Year in Review 2013

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As I have for the past few years, I have spent the last few days reflecting on my reading year. This year wasn’t great. I didn’t meet any of my reading goals.

2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Dana has read 27 books toward her goal of 52 books.
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  • Total number of books read: 27.
  • Fiction books: 19.
  • Nonfiction books: 6.
  • Memoirs: 2.
  • YA books: 7.
  • Audio books: 2.
  • Digital books: 10.
  • DailyLit books: 0.
  • Books reread: 5.

Favorite Reads of the Year (in no particular order):

  1. Moloka’i, Alan Brennert
  2. Divergent, Veronica Roth
  3. The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey
  4. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  5. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
  6. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, William Joyce
  7. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
  8. Smart Soapmaking and Milk Soapmaking, Anne L. Watson

Least Favorite Books (although this is relative because I didn’t have any less than 3-star books):

  1. Making Soaps & Scents, Catherine Bardey
  2. Delirium, Lauren Oliver

Favorite Book Meme of the Year: Top Ten Tuesdays.

Favorite Reading Challenge: The Mixing it Up Challenge (for at least making me thinking about going outside my usual reading comfort zones).

Favorite Blog Posts (again, in no particular order):

Here is my Where Are Your Reading 2012 Challenge map:


View 2012 Where Are You Reading Challenge in a larger map

I finished a re-read of Wuthering Heights recently, bringing my total to 27 books for the year. I don’t think I’ll finish anything else before the end of the year, so I’m calling it at 27. I have some hopes that if I buckle down, I can finish A Great and Terrible Beauty, but not high hopes.

In addition to not meeting my goal of reading 52 books, I also did not complete any of the challenges I set for myself. I think I over-committed myself on the challenges for sure, but I really did think I could meet the challenges. They didn’t seem onerous. I have decided to limit myself a bit more this year and just try to read things that look interesting.

I am also not going to host any challenges this year, as I find I am a terrible challenge host. I don’t think I peeked in after January, mainly because folks didn’t seem too interested in the challenge. I think I’d rather just participate in other challenges than host them.

There are good reasons for my failure to meet my reading goals. This year I moved and started a new job. I am not being too hard on myself because it was a huge adjustment. I moved 1000 miles from Roswell, GA (suburb of Atlanta) to Worcester, MA in central Massachusetts. We are all very happy in our new digs, and I love my new job.

In my previous job, I rode the bus to work, and my commute was typically 30 minutes each morning on the bus. I was able to get in a lot of reading that way, and I think my lack of commute now is a considerable factor in the number of books I was able to read. We moved here in June, and from that time onward, my commute was typically five minutes. The only way I could stretch it would be to walk, which I have done when the weather is nice, but it’s not conducive to reading. I actually can read and walk at the same time, but it’s better to have your wits about you. Even riding the bus, I only took about five minutes to get to work, but now that I’m carpooling with a coworker, it’s downright rude to think about. Essentially, one hour of reading time I used to have has been taken away. What I need to do is dedicate that reading time each day at home, even if I have to set a timer. I have often said that if something is important to you, you will make time for it. Well, reading is obviously important to me, but I have not been making as much time for it as I previously have done.

I’m looking forward to trying again to read a book a week this coming year.

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R.I.P. Recap

I did not complete the R.I.P. Challenge this year. It’s absolutely my favorite challenge of the year, but I only managed to read one book that could be considered part of the challenge, and it wasn’t even one of the books I planned to count. By the way, I did make a soap inspired by Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season. I call it Vanilla Sugar Cane. Its ingredients are olive oil, water, coconut oil, palm oil, sodium hydroxide, sweet almond oil, cocoa butter, and castor oil, along with a vanilla sugar fragrance that is an exact duplicate of Bath & Body Works’ Warm Vanilla Sugar fragrance—one of my favorites. I can’t wait until this soap is ready.

I did not manage to finish Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m giving up on it because it just didn’t do anything for me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me because it has all the elements I usually like in books: a creepy carnival visiting a small town in the fall; lots of imagery; a story that can be read on multiple levels. I think ultimately, I don’t care much for the characters. I have seen the movie (many years ago), and I liked it, so I can’t explain why the book is just not appealing to me. I find it is not difficult to put down, and I keep looking at it, thinking I should pick it up. At this point, I’ve maxed out my library renewals, and I just don’t have a desire to try to finish it. I feel like I’m giving the book the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” speech. But I really feel like it is me. People love this book. I did make a soap inspired by Mr. Crosetti’s cotton candy. It was pink and cotton-candy scented. However, as the soap cured, it turned a deeper shade closer to purple. My feeling is it now looks like appropriately dark and twisted cotton candy, and Mr. Dark would approve. I will probably just gift it to the kids in my family for Christmas.

I enjoyed the challenge I set for myself of thinking of an appropriate soap inspired by the books I read for this challenge. I am not sure I’d want to do it for every challenge or every book, but it was fun, and just like the books, I was really pleased with how the Vanilla Sugar Cane Soap came out from the very start, and as it cures, it is shaping up into a very nice soap, just like the book. On the other hand, I was initially pleased with the Cotton Candy Soap, and over time, I found my enthusiasm cooled as the soap changed a funny color, which mirrors my feelings for the book on which I based it.

This year is shaping up to be a bad reading year for me all the way around. I am already feeling a pull to re-read Wuthering Heights. I recognize the signs: I start Googling things related to the book and looking for film versions on Netflix. And I don’t have time. I have other books I’ve committed to read. That book is a damned siren.

So how did you do with the challenge this year? How’s your reading year shaping up as we slide into the final two months?

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The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

The Cutting SeasonAttica Locke’s novel The Cutting Season is the story of Caren Gray, who manages the plantation Belle Vie on the shores of the Mississippi River, south of Baton Rouge, for its current owners, the Clancey family. Caren’s family and Clanceys have been entwined since the Civil War, when Caren’s ancestor Jason worked on the grounds of the plantation, cutting sugar cane, as the Clanceys’ ancestor William Tynan acted as overseer of the property. When the plantation’s owners left the plantation, it was seized by the federal government. William Tynan acquired the plantation in 1872. Jason went missing, and his ultimate fate remains a mystery. At the opening of the novel, Caren and the rest of the Belle Vie staff are preparing for another busy day at the plantation when Caren discovers the body of a young woman on the plantation grounds, near the old slave cabins. The woman turns out to be Inés Avalo, an undocumented field worker for Groveland Corporation, a large agriculture corporation that owns the fields of sugar cane that border the plantation. Caren finds herself inextricably involved in the resulting investigation, and the ghosts of the plantation’s past come back to haunt the present.

This novel is an interesting exploration of several issues: the legacy of slavery and injustice, the consequences of the growth of big agriculture, the tension between preserving history versus the economical needs of society. Caren Gray is a likable heroine, and the story moves at a good pace. The descriptions are vivid, and the atmosphere pure Southern gothic (in the best way). While the mystery alone was good, and I really wanted to keep turning pages to find out what would happen and whodunnit, I admit my favorite part of the novel was the historical aspect. I really wished that Caren had been more curious about her family history and the history of the plantation. She didn’t seem interested until looking into the past might help her understand present events. I don’t think I could have lived in a place like Belle Vie, particularly knowing my family had also lived there for generations, without being more curious. I’m not sure I found all of Caren’s connections plausible—her daughter’s father works in the Obama administration—but it did make an interesting statement about the arc of race relations in our country since the Civil War. Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the state of Louisiana also makes a small but important impression on the events in the novel.

I was interested to discover that Locke was inspired to create Belle Vie after attending an interracial wedding at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. The idea of such a marriage in that location provoked an emotional conflict in the author, who told NPR, “I felt this tear inside—there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

Rating: ★★★★☆

Full disclosure: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Because of the general mystery and gothic elements, I’m counting this book toward the R.I.P. Challenge (even though it wasn’t on my original list of challenge books) and as the modern fiction selection for the Mixing it Up Challenge. I said I would make soap inspired by each book I read for the R.I.P. Challenge, so look for my Vanilla Sugar soap (including pics) inspired by the sugar cane fields around Belle Vie some time this weekend. It won’t be ready for at least four weeks after it’s made. Biography below courtesy of TLC Book Tours.

About Attica Locke

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke’s first novel, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize in the UK in 2010. It was nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Strand Magazine Critics Award. Black Water Rising was also a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

Attica Locke has spent many years working as a screenwriter, penning movie and television scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, HBO, and Dreamworks.  She was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab and is a graduate of Northwestern University.

A native of Houston, Texas, Attica now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the board of directors for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Most recently, she wrote the introduction for the UK publication of Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. Her second book, The Cutting Season, was published by HarperCollins / and Dennis Lehane in September 2012.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

Attica’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 18th: A Bookworm’s World

Wednesday, September 19th: Books and Movies

Thursday, September 20th: A Patchwork of Books

Monday, September 24th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Tuesday, September 25th: Helen’s Book Blog

Wednesday, September 26th: Kahakai Kitchen

Thursday, September 27th: Dwell in Possibility

Tuesday, October 2nd: Drey’s Library

Wednesday, October 10th: The Blog of Lit Wits

Thursday, October 11th: Book Him Danno!

Friday, October 12th: The House of Crime and Mystery

Thursday, October 25th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

TBD: Stephanie’s Written Word

TBD: In the Next Room

TBD: Psychotic State

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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, William Joyce

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris LessmoreOK, I admit that I did not read this book in the hardcover edition linked to the left. I first encountered the story of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore in the form of the short film, and then downloaded the iPad app. If you have an iPad, do yourself a favor and download this wonderful multimedia children’s story, especially if you are a book nerd. You’ll love the story. It was written for you.

The story begins as Mr. Morris Lessmore is writing his story in the French Quarter of New Orleans when he is beset by a hurricane that rips the very words from his pages. Despondent, he doesn’t know where to go or what to do. Suddenly, he sees a beautiful girl being carried by flying books. Noticing Morris’s despair, she sends him her favorite book, and he follows the book to a magical library where he becomes caretaker and lends books to other folks who need them.

This is a fantastic story about the power of reading. The film is perhaps even better than the book, as it tells the story about the importance of words without using any words at all. I love the messages about how we breathe new life into old books and make them live again by reading them, and that they live in us and in turn give us life. The animation in the film is beautiful, and it reminds me of the opening story sequence in the movie Up. The digital storybook on the iPad has a narrator who reads the story, and you can interact with elements on each page. For example, on the page when Morris first enters the library, you can touch the books and hear famous lines from classic literature. You can write on Morris’s book. You can spell out words with the alphabet cereal Morris feeds the books. It’s an amazing immersive experience. My eight-year-old son loved it. We sat down and read it together this afternoon, and of course, it took him only a minute to figure out how to manipulate the book. The book is currently $4.99 in the App Store. If you have an iPad, do yourself a favor and get it.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book counts as my fantasy/sci-fi selection for the Mixing it Up Challenge.

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A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast: The Restored EditionThe trouble with posthumous publication is that you never know for sure if the book is the final result of the author’s intention because he or she wasn’t around during the final stages of editing. A Moveable Feast is Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of his early writing life and first marriage to Hadley Richardson in Paris in the 1920′s. Originally edited by his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, it was published in 1964, three years after Hemingway’s death. In 1979, Hemingway’s papers were opened to the public in the JFK Library and Boston, and critics began to question whether A Moveable Feast as the author intended it had been the version that was published.

I read Paula McLain’s wonderful novel The Paris Wife last year, and I had determined at that time that I needed to read Hemingway’s memoir, which was McLain’s inspiration for her novel about the Hemingways as told from Hadley’s point of view. Hemingway begins his memoir after he and Hadley have already moved to Paris. He quickly befriends the other expatriate writers and artists in France, including Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Beach (owner of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore), Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, among others. The book is really more of a series of vignettes rather than a straight narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, but it does provide an interesting insight into the expatriate writer’s life in the 1920′s, as well as some interesting insight into the other writers he encounters.

The writer who comes off the best in Hemingway’s memoir is Ezra Pound. Hemingway describes Pound as the most generous writer he has ever known, which is interesting because Pound’s reputation now has probably sustained the most damage after his support of Mussolini and Hitler, his World War II criticism of America and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his ultimate mental breakdown. One has the sense that Hemingway was attempting to rescue Pound’s reputation and point out that he was a good and generous man to young Hemingway, whatever his politics later became.

Scott Fitzgerald comes off much worse. Hemingway’s Fitzgerald is drunk, tedious, insecure, and silly. Hemingway doesn’t share much about Fitzgerald that casts him in a positive light, and curiously missing from the narrative is how Fitzgerald helped Hemingway edit The Sun Also Rises to make it much better book. He sharply criticizes Zelda for interfering with Scott’s ability to produce work, which is a criticism I feel is probably warranted. I do think Hemingway was probably telling the truth (mainly, as Huck would say) about Fitzgerald, but only half of the truth.

Hadley, Bumby, and Ernest Hemingway

The two standout characters in the memoir, at least to me, are Hemingway’s wife Hadley and their son Bumby (Jack Hemingway). One can’t read The Paris Wife without being angry at Hemingway for leaving Hadley for Pauline Pfeiffer, especially when Hadley loved Hemingway so much. However, in reading this memoir, I understood him a little better. He felt genuine remorse for what he had done to Hadley, and he accepted the blame, leaving some of the blame also to Pauline: “For the girl to deceive her friend was a terrible thing but it was my fault and blindness that this did not repel me” (219). Hadley, he explains, married again to “a much finer man than I ever was or ever could be” and Hemingway knew she was happy and ascribed none of the blame for their breakup to Hadley, even describing her as the heroine of A Moveable Feast and saying with confidence that Hadley wouldn’t mind the fictionalization of their time in Paris. What makes me sad is that Hadley died in 1979, so she perhaps never read the lengthy apology to her in this memoir as Mary Welsh cut it when she edited the book for publication. I think it might have made a difference to Hadley to know how Hemingway felt about what happened. He did truly love her, and one has the sense after reading A Moveable Feast that whatever happened in his love life after they divorced, he never really stopped loving Hadley.

Bumby comes across as good-natured and precocious, and I wondered if he were truly like that as a child or if Hemingway was ascribing those qualities to him as a proud father. The vignette added in this edition in which Bumby orders a beer at a café and somewhat scandalizes Scott Fitzgerald in so doing is funny and poignant. Bumby makes rather astute observations about Fitzgerald, self-control, and prostitutes that are far beyond his years to the point of being difficult to believe.

One has the sense that Hemingway chose to focus his memoir on this time in Paris because, despite the fact that he had yet to establish himself as the famous writer and persona he would later become, it was the happiest time in his life.

I haven’t read the edition edited by Mary Welsh, so all I really have to compare this memoir to is Paula McLain’s novel and the Wikipedia entry about the memoir with a list of the changes. This edition was edited by Hemingway’s grandson Seán Hemingway, son of Hemingway’s third son Gregory, with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway, Hemingway’s second and only surviving son. Seán Hemingway describes his restored edition as the original manuscript as the author intended it to be published and criticizes Mary Welsh’s editing as “changes that I strongly doubt would have been attempted by the editor had she required the author’s approval” (4) and even goes so far as to say that the “extensive edits Mary Hemingway made to this text seem to have served her own personal relationship with the writer as his fourth and final wife, rather than the interests of the book or of the author” (9), particularly with regard to his account of his breakup with Hadley and remarriage to Pauline. Seán Hemingway closes his introduction by saying,

For my grandfather, who was just starting out in those early years, Paris was simply the best place to work in the world, and it remained for him the city that he loved most. While you will not find goatherds piping their flocks through the streets of Paris anymore, if you visit the places on the Left Bank that Ernest Hemingway wrote about, or the Ritz Bar or Luxembourg Gardens, as I did with my wife recently, you can get a sense of how it must have been. You do not have to go to Paris to do this though; simply read A Moveable Feast, and it will take you there. (13)

Rating: ★★★★★

 

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The House of Velvet and Glass, Katherine Howe

The House of Velvet and GlassKatherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, concerned a setting near her home in Marblehead and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Howe returns once again to Massachusetts of an earlier era, this time pre-WWI Boston. Sibyl Allston, daughter of a wealthy Salem sailor and a society gal, has lost her mother and younger sister in the sinking of Titanic. Her mother introduced her to the spiritualist gatherings at the home of the medium Mrs. Dee, and Sibyl continues to go in a desperate attempt to contact her mother and sister from beyond the grave. Discouraged by her inability to connect, she accepts a scrying glass from Mrs. Dee, and at first, she finds her attempts to use it unsuccessful, too. Her brother, sent home from Harvard in disgrace after he is caught in flagrante delicto with an actress in his rooms, brings his flamboyant girlfriend Dovie home, where she and Sibyl become unlikely friends. Dovie takes Sibyl to an opium den, where Sibyl is able to use her scrying glass for the first time. At first, she sees snatches of images she doesn’t understand, but once she realizes what she is able to see, Sibyl becomes desperate to know if what she sees in the scrying glass can be changed. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to her seventeen-year-old father’s sailing voyage to Shanghai and friendship with a young Chinese scholar and her mother and sister’s voyage on Titanic.

This book took me a while to get into, but about halfway into the book, the pace started picking up. Throughout, the descriptions are gorgeous, and I admired Howe’s ability to capture the early twentieth century well on many occasions. I liked the characters, and the setting was intriguing. The book has interesting things to say about all the what-ifs we wonder about in life, and also what our legacies might be if different choices are made. The old Calvinist thinking of early Massachusetts settlers is a surprising theme of the novel, as well. How much of our lives do we really have control over, and if we try to change events, can we really? Or is so much of what happens to us determined by Fate or God, or whatever you want to call the force of Predestination, that things will happen certain ways whether we try to intervene or not? The book does make one think about one’s place in the grand scheme of things.

Downton Abbey fans might like this book set in the same era in America. I think readers who enjoyed Howe’s first book will like this second one as well, though it is different from the first. Historical fiction fans who enjoy WWI-era novels will like it, too. Be patient with the first half, especially with the flashbacks that might not seem as if they are connected to the main narrative, as you will be rewarded once the book begins to coalesce during the second half. Enjoyable read!

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

The Complete PersepolisThe first time I ever heard anything about the country of Iran was when I was in second grade. Americans had been taken hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. We wrote letters to the hostages, and I remembered very clearly that a boy in my class wrote in his letter, “I hope you don’t get shot.” Miss Johnson, my teacher, made him change it because, she said, while she was sure they would appreciate his hoping they wouldn’t get shot, he shouldn’t remind them of the possibility in a letter. They were already scared enough. I remembered thinking that these people must be crazy to kidnap people they didn’t know for no reason I could understand. I think a lot of Americans came to view Iranians as crazy fundamentalists, and it was easy to lump the entire country together under that label. Persepolis is a memoir by Marjane Satrapi, who experienced what it was like to live in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. She paints a different image of Iran and Iranians than many Americans my age and younger grew up seeing. She describes what it was like to feel hopeful when the Shah was deposed, only to find the revolution was not what she and her family expected, and in many ways, their lives were worse. Satrapi suddenly had to wear a veil to school. Satrapi was outspoken and frequently courted trouble. When she was fourteen, her parents sent her to school in Austria. She came back to Iran at the age of eighteen confused about who she was: she didn’t feel completely Iranian because her beliefs were out of step with those of her more traditional friends, but she didn’t feel Western, either.

The version I read contains the complete graphic novel, spanning Satrapi’s life from the late 1970′s to the mid-1990′s. I liked the artwork. It was simple but effective, and I found Satrapi’s story so captivating that I read the novel in a matter of hours (although it is true that graphic novels are quicker to read). I have not read many graphic novels. In fact, this is only my second, the other being Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. I didn’t like Maus all that much, and I have never been much of a comic book reader, so I think I told myself I didn’t like graphic novels. This graphic novel was excellent, though. I found Satrapi’s description of life in Iran and her parents interesting. I think growing up when I did, it was easy to see the people of Iran as “the enemy” and to forget they are not terribly different from us, and what this book does brilliantly is expose that prejudice to the reader. Reading this memoir, I do not have the sense it was written for an Iranian audience. It feels more like it was meant to educate Westerners, and it certainly changed my perspective. We have our own religious extremists here in America, but the difference is that our government allows dissent, and we’re not yet living in the Republic of Gilead.* I enjoyed the fact that the memoir was an unflinchingly honest examination of Satrapi’s coming of age, but also not without quite a fair amount of humor, even the face of difficult circumstances and devastating events. Ultimately, Satrapi’s memoir is the story of how she discovered who she is and what she wanted. I would recommend it to anyone who thinks they don’t like graphic novels. Anyone who already enjoys graphic novels will love this book.

*A reference to the government established by the Religious Right in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this novel to fulfill the Graphic Novels and Manga category of the Mixing it Up Challenge.

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Dragonfly in Amber (audio), Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander)In my quest to read (or reread, as in this case) the entire Outlander series this year, I joined the Outlander Series Reading Challenge and have already completed the first book in the series, Outlander. I thought I might enjoy listening to the books this time, and Davina Porter, the narrator, does indeed do a fabulous job reading the books. She has different voices for the different characters, and she is expressive and interesting to listen to.

Dragonfly in Amber is the second book in the seven-book (as of today’s date) series. It begins in 1968, when Claire Randall and her daughter Brianna visit Scotland. Claire enlists the help of Roger Wakefield, adopted son of her late husband Frank’s friend Reverend Wakefield, to find out what happened to the men under the command of Jamie Fraser at the Battle of Culloden. Claire inexplicably disappeared through a cleft in the stone circle known as Craigh na Dun during a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in 1946 and wound up 200 years in the past. Before slipping back through the stones on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, Claire built a life for herself in the past as Jamie Fraser’s wife. Knowing the Highland clans will be destroyed after Culloden, Claire and Jamie work as double agents, trying to prevent the disaster. They find themselves caught up in intrigues at the French court of Louis XV before returning to Scotland.

I find this second book to be interesting for its development of Claire and Jamie’s relationship. They endure the horrible loss of their daughter Faith, an event which nearly destroys their marriage, as well as danger and privation as they find themselves swept up in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion. I join those readers who don’t enjoy the part of this novel in which Jamie and Claire live in France as much as the rest, but I found that during this reread, I actually enjoyed the frame part of the story that takes place in 1968, which I didn’t like much the first time I read the novel. I think the idea that Claire would ever return to Frank and leave Jamie just bothered me too much at the time. I found I liked the older Claire: she aged well. She’s still sexy in her 40′s, and she also became a medical doctor at a time when that profession did not include many women. I also found I liked Brianna better this time. I didn’t like her much the first time I read her, and I wonder if Davina Porter’s characterization of her contributed to my change of heart. Diana Gabaldon has said before that she had a hard time creating Brianna. I was not a huge fan of Roger Wakefield’s the first time, either, but I liked him better this time.

I noticed on this rereading, as I did with Outlander, that Gabaldon includes a lot of subplot and detail that develops characters, but doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward. Considering the length of the books, I think she could cut some of this detail without harming the character development, and I find the further I read into the series, the less patience I have for it. I may not mind so much once I start reading the books that I have never read before, but as I have reread the first two books, I’ve been annoyed by the extra details.

Still, Diana Gabaldon has a gift for creating characters and setting, and the end of the book, even on a reread, was unputdownable.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)If you have visited recently, you may recall I’m rereading the Harry Potter series on e-book after receiving the wonderful digital gift of the entire series, British versions. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets does not have as many differences from the American version. Once again, upon reading it, I was struck with how much of the foundation for the rest of the series is laid in Chamber of Secrets.

First, the nasty prejudice against Muggle-borns is first brought to light when Malfoy calls Hermione a “mudblood,” and she and Harry learn what it means from Ron and Hagrid. I never liked the fact that the movies put too many other characters’ lines in Hermione’s mouth, but always thought one of the most egregious violations was when Hermione herself explains to Harry what a mudblood is rather than Ron. After all, as much as she reads, she was still brought up in the Muggle world, just as Harry was, whereas Ron has only grown up among wizards. The reader doesn’t learn how deeply this prejudice against Muggle-born wizards runs until Chamber of Secrets. The only inkling the reader has that it’s a problem in Philosopher’s Stone is an offhand remark Draco Malfoy makes in Madam Malkin’s while he and Harry are being fitted for robes, and he is the only character in the book (if memory serves) who exhibits the prejudice. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn Tom Riddle/Voldemort shared the prejudice to the point that he set a monster on Muggle-borns when he was at school, killing Moaning Myrtle, and we also learn that not only do quite a few modern Slytherins share this prejudice, but also that the founder of the house, Salazar Slytherin, left Hogwarts and destroyed his friendship with Godric Gryffindor over the issue. The pervasiveness of the prejudice is really uncovered for the first time in Chamber of Secrets.

Another important issue in the books, starting with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is the destruction of Voldemort’s horcruxes. We don’t find out what horcruxes are until Dumbledore explains them to Harry in Half-Blood Prince, but a reread of Chamber of Secrets reveals that Dumbledore definitely suspected Harry himself was a horcrux as early as Chamber of Secrets. Harry says, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Dumbledore replies, “It certainly seems so,” and explains that he didn’t think Voldemort meant to do it. Of course, Harry often hears a nasty little voice in his head, and he somehow intuits how to destroy the diary horcrux without knowing how he knows. His ability to speak Parseltongue probably stems from the horcrux inside him, and I have often wondered if he retained the ability after Voldemort destroyed that horcux, or if he lost it. It seems likely he lost it, but who knows?

We are also introduced to house elves and their peculiar enslavement and magic in Chamber of Secrets. House elves become a huge issue later on when Barty Crouch uses his to hide a horrible secret and winds up setting a Death Eater loose to help Voldemort rise again and subsequently loses his life. We also see how Kreacher’s mistreatment at the hands of Sirius Black costs Sirius his life, and how Harry is able to turn Kreacher’s feelings around through kindness. Hermione, of course, takes up the cause of house elves in Goblet of Fire.

We also learn for the first time about Polyjuice Potion, which allows witches or wizards to disguise themselves as other people. Rowling was so careful to insert the incident when Harry, Ron, and Hermione brew Polyjuice Potion so they can quiz Malfoy about his involvement with opening the Chamber of Secrets, and given that they don’t really learn much useful information, it seems a sort of throwaway plot line, but it does enable them to become acquainted with Moaning Myrtle, and later on, when Barty Crouch, Jr., uses it to disguise himself as Mad-Eye Moody, we don’t suspect it until the end-of-the-novel reveal, when we learn how Rowling has hoodwinked us yet again while laying the clues out for all to see. Of course, it’s also used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry is transported to the Burrow. I suppose the only thing that prevents Polyjuice Potion from wreaking utter chaos in the Magical World is that 1) Polyjuice Potion is difficult to brew, and presumably not every witch and wizard is up to it; and 2) the ingredients are hard to come by—even Barty Crouch, Jr., is forced to pilfer them from Snape’s stores in order to get them.

This book also contains a character Rowling insists is based on a real person—Gilderoy Lockhart. The real person must have been truly awful for Rowling to exact such revenge upon him/her in the form of Gilderoy Lockhart.  What a truly amazing character. So much fun to read and so much fun to hate. I love how Ron is really the first person to have the true measure of Lockhart. When someone points out to Ron all the amazing things Lockhart has done, he mutters under his breath, “He says he’s done.” Ron is the first character to insinuate Lockhart lied about his accomplishments. Even smart Hermione doesn’t see through Lockhart. We also learn for the first time that the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher job is hard to keep filled in this book as well. The DADA teachers seem to be the Red Shirts of the Harry Potter universe. Hagrid tells the trio that Lockhart was the only man willing to take the job and that people seemed to feel the job was cursed.

All of that said, this book is not necessarily my favorite in the series, but I always forget how much I like it until I reread it. It’s quite funny in some places, and it’s really important in terms of laying the cornerstone for the focus of the series. When I read the series first, only the first four books had been released, and rereading this time is bringing back a little of the memory of all the speculating and waiting to find out if I was right. I really wish I could tell J. K. Rowling how much these books mean to me.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneA friend of mine gave me the wonderful gift of all of the Harry Potter books in e-book format. I just reread the first on my Kindle, and I must say that visiting Harry Potter’s wizarding world feels as comfortable as curling up under a warm blanket, snug against the cold. I realized on this reading that I have much of the book memorized at this point, but this was the first time I read the British version, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. My friend managed to get the British versions of the books for me, and after reading just this one, I much prefer the British versions. I have always thought the American title for this book was foolish dumbing-down for Americans, as though Americans couldn’t be expected to be familiar with the Philosopher’s Stone. I remember being confused when I first read it, thinking that the Sorcerer’s Stone sounded a lot like the Philosopher’s Stone, and wondering why Rowling didn’t use that term, only to find out she did, but that her American editors changed it. Grrr.

Aside from the fact that the British version is better, it’s a joy to return to this world that Rowling crafts  so fully and so beautifully again and look around. Her books are always just as good as I remembered them. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are always as wonderful and winsome as they were the first time. I think Rowling has something of Dickens’s gift for crafting characters. The first time I read the books, I was struck by Rowling’s wordplay, too, and I still enjoy it when I reread.

There are not many books that I reread frequently, but the Harry Potter books certainly are, and I find something new to enjoy and marvel at each time. This time, for instance, I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone after having experienced that book on Pottermore. I had the extra information about wandlore, Quirrell’s house at Hogwarts, and McGonagall’s history in mind as I read. I won’t share that information, as it is spoilery, and if you didn’t manage to get into the Beta version of Pottermore, you might wish to explore it on your own and discover the information as you navigate the site. Besides, if you want the spoilers, you can find them elsewhere online. Reading the book made me want to hop on Pottermore and reread some of those sections on the site. I remember how unexpectedly moved I felt when I got my wand, and how happy I was to be sorted in Ravenclaw (I always knew I was a Ravenclaw).

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading this book on my Kindle, too. I often highlight and annotate more in my Kindle books, as I don’t necessarily share them with other family members (and we certainly share Harry Potter books), and I also don’t feel like I’m defacing books. I have a peculiar aversion to writing in books. It does not bother me to write in textbooks or professional reading; in fact, I mark those books up quite a lot. I don’t like annotating fiction, though. What I should say is I don’t like annotating print fiction. I annotate e-books quite a lot. Reading this book on my Kindle gave me license to highlight all my favorite parts and take notes on connections I made. I enjoyed reading the book in this way. Perhaps if I didn’t have a hangup about writing in my print books, reading e-books wouldn’t feel that different to me, but I am finding that I actually prefer e-books lately because I feel I can write in them.

Of course, I finish this book as the book world is buzzing about J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, set for release in September. The readers will, of course, just be outraged that it’s not Harry Potter, but I think Rowling is right to go for something completely different. It will be expensive: nearly $35 for hardback and $20 for the e-book (Amazon has it for pre-order in hardback at $21.00). I’ve never paid so much for an e-book, and I can’t see myself rushing out to buy the book at those prices.

The Guardian also recently ran a lovely piece on rereading: “The Pleasures of Rereading” by Tom Lamont.

Rating: ★★★★★

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