Penny's Reading Blog

This is where I make notes about my reactions to books, articles, and other written material. Please feel free to react to my reactions! I'd love to hear from you.

My take on books I have read 

This is a list of books that I have read or listened to. I indicate whether or not a book is an audiobook (A). I download two books a month from audible.com and love listening to books, especially in the morning or when I’m waiting for a plane, train, or bus. I also have a Kindle, which is great for travelling and for reading in bed. Since I read a lot, I “consume” books in many ways, sitting, standing, lying down, and hands-free! I invite you to comment on my choices at penny@sphozy.com.

Books I Read in 2014...

Adler-Olsen, Jussi: The Purity of Vengeance (A). I love this guy’s books. This is the fourth in his Department Q series set in Denmark. Det. Carl Mørck and his two sidekicks, the unpredictable Rose and the intriguing and secretive Assad, investigate cold cases and delve into the dark side of Copenhagen. This one is about a missing prostitute and something called the Purity Party. Doesn’t sound funny but Adler-Olsen has a wickedly dry sense of humour.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi: The Marco Effect (A). Another Department Q cold case (#5 in the series). “A Danish banking scam whose tentacles extend to Cameroon spells trouble for Department Q’s Carl Mørck and a young boy who gets caught in the crossfire.” (Kirkus Review) That’s it in a nutshell, but there’s plenty of plot and plenty of characters. Also plenty of witty dialogue and some surprising revelations about the elusive Assad, one of my favourite characters.

Addison, Corban: A Walk across the Sun. This is a first novel that tackles a huge issue: human trafficking. The protagonist, lawyer Thomas Clarke, goes to Mumbai on a pro bono case with the hope of patching up his troubled marriage to Priya, his Indian-born wife. He gets caught up in the case of two sisters, orphaned by the Tsunami, who have been kidnapped and put in a brothel. Publishers Weekly wrote: “The novel successfully explicates the magnitude of the human trafficking business, the complexities of international legalities, and the impact of the Internet’s role in this horrifying underworld.”

Allin, Lou: Man Corn Murders. Lou Allin was a friend of mine who died this year of pancreatic cancer. She wrote two mystery series (Belle Palmer and Holly Martin). This is a one-off, with protagonist Terry Hart travelling in an RV with her Aunt Judith in southwestern Utah, where they discover the mummified body of a young college student near an archaeological dig. Interesting characters, plenty of red herrings, and a secondary plot about seniors missing from a home. A different setting for Lou and a good read.

Atkinson, Kate: Life after Life. Not what I expected it to be, but better. About a woman who is born on the same day in February 1910, over and over again. Somehow Atkinson manages to keep you interested by changing the point of view every time (once it’s even from the cat’s POV) and thus changing the way we see it. Other characters also die and get born again to try and get it right the next time. A very good book, although not everyone in my book club agreed with me.

Austen, Jane: Persuasion (A). How can you not enjoy Jane Austen? This is Austen’s last book before she died a year later. Anne Elliott, daughter of a spendthrift baronet, had been persuaded eight years earlier to break her engagement to a poor but handsome naval officer, who later becomes wealthy. It’s a will they?–won’t they? plot of social mores and manners. Not as good as Pride and Prejudice, but a good listen read by actress Juliet Stevenson.

Baldacci, David: The Sixth Man (A). Edgar Roy has an “eidetic” memory, which means he uses about 95% of his grey matter while the rest of us use about 10%. He is incarcerated as a serial killer after being found with a spade in his hand near six dead bodies. The plot involves Baldacci characters Sean King and Michelle Maxwell in a convoluted conspiracy involving government agencies and intelligence gathering. A good read/listen, if slightly science-fictiony.

Bass, Jefferson: Bones of Betrayal. A Body Farm novel. Jefferson Bass is actually two guys: Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Bass is a forensic anthropologist. Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. The Body Farm is an actual place in Tennessee, where human bodies are left to rot and are carefully studied and examined for the sake of science and justice. When a man dies from radiation poisoning in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the key site for the Manhattan Project during World War II, Dr. Bill Brockton is called in to investigate. The story takes us back sixty years to when the victim was one of the scientists working on building the atomic bomb. An interesting twist to a fairly conventional mystery, with lots of history thrown in. I liked it.

Bennett, Ann: The Bamboo Heart. Published by Monsoon Books in Singapore (who have just released the Asian version of The Scarlet Macaw!), this book is harrowing in parts as it deals with Japanese prisoners of war in Thailand, one of whom is Thomas Ellis, the father of Laura Ellis, a successful London lawyer. When Thomas dies in 1986, Laura travels to Malaysia and Thailand on a journey of discovery, both about herself and her father, who never talked about his lost love, or the torture he endured at the hands of the Japanese. Well written and worth reading. According to The Guardian: “Atkinson is a superb writer and this Costa prize-winner is remarkable – joyful, moving, perceptive and quietly funny.”

Cahalan, Susannah: Brain on Fire: my month of madness (A). A fascinating true story about a young woman’s experience with a mysterious brain disease that nearly ends her life. The ins and outs of diagnosis and treatment read like a thriller. Cahalan, a tabloid journalist, knows how to keep the story going, starting with paranoid hallucinations and the discovery that right hemisphere of her brain was seriously inflamed, and finally to a diagnosis of NDMA autoimmune encephalitis. Who knew? The book was a 2012 New York Times Bestseller. You can’t make this stuff up!

That's A through C in 2014. I'm resting up to do the remainder of the alphabet! More later.

Books read earlier...

Abdolah, Kadar: The House of the Mosque. A very absorbing novel about a family and a mosque in Iran during the 80s, a time of unrest before the fall of the Shah.

Adiga, Aravind: Last Man in Tower. A fascinating study of a group of characters living in a condominium in Bombay that is scheduled for demolition.

Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. Another fascinating narrative with interesting characters, set in Bombay. I preferred Last Man in Tower, possibly because the characters were more intriguing.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi: The Absent One (A). I’ve enjoyed the Scandinavian mysteries ever since I read Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsen.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi: The Keeper of Lost Causes (A). Dark, violent, and disturbing. Just what I love!

Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture. I loved this book. Beautifully written, it’s the story of an elderly woman in Ireland who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of her life. The story centres on her relationship with a doctor at the hospital.

Brooks, Geraldine: People of the Book. A lot of well-researched history that travels over several centuries. Fascinating, but, for me, not as enjoyable as Year of Wonders, possible because of the single narrator, who is very appealing.

Brooks, Geraldine: Year of Wonders (A) An amazing story, based on real events of the sixteenth-century plague in England. Worth reading.

Bryson, Bill. At Home. I always enjoy reading Bryson. He often makes me laugh out loud. This one meanders all over the place and, typical of Bryson, is filled with all kinds of fascinating information.

Burke, James Lee. Creole Belle. I’ve read all of Burke and I never tire of him. He’s dark, complicated, atmospheric, sometimes violent, usually disturbing. I don’t know how he does it.

Chandler, Raymond: Anything. I recently re-read all of Chandler on my Kindle during a bout with the flu. Believe it or not, I appreciated them even more than when I first read (and re-read) them many years ago.

Choi, Wayson: The Jade Peony. I have been meaning to read this book for years and am glad I finally did. It’s about three Chinese kids, brothers and sister, growing up in Vancouver in the 30s and 40s.

Connelly, Michael, The Drop (A). I’ve read almost all of Connelly’s books (mostly audio) and enjoy his plotting, but it’s also his character, Harry Bosch, that keeps me coming back. I also enjoy the Mickey Haller books.

Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (A). A character study that keeps you off-balance all the way through. I was a little disappointed in the ending.

Ford, James: The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter & Sweet (A). More sweet than bitter, it’s still a good story about young love between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during World War II.

French, Tana: Broken Harbour (A). A very compelling read from Ireland, about deception, disappointment, and betrayal (gee, all my favourite themes!). I also listened to French’s In the Woods and Faithful Place a couple of years ago. Both good but, in my opinion, Broken Harbour is better.

Gorokhova, Elena: A Mountain of Crumbs. A memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union. You might enjoy it more if you’ve been to Russia, as I have. I did not find it as compelling as Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. I wondered if growing up in the Soviet Union had robbed Gorokhova of a piece of her soul.

Grenville, Kate: The Idea of Perfection. I really loved this book. An Orange Prize winner, it is written with exquisite detail, about relationships between ordinary flawed individuals.

Grenville, Kate: The Secret River. Powerful. Disturbing. A saga, which is not my favourite kind of book. I preferred The Idea of Perfection for it’s beautiful attention to nuance rather than scope.

Hill, Reginald: The Woodcutter (A). A one-off, not a Dalziel & Pascoe mystery. A character study that sometimes pushes credibility, but an interesting read that’s almost a page-turner.

Kellerman, Jonathan: Guilt (A). I’ve been a fan for a long time, especially of the audiobooks because the reader gives the characters of Alex and Milo and extra bit of juice. Always good plots, although Milo has an annoying habit of giving everybody’s words a little “tagline.” Gets on my nerves sometimes.

Kellerman, Jonathan: Over the Edge (A). Another absorbing Alex and Milo mystery.

Kepler, Lars: The Nightmare (A). Another Scandinavian mystery that has all the earmarks, i.e., dark, disturbing, and violent. Love them.

Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible (A). Another book I’ve been meaning to read for years. So glad I did! A wonderful book. Multiple narrators in one family, a mother and her four daughters, in the Belgian Congo in 1959 because the father is a dedicated and determined Baptist minister. I found the character of one of the daughters stretched credibility as she got older, but Kingsolver involves you in the place and the time so completely that you are compelled to keep going.

Landay, William: Defending Jacob. Again, a disappointing ending but an interesting examination of inherited traits. Is Jacob a murderer like his grandfather or not?

LaPlante, Lynda: Blood Line (A). I first was drawn to LaPlante because of the excellent TV series, Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. The novels are solid and well-written. I’ve been reading the series with Anna Travis (also made into a TV series). Anna is quirky and not always likeable but she’s got a great brain. Can’t fault that. I’ve also read (or listened to) Above Suspicion, The Red Dahlia, Silent Scream, and Blind Fury.

Lee, Laurie: Cider with Rosie. An English classic about growing up in a village mid-twentieth century. The language is beautiful, and the descriptions sometimes took my breath away with their originality. Liked it in spite of myself—the cover art put me off.

Lim, Catherine: The Bondmaid. Interesting for its cultural history of Chinese girls in servitude. I found the storytelling slightly contrived.

Macdonald, Ross, The Far Side of the Dollar. I have been reading and re-reading Macdonald for years. The Far Side of the Dollar is a beautifully structured book and I often re-read it to remind myself of how to do it. The psychology is a bit dated, but the story is powerful. Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a thinking person’s detective who is keenly aware of the human side of victim and criminal alike. I like the haunting way Macdonald draws the past into the present as if the two are inseparable (which they are!).

Mantel, Hilary: Wolf Hall. Amazing. You think it’s going to be a slog but it’s a page-turner. Extensively researched but written as if she were living in that time and knew it intimately. She tells the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant device that humanizes the characters and makes the story feel immediate. A wonderful accomplishment for a writer.

Mantel, Hilary: Bring Up the Bodies. The follow-up and second in the proposed trilogy. Mantel maintains the tone of the first book and keeps us on the edge of our seats even though we know the ending. To win the Man Booker Prize for two books in a row is a stunning accomplishment.

Márquez, Gabriel García: Love in the Time of Cholera. Márquez breaks all the rules—he tells, tells, tells, with very little dialogue—but in such a compelling way that you keep reading. He stretches credibility, of course, but this one has less magical realism that One Hundred Years of Solitude. A very bold work of imagination.

Márquez, Gabriel García: 100 Years of Solitude. I read this many years ago and loved it, so decided to read it again, and loved it again. Lots of magical realism in this one, but the thing that fascinates me the most is the amazing structure. Somehow, he creates an huge circle and in the end brings everything back to the beginning.

McDermid, Val: The Mermaids Singing (A). First in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Amazon calls it a “sadistic, twisted yet intriguingly ingenious thriller,” which it is. It won her Britain’s Gold Dagger. I like this series better than her others because it’s more intense, darker, and more complex.

McDermid, Val: The Wire in the Blood (A). Second in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series that was made into a TV series. Complicated and creepy with plenty of psycho drama, which I love. McDermid said in an interview that she wrote the first book, The Mermaids Singing, as a one-off, then found she was locked into several things (Hill’s sexual problem, his attraction to Carol) that she wouldn’t have written if she’d begun it as a series.

Morton, Kate: The Forgotten Garden. Morton’s second novel and the one I read second. An interesting premise but not as compelling as The House at Riverton. The story is told through three different narratives in three different time periods and I didn’t feel really attached to any of the main characters.

Morton, Kate: The House at Riverton (also called The Shifting Fog) (A): I have listened to this twice and really enjoyed it both times. Although the reader has an Australian accent (Morton is also Australian), and the book takes place in England in the early part of the 20th century in a flashback, she did the voices and accents really well, giving each of the characters a distinct voice and personality. I wonder if I would have enjoyed The Forgotten Garden more as an audiobook.

Ondaatje, Michael: Anil’s Ghost. I have always loved Ondaatje’s poetry and carried a copy of his The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in my early travel days. I still have my beaten-up copy (a gift from my brother). His novels I’m more ambivalent about: loved some (Coming Through Slaughter, The English Patient), didn’t love others—like this one. Perhaps because of the episodic nature of the narrative, I could not become attached to any of the characters enough to care what happened to them. I find his writing lyrical and lovely to read (how could it not be?) but his storytelling sometimes leaves me empty.

Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society. One of those books I might not have read except for my book club, but I enjoyed it immensely and even passed it on to my mother to read. Second World War in German-occupied Guernsey in the Channel Islands, with a cast of inventive and appealing characters.

Shreve, Anita: The Pilot’s Wife. About a New Hampshire widow whose pilot husband turns out to have had a secret life. I found the book heartfelt and realistic in dealing with a difficult subject for an author: grief. It’s a journey of self-discovery with a bit of mystery and adventure thrown into the mix.

Stockett, Katherine: The Help (A). A great audiobook because there are so many characters, each with a distinctive voice. Not as predictable as I expected it to be. Yes, there are some cultural stereotypes (maybe a lot of them) but it’s a story worth telling, from a female perspective.

Watson, S.J.: Before I Go to Sleep (A). A difficult conceit to keep going—that of a woman who has had a rare form of amnesia for twenty years and must begin each day without any memories at all—until she begins to write things down. It turns into a thriller with unpredictable plot twists. The ending disappointed me slightly (endings are hard!) but it’s a fascinating journey.

Walls, Jeannette: The Glass Castle. No doubt about it, a great memoir. Written with compassion, humour, and intelligence, I couldn’t put it down. I also went to YouTube and watched interviews with Wall, who is an amazing survivor of a difficult and traumatic family situation. Her parents, both eccentric and irresponsible but from “good” families, ended up as street people. The kids were dragged from pillar to post, usually in the middle of the night, and basically had to raise themselves. Wall tells the story without bitterness or anger or neurotic rants, which must have been hard to do, except that she appears to have become a highly intelligent, well-balanced human being.