Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg: A Review

Prompt #45 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list is a book with a fruit or vegetable in the title. I was not at all inspired by this prompt and I had a hard time choosing one. Ultimately, I landed on Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe after my sister suggested it.

Framed within the memories of Ninny Threadgoode, an eighty-six year old woman, this is a story about a murder. But that isn’t all this book is about. It is also a book about Evelyn Couch, a forty-something woman in the middle of a personal crisis who befriends Ninny by accident.

I chose this book because of the familiarity of the title. I thought maybe I had seen the movie, but only few pages in, it was clear to me I had not. It is well written, and filled with fascinating characters. The book travels back and forth between Ninny’s recollections in 1986 to the narrative of the story itself from the 1920s through the 1960s. Like true memories, the story doesn’t follow a linear path, rather moves fluidly through time.

While I enjoyed this book, it isn’t the sort of book I typically prefer to read, and I likely would never have picked it up except for this reading challenge. Still, I can’t deny the masterful way in which Flagg wove this story together. It meanders through time, but never gets lost. She has painted a delightful, if at times tragic portrait of a small southern town.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke: A Review

I chose this book for the prompt a book set in a country that fascinates me. It is set in England in the early 1800s, but it is an alternative history, one where magic is real. While it is true, I am fascinated by England, there are other countries I probably find more fascinating. Places like India, Israel or Zimbabwe. But I was determined to read this book this year, so I needed to find a place for it on my 2018 Reading Challenge list, so I put it here.

This is the story of two magicians – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – trying to bring magic back to England after several centuries. Magic has all but passed into the realm of lore. At first glance, this book is about the often volatile relationship between these two magicians. However, this conflict is really the framework on which Clarke hangs a larger plot.

I don’t quite know what to say about this book. It is very long – more than 800 pages. It is slow and meandering. I saw one reviewer that said it “reads like molasses,” and that is an apt description. I spent a good part of this book not quite sure if I liked it. I could never quite decide I didn’t like it, however, so I kept reading.

This book is written a bit more like a history than a novel, complete with footnotes. There are places where excerpts from magical texts are inserted into the narrative. The story wanders off into seemingly random directions. But Clarke ultimately brings all the threads together and manages to finish this huge tome in a beautiful way.

If you have the stamina for it, it is worth the read. It may be huge and slow, but there’s enough action and interesting mystery to keep reading. I needed to find out how all the pieces came together. This is an ambitious book that in the end, I decided I really did enjoy.

House of Day, House of Night, by Olga Tokarczuk: A Review

I have been excited to read this award-winning book by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) since House of Day, House of Night joined my 2018 Reading Challenge list as #44, a book tied to your ancestry. I’m an American, and like many Americans, my ancestry traces back to a number of European roots, Polish being one.

I wasn’t entirely sure where I wanted to go with this prompt, so I decided to start by investigating Polish authors. I found a couple of intriguing possibilities. Ultimately, I think it was this book’s description that appealed to me:

Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, a region that has at times been part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia. When the narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night moves into the area, she discovers that everyone—and everything—has a story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, she collects these stories, and what emerges is the message that the history of any place—no matter how humble—is limitless and universal.

Tokarczuk’s richly imagined novel is an epic of a small place. A best-seller in Poland, House of Day, House of Night is the English-language debut of one of Europe’s best young writers. (from the back cover)

There is a very deep sense of place throughout this book, something that I think many Americans have never experienced. There are things that in the world of this place just are, like the ravages of war that trampled through multiple times as this particular territory changed political hands more than once. Things such as unexploded bombs and treasures buried and left behind by evacuees ever hopeful of returning.

The language in this book is absolutely beautiful. There are segments that are truly stunning. One of my favorites is this passage where the narrator decides she wants to be a mushroom:

If I weren’t a person, I’d be a mushroom. An indifferent, insensitive mushroom with a cold, slimy skin, hard and soft at the same time. I would grow on fallen trees; I’d be murky and sinister, ever silent, and with my creeping mushroomy fingers I would suck the last drop of sunlight out of them.

It’s hard to say why I loved this book. It’s a slow read, meandering and without a clear plot line. It is made up of little vignettes that at first glance lack any sort of cohesion. But they cycle back again and again with recurring themes and characters. Though not my usual sort of read by any stretch, I really enjoyed this book.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas: A Review

I chose to read The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas for the 2018 Reading Challenge, #50 a book recommended by someone else doing the Popsugar challenge. When I joined the Goodreads group for this challenge, I was inundated with recommendations for amazing books. This one in particular grabbed my attention, and I decided I would read it. I was not a bit disappointed.

The Goodreads description of the book:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

The book opens with this traumatic moment, and proceeds to follow Starr through the aftermath. Both for her personally and for those around her.

The Hate U Give has a timely and relevant message. It is well-written, emotionally driven and thought provoking. I particularly liked how in the end, Starr’s dual identities come together. Her “ghetto” world and her prep school world collide. And she survives. Not only that, but she comes out the other side stronger than ever.

This is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr: A Review

When I first went through the list of prompts for the 2018 Reading Challenge to see what, if anything, came to mind for each one, I was struck by #11, a book with a female author who uses a male pseudonym. I knew instantly I wanted to read something by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree showed up on my list of must-read science fiction writers, so this was an easy choice.

In my search, I ultimately decided on Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a short story anthology of some of Tiptree’s best work. Originally published between 1969 and 1981, the stories contained in this anthology encompass a range of ideas and themes. There are aliens on Earth and humans on alien planets, space travel, time travel and futuristic scenarios. Many of the stories contain feminist ideas. I noticed, too, that much of Tiptree’s writing has a rather pessimistic outlook on humanity.

My favorite story is probably “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” This story jumps back and forth a bit in time as it progresses, and this drives the tension up. Surprise follows surprise until the end of story. The writing is superb.

There is also “The Screwfly Solution” that kept me reading to the end in a sort of horrible fascination. And “The Man Who Walked Home” about an experiment that’s gone horribly wrong. These, and many of the stories will keep the reader guessing right up to the end.

All the stories are written with vivid imagery. They really come alive off the page. This book is amazing, and I loved every bit of it. I’m pretty sure I missed the deeper messages within some of the stories, but they still kept me completely spellbound, I needed to keep reading. I will read these stories again.

Circle of Bones, by Christine Kling: A Review

I chose to read Circle of Bones, by Christine Kling for a book set at sea – #25 on the 2018 Reading Challenge – based on the recommendation of my sister. It’s a psychological thriller, which isn’t my usual read.

This book tells two stories simultaneously. One dates back to WWII and relates the tale of the French submarine Sarcouf that went missing under mysterious circumstances. Then in 2008, there is the story of former marine Maggie Riley and marine archeologist Cole Thatcher. These stories head for a collision course amid political conspiracies, thugs chasing treasure, and a psychotic killer.

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about this book at first. I chose it for this prompt because I couldn’t find anything else I found interesting. But I do like a good suspense story, so I decided to take a chance with it. I’m glad I did. It’s very exciting and kept me turning pages right up to the end.

Circle of Bones is written well, if not perfectly. Some of the lesser characters, however, felt a bit stereotypical and convenient. For example the busty best friend with the uber-rich ex-boyfriend. But I absolutely love Riley, so I can overlook the flaws in some of the others.

Most of the story takes place in the Caribbean, on and around the islands of Guadelupe and Dominica. The setting is absolutely stunning. There are also a number of different boats featured in the book, and Kling does a great job of describing them without getting too pedantic.

I loved this book. I knew it was a series when I started reading it, but I still wasn’t prepared for the ending. I’ve added the rest of the trilogy to my to-read list. I definitely recommend this as a fun and exciting read!

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg: A Review

#38 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list is a book with an ugly cover. This is a very subjective category as everyone interprets ugliness in their own way. I had already determined to read Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg this year, so it was really only a matter of finding a place for it on the list. It is my opinion, that the cover of this book is rather ugly, therefore, I plugged it into this slot.

I first read this book several years ago as required reading for a college writing course. I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the book at the time, maybe because it was required. Some of Goldberg’s advice must have stuck with me, however, as one thing she advises is to begin writing in notebooks. It was about that time that I started filling notebook after notebook with thoughts, random ideas and really bad poetry.

Writing Down the Bones is a collection of short to very short essays, each one a nugget of writing wisdom and inspiration. One such essay title “Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out Your Mouth” advises writers to step outside of themselves and do something they wouldn’t usually do, in order to shake up the humdrum daily routine of life. She says:

Sometimes there is just no way around it—we are boring and we are sick of ourselves, our voice and the usual material we write about. … Dye your hair green, paint your nails purple, get your nose pierced, dress as the opposite sex, perm your hair. Actually, one small prop can often tip your mind into another place. … Just sit down to write in a state you don’t ordinarily sit down to write in. … —whatever it takes to simply see the world from another angle.

This is a great book full of excellent advice on writing. Goldberg’s style is straightforward and down to earth, sometimes even irreverent. For anyone who writes, whether fiction, poetry, non-fiction or whatever, this is a great little book to not just read, but to keep on the reference shelf alongside the dictionary, thesaurus and style guide. It is a great resource that can be applied immediately and referred back to again and again.