(It's actually a little ridiculous how much time I spent trying to balance those elephants on top of each other for this photo.)
But anyways, let's start this post off with a little True or False.
True or False: It's May 2nd and we're still recapping books I read last year.
Answer: True. But after today's post, I think we're down to four books read in 2021 that I'm still planning to recap. So...progress?
This surprise book showed up one day in my mailbox from my best friend, and I sat down to read it pretty much immediately. Given that it was right before Christmas and I was down to the wire with my unread book bingo, this book filled the "a book bought for the cover" slot. Even though I didn't technically buy it (I had not even heard of it), I definitely would have upon sight (which is why my best friend sent it to me), and even if I had absolutely hated it (I loved it!), it would have sat on my shelf for the rest of time just for that perfect cover. Elephants are my favorite animal, and actually the book I was planning to read for the bingo card was another book I had bought with an elephant on the cover (still haven't read that one).
But enough about me and my love affair with the most majestic creatures God ever created: on to the recap.
The Elephant in the Room is a brand new middle grade book by Holly Goldberg Sloan. It just came out in March of last year. In it, we meet Sila who's mom has been in Turkey for almost a year trying to clear up an immigration issue. Through the course of the novel, Sila and her dad befriend Gio, a widower who recently won the lottery, and because of this friendship, Gio ends up purchasing Veda the elephant from a traveling circus. Sila and her new friend Mateo end up spending their summer at Gio's helping out with Veda.
This book tackles some heavy topics—loss, friendship, immigration, autism, animal welfare, injustice—but it does so with a hopefulness and joy that were absolutely irresistible. I loved every word. I loved Sila and Mateo's friendship. I loved Gio's generosity. And I absolutely loved Veda.
Holly Goldberg Sloan actually got her start writing, producing, and directing movies. She was the first woman to direct a live action film for Disney when she wrote and directed The Big Green (one of my favorites) in 1995. Her first novel was published in 2011, and her second novel (Counting By 7s) has won or been nominated for a whole slew of awards. I don't know how she's completely missed my radar for so long, but I'm so glad my friend sent me this book, and I'll definitely be following her from now on.
100% would recommend The Elephant in the Room. It was so sweet, and it's one I'd definitely read again.
What's your favorite animal and do you have a favorite book featuring that animal?
Remember last year when I confessed that after a quick trip down to Florida, I came home with thirty books after visiting some of my favorite secondhand bookstores?
Just One Damned Thing After Another was one of them. I was browsing the shelves at (you guessed it) The Book Shelter and that title popped out at me. I had never heard of it or the author Jodi Taylor, but you can't just pass by a spine like that without at least seeing what it's about. And when I turned it over and the first thing I read in big bold print was "the bestselling British madcap time-travelling series that seems to be everyone's cup of tea", then flipped open the front cover and saw that in place of a dedication, Jodi Taylor had written, "I made all this up. Historians and physicists—please don't spit on me in the street."—I decided it needed to come home with me. After reviewing the open slots on my bingo card, it was the obvious choice for "an impulse buy" and I found myself reading it at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, it was a flop.
According to the back cover: "Jodi Taylor is, and always has been, a history nut. Her Chronicles of St. Mary's, a wild mix of history, adventure, comedy, romance, tragedy, and anything else the author could think of, began as a self-published book called Just One Damned Thing After Another. It's now a bestselling, wildly addictive series." I had a hard time finding anything about the publication history of this book on the internet, but it's copyrighted 2013 in my edition and was published by Night Shade Books. I'm not sure what journey it took between its self-published beginnings to now being a twelve book series with the thirteenth book set to come out this summer, and I'm equally unsure how the term "addictive" could be applied to it, but apparently Jodi Taylor has found her audience. I'm just not in it.
So what's it about? Hard to say. Let me refer again to the back cover: "The Chronicles of St. Mary's tells the chaotic adventures of Max and her compatriots—Doctor Bairstow, Chief Leon Farrell, Mr. Markham, and many more—as they travel through time, saving St. Mary's (too often by the very seat of their pants) and thwarting time-travelling terrorists, all the while leaving plenty of time for tea. From eleventh-century London, to World War I, from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, one thing is for sure: wherever the historians at St. Mary's go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake."
And, in fact, "chaotic" is the perfect word to describe this book. The plot (if you can call it that) is muddled at best, the multitude of characters unmemorable and nearly impossible to keep track of (I eventually just put a bookmark in the character list at the front because I was flipping back to it nearly every time a character's name was mentioned), and the writing was just bad (it did seem like the author shoved in every possible thing she could think of). Taylor definitely has a gift for humor, but this book would need a serious overhaul from a fantastic editor to make it worthwhile. Any kind of meaningful development was entirely nonexistent. At one point, Max referenced the fact that she'd been at St. Mary's for five years. If you had asked me how much time I thought had passed, I would have said only a few months. The "romance" is so out of left-field it comes as more of a shock than anything. And at no point did I ever feel even a hint of sadness when a character died. It just wasn't great.
One would hope that the writing improves as the series continues, but that's not a rabbit-hole I'll be falling down any time soon.
The tl;dr version: fun premise, poor execution.
Have you heard of this series? If yes, are you a fan?
Fast forward about three and a half years and now I'm in a book club with some of my best friends. When they visited me up in NC last summer, this book on my shelf by AMY Tan caught my friend AMY's eye. While we were out and about downtown, she picked it up at a thrift store for like a quarter, and subsequently chose it as her next selection for our book club.
So last September found me reading this collection of sixteen essays or short stories about four Chinese women, their American-born daughters, and the complicated relationships they all have with each other. The Joy Luck Club published in 1989 is the debut novel of Amy Tan, herself the American-born daughter of her Chinese immigrant mother, and it is the work she is still best known for despite having written five additional novels, a couple of children's books, and some non-fiction into the mix as well. In The Joy Luck Club, we are first introduced to Jing-Mei "June" Woo whose mother has recently passed away. Jing-Mei has been asked by her father to fill in her mother's spot at the Joy Luck Club, a group of Chinese women founded by Jing-Mei's mother in 1949 who get together to play mahjong.
This book was a hard one for me. I thought the structure was really interesting, and I found the interlocking stories and shifting perspectives intriguing as well as challenging. I did a LOT of flipping back and forth to make sure I was connecting the right daughter with the right mother. The book is divided into four section, and each section has four stories. The first and last sections are the mothers' stories, the middle sections are the daughters' stories. I found the language really beautiful and thought the book was exceptionally well written. The imagery is very rich, and I definitely felt exposed to a lot of aspects of Chinese culture as I read it (though Tan has been criticized from some for her depiction of Chinese culture). I could probably read this book a hundred times and still not fully appreciate all the symbolism Tan employs to tell each woman's story.
But is this a book I would want to read one hundred times? I don't think so. As I said to start this recap, the word that comes to mind when I think of The Joy Luck Club is "bitter". I found it so harsh, and the fractured relationships between these mothers and daughters left me heartsick. While there was some attempt at communication and relationship-building between some of our characters, we have to wade through a lot of miserable life circumstances and the consequences of years of poor choices to get to even a glimmer of hope. Just as these stories are interconnected while being distinct, so these mothers, while connected to their daughters, seem to be cut off from them. It was really hard to read even while being really beautiful. While this is a book I might see myself revisiting at some point in the future, it is by no means one I would turn to again and again. While The Joy Luck Club undoubtedly is the type of book that lends itself to re-reading for a better grasp at understanding it, it would be hard for me to knowingly subject myself to that kind of trauma again. It's a book I would recommend, but wouldn't recommend.
How's that for a recap? Have you read The Joy Luck Club or any of Tan's other work? Have you ever read a book that was traumatic while still somehow retaining beauty?
Well, it's high time for some more Shakespeare around here and this year's choice for a comedy was Measure for Measure though this turned out to be another of Shakespeare's "problem plays" meaning it read more tragic than comedic. As I got deeper and deeper into the madness, I felt like Measure for Measure was a definite tragedy on par with Othello, but I guess since no one dies in the end, the First Folio people gave it the comedy stamp and so it remains to this day.
We open upon Duke Vincentio of Vienna cutting out and leaving the kingdom in the self-righteous iron fists of Angelo. Apparently, Vincentio has let things go to pot and Angelo has taken it upon himself to restore order starting with arresting Claudio and sentencing him to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant.
Only Claudio is actually a pretty upstanding guy and everyone is outraged that he's on death row. Vienna is one big party town and unlike most of the philandering men around the block, Claudio is a one-woman man and the only reason Juliet isn't already his wife is because of a legal technicality. Like, basically they're just waiting on the paperwork to clear.
When Claudio's friend Lucio finds out what's happened, he rushes off to find Claudio's sister Isabella who is in a convent on the brink of becoming a full-fledged nun. He begs her to go to Angelo and get her brother off the hook. Why Isabella is the only qualified candidate for this job, I'm still not sure, but away she goes to try to talk sense into Angelo.
She and Angelo get into it, and evidently, Isabella is so super-fine that Angelo can barely contain himself and by the end of their debate, he tells Isabella that he'll let Claudio off and lasso her the moon and anything else she wants if she'll just sleep with him one time.
You see what's happening here, right? He's got Claudio going to the chopping block for the very crime that he's all hot and heavy to commit with Isabella.
Isabella tells him exactly what he can do to himself and threatens to out him to the entire city; Angelo responds by totally gaslighting her. Because who's going to believe this little girl over Mr. Law-and-Order?
What a scumbag.
Isabella heads straight to her brother in jail and is all, "My dude, say your prayers and man up to meet your Maker because I would rather die myself than give up my innocence." To which Claudio is all, "No doubt, I would kill that guy myself if I wasn't locked up." But after two more seconds changes his tune to, "Would it really be the worst thing?" And Isabella is all, "Get ahold of yourself!"
Meanwhile, some random friar that's been skulking around town and hanging out in the jail overhears everything and takes Isabella aside for a chat. But is it really a random friar? Of course not. It's Duke Vincentio in disguise because he never had any business to attend to out of town. He just wanted to shake off the yoke of responsibility for a while and let Angelo mete out some justice of biblical proportions while he watches undercover, I guess.
So he pulls Isabella aside and tells her that she should go back to Angelo and agree to do the nasty with him as long as he consents to meet her in the dead of night and keep his mouth shut the whole time. To which Isabella replies, "Does anyone even know what a conscience is?" And then Friar Duke is all, "No, no; we'll send this chick Mariana who's in love with Angelo." And Isabella is all, "Seriously? I wouldn't send any other woman to degrade herself in this way either." But then Friar Duke explains that Mariana is actually Angelo's fiancée and he owes it to her to marry her but has declined to fulfill his commitment ever since her dowry was lost at sea. So Isabella's like, "Oh, I guess it's fine then."
So Mariana goes off and has her little incognito fling with Angelo.
But then Angelo sends a message to the prison ordering Claudio's execution to commence immediately.
When Friar Duke gets word of this, he then concocts a plan to execute some other poor schmuck who looks like Claudio and send his head to Angelo instead. Which they do. And then he tells Isabella (who thinks her brother was just beheaded) and Mariana (who just entrapped Angelo) to go plead their case to the Duke (aka HIMSELF) who's arriving back in town any minute.
He then does a quick wardrobe change and makes his grand entrance into Vienna. So now we've got a nice little audience for Isabella and Mariana to rat out Sir Scumbag. They air their grievances and Angelo is all, "They're both crazy." And Duke Vincentio is like, "Unless you can present this friar, you're both liars."
At which point of the play I am absolutely raging.
The duke ducks back out and changes back into his friar disguise so he can come back in and verify everything the girls said. To which Angelo is still like, "Why should anyone believe you?" And then Duke Vincentio pulls of his mask and is all, "Gotcha, sucker."
You'd think that right about now we'd string Angelo up the nearest pole, right?
You'd be wrong. Because he gets to live and be married to Mariana, Claudio shows up (to Isabella's profound gratitude) and gets to live happily ever after with Juliet, and Duke Vincentio ups and proposes marriage to Isabella.
No. NO. NO. No.
First of all, I'm so over Shakespeare's mindless, thirsty women who still want the most despicable men even after those men spit in their very faces. Second of all, Angelo should have burned at the stake. He is so gross.
Isabella does not answer Duke Vincentio's marriage proposal. There's a scripted silence which a lot of people interpret to mean she accepts him, but for the sake of my sanity, I have to believe she turns up her nose, marches her little behind back to the convent, and becomes a nun for the rest of her days. SHE HAS TO, RIGHT?
The only truly comedic elements of this play were the little exchanges between Lucio and the duke wherein Lucio is unwittingly bashing the duke to his face while he's disguised as the friar, and then dogs on the friar to the duke not realizing they're the same person—that's funny. Duke Vincentio ultimately "punishes" him by sentencing him to marry some prostitute he knocked up—ummm, not quite as funny.
Y'all. I just can't. Like I said at the beginning, this one was a tragedy for me. It made me more mad than Othello, and I could still spit tacks over that abominable ending. Angelo is the worst, Duke Vincentio not much better, and Mariana is on a level with Helena of women who could do better and ought to know it. Geez.
Personally, I'd call this one of Shakespeare's more compelling plays, but don't read it if you're not ready to rail against the universe for a little while. Hopefully next year's comedy will furnish a few more laughs.
We're going to start this post off with a little bookish confession: I'm not a library user. I don't even have a library card, and I haven't checked any books out of any library since I was a child. I'm a slow reader and I don't need the pressure of deadlines in my reading life. But in January, when the book club decided to read The Selection by Kiera Cass, I borrowed my husband's library card, got me down to our local library in town and checked out the trilogy. I didn't really have any personal desire to read these books, and I figured they would be a one-off for me.
(SPOILER: I was right.)
The Selection, The Elite, and The One by Kiera Cass were published in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, and from what I can tell, the trilogy is pretty popular with its demographic. There are a couple other books in the series along with several spin-off novellas. Every person that I know who has read these loved them, so my opinion is definitely in the minority on this set (although I found plenty of my people in the Goodreads review section).
In The Selection, we are introduced to 17 year old America Singer who through a series of absurd unfortunate events, finds herself in the Selection with 34 other young ladies who are in a Bachelor-style competition to marry Prince Maxon of their dystopian country Illéa. America has recently broken up with her secret boyfriend Aspen and really has no interest in marrying Prince Maxon because she's so above all this and is only participating so she can get some good meals and help financially support her family back home. (Can you just see me rolling my eyes?)
A lot of people have described these books as a cross between The Hunger Games and The Bachelor. I've never had any interest in The Hunger Games—books or movies—and I find the concept of The Bachelor completely inane. So it didn't come as a shock to me that I couldn't get into these books. On top of the fact that the content wasn't my cup of tea to begin with, I found the writing rather juvenile, America to be an entirely unlikable character, and most of the plot hilariously predictable and impossibly convenient. The books weren't hard to read, and I can see why girls might find this series entertaining, but I found America's flip-flopping, spineless, wishy-washy attitude tiresome by the end of the first book and nearly unbearable by the end of the second. I didn't think any of the characters were written with any consistency, and Cass didn't develop any of the remotely interesting plot points she dropped in the book. It just didn't work for me.
My book club was less than impressed with my complete lack of enthusiasm for these so I'll reiterate that my opinion—at least among the people I actually know in real life—is definitely in the minority. I'm glad I was able to find them at our library so I didn't waste any money on them and was able to return them for someone else to enjoy. But these just weren't for me, and I wouldn't recommend them. (Book Club, please don't kick me out.)
Have you ever come to blows with a friend over a book that she loved and you didn't?
Up to this point in my life, I would tell you that I am a huge fan of Anne Shirley. In every scenario where I'm mysteriously left on a deserted island until the end of time, the Anne books are the ones I'm taking with me. I have two entire sets of the eight book series: my beloved paperbacks that my mom gave me when I was in the fourth grade, and the gorgeous hardcovers my husband found for me at an obscure online Canadian bookstore. I've lost track of how many times I've read this series from beginning to end, most recently finishing them up once again in January of last year. These books are always in my rotation, and much as I might try, I cannot choose a favorite from among them.
But this post isn't about Anne of Green Gables. My point is: up to this point in my life, I would tell you I'm an Anne Shirley fan—not a Lucy Maud Montgomery fan. Much as with my darling Christy Miller and Robin Jones Gunn, I had some secret aversion to venturing outside of the Green Gables canon into Montgomery's other work of which there is much to be explored. But just as I discovered a deeply held love for Gunn's work outside the world of Christy and friends, I have recently dipped my toes into Montgomery's Blue Castle and have found myself just as charmed and delighted with her writing as I might have expected given she authored my favorite books in the world.
And now there's no turning back.
For some reason that I can only chalk up to retail therapy (of the bookish variety) in the midst of the monster life changes we were going through, I found myself adding a host of L.M. Montgomery paperbacks to my AbeBooks shopping cart last summer. Instead of just buying a couple titles to ease myself slowly into this venture, I checked out with thirteen. Because go big or go home, right? And a few months later around my birthday, I decided to treat myself to one to fill the "book from your favorite genre" box on my unread shelf book bingo card.
And that one was The Blue Castle, originally published in 1926. This novel is one of the very few adult works of fiction that Montgomery penned in her career and the only one set entirely outside the setting of Prince Edward Island. In it, we meet twenty-nine year old Valancy Stirling who is now very much considered an old maid by her nag of a mother and the rest of her dreadful extended family. After being diagnosed with a terminal heart condition (which she keeps secret), Valancy decides to start making up her own mind about things beginning with a little brutal honesty with her family—leading them to believe she has lost her ever-loving mind—and eventually resulting in a marriage proposal to the town renegade Barney Snaith—leading them to absolute shock and horror.
And I loved every word. L.M. Montgomery's wit is razor sharp and her prose as lovely as ever. I was drawn into the story, and while the plot certainly wasn't earth-shattering, I still enjoyed the journey all the way to the pleasant conclusion.
While nothing will ever supplant my precious Anne books (or my Christy books for that matter), I am very much looking forward to continuing my jaunt through the rest of Montgomery's work, and am so pleased to find I have a whole new set of books I can count on when I need a guaranteed reading success. I'd definitely recommend The Blue Castle, and in fact, I promptly pressed it into my mother's hands nearly as soon as I finished reading it myself.
What author never lets you down when you need a guaranteed good read? And where should I head next with L.M. Montgomery? I'm thinking Emily of New Moon.