Review: The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy is a bit like Twilight for adults, with a more compelling heroine and a few more thrills and chills. The last book in this series is The Book of Life, the denouement of Matthew Clairmont and Diana Bishop’s unlikely story with a few hints of potential sequels. In the first book in the series, A Discovery of Witches, reluctant witch Diana Bishop calls up the mysterious manuscript coded Ashmole 782 from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, only to attract the attention of several other creatures—other witches, daemons, and vampires. Specifically, a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Diana and Matthew strike up an unlikely (and forbidden) relationship. In the second book, The Shadow of Night, Diana and Matthew timewalk back to 1590 to try to track down Ashmole 782 again and meet almost literally every historical figure of importance who lived at the time. Matthew also turns out to be one of those important historical figures in disguise. In this final book, Diana and Matthew pull out pretty much all the stops to try to find the missing manuscript, now known as the Book of Life, which will tell the secrets that the witches discovered centuries ago. This gruesome book, made from the skin, hair, and blood of witches, daemons, and vampires, is believed by witches to be the first grimoire and to hold the secrets of witchcraft and by vampires to hold the secrets of their origins. As it turns out, Matthew’s bloodthirsty and deranged son Benjamin is also after the book. And Diana. And possibly their children. Oh, and Matthew, if it will lure Diana to him.


Okay, where to begin. This book isn’t bad. It’s pretty cheesy, and I can’t figure out why. I kind of liked the first book in this series, but it seemed like each successive book just got crazier and crazier. Diana and Matthew are supernatural creatures, yes, but why do they have to be the most powerful or crazy of their ilk? Why does she all of a sudden have to be Superwitch? I liked it better when they were nosy about their origins, but the fate of their entire world didn’t have to rest on what they managed to do (or not). I guess maybe I’m a bit over vampires unless they are awful like Dracula. I did enjoy a very cheeky joke Matthew made about Twilight in the middle of the book. Jennifer Ikeda is a good reader, as well. There is a pretty awful torture scene reminiscent of Jamie Fraser and Black Jack Randall, though without, I suppose, the element of rape. What it is with all the torture p*rn in women’s fiction now? (By the way, that word is not spelled out because I don’t want weirdos who are looking for that stuff to land on my blog and be super disappointed.) I also felt like Harkness was stretching to bring back all the characters from the first book, even if if they only got a cameo. For some reason, that irritated me. Mainly because I didn’t really remember them that well after all that time had passed. I found the whole blood rage deal that Matthew had and passed along to some (not all, apparently) of his children an irritating plot point. It seemed to me like an excuse for Matthew to be a dick sometimes more than anything else. And on top of everything else, no one really explains it satisfactorily to me. And finally, the Book of Life is a sort of letdown. That’s IT? That’s what the big secret was? I figured that sort of thing out about creatures from the first book. I wanted a big reveal. You let me down, Diana Bishop. You let me down. And I guess the biggest issue I have with the books in general is that I don’t particularly like Diana or Matthew. I mean, I don’t wish them ill, or anything, but I don’t like them nearly as much as some of the secondary characters. I can’t remember if I mentioned how I feel about them in earlier reviews I wrote. Diana can be tiresome in her ways, but Matthew is controlling, and it grates on me that a controlling guy like that is being put forth as an ideal romantic boyfriend/husband. Yuck. At least he figures out by the end of the book that he needs to step it back a notch.

So, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either, and it gets three stars.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father Thomas died in the 9/11 attacks. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key inside an envelope inside a vase. The envelope says the word “Black” on the outside, and Oskar goes on a quest to find out what the key opens and why his father has it. Thinking the word might be the last name “Black,” Oskar does some research and determines the addresses of all the people in New York City with the surname Black. One by one, he begins visiting them to see if he can find out more about the key. He meets interesting people and leaves an imprint on all the people he touches. Interspersed throughout Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents and their strange, fraught relationship.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I did. I think Oskar, and possibly his grandfather, are supposed to be autistic, and because of my own children, I do find books about characters with autism interesting. I did like Oskar, though I found his mother strangely unconcerned about letting her son roam all over New York City. I guess you could argue she knew he was going to what he was going to do anyway, but her absence, even if you try to explain it away by pointing out she was grieving, was deeply troubling to me. Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his pregnant wife and did not know his son. One of the reasons I didn’t quite like this book were the portions dealing with Oskar’s grandfather. I found him to be a deeply unsympathetic character, even if I took into account his troubled past and the things he had dealt with. I know some people are better at dealing with grief, and for that matter life, than others, but part of what I think made his story less sympathetic was Foer’s postmodern experiments in his storyline. My least favorite, for example, were pages in which the letters seemed to bleed together, almost falling into a puddle on the bottom of the page, until the page filled up. Rather than interesting, I found these experiments deeply annoying. I found rather than being emotionally affected by Oskar’s story (and that of his grandfather), I really felt more like the story was manipulative and self-indulgent. Not to say I totally hated it. I didn’t. I can’t even say I didn’t like it. I’ll just say it was not a hit for me because of the gimmicky postmodern style. The parts I liked, I really liked, but I did find myself in the midst of a new chapter on Oskar’s grandparents and saying, “Oh, here’s one I need to slog through to get to a good one on Oskar.” I don’t want to feel like that reading a book. Because half the book was pretty good, I can’t give it one or two stars, but because about half the book wasn’t, and also because I found the ending unsatisfying, I can’t give it four or five stars either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge.

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Sunday Post #37: Complete

Sunday PostI didn’t post last Sunday because I was returning for my favorite conference, the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. It was great. I picked up some excellent free and cheap books and enough book recommendations to keep me busy for a long time.

NaNoWriMo is going well, word-count wise. I think I’ll finish. I’m not excited about the book as I’m nearing the end. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s a fanfic or if it’s because I’ve run out of steam. I was delighting myself writing it at the beginning, but I haven’t even wanted to read what I’ve written lately to my husband. Still, I’m making myself plug away and finish it. Even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I was, the story is still coming remarkably fast. One thing I think I’ve learned this month is that I have a lot of stamina and speed when I give myself permission to write a crappy first draft and turn off my internal editor.

I have completed my goal of reading 52 books for the year. In fact, I just finished the 53rd. In the last week, I’ve finished five books and reviewed four:

Today, I finished listening to an audio book of Amy Snow by Tracy Rees. I was torn over this one for a long time. It was okay, not great. It’s actually a bit over-the-top campy at times, and I think somewhere near the beginning, I realized that Rees was writing a send-up of those overwrought Victorian novels (or I hope she was; otherwise, oh dear). Mrs. Vennaway should remind just about every Brontë fan of Aunt Reed—horrible to a child for just about no reason. In fact, Amy Snow does owe a bit of a debt to those other books. The main character’s self-deprecation is grating, though, and she never becomes as strong or interesting as Jane Eyre. If you read it with an eye toward thinking of it as an homage, then it’s fine. I finished it, more to discover the ending to the novel’s puzzle than anything else, but I found the ending unsatisfying, even if fairly complete. Still, if it’s an homage, it’s a fairly clever one. For a light read, it was well-researched, at least. The setting managed to intrigue even when the characters didn’t.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’m counting Amy Snow as my Surrey book, since that’s where the Hatville estate where Amy comes from is located.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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A Double Review: Camus and Kamel

I somehow never got around to reading The Stranger until yesterday. I finished it today and immediately picked up Kamel Daoud’s companion novel The Meursault Investigation. If you, like me, waited to read The Stranger, the crux of the plot is that a disaffected French Algerian man buries his mother; he is unable to grieve, or indeed, to feel much of anything. He strikes up an affair with a woman he works with, becomes involved in an argument between his neighbor Raymond and Raymond’s mistress, whom Raymond believes is cheating on him. While Raymond and the narrator Meursault are out, they see the “brother” of Raymond’s mistress, and, believing the brother is spoiling for revenge over his sister’s treatment, they start a fight. Though the fight ends, Meursault heads back out to the beach and finds the mistress’s brother, known only as “the Arab” and kills him. The rest of the book details Meursault’s contemplations behind bars, including his trial, which turns into an absurdist farce when the prosecutor, jury, and judge are more upset by Meursault’s lack of grief over his mother’s death than the fact that he has killed an Arab.

It is upon this point that The Meursault Investigation turns. The narrator of The Meursault Investigation is Harun, the brother of the Arab Meursault killed—and he had a name: Musa. Harun is haunted by his brother’s death and by the murderer who wrote about it and neglected even to name his brother, stripping him of an identity, of personhood, of meaning. Both Harun and his mother piece together the details of Musa’s murder, but neither is able to find peace in the wake of his loss, and even revenge doesn’t bring Harun the solace he seeks.

I’m really glad I waited so long to read The Stranger so that I could read The Meursault Investigation right after. In the future, I imagine that these two books will be read together, companion pieces. The interesting thing that Daoud does with the story (which is something I think Camus misses) is make it about colonialism. Camus doesn’t name the Arab because it’s not important to his story. The murder is just what lands Meursault in prison. No one much cares about it. The problem with this attitude is that the Arab’s life did matter. Daoud gives the man a name and a family—identity, personhood, meaning. The Meursault Investigation explores the effects of colonialism on Algeria and makes Meursault, like so many of his countrymen, complicit in the “murder” of the country’s identity.

Of the two, I definitely enjoyed The Meursault Investigation more. I understand I’m supposed to find Meursault profound, but mainly I just found him very frightening and extremely difficult to relate to. Someone who is so unable to feel anything is truly in a horrible place. Harun, by contrast, not only tries to understand and make meaning of his brother’s death, but he even tries to understand his brother’s murderer as well as those readers who have found meaning in The Stranger. And unlike Meursault, he has been able to understand love and longing and a life truly given up for the sake another. I want to thank Carol Jago, English teacher extraordinaire and reading muse, for recommending this one.

The Stranger Rating: ★★★☆☆
The Meursault Investigation Rating: ★★★★☆

P. S. These last two books make 52 books for the year for me, which was the reading goal I set. WHOOP!

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Sunday Post #23: Walden

Sunday PostI finished reading Walden this afternoon. I had no idea it was going to be such a demanding read. I had only ever read excerpts of it (turns out, those would be the “good parts” versions). While I do completely get its importance in American literature, I can’t exactly say I liked it. I liked parts of it. I didn’t see the connections between the various chapters very well (and sometimes not even within the chapters themselves). It seemed a bit meandering. I know some criticize Thoreau because he was actually not that far from town, and he was fairly social (rather than living off on his own). I think he makes it relatively clear that he was not literally living a solitary life. I think was he was really after was trying to live as simply as he could. How much time he actually spent in the cabin he built, I don’t really know, but it’s clear he spent a lot of time there, and he seems to be actively trying on the clothes of hermit, even if he’s not really one. But I don’t really care about that, anyway. Some really interesting nuggets throughout, but as a whole, it didn’t do it for me.

More irritating was trying to work the annotations in the Kindle version I bought. You’d think the notes would be in order (for instance, that note 73 would have followed note 72 in a given chapter). You would be wrong. That made it a real pain when I was trying to read notes that I had difficulty opening because they were either close to the edges of the Kindle page (and thus, all I could succeed in doing was turning the page) or when the hyperlinked text was only a small number, which even my small fingers couldn’t seem to touch in order to activate the link. It was really frustrating. I am sure the index is quite good, but it’s in the back before the notes and not so easy to navigate. Perhaps it’s not necessary given the search feature in Kindle. And finally, I found a bunch of notes on the text that were never hyperlinked. Who knew those were even there? Also, some of the text was oddly laid down (half a word might be half a line beneath the other half). I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know if reading the paper version would be as frustrating or not.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

So, on to other things. I have not added any books to my TBR pile, which is probably a good thing given how slowly I’m reading the ones in my currently-reading pile. I spent three days this last week at a conference, and I am going to another one this coming Saturday. I am hoping I’ll have time to write my usual blog post here next Sunday, but we will see what happens.

I am about an hour and a half from finishing All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I might try to finish that one today, either making soap or doing dishes. Or both. Who knows. If I do finish it today, my review will likely appear on this blog tomorrow. I don’t really like to post more than once a day.

So, what are you reading?

I am counting Walden as my Nonfiction Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Just for my own reference, I’m making note of my progress on this challenge so far:

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #11: Candide

Sunday PostI usually review books in separate blog posts, but rather than write two, I’m rolling my review of Voltaire’s Candide into this post.

First, I haven’t done as much reading the last few days as I had done earlier in my spring break, which comes to an end today. My last few days of spring break I spent binge-watching UK episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, which made me want to work a little bit on my own family history. I resurrected my family history blog after a three-year silence. I quite like learning about family history for the same reasons Stephen Fry describes in his own episode of Who Do You Think You Are?: 1) you learn a lot about who all these people are who make up who you are, and in turn, you learn a little bit about yourself, and 2) you learn about how history is not something that happens in some abstract way to other people—history happened to people in your family, and you have that personal connection to history. I also really love how it shows the ways in which we are all connected. It’s a fun hobby, if time-consuming and hard to do when you can’t really travel.

I did manage to finish listening to Stephen Fry read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this week. Loved it. I am thinking I might listen to the other books in the series. I started listening to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. I am enjoying that one quite a lot when I’ve had time to listen to it.

So, Candide. I understand this is not really a novel in the sense we think of them today, but more of a philosophical allegory. It tells the story of young Candide, who lives in an idyllic castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia and his instruction in Leibnizian optimism by his tutor, Pangloss. A series of rather unfortunate events follows after Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde, the beautiful daughter of the castle’s baron. Of course, Candide is too low born to consort with Cunégonde, so he is banished from the castle and must make his way in the harsh world. And he goes pretty much everywhere, even El Dorado, never willing to let go of his optimism entirely until the end, when he and his friends decide to live the rest of their lives on a simple farm, and Candide concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” Often translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” The translation I read renders it “We must work our land,” as the translator argues the word garden in English doesn’t tend to mean the same thing as Voltaire intended in describing the farm. Regardless, I see that statement as meaning we need to worry about ourselves and our small communities, but also that we should be happy with what we have and enjoy it for what it is. We need to work together to cultivate the good and weed out the bad. Candide finally has everything he wanted, but he no longer wants it. Is it the best of all possible worlds? No, but that doesn’t seem to be something that really exists, as Candide only experienced the feeling that he was in the best of all possible worlds in a place that doesn’t exist. He’s become a realist.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the end. Cunégonde loses her looks, but noble Candide marries her anyway, though he no longer wants to. What the hell? So what that means to me is that all he ever really felt for her was infatuation and lust, and he expended a great deal of energy on it and went through a lot of trauma for it, too. Are women worthy of love only insofar as they are beautiful? Is that the only reason to love a woman? Are we supposed to admire Candide because he sticks to the original plan and marries Cunégonde even though she’s ugly? Are we supposed to like him because he bucks up when the world hands him lemons? Bah. I realize we’re supposed to put books squarely in the time in which they are historically set, but I was still quite bothered by the chauvinism and antisemitism in the book. Does it get a pass because it was written in the eighteenth century? I don’t know. Part of me says that we give historical works like this a pass too often.

I wasn’t bored while reading Candide, and it’s quite a quick read. The story moves along and is tightly paced if not very descriptive, but as I said, it is not a novel in the sense we understand, and allegories are often about making another point besides telling a story. It’s funny, too, and has some good (and some pretty dark) humor. Candide suffers just about every calamity Voltaire can think of, and none of it seems to have a point. Other than being rather appalled at how awful people can and have treated each other, I wasn’t able to empathize much with Candide, and in the end, when he was no longer interested in Cunégonde because she wasn’t beautiful anymore (especially given how much she suffered and how much effort she put into being true to him (notwithstanding constantly being raped and enslaved), I thought he was a shit. I’d have liked it better if she’d told him where he could get off with his pity marriage.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: Prince Lestat, Anne Rice

Prince Lestat: The Vampire ChroniclesAnne Rice returns to her Vampire Chronicles with Prince Lestat. Rice had said she was not going to write more vampire books, but Prince Lestat is the first in a new planned series.

As the book begins, a strange voice is speaking to many of the vampires, mostly the oldest vampires, begging them to immolate the younger vampires and “thin the herd.” Lestat hears the voice, too, and tries to shut it out. He is dragged out of seclusion by his fellow vampires, who want his help in fighting the voice.

I hesitate to summarize too much because if you’re planning to read this book, you’ll not want too much to be given away. Anne Rice is back in typical form. I have to say this line from the New York Times review of the novel captures the book well (and made me laugh): “Although this is a dreadful novel, it has to be said that the earnestness with which Rice continues to toil at her brand of pop sorcery has an odd, retro sort of charm, an aura redolent of the desperate, decadent silliness of the disco era.”

I am not sure I’d go quite so far as to call it dreadful (and keep in mind that [amazon_link id=”0345409671″ target=”_blank” ]Memnoch the Devil[/amazon_link] is the only book I have ever thrown across the room), but it’s not up to the heights of [amazon_link id=”0345337662″ target=”_blank” ]Interview with the Vampire[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”0345313860″ target=”_blank” ]The Vampire Lestat[/amazon_link]. You will most likely wonder if Apple is paying Rice for product placement. All of the vampires seem to have iPhones, and they seem to use them and talk about them a lot. They also have Mac computers. Thus, I’d agree with the second part of the Times‘s description.

Lestat is his usual self in this one. You’re going to wonder about the sanity of the vampire collective at the end, if you were not already wondering. All of the oldest vampires make a reappearance here, and if you’re into world-building, you’ll learn quite a lot more about vampire origins and some of the oldest vampires, and you’ll also find out how the Talamasca came to be. As such, I had thought while reading the book that perhaps Rice was trying to answer all the open questions and call it a day. However, it’s fairly clear at the end that she’s getting her second wind. God help us all.

I kid, but not much. These books have a weird sort of charm. I sort of enjoy them at the same time as I’m rolling my eyes at Rice’s lavish description and strange tangents (Rose’s story in this one). I am not sure if I have the fortitude to brave another one, but this one wasn’t bad as far as her books go. I listened to it on audio, and the narrator, Simon Vance, was an excellent reader. I kept wondering what he thought about what he was reading, and I wondered if he were thinking the same things as I was. I do think it will appeal to anyone who wanted to know more after [amazon_link id=”0345351525″ target=”_blank” ]The Queen of the Damned[/amazon_link].

These two reviews were pretty fair and even-handed:

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

[amazon_image id=”0061340405″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_image] Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  [amazon_link id=”006000942X” target=”_blank” ]How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines[/amazon_link] elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” [amazon_link id=”0061340405″ target=”_blank” ]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_link] nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]Great Expectations[/amazon_link]. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like [amazon_link id=”1840226358″ target=”_blank” ]Ulysses[/amazon_link]. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link] because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

The Last RunawayTracy Chevalier’s latest book, The Last Runaway, is a bit of a departure from her other work. I have read several of Chevalier’s books, and I can’t think of one that isn’t set in Europe. The Last Runaway is the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who decides to accompany her sister Grace across the Atlantic to America. Grace plans to marry a man who emigrated to Ohio and used to be a member of the Bridport Friends’ Meeting where the Brights worship. Honor has been jilted by her fiancé, Samuel, who throws her over and leaves the Society of Friends in order to marry outside the religious order. The voyage is terrible for Honor, who suffers from the worst bout of seasickness you’ve ever seen this side of Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser. Honor realizes that she is stuck in America because she can’t imagine being able to endure a crossing back to England. After disembarking, Honor and Grace travel to Ohio by stagecoach, but Grace contracts yellow fever and dies on the voyage. Now all alone in America, Honor must find her own way. Her sister’s fiancé, Adam Cox, takes her in for a time, but his brother has recently died, and he is living with his brother’s widow, Abigail. Before long, the Quakers frown at their unorthodox living arrangement. Adam marries Abigail, and Honor rushes into a marriage with Jack Haymaker, whose stern mother Judith is a Quaker elder who does not approve of Honor.

One of the most interesting threads in the book dealt with quilting. Honor is a quilter. Her adjustment to America is hard, and she especially does not like Americans’ ways of quilting. Her skill with a needle earns her the friendship and hospitality of Belle Mills, a milliner in Wellington. However, it also draws the unwelcome attention of Donovan, Belle’s brother and the local slave catcher. Honor quickly finds herself caught up in the American debate over slavery. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, Honor finds herself helping slaves cross to Canada as a part of the Underground Railroad. While her in-laws disapprove of slavery, they are also unwilling to allow lawbreaking in their family, and Honor has some difficult decisions to make.

I am a fan of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I especially liked Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, which was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. I was interested in reading this book because some of my own immigrant ancestors were Quakers. I imagine they came to America to worship more freely, but they were quite different from the Quakers of Ohio. Within several generations, at least in my own line of the family, they had abandoned their faith for various other Protestant denominations, but my 7th great-grandmother Elizabeth Clark Anthony was the mother of fifteen children and after her husband’s death, she became a Quaker missionary who made four trips between Virginia and Georgia on horseback and lived to be 103 years old.

Perhaps because I was hoping to see a glimpse of what my own ancestors’ lives were like, I really wanted to like this book. I was underwhelmed, however. I found Honor hard to like. She seemed to feel quite sorry for herself a lot of the time, and while it’s true that she was living in difficult circumstances, she created a lot of them. Her attraction to Donovan was inexplicable. I thought Chevalier did everything she could to make him odious, and it was impossible for this reader to understand Honor’s feelings for him. Honor’s disdain for the American way of doing just about everything was trying as well. I understand she was a fish out of water, but for a Quaker, she was terribly judgmental. Almost every chapter closed with a letter from Honor to her family or friends. I found the transition from third person to first jarring in some cases, though I wished more of the story had been told in first person. Though I didn’t like Honor much, I found her voice in the letters to ring true.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Woman Who Died A Lot, Jasper Fforde

The Woman Who Died A Lot: A Thursday Next NovelJasper Fforde’s latest and seventh book in the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot, picks up Thursday’s story in the year 2004. Thursday is recuperating from an assassination attempt, and she is looking to run SpecOps 27, the Literary Detectives division, the agency responsible for dealing with forged or stolen manuscripts and works of literature. Meanwhile, she has other problems. Her son Friday has received a letter detailing his new future, now that the ChronoGuard has been disbanded and he will no longer be saving the world from destruction by asteroid HR-6984. Instead, he will murder Gavin Watkins the very week during which the book is set and spend the rest of his life in prison. Meanwhile, her daughter Tuesday is feverishly working on an Anti-Smite Defense Shield to protect Swindon from the wrath of the Global Standard Deity (GSD), who has enacted “a series of cleansings” all over the world “mostly as a warning to His creations that messing with the Big Guy’s Ultimate and Very Important and Unknowable Plan was not going to be tolerated.” Thursday’s brother, Joffy, supreme head of the Church of the Global Standard Deity, is taking a stand against the GSD and means to be in his cathedral when the smiting occurs, but Goliath, the large, evil corporation bent on running the world, has plans to lure the GSD’s smiting away from the city center by gathering together a large collection of unrepentant evildoers with the idea that the GSD will smite them instead. Goliath is up to new tricks, replacing Thursday with synthetic “day player” versions of herself. Aornis Hades is on the loose again, and the mindworm about having a daughter named Jenny that she implanted in Thursday continues to wreak its sad destruction. Thursday, older and and not up to her previous physical abilities, must contend with a rival who manages to push her out of her desired position in SpecOps, relegating her to the deceptively tame-sounding job of Chief Librarian of the Wessex Library Service. But this is Jasper Fforde’s world, where “many frustrated citizens who weren’t selected … to train as librarians … will have to console themselves with mundane careers as doctors, lawyers, and lion tamers.”

If it sounds like there was a lot going on, believe me, I have barely scratched the surface. Fforde’s plot had so much going on that it seemed even he was having trouble containing it, and I admit I gave up trying to follow it and just went along for the ride. I think Fforde is at his best when he lures his readers into the BookWorld, the fictional realm of literature in this series. I haven’t enjoyed the last few books in the series as much as I had enjoyed the first few. The story in this particular book doesn’t really ever come together until close to the end, and at that point, I was already so confused, I had forgotten some of the important details from earlier in the book. However, it’s Jasper Fforde, which means fun and hilarity will ensue. While I didn’t laugh out loud as often as I have while reading his earlier books in this series, I did enjoy the whimsy of Jasper Fforde’s alternative world, just as I always do when I visit it. And I will probably read the promised eighth Thursday Next book, too.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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