Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughn

unnamedNo spoilers, I promise! Man, I was so stoked to find this on my doorstep last week. I ALMOST thought about taking an extended lunch break and just reading the whole thing then and there. But I managed to wait until later that night and had an absolute blast.

Compared with the previous two volumes, I’d say this one has amped up the action quite a bit. There were some shocking moments and plenty of the laughs we’ve come to expect. The social commentary still packs a punch, and I am just tickled pink everytime I pick up this story. It puts and leaves a smile on my face which is the kind of thing everyone needs more of in life, am I right?

All gushing aside, I will say that this is perhaps a weaker installment than the first two. I mostly think this is because the story/plot is progressing at a relatively fast pace here so we have less super awesome, silly character bits. But I still gave it 5 stars. Because it’s still more entertaining than almost anything else on this planet or the next.

Volume 4 should have been here, like, yesterday. Boo.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

17333319The Litwits met on Sunday to discuss Hannah Kent’s debut novel released last year. Putting this book off for almost a year was next to impossible because so many of my online bookish friends loved, loved this story. And for the first time in a long time, I had to force myself to stop at 50 pages a day because I wanted to savor this gem of a book. I never wanted it to end.

Burial Rites is another novel that I don’t feel needs much introduction. It takes place in Iceland in the 1820s. Two women and one man have been charged and convicted of killing a man. Our protagonist, Agnes, has been sentenced to death by beheading. Kent writes of her final months living with a farm family as she awaits her looming death.

That’s not spoiling anything because this is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the last beheading in Iceland. So…you know how it ends going in, but damn if you don’t hope and pray Agnes will find someway to beat her murder wrap. Whether or not she even committed the crime becomes almost a non issue as you fall in love with this orphaned, lonely, sad woman. I defy you not to want Agnes’s name cleared!

Beyond the central plot, Kent gives you so much else to love. The Icelandic landscape in all its cinematic glory and rolling hills and biting cold surrounds you and places you firmly within the story. Her writing is GORGEOUS. Her descriptions are lyrical and immersive. Some members did think she could be a bit long-winded at times and a little too dirty with her imagery (she doesn’t shy away from the nasty smells and ugliness of  bodily function), but others adored her language for its realism. Personally, I found myself reading the passages out loud – sometimes over and over again – mesmerized by all the pretty words.

Agnes was my favorite character, but many Litwits loved Margret as well. We discussed how Margret desperately didn’t want Agnes in her house, sleeping right next to her own two daughters. But once Agnes arrives in her pitiful state, Margret can’t help but feel for the doomed woman. What makes that so particularly interesting is how un-motherly Margret seems around her own children. Margret’s daughter, Lauga, quickly grows to resent her mother’s affection for Agnes creating such tension as the story unfolds.

We discussed the novel’s ending at length. Several of us felt the ending to be very abrupt, too rushed in its conclusion. Others thought this was done on purpose to emphasize the death that couldn’t be stopped. But it was just so sad.

So Burial Rites was a winner among the Litwits! We got a lot of good conversation in before our inevitable fall into the descent of television, tumblr, and fanfiction. Until next time ladies!!

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

6276045Yet another book I was all prepared to love. In fact, it was a total free choice book at the end of February. There was no obligation – just desire! Meant as a fabulous birthday present to myself. Because I loved – LOVED – The Knife of Never Letting Go which kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Heart attack central. But y’all, I found myself bored more often than not.

I’m not going to detail the plot since this is the second book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. The series as a whole follows the human race after abandoning Earth and shacking up on a new planet. Lots of things have gone horribly wrong. Men’s thoughts are heard by all. Where are all the women? Alien races are being oppressed. And the leaders are complete dictatorial douches. You know, the usual. The story follows adolescent protagonist Todd Hewitt as he tries to navigate his enemies and usurp the political status quo.

TKoNLG was all about the chase. And it was epic. Page after page of Todd running, running, running. He met new people along the way and uncovered so many secrets. To be honest, the plot was almost too exciting. It required breaks for my sanity. The heartbreak was also staggering. I knew The Ask and the Answer was going to be an entirely other thing – a book about tyranny and oppression – but I didn’t expect to grow bored.

So what happened? The basic story was fine, even great. The number of pages it took to tell was unfortunate. As we switched back and forth between our narrators, I often found myself yawning and hoping somebody would finally make a decision or a revelation or something. I could simply blame this dullness on the back and forth narration. But that wouldn’t be telling the whole truth because both Todd and Viola annoyed me.

Did I enjoy anything? Of course! I still gave the book three stars, after all. I enjoyed seeing Mayor Prentiss charm and manipulate the town. The elaborate chess game the charismatic dictator plays is fascinating to watch. The gender commentary was also engrossing. I love that Ness’s books are never just one thing. He takes writing for young adults seriously and respects their intelligence. Love, love that. The novel’s conclusion was a force to be reckoned with and does a beautiful job urging one on to the final installment. I just wished all the character bits had lived up to all that.

But don’t take my word for it! Several readers cite this as their favorite in the trilogy. Some readers think the whole thing is trash. I’d suggest, however, that this is one YA series worth giving a go.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

11297Haruki Murakami. Just writing those words evokes so many feelings and ideas. Readers in Japan treat his release dates similar to the release of each new Harry Potter novel, lining up outside bookshops at midnight. He’s a BIG DEAL. And he pissed me off.

Norwegian Wood follows, Toru, a young man going to college in Tokyo who is dealing with the aftermath of his best friend’s suicide. He weaves in and out of relationships with various women, including Naoko, the ex-girlfriend of said best friend, and Midori, a vibrant fellow college student who’s dealing with her own loses.

And that’s pretty much it. Murakami’s only straightforward and traditionally plotted novel was written merely as an experiment to see whether or not he could do such a thing. At best, it’s a beautifully written character study and exploration through the mind. At worst, it’s an ass-backwards misogynistic romp led by literature’s most boring male protagonists of the all times.

First things first, I loved the writing something fierce, and I can’t wait to explore Murakami’s other works no matter how problematic his gender renderings can be. I loved Naoko and Midori both as strong, yet different, female characters. Naoko’s internal emotional and psychological struggles were realistically drawn. Midori, my favorite character, was full of life: bright, bold, brash, and beyond clever. Unfortunately, Murakami couldn’t  just leave it at that.

Instead, we see these amazing women and many more of Tokyo’s young female population tremble and succumb to Toru’s irresistible sexual force. All of the women in this novel sleep with Toru. All of them. And for what reason? I can’t find a single damn one. He’s dull, without personality, and barely even speaks to them half the time. He’s no James Bond, that’s for sure. Even Naoko, who was never even able to sleep with the supposed love of her life, gives in to Toru during a particularly emotional scene, and I ain’t buying that. AT ALL.

I’ve heard this kind of ridiculousness continues in Murakami’s other endeavors, and that worries me. But I’m willing to push onward on the strength of his writing. After all, if Toru had disappeared from Norwegian Wood’s narrative (or even just the sex), the book would have been fabulous. And I like sex as long as it makes sense and serves a purpose. The only purpose I found here was a male writer’s wish fulfillment. Oh well.

Saga, Vol. 2 by Brian K. Vaughn

17131869If my post a few days ago didn’t convince you to read Saga, then allow me a brief moment to explain how the second volume is even better.

I laughed a couple of times during volume one, but was mostly just highly amused. The second volume had me giggling, taking pictures of panels and bits of dialogue to text to friends, and my stomach hurt afterward. Alana is like the comic version of myself. I love her so much.

Volume two directly follows where we left off. All of the various bounty hunters are still out looking for Alana, Marko, and baby Hazel. But there’s just MORE of all the best things. I didn’t even think that was possible.

I’m not going to write much more than this because it’s the second book, and I don’t want to spoil things. Volume three is coming out in April. I’ve preordered the damn thing and can hardly stand to wait. I could just go to my local comic book store and buy the individual chapters, but then I wouldn’t have a reason to own the lovely bound editions. I’ll wait, but it’s a struggle.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

unnamedKaren Russell is on my list of six authors I want to read for the first time in 2014. I’m starting at the beginning with her first novel, a collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same swampy, beachy area of Florida. The hype in my head was MASSIVE and there was no way Russell was ever going to live up to such a beast.

Ten stories – all of them odd, all of them weird. Most of them are narrated by a child or teenager. They feel like coming-of-age stories. Many of them are allegorical in nature. And none of them end neatly. I’d even go so far as saying only one of them actually has a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative structure. So you’ve got to let that desire go immediately.

You have stories about alligator wrestling theme parks (which will eventually become Swamplandia!), little girls who sled out to sea on a crab shell never to be heard from again, and girls raised by wolves who must go to a reform school to learn how to live as human. The characters are strange and often unsettling. It can be hard to connect with the absurd plot lines at first, but soon you begin to see the humanity bleeding through the weird. And Russell at 25 creates some of the most imaginative and audacious imagery I’ve read – maybe ever.

So why only four stars instead of five? It took me a while to get invested. It took me too long to get over my initial frustration at how she ends her stories – or doesn’t end them, so to speak. Once I was able to let that go and just enjoy these brief slices of life for what they were, I was swept away and didn’t want to swim back to the mainland. That’s the magic Russell has created. She took me places I did not want to go, kicking and screaming, and left me bereft with their absence by the collection’s end.

Swamplandia!, I’m coming for you.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

8517332People really love their Sarah Addison Allen. Rapid fans gobble up her particular brand of southern comfort with unadulterated joy. For these reasons, I wasn’t shocked when The Girl Who Chased the Moon won our February round of voting. We have some Allen followers among our ranks here at Atlanta’s Lady Litwits.

Allen’s signature magical realism is woven through a tale of two women. Emily, a teenager who has lost her mother and moved back to her mom’s hometown to live with the grandfather she never knew she had. Julia, a woman who has reluctantly moved home after escaping the rejection and emotional distress of small town life. Mullaby, North Carolina is there to welcome them with wallpapered rooms that change with your mood, lights that glow and dance underneath the moon, and the local neighborhood friendly giant. There is also cake.

I’d never read any Allen before this book. But it went down like sugar. So easy and light and smooth. She paints an eerily accurate picture of what small town Southern life is like. The oppressive feeling of not fitting into what often seems to be a very singular acceptance was honest and moving. The group loved Julia and her story far more than the insta-love teenage affair between Emily and Win. We connected to Julia’s emotional struggles and journey from troubled youth to the well-adjusted thirty-something. I suspect this has something to do with Julia being more our peer than Emily.

We did, however, wish that Julia’s story had been given more time, more depth. We wanted to see all the dirty in between times where she was in therapy and recovering from the self-abuse of her teenage years. It’s great that she’d been able to recover and move on, but we wanted to see and feel that struggle alongside Julia. In fact, that’s how we felt about the whole thing. We wanted more. MORE. Allen is a great writer and there are nuggets of something really special about her characters, but the book’s length and density never quite get to the substance we so ardently hoped for.

Most of us bemoaned the end as something far too tidy and way, way too easy. What started off with the tremendous promise of being a great character study of how small towns shape a person and the struggle for acceptance, quickly devolved to something no more substantive than a run-of-the-mill rom com. Michelle even mentioned that the end felt too much like a beginning, like we were only getting started. Several members were ready for a meaty book two!!

Sarah Addison Allen might not have completely won us over with The Girl Who Chased the Moon, but several of us will definitely be seeking out more of her work. I have Garden Spells on the shelf. Have you read any of her books? Which is your favorite?

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

1649385E.M. Forster is an author I’ve always meant to read but never have. I started doing a buddy reads thing with my best friend and co-organizer of my Atlanta book club last year, and our most recent selection was A Room With a View. I quickly downloaded a free copy onto my Kindle and settled in.

Lucy is a young girl on holiday in Italy. She wants to break out of the constricting, conservative mold of proper English society, but constantly finds herself and her means thwarted by older cousin and chaperone, Charlotte. They meet many interesting characters abroad including an older gentleman and his younger son, George Emerson. The Emersons aren’t the right kinds of people, but George and Lucy share a kiss in a field of violets that puts Twilight to shame. After the incident, Lucy and Charlotte flee to Rome and then back to England where we discover Lucy’s become engaged to a colossal douchebag named Cecil. But then the Emersons move into the neighborhood and things get very interesting.

I’m glad I read this around Valentine’s Day. If you were unsatisfied with Twilight, try this! Seriously, a great love story not just between two lovers, but also between a woman and who she wants to be – free to love and live as she chooses. It’s short, sweet, and simple, but poses a lot of questions about English society and the changing of societal norms from the Victorian Era to the Edwardian period. Plot and substance! Plus, you can watch the miniseries that has Daniel Day Lewis. I repeat, Daniel Day Lewis.

Victoria wasn’t as enamored because she couldn’t connect or like any of the characters beyond George Emerson. She wanted to like and love Lucy but wasn’t able to. She thought Lucy did a whole lot of talking about breaking free without a whole lot of actual doing. This is a valid complaint (until the end, at least), but I just think she’s a product of her time. We can’t hold her to the standards we hold women to today, can we? I think that can be one of the hardest parts of reading literature over 100 years old.

Anyway, loved this and will be exploring Forster further. Highly recommended.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

251688Reading In Cold Blood changed my mind about reading nonfiction. Previously, I had stayed away believing the factual side of literature to be dull and filled with textbook-like passages where I zoned out after two or three words. Truman Capote showed me a different side – the narrative nonfiction side – and became a literary hero of mine. It’s a shame I’ve waited this long to read any of his fiction.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a short 90 page novella that most people think was only ever a movie. I admit that I fell into this category until I got to college and realized the source material was a Capote story. The narrator of the story basically becomes infatuated with a woman who lives in his building named Holly Golightly. She’s a progressive, hedonistic woman who has loud parties, drinks too much, and allows various men into her bed. Not the most shocking thing now, perhaps, but for a woman in the Forties this was dramatically offensive behavior. Men, including our storyteller, are infatuated with her. Capote chooses to focus only on the brief time Miss Golightly lives in this New York brownstone, but with his talent and expertise at the wheel we manage to learn quite a bit about Holly while still not learning all of her secrets.

I loved it. I love how Holly’s a wilder, darker thing in Capote’s imagination than the Holly brought to the screen by Audrey Hepburn. Both are compelling, but I prefer the written Holly as a sort of a high class call girl figure who mixes and mingles with mobsters.

The next three stories in this collection are equally as fascinating if a little less famous. My favorite of the three was “A Christmas Memory” which was made into a film starring Patty Duke, I think. It’s about a boy and an elderly woman who are the best of friends. You don’t often get to see such relationships explored as we so frequently shelve old people in the dusty back corners of our brains. I’m not ashamed to admit that the humanity and sweet sadness of this story brought me to tears. That doesn’t much happen to grinches like me so kudos, Mr. Capote, on inspiring my heart to grow three sizes larger.

Now I shall focus on reading all of Truman Capote’s backlist. And you should too.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

The-Perfume-Collector-PBThe Perfume Collector is a book that often falls under the nebulous and debated genre known argumentatively as women’s fiction. To be honest, books with this dubious label I often avoid just because there’s a sameness to them that irks me. But several readers I really respect have read this and loved it, so when it was offered for review I decided to give it a shot.

The narrative follows two main characters. Grace Monroe is a married British woman in her late twenties who discovers her husband has been cheating while also learning a mysterious woman has died and left her an enormous inheritance. She takes off to Paris to uncover the woman’s identity and keys to her own past. Interwoven throughout, we follow Eva d’Orsey, an orphaned French teenager working in a high class hotel in New York City in the 1920s. Along the way we meet scoundrels, perfumists, and visit the hallowed halls of 1930s Monte Carlo.

Tessaro’s novel is easily read and quickly finished. The armchair travel might be worth the read whether or not you enjoy these kinds of novels. I loved visiting the fancy hotels of New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo along with the characters. I preferred Eva’s story to Grace’s, but both narratives held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I’d suggest this as a great summer read while lounging poolside. Tessaro really knows how to put her readers in a certain time and place.

On the flipside, I can’t say the novel will stay with me or be something that I remember this time next year. The plot, while enjoyable enough, was also burdened with a predictability that plagues similar stories. I wish something in the book’s conclusion had surprised me. I also wish the book had had a better editor. It’s been a long time since I read a book with so many typos and grammatical mistakes. Boo.

Have you read The Perfume Collector? What do you think about novels with the same predictable plot twists? Do they annoy you or do other aspects of the novel, like the armchair travel, make up for these limitations?

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!!

About the Author:

Kathleen-TessaroKathleen Tessaro is the author of EleganceInnocenceThe Flirt, and The Debutante. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and son.

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