Sunday Post #8: Reading Challenges Update

Sunday PostMarch 1 seems like a good time to reflect on how I’m doing with the various reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. As of today, I’ve completed nine books. The goal of the Outdo Yourself Challenge is to read more than the previous year. So far, I’m on track with that challenge. I don’t think I have ever been in the position of having read nine books at the beginning of March before.

I’ve read four books for the Historical Fiction Challenge: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel; The Wolves of Andover aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent; The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon; and The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore. I committed to reading ten historical fiction books for the challenge. I’m currently reading The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. I’m only a little over two chapters into it, but wow, what a beautifully written, gripping read so far. I have to read it in small sips, put it down and think about it, and plunge in again when I’m ready. I got a pencil and went back over the two chapters I had finished and underlined my favorite parts.The Lotus Eaters

This is how the world ends in one instant and begins again in the next.

It seems early days to be predicting this will be my favorite read of the year, but perhaps not. It is gorgeous so far.

I’ve read three books for the Reading England Challenge:

I committed to reading twelve books for this challenge.

The Literary Movement Challenge involves reading at least one book a month for that month’s movement. So far, I’ve read one selection each for the Middle Ages and for the Renaissance: The Lais of Marie de France and As You Like It by William Shakespeare. I committed to reading twelve books.

The Back to the Classics Challenge involves reading classic selections from various categories. I committed to nine books and have read two:

This week I posted reviews for As You Like It by William Shakespeare and The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am about an hour away from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning.

One last glimpse of The Lotus Eaters before I go.

The Lotus Eaters

 

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Sunday Post #5: History Makers

Sunday PostSince last week, when I mentioned that we have all the snow, I can tell you we probably have five feet on the ground with more on the way tonight and tomorrow. My children have yet another snow day tomorrow. My own school just called me to let me know I also do not have school; however, I do believe I have a meeting via Google Hangout, and I need to make some soap for a wholesale account, so I imagine I will be busy. We have had record-breaking snowfall the last few weeks.  The Sunday Post is starting to sound monotonous with the weather report each time. When you’re more or less snowbound, however, there’s not much else going on.

I finally finished listening to the audio book of Diana Gabaldon’s novel The Fiery Cross this week. I also finished reading The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore. Look for the review for that book to be posted on 2/17. I started reading four books this week as well:

The Tell-Tale Heart, like The Serpent of Venice, is part of a TLC Book Tour. I’m reading As You Like It as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge. Finished Act I as of yesterday. I am listening to Neil Gaiman read the short story collection Trigger Warning. After finishing The Fiery Cross, I didn’t want to dive right into another really long Gabaldon audio book right away. I have had Marie Antoinette: The Journey in my Kindle library for a very long time, but I finally decided to read it after watching the Kirsten Dunst film Marie Antoinette, which reminded me how fascinated I am by the French Revolution and all the history leading up to it.

The movie itself, I have to say, was kind of weird. The costumes and sets were gorgeous. The music was strange. Some of the casting was bizarre. The jury’s still out on whether I liked it or not. I searched in vain for a documentary about the French Revolution on Netflix last night, so I decided to start reading the book. Also on my list at some point is Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction set during this time period as well, so let me know if you know of anything. I have previously read Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution (loved!), Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud, and Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess. And of course, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I can’t recall any others, so let me know what I’ve missed. I am not particularly more interested Ancien Régime versus post-Revolution or nobility versus Estates-General. I’m not picky.

I love reading historical fiction, which is one of the reasons I always try to participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, no matter how active I actually am in the challenge. If I had to peg my favorite periods, I would say 18th and 19th century America (particularly New England, but really, it’s all pretty interesting), the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, 18th century France and England, and 19th century England. I do not much like to read WWII historical fiction, which reminds me of a post of Stefanie’s that I read over at So Many Books: “Books I Won’t Read.” I am not going to go quite so far as to say I will not read books about World War II. I really hesitate, though. I find it mentally exhausting and very depressing to read about that war, for obvious reasons. Inevitably, the books are heart-wrenching. I hate to say it feels like manipulation on the part of authors to write about the events of that war, especially when they really happened, but it’s also quite difficult to criticize. After all, anything you say in critique of books about the Holocaust just makes you sound heartless. So, I’m really careful about what I choose to read from that era. If a book has a whiff of cashing in on that tragedy at all, I can’t read it.

So far, I’ve finished seven books this year. I can’t recall ever having read that many at this point in the year. Honestly, I think the goal I set of reading 52 books has been a good motivator for me. I know I’m making more of an effort to read. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it looks like I have managed to pick up speed over time without noticing much. I very rarely can sit and read an entire book all day, and I haven’t tried timing myself to see how fast I’m actually reading. It’s more just a sense I have that I’m able to read books faster than I have in the past.

The biggest news in the book world this week is the impending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which will feature an adult Scout Finch. Some speculation in the media has made me wonder if Harper Lee was aware of what her lawyer was doing, but it’s hard to tell. This New York Times story does a fair job discussing the controversy. I am going to read the book. I have actually already selected it for my school summer reading choice. I called dibs the day the announcement was made. I am not going to miss another Harper Lee novel. Am I worried it might not be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? Of course. It’s natural. But there is no way I’m going to miss it. And while I’m on the subject, I wish Goodreads would stop people from reviewing or rating unreleased books. Or, to be more specific, unreleased books that no one has read yet. I actually find ratings and reviews from folks who had uncorrected proofs or early access through other channels helpful. This book already has a 3.72 rating on Goodreads. Come on.

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: The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaladon, narrated by Davina Porter

I finished my first audio book of the year, The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, fifth book in the Outlander series. If you are not familiar with the series, it is now eight books long (and I don’t think she’s done yet!), not including the novellas, short stories, and Lord John Grey books. All of the books are quite long and chronicle the story of Claire, who was a World War II nurse on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland when she steps through standing stones and finds herself about 200 years in the past. Starz has screened part of the first book, Outlander. The Starz series will return in April. I do love the books. But I have a caveat about this one, as you’ll see if you keep reading. However, there are a few spoilery bits throughout this review, so proceed carefully if you haven’t read all the books and want to read them.

I started listening to The Fiery Cross so long ago I can’t remember when I began it, but it was likely in September 2014 some time. It’s over 55 hours long. I mostly listened to it while making soap or puttering around the house doing chores. It seemed to take forever to finish.

The Fiery Cross picks up where Drums of Autumn (review) leaves off. Jamie and Claire are settled in Fraser’s Ridge, but the Revolutionary War looms on the horizon, and nothing brings that impending danger into sharper focus than when Jamie is commanded by the governor to muster a militia in response to a rebellion. Roger and Brianna, now properly married, settle on the Ridge as well and ease into their new lives in the 18th century. All sorts of horrific things happen, including the return of Stephen Bonnet, horrible villain, rapist, pirate, and worse scourge on the Fraser family, as it turns out, than old Black Jack Randall ever was. At least Randall died. (Oops! That might have been a spoiler. Sorry.)

The most fascinating part of the book doesn’t come until the end, when one of my favorite minor characters returns and brings with him some really excellent information in the form of a mysterious journal left behind by a man known as Otter-Tooth—a man whom Claire is certain was also a time traveler.

This book ties up several loose ends from the previous book, but as the series goes, it’s my least favorite so far. Lots and lots of details, and perhaps some editing was needed. Gabaldon does quite a bit of research, and it seemed that she wanted to show just about everything she’d ever learned about 18th century life off in this book. As such, parts of it are plodding and not much happens. I felt the first few books were much more tightly written in terms of action, but this book continues in the vein of its immediate predecessor, which I don’t much like either. Of course, it’s Diana Gabaldon, and expertly read by Davina Porter, so I won’t give it less than 3½ stars—even “bad” Diana Gabaldon is better than a lot of stuff. She’s a good writer, and she has a lot of fans for a good reason.

One quibble I do have with the book, however, and perhaps I only notice it because I make soap, is that Gabaldon gets some things about soap making wrong. To wit:

  1. Lye soap is not especially harsher than other soap because all soap is lye soap. What she probably means is lye-heavy soap that has too much lye in it. Yes, that’s harsh soap. And it resulted from soap makers using too much lye in recipes when they made soap.
  2. Tallow soap is not the same thing as lye soap because again, all soap is lye soap. It is not inherently harsher than soap made with vegetable oils and was often the only kind available because tallow (or lard) was much easier to obtain than exotic vegetable oils. In fact, if your great-grandma made soap, she probably used tallow or lard.
  3. That being said, some vegetable oils, such as Claire’s sunflower oil, do make nice soap, but if Claire’s tallow soap is too harsh, it’s because she used too much lye. Not because she used tallow. And if the sunflower soap is NOT harsh, it’s because she didn’t use too much lye when she made that batch.

I hope that exposition didn’t bore, but the repeated incorrect understandings about the chemistry behind soap making bothered me, as similar issues would likely bother most folks who have some area of expertise that is not quite properly understood by a writer.

I would not advise the casual fan to read this one. If your goal is just to know what happens in the story, skip this one and look up a synopsis. In fact, don’t read it at all if you haven’t read the previous four because you will not be able to follow it at all. If you prefer Claire and Jamie in Scotland, definitely skip it. If you are a true fan of the series and have read the previous four books, do read it if only to find out what happens for two main reasons—Otter-Tooth’s journal at the end is totally worth knowing. I might actually re-read that part in the paper copy of the book I have, and also a reference to Master Raymond, whom Gabaldon has said before is a prehistoric time traveler and possible ancestor of Claire. I hope we do read more about that guy in future books, and I do hope we learn a lot more about how time travel works, too.

So yes, I’ll read the rest of the series even if it’s more of the same. I will give Diana Gabaldon this credit—even when she’s in desperate need of an editor, she’s still better than most of the stuff out there. But when she’s really on, she’s fantastic. In my opinion, she wasn’t really “on” with this book, but I won’t give up on her yet.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Salon: Rereading Outlander

joshua radin:today

It’s been a rainy weekend, but that’s perfect weather for reading.

Because I joined the Outlander Series Reading Challenge, and because I haven’t read the last several books in the series, I have been rereading the first book, [amazon_link id=”1419381016″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link]. Actually, I’ve been listening to it. I used my Audible credits to go ahead and pick up the entire series in audio format because I had heard that the narrator, Davina Porter, was particularly good. She is.

It’s strange what you pick up on when you reread books. I have read Outlander twice before. The first time I read it was in 1999. At that time, I read the first four books in the series, which were the only ones published then. I have never finished any of the books published after [amazon_link id=”044022425X” target=”_blank” ]Drums of Autumn[/amazon_link], but I did start [amazon_link id=”0440221668″ target=”_blank” ]The Fiery Cross[/amazon_link]. One of the things I think Gabaldon is very good at is character development and description. She can really bring a scene to life. However, for the first time, and perhaps I noticed it because I was listening, sometimes she includes scenes that don’t necessarily move the plot forward. They do develop the characters more, but I wonder if that could be done more efficiently with scenes that push the plot forward. I wonder if it is a side effect of her writing process. I know she is a “scene stitcher.” She has described composing individual scenes and then sewing them together. Obviously, not all of her scenes work like that. Some of them are critical plot points.

Of course, in the case of Outlander, I don’t complain about these scenes, but every single book in the series is a chunkster, and I do wonder if it will become a problem as the series wears on, particularly on a reread. I happen to love the first book, and I remember loving the second, but it did seem to me that each successive book wasn’t quite as good. I know for a fact that I prefer Jamie and Claire in Scotland to just about every other setting, but I know that they must stay in America after The Fiery Cross.

One of the reasons I am particularly enjoying listening to the audio book instead of reading is that I can hear all the wonderful accents. Davina Porter gives a slightly different voice to each character, and listening to the book is quite enjoyable as a result.

The Sunday Salon

photo credit: visualpanic

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Outlander

I first read Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander in about 1998 or 1999. I remember loving it. In fact, I liked it so much that my first early forays into creating websites were focused on a Diana Gabaldon fan site. For the uninitiated, the Outlander series is the story of Claire, who takes an early morning walk to the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness while on her second honeymoon with her husband Frank Randall and finds herself nearly 200 years in the past. She is captured by members of the MacKenzie clan and falls in love with and marries Jamie Fraser, but she knows the second Jacobite rising is coming, and she fears for his future.

On a re-read, Outlander definitely holds up. Diana Gabaldon describes her method of writing as creating scenes and then putting them together like a puzzle. I am not sure I knew that last time I read, but knowing as I read this time, I could see it in action. None of the scenes appears to stop the plot; instead, they serve to add realism and round out the characters. I remarked to my sister that the book is a little more “rapey” than I remembered, and we laughed. What I mean by that is I had forgotten that Claire was so often in imminent danger of being raped. Once again, a horrific scene of torture near the end of the novel struck me as gratuitous and over-the-top, just as it did on my first read. Gabaldon has created a gift of a character in Jamie Fraser. He pops off the page, larger than life.

Gabaldon has a gift for storytelling. I know I certainly keep turning the pages. She also has a gift for humor, and if she doesn’t flinch from describing scenes of violence, she leavens it with one of the best love stories I’ve read. I have not read a time-travel romance yet that tops Jamie and Claire’s, and I’ve read a few. 😳 What? It’s a guilty pleasure. One of the things I like best about her books is that I do learn things. I find the herbalism and history particularly interesting. The herbalism and setting of Gabaldon’s books strongly influenced my own book, A Question of Honor.

I have not read the last three books in Gabaldon’s series, and given the amount of time that has passed since I last read the first four, I thought perhaps a re-read was in order before attempting the last two. I am a little nervous about the time commitment. I have a friend who has read The Fiery Cross (I never finished it) and parts of An Echo in the Bone, and she said they were somewhat boring. I can’t recall if we talked about A Breath of Snow and Ashes. Anyone read them and can verify? I’ll probably try to read them, but I admit to being wary. I felt the early books in the series, even among the first four, were the best.

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