Monday, September 28, 2015

Summer Reading Highlights, Part 5: Contemporary British - Mrs. Queen Takes the Train and The Book of Tomorrow

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

This was a very cute book about what Her Majesty the Queen of England might actually be like when the cameras are turned off and the crowds disperse. Having ruled the kingdom since her 20s, in this story the Queen is getting fairly tired and restless (I think justifiably!), and decides to act spontaneously in what can be assumed to be the first time in quite awhile. 

I really liked the way that the story followed not only the Queen, but also the small handful of people affected by her impromptu jaunt, leading to a fairly well-balanced cast of characters (it's not all high tea and tiaras). However, having the story set from so many different perspectives, with flash-backs peppered throughout, did make for a somewhat confusing read. For such a light book, I really felt that I needed to pay attention! 

But other than that minor quibble, this was a fun, easy read that I would highly recommend. 

The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern 

This book started a little slow, and I wasn't sure how much I would like either the characters  especially the main character, who by her own admission was quite a brat  or the story line. Even when she found the mysterious book, I wasn't particularly taken. But then the mystery of the story and the supporting characters really picked up and I found myself not being able to put the book down. 

I loved that the ultimate mystery solved by the end of the book hadn't even been something the main character (and therefore the reader) even knew was something to be solved! While she was busy worrying about one thing, suddenly another thing entirely came to light, and it made for a fairly suspenseful second half of the book. All in all, I think it's well worth wading through the set up in the beginning to get to the pay off at the end.

Keep reading! Beth 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Summer Reading Highlights, Part 4: Mysteries – The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Crossing Places

The Cuckoo’s Calling by "Robert Galbraith" (aka J.K. Rowling) 

I was initially unsure if I would like this book or not, given how much I disliked Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy. But where that book was filled with unlikeable people doing terrible things, with a situation that simply kept going from bad to worse, Cuckoo’s Calling was filled with interesting people in exciting situations. It was a curious contrast that Rowling’s murder mystery was substantially less depressing with more sympathetic characters than the straight fiction, but that was indeed the case!

The story itself was suspenseful, but not scary, and had a great twist at the end. Both the characters and the main and secondary stories were compelling, and definitely made me excited to read the two sequels, The Silkworm and Career of Evil. After quite a bit of doubt from The Casual Vacancy, I think Cuckoo’s Calling shows that Rowling can indeed write just as well for adults as she does for children. 

Check out my review of the next 2 books in the series here

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths 

This was another mystery set in England (I’m sure you can start to see a distinct trend in my reading choices), this time in the country as opposed to London, where Cuckoo’s Calling was set. Though at first glance the main characters of both mysteries share little in common -- Rowling's Cormoran Strike is a gruff, imposing ex-military type with a prosthetic leg, and Griffiths' Ruth Galloway is an anthropology professor with body image issues and a couple of cats. Both, however, are emotionally vulnerable and lonely in their middle ages, which makes them much more personable and relatable that they otherwise might have been.

I loved that this modern mystery brought in some very interesting bits of history and lore, and I must say I was very proud of myself that my guesses were fairly close to the mark! Perhaps that means the story was a touch predictable; I still haven't decided if it's better or not if the reader is able to guess the correct suspect in a mystery. I was pretty close in this one and way off in Cuckoo's Calling, but  I couldn't put either of them down, so if that's the real measure of a book's success, then both these mysteries came out winners.

Keep reading! Beth

Monday, September 14, 2015

Summer Reading Highlights, Part 3: Jane Austen Spin-Offs – Longbourn and Death Comes to Pemberley

This book takes place alongside the events of Pride and Prejudice, this time from the perspective of the servants who tend to the Longbourn estate and the Bennet family. In keeping with great TV shows such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, the stories of the ‘downstairs’ residents of great English houses really completes the picture of what life really was like in the 1800-1900s.

There were far more Sarahs and Pollys than there were Elizabeth Bennets in the Georgian and Regency eras, and their ways of life are often overlooked in favor of the flashier upper class. Of course servants of grand houses were in much better positions themselves than a great number of English citizens, as demonstrated by the high desirability of such jobs. My favorite part of historical fiction is developing a greater understanding of how people lived in different places and times, and this story fits the bill nicely, while also fleshing out a classic story!

This story is a direct sequel to Austen’s classic, picking up the story of Elizabeth and Darcy a few years after their wedding at the end of Pride and Prejudice, and adding in a juicy mystery to boot! I have been a great fan of sequels and series since I was a child, always appreciating the continuation of a story for characters I have grown to care about, and this book doesn’t disappoint in that respect.

I loved reading about (one possible version) of Elizabeth’s life at Pemberley as a wife and mother, with almost all of the Bennets making an appearance. The framework of a mystery was much more interesting to me than the simple romances that other Austen sequels seem to feature (though this is the first I’ve read, so I shouldn’t judge until I’ve tried the others out), though I might have appreciated a story much more centered around Elizabeth and Darcy than Wickham and Lydia. But that slight detail didn’t keep me from really enjoying this book.

I wish James had written more before she sadly passed away last year.

(Also, the BBC miniseries based on the book was great, and very close to the book!)

What are your favorite historical novels? 

Keep reading! Beth

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Summer Reading Highlights, Part 2: Historical Fiction ­– The Kitchen House and Remarkable Creatures

This book started off a little slow, but picked up really quickly until I found myself not being able to put it down. Debut author Kathleen Grissom really knows how to write characters that you care about, root for, and feel for. Taking place at the height of the slave era in the south, the story was a unique window into both sides of plantation life, with the main character Lavinia often times uncomfortably straddling the inter-dependent worlds of landowners and slaves. Though the story was filled with lots of heartbreak and tense situations, the heartwarming relationships, especially between Lavinia and Mama Mae, were uplifting.

The ending was a satisfying conclusion to the story (I dislike endings that are too vague or open-ended), while still leaving the possibility for much more story yet to come. I wish she would write a sequel! But I’m trying to be respectful of the author and her creative process as I anxiously await her second book (which of course may or may not be a sequel), so many years after The Kitchen House was released.

As a devoted Anglophile, any story that takes place in England (or anywhere in the UK really) is practically guaranteed to interest me. This one was of particular interest because – as I discovered part-way through the book – the story is based on real people.

The main character, Mary Anning, was a poor girl from a working class family who lived during the Regency and Victorian Eras. Decades before Charles Darwin made his discoveries on evolution, she became a notable fossil hunter as she scoured the beaches of her hometown on the south coast of England. Despite not knowing exactly what she was finding, she succeeded in (almost) turning both the religious and scientific communities on their heads with her fossils of long-extinct creatures.

I love reading about strong women who lead interesting lives, and this one certainly fit the bill!

Keep reading! Beth

Friday, September 4, 2015

Summer Reading Highlights, Part 1: Science in Fiction - The Martian and The Circle

I’m going to start with the best book I read this summer. There’s been some growing buzz surrounding this book due in large part to the upcoming movie starring Matt Damon. Having heard few specific details about this book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And boy were those low expectations exceeded!

The science part of the book was a bit heavier than I anticipated, and I’ll admit there were some parts that were a little too detailed and heavy for my tastes, but they were wonderfully balanced by the humor. Who knew a book about a guy getting stranded alone on Mars for years would be so funny?! The tense nature of the storyline (how would he survive? would he get rescued?) kept me engaged throughout the book, and the humor was definitely what kept me highly entertained.

I also loved that reading this fictional book made me think a lot more about all the current talk of sending real manned missions to Mars, and how feasible that would be. It also had an interesting perspective on how valuable one life can and should be. Lots to think about! Well worth reading.  

This was the other book I read this summer that really made me think – this time in perhaps a less positive way. The story delves into how dependent on technology we can (or maybe have) become, and the subtle way it creeps deeper and deeper into our lives. I was on the edge of my seat throughout this whole (tense!) book, anxious to find out what the main character would do next and how far she would go.

I really took this story as a caution to be more mindful of how much I rely on technology personally, and definitely vowed to do more reading without the distractions of phones, computers, TVs, and tablets anywhere nearby!  I certainly appreciate a book that makes me want to read more.

What did you think of these two books? Or are you now inspired to give either of them a try?

Keep reading! Beth