A Study in Scarlet

studyinscarletby Arthur Conan Doyle
First sentence: “In the year 1878 I took my decree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, violence (but most of it just talked about), and some, well, murder. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.
So, for  book group this month, we didn’t really want to read something long (it’s a busy month for all of us), and we were thinking classics, and I hit upon the idea of each of us reading a different Sherlock Holmes short story (or two). I decided to start at the beginning (mostly because I’ve read short story knock offs of this, and I wanted to see how Sherlock’s Study in Pink held up) and read “A Study in Scarlet”.

I have read many of these stories before, though it’s been a long (!) time, and I can’t be considered a fan of Doyle’s or Holmes’s. Which means, I don’t remember the stories. At all.

Things that struck me: Holmes is much less of a jerk than he is in the BBC series. (I think he was arrogant in the old Jeremy Brett series — it’s been forever since I’ve watched those — but he wasn’t insufferable.) He’s smarter than you, but he’s not insufferable about it. He calmly explains his methodology to Watson not because Watson is stupid but because Holmes wants him to understand how he does things. He does thing Lestrade and Gregson are stupid, but that’s because they’re police and they aren’t putting the time that Holmes is in learning how to be a good detective.

Doyle also explains EVERYTHING. It wasn’t so much a mystery for the reader to solve but rather explains everything in detail, including things Holmes could never know. (See: the first five chapters of part 2.) I wanted to be able to at least attempt to solve it myself, but I guess standards for mysteries were different in the 19th century. Which leads me to the ridiculous anti-Mormon chapters. (See: the first five chapters of part 2.) They were SO pointless (except, as Hubby tells me, sensational anti-Mormon literature was in vogue in London during that time), and even though it eventually wound its way back to the story, they really didn’t serve ANY purpose. (Not to mention being wildly inaccurate: at one point, Doyle had the characters fleeing Salt Lake City headed toward Nevada and going through deep gorges and tall canyons. Hon, if you’re headed out of Salt Lake and you’re going through canyons, you’re going toward Wyoming. Toward Nevada, you’ve got nothing but desert. And that’s just the geography. I won’t even get into the religion part.)

So, did I like it? Well, it was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t knock my socks off. Maybe it was the wrong one to randomly pick (I think I like Study in Pink better….), but it wasn’t terrible, either. Maybe I’ll read another one just to see if they get any better.

Exit West

exitwestby Mohsin Hamid
First sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
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Review copy floating around the office and got passed in my direction.
Content: There are a half dozen or so f-bombs, and some sort-of sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has got the entire staff of the bookstore all a twitter. Seriously. They LOVED it. It’s SO good. You HAVE to read it. So, when they threw it my direction, I decided to give it a try.

It’s nominally the story of a couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in a country that’s on the brink of a civil war. It vaguely feels middle eastern, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s me projecting, or if it’s what the author intended, but it’s what I saw. Their relationship is a fitful one at the start, but as the insurgents and rebels move into their city, their relationship picks up speed. And when Saeed’s mother is killed, they decide to leave together, to find any way out.

But it’s not really about the plot or the characters with this one. No, this is about the words. And they are gorgeous. It’s a slim novel, which shows that no word is wasted. And it feels that way, too. Every word is important, every line leads somewhere else. It is something to sink oneself into, enjoying the words on the page.

I’m usually a plot and character person, so it’s different for me to give myself over to something that’s so wholly, well, not. I enjoyed this one. Hamid gave faces and stories to refugees, to people who are fleeing their home and trying to find a new place and the way that changes a person.

It makes it worth reading.

Audiobook: Victoria

victoriaby Daisy Goodwin
Read by : Anna Wilson-Jones
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Content: There’s some illusions to sex and scandal, but mostly it’s a pretty straight-up historical fiction. Good for those who are interested in England and/or queens and/or history. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I have always had a bit of a weakness for historical fiction when it comes to royalty. I ate up the Phillipa Gregrory books about the Tudors back in the day, and I’m sure there’s more than I’m forgetting. I’ve had my eye on this one since it came out back in November, mostly because the cover is so pretty (and we all know I’m a sucker for pretty covers). I didn’t quite know what to expect about the book, though.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. Taking place over the first year or so of Victoria’s reign, it deals with her conflicts with her mother and her mother’s “companion” Conroy, with learning how to govern (and her dependence on, and infatuation with which was heavily played up, Lord Melbourne), and with finding her feet. It ends just as she meets and marries Albert, so there’s very little of the Victoria she came to be.

But the thing that kept me listening was the narrator. She was FANTASTIC. All the perfect inflections for every character, and she kept me wanting to know more about the characters and the story. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this one in print; Goodwin is an excellent writer, and she knew how to balance the personal aspects of Victoria’s story with the political ones to keep it intriguing. But, listening to it gave it the push it needed for me to really enjoy the book.

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
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Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Reader, I Married Him

readerimarriedhimEdited by Tracy Chevalier
First sentence: “Why is ‘Reader, I married him” one of the most famous lines in literature?”
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Content: Some of the stories are sweary, including a dozen or so f-bombs spread out over several stories. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First, a confession: while I’ve read Jane Eyre, I don’t love it. I’m not a huge Bronte fan, though I recognize the literary merit of their books. So, I really didn’t know what to expect from a short story collection that was built around one of the pivotal moments in Jane Eyre.

And, for the most part, I enjoyed this. I liked the ones that spun off completely from the idea of Jane Eyre, except for “The Mirror” which played with the idea that Mr. Rochester was a narcissist, an idea to which I can definitely ascribe. I also liked the parallels to the original in ” The Orphan Exchange.”

Other than that, I liked the ones that played with historical fiction — like “Since I First Saw Your Face” and “Reader, I Married Him.”  Though I think my favorite was “Self-Seeding Sycamore. ” I liked the play between the characters in the story; I think it was the only one where I felt there was actually chemistry between the characters.

So, while this was not a collection I would have picked up on my own (it was a book group book), I did enjoy it.

 

Audiobook: Today Will Be Different

todaywillbedifferentby Maria Semple
Read by Kathleen Wiljoite
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Content: There’s two f-bombs, and assorted other milder swearing. There’s also some uncomfortable domestic issues, and thematically it skews, well, adult. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

I loved the way this book began:

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.

It’s such a gloriously low bar for everything. I can completely relate.

Eleanor is trying to make it through each day. Some days are more successful than others. And on this day — the book takes place in 24 hours, with some flashbacks — she will be challenged. Her 8-year-old son, Timby, will fake being sick to get out of being bullied at school. She will discover her husband told his office he’s on vacation, which he is most assuredly not. She will be reminded — strongly — of her estranged sister. She will get a concussion and steal someone else’s keys. It will not be a winner of a day, by any standards, but Eleanor will be — hopefully — better for it.

I think the secret to this one, at least for me, was listening to it.  The narrator was AMAZING. So good in fact, that I want to hunt out other books she’s read. I think she captured Eleanor perfectly, and she pulled me into the narrative. I’m pretty sure it was because of the narrator that I came to love Eleanor and look forward to hearing more about this crazy day (and her crazy past) she was having. (Maybe I would have liked it in print… Stemple is a good writer; the story is entertaining and made me think as well. Plus there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as well.)

Sometimes I like adult books. This was definitely one of those times.

Meg

megby  Steve Alten
First sentence: “From the moment the early morning fog had begun to lift, the sensed they were being watched.”
Content: There’s a handful (a dozen or so) s-words, and damns, and some inferences to sex. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section if we had it in the bookstore.

Jonas Taylor was a hot shot navy submarine pilot, until, down in the depths of the ocean, he encountered something rare and horrifying. It cost the lives of two men, and a dishonorable discharge for Jonas. But he was certain: he saw a Crcharodon megalodon, a prehistoric shark. He dedicated his life to researching the meg, as he calls it, to the exclusion of everything else. It cost him his marriage, it made him a joke, but he became the expert. And now, there’s another expedition into the depths, and he’s been called on board: there’s something odd down there and Jonas is called back into service. No, he wasn’t crazy: there was a megalodon down there, and it’s awake and terrorizing the waters.

This is definitely not my usual reading; I picked it up because I was asked to be on a review board for a challenge on this book. (It’s being challenged for the swearing and the inferences to sex.) I accepted before I knew what this book was, and I have to say, content-wise, it’s not that bad. (I suppose, if it was being read to 6th graders, I suppose I’d balk.) But, it’s not a great book. Sure it’s got action (the body count is way high), but it’s pulpy, and the writing pedantic. And maybe just prehistoric sharks aren’t my thing, but I never really liked it. I have issues with the way he treated women — there were two; one was a “bitch” and “deserved” to die, the other the love interest who was never given much of anything to do. And Jonas, I think was supposed to be “troubled” and edgy, but mostly came off as insecure and whiny. You know when you’re rooting for the shark that things are bad.

So, no, I don’t think it should have been challenged for content. But, there are definitely better books out there.