Monday, January 23, 2023

What I Read Last Week: Dickens and Prince, Beyond the Bright Sea, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, The Last Bookshop in London

It's been a week of reading for me---and not a lot else. Haha! Can't complain...but probably shouldn't brag either. Besides all this reading this week, I've also been going through a chronological Bible study with friends. Too bad the rest of my physique isn't getting the same work out as my eyes...

But on to the books... First up, Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk:
This was a truly beautiful story.

I don't usually read a lot of children's or teen fiction, but lately I've kind of been on a kick. Part of me wants to show myself that not all fiction written for kids lately is demonic indoctrination as I often hear, left and right, from some conservative sources.

Beyond the Bright Sea is simply the story of a confident and wise young girl who is looking for information on her birth parents. Crow was adopted as an infant and, as a young teen, discovers clues about her origins. She begins a search for information, rather than identity, and that's what makes this story so sweet. She already knows who she is and what she finds out further cements her good character, rather than changing it. With a little adventure and a little perilous action thrown in, this is the perfect story for my middle grade kids.

This book meets the following challenges: TBR Challenge, The Children's Book ChallengeThe Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "B",  The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "read a new-to-you middle grade book". 

Book Description: "A.J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over -- and see everything anew."

One afternoon last week, I purchased this book, came home and changed into pajamas, went straight to bed, and read the whole thing through without stopping. Wow, three “full star ratings” in a row—am I getting soft?

My initial thoughts of A.J. 10 pages in is that he doesn’t necessarily want to be right in a conversation, just understood. I've discovered this about myself lately and recognize it in him. If he doesn't feel like he will be understood, he doesn't think the relationship is worth the time.

Almost 20 pages in, he is bitingly sarcastic with an officer after the death of his wife. What strikes me is that, in the middle of the conversation about his "grand saga", he realizes the officer also has a life outside of the role he's playing at the moment. He says maybe he is, instead, a part of the “grander saga” of the officer's life. Yes! We’ve got to get outside ourselves and see that some of our experiences, good and bad, are not about us but about the growth of others.

43 pages in, I thought: Who is this author? He/she really gets people. (looks to the bio info in the back) Oh, it’s a she. A young she. Very impressive.

The book was a gut check for me in a few ways. Here's one that had me stopping to choke back tears for a minute: "It's the secret fear that we are unlovable that isolates us, but it is only because we are isolated that we think we are unlovable."

Another good quote: “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

If there's any fault in the story line, it's that A.J.'s transition from crochety, difficult person to gentle, soft person seems too instantaneous. There doesn't seem to be a growing stage and no real change after moving to that new stage. However, this would have made for a longer book and I enjoyed the brevity of this one. Still, being the main point of the whole story, it seems surprising that he flips like a switch.

Content warning: strong but scattered profanities; non-descriptive sex scenes

This book meets the following challenges: The Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "S", and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "read a book outside your comfort zone". (This book was outside my comfort zone because I normally would have stopped after the above-mentioned content warnings---but I went ahead and finished because I thought there was some good writing underneath.) 

A protagonist in a bookshop who doesn’t love books…that’s new…

When Grace and her friend Viv set out for London, they could never have imagined they were about to live through one of the most devastating experiences in the city's history. Viv works her dream job while Grace is hired in a position that is not necessarily her cup of tea. However, she finds out it's exactly where she needed to be at the time.

I usually avoid stories that take place during war time because I have three sons ages 18-21 and the thought of them all getting drafted up in the near future freaks me right out. This was a difficult story to read in that sense, but it had some pretty amazing parts too and I learned a lot about this time in history. (Downside of my fearful avoidance is that I don't know much about the history of modern wars...)

I felt like the writing fell short more often than not as the author struggled to write natural sentences that people would speak naturally. I don't know how to really describe what I'm getting at but so much of it had that Victorian flowery formality---like Louisa May Alcott (is it for kids? is it for adults?)---that made it hard to really relate to anyone. I think part of it was that it was obviously an American trying to write about a culture she's probably mostly experienced through TV and movies. I would have really loved to have read more about the books Grace was reading and selling---rather than just mentions of the same obvious classics. Like American bookstores, British bookstores are packed with lots of different books from lots of different authors and eras, and classics make up a tiny minority of the offerings. Clunky dialogue clashed with some pretty vivid descriptive writing of scenes and situations to make something I'm glad I read but probably wouldn't read again.

This book meets the following challenges: TBR Challenge,  The Alphabet Soup Challenge for authors for the letter "M",  The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "read a book in which a main character is 60+". 

Someone else's jaded fan-boy description: "Every so often, a pairing comes along that seems completely unlikely--until it's not. Peanut butter and jelly, Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un, ducks and puppies, and now: Dickens and Prince. Equipped with a fan's admiration and his trademark humor and wit, Nick Hornby invites us into his latest obsession: the cosmic link between two unlikely artists, geniuses in their own rights, spanning race, class, and centuries--each of whom electrified their different disciplines and whose legacy resounded far beyond their own time."

I can appreciate the sentiment that the author has for these two artists, but I can't say that he made a special case for unique similarities between the two. Both were prolific, both were poor...and? The author is quick to point out many other artists share these similarities—-so the point of the book is??? The truth is, there’s nothing significantly unique that links these two together that couldn’t be said of zillions of other celebrities that could be inserted into place instead.

I also get annoyed when an author spends too many words quoting the words of others---especially in such a short work. And speaking of words, the comparison between the two artists’ contribution of words falls flat when you ask the question, what did their words actually contribute to society? In short, Dickens’ words sparked permanent social reform, including child labor laws, in both England and the US. Prince gave us the recorded orgasms of his ex-girlfriend.
Not a fan.

This book meets the following challenges: The Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "D", and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "read a library book" and "read a book published in 2022". 

That's a wrap---what are you reading?

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne -- Book Review


From Amazon: Around the World in Eighty Days is a classic adventure novel by the French writer Jules Verne, published in 1873. In the story, Phileas Fogg of London and his newly employed French valet Passepartout attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (equal to about £2 million in 2016) set by his friends at the Reform Club. It is one of Verne's most acclaimed works. The story starts in London on Tuesday, October 1, 1872. Phileas Fogg is a rich British gentleman living in solitude. 
At the Reform Club, Fogg gets involved in an argument over an article in The Daily Telegraph stating that with the opening of a new railway section in India, it is now possible to travel around the world in 80 days. He accepts a wager for £20,000, from his fellow club members to complete such a journey within this time period. Accompanied by Passepartout, Fogg departs from London by train at 8:45 P.M. on October 2; in order to win the wager, he must return to the club by this same time on December 21, 80 days later.

My Review: I first read this in 2014 and it was really fun to revisit this one this week, almost nine years later. Now that I've seen a little of the world myself, it was even more enjoyable. I loved all the lessons in culture and geography and, of course recognized some places once they hit the US. It was a treat to read about them at the Green River station as my family and I went through there in April on our way to Oregon. I remember standing at a gas station and looking toward the railyard/station and thinking what a very large and complicated interchange that was for what seemed like a remote place. The "Victorian-ness" of it intrigued me, so it was especially fun to see it mentioned in the story.

The portion of the story taking place in America was pretty wild and unbelievable but I suppose that’s always how the British have seen us—-a little unstable and uncivilized. haha! What an adventure---I'm proud to see the most perilous part took place right here in America.

It was also interesting to see how so many things are different now. I love it when old stories reveal facts. For instance, the population of India then: 180 million; and now: 1.4 billion. It was mentioned that 50,000 people were already settled in Denver… now there are 2.9 million in the metro area. Bananas and mangoes were uncommon fruits and the description of mangoes was completely different than what I purchase in local stores. It was also sad to think of them having to stop for 12,000 buffalo that took hours to cross the path. The only buffalo here now are those on preserves.

This is truly one of my very favorite stories. I wonder when I'll pick it up again?

This book meets the following challenges: TBR ChallengeVictorian Reading ChallengeThe Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "A",  The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "read a book while waiting" and "read a book in a place where you don't normally do so". 

Monday, January 9, 2023

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch


Book Description: "An inspiring true story about losing your place, finding your purpose, and building a community one book at a time. Wendy Welch and her husband had always dreamed of owning a bookstore, so when they left their high-octane jobs for a simpler life in an Appalachian coal town, they seized an unexpected opportunity to pursue their dream. The only problems? A declining U.S. economy, a small town with no industry, and the advent of the e-book. They also had no idea how to run a bookstore. Against all odds, but with optimism, the help of their Virginian mountain community, and an abiding love for books, they succeeded in establishing more than a thriving business - they built a community. The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap is the story of the little bookstore that could: how two people, two cats, two dogs, and thirty-eight thousand books helped a small town find its heart. It is a tale of people and books, and how together they create community."

My Review: I have mixed feelings about this book; sometimes I really enjoyed it and other times I was sort of meh. I actually enjoyed the content of the entire book---I think I just didn't care for the author's perspectives, from time to time. 

I'd say this is a fantastic resource and should be required reading for anyone who wants to run a book shop---which I actually am seriously considering doing someday. There was so much good information, even just on how to buy books for resale. 

The book was also full of really great quotable thoughts, like this one: "I don't think I have ever left a library without feeling a twinge of regret, a vague sense of panic that I'd missed something important, that stories, people, and ideas were still in there waiting for me to find them so they could tell me secrets."

I am sort of wondering about the wisdom of keeping humor and some romance books in the bathroom. Do people use this bathroom? Because that’s disgusting... 

The end of the book features lists of what to read and what not to read---all fantastic until the very last entry on the "not to read" list: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. And now you know the real reason I have a chip on my shoulder about Wendy Welch. 

Nobody insults my 218 year old boyfriend.

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap meets the criteria for these reading challenges: The Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "L", the TBR Challenge, and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "a book that's structured as a collection of essays or short stories". 

Monday, January 2, 2023

2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #histficreadingchallenge

I just realized I'd forgotten to make a separate post for this challenge. I've done this one a few times in the past: The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge at The Intrepid Reader. Choose your era and go to town! I think I'll attempt the Ancient History Level at 25 historical fiction books. Use hashtag: #histficreadingchallenge on social media.


The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman

This was a really special book---mainly because the author was so very wise. It reads with the undertones of a mother cautioning a daughter on the things that will make or break a marriage---things I never would have seen had I actually read this when my Mom gave it to me 16 years ago at age 27. 

The story is of newly married Bethany and Wade who leave Missouri to homestead on virgin land in the Texas panhandle. All the odds are against them and Bethany holds on to the thought that maybe Wade would rather be with her cousin, Rosemary, who he had originally planned to bring out West. Wade and Bethany overcome all the issues stacked against them, fighting with their love and courage, and Bethany learns in the end that it was she Wade wanted all along. 

While I'm not normally into romances, this one was gentle and I enjoyed reading about these early homesteaders and all the challenges they faced. Family lore tells me my own great great grandparents lived in a dugout house in Oklahoma, raising 13 kids and riding out the Dust Bowl Days. Reading the story, I had a hard time imagining a dugout so I looked for some examples online. Wow---my current home would have seemed a mansion! 

 Most of the story was really well written and didn't come across as overly contrived. I did think they gave a little too much reverence to the preacher man. The scenes when the pastor came were kind of ridiculous (imagining the Israelites looking forward to Sunday for rest was laughable...). They treated that preacher like he was somehow holier than themselves and that weirded me out. 

 I also took issue with the way Bethany put down Mrs. Dillon. She is so kind otherwise, more than mere politeness, so it seemed out of place. 

 I thought the bit about fighting the fire by dragging a cow carcass was incredible! So far I've not been able to find anything on that online, so I'm going to ask some friends to see if this is a thing. 

 I had a special surprise at the end…mom left notes! She says, "Jealousy can kill true love---Trust will nourish it." Very true words of wisdom indeed!

This is the 1950 first edition. I'd love to know what the afterword says that was added to later editions.

This book meets the following challenges: TBR Challenge, Victorian Reading Challenge, The Alphabet Soup Challenge for the letter "E",  The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge for "a book set during a journey".