Back at the beginning of 2017, I wrote here about reading with a more disciplined approach and I listed 17 books that I wanted to be sure to read. Well. I made it through only 6 of those 17. But I did read 68 books last year. I can only laugh—I apparently have very little discipline and choose my next book based upon how I am feeling at the moment.
Obviously I read far more books than I write reviews for, and this is also an area in which I lack discipline. Most often I don’t get around to writing a review because I’m off to the next book—after all, reading is like breathing and I can’t go long without it—and by the time I think of sitting down and writing, my thoughts on the subject have lost their edge.
So in the interest of doing a little “house-keeping” before plunging into 2018, here are several blurbs about notable books I read that didn’t make it to the full-length review process.
Doomsday Book—Connie Willis
Last year I ventured a couple of times into the sci-fi and fantasy genres, areas I usually determinedly avoid. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis hooked me with its promise of historical fiction tucked inside sci-fi, having perhaps the most interesting take on time travel I’ve read yet.
In the 2050s, Oxford scholars have developed the ability to “drop” historians into any time and place in the past for the purpose of historical study. Young scholar Kivrin is dropped into the 14th century to study life in England before the Black Plague. Her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is filled with misgivings over her outing into the past, and it isn’t long before events prove that something did go terribly wrong with her drop. Doomsday Book proceeds along dual lines, following Kivrin’s immersion into the household of a medieval family and the crises erupting in Mr. Dunworthy’s 21st-century Oxford. Although the novel is long and, at times, overly wordy, it was a page-turner, a race against time until the very end.
Connie Willis avoids several of the problems that I usually have with time travel fiction, addressing Kivrin’s ability (or inability) to resist disease, understand language that has long since evolved, and adapt to unspoken social conventions, like the hierarchy of women in a medieval household and the proper interactions between men and women. But Willis’s real strength lies in the way she humanizes the millions of faceless people from the past, especially those who are invisible through poverty or lack of education. She tenderly shows that the relations between people have always been the same and, despite the fact that life in the Middle Ages may have been “nasty, brutish, and short,” grief and loss have always been heavy burdens to bear. She asks a lot of hard questions: what do you do with a God who allows so many people to die at once, as they did during the Plague? Why did people have to experience the terror of watching other people die and wondering if they would be next? Where did God go?
★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir—Jennifer Ryan
World War II is hardly a heartwarming topic, but the women who lived through this terrible time are trendy right now. I think their popularity lies in our natural curiosity about what it must be like to be a normal person living a normal life and to suddenly have all “normal” ripped away.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan manages to make the story of the British women on the home front a heartwarming one. When the Chilbury vicar dissolves the village choir on account of there being too few men, the ladies defy convention, overcome their squabbles, and work together to make their all-new females-only choir a success. As it turns out, setting up the choir is only the first in a wave of changes the women effect in their lives as their world turns upside-down.
I was almost disappointed in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir in the beginning because it has an amateurish feel and it is written from the perspective of multiple characters’ diaries and letters. I have never been a fan of this style of novel-writing, and for the most part the novel is a fluffy, vacation-day read. But Ryan succeeds at making two of her characters into convincing personalities—Mrs. Tilling, a widow who is forced to repeatedly leave her comfort zone, and young “tween” Kitty, who is in a terribly awkward stage of life and who keeps finding herself in impossible situations. I wanted more of the novel to be written from their perspectives.
Overall, the Chilbury ladies are an up-beat, lovable bunch. There is a lot going on in their village beyond the usual wartime hardships, including forbidden romances, espionage, and blackmail. It was sometimes enough to stretch my imagination too far. But I did get caught up in it and found the world of Chilbury hard to leave behind at the end—two signs of an effective story. If you liked the British TV show Home Fires, then this book will be right up your alley.
★ ★ ★/5 stars
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—Anne Brontë
I recently expanded my knowledge of the Brontës by reading a biography of Charlotte and by reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This one was on my original 2017 to-read list, so I have to give myself a pat on the back for actually reading it.
I found Anne’s writing in The Tenant to lie somewhere between the polished intensity of Charlotte’s novels and the crazy weirdness of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. The central figure of the story is Helen Graham, a young widow and mother who takes up residence at Wildfell Hall. She is unconventional and reclusive, refusing intimacy with everyone in the village. Gilbert Markham, a local gentleman farmer, is mesmerized by Helen, despite all her efforts to discourage him. Rumors soon fly through the village that Helen has a shady past. When Gilbert begs Helen to tell him the truth about herself, she gives him her diary in a fit of anguish.
Until Helen hands over her diary, the story falls neatly into that period’s literary style, with drawing rooms, vicars, and village intrigues. But when we hear from Helen herself through her diary, we are thrown into a raw and agonizing account of her past. It’s as if Anne Brontë peels the shiny veneer off of our romanticized view of that period, showing us the ugly realities of dissipated, wealthy men and the women they imprison by their careless lifestyles.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a novel that I did not necessarily enjoy, but which I can appreciate for its revolutionary and courageous work. The themes of the book are frustrating ones and Helen’s choices and personality sometimes hard to tolerate. But the Brontës were nothing if not courageous truth-tellers, and The Tenant is no exception.
★ ★ ★/5 stars
His Bloody Project—Graeme Macrae Burnet
Although I haven’t attempted to read through the Man Booker Prize list like I am trying to do with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction list, when the short-list for the Man Booker prize comes out I tend to pay it some attention. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet was a finalist in 2016 and created a lot of buzz because the author appeared to come out of nowhere.
I was intrigued by the book in spite of its macabre blood-stained cover. The novel masquerades as true crime—it includes police statements, medical reports, a contemporary account of the trial, and a lengthy narrative supposedly written by the criminal himself.
His Bloody Project has a superb set-up. We know the “whodunnit” from the outset—17-year-old Roderick Macrae confessed to murder in a remote Scottish village in the 1860s. Roderick, a strange but brilliant boy, has always led a bleak life under his father’s thumb, and soon enough he is mistreated by the local constable as well, who wages an unjustified vendetta against the Macrae family. As the tale unfolds, the reader is faced with a conundrum; the several facets of the story told by the villagers and Roderick himself create in us a sympathy for what he did. We shouldn’t feel sympathy for a murderer, should we? But the real punch is that we’re never sure who’s telling the truth.
*His Bloody Project is gruesome and disturbing—it’s definitely a book for mature readers.
★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars