2014: Reading Year in Review

reading photo

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Dana has
completed her goal of reading 30 books in 2014!
hide

I was able to complete my reading challenge of reading 30 books this year, but I did lower the number, as the last two years in a row, I had tried and failed to read 52 books. I am giving it another go this coming year. Is 2015 going to be the year I can finally read 52 books? We shall see…

Stats breakdown:

  • Total number of books read: 33
  • Fiction books: 31
  • Nonfiction books: 2
  • YA books: 5
  • Audio books: 10
  • E-books: 3
  • Re-reads: 14

I am most surprised about the large number of re-reads. Many of those were from the Chronicles of Narnia. The first time I read these books, I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This time I finished them all, and they were also all audio books, which accounts for the unusually high number of audio books as well. I didn’t realize, however, that I was re-reading so many books that I had read before. Only two re-reads happened because I was teaching the books (The God of Small Things and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

Favorite reads of the year (reviews linked):

Least favorite reads of the year:

Reading Challenge Stats:

  • R. I. P. Challenge: I read one of the four books I challenged myself to read. I am chalking that up to having a new position and becoming accustomed to the resulting increased workload in September and October, which coincide with the challenge months.
  • 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge: Completed with two books extra. I read seven books and challenged myself to read five. I still haven’t seen any word about the 2015 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. Hmm.
  • Foodies Reading Challenge: I didn’t even start this one. I had good intentions of reading some of the foodie nonfiction I have been meaning to get to for some time, but I didn’t do it.
  • Witches and Witchcraft Reading Challenge: I read four of the five books I challenged myself to read.
  • Postal Reading Challenge: A very cool challenge that I never even started.
  • Book Bingo Reading Challenge: I scored BINGO twice, so I am calling that one met. I challenged myself to score BINGO once, which was five books, and I was able to count ten books for this challenge.
  • Where Are You Reading? Challenge: No set number of books, but I mapped each book I read.

Related posts:

Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallI rounded out 2014 by finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first book in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the second book of which is Bring Up the Bodies. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were awarded the Man Booker Prize (2009 and 2012, respectively).

Wolf Hall introduces Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, who rises to become one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers as well as an architect of the Protestant Reformation in England. The book begins with Thomas Cromwell’s decision to make his way across the sea in Europe after a particularly vicious beating from his father. The story continues after Cromwell has returned to England and entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s chancellor. The rest of the novel chronicles Wolsey’s fall and Cromwell’s subsequent rise through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, ending with Thomas More’s execution.

The Tudors are well-trodden ground at this point. Mantel manages to breathe fresh life into their story by telling it through the point of view of Cromwell, who has not fared well in history and whose point of view has been somewhat neglected as a result. In many ways, this book reminded me a bit of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, in that Bradley’s retelling of the story of King Arthur by the women in his life—Igraine, his mother; Morgan le Faye (or Morgaine), his sister; and Gwenwhyfar (or Guinevere), his wife—was perhaps the freshest version of the Matter of Britain I’ve read in the last twenty years largely because Bradley chose to tell the story with voices often silenced. This formula works wonders for making old hat like the Tudors interesting again, just when I thought I was a little sick of them.

Wolf Hall is meticulously researched, but I never felt as if Mantel was trying to impress me by proving she’d dug up some interesting historical fact. She often sent me to research myself, so I could find out more about something or other that happened in the novel. As such, I learned some interesting things. For instance, I had not realized that Cromwell was such a protege of Cardinal Wolsey, and it struck me as odd, given the way in which Cromwell championed the Protestant Reformation.

I loved Cromwell’s dry wit. He comes across as compassionate to his loved ones, but no one to mess with to his enemies. And he has a long, long memory, as Thomas More discovered. Cromwell leaps from the page as a shrewd businessman and judge of the prevailing winds—it will be interesting to see how Mantel depicts his downfall given how lethally sharp he has come across in this first book.

I know how Cromwell’s story ends, and I have to say, I am a little sad at the prospect of reaching the end of his story in the third planned novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rumored to be due out in the coming year.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge Final Results

Even though the year is over, I’m calling it done for the 2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge. Here is my final scorecard:

Bingo Challenge 2014Here is what I counted, by column, starting with the left. Any reviews are linked.

Five books from my TBR pile:

Mix It Up:

Series:

Genres:

  • Fantasy: I count one of the overages from the five books series above, The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis
  • Free space: I count the other overage from the series above, The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis
  • Historical Fiction: Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland
  • Mystery: Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott
  • Romance: Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

New Releases:

As you can see, I achieved Bingo twice with the Mix It Up and Genre columns. I came close with the bottom row. If only I’d read a few more new releases. I also came close with row 2, but I’m not sure how I could have done it given I’d maxed out the TBR boxes. As far as I understand, I would probably have needed to read seven books from my TBR pile to mark it off, and I didn’t do that, for sure. Not too shabby, any way.

Related posts:

Review: Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott

I have to admit that the back of the jacket book blurb convinced me to read this book:

Did Sir Isaac Newton’s ambition drive him to murder? A haunting literary thriller in which a contemporary Cambridge murder story becomes entangled with a true-life historical mystery involving Isaac Newton’s alchemy.

A Cambridge historian is found drowned, leaving her study of Isaac Newton’s rise in fame unsolved. Her fellow writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to finish the book as a favor to the historian’s son, a neuroscientist with whom she had a long affair. But her attempt to complete the book’s final chapter, and her return to her former lover’s orbit, put her in mortal danger as she uncovers troubling evidence surrounding Newton. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

In the end, I’m not sure the book delivers on this promise. Rebecca Stott has clearly done a huge amount of research for Ghostwalk, and I found the format of the book interesting as well. At times, we glimpse chapters from the fictional historian Elizabeth Vogelsang’s unfinished book and the novel paints a vivid picture of Cambridge, both in the seventeenth century and modern age. But in the end, I feel like it doesn’t quite cohere. Maybe it isn’t meant to because it is based on so much speculation, and as a result, the threads remain elusive and don’t quite join together. One clear thread woven throughout the book, from present to past and back again, is the dangers of obsession, whether in the name of science or rooting out the truth. Stott quotes a line from Swift in response to an excuse having “more plausibility than truth” (263). In its way, the book is an interesting comment on the fictions we tell ourselves or the stories we’re told that in many ways are much more believable than the truth.

The book was a true page-turner, and it’s the first book I’ve read in a while that I didn’t want to put aside and that I actively looked forward to picking back up again. I don’t know what is up with my luck lately, but I haven’t been picking books that are grabbing me. I really liked the references to Macbeth sprinkled throughout the text, and I find literary thrillers a lot more fun, when they’re well done, than your average thriller. Still, I wish that the various strands of the story had come together a little more elegantly.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Related posts:

Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

R. I. P. Challenge 2014

R. I. P. ChallengeIt’s time again for my favorite reading challenge, the R. I. P. Challenge. It’s hard to believe this is the ninth year. I don’t think I participated until the third one. I absolutely love this time of year for reading creepy stories.

I like to do Peril the First, which is to “read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R. I. P. literature.” I have been gathering together my list of potentials, and I plan to select my reads from the following list of books:

Aside from More Than This, I’m not sure which of these books I’ll choose. They look like a good list.

   

Related posts:

Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Related posts:

Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s [amazon_link id=”0440212561″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link] series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, [amazon_link id=”0440215625″ target=”_blank” ]Dragonfly in Amber[/amazon_link], the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40’s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. 😉

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Michael York

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I recently decided to finish reading The Chronicles of Narnia, as I never read them as a child, and the time I did start them, I never finished the series.

The second book in the series, chronologically speaking (the first book published), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is arguably the most famous. In fact, one of my students made a reference to going inside the wardrobe as a metaphor for exploring the unknown just today. I often wonder how many children spent several frustrating minutes inside closets and wardrobes over the years in a desperate attempt to get to Narnia.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story (not sure how that can happen), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of the four Pevensie siblings: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are sent to live in the country house of Professor Digory Kirke during the London air raids, and while playing hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, discovers a magical wardrobe that transports her to a snowy land inhabited by a faun, Mr. Tumnus. She befriends the faun, and he reveals that he is in league with the White Witch and has promised to give the Witch word should any “Sons of Adam” or “Daughters of Eve” show up in Narnia. He meant to turn Lucy in, but he couldn’t do it. She returns through the wardrobe back to Professor Kirke’s house to discover she’s been gone no time at all, and the others don’t believe her. Later, the others all discover she is telling the truth, but not before the White Witch manages to sink her claws into Edmund via some fiendishly addictive Turkish Delight and convince him to rat out his siblings. The Pevensies find themselves caught up in ancient Narnian prophecy and wind up having to rid Narnia of the White Witch.

So, we have to talk about Aslan. Is it me, or is he the least interesting character? I mean, I understand he is supposed to be a Christ figure, and I have nothing against Christ figures in literature, but Aslan’s depiction in that role is just so heavy-handed. Perhaps it isn’t so heavy-handed to the intended audience of children. I actually really liked Edmund this time around. He was a pain in the rear, but he redeemed himself, and he was a little more interesting than the other characters. Jadis makes for a nice villain. I had forgotten the ending was so violent. I also have a soft spot for Lucy, but I confess I found Peter and Susan to be too goody-goody and boring to be terribly interesting. However, the storyline is deeply engaging, and it’s not hard to see why it has endured as a children’s favorite.

Also, as a side note, the missing Oxford comma in the title really bothers me, given C. S. Lewis was an Oxford man. Anyone know why it was left out?

It had been quite a long time since I read this book, and I have to say the Disney movie did a superb job capturing all of the book’s elements (and in casting). I couldn’t help but think about the movie as I was reading and remembering how the various parts of the book were depicted. I have to say Michael York’s reading was uneven. He did an excellent job characterizing most of the Narnian characters and Edmund and Lucy as well, but I didn’t care much for his Aslan, and he had a sort of odd cadence that sounded slightly patronizing. I think it was an attempt to sound avuncular, but it didn’t always hit that mark. All things being equal, I liked The Magician’s Nephew better in terms of the narration.

Because this book features Jadis, as the White Witch, I will count it for the Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge.

Story Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★☆☆

2014 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge

Related posts:

Review: Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard

Mr. Timothy: A NovelCharles Dickens’s [amazon_link id=”0486268659″ target=”_blank” ]yarn about the redeeming power of Christmas[/amazon_link] is one of my all-time favorite stories. I try to watch a version of it every year, and one year, I read the book itself. When Mr. Timothy came across my radar, I couldn’t resist. I think I requested the book on PaperBackSwap. And then it sat unread on my shelf for quite some time.

In Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard takes up the story of Tiny Tim Cratchit, all grown up and mourning the recent passing of his father. Aside from saying “God bless us, every one,” Tiny Tim is probably most famous for being the saintly crippled child who finally melted old Ebenezer Scrooge’s icy heart. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if Tiny Tim will live, the ghost replies, flinging Scrooge’s own words back at him: “If he be like to die he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Louis Bayard imagines a Timothy Cratchit who is altogether crushed under the [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]weight of expectations[/amazon_link] of having survived and received the beneficence of the former “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He has grown up, but who has he become? He is as lost, in his way, as Ebenezer Scrooge. He lives in a whorehouse, where he pays for his room and board by teaching the madam to read. His parents are gone, and he is reduced to taking handouts from Uncle N (old Uncle Scrooge, that is). He hates himself for being unable to cut the purse strings, but he seems stuck, unable to do anything with his life. Then he finds the bodies of two girls, curiously branded with a letter G, and he discovers another lost little girl being hunted, and fearing she will be next to die, Timothy enlists the help of a foul-mouthed street urchin to save her. What he uncovers is the grossest exploitation of the lower classes by the upper echelons of British society. But is he the man to do anything about it? Bob Cratchit once said that in church, Tim said he was happy that others could see him in church and remember, on Christmas Day, who it was who made blind men see and lame beggars walk. Grown up Mr. Timothy insists he never said any such thing—his father only wished that he had. When it really counts, can Timothy Cratchit really offer salvation to anyone? Can he even save himself?

A page-turning tale of Victorian gothic suspense, this novel really begins to pick up once Timothy is hot on the trail of the people at the center of a horrific child slavery ring. Do not look for Dickens in this novel, though I admit he shows up a bit in chapter 16, when Timothy Cratchit is brought before a magistrate on trumped up charges of sexual assault. I love the description of the lawyer Peter Cratchit has engaged to defend his brother:

A stout, whey-skinned man with a decamping hairline and advancing whiskers, soldierly red on both fronts. The hand he presents to me is quite damp, and there is a prevailing humidity all about his person: wet eyes, wet lips, wet teeth … and, exhaling from his pores, an effluvium that, unless my nostrils deceive me, represents the final gaseous iteration of imported Jamaican rum. … There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Sheldrake exudes confidence. (213)

The whole chapter through had me chuckling, and brought to mind Dickens’s own way with characterization and scenecraft.

Bayard deftly captures the soot begrimed streets of Victorian London, from the refuse in the streets, to the cabbies, to stately manors behind lacy wrought iron fences. Timothy’s character winds up being believable. He has so long been the protagonist of a narrative written by others, as he reflects, that it is easy to see how he might lose his way and find it necessary to discover who he really is. If you are looking for the squeaky clean, cherubic Tiny Tim of myth in this story, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you are looking for a different sort of tale of redemption, Mr. Timothy should do nicely.

Rating: ★★★★½

Check out these other reviews of Mr. Timothy:

Mr. Timothy is the first historical fiction book to count towards the 2014 Historical Fiction Challenge.

Related posts: