End Notes: March

March was a crazy month with work, but luckily I had a long spring vacation with my in-laws to get a lot of reading in. Here’s the final word on books I read in March. 

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon ♦

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

This is a fantastic novel about a boy, Daniel, who acquires a novel called The Shadow of the Wind. As he tries to find out more about the author, he discovers someone is systematically destroying every book he’s written. The pacing and coming-of-age story connected with a piece of art reminded me of The GoldfinchThere’s romance, tragedy, mystery, books, and hint of gothic lit.  It reads like a mash-up of Dickens, Donna Tartt, and Stephen King with a little bit of Gaston Leroux thrown in for good measure, while still feeling wholly unique.

Vacation Read? Yes! It was long enough that I had confidence it would entertain me on our flight, but the plot was driving enough to keep me turning pages from the moment we took off all the way through baggage claim.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Karou is an artistic, strong willed high school student with an…unusual home life. She was raised by a group of chimera, or demons. After school, she uses a series of portals to move from country to country, collecting teeth for her guardians. The details of the magic in this book were bizarre and wonderful. For example, she has a necklace she uses to make small wishes (things like making her hair blue, giving her ex boyfriend unpleasant itches). On one of her missions for her guardian, she ends up casually trying to carry an elephant tusk on the Paris metro. I also loved the travel elements of her world: portions of the story take her to Prague, Paris, and Egypt, to name a few. Karou is also a genuinely great heroine. She’s smart, witty, and realistically portrayed.

I loved the first half of the book, learning about Karou, her friends, and her strange double-life. Taylor’s prose is fantastic. She describes the details of Karou’s life and world flawlessly. However, once the main conflict of the story came into focus and Karou mostly stopped interacting with the real world, I found myself less and less interested in the narrative. I don’t feel any urge to read the rest of the series because I didn’t find the plot teased at the end very compelling.

Vacation Read? If you like YA and dark fantasy, this is absolutely a great vacation read. It’s fun with good world-building, a fantastic heroine, and star-crossed lovers.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld ♦

Jake Whyte has retreated to a remote farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds, with only her collie and a flock of sheep as companions. But something—or someone—has begun picking off her sheep one by one. There are foxes in the woods, a strange man wandering the island, and rumors of a mysterious beast prowling at night. And there is Jake’s relentless past—one she tried to escape thousands of miles away and years ago, concealed in stubborn silence and isolation and the scars that stripe her back. (from Amazon)

This novel progresses in alternating chapters. The present, on the British island, moves forward in time while the chapters focused on the past move backwards, describing pieces of Jake’s past and the events in her life that gave her scars and caused her to run away to England. It’s dark, emotionally wrenching, and somehow still hopeful.

Vacation Read? I say nay. I had a hard time following where I was in the narrative and how one thing led to another. I also found the ending unsatisfying. For me, at least, I needed a bit more focused attention to really understand this book and its value.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta, an eighty-year-old woman, wakes up one morning with an insatiable desire to see the sea. She leaves her husband, Otto, a note and starts walking from her home in Canada towards the ocean. The novel is the story of Etta’s journey, interwoven with the stories of Otto, Russell, James, and their shared past. We learn about the emotional complexities of their lives and relationships through letters, memories, and flashbacks. Hooper’s style is whimsical and charming, but her narrative story floats above the characters in a way that kept me from ever deeply connecting to anyone in the story.

Vacation Read? I still stay yes. It was lovely, simple in style but complex in the narrative. I thought it was a charming and sweet read for vacation.

 

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Huffe

A real collection of letters between Helene Hanff and a bookstore in England. A women writes to Marks & Co. bookstore requesting particular editions she can’t find in the US, and strikes up a quirky friendship with the employees of the bookstore. For 20 years, the outspoken author and the London booksellers carry on their correspondence. Bits of these letters were wonderful, like when Marks & Co sends an abridged version of a book and Hanff responds with complete outrage. Overall, though, I was disappointed. If Hanff was an author I read often and loved, this collection of personal correspondence would be fantastic. But as it was, I hoped for a narrative that just didn’t happen in this real life story. In the chick flick version, Hanff would fall in love with the sometimes overly restrained bookseller and he would woo her through letters and beautiful editions of classic works. But, alas, that isn’t the story. Still, there are some wonderful moments and quotes about Hanff’s love for books and this particular bookstore:

“If you happen to pass by 84, Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me. I owe it so much.”

Vacation Read? It’s 94 pages. If the concept or author is of interest to you, you aren’t committing too much time to something that may or may not have great pay off for you in the end. Easy enough to go for it without regrets.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artist’s work lies in subverting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children. Just ask Buster and Annie Fang. For as long as they can remember, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces. But now that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.  (from Amazon)

So much of this book reads like Kevin Wilson was watching Arrested Development or the Royal Tenenbaums while he wrote. The tone, humor, dysfunctional family dynamic and problematic children were so similar that I can’t imagine it was an accident. Even though I love both the television show and the movie, I was never fully sold on the absurdity of this book. It was fine, moderately entertaining, but ultimately somewhat forgettable in the similarities to other media. I will see the Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman adaptation coming out later this year, though.

Vacation Read? If you can’t get enough of Wes Anderson and Arrested Development, this will scratch that itch for you. It has a few laugh-out-loud moments as well.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Pardon the Stefon impression, but last year’s hottest book has everything. A missing priceless diamond, miniature cities with secret compartments, trigonometry, a blind girl fascinated by the works of Jules Verne, a war-ridden Paris and a sympathetic Nazi. Hooray for every reviewer, friend, and bookseller that recommended this book in the past year. I loved it, absolutely loved it. The writing is beautifully vivid. I loved the richness of the two main characters, a blind French girl and a young German soldier. If you aren’t usually a voracious reader, this massive book is still accessible. the chapters are very short, making it easy to read in chunks. The novel alternates between POV and time as it moves along. Though the ending felt a bit cliched and forced, there were so many small details of this novel that haven’t left me.

Vacation Read? Yes, or anytime read. Really, find a way to get time with this book.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith ♦

Cassandra is a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer living with her family in a derelict castle. The story is told though Cassandra’s journal entries as she describes her family’s poverty and struggle to turn their lives around. It’s simply told, but in way that is earnest, raw and true. I loved Cassandra’s discovery of herself and her values. Her family is also fascinating, in particular her father, a formerly famous author suffering from decade long writer’s block after a stint in prison. The plot feels real and honest, even though it isn’t quite the perfect fairy tale I hoped for.

Vacation Read? If you love Pride and Prejudice or are looking for easily accessible classics, this is perfect. J.K. Rowling also lists it as one of her favorite reads, which seems like reason enough to give it a shot.

What’s the best book you read in the last month? Feel free to give me suggestions in the comments! 

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