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Archive for the ‘book club’ Category

My book club, The Eclectic Bookworms, is comprised of 8 people with varying tastes. I’ve enjoyed most of the books we’ve discussed so far, but our next round of picks is even more eclectic.  We have two more discussions (Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat and The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman) before we get to these, but I’m looking forward to them.

June: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
July: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
August: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk
September: Leviathan by Scott Westerfield (The Girl’s nomination)
October: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
November: Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago (my husband’s nomination)
January: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (my nomination)
February: Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 with introduction by Fred Marchant

There are a few in this list that I probably wouldn’t read if it wasn’t for the book club, but I’m looking forward to reading them just the same.  Have you read any of these?  If so, please let me know what you thought in the comments!

Moving on…

every man dies alone hans falladaI’d wanted to post my recap of my book club’s March discussion on Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada a couple of weeks ago, but things have been hectic lately.  Since I’m under the weather (allergies? cold? I don’t know, but it’s awful!) and not up to writing reviews, I figured I’d fight the fog in my brain and try to remember what we talked about.  **Beware of potential spoilers**

Every Man Dies Alone (read my review) is an epic novel about the German resistance to the Nazis, with a focus on an older couple, the Quangels, who drop postcards with anti-Nazi statements on them in public places in hopes of getting others to see the truth and join forces against the Third Reich.  Fallada adds many layers to this story with a pretty big cast of characters, ranging from a Gestapo inspector to a young expectant mother, all of whom are connected in some way to the main plot.

For various reasons, not every member of the club finished the book in time for the discussion.  I admit I was a little disappointed, but being so busy myself, I could understand.  I just loved the book so much that I really wanted to share it with everyone.  My husband gave the book a try, but he didn’t like the writing style and got tripped up by the German names, so he abandoned it about 80 pages in.  But since he wasn’t much of a reader before joining the book club, I have to give him credit for trying.  It’s not a book that you can read quickly, and those of us who finished it agreed that the first half is slower than the last half, which was a real page-turner.

The four of us who finished or nearly finished the book enjoyed it (though “enjoy” might not be the right word given the subject matter), and two of us (myself included) absolutely loved it.  We discussed:

*the characters, how there were so many and which ones we felt were unnecessary to the plot.  Much of the discussion centered on Enno Kluge, and whether he truly deserved his fate.  Yes, he was a horrible husband, a deadbeat, a loser, etc., and I didn’t like him at all, but Fallada really made me feel for him in the end.  However, one member believed he got his just desserts.  We found the Gestapo inspector Escherich to be probably the most interesting and complex character, and some of us thought Emil Borkhausen (resident snoop, tattletale, deadbeat, and Enno Kluge’s partner in crime) added some humor to an otherwise bleak and depressing novel with his sure-to-fail schemes.

*how a cyanide pill freed one person but trapped another, and whether the act of resistance or the outcome of the resistance is most important.

*the writing style, how the shifts in POV were jarring at first, and the spoilery chapter titles, which bothered one member but didn’t bother me because they didn’t reveal anything I wasn’t already expecting.

*Fallada’s troubled life (which was just as fascinating as the novel), his inspiration for the book, and how the Nazis stifled his creativity.

Overall, Every Man Dies Alone was such a deep, multi-layered novel that it made for a great discussion.

Have you read the book?  If so, please tell me your thoughts in the comments!

This month, we’re reading The Girl’s pick, Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat.  Stay tuned for the book club’s thoughts!

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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every man dies alone hans fallada

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken.  At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it.  And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!

(from Every Man Dies Alone, page 133)

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, first published in 1947, is a novel loosely based on a true story about the German resistance to the Nazis during World War II.  It was my book club’s March pick, my nomination.  Fallada’s novel is epic in scope, covering an assortment of characters on different sides of the fence all connected in some way to one couple, Otto and Anna Quangel.   The death of their son in the war and a remark made by Anna to her husband in the throes of grief prompt Otto, a simple carpenter and factory foreman, to fight back against the Nazis, under whom the German people live in fear and spy on one another.

The Quangels write their hatred for the Nazis on postcards and drop them in public places, believing that they will prompt others to see the truth and take a stand.  But this seemingly simple act takes on deadly importance for everyone who comes in contact with the cards — from Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo agent tasked with hunting down the “hobgoblin” behind the postcards to Enno Kluge, a lowlife who deserted his wife, feigns illness to avoid having to work, and steals from the various women in his life.  Fallada peppers the story with an assortment of intriguing characters, including an overzealous Hitler Youth leader, a postwoman intent on leaving the Party and living a simpler life after learning what her son has been up to in the SS, and a young couple pondering whether to resist or live a quiet, normal life.

Although I was hooked from the first page, Fallada takes his time in the first half of the novel to develop the characters and their connections and build the tension that propels readers through the remainder of the book.  The second half was edge-of-your-seat exciting, despite the darkness and the exhaustion of following these characters on a journey that you know from the very beginning will not bring you to a happy place.  Fallada shows how the Gestapo messed with people’s heads and wore them down, and he drives home the point that the psychological torture was just as bad, if not worse, than the physical abuse.  With a mix of both respectable and truly loathsome characters, Fallada takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride that made me feel tired, sad, angry, and helpless and had me contemplating whether anyone actually deserved what they got at the hands of the Gestapo and whether I could die an honorable, stoic death if I had been in their shoes.

Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful book, one I won’t easily forget.  It was easy to see where the story was headed, but there were plenty of twists and turns to keep it from being too predictable.  It’s one of only a few books that have affected me so deeply that, after turning the last page, I could do nothing but sit and stare and ponder what it all meant.  Reading the bonus features about Fallada’s difficult life, especially how the Nazis stifled his creativity, and the true story behind the book made for a richer reading experience.  Every Man Dies Alone is an important novel, and I fear I didn’t do it justice here.  I urge you to give this one a try, so long as you don’t mind a story that plunges you into the depths of evil and despair but also leaves you with a better understanding of what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 9 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: Every Man Dies Alone is from my personal library. A big thanks to Sandy for telling me I needed to read it, though I can’t believe it took me so long!

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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shadows

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

But every second I’m alive is one more moment I still have a chance to do something.

(from Shadows, page 33)

Shadows is the second book in The Ashes Trilogy by Ilsa J. Bick, centered on the survivors of an electromagnetic pulse that killed all the middle aged, revived the elderly, and changed most children and teens into crazed, animalistic, zombie-like creatures.  Shadows picks up right where Ashes left off, and it’s definitely not a standalone novel.  Please note that this review may contain spoilers from the first novel, but not from this one.

Whereas Ashes focuses on Alex, a 17-year-old girl with a brain tumor whose sense of smell is returned and magnified by the EMP, and how she and the people she meets along the way struggle to survive and adapt to the post-EMP world, Shadows follows so many people and so many subplots that it is hard to keep everything straight.  While Alex fights to keep from becoming the next meal for a group of Changed, there is a struggle for power in Rule, the cult-like town that took Alex in during the latter half of the first book.  At the same time, the various characters also must contend with bounty hunters and a militia led by a sadist.

With lots of blood and gore, and even some nauseating sex scenes, Shadows is a YA novel definitely meant for older teens.  The Girl (age 12) really enjoyed Ashes, which was far tamer in terms of sex and violence, so I was glad that Jill informed me of the more adult scenes in this book.  Because The Girl was so attached to the characters and wanted to know what happened after the cliffhanger ending of Ashes — and because it was our book club’s February pick — we read this one together, me reading it aloud and paraphrasing the more graphic parts.

Shadows is an improvement over Ashes in terms of pacing, and it definitely is an exciting dystopian novel.  However, there are just way too many characters, and the overuse of certain adjectives (“ashen,” “shadowy,” and “coppery,” to name a few) made for some tedious reading at times.  Bick made me curious about what’s going on with the people of Rule, but I’m craving more of an explanation about the EMP and its impact on more than just this town, which seems like it was kind of crazy even before the “Zap.”  There also were a lot of short chapters and swiftly changing points of view between them, which I assume was to increase tension but got on my nerves after awhile, and many scenes that just seemed to be about the violence and the action but didn’t really further the plot.

Even so, I liked it enough to read the third book, Monsters, which is slated for release in September.  And The Girl liked it way more than I did, but she’s always been a fan of horror and unrealistic gore.  I wanted her to write up her own thoughts, but she’s been too busy with homework, soccer practice, and play rehearsals to write reviews.  (At least she’s plugging along in her reading!)  She says that even while she only cared about the main characters, Alex and Tom, and thought the book was kind of slow in the middle, she enjoyed it because it was full of action and suspense.

Serena has a comprehensive wrap-up of what our book club thought, along with her review, on Savvy Verse & Wit.  I will be leading the March book club discussion on Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada…stay tuned for my thoughts!

Disclosure: I borrowed Shadows from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Hope you’re all having a great weekend!  We’ve been going through a brutal cold spell here, and there’s finally some snow on the ground.  I’m hoping to be able to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, but it’s been busy, busy, busy as usual.  Here are my random thoughts this weekend:

*First, I’d like to give a shout out to The Girl, who recently won 1st place in the Biology category at the school science fair.  I’m so proud, and also glad that this was the last science fair until at least high school.  Her project was about peppermint and reaction times.

*Our book club met last weekend at Serena‘s to discuss Eyes, Stones, a poetry collection by Elana Bell about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I thought it was an interesting discussion overall.  Only one member mentioned not understanding the poems, and it was great to see Serena in her element emphasizing the importance of reading poetry aloud and knowing how and where to pause.  Most of us weren’t strangers to poetry, but we agreed that this collection wouldn’t be the place for a newbie to start.  Visit Serena’s blog for a more in-depth recap of our discussion.

*I also have a giveaway winner!

lucky bookworms 3

Melissa, who won a copy of The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen by Syrie James.  Congratulations and happy reading!!

Stop by on Wednesday for another Austenesque giveaway!

*Lastly, I want to know: what are you reading this weekend?  I’m hoping to start Circles of Time by Phillip Rock and Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick (our February book club pick) and maybe finish The Man Who Loved Jane Austen by Sally Smith O’Rourke (which is a re-read for me to refresh my memory before reading the sequel, Yours Affectionately, Jane Austen).

Have a great weekend!!

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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eyes, stones

Source: Borrowed from Serena
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Eyes, Stones is my book club’s first poetry selection, and I can’t wait for our discussion on Jan. 19.  Poet Elana Bell is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, so it’s not surprising that the poems in this collection touch upon the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The poems are grounded in history and human suffering, and Bell gives voice to both sides of the conflict.

Bell uses narrators to tell stories in verse, and she manages to convey a significant amount of pain and emotion in so few lines.  I was most affected by the poems featuring Zosha, a Holocaust survivor, particularly “God,” in which she arrives home to find that her mother and everyone else have been taken away and questions her faith.

You sit put. So that’s how
I survive. What do I know

from God? … (page 21)

There are poems about survival, like “Visiting Auschwitz,” which considers the randomness of how one person survived and another did not.

what glint willed the breath
what saw her and said live. (page 28)

Some hit you immediately with their descriptions of violence and feelings of hopelessness and despair, like “Kishinev,” which is about a three-day pogrom that occurred in 1903.

We are inside the dream of a God who’s forgotten us. There is no other way to say it. Through the stippled glass I watched the neighbors hammer nails into the Jewish babies’ eyes. (page 16)

But Bell goes beyond the persecution of the Jews and tenderly writes of the Arab connection to their homes and land. “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” focuses on Amal, a Palestinian whose family has farmed their land for generations, and her love for this land, juxtaposing her life with that of someone who moves around and has no connection to the earth. I was struck by the beauty of these lines:

…Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it
and the sheep who graze it and the children
who eat from it and the dogs who protect it
and the tiny white blossoms it scatters in spring. (pages 36-37)

The Girl (age 12) read the poems aloud with me, and though we both know little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we appreciated the stories told here about people who are divided yet have a common understanding of what it means to suffer. My daughter’s favorite poem was “Refugee,” about the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, in which the Arabs of Ramla were displaced by Jewish immigrants.

Who lived here? The doors swing
like slabs of meat on their hinges.
Inside, the cupboards gaped
to reveal their goods, stacked tight,
except a few cans rolling on the floor,
a pot on the stove still steaming.
Who lived here? I tiptoed
into the smallest room and crouched
by the foot of the bed. Mama
pulled me up and cupped my face.
Tonight you’ll sleep in a proper bed
she crooned. (page 9)

While content to merely listen to me read the other poems, The Girl wanted to spend time with this one. She was struck by how it described the end of a certain way of life for one family and a new beginning for another.

Eyes, Stones is a slim volume of poetry that can be read fairly quickly, but it begs to be pondered in more depth. My husband (who is new to reading poetry) loved it and wants to buy his own copy so he can spend more time with these poems. Bell is skilled in her ability to tell both sides of the story in a compassionate, respectful way, exploring the gray issues of a contentious conflict.

dive into poetry challenge

Book 1 for Dive Into Poetry Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed Eyes, Stones from Serena.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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ripper

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“He’s very cunning,” Hawking said, as if admiring him.  “Perhaps brilliant, strong, dedicated, all qualities one might be proud to possess.”

“B-but…,” Carver stammered, “he’s also evil.”

Hawking turned his intense gaze on Carver.  “And no one wants to hear good things about the devil, eh?”

(from Ripper, page 201)

Ripper, my book club’s December pick, is a young adult historical/steampunk novel focused on orphan and amateur detective, Carver Young, in 1895 New York City.  The 14-year-old Carver is adopted by a not-so-retired Pinkerton detective, Albert Hawking, just as murders reminiscent of London’s Jack the Ripper begin, putting pressure on the city’s police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, who is working tirelessly to reform the corrupt police department.

Carver is thrust into a world he believed to be the stuff of crime novels, brought by Hawking to an underground crime lab run by the New Pinkertons, whose agents are working secretly to solve the murders in hopes of putting the agency back in the limelight.  He is tasked with finding his biological father, known to him only through the letter in his orphanage file, under the tutelage of the eccentric Hawking.  Although he is fascinated with the gadgetry of the New Pinkertons, Hawking teaches Carver how to narrow down the possibilities and to trust his gut — which comes in handy when it becomes obvious that finding his father is not only a daunting but also very dangerous task.

Stefan Petrucha uses the facts known about the London murders committed by Jack the Ripper, along with actual letters he sent to the newspapers and police, as a foundation for a chilling tale.  But Ripper is more about Carver’s evolution than finding the man responsible for the brutal slayings of city socialites.  Watching Carver mature and develop his detective skills is the highlight of the novel, along with how turn-of-the-century New York City becomes a character in itself.

However, the book was slow-moving for the most part, helped along by the fact that the big mystery becomes obvious early on.  The Girl (age 12) read this book with me, and she figured it out right away and frequently mentioned how “blah” the descriptions were.  Moreover, the murders were barely described, so they didn’t have much of an impact, and while Petrucha might have toned that down for the target audience, The Girl pointed out how she’s read YA zombie novels that were much gorier and exciting.  Petrucha picked up the pace in the last quarter of the book, which made it much easier to read and enjoy.

Overall, Ripper was just an okay book for us.  The history was interesting and the premise was intriguing, but we felt there was something missing in the execution.  The book club seemed to feel the same way.  Most members said they simply weren’t part of the target audience, but even the youngest member of the group had a hard time with its predictability and lack of excitement.  Even though the book lacked the gore one would expect when focusing on a serial killer, there was a hint of creepiness in both the asylum where Hawking lived and worked and the home of the crazy cat lady and member of the Midnight Band of Mercy.  Ripper didn’t make for a captivating mystery, but it shines as a coming-of-age story about a young boy unsure of who he is, what to make of his parentage, and how to rise above the evil attacking him and the city he loves.

Disclosure: I borrowed Ripper from the public library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

“What you think you gone change with this?  What law you want to reform so it say you got to be nice to your maid?”

“Now hold on,” I say.  “I’m not trying to change any laws here.  I’m just talking about attitudes and–“

“You know what’ll happen if people catch us?  Forget the time I accidentally use the wrong changing room at McRae’s women’s wear.  I’d have guns pointing at my house.”

(from The Help, page 164)

The Help, my book club’s October pick, is a multifaceted novel about race and class in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s.  Kathryn Stockett tells the story of black maids and the white women for whom they work through the eyes of three women: Skeeter, the daughter of a white cotton farmer who returns from college to find she no longer fits in because she’d rather be a writer than a wife and mother; Aibileen, a black maid who works for one of Skeeter’s best friends, Elizabeth, and spends much of her time showering Elizabeth’s neglected daughter with love and affection; and Minny, a black maid whose outspoken ways and the Terrible Awful Thing she did to Hilly, another friend of Skeeter’s, makes it nearly impossible for her to find another job in the town.

Skeeter, longing to know why Constantine, the maid who was like a mother to her, left without explanation, wants to interview some of the town’s black maids about what it’s like working for their white employers.  She begins to notice how her friends treat their maids, and like the reader, doesn’t understand why the woman you trust to raise your children, make all your meals, do the laundry, and polish the silver needs a bathroom in the garage to prevent the spread of “colored diseases.”  But there is so much she doesn’t understand, and while Aibileen and Minny may have a lot to say about their jobs, they have reason to fear the consequences.  After all, blacks are still being lynched for speaking out.

While much of the book is about the daily routines of the maids and their interactions with their white employers, Stockett also touches on class differences among whites and contrasts the relationships children have with their parents to the relationships they have with their maids.  Her characters are well developed, and she does a good job emphasizing the complexity of race relations and how even those who believe things should change feel they can’t do anything about it, whether out of fear of being ostracized, fear for their lives, or because of their political aspirations.

The Girl (age 12) and I enjoyed The Help overall, but we both thought it dragged at times, and it took us awhile to get used to the dialect Stockett uses for the black maids.  It seems like a story that could have happened at that time, but I think it’s important to remember (and I pointed this out to The Girl while we read) that the book is written by a white author — and even though she’s from the South and had a black maid, she can never truly know what it’s like to be in their shoes.  But it is fiction, after all.

The Help was a hit with the book club.  It certainly provided numerous talking points, even beyond the obvious race, class, and point-of-view issues.  We discussed everything from the two-hour-long hair treatment Skeeter endured to how much we hated Hilly, and we gobbled up the numerous Southern dishes one of the members laid out for the occasion.  (Check out Serena’s in-depth book club wrap-up here)

The Help is a book that really gets you thinking, especially about how we treat one another.  Each of the characters affected me in some way, and I think Hilly is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever come across.  It’s not a book you easily forget, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.

Disclosure: The Help is from my personal library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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My book club, The Eclectic Bookworms, met last weekend at Novel Places to discuss our September pick, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (check out my review, which contains a non-spoiler plot summary).  I’m going to recap our discussion here, and if you’ve read the book, please feel free to weigh in.  If you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers!!

Most of the book club members liked The Thirteenth Tale, a story with gothic undertones about a young biographer, Margaret Lea, tasked with taking down the life story of a famous eccentric writer, Vida Winter, who is known for not telling the truth when asked about her past.  Three of us (including myself) really enjoyed it, a couple liked it overall, and my husband thought it was just okay.  Unfortunately, having to work overtime during the last couple of weeks prevented him from finishing the book, but even he admits that this one wasn’t his usual fare.

Some of us grew tired of the extraneous details, like paragraphs about sharpening pencils and the curl of the pencil shavings, but those of us who really enjoyed the book admitted that these details also enabled us to really picture the scenes in our minds.  One member was frustrated at the number of references to Jane Eyre (29 in all, according to his Kindle), while I had to admit that other than the devastating fire that changed Vida’s life forever, I was too engrossed in figuring out the mystery to catch all the symbolism.

We discussed whether a writer as famous as Vida Winter would turn to an amateur biographer to tell her story, and most of us agreed that Vida is eccentric enough (with one member saying she reminds her of Joyce Carol Oates) and was more concerned about Margaret’s understanding of the sibling relationship than her experience as a biographer.  Besides, as another member pointed out, what famous biographer would put up with Vida’s demands, particularly her insistence that Margaret not ask any questions during the telling of her tale?

We also talked about whether Margaret was a necessary plot device or whether Vida’s story within the story could have stood on its own, with most of us agreeing with the former; how the thirteenth tale, when it was finally unearthed, was a bit anticlimactic because we’d already heard the story; and how most of us didn’t buy the degree to which Margaret was haunted by the twin she never knew.  Some of us were infuriated by Margaret’s decision regarding the publication of Vida’s story, and some of us thought the scene at the end with Margaret’s twin was cheesy.  Another topic that came up was whether Vida actually told the truth this time around, and we discussed the importance of truth in storytelling…and I surprised myself by remembering Tim O’Brien’s piece about telling a true war story in The Things They Carried.

The Thirteenth Tale was the last book in the club’s first go-round, and I’m just thrilled the club has stayed together long enough to complete a cycle.  Of the books we’ve read so far, I’d have to say City of Thieves by David Benioff was my favorite, followed by The Thirteenth Tale.  Stay tuned for my wrap up of our October pick, The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  I feel like I’m the only person who hasn’t read it yet, so I can’t wait!

If you’re in a book club, what’s the best book you’ve discussed so far?

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★☆

All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another.  Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you?  You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.

(from The Thirteenth Tale, pages 289-290)

The Thirteenth Tale is a novel after a book lover’s heart.  It’s a hard book to describe because there are so many twists and turns, and I don’t want to give anything away.  The primary narrator is Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer who works in her father’s antique book shop.  Voracious readers like myself won’t have any trouble connecting with her because she talks a lot about her passion for books and all the classics she’s loved over the years.  Margaret prefers to read classic novels, so when England’s most famous contemporary author requests her as a biographer, she doesn’t know what to expect.

Vida Winter is an eccentric author whose most famous book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, actually featured only 12 tales, making the world curious about her and the missing tale; the lone copy sold before the mistake was caught and “thirteen” was removed from the title is in the possession of Margaret’s father.  Margaret isn’t familiar with Miss Winter’s work, but she knows that Miss Winter is a consummate storyteller, as any journalist who inquires about her past is told a fanciful story that is obviously not the truth.

Margaret agrees to hear the story of the elderly and ill writer, but naturally, she is skeptical about Miss Winter’s ability and willingness to tell the truth and first asks for three details that can be verified.  The narrative then shifts between Vida’s story of the unbelievably odd Angelfield family and Margaret’s research, which takes her to the ruins of the home where Vida says her personal story ended and her life as Vida Winter, author, began.

Although the book started a little slow — I was anxious to “meet” Vida Winter — Diane Setterfield’s beautiful prose hooked me from the first page.  There were times when I felt there were too many details cluttering the narrative, such as the few paragraphs devoted to Margaret sharpening her pencils before sitting down to transcribe the stories she’d heard from Vida that day.  Yet, Setterfield has a way with words, making me feel the emotions and see the images of which she writes and bringing the eccentric and deeply troubled characters to life.  Aside from all the talk about books and reading, I wasn’t that interested in Margaret’s personal story and the family secret that has haunted her since childhood.  I just didn’t buy the depth of emotion she felt.  I almost wish that Vida’s story was the only story told, but I understand the purpose Margaret served in tying up some of the loose ends in Vida’s tale.

The Thirteenth Tale is somewhat of a gothic novel, with the creepy characters, a house that seems unwilling to let go of its inhabitants, and even some ghosts.  Jane Eyre is mentioned frequently, and even though I missed many of the parallels between this novel and Charlotte Brontë’s while I was reading, in hindsight they aren’t too hard to pick out.  I also didn’t figure out all of the twists beforehand, and wanting to solve the mystery of who Vida Winter was before she became a famous writer made me not want to put the book down. A passion for stories and whether the truth is best made known are central to The Thirteenth Tale, and readers will find that they won’t easily forget the unique, well drawn, and complex characters created by Setterfield.

Disclosure: The Thirteenth Tale is from my personal library.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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My book club met last weekend to discuss our August pick, Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick (my review, which contains a non-spoiler plot summary), selected from among my husband’s nominations.  I’m going to recap our discussion here, and if you’ve read the book, please feel free to weigh in.  If you haven’t read the book, beware of spoilers!!

I think the club was all over the place in terms of our feelings about this book.  My husband and daughter really enjoyed it, a few of us (including myself) thought it was pretty good, and the remaining members weren’t crazy about it and don’t care to read the second book.  One member said she liked the book for what it was, an escapist action-packed horror story, but she doesn’t want to read the rest of the trilogy because she’s afraid the author will save people who need to die just so she can have a happy ending.

A few of us commented on how every chapter ended so dramatically, with a cliffhanger of sorts despite no major revelations.  We discussed how the book seemed to be divided into two, the beginning when they are just trying to survive and the latter half when the heroine, Alex, finds herself in a religious community where it’s obvious that the people are hiding something.  One member said Alex seemed to be two different people, tough in the scenes with Ellie and Tom and weak when she takes up residence in Rule and finds herself drawn to the mysterious Chris.  We thought she should have tried to escape, and when it seems like she might recover some of her spunk, escape is handed to her on a silver platter.  While one member pointed out that she settled into the routine of life in Rule because she was finally safe and well fed, others said the place was too suspicious for someone like Alex to ever feel comfortable.  We also questioned why Alex seemed more concerned about Rule’s mating rituals than she was about what happens to the people who have been banned and why the zombie-cannibals leave the village alone.

There were some comments about how the author needs to grow a little bit, though her writing is good and can only get better.  Some members thought she didn’t know how to make certain scenes work and skipped ahead to avoid having to explain things, such as when Alex, Tom, and Ellie are ambushed and Tom lunges for the bad guy’s gun…then the next chapter begins some time later, and it’s unclear right away what has happened.  They also noted that Bick spends a lot of time on details about the contents of a pantry and corpses that have been eaten by the zombie-cannibals, yet she provides almost no details about the electromagnetic pulse that caused all the mayhem.

However, most of us found the observations about the EMP shocking some people out of the latter stages of Alzheimer’s or giving them super senses to be interesting.  Some liked the cliffhanger ending, have their own ideas as to what happened next, and don’t need to read further, while others (including myself and my family) are curious enough to want to know where Bick takes these characters next.

I’m looking forward to our September pick — The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield — and hope you all will stop by next month for my next book club wrap-up post.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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