Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Everything I Read in March, 2024


March:

28. The Actual by Saul Bellow - POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS BRIEF REVIEW hidden from view — click on white area to view. My first stationary bike read of the month, The Actual is a novella narrated by a successful businessman who has spent most of his adult life overseas, never content. Years ago, he dated Amy but then they went their separate ways, she married, they had a weird threesome in a shower with her first husband, she divorced, married again, her second marriage ended, and her ex died. Throughout all these years, Harry has been in love with her. When Amy and Harry are unexpectedly thrown together, he reflects on what they've been through and how they've changed. Will Harry finally confess his feelings? I mean, who cares? What's with old white guys and their obsession with sex? Not the first famous author whose work I've started with from the wrong end. He could write (and the book was blessedly short or I wouldn't have finished) but the story was just meh. Also, this is the third book I've read this year that's involved dead bodies: in The Actual, an exhumation. Apart from any cracking murder mysteries, future books that revolve around death and cemeteries will be abandoned. 

29. The Bodyguard by Katherine Center - Hannah is an executive protection agent, a bodyguard who does assignments worldwide for wealthy individuals in need of security. She's small but tough. However, she's been emotionally flattened by a relationship that's just ended and her boss has her competing with her ex for a coveted job in London. While her boss decides, she's stuck in the Houston area. Jack Stapleton is a famous leading man who has become reclusive after the tragic death of his brother. Now, he's back in Texas to be near his sick mother and Hannah absolutely, utterly does not want to have to be involved in his security. So, of course they're thrown together. Because The Bodyguard is a romance, it's clear how the story is going to end. But, Katherine Center does a bang-up job of making it fun getting there. The slow growth of affection between Jack and Hannah is surprisingly believable, entertaining, and satisfying. A bit of a Notting Hill in Texas with family instead of a circle of friends as the ensemble. 

30. The Wild Robot Escapes (The Wild Robot series #2) by Peter Brown - I decided to go ahead and read the second in the Wild Robot series so I can go ahead and pass them on together. In The Wild Robot Escapes, Roz has been refurbished and sold to a farmer whose wife died in an accident that also injured his leg. Roz quickly becomes friends with the cows and the children and gets the farm equipment in working order. She plans to eventually escape to return to the island where her adopted son, a goose named Brightbill, still lives. But, she has a built-in tracker. You know from the title that she eventually escapes. And, her escape is a harrowing adventure. Some of the time, Brightbill is with her; at times they're separated. The RECO robots (short for reconnaissance?) are searching for her, throughout. Will Roz make it home? Some edge-of-your-seat moments in this one, for sure. I loved it as much as the first book. I feel like the ending of this book – while hinting at a third book, which does exist – had a satisfactory ending that would make a decent stopping point. But, I might see if my library has the third book, at some point. 

31. The Valley of Adventure (Adventure series #3) by Enid Blyton - Jack, Lucy Ann, Dinah, and Philip are going to go on a plane trip with their friend Bill and spend the night. They pack their bags and are given some snacks plus an admonishment by their mother not to get into anymore dangerous adventures, before they head for the airport. The children are excited. But, when they hear gunfire, they throw their luggage onto the plane and hide without locating their adult friend, who will fly the plane. When strangers climb aboard and fly them to a valley surrounded by mountains, the children are uncertain what to do. But, they do know to stay away from the men who flew the plane. One of them has a gun and they seem to be up to no good. The children have little food and no idea how to escape the valley. And, when they find out what the strangers are up to, they know they're in deep trouble. How will the children survive, much less escape? Well, they're very resourceful children, I'll tell you that much. Another great book by Blyton. I may never read her children's books again, once I finish this boxed set, but I'm glad I have finally gotten to find out what the fuss was all about (I'm looking at you, British friends). 

32. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata - Every year Natsuki's extended family gathers at her grandparents' house in the mountains for the Obon Festival, to celebrate their dead ancestors. But, then something happens to stop the gathering, unfortunately a spoiler. To be honest, most anything I say about this book will spoil it. So, I'm going to put part of it in white text, as I did above, and you can highlight it if you don't mind spoilers. Natsuki and her cousin Yuu hang out together each year because they understand each other. Both have been abused in some way. After they're separated, years pass and Natsuki ends up married to someone who has also been traumatized. Highlight from here, if you dare. They are completely warped. Natsuki has already shown that she can dissociate and turn violent. When Natsuki, her husband, and Yuu end up alone in the mountain home (hiding from society, called "hikikomori" in Japan) because they all desire to avoid becoming part of the Factory,  or normal, married people with jobs and babies, they become increasingly unhinged. Most of the book is disturbing but tolerable. The ending, however, is off the rails — violent, bloody, insane. OK, let's just say the word: cannabalism. I glanced over reviews and saw the word disturbing but if I'd seen the word cannabalism, the book would have gone straight into my donation box. Yeah, I didn't sleep the night I finished it. 

33. Clara Reads Proust by St├ęphane Carlier - One of the best books I've read, this year, Clara Reads Proust tells the story of a young woman who is living with a handsome man she doesn't love. She works in a beauty salon called Cindy Coiffure and her days are average, unexciting, predictable. When a one-time customer leaves behind a copy of Swann's Way, Clara tucks it into a drawer. Months later, the customer has not returned and Clara begins reading the book. As she puzzles over it and then begins to understand, it transforms her life. I don't want to go into any further detail because Clara Reads Proust is so captivating that you'll want to read it for yourself. In the beginning, you're introduced to the owner of the salon and the other employees. You get to know Clara and follow her home. And, as her eyes are opened, you get to experience how an individual can find herself through reading, experiencing a joy that catches her totally off-guard. A book lover's delight, I immediately looked up the French author and found that Clara Reads Proust is the only one of his books that has been translated to English. Bummer. Many, many thanks to Meryl Zegarek Public Relations for the ARC!! I will be buying a finished copy of this book when my book-buying ban expires.

34. The Way of the Househusband, Vol. 8 by Kousuke Oono - I glanced over a couple reviews after starting this 8th volume in the manga series and I'm glad I did because it has an extra section that's a spin-off from the series (the Policure series Tatsu's wife is crazy about) and . . . meh. Not for me, although I liked the ending with Tatsu watching as a Policure toy is released. But, at least I knew it was coming, having read a couple reviews. I only allow myself one of this series per month and I think that's probably a good thing because the silliness of a former Yakuza gone househusband yet talking like he's going to murder someone any minute could easily wear off. But, it hasn't and I still enjoyed this volume. One of my favorites was when Tatsu, his wife, and his friend go to a Chinese place for hot pot. The owner says he's made the meal so spicy that he'll give it to them free if they can finish it in 30 minutes. The ending made me laugh out loud. Actually, several of the endings made me laugh out loud. 

35. Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh - Continuing to pretty much read Thich Nhat Hanh consistently because he helps keep me calm and centered, I read Fear in spite of not being a person who considers fear an issue. Despair, yes, so eventually I substituted that word in my mind because it was mentioned as one of the emotions that could be considered in the same light. Fear is very similar to other books I've read by Hanh in that it talks about many of the same principles: interbeing, non-birth and non-death, addressing your emotion and accepting it but not letting it rule you, etc. But, I think the one thing I found most helpful was an exercise that he recommends for daily practice. We've all done it at some point in a yoga or other class, lying on your back and gradually relaxing body parts. I had pulled something in my back and was lying on ice when I went through this exercise and, lo and behold, it helped! Another great read by Hanh. 

36. Spy School: The Graphic Novel by Stuart Gibbs and Anjan Sarkar - I will probably only end up with the one graphic novel (who can say?) from the Spy School series, but I thought it would be fun to revisit the first story in a different way and threw the graphic novel into my cart when I made a Book Outlet order, last year. It's been quite some time since I began reading the series and I'd forgotten some of what happened in the original book, so it felt new again. But, what I really loved was the clarity of the artwork. There are times I feel like graphic novels and mangas are too cluttered and it's difficult to follow what's happening. Not so in Spy School: The Graphic Novel. The illustrations are clear and the storyline easy to follow. I absolutely loved revisiting the story this way. 

37. One-Two by Igor Eliseev - The story of conjoined twins Faith and Hope in Russia during Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union. Given up by their mother, they're sent to one home for cripples and then another. Determined not to die in a home for the disabled or insane and to try to find out if they can be surgically separated, the girls attempt to escape. And, that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot but a lot happens in One-Two and it's a page turner, although toward the end I was a little weary and ready to finish. That's partly because they went through so much difficulty and partly because I was eager to find out what would eventually happen to them. It was fascinating how their personalities developed but fair warning: their story is relentlessly sad. An excellent read but one that should be saved for when your coping mechanism is on the upswing if you're affected by a sad tone. 

38. Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra (Charlie Thorne #3) by Stuart Gibbs - The third in the Charlie Thorne series has Charlie crashing a party to get a look at an ancient artifact that will hopefully lead to a treasure hidden by Cleopatra. Having escaped from numerous pursuers, 13-year-old Charlie, whose IQ matches that of Einstein, is now in Egypt. But, after her party-crashing experience nets her yet another enemy, she is pursued as she chases down clues to the missing treasure that will take her to several countries. I don't even want to mention the countries because it's fun letting Charlie explain the history behind each of the clues that she unravels. All of the Charlie Thorne books are very educational but this is the first of the series that's made me want to read more about the historical character. Author Stuart Gibbs quoted Stacy Schiff at the beginning of several chapters and if I didn't happen to be on a book-buying ban I'd buy a copy of her book about Cleopatra. Unfortunately, it's not available on Hoopla. Ah, well. Someday. For now, I enjoyed what I learned in Charlie Thorne and the Curse of Cleopatra and I'm looking forward to more in this adventurous series. 

39. Gaffer Samson's Luck by Jill Paton Walsh - My latest stationary bike book is about a boy named James who has moved from the Yorkshire Dales to the Fens, which he finds offensively flat and boring. There, he meets a scruffy girl who lives in a caravan, Angey, and an elderly neighbor named Samson but nicknamed Gaffer. James is an outcast at school, avoided by everyone except for Angey. His other friend is Gaffer, who is friendly. James enjoys helping his elderly neighbor carry his coal. When Gaffer Samson is injured and finds out that he's dying, he asks James to find his "luck", a trinket given to him by a "gypsy" (at the time of publication, this word was still commonly used) when he was a child. The luck is unfortunately under the tile of his childhood home, which has fallen to ruin. Even the chimney is no longer visible and Gaffer Samson's directions don't make sense given updates to buildings and roads. Will James be able to find the ruined house and Gaffer's luck before it's too late? And, will the village children ever accept James? A heartwarming middle grade book with lovely illustrations that was perfect for bike reading as it was always easy to remember exactly what was happening, even if I missed a few days of biking. 

40. The Obesity Code by Jason Fung, MD - A surprising choice for my online book group's discussion,  about 90% of The Obesity Code describes various studies on dieting, how different foods effect insulin levels, why lowering calories and other weight loss advice only work temporarily, and why controlling insulin is the key to weight loss. The final portion of the book tells you what to eat and when, in addition to why the author believes that intermittent fasting paired with eating the right foods is the answer to the weight loss dilemma. Fung is apparently an endocrinologist as he has done his work with diabetics. The group discussion was interesting. While most everyone was a little skeptical — one of our group mentioned that she tends to feel like diet books are meant to make the author money selling other items and there is, in fact, a cookbook — pretty much everyone was at least trying to extend their night-time fasts ("breakfast" meaning the meal that breaks your overnight fast) if unable to fast longer, drinking water with a little apple cider vinegar, and/or following other advice in the book. The science bits were both tedious and fascinating. It was particularly galling to find out that some studies have ignored their results and published the hypotheses as if they were proven when the opposite was true. Yikes. 

41. And Yet by Kate Baer - I've read all three of Kate Baer's poetry books, now. She is a poet who focuses on motherhood, misogyny, being a writer, and life in general. But, she is particularly zoned in on what it's like to be a woman and mother in a man's world. For that reason, I pretty much adore her poetry. You can't be a woman and not relate to something in each of her books. Having said that, there were fewer poems that resonated with me in this particular book. Still, And Yet is a volume I will likely reread for the poetry that did resonate. Because when she hits her target, she does so with accuracy. She's particularly adept at describing the demeaning and sexist things men say and do. 

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