I didn’t like How to Eat a Cupcake. I don’t know why – you’d think its lighthearted take on female friendship that takes place in San Francisco would be right in my wheelhouse. I love the kindness of the impulse of Julia reaching out to Annie to help her start her own small business, even if it is also a selfish way to try to become friends again. There’s tension there that should have been interesting.
But this was an unsatisfying first novel that ended up frustrating me more than anything else. There’s a mystery of what exactly caused the rift between Annie and Julia when they were teenagers; its pacing drove me nuts. And the switching of perspectives from chapter to chapter… I just don’t know. It bugged me.
This novel was clearly not for me.
The Stranger in the Woods is the book-length tale started in the GQ article titled “The Strange & Curious Case of the Last True Hermit“, which I would recommend you read if you haven’t already. It’s about a man who makes the choice to live in a secluded clump of woods in a tent in Central Maine. For over twenty years.
I find this story fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, the practical side of me is honestly curious about how you survive Maine winters in a tent. It’s explained in the book but I still keep thinking “but could that really work? Really?” Two, there is an appeal to leaving the world behind, to get rid of sources of stress, to have the time to meditate and the ability to read so much of the time. Three, what you must have to go through to re-enter the world is incredible to think about. It’s probably like traveling to a whole new place and having to learn how to fit in again. Things are the same as before you left, but also completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods is an easy read and entertaining. Which seems like an odd and callous thing to say about a real, live person who is clearly going through some real, live stuff. Even if he did just decide to go, he was discovered and arrested and pulled back into the world not by his choice. While the book is easy and entertaining, I’m not sure it should be? Like, shouldn’t I feel his pain and suffering along with him as he slowly reacclimatizes to being around people?
I don’t know. Would I recommend it? Yes, as a starting place and a story. But no if you’re looking for a psychological profile that wants you to ask difficult questions.
Truly Devious is the first book in a YA mystery series. Be forewarned that only two of the planned three books are out (the last one is scheduled for release in January 2020).
Stevie (short for Stephanie) Bell is a new student to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that was founded in the 1930s. Shortly after the founding, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and possibly killed. A culprit was found, but no one believes that he did it. Stevie wants to be the real Sherlock Holmes, and her mission at Ellingham Academy (in the present time) is to solve the mystery.
The past mystery is nicely mysterious, the setting of a secluded school without parents is handled in the best hothouse-for-bizarreness way, there’s a romance story that is very much not the point, and while there is also a current murder, it does get solved. So even though the past mystery is going to take three books to solve (probably), there is a sense of resolution and completeness to this book.
I enjoyed Truly Devious and have put the second book in the series on my hold list at the library.
The Chatelet Apprentice is a fine first mystery novel, doing a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene of mid-1700s Paris (Paris is important because it puts our detective into glancing contact with King Louis XV), and generally easing you into a new mystery series.
That said, I had a terribly hard time getting into this book. It was a slow read the whole way through, and while it wasn’t bad, it was maybe more laid back than I wanted? I don’t know. It is translated from the French, and so, since it was written for the French market, maybe moves at a different pace? Or maybe I’m just not used to reading cozy mysteries and as a result am not used to them anymore.
Regardless, if you’re looking for a new mystery series or fiction books about historical France, try out The Chatelet Apprentice.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, despite the 60-some-odd books on my to-read pile. (Hell, maybe because of the 60-ish books on that to read pile.) So naturally, I pulled Brideshead Revisited off the shelf. I mean, what better way to deal with a slump than reading Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece?
Because it is a masterpiece. It manages to be both silly and serious – the relationships between people are both lighthearted and the most important parts of our lives. This relationship – or rather these relationships that Charles Ryder has with both Sebastian and Julia Flyte, of the family that owns Brideshead, form who he is. I’d call it a coming-of-age story, except that it extends well into Charles’ 20s. Tonally, The Secret History owes it a debt.
If you’ve let this one pass you by, consider Brideshead Revisited. It’s worth your time.
I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.
It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.
But mostly, Ninth House wants to remind you how good and productive anger can be. I am here for it. You should be too.
I read The Secret History about a million times while in college. So reading it again was a bit more like comfort than exploring anything new or looking to discover anything new.
And yet, there is something in a book you can re-read that many times. While in college, I was in love with the over the top aesthetic of this book. Now, it’s hard not to look at the characters and see tragedy written all over them. Henry, the scholar who has always been able to do what he wants; Charles and Camilla, twins who can’t live apart, not even when they need to; Francis, who needs to be allowed to be himself when he’s not at college; Bunny, fatuous and full of charm but irritating as hell; and Richard, who just wants to fit in.
I still love the aesthetic of it, the romanticism of a small college in a New England town, the fascination with beauty that is both the author’s and Richard’s, who also happens to be our narrator.
I can’t at all tell you what it would be like to approach this book, written pre-internet, as an adult almost 30 years later. All I can tell you is that I still love The Secret History, whether its because the book is great or because I loved it so much as a twenty-year-old. I will always recommend it.
I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately. Including with this book. I started Paris in the Present Tense ready for its atmosphere and characters and sank into the first chapter. After that, every time I picked it up, I read slightly less and was slightly less interested in the story. Once I was halfway through the book I found myself not caring almost at all.
I don’t think it was the story, about an older man, a failed musician, who is still fit and exercises daily, whose grandson is dying and through a series of events ends up in a street fight and kills a young man (who, it should be said, was about to kill him). You root for him, but I’m not sure you should. And I didn’t care enough to explore the middle ground.
But was it the book or was it my slump? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t recommend Paris in the Present Tense, despite my initial delight with it.
Life Inside My Mind is a young adult book, with essays written by 31 authors who either have a mental illness of some sort or are related and have had to deal with someone else’s mental illness in a very close way (eg taking care of a family member with Alzheimers, adopting a grandchild with PTSD). The stories are, in some cases, incredibly personal, narrating a specific occasion where their illness has changed their life.
I found the book to be generally fine. You can tell that most of these authors have practiced their stories with their therapists and even the most personal have a distance to them, a reassurance that everything is going to be ok.
My teenaged daughter, however, ate this book up, reading it in maybe less than 24 hours. That suggests that my ambivalence may be because I am not the intended audience for Life Inside My Mind. So: if you need to buy a book for a teenager, this could be a good one. For an adult, maybe not so much.
For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.
So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.
The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.
The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.
I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.