Recent Reading: Best Laid Plans

So you can make all the resolutions you want about how you’re going to blog more often and write more in-depth posts on individual books, but when the new year coincides with the start of a new term and you also have to finish planning your 69-section department course schedule for next Fall, well, that resolution isn’t going to be met right away. Still, I have been reading some, so here, in the interest of writing something about those books, is a list:

Romance: Short and Satisfying

(Because only one was sweet). On the 7th day of Christmas I remembered that Janet had sent me a Betty Neels book called The Fifth Day of Christmas. I was behind on starting it! I thought of this as a novella but it was 185 pages and I think I just forgot what size paper Harlequins are. Anyway, I enjoyed this aside from two things. 1. the ridiculous updating of a record player to a CD player–cut that out, publishers! What’s wrong with a classic? (Especially as the book in every other way dated to Betty Time–vaguely 50s-ish). 2. The usual Selfish Other Woman was Clever (i.e. intellectual), so of course could not be the affectionate domestic type the hero needed. Of course not. But. Rich Dutch doctor was not too opaque or mean to the heroine; nurse heroine was of the beautiful and reasonably confident type, not the doormat type; Scottish and Dutch settings were grand. I had a good time as always in Betty Land.

Along with several Twitter pals, I read Lavender Parker’s novella Flower in the Desert. I really liked the heroine, Ruby, and the survival-in-the-wilderness first half. Then it kind of fell apart. I pretty much agree with Meoskop’s review, though the second-half problems mean I’d rate it more like a B-.

Mysteries: Gritty to Cozy

I read Stuart MacBride‘s Aberdeen-set police procedural Cold Granite. I’m tired of serial-killer-preying-on-children plots and the fact that a number of different crimes ended up connecting made MacBride’s Aberdeen seem very grim (also, it was raining/snowing non-stop). But I liked DS Logan McRae and WPC Jackie Watson and will probably read more of this series.

Right now I’m reading James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, featuring a clergyman in 50s Cambridgeshire. This should be right up my alley–Runcie is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury and knows whereof he writes. But I’m hovering on the edge of a DNF. A book like this depends on liking the character and setting, and there’s a lot of distant reportage of Sidney’s thoughts. A passage like this makes me want to put it down:

He started to think about the question of belonging and identity: how much a person was defined by upbringing, education, profession, faith and choice of friends.

“How much can a person change in a life?” he wondered.

(If you’re going to give your character these reflections, dig a little deeper!) But then a few pages later I’m snort-laughing at Sidney’s thoughts about his dinner-party hosts:

Their home . . . had previously been the type of establishment in which rich Victorian men had kept their decorative mistresses. Sidney considered this rather appropriate as Juliette Thompson certainly had a whiff of the Pre-Raphaelite about her. Her beauty was both doomed and untouchable: unless, of course, you were Nigel Thompson MP.

For that, I’ll stay on the fence a little longer (the book is 6 stories so it’s easy to bow out along the way).

Memoir

I’m not sure what to say about Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. This review is far more interesting about its dualities than I can be. I read it more quickly than I’d have liked because I had to return it to the library. Blow vividly evokes the Louisiana of his childhood and he’s great at sketching the members of his community and extended family in a few lines. I found the chapters on his childhood engrossing. I was less interested in his experience with a college fraternity, though I understand how it fit into his exploration of his desire for belonging and the violence and abuse that are always a part of his life. I didn’t feel I needed so much description of hazing, and the sense of belonging and friendship were never really depicted. In fact, I felt reading this that other people were not very interesting to him except insofar as they cared for him; he doesn’t really talk about his love for them. Perhaps it’s a common pitfall of memoir that others are treated mainly instrumentally, interesting for their function in the writer’s life rather than for themselves.

Money, Money, Money, Money

I am listening to a Big Fat Book: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s really too dense for successful listening–I can understand most bits as they go by but it’s hard to hang on to the big picture. But let’s get real: I’d never have made time to read this in paper. I am most interested in the parts I can connect to my own family history, like the rise of a patrimonial middle-class and the return, since the period around the world wars, to the starker inequalities of the past and the importance of inherited wealth (have we talked about housing prices in my city?). I’m also wondering if there is a French intellectual style, because phrases like “first we need to clarify the concepts” remind me of reading French critical theory in grad school.

I took a break from this to listen to Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, a much livelier narrative history that covers topics like money itself (the creation of coins and bills), bonds, stocks, insurance, and mortgages. Ferguson is great at pinning these abstract topics to stories about particular individuals/institutions. Enron, blah, heard it before–but I loved the bits about Nathan Rothschild and his impact on the Napoleonic wars.

Plans Doomed to Fail

Even though I’m already having trouble with my resolutions, I’m making more reading plans. Will 2015 be the year I finally finish Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings? Will I get back to favorite romance authors like Miranda Neville, Jeannie Lin, Molly O’Keefe, all of whose books are piling up in my TBR? Will I finally read Susanna Kearsley instead of hoarding her books? Stay tuned!

A friend of mine mentioned she is trying the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge in an effort to read more variety. I decided that was too much like homework for me (and I have no desire to tick some of those boxes, like reading a whole trilogy in one year). But I did download it, because I’m curious to see how many I tick by reading whatever I feel like. And knowing me, at some point in the year (if I don’t forget all about it) it will eventually start influencing my choices. Because I’m nothing if not a competitive homework keener.

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18 Responses to Recent Reading: Best Laid Plans

  1. Let me know when you get around to reading Susanna Kearsley, because I’ve been meaning to read her too. I think I even have one of her books on my kindle, though that doesn’t mean much in terms of TBR placement, it seems.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have several of her books on my e-reader. I don’t know exactly why I’m putting off reading one–but then, it’s full of books I haven’t read yet but expect to like. I think now that I’m in a better reading mood it’s safe to give it a go, though. Or something. Who can explain the weird psychology of book hoarding?

      • kaetrin says:

        I love Kearsley. I think you’d both love them too actually. 🙂 I’d recommend starting with either The Winter Sea or The Shadowy Horses.

        I’ve had the pleasure of reading an early copy of her April release, A Desperate Fortune, and that has some lovely Easter Eggs in it for people who have read The Winter Sea/The Firebird and The Splendour Falls (which is less romancey and more mystery) but I think it works well as a stand alone as well.

      • willaful says:

        I’m behind too, but I’m definitely reading A Desperate Fortune because of the autistic character, if another wants to do a buddy read.

      • lynnd1 says:

        I am so glad I am not the only one who is hoarding Susanna Kearsley. Maybe we could start a group – the SK Hoarding Society :-). I did try reading The Winter Sea a few years ago, but I was not in the right headspace at that point in time for much reading of any kind – we were in the process of getting my mom into a nursing home and cleaning and selling her house. Since then I just keep buying and hoarding SK’s books for some day when I’m going to have the time to sit down and glom them all because I know that is what will happen once I start.

  2. meoskop says:

    I had serious issues with Fire Shut up In My Bones and actually can’t tolerate Blow anymore, where I read him routinely before.

    The Neels thing is especially wrongheaded in that I think most 20 – 30 something readers would identify far more with a record player given the resurgence of LP’s as a format. I had an early 30’s person ask me why I had CD’s because they’re archaic. Get LP’s they said.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think there are a lot of things in that book a reader could have problems with–it’s tough to talk about, because he’s recounting his own experience and feelings, so why shouldn’t he frame it as he likes? But certainly some of his framing made me uncomfortable. (This is when reviewing a memoir gets tough, because it can easily stray into a judgment of the person).

      I’m not sure exactly when this Neels book was re-printed; it could have been in the CD era. But seriously, I’m pretty sure people who want to read a Neels book, whose sensibility and setting are so clearly not contemporary with us, will be OK reading about record players. These updates really annoy me.

  3. lawless says:

    Read Susanna Kearsley! I’d be very surprised if you didn’t like her books.

    That Charles Blow memoir sounds interesting even if he doesn’t. I keep hearing a lot about Piketty, but I have no clear sense of what the takeaway from his book is.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Somehow it’s being sure I will like Kearsley that has made me reluctant to start. Maybe I want to feel there’s a sure thing in my TBR? I don’t know. It makes no sense.

      Blow’s book was really interesting. I didn’t find him congenial–the persona he created in telling his story–but I am glad I read it.

      My takeaway from the Piketty (about 2 thirds through) is that after a period around the World Wars when “shocks” to capital meant less inequality of wealth, we are quickly reverting to greater inequality. And because return on capital outpaces economic growth/wage increases, and inheritance taxes are low, that inequality is going to keep growing. I found the parts on how we “justify” inequality (like thinking that entrepreneurs deserve it–but why do they deserve so much, or why do their heirs?) especially interesting. Also, that in the colonial period/early years of the nation, the US was far less unequal than Europe, but now is more unequal than much of Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries. I don’t think he quite gets the ideology that supports that–the belief that anyone *could* be a Bill Gates, for instance. But I was struck by how provincial he is in some ways: he lived in the US for a few years early in his career but aside from that says he rarely leaves Paris.

  4. Sunita says:

    Great post! 5th Day of Christmas is not one of my more frequent rereads, because I really don’t like the Other Woman setup she has here, but it’s a good example of Betty Land, definitely.

    I didn’t know Runcie wrote the Grantchester mysteries. They sound appealing (especially the time and place) but you have to have the right sensibility and skill to get the 20thC transformation of Britain across without sounding either hackneyed or insensitively oblivious. Then again, I’ve got 4 David Peace books lined up in the TBR, so clearly it’s an area of interest to me. I’m intrigued.

    I think I have to wait a bit on Piketty. Maybe I’ll borrow one of the many unread or half-read copies in my colleagues’ offices. 😉 I do want to read it, but at this point I feel as if I’d be reading the conversation about it as much as his own words. There is no way I’m reading the Ferguson, but your discussion reminds me that I’ve been meaning to put a couple of John Lanchester’s books in the TBR.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This book has got to be one of the most unread best-sellers EVER (though I read stats somewhere estimating how very few people who buy best-sellers actually finish them). It’s interesting, but I think if I were reading it I’d be skimming parts. But I managed to miss most of the discourse around it so I’m just taking it as it comes.

      I bounced off Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure long ago, but I’d like to try some of his non-fiction (he’s a good writer, certainly; the novel was just so not my thing).

      I think part of my problem with the Runcie book is that it feels more cozy-mystery nostalgic than really exploring the post-war period and the changes it brought.

  5. Barb in Maryland says:

    Your hoarding of Kearsley reminded me of my mother, who wouldn’t wear/use certain items because they were ‘too nice’–thus denying herself a pleasurable experience! Go! Read!! I second kaetrin’s rec to start with ‘Shadowy Horses’ (very Mary Stewart-ish) or ‘The Winter Sea’–both of which tie into ‘The Firebird’. I am especially fond of ‘The Rose Garden’ as well.
    Now, good luck on finding enough free time to do the reading…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s it exactly! Years ago I watched an Oprah show, of all things, where she talks about how she learned to use her nice stuff (it’s there to give you pleasure! why are you afraid to give yourself that?) and it helped me bring out my few pieces of nice china, wear a favorite sweater, etc. more often. I do think about “saving” certain books in something of the same way.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    Flower in the Desert sounds intriguing. I like survival stories, so I might check it out.

    By the way, I read Special Interests by Emma Barry after you mentioned somewhere that it was your favorite romance of 2014. I had some problems with the arc of the romance, but I really liked the DC milieu and I think she writes sexual tension (as opposed to the too-heavily telegraphed mental lusting I sometimes see in other books) really well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The survival stuff is well done. It was Jill Sorenson who first recommended it, and I trust her on that kind of thing, given her own skill at writing it. The hero was a cipher and the romance arc in the 2nd half was pretty trite/tired, but the first half and heroine were great.

      Those are the things I liked about the Barry book, too! I definitely think it shows the signs of someone still mastering her craft (and some terrible copyediting blunders, which I don’t generally expect from Carina) but there were a lot of fresh elements. I look forward to more of the series, which people are saying just gets better. I know Barry just finished her PhD and said she has nothing else coming out soon (the 3rd DC book just released) so I hope she finds a way to continue her fiction-writing career–and keeps writing “different” books, even if politics don’t sell so well. I’m selfish like that. 😉

  7. willaful says:

    I love how your list is in paragraphs. 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Even when I think I’m writing a short post it’s 1000 words. Kind of like how I never actually leave the grocery store with 3 items. But no point in a list without comments!

  8. KeiraSoleore says:

    Really enjoyed reading your post. I like having this look into your reading. Had to laugh over your “plans doomed to fail.” I feel like that when I see the long list of books I plan to read this year. That list only keeps growing longer not shorter. I don’t see how I could possibly read everything. But all those books I do want to read.

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