Sunday, January 01, 2023

Everything I Read in December (in brief)



142. Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1) by James S. A. Corey - Oh, boy. Where to begin? Leviathan Wakes is the first in a space opera series. Julie is trapped in a locker on a space ship after she and her shipmates have been removed from their ship. Who has taken them off the ship and why? Jim Holden and 4 other people from an ice trawler that hauls ice from the rings of Saturn are sent to check out a ship that has sent a distress signal. Meanwhile, on Ceres a detective for Star Helix, a security company used in lieu of police, is tasked with finding Julie and bringing her home. But, Julie's disappearance and a series of events related to the ship in distress are part of something bigger and more horrifying than Detective Miller and Jim Holden could have imagined. What an entertaining read! I borrowed this one from Kiddo and he says I can't keep it. Fortunately, I have the next two in the series (also Kiddo's) so I can read on when I'm ready. I'm also enjoying the TV series. 

143. The Presence of Absence by Simon Van Booy - Max Little is dying. From his hospital room, he writes about how he met his wife Hadley and their life together, finding out about his illness, and his hesitance to tell her that he is going to die. A very philosophical and deeply moving book about life, death, love, loss, and how we can sense those we love around us, long after they've passed away. When I closed the book I was absolutely paralyzed by how much it moved me. I just sat with it pressed against my heart for a while. I particularly loved the way it ended and the occasional touch of humor. There is a line on page 63 in which the protagonist says he hasn't felt his foot for hours and thinks it's gone on without him that I thought was pure Simon. He has a terrific sense of humor. While this book is not upbeat and I often felt like I was hearing the direct thoughts of the protagonist (an apparently successful writer whose wife passed his notes on to Simon to tell his story — there's a note about this in the book), regular readers of Simon Van Booy will recognize the gorgeous touch of metaphor that always imbues his writing. 

144. One More River by Lynne Reid Banks - A Jewish Canadian teenager named Lesley is wealthy, cute, and popular. So when Les's parents tell her they're emigrating to Israel, she is shocked and upset. She loves her life. The story takes place over a little more than a year, in 1966 and '67 at a kibbutz, and the 6-Day War takes place during this time. Lesley goes from being coddled to wearing cheap but functional clothing, working at assigned tasks, and being an outcast. Will Les be able to adapt and make new friends? When war breaks out, what will happen to Lesley and her family? Sent by a friend and I found this book utterly fascinating. I loved the uniqueness of reading about someone leaving North America rather than struggling to enter. 

145. Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry - A childhood favorite, I have no idea what's become of my family's original copy and when something reminded me of the story, prompting me to recite the first few pages by memory, I absolutely craved a reread. So, I bought a new copy — guilt free because if I find the original there are always children in need of new books and I can happily pass it on. Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree is a rhyming story about a man who has a huge tree delivered to his home. But, it brushes the ceiling, so he has the top cut off and delivered to the upstairs maid. The top is too big for her space so she trims it again. This cycle of passing on the treetop and trimming it continues until the tiniest bit of treetop is placed joyfully in a mousehole in Mr. Willowby's own parlor. An absolutely charming, upbeat, smile-all-the-way-through story with wonderful illustrations. Time did not diminish this classic one bit. I'm thrilled that it's still in print. 

146. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain - The Red Notebook is the story of a woman who is mugged in Paris. Book seller Laurent discovers her purse abandoned on top of a pile of refuse and it looks far too nice to be thrown out. So, he picks it up and sifts through the purse to find the identity of its owner. He learns a lot about her but will he be able to figure out her identity beyond her given name? Meanwhile, the owner of the purse has sustained a head injury in the mugging and fallen into a coma. Will Laurent ever cross paths with the woman he's come to know through her possessions? The Red Notebook is now tied with Vintage 1954 (a hard act to follow as it contains time travel, one of my favorite things to read about) for my favorite by Laurain, of the 4 I've read. A lovely story, short at 159 pages, slightly predictable but in a satisfying way and definitely a story that book enthusiasts will appreciate. 

147. The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers - Poppy is at home alone, watching the snow fall, when she realizes what she's seeing is not snowflakes but snow children. She goes outside to play with them and is invited to the castle of the Snow Queen, where she joins in the celebration of the princess's birthday, eating a feast and dancing, till she becomes weary and is returned home in a sleigh driven by polar bears. I'd never heard of this story until I saw it on someone's Instagram. It's kind of a silly story but I love the art nouveau illustrations and probably would have adored the idea of going off to hang out with a princess, as a small child. As an adult, I can't help but think it wouldn't be published today for fear of encouraging children to go off with strangers. It makes a nice addition to Christmas decorations. I got the mini version. 

148. Sea Change by Aimee Friedman - A Young Adult summer romance that takes place on an island with a legend that it was founded by a pirate and a mermaid. Miranda Merchant is a science nerd who will be doing an internship at the Museum of Natural History, soon. But, when her mother inherits a mansion on Selkie Island, Miranda defers her internship for a couple of weeks and finds herself caught up with a bunch of Southern girls looking for summer romance. They set her up with T. J., who just happens to be the son of a man who is hanging out with Miranda's mother. But, Miranda finds herself drawn to an equally science-infatuated boy from Fisherman's Village, a part of the island her friends frown upon. Miranda keeps coming across Leo at night, wet, and a book about the island's legends lists all the signs of a merman . . . which describe Leo perfectly. And, might explain why Miranda was born with webbed toes. A so-so book but I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it could have used a bit more fantasy and less romance. 

149. Ollie's Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow - I saw a copy of Ollie's Ski Trip in the same post on Instagram with The Story of the Snow Children. Ollie is a boy who has been given a new pair of skis. But, he has to wait and wait for a decent snowfall before he goes skiing. When there's finally a good blanket of snow on the ground, Ollie's mother tucks sandwiches in his pocket and tells him to have a great day skiing. He goes off into the woods, where he meets Jack Frost (who blows frost on Ollie to show him what he does), the woman who does the spring thaw (Frost drives her away), and King Winter in his castle. Ollie has a fabulous day touring the castle and playing all sorts of winter games with the children, then he is driven home by Jack Frost. For Christmas, he finds a gift of ice skates on his doorstep from the King. This was another mini book and I confess to loving this one because it brought back so many great childhood memories, plus a lot happens. Elsa Beskow is called the "Swedish Beatrix Potter" in the afterword. Cool. I'd love to read more of her children's books. 

150. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote - In 2012 the leader of my F2F group asked me to look for a good, easy-read Christmas title for our group to discuss at Christmas. I asked around for suggestions and read three books. A Christmas Memory was one of them and I loved it so much that I've read it almost every year, since. Based on Truman Capote's childhood Christmases with his distant cousin, an elderly lady who also lived with some uptight relatives, it is sweet and sad and beautiful. A story of simpler times and a lovely friendship. I get teary every time. I love this book. 

151. A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas - Another of the books I chose for my F2F group in 2012, A Child's Christmas in Wales is the second book that I absolutely must read every Christmas season. Originally meant to be read on the radio, you can still find Dylan Thomas reading it online (and you definitely should give it a listen). 

152. Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano - Fifty years after Jean briefly worked for a detective agency, he reflects back on the case of a missing woman and the unsuccessful investigation. I think the "invisible ink" of the title is both a reality (something that is discovered years after the investigation) and a comment upon memories and how they come and go. I ordered a secondhand copy of Invisible Ink after reading The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, in which author Patrick Modiano plays the role of a reclusive author who signed the book of the heroine for whom his protagonist searches. I was unfamiliar with Modiano, who is a Nobel Prize winner. I found Invisible Ink a little odd for a novel about a missing person (because it's less about finding a missing person than it is about how memories can be blanked out and brought back) but it's ultimately satisfying, although probably much better read in French. 

153. 2022 Short Story Advent Calendar, published by Hingston and Olsen - This is my third year of indulging in the Short Story Advent Calendar and while all collections of short stories are going to have some winners and some that leave you with question marks over your head, I think this was one of the best selections I've read, so far. I particularly loved the fact that the final two stories were by Arthur Conan Doyle and Kurt Vonnegut. Both were great reminders of why their names are instantly recognizable. So entertaining. 

154. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan - Based on the true story of Magdalene Laundries in Ireland , where young mothers were worked like slave labor and many young women and babies died, this little gem has not a single wasted word. Bill Furlong was the child of a single mother taken in by her employer, the woman who owned the "big house" in his village, and raised with loving care. Now, Bill is a coal and lumber merchant with 5 daughters and it's the busy Christmas season. Scrambling to make his final deliveries, Bill makes a horrifying discovery in the coal shed of the local church. When he asks around, he is firmly warned not to interfere in the business of the church. But, Bill must battle with his conscience as well as the power of the nuns. Highly recommended. This kind of history should be known so it won't be allowed to happen, again. 

155. McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #66 - I bought a couple back issues and a subscription to McSweeney's after years of mental dickering about whether or not I should just go for it. #66 is a back issue. My eldest son has been a subscriber for a while and we were planning to read the first on that arrived in my mailbox together (#69, I think?) but he said he had to finish up #66 first and, long story short, I decided I might as well read #66 because it was just sitting there. I didn't take notes on the stories but most of them were pretty memorable, one grossed me out a bit, and there's a story by Stephen King that ends on a nightmare note. As to the letters at the beginning of the journal, I particularly related to the one (I think by Kate Folk) about why she continues to drive a 1998 Toyota Corolla and is perfectly happy about it. We have a "drive 'em till they drop" philosophy in this house. And, she's right. New technology is creepy. At any rate, it's a nice mix and I'm looking forward to more short stories and letters in future editions. 

156. The Survivors by Jane Harper - Years ago, tragedy struck a small beachside town in Tasmania. Two people died and another went missing. Now, Kieran has returned to the small town. His father has dementia and he's helping his mother pack to move him to a care home and her to a place nearby with the help of his partner, Mia. They have a 3-month-old baby girl. After an evening spent with friends, they take the better-lit road home instead of the beach. In the morning, a body is found on the beach. Tourist season is over but the residents find it hard to believe anyone in their town could have killed the girl from Canberra. Who killed her and does it have anything to do with the tragedy of the past? I was so disappointed with this book. It was one of those novels that you keep reading because the author has started other books off slowly and you're convinced it'll eventually improve. It didn't. Quite dull and repetitive. I'd advise staying away from this one. Reread The Dry, instead. I wish I had. 

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  1. I felt the same as you about The Survivors. I listened to the audio, which is my excuse for finishing. Gave it a 2/5 rating. Here's the first part of my review: "Boring! I listened to this audiobook for almost two weeks, hoping it would improve the further along I got, but it continued to bore me to tears. I should have called it quits early on, but I enjoyed Jane Harper's previous mysteries and thought this one would be worth persevering."

    1. Yep, that's exactly how I felt. It was so dull. And, most of what I read ends up being 4 or 5 stars because I am quick to abandon books that aren't grabbing me. In this case, it really was just because other books by Harper have started out slowly but then picked up and I just kept expecting some great plot twist or revelation so I persevered, as you did. Oh, well. Hope the next one is better.


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