Elizabeth: What Did You Read Wednesday?

Girls laying on the grass with booksThe Memorial Day festivities are done, students are graduating from schools around the country, and baseball season is in full swing. That should mean long, sunny days, perfect for any number of outdoor activities, but the weather in my neck of the woods has apparently not gotten the memo. The holiday weekend was cool and windy and there was definite moisture on the windows on my way to work this morning. Hardly conducive to barbeques or yard work, but perfect for curling up with some espresso, a cuddly cat, and a random draw from the To Be Read pile.

Here’s how my reading went:

A New Author

This month I gave several new authors a try. All were freebies I received from various RWA conferences; a few had been languishing on the pile for quite a while. I had met several of the authors personally, some on multiple occasions, and had high hopes that the books would measure up to the charming, friendly personalities of their author’s. Sadly, in baseball terms, “swing and a miss” is an appropriate description for this portion of my month’s reading. I spent some time trying to identify why the books did not work for me. In one case, the reason was obvious: I was not the target reader for that specific book. It was an erotica novella – not my catnip as Jilly would say – but I gave it a try out of curiosity. The story didn’t work for me, not because of the I’m-not-sure-that-is-even-anatomically-possible-sex the characters had everywhere, but because there seemed to be no discernible story. That was too bad because the two main characters had the potential to be very interesting.

One of the other stories I read was a contemporary southern romance that had its positive points, but two things irritated me right out of the story. First was the fact that the author kept having the hero think about how sexy the heroine was – over and over and over again – but didn’t really show why they were supposed to be attracted to each other. Second, and this was the deal breaker, the heroine had to choose at one point between the hero and the other-guy. She chose the hero, they went off and had hot, sweaty sex, and then she said “no, actually I’m staying with the other-guy” (paraphrasing here). Just no.

Something Thought-Provoking

Undaunted by striking out in my new author quest, I forged on ahead with The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve followed Gilbert online for quite some time and generally find her posts and TED Talks and articles to be interesting and thought provoking so I had high hopes for this latest book. At almost 500 pages, it was not a novel to breeze through in a few hours and I’ll admit up front that I still have a few pages left to go. The book did not disappoint in terms of delightful prose, like the following:

“His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page. His spelling was several degrees beyond arbitrary, and his punctuation brought reason to sigh with unhappiness.”

Set in the late 1700s, the book was full of fascinating botanical and historical details. It was very obvious that Gilbert had done her research and was passionate about her story and her facts. Although it feels wrong to criticize a New York Times Bestseller, I have to say the botanical details sometimes overwhelmed the story, at the expense of the characters and plot. There was also a lot of narrative summary, rather than active scenes, which made it both challenging to connect with the characters and regrettably easy to put the book down. One review that I read suggested that the book could have done with some strong editing, and I tend to concur.

The structure and flow of the story felt very reminiscent of the slower more intricate style of Victorian novels, when reading was a drawn-out, leisurely pursuit. There was no start with a crash of action and race from one tension-filled plot point to another until the end for this story, which frankly was refreshing. Instead, the book started with a prologue about the birth of a baby girl, followed by a 50 page first section about the life of the father when he was a boy, before returning to the girl (slightly older) and following her through her life. Overall, I enjoyed the story (and learned some things in the process), though it is not likely to make it onto the read-it-again shelf. I’ll let you know if I change my mind after those last remaining pages.

A Classic

I rounded out the month’s reading with a classic – Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley. Honesty compels me to admit that I actually read this once before at Oxford, but that was a close, critical, analytical reading, which is not at all the same as a pleasure read. Frankenstein has an interesting story structure, with an outer narrative in epistolary form (letters between a captain and his sister), around an inner narrative (told by Victor Frankenstein), with a deeper inner narrative (told by the Creature). Excluding the letters in the outer frame, the story is told in the first-person, which gives it a very close, intimate feel and made it very easy to connect with the characters.

Where modern stories frequently feature someone working through challenges and set-backs before finally at the end of the story reaching their goal, this story focuses more on what happens once a goal has been achieved. In this case, we see what happens to Victor Frankenstein after he successfully creates his Creature and how achieving that initial goal has terrible, terrible consequences. The story also has a romance component. True, it’s the Creature who is searching for a female companion, not the title character, and that search ends in tragedy not happily ever after, but it is part of the tale in combination with the other elements of horror, Gothic, and the scientific. If you haven’t read this story before, I definitely recommend giving it a read. This is one for my keeper shelf for sure.

So, what have you read (or started reading) recently? Anything for your keeper shelf?

15 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What Did You Read Wednesday?

  1. I finished a Susan Mallery that wasn’t to my taste. I ordered it from iBooks to assess the reader experience, and I basically ordered it because it was the first romance novel in the queue, and I thought I remembered liking her. I coulda had a Julie Ann Long! I also got a Maggie Shayne western, which I’ve been enjoying, but now the Very Bad Man has come, and I have to put it down. That’s been it for reading.

    • Sorry the Mallery didn’t work out. I think I have one of hers in my queue as well, though I can’t remember which one right now. I’m just going to keep reading through my TBR pile in the hopes of finding a winner soon. Odds are in my favor at this point 🙂

      I have an unread Loretta Chase waiting for when I hit my next word-count milestone. I have high-hopes for that one.

  2. I have been on a Courtney Milan kick. I love her conflict locks. I get tired of her characters looking up all the time. It’s not like they look up and contemplate the medallion while trying to marshal their thoughts. They just look up. Right now, I’m reading a debut book by Carrie La Seur – The Home Place: A Novel. My kids gave it to me. It is written in omniscient POV which is throwing me off a little because I usually (always) read tight 3rd. The family dynamics make my family look like a cross between The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver with halos. I’m not thinking it will be my cuppa, but I’m reading it like a writer and finding some interesting aspects.

    • Michille – it’s funny the things you notice about a writer’s style once you’ve read a number of her works. Great about the conflict locks though. Is there any title of Courtney’s that you would recommend starting with? I haven’t read any of hers so far.

    • One of my “bathroom books” is a very short book about neurolinguistics and teaching English as a foreign language (for my day job). I’ve been reading it for four or five years . . . . But, my point is, the neurolinguistic folks put a great deal of emphasis on students’ eye movements. They say that different areas in the space in front of a student’s eyes represent different processing functions — past, present, future, or if they are processing it with their bodies, their eyes or their ears. Kinda interesting — I wonder if Milan is referencing that. This month or last month, I finally finished the trilogy with the three brothers (my favorite was the chaste brother), and enjoyed the books very much.

      • Michaeline, that trilogy is a good place to start. So Elizabeth, I recommend Unveiled to start. It’s the first book in the Turner brothers trilogy (there are actually 4 books in the series because there is a novella thrown in as book 1 1/2). Conflict lock in that one – in order to be declared the duke, she must be declared a bastard. In order for her to retain her birthright, he can’t be the duke. That makes her goal sound negative, but it isn’t, that is the lock. His goal is to become the duke. Her goal is to prove him unfit to be the duke so that her brother can be the duke (thereby retaining her birthright). Ash Turner is the protagonist. In this series, the males are the protagonists. This one is set in 1837, but her Brothers Sinister series is set in the Industrial Revolution, which is a departure from most historicals. It adds an interesting backdrop – characters can go from Cambridge to Paris in one day.

        • Thanks Michille, I’ll add Unveiled to the reading list. I’m especially interested in seeing how she handles the male protagonists, since that is what I am writing.

  3. I believe I mentioned this elsewhere, but I finished “Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained” by Maya Rodale and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I also just finished Eloisa James’ “Four Nights With the Duke” and it was meh. Some good lines, but the heroine, Mia, sure did a lot of crying. I would have liked her to have more agency.

    • Justine – I just read through the sample pages for Rodale’s book on Amazon. Definitely looks like an interesting read. I moved it to the top of the reading list 🙂

  4. It’s been a book-filled month for me, with more variation than usual in my booklist. Peter Coyote’s autobiography, “The Rainman’s Third Cure”, and Brene Brown’s “I Thought It Was Just Me” were both well worth reading, but both left me deeply disappointed in the authors — as human beings, rather than as authors. Brown displayed a level of sexism that I would never have expected from someone who has made “empathy” and “vulnerability” her gospel. Coyote’s autobiography left me feeling sorry, not for the hard times that he had to live through, but rather for his blindness to how he chooses to perceive his world.

    The first two entries in David Baldacci’s Camel Club series were my “new author” entry for this month. The writing is solid, and I’m going to continue reading the series, but there is something about Baldacci’s writing that keep me from viscerally experiencing the adventures.

    The re-read/classic is the Harry Potter series, which I’m going through in audiobook form. I’m once again impressed with Rowling’s writing, both technically and artistically. She doesn’t let a large vocabulary and complex sentence structure get in the way of readability, and she doesn’t let plot/audience requirements (good guys win, nothing more adult than PG-13) prevent her from creating tension and connection.

    Oh, and I’m hearing more Britishisms this time through, which I’m enjoying no little and quite some. “Are you taking the mickey?” adds an exotic spice, without being obscure enough to pull me out of the flow.

    • So interesting about Peter Coyote and Brene Brown! Brown is terrific in the TED talks, I think, and I’ve been a fan of Coyote since he was in the SF Mime Troupe. I might have to check out those books myself. Plus, David Baldacci: I’ve enjoyed his books in a mild way, too—I agree that I don’t get a visceral connection.

    • Scott – you’ve certainly been a busy reader. Interesting comment about Brown. I never would have thought that to be the case. I’m just about to start an online class of hers on her Gifts of Imperfection book. Hope the sexism won’t be evident there. Have you read the post-Harry Potter book(s) of Rowling? I am curious how the writing / storytelling is in those. I have never (gasp!) actually read the HP books – only seen the movies. I may have to remedy that, if only to keep an eye out for Britishisms. I love those.

  5. I’ve had a mixed bag month. The good news is that I’m FINALLY reading again. I haven’t wanted to commit to a book for quite some time, let alone my pre-2012 levels of reading. I’m still not there, gorging on books, but my TBR stack is getting smaller.

    I finally found an excellent scholarly book about women and their fun, 1890s to 1920s era. Not only was it fun to read, but it has a lot of good stuff I can use for my book. Books, maybe. It’s called Cheap Amusements.

    I read a not-so-great series. I’m afraid it was one of those things where the great adventure was in book one, and the other two books were largely a matter of the heroine bouncing around, looking for a plot. It read like a bad video game. “Oh, miniquest! Oh, fight the bad guys! Oh, new, random mini-quest! Oh, fight some different bad guys.” There were some really wonderful passages between the heroine and the hero, but the hero was largely out of the picture after the first book. Also, the writer loosened her control on the historical era as she wrote the books, so there were some jarring references in book three that seemed way too modern for a brink-of-industrial society. I kept reading it for hot-guy love scenes, which she handled pretty well in book two, but there was a Stupid Misunderstanding in book three where everyone acted like brats. (It was the wurst. Sorry, I think I’m hungry for lunch already, to be making sausage puns.)

    I’m in the middle of a very good biography of Nellie Bly on my Kindle. And, I’m reading one of the Ladies’ manuscripts, which is delighting me to the extreme. I wish I could blow off work and sit down and enjoy it in one shot!

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