Good Reads // May 2015

ReadingBench

Hello friends and fellow bookworms!  It’s time for my monthly book reviews post – and there are some real gems here!  Enjoy!

Rating System
★★★★★ = Amazing!
★★★★ = A great read
★★★ = It’s good
★★ = Just ok
★ = Not for me

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booksTracksTitle: Tracks
Author: Robyn Davidson
Series: NA
Published: May 30th 1995 by Vintage (first published 1980)
Pages: 288 Pages (Paperback)
Category: Non Fiction, Memoir, Travel, Australia
Overall Rating: ★★★★

The first lines: “I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full on inappropriate clothes.  ‘Bring a cardigan for the evenings,’ the brochure said.  A freezing wind whipped grit down the platform as I stood shivering, holding warm dog flesh, and wondering what foolishness had brought me to this eerie, empty train station in the centre of nowhere.  I turned against the wind, and saw the line of mountains at the edge of town.  There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track.  I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Dayglo and realized this was one of them.  It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and lasted about ten seconds.”

Summary from Goodreads: Robyn Davidson’s opens the memoir of her perilous journey across 1,700 miles of hostile Australian desert to the sea with only four camels and a dog for company with the following words: “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.”  Enduring sweltering heat, fending off poisonous snakes and lecherous men, chasing her camels when they get skittish and nursing them when they are injured, Davidson emerges as an extraordinarily courageous heroine driven by a love of Australia’s landscape, an empathy for its indigenous people, and a willingness to cast away the trappings of her former identity. Tracks is the compelling, candid story of her odyssey of discovery and transformation.

My thoughts:  I truly enjoyed this book!!!  It was unique and raw and real.  I think some people could find Robyn as tough and unrelatable, but I found her straight-talking language and direct thoughts refreshing.  “I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.” This is how Robyn Davidson’s perilous journey across 1,700 miles of hostile Australian desert to the sea with only four camels and a dog for company begins. Enduring sweltering heat, fending off poisonous snakes and lecherous men, chasing her camels when they get skittish and nursing them when they are injured, Davidson emerges as an extraordinarily courageous woman driven by a love of Australia’s landscape, an empathy for its indigenous people and a willingness to cast away her former identity.  I adored her descriptive scenes, such as when she first encountered camels: “I will now, once and for all, destroy some myths concerning these animals.  They are the most intelligent creatures I know except for dogs and I would give them an IQ rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children.  They are affectionate, cheeky, playful, witty, yes witty, self-possessed, patient, hard-working and endlessly interesting and charming. {…} They were like great curious puppies.  Nor do they smell, except when they regurgitate slimy green cud all over you in a fit of pique or fear.  I would also say that they are highly sensitive animals, easily frightened by bad handlers, and easily ruined.  They are haughty, ethnocentric, clearly believing that they are god’s chosen race.  But they are also cowards and their aristocratic demeanour hides delicate hearts.  I was hooked.”  I also love this passage in the postscript where Robyn says, “If Tracks has a message at all, it is that one can be awake to the demand for obedience that seems natural simply because it is familiar. Wherever there is pressure to conform, there is a requirement to resist. Of course I did not mean that people should drop what they were doing and head for the wilder places, certainly not that they should copy what I did. I meant that one can choose adventure in the most ordinary of circumstances. Adventure of the mind, or to use the old-fashioned word, the spirit.”

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book_arthearingTitle: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Author: Jan-Philipp Sendker
Series: NA
Audiobook Narrated By: Cassandra Campbell
Length: 9 hours, 27 minutes
Published: 2002 (Audiobook: January 31, 2012 by Blackstone Audio, Inc.)
Pages: 325 (paperback version)
Category: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance
Overall Rating: ★★★

The first lines: “The old man’s eyes struck me first.  They rested deep in their sockets, and he seemed unable to take them off me.  Granted, everyone in the teahouse was staring at me more or less unabashedly, but he was the most brazen.  As if I were some exotic creature he’d never seen before.” 

Summary from Goodreads: A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

My thoughts:  This book came recommended to me via a co-worker, and I think it was a good read, but not great.  I feel like I should have liked this story more than I did.  It is a love story – but a sad one – one that lasts half a century, despite the lovers not seeing each other during that time.  It is also the story of Julia Win, whose father, a highly successful lawyer who immigrated from Burma 50 years ago, disappears the day after she graduates from law school. We are later told that Julia and her family know virtually nothing about the first 20 years of his life; how can such a loving man not at least talk to his children about his childhood…especially when it was so unique?!  However, after the disappearance, Julia finds a letter he wrote to a woman in Burma, so she goes there in search of answers.  While beautiful in many ways, I found that the love shared by the father and his childhood love to be so over the top perfect and selfless and frankly, unbelievable.  I also thought that some of the father’s life decisions just did not make sense – like the fact that he didn’t try very hard to get back to his “one true love.”  The authors words are poetic – and the passages are full of detail and promise – but there were a few fundamental parts of the story that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.  The main one being that if Tin Win’s love was so great that he could unconditionally love a woman for 50 years, why couldn’t he afford the same love towards his family in the US, who are ultimately innocent in the story?  He just leaves them with nothing – no goodbye, no letter of explanation – nothing.  He just ups and disappears – which feels out of character from the deeply loving and devoted man whose story is being unfolded.  To be honest, I feel that if you take the US family out of the picture, it is an otherwise quite beautiful tale.

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book_13taleTitle: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Series: NA
Audiobook Narrated By: Ruthie Henshall, Lynn Redgrave
Length: 7 hours, 9 minutes (Abridged)
Published: September 12th 2006 by Atria Books (Hardcover)
Pages: 406 pages
Category: Fiction, Mystery
Overall Rating: ★★★★★

The first lines: “It was November.  Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage.  Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left the light over the stairs to the flat.  Through the glass in the door it cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle, about to turn my key in the door, that I first saw the letter.  Another white rectangle, it was on the fifth step from the bottom, where I couldn’t miss it. ”

Summary from Goodreads: Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels. Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.  As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still.

My thoughts This book had been sitting on my To Be Read list since March 2011.  And after reading it, I wanted to slap myself for not picking it up sooner!!!  I loved this except from a Goodreads reviewer: “From the very first page I was mesmerized, spellbound and led into a different world. The narration was so personal, it felt like the main character was speaking to you and only you; like this story was written only for the reader currently holding the book. The descriptions of the settings contained enough detail to provide a clear picture and invite the reader into the world of the story without being overwhelming.  The characters were richly created and showed depth, but the author took her time to let them fully develop in front of the reader, which added to the mystery of the story.  I will avoid writing anything about the plot of fear that I give away some small hint that could ruin the mystery that makes this story so powerful. All I can say is that this story is filled with mystery, elements of classic Victorian goth and shows the depth of human grief and tragedy.”

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BookFlowersTitle: The Language of Flowers
Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Series: NA
Audiobook Narrated By: Tara Sands
Length: 9 hours, 50 minutes (Unabridged)
Published:  // Random House Audio August 23, 2011
Pages: 323 (Hardcover)
Category: Fiction, Contemporary, Romance
Overall Rating: ★★★★

The first lines“For eight years I dreamed of fire.  Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned.  The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose.  Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake.  The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Carolina and Indian jasmine, separation and attachment.  They could not be confused.”

Summary from Goodreads: A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.  The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.  Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

My thoughts:  I really enjoyed this book –  it was heart-wrenching and lovely at the same time.  This book was recommended by my mother-in-law back in December 2012, another one of those that I really, really wish I would have read sooner!  I liked so many things about this story. First, the writing is absolutely beautiful; she uses the descriptions of flowers to parallel the characters’ emotions in the scene, so there’s a lot to decipher beneath the surface. Also, it’s hard to not just be in utter awe of the protagonist and her heartbreaking journey. This book explores the devastating effects of the foster care system on an innocent child – and although depressing at times, in the end, the protagonist is able to break free of her past and start living her life.

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bookmajorTitle: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Author: Helen Simonson
Series: NA
Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Pages: 368 (paperback)
Category: Fiction, Contemporary, Romance
Overall Rating: ★★

The first lines:“Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking.  On the damp bricks of the path tood Mrs. Ali from the village shop.  She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow.  A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major’s cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.”

Summary from Goodreads: In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But, then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But, village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

My thoughts *Sigh*  I was really, really hoping to like this book more than I did.  After randomly picking up this book from the Calgary Little Free Library box outside of my office, I added it to my To Be Read list and found that a couple of my friends (with similar reading tastes) each gave it 4 stars.  Though charming at times, I mostly felt that I could not connect with this book.  It starts slow, but the quirky nature of Major Pettigrew kept me drawn in.  He definitely has an “old man” vibe, but in a good way.  I could definitely see an older man who’s lost his wife, and then his brother, getting so laser-focused on a seemingly minor thing such as a pair of matched guns. His love interest, Mrs. Ali, is a good match for him (witty, set in her ways) and I was rooting for them to get together.  Mr. Pettigrew’s son was completely and utterly deplorable, perhaps even to the point of implausibility, but I suppose that’s what makes his character so fun.  This is not a book where you’ll be quickly turning the pages, but if you’re looking for something charming with a cozy English setting, you’ll do all right with this one.

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What are you currently reading? 
Jen
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One thought on “Good Reads // May 2015

  1. Pingback: Audiobook News & Reviews: 06/03 | ListenUp Audiobooks

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