (if not the) only known instances of the blood libel being deployed in the United States and I am super curious about it.

Once A Grand Duke: It wouldn't be a list from me if I didn't have a book about Russia on it somewhere! This is the memoir of Nicholas II's brother-in-law about the last years of the Romanov dynasty.

Talking Animals: This is a book about a world much like our own, except the people are animals. It sounds like it has echoes of Animal Farm, one of my favorite books, so I'm definitely interested in reading it.

The Spider King's Daughter: This is an opposites-attract drama from Nigeria about a rich girl and a poor boy who fall in love as teenagers and I've heard great things about it!

Mhudi: This was the first book written in English by a Black South African, and is supposed to be a really interesting look at life before large-scale European settlement in the area, which is something I'm fascinated by.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Book 263: Ready Player One


“I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.”

Dates read: September 22-27, 2018

Rating: 3/10

I started feeling kind of old when I found not just one, but two, 1990s/2000s classic rap and r&b stations on the radio in Reno. Don't get me wrong, getting to have my high school and college party anthems playing on the radio on the regular is great. But it's a reminder that my youth is now behind me. The things that I loved with that pure, unironic love you really only have as a teenager (Clueless, Can't Hardly Wait, the first few Britney albums) are now winking reference points for new teenagers! The nerve! Get off my lawn!

When I was in college, though, it wasn't about the 90s. They were too recent. It was all about the 80s. So many 80s parties. I'll be honest: with a few notable exceptions, the pop culture of the 80s generally doesn't move me. That was not a good omen for my enjoyment of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. In the near future, there has been widespread economic and ecological damage done to the world. Luckily, there's the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality where people can escape and exist through avatars. OASIS was created by a Steve Jobs-esque reclusive genius called James Halliday, who created a sensation when he died a few years before the novel begins by bequeathing his enormous fortune to whoever first can get to the "Easter Egg" he left behind...with clues rooted in the (you guessed it) 80s pop culture he loved.

Teenager Wade Watts (avatar: Parzival) has a comic book-worthy origin story: after the deaths of both of his parents when he was young, he went to live with an aunt in what are called the "stacks" homes outside of major cities literally stacked on top of each other. When he's not attending school via OASIS, he's doing what lots of people are doing: being an Easter Egg hunter, or "gunter" for short. When his obsessive devotion to Halliday's favorite video games, music, and movies pays off and he becomes the first person to discover one of three keys that will lead to the final prize, he's locked into a race for the finish. Parzival, his crush Art3mis, his best friend Aech and a team of two Japanese gamers are all competing...and also trying to ensure that an evil corporate conglomerate doesn't snag the prize, and control of OASIS, first.

If you really enjoy 80s pop culture, you'll love this. The idea of a world where our favorite trivia is literally the key to fame and fortune is delightful, and Cline's joy in writing it shines through. The plot moves along quickly, and it's not hard to see why this got made into a movie: it hits all the beats you'd expect it to, so it plays in your mind as you read. There's an emotional satisfaction to knowing the general track of things while waiting to see what little detours the specifics are going to take you on, and some sequences (like the climactic battle) are genuinely thrilling.

As a whole, though, the book fell terribly flat for me. As a non-80s devotee, it often felt like just constant lists of references to things that held absolutely no charm or emotional resonance. The storytelling was extremely basic, and the character development even more so. The issues the book is patting itself on the back for highlighting: that people might not be who they pretend to be for reasons both good and bad, that beauty comes from within, that it's your connection with a person that matters and not what they look like, are dealt with in a shallow, facile fashion that only emphasizes the simplicity of the narrative and the people who populate it. I've read a lot of books that didn't hook me, but few have been so boring as to be as difficult to read as this one. I do understand why it would appeal to people: it's a straightforward adventure story rooted in an era that many find nostalgically compelling. If that sounds fun to you, by all means, you'll likely enjoy this book like hundreds of thousands of people have. If not, though, this is one to avoid. 
One year ago, I was reading: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Two years ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch
Three years ago, I was reading: The Games
Four years ago, I was reading: The Wonder
Five years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My TBR With Winter Vibes

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! We're rapidly approaching wintertime (only just the one real snowshower here yet, but I'm sure more is on the way!), so it's time to take a look at books that are all brrrr-y feeling! Here are ten books on my to-be-read list that have winter vibes.

Into Thin Air: What's colder than mountain climbing on Everest? I'm a little hit-and-miss on Krakauer but this is supposed to be very good.

The Little Ice Age: This book looks at the titular climate event and its impact on history, which I am very interested in!

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: I loved reading about The Iditirod dog race in Alaska when I was a kid (I swear a remember a computer game where you put a dog sled team together, because it was one of my computer lab favorites!). I don't usually love memoir, but I think this one about moving north and become a dog sled racer will be up my alley.

The Edge of the World: This is an examination of the history of the North Sea, the water that lies between the UK and Scandinavia. Pretty chilly there!

A Frozen Hell: In 1939, little Finland went to war with mighty Russia. It did not end in actual "victory" for the Finns, they ended up having to give the Soviet Union territory, but they managed to

Doctor Zhivago: There had to be at least one Russian novel on this list, right?

Wolf Winter: That this book is about an especially harsh winter (in Sweden, which would know from harsh winters) is not a surprise since it's right there in the title.

Moon of the Crusted Snow: I've always enjoyed an apocalyptic story, and this one is an Own Voices book by a First Nations author (which takes place in the dark of winter) that I've heard great things about.

True North: This one takes place in the Upper Peninsula, which is very close to my heart and also basically America's Siberia: remote, lovely, and often cold.

Winter's Bone: I saw (and really liked!) the Jennifer Lawrence movie when it came out, and the book has been on my list for a while now!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Book 262: The Luminaries

"But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still."

Dates read: September 13-22, 2018

Rating: 9/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize

I am usually a fairly smart, rational human, but ever since I was a kid I've been super into astrology. I know, I know, the idea that where the stars are in the sky has literally anything to do with what kind of person I am is silly. But we all have our weird, kind-of woo-woo things, right? Some people believe in ghosts, some people believe in the power of positive energy, and I not-entirely-but-more-than-I-should believe in astrology.

Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, is many things. It's a depiction of life in a gold-rush-era town in New Zealand. It's a story about families. It's a mystery. It's several mysteries, each unspooling at its own pace. And true to its title, it takes inspiration from the moon (each chapter is shorter than the one proceeding it, meant as a reference to the waning of the moon) and the planets/stars (some characters are based on astrological signs, others to the typical traits associated with the planets). It begins when a Scottish lawyer named Walter Moody arrives in the small town of Hokitika to make his fortune as a prospector. The ship on which he arrived, the Godspeed, was wrecked and he has to make his way ashore without his trunk. He decides to spend his time in the Crown Hotel while he waits for the wreck to be plunged and his belongings to be recovered, and shortly after he arrives, he manages to find himself in the bar of the hotel with twelve men who are clearly all gathered for a purpose. He manages to draw out from them a strange tale of several tragedies and mysteries that all seem to have happened at about the same time.

Shortly before Moody's arrival, a local politician, Alistair Lauderback, arrives in town to stump for votes. On the outskirts of town, he arrives at the cabin of a recluse, Crosbie Wells, and finds the man very recently deceased. And then, on the same night, a lucky young prospector, Emery Staines, goes missing, and a prostitute, Anna Wetherell, publicly overdoses on the opium to which she is addicted and is imprisoned. Each of the men in the bar of the Crown Hotel has a little piece of the story, and even more develops as time goes on. Bit by bit, the full story in all its beauty and tragedy is revealed, connecting the threads of each seemingly-separate piece together.

This is a big, ambitious novel that requires a lot of attention to keep the characters and their relationships with each other in mental order. In lesser hands, it would be confusing, but Catton keeps it engaging, requiring enough consideration to feel compelled to really focus on the book without making it feel like studying. The characters are complex and interesting, and the tangled web of their interactions with each other keep the tension from slacking. Indeed, for such a long book, it keeps itself going remarkably well, a testament to Catton's skill with prose and plotting. The way the layers of the mysteries the book presents are gradually peeled back and revealed is gratifying, feeling like tiny rewards doled out along the way until the end. The themes of loneliness, the role of chance, truth and lies, and revenge all come in and out of focus throughout, each feeling like it's given time and space to develop without being unduly flogged. For me, it was a wonderful book. It's hard to strike the balance between "passively entertaining" and "too much information management required to properly enjoy", but The Luminaries was right in the sweet spot. I got lost in it.

Now that I've just gushed about it, it does have some issues. It's a slow starter, taking advantage of its prodigious length to stretch the story out perhaps more than really necessary. Some characters feel like they get the short shrift and if Catton was less wedded to her astrology conceit, should have been cut. The way Catton reveals a bunch of pertinent information right at the end of the book in flashback, almost like a coda after the "real" ending of the story, does feel a little too cute by half. But honestly, those are mostly nitpicks. I'm not the sort to wish that a book would never end (I'm always excited about something on the horizon), but I did close it with a satisfied sigh and think "what a great book". It's not something to read when you're looking for something breezy and light, but otherwise, I highly highly recommend it. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Sisters of Henry VIII

Two years ago, I was reading: Once Upon a River

Three years ago, I was reading: The Lady Elizabeth

Four years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Five years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Want to Read Again

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about re-reading. I LOVE re-reading, which means that my focus lately on reading things that are new to me means I have missed out on going back and revisiting the books I've loved for years. I do engage in some re-reading via audio, which has proven to be a fun way to experience familiar favorites in a new way, but here are ten books I haven't had the chance to re-read yet but very much want to!

War and Peace: This one will be a commitment to re-read because it's super long, but it was so good and so rich that I can't wait to dive back into its world.

Possession: I found the way this story was told, with the parallel timelines, to be just enthralling and I really feel like it would reward a revisit!

Beloved: Obviously this book is a challenging one, but it is just phenomenal and important and worthy of being re-read often.

There There: This book was so dazzling that it feels like I need at least more run-through (and possibly more) to really catch everything it did.

The Blind Assassin: Such a delicately constructed story-within-a-story, and so wrenching.

Great Expectations: You can definitely tell Dickens got paid by the word, and of his works I've read, this is the only one that I think is going back to again because there's a genuinely compelling story there (even if it's too wordy).

The Lords of Discipline: This was a highly satisfying read and I'd just really like to explore it again.

The Queen of the Night: Reading this book the first time through was just fun as it took turn after turn. I want to read it again and really enjoy the characters and details knowing how the plot goes!

The Devil in the Grove: One of my most-recommended nonfiction books, this incredible true story about corruption and racism in Jim Crow-era Florida is depressing but so fascinating and very well-told.

Vanity Fair: This is another one that's really long, but Becky Sharp was just such an interesting heroine that I want to read it again from the beginning knowing how it'll end.