Monday, January 16, 2017


Happy New Year all!  It is going to be a while before I get around to reading my first book qualifying for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge because I am trying to read as many books from the 2017 Tournament of Books shortlist as possible . 

I have been following the TOB since 2013. I found out about it when the blogger Citizen Reader mentioned Wil Wheaton’s judgment in favor of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. I admit, I was mostly intrigued at the time by the name of Wil Wheaton. While I loathe Wesley Crusher, I am a big Star Trek fan (but I don’t know if I am a trekker or a trekkie, the distinction is lost on me, so maybe neither) and I bear the actor no ill-will for the terrible Gary-Stu he played as a child in the 1990s.  

But I digress.  For those of you unfamiliar with the TOB, it is set up like NBA play off brackets and takes place in March just like the play offs. The entire thing happens online. The judges (usually writers themselves) read the two books from their assigned bracket and determine which one will move forward. Color commentary is then provided by the TOB organizers, although there are also occasionally guest commentators.  Then there are the comments from the peanut gallery, ie the bookternet. And that’s where it can get bloody! But usually in a good way. I don’t comment. I can use the excuse that since I am on the west coast, once I am off work and ready to rumble, everyone else is in bed. But really it is because I don't feel sharp enough to keep up with the crowd - and they are razor sharp. Next to the fabulous commentary, I love the access to the transparency of the judgments. Unlike other “legit” book prizes (the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel, etc.) I get to read exactly why the judge chose one book over another, which is always interesting.

So below is a list of the shortlist with notations on which ones I have already read and which ones I can readily get from the library.  Will a little luck I will be able to have at least 10 of the books under my belt come March so I can follow along better.  

Have any of you read any of these or are they on your radar? Do any of you follow the TOB? 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder *
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue *
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Nix by Nathan Hill
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan*

Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Black Wave by Michelle Tea

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
*play in round

Monday, December 19, 2016


Its official! Karen at Books at Chocolate is graciously hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge again.  Below is a list of the 2017 categories with some of my potential titles:

A 19th Century Classic – I will probably read a Dickens’ novel. I only have a handful left: The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, Nicolas Nickelby, or Barnaby Rudge.

A 20th Century Classic –I will definitely choose something from the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list. I still have 30 of those left to read.   Just based on books I already own, possible choices might be Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald or the Wings of the Dove by Henry James.

A classic by a woman author – I am totally spoiled for choice on this one but I think I might make it The Professor’s House by Willa Cather because I so loved My Antonia which I read in November of this year.

A classic in translation – Again, there is a lot to choose from in this category, but I think I would like to try Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant or if I end up reading Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal, that would also fit.

A classic published before 1800 – This would provide me with an opportunity to read something from ancient Greece or Rome. Maybe Metamorphoses by Ovid? I really have no clue and might need to think on this one a while longer.  

A romance classic – I am going to see if my next  planned Trollope will fit here…either Phineas Finn or The Way We Live Now .  All the Trollope I have read thus far has had a strong romantic plot (or two or three), so I suspect either book will work for this category.   However, I may read Dragonwyke by Anya Seton since I recently purchased a used copy on the strength of a review over at Lark Writes and which appears to be a more traditional romance in the vein of DuMaurier.

A Gothic or horror classic – I am definitely going for gothic over horror and I have two contenders: The Monk by Mathew Lewis or The Castle of Otranto by Walpole. Actually, both were published in the 1700s so they could also work for #5 in a pinch.

A classic with a number in the title – I might re-read Slaughterhouse 5 since I only read it the one time. But I am also considering The Three Musketeers by Dumas Pere or One Hundred Years of Solitude (published in 1967 it JUST squeezed by at being 50 years old in 2017)by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title – I might read The Yearling. I can’t remember if I read it as a child or if I just saw the movie. I will be sure to have tissues handy. I am sure it will make me weep (again).

A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – At first I was going to choose a literary location…but I have already read all the Barsetshire books by Trollope and the Miss Marple books by Chrstie and those are the only two fictional places I can think off the top of my head.  So perhaps I will read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in this category (another squeaker first published in 1967) which is set in Australia .

An award-winning classic -  I would like to read The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever  which won the National Book Award in 1958. This is another book that is also on the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list, so  if I complete it, it is a twofer.

A Russian Classic  There is an off chance that I might read War and Peace in 2017, but if not, I also would like to try The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol OR if I am pressed for time, A Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, which is under 200 pages.

I look forward to staring the New Year with one of the above mentioned titles.  I will definitely also be checking out the sign-up page regularly to see other bloggers’ choices.   

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


My main use of this blog is for my participation in on-line challenges.  But I thought I would also share the books that I purchased during my October visit to that book-Mecca known as Powell’s Books located in Portland, Oregon because I love reading about these sorts of things on other people’s blogs.  It is like window shopping without leaving your living room.
  1. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb – I have since finished this book. It is the 2ond book in the Farseer Trilogy which is part of a larger fantasy series set in a world called The Realm of the Elderlings. I would like to eventually read the entire series which is something like 16 books total.
  2. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift–  I had heard good things about this novella so I wanted to give it a try. It sounds like the sort of precisely executed novella about small moments that I often admire.
  3. Fishnet by Kirstin Innes – I heard about this title on Booktube as quite a few reviewers recommended it.  I am currently reading it. It is interesting, the story is about a woman who begins to research the world of prostitution after her sister disappears, but it also has an obvious agenda which I am not 100% sure about. We’ll see. My conventional and religious upbringing might be getting in my way.
  4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal  - My friend Greta kindly bought this for me.  I love the Penguin black-spine paperback classics. Greta and I are going to read it together sometime, possibly in 2017 and if so, I will hopefully be able to work it into Karen’s Back to the Classic Challenge 2017.  
  5. Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley  – I know this series is a bit twee and not to everyone’s taste,  but I like the Flavia de Luce mysteries and this is the most recently published title. I am not quite caught up but I like having them on my shelves even unread because they are such pretty colors.
  6. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons – I bought this on Greta’s recommendation and I have already read it. It was very good and is only 128 pages long.  An Oprah pick, so it is naturally heart-wrenching, but it didn’t totally gut me, which was a relief.
  7. Good Morning Midnight by Lucy Brooks-Dalton – I heard great things about this book from one of my goodreads friends (and podcaster extraordinaire – check out Reading Envy if you are interested). This is a speculative fiction book about the end of the world where possible the only two survivors are a man stranded in Antarctica and a woman orbiting the earth from space.
Finally, I would also like to share this picture from the last page (be careful  - SPOILERS may be ahead) of one of the used copies of The Red and The Black that I was perusing. I ended up not purchasing this Modern Library hard copy only because there was some wonky water damage that affected the print elsewhere. But I thought this hand-written comment at the bottom was hilarious. Hopefully I will not feel the same way when I reach the end!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I managed to read all 12 books for the challenge by September, but (a) quite a few were short-ish (less than 300 pages), (b) 3 of the longest were by Trollope, Dickens and Whipple who are writers I love and so am able speed through their works, despite any heft and (c) I did some business travel this year, which is rare for me, which did allow me to get a lot of reading done in hotels and airports.
  • The first book I read was for the category A Classic Detective Novel.   The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey is the fourth book I have read from her.  It was a good mystery (and refreshingly bloodless) but there was quite a bit of virulent class prejudice that was a bit hard to swallow.
  • The next book was The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope which was for A Classic Which Includes The Name Of A Place In The Title.  This is the fifth book in the Barsetshire Chronicles and I absolutely adored it.
  • I went on to read The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle which ticked the box for An Adventure Classic.  The book was a lot of fun, but its dated racism soured the experience for me a bit.
  • The fourth title fit the category A 19th Century Classic, I went with my original pick which was  The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.  I was a little worried that I wouldn’t get on with it at first, but I ended up really loving it.
  • I then read Frankenstein by Mary Shelly to fill the spot for A Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Dystopian Classic.  I have to say I was a bit let down by this book, but I think my expectations were impossibly high. I am keeping my copy and will re-read/re-evaluate it at some point.
  • For the category A 20th Century Classic I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This book almost put me into a slump. It is fantastic, but such an emotional journey, it wrecked me just a bit.
  • Next up was A Separate Peace by John Knowles which I first read in high school and chose for the category Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). I quite enjoyed the re-visit and I think I appreciate the story much more now as an adult than as a teen.
  • Then I read Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple for A Classic by a Woman Author.  Since Whipple is one of my favorite authors, it is no surprise that I adored this title.
  • Next up was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for the category A Classic Which Has Been Banned Or Censored.  Like The Grapes of Wrath, this book broke me a little bit as well.
  • I then read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to fit A Classic by a Non-White Author. I really enjoyed this book for its insight and subtle complexity.
  • My penultimate choice was Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash, which fit the bill for A Classic in Translation.
  • Finally, for the category A Volume Of Classic Short Stories, I read The Dracula Book of Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard, which was fun but I didn’t find too many of the stories to be that scary.
One of the best things about this challenge is how easy it is in terms of choice and options. Also, like last year, I was able to fill the majority of the categories with titles from my own shelves, which is always a nice feeling: Of the 12 books, two were from the library, seven I already owned and three I bought used for around a dollar each.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Having read the first two books of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series (In the Woods and The Likeness) I knew not to expect a traditional mystery or any continuity from the previous novels. In this series, while each book does contain the story of a crime and the resolution of that crime, the plot takes a definite back seat to character development and, in my opinion, the reader is often required to accept a fair amount of implausibility regarding the storyline. But I don’t think that French is interested in having a water-tight whodunit in her books. I think she is more interested in showing the thoughts and emotions of a character under certain stressors and it is that deep dive into character that makes readers (at least those who like that sort of thing) come back for more.

Faithful Place centers on Frank Mackey, who was the undercover handler of Cassie, the main character in The Likeness. Frank has been estranged from his dysfunctional family ever since he left home at 19. But events from the past cause him to rekindle his familial relationships, if only to exploit them. When Frank ran away to England, his original intention was to go with the love of his life, Rosie. Only Rosie never showed and young Frank assumed that she had dumped him because of his crazy family…for fear that he would turn out to be just like them. So Frank left alone, eventually became a police officer in Dublin and maintained only intermittent contact with his youngest sister. However, when a small blue suitcase with Rosie’s identification is found in the ruins of an abandoned home in the neighborhood, Frank is drawn back to his old haunts to try and find out whether or not Rosie even made it out of the neighborhood alive 20 years ago.

As I stated above, these novels are heavy on character development and Frank is to put it bluntly, an a**hole much of the time.  I sympathized with him some, but it was pretty clear to me that he is underhanded and manipulative, which makes him good at his job in undercover, but not so good in his interpersonal relationships. This didn’t bother me. I don’t necessarily mind unlikable characters.  
As in the previous two books, Faithful Place is narrated in the first person, so the reader has more or less the same opportunity to put things together the as the narrator does. I believe that both Frank and I realized who the perpetrator was at the same time. What is less certain is if Frank realized in the course of the novel that he is much more like his hair-trigger abusive father and manipulative mother than he would like to admit. 

This is my second book for the R.I.P. XI Challenge "Peril the Second" hosted by the blog Stainless Steel Droppings.  It was pretty fun (and easy!) to direct my reading to suit the challenge and I look forward to participating in the XII Challenge next year.

Monday, October 10, 2016

R.I.P. - PERIL OF THE SHORT STORY: The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard

This book counts for both the Peril of the Short Story for R.I.P. XI hosted by the blog Stainless Steel Droppings and for my last read for the category Classic Short Stories for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 hosted by the blog Books and Chocolate.

Initially I was going to read some Daphne Du Maurier short stories, but the two collections that I had did not fit the Back to the Classics criteria, since they only had 6 stories each and the rule is the book must contain at least 8 stories.  So I was delighted to happen upon this book at my library; all the stories were originally written and/or published well over 50 years ago and the volume has 13 stories in it (no doubt that “unlucky” number was purposefully chosen). 
I chose this collection primarily because of the opening novella titled Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu. This is supposed to be the granddaddy (or grandmammy?) of the modern vampire novel, including Dracula.  My reaction to Carmilla is somewhat similar, however, to my reaction to Dracula. I sometimes have trouble with old-timey horror because often it is so obvious to the modern reader just what is going on, it can make the protagonists seem a bit thick when they don’t cop on. But that aside, the bits in Carmilla about the narrator being stalked by a black beast in her dreams were quite scary.
I was also happily surprised to see stories by favored authors M.E. Braddon and E.F. Benson included. Of the 13 tales, I think I liked best “The Transfer" by Algernon Blackwood for sheer originality (the monster wants more than just blood in this one).  Also, just for a consummate expression of paranoia  as well as for originality, “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant is worth reading. In a more traditional vein (pun intended!), I quite enjoyed “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker (which per the introduction is a chapter that was cut from the novel for length reasons).  It reminded me of the parts of Dracula that I liked best, such as Jonathan Harker’s first encounter with the count in his castle.  And finally I was pleased to read the entertaining “Mrs. Amworth" by E.F. Benson and the romantic yet chilling, “Good Lady Ducayne" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

All in all this is a good collection of a variety of vampire tales from the mid –Victorian period to the Edwardian and a must for any blood-sucking fiction completist. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


This is my first completed read for the R.I.P. Challenge XI: Peril the Second. I first heard about this title months ago on the Radio 4 podcast Open Book in an interview with the author and it stuck with me enough for me to recall it when I was browsing the new books section at my local library. Open book classified this book at “Gothic” and I would agree with that. The book is never really terrifying and yet the author managed to maintain an eerie atmosphere all the way through.

The Loney is one of those books where the reader may not be quite sure what exactly happened when they reach the end of it, which I know can be frustrating for some. However, I like it when this type of story is done well; I like having room for interpretation. And I think the author got the balance right most of the time. I don’t read a lot of this type of book, but it reminded me a bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in in terms of keeping the reader off-kilter.

On the surface, the story is about an ultra-religious Catholic family in the mid-1970’s and their quest to heal their disabled son via miracle, whatever that takes. The book is narrated by the younger son as an adult looking back in hindsight upon events which took place when he was a teenager. The fact that the narrator is never named is something I only noticed after finishing the book. The unnamed narrator serves as a caretaker for his older brother and has a complex and difficult relationship with his overbearing mother. Most of the story takes place in an isolated stretch of coast in England where the narrator has come on a pilgrimage with his family, their priest and other church members.

But dig a little deeper and the reader will find that The Loney is also about the difference (if any) between superstition and religion and the potential harm of either, in particular when wielded upon young, impressionable minds. And that is where perhaps the real horror lies.