Reading Challenge: No Audio Required

Popsugar’s 2015 reading challenge has me on my toes.

I continue to dedicate the month of September to blogging about my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge.

There are some books that I have read for blogging that can fit into many categories, but some of the categories are so specific that even though I have not decided where many books best fit, I have some whose category is immutable. Last week were the books that I blew an audible credit on without blinking because I knew it was critical. This week are the less dreaded, read interspersed with the challenging ones from last week.

A book with someone who shares your initials: Imagine my excitement when I realized that a book that had already made it onto my Goodreads TBR list also counted for my reading challenge!

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

the lace reader

I had seen books by Beryl Bainbridge but something told me to go to the B section of the library and cruise. Not a lot of BB initials out there, I have to admit, and mine are only by merit of marriage.  This book is totally my cup of tea: magic, psychic abilities, a conflicted setting, mental illness and a good mystery.  I agree with the other reviewers that the premise is good and the twist is good, but the execution of all the elements could have been refined and converged more thoroughly.  Barry uses the unreliable narrator with psychic abilities so the reader does not always know what is real and what is not, which I like, but the end does not tie things up as much as I would like.

A classic love story:  I thought I really did not like love stories until I trolled Pinterest for others’ choices in this category and discovered that I had read most books that were considered ‘Classic Love Stories.”  It’s romance that I am not really into.  Which means that I might have to read it for my genre that you don’t typically read for Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading list because who does not need two reading lists in one year? I certainly do. People seemed to choose Wuthering Heights and I have already read that, but I had not read:

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

the princess bride

It surprised me that I had not read this yet, based on the fact that it is a popular movie and I loves me a good pop culture reference.  In fact, if you have read previous posts, I have noted that pop culture references helped me get into the classics because I wanted to know what the fuss was and what people were talking about.  This is a love story but it is also just as silly as the movie, which makes it fun.  It’s a light read and has more of Goldman’s life in it than is in the movie, but I like the fact that the ‘original’ book was something different and this is his ‘modified’ version of a childhood classic.  I love to re-read books that I read as a kid. I was going to read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell for this, but I think I will read it for a book with antonyms in the title.   And because I just need to read North and South.  Duh.

A book from your childhood: The challenge with this one was choosing which childhood book that I would like to revisit.  I re-read Matilda by Roald Dahl last year so that was out, and usually I pick out a Ruth Chew, but I was being lazy about the library and some genius has sought out my nerd contingent by digitalizing and bundling her books for kindle and the ones I bought I had also re-read recently.  I thought that she was somewhat obscure and maybe she is, but other adults who fell in love with her work at the same time I did seem to make up a big enough market to make these books available for Kindle.  But what I did choose was:

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH  by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

There was magic in my thinking about what it would be like to be a mouse but with my human brain. This little home and family that the mice had made and the really cool colony that the rats had made swept up my imagination.  Coming back to it as an adult I can recognize the bigger social issues addressed. The goal of the rats in the book, which is to be self-sustaining, has bigger implications to me now as an adult than it did as a child.  I just thought it was cool that the rats had managed to get electricity in their home and how they solved Mrs. Frisby’s problem. The only thing that bothers me about the book and same with 101 Dalmatians is that they were written a long time ago and are a little misogynistic.  Mrs. Frisby has no first name in this book.  In 101 Dalmatians, the female dogs were not nearly as bright as the male ones. At least the rats are smarter than Mrs. Frisby because they have been genetically modified and taught by humans to read and not because they are male and she is not.

Please feel free to comment below on your choices for these categories.  I anticipate having specific books chosen also for a book that came out the year that I was born (Little, Big, Housekeeping, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being) antonyms in the title (North and South) , and a play (Ghosts, Romeo and Juliet, or Death of a Salesman, or something else).

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Books with Cool Settings

The ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has just passed.  Yes, the devastation was notable, but I also remember commentary that the storm affected mostly the marginalized African American portion of that city the most and this may have affected the government’s response to the victims.  Specifically, there were concerns that the aid would have been faster if the population most affected was one with more inherent advantage. (I agree with this, by the way). It was not only the hurricane itself that made the news but the setting of the hurricane that really upped the drama: devastating areas where people were already struggling to survive.

Settings in books can serve the same purpose: increasing the drama and conflict of an event. It also affords us a perspective on places and times in history that otherwise we would not have.

I have read multiple articles on how setting affects a plot and characters and can sometimes be considered a character in itself like on the Writer’s Write website, Writing the Breakout Novel  by Donald Maas, and the AmericanWriters.com Creative Writing Podcast series by Tom Occipinti.  I also noted in a previous post that Sara Gruen used setting as a catalyst for the main character’s change in At the Water’s Edge.  I have blog posts about groups of books around a physical setting or period of time in mind.

Setting is important.  Here are some of my favorites, just because they are cool:

New Orleans post-Katrina: The Casquette Girls, Alys Ardenthe casquette girls

New Orleans is cool in itself.  This book combines the traditional creepy history of New Orleans with the more recent history of the devastation and abandonment of the city right after the hurricane.   Not only is it the veiled and dark traditional New Orleans but an abandoned one where there is more danger and even more intrigue.  Combine this with a teenage protagonist with uncertainties of her own and you have a gripping read.

Manhattan, the last 100 years: The Golem and the Jinni, and the Nero Wolfe series

fer de lance

I have already discussed my love for Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, where the time and place require some real divides between groups of people as well as poverty and struggle to make a new life.  This compounded with being two mythological, spiritual beings where there is no real place and the characters have to melt into a city where the divides are clear.

I have read about 37 Nero Wolfe books (some novels, novellas or collections of novellas) by Rex Stout which are mostly set in Manhattan from 1930’s, the first one, Fer de Lance, being published in 1934, up to the 50’s and 60’s.  Wolfe, the detective for whom the series is named, has become rich by charging exorbitant fees for solving murders and other conundrums of the affluent.  Of course the rich are fun to read about, but what about the rich in a booming cultural city in a prosperous time in history  (post WWII)? Nero’s gourmet meals are discussed, adding to the opulence, as well as his daily four hours on an expensive hobby and maybe some hours actually working solving cases.  His assistant, the narrator Archie Goodwin, is out mingling with the privileged at dancing and parties and flirting with lovely women and spending leisure time in their country estates.  The setting and characters are somewhat fixed so I understand that Stout had to choose a setting that was rich with possibilities and had some upstate places where stories could also be set.  I just love Manhattan anyway. I want to read The Orphan Master  by Jean Zimmerman, which is in seventeenth century Manhattan.

Psychiatric hospitals: The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle

the devil in silver

Did you think I was going to say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? I have not read that yet, actually.

One would think that a modern day psychiatric hospital would be a dramatic setting.  If someone has never been on a psychiatric ward they seem scary and intense. Sometimes institutions can be very dramatic, true, but mainly, it’s mind-numbingly dull and regimented. The more routine drama is in petty conflicts between people scuffling for any little piece of control in their world, like controlling the TV channel. True, some characters in the hospital are spicy but many of the institutionalized are blunted from medication and from struggling with serious illness for a long time.  LaValle manages to create a thriller within a very contained setting. The burned out hospital staff mostly function as adversaries to the main character and his allies to figure out who or what the beast is that is being harbored in their hospital. They are confined with a dangerous monster whom they have little power to avoid and the people who do know about the monster will not level with them. It’s nightmarish.

What looks like a normal apartment building on first glance: 14, Peter Clines

14 Peter Clines

This eerie and mysterious apartment building is a character in itself.  The remainder of the tenants, a diverse and well developed cast of characters in themselves, come together to determine the secrets behind the building in which they live.   There are doors which are always locked, walls with writing and apartments whose tenants always end up committing suicide.  Clines makes a mysterious residence mysterious for reasons other than ghosts and hauntings. Reviewers on Amazon discuss how this novel is more of a step out from Clines’ typical writing into emulating more classic and traditional horror and sci fi writers.

Other cool settings will be discussed in later posts. What are your favorites? Leave a comment below!

Review: Renewal by H. Perry Horton

Ahh, cults. Every once in a while, something pops up in the media about these self-contained groups that appear from the outside to be so inherently crazy. When they do surface in the media, it is usually because the cult is smack in the middle of something truly bizarre and dangerous, maybe even sinister.
If you have ever wondered why these groups are appealing to its
members, or how these groups get numbers at all, you could do one or
both of the following: one, take a college level social psychology
course, which I did, and which was fascinating, or you can read
Renewal by H. Perry Horton.  Renewal is a lot cheaper and a lot less
time-consuming, and it captures the jist of why cults are appealing and why they survive.

Renewal is another self published gem that I unearthed for the
purposes of my blog, and getting good self published books a little
more press.

I chose it because I liked the sample of writing in the description,
and the writing of the actual novel does not disappoint.  It is the
story of a man with not much to lose joining a cult to discover what
happened to his half-brother and the resulting mess.  There are snips
of sharp, pointed descriptions and lyrical writing and moments that
were clearly painted in my mind’s eye.

In The Better Novel Project, a blog by Christine Frazier where she
breaks down common elements in popular books (and absolutely worth a look),she talks about character’s ultimate needs and desires are love and acceptance, which is his or her ultimate motivation. Renewal demonstrates this through the journey of the main character, Lee, who does not set out for love and acceptance but rapidly becomes sucked into the appeal of having the family that he never really had.

At the beginning of the novel, Lee is a hollow shell, just existing, but the author takes us through a series of events where his character is deepened and becomes increasingly more conflicted and complex. He is not one person throughout the book but experiences many aspects of himself through participation in the cult and the first real experience of love and acceptance. The group makes him a better person, despite its own significant dark side, and makes an intriguing but not initially appealing character appealing. Horton, through his character Lee, shows how cults offer people things that they have never been able to find in the world that they started out in. He shows how with love, acceptance and a purpose people can change within and without. Certainly, positive and self-actualizing change is impossible without it.

The other main recommendation of this book is that the plot is intense
and engaging the entire way  through. I was definitely sucked into the “what will happen next?”  and I questioned motives of the other players all
the way through, which I liked.  It kept my curiosity baited.  I
thoroughly expected things to go badly but I wanted to know just how it was going to go badly. And how bad it was going to get. I wanted to know what happened to Lee’s brother and how Lee was going to change along the way.  Lee has a knack for of painting himself into corners and the resolution was satisfying.

Renewal is absolutely worth a look if you are into mystery and thriller.  I look forward to more novels from H. Perry Horton.