Category Archives: book review

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Having heard Anne Tyler’s name for years, reading a selection from her prolific and successful oeuvre seemed overdue. Vinegar Girl, it turns out, was an excellent, not to mention entertaining, place to start.

Despite my research prior to choosing a title, it somehow escaped my notice–or I forgot–that Vinegar Girl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The choice seemed serendipitous, given my reading earlier this year of a modern rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (read the review of Jane of Austin here).

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The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.

And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.

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The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

Although I didn’t love this book, I did love the discussion Ende’s now-classic 1979 novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story, translated from German into English in 1983, originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.

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Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Nature, by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert

I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.

Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.

The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.

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Little Hours, by Lil Copan

I found this epistolary novel through the Christianity Today 2022 book awards, where it received honorable mention for fiction. The glowing reviews on Amazon countered my usual reluctance to order a book sight unseen. As a very casual birdwatcher (and keeper of pigeons), the idea of bird-watching nuns intrigued me. As the author of an unpublished epistolary novel, the format hooked me. And references to coffee, cancer, and marriage reeled me in.

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The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

The idea of a library where every book represents a life you would have lived if you had made one different choice is intriguing. The “two roads diverged in a wood” idea. How many of us haven’t at least wondered what might have happened if we had pursued a different degree, taken a different first job, moved to a different city?

Nora, the protagonist of The Midnight Library lacks, the essential motivation suggested by the title of Matt Haig’s memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. Having attempted suicide, Nora winds up in a sort of limbo, with the opportunity to choose a different “book.” She even gets to sample them.

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I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Our mother-daughter book club recently elected to read this Newberry Award-winning 1965 historical novel. The reluctance registered by my fifteen-year-old, whose tastes incline heavily toward fantasy, was overridden by academically minded moms. But she soon found it much more interesting than she anticipated.

The 17th-century Spanish setting was, she said, so different as to seem almost another world. As the title suggests, the book is the fictional memoir of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), an African slave inherited by Spanish court painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). The narrative devotes brief attention to Pareja’s early life, about which little is known. It then follows his journey into the household of Velazquez, who is soon summoned by King Philip IV of Spain to set up a studio in the palace.

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Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge

My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.

We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part III: Influential Firsts

Phantastes, by George MacDonald

The influence of this Scottish author and minister is most famously cited in connection with C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction. But George MacDonald (1824-1905) is often described as the father of modern fantasy and credited with inspiring a host of other early- and mid-twentieth century authors.

I have blogged elsewhere about the suitability of fairy stories for winter reading (click here for the post). December seemed a good time to commence my long-intended re-reading of MacDonald’s classic. When I first read Phantastes some thirty years ago, it left me, in the main, puzzled. Last fall I waded through The Faerie Queen (or rather, let all sixty hours of the audiobook wash over me). Despite my lamentable inattention to Spenser’s meandering masterpiece, familiarity with The Faerie Queen did enhance my appreciation for MacDonald’s imagery and the protagonist’s journey through faerieland.

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