April 2020 Books

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

This is a fun series of books/ collages about art, being creative, and an affirmation that artists steal stuff from influences they love, then remix them in ways unique to themselves. Basically, it’s trying to let you off the hook from thinking you need to be “completely original” to matter. Artists steal inspiration from everywhere (not to be confused with plagiarism, which is bad and should be avoided).

★ ★ ★ ★

The Blue Castle, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

A sweet story: part romance, part self-discovery, part appreciation of nature. Valancy Stirling is a quiet, unhappy young woman in her late-20’s. She lives quietly at home, doing everything she’s supposed to, and hating all of it. Her family overlooks her and considers her an Old Maid. When she receives a medical diagnosis, she decides to live her remaining life the way she wants to, with surprising and happy results.

Montgomery’s descriptions of Canada are beautiful, as always (I think my very favorite part was in the middle when Montgomery describes time passing by telling us about the beauties of each season), and the story gentle, which was a welcome relief in a time when real life was a bit…much.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Toll, by Neal Shusterman

This is the final installment of the Scythe trilogy. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoilers for previous books, but the scope continues to widen, as a third installments usually does. Things look dire for our heroes.

Generally I liked this and thought it brought the series to an interesting conclusion, but I found the ending a little abrupt — there were lots of characters by the end and while we check in with most of the main ones left, what happens to the larger society and where a couple of the characters go next was left a little hazy. I understand this, but it felt a little…unfinished, or maybe unpolished.

But if you’re looking for a YA dystopian series to fill the Hunger Games sized hole in your heart, this may be just what you’re looking for.

★ ★ ★

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

We open with Miss Dobbs opening a private investigation business. Her first case is a possible marital infidelity, proving to me that this is the main reason to hire a PI, even in the 1920’s.

Most of this book is told in flashbacks of Maisie’s early life and how she went from housemaid to PI (well, the link between the end of the war and wanting to become an investigator is not fleshed out, but ok). It’s an interesting origin story for a female investigator after World War I, and the book is full of interesting historical detail.

The opening mystery itself seems more of a setup for dealing with the aftermath of WWI — there are interesting questions of how to deal with collective grief due to a traumatic worldwide event (this seems a little more relevant these days…).

Overall this was an enjoyable light touch look at post-WWI England and an introduction to a character who, I assume, has more adventures in psychology and detection in later books.

★ ★ ★

I’ve found it hard to focus the past couple months, so I’m surprised I read this much in April. I’m letting myself off the hook for trying to read anything difficult right now, and will get back to some of the tomes I want to read at a later date, maybe when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic?

What have you been reading lately? Or have you been able to read much?

March 2020 Books

So…March was an interesting month. But I got a good bit of reading done, so let’s talk about covid-19 elsewhere and in this post I’ll focus on the books!

Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl. This was a library book and I forgot to take a picture, alas!

I’ve read several of Reichl’s food memoirs and enjoyed them all. This one was specifically about her time working at food magazine Gourmet. Her descriptions of food are mouth-watering, and her writing deceptively simple.

★ ★ ★ ★

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

This is the first book in a YA trilogy about a perfect world where humans don’t die and don’t have to really feel pain. A benevolent AI, the Thunderhead, controls most of life’s logistics, and humans get to live their lives any way they want. When they start getting old, they reset down to a younger age and keep living.

This means that overpopulation could be a real problem, so there are some people, called Scythes, specially selected to winnow the population (see what I did there?) by “gleaning” people aka killing them.

Our two protagonists, Citra and Rowan, are selected for Scythe training, and they find that not everything is as perfect as it seems….

A light dystopian book with fascinating world building and interesting characters.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.

Ben told me that I only had myself to blame, but reading this while finding out that the world is currently dealing with a global pandemic was truly bad timing. Please save this book for happier times, as it’s a bit of a downer.

In this book, Oxford historians study history by time traveling back and experiencing what it was really like. Kivrin, an aspiring young historian, is sent back to 1320 and she promptly becomes ill with influenza. Back in the future, the team that sent her also experiences a flu epidemic, and Oxford is quarantined so they have trouble bringing her back….

Of the two storylines, I enjoyed the medieval one more, as Kivrin explored the time period and got to know a family and their way of life. The 2055 timeline was mostly Kivrin’s mentor obsessing about getting her back while also dealing with the deteriorating situation.

This book was interesting, but there was a lot of death, right at the time a global pandemic was unfolding in real life, so….

★ ★ ★

Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman.

This is the second book in the Scythe trilogy. As usual in a second book, the situation unravels, new characters are introduced, and the world becomes bleaker! Yay!

Still interesting, and I enjoyed some of the new characters introduced, but a second book is tough to review without spoilers and without the (hopefully–I haven’t finished yet) resolution of the third book.

★ ★ ★

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. This was for my 50 Classics project, so it gets its own fancy review.

The style is Charles Dickens but a light mystery! …and yes, I know there are elements of mystery in some of Dickens’ novels. Let’s not get hung up on that here.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Woman in White

I read this for my 50 Classics project and also for the Genre Classic in the “Back to the Classics” challenge.

It’s supposed to be one of the first “mystery” novels. It’s kind of like Charles Dickens writing a mystery–there’s a lot of ramp up as it slowly builds the picture of what’s going on.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was definitely slow moving, especially at first. The novel is written from several first-person perspectives, but the primary protagonist is Walter Hartright, an artist and drawing master who becomes connected with the Fairlie family when he’s employed to teach drawing to two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Marian is described as dark haired and eyed and “man-like” in her firm mind and stout heart (also, Collins tells us, she doesn’t wear corsets). Laura, meanwhile, has light hair and eyes and is much more emotionally and physically frail. One assumes she does wear corsets. Obviously, this being a 19th century work, Walter falls for Laura…cue eyeroll. But alas! Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (what a name!) and Walter quits his job and goes abroad to forget her.

Most of the book centers around Sir Percival’s nefarious plot to get Laura’s money, which he’s limited in drawing from because of a well-written Trust (competent estate planning for the win!). Laura soon discovers her husband and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, are after her money, and the reader begins to fear for her safety.

I don’t want to spoil everything, but there are two lookalike women, the fortune-hunting unscrupulous spouse, a shady foreigner, a mysterious death, and a cranky invalid uncle who is too ill to deal with your bullying ways…fetch my smelling salts!

Things did pick up at the end, and while a good editor might have improved the pacing, it wasn’t bad for an early mystery. Just don’t expect a Holmes-style sleuth–the genre had not yet advanced to that stage, and if you have time and want to settle in, this is an enjoyable read.

★ ★ ★ ★