2014’s somewhat delayed To-Be-Read List

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I must admit: it has not been a great year for reading so far. In the past three months and three days, I have finished reading two books. Only two. I’m the girl who reads a book a week I guess I’ve been busy catching up on important things like The Good Wife and  Doctor Who.

It really is time to get back on the wagon, though. I have once again committed to the 50 Book Challenge. I am way behind. And so, I will finally get serious about this, starting with this years TBR list.

You remember how this works, right? I pledge to read 12 books from my “to be read” pile, within the next 12 months. Each of the 12 books must have been on my bookshelf (or “To Be Read” list, hence the name) for at least one full year. (Two alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.)

Drumroll please… My TBR list for 2014 includes:

  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown Author
  2. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  3. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  5. The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
  6. The Light Between the Oceans by M. L. Stedman
  7. Lygaya: L’Enfant Esclave par Andree-Paul Mignot
  8. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  9. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  10. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  11. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  12. Ghosts of Medak Pocket by Carol Off

Two Alternates:

  1. Le Petit Prince par Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

So I’m going for less non-fiction, which I rarely read, and more classic books – I tend to buy older editions at thrift stores or yard sales, and they are piling up on the shelves. Oh – and more reading en francais (dammit WordpPess, why aren’t the accents working?).  Last year I started on time and still only managed 7 of my 12 chosen. Who knows how I will fare this year, but the fun is in trying, isn’t it?

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

secret keeperI chose a lot of “not-my-typical-books” for this past year’s Christmas list. I wanted to read new things, new styles. I wanted to read books while they were still new and people were talking about them. Half of my list was just released or about to be released fiction. I have read about half of the books I received as gifts, and thus far I am glad I made the choices I did.

I had seen Kate Morton’s name often, in the bookstores or online, but always passed her by. There is something a little too quaint about the book covers and titles that makes me presume she is writing for the blue-haired set. I fully realize that this is a ridiculous assumption, and that you should never judge a book by its cover (or title). Yada, yada, yada. But we all do it, in one way or another. Unless you have limitless time on your hands, how else do you skim through a book display, or even more daunting, the search results from Chapters or Amazon?

So I very near did not pick this novel, based on the cover. But something in the description caught me:

During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the road and sees her mother speak to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy. 

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.

So here we have historical fiction, wartime London, family secrets, and a mystery. Of course I wanted to read this book.

For the most part, it did not disappoint. The narrative flashes between times and viewpoints. We read about the past through the eyes of Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy, and the present (and her childhood) from Laurel. Only occasionally does this jumping around become overwhelming or confusing – it is generally quite smoothly done. The real story is in the pre-war and war years however, which almost made me wish there was noo back and forth at all. The chapters devoted to Laurel and her siblings seemed superfluous. We did not need to know half as much about them as Morton revealed. They were not necessary to the story at all, other than as proof of where Dorothy’s life went. That, and of course someone had to be narrating the whole thing, discovering the secrets.

“Gerry?’ Laurel had to strain to hear thought the noise on the other end of the line. ‘Gerry? Where are you?’

‘London. A phone booth on Fleet Street.’

‘The city still has working phone booths?’

‘It would appear so. Unless this is the Tardis, in which case I’m in serious trouble.” 

[So they were occasionally amusing. I still stand by “superfluous.”]

As with any mystery, there was one main and a few minor “twists” to the plot that made the story what it was. With the exception of one, I guessed them all long before they were revealed. Usually this would lose a book major points, but strangely it did not affect my enjoyment of the novel. Rather than reading in anticipation of the big reveal, I read with a mix of impatience and apprehension, wondering how the characters would react when they figured out what I already knew.

“It was unsettling, Laurel thought, suppressing a shiver, how quickly a person’s presence could be erased, how easily civilization gave way to wilderness.”

So in summary, I would say as a story, it was quite good. As historical fiction, for the WWII era, also worth a read. But if you are in it for the mystery, it is not a nail biter. I will read more from Kate Morton. I truly enjoyed (most of) her characters and her ability to engage the reader.

Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Atria Books; First Edition (October 16, 2012)
ISBN-10: 9781439152805
ISBN-13: 978-1439152805

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlockI bought a copy of this years ago in the bargain bin. My husband had read many if not all of the Sherlock books in his early teens and really enjoyed them. I always intended to read them. But I am really not much of a mystery novel reader. I used to be. As a child I devoured read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Encyclopedia Brown, etc., etc., but this obsession died somewhere in my teens and I never got back to it.

The real reason I put this book on my TBR list was all the rave reviews of the British TV series, Sherlock. I wanted to watch it. But I wanted to have read at least some of the original material first. Well… I failed. While visiting my husband in early February (we were temporarily living in different cities) we were searching for something to watch on Netflix and decided to check out Sherlock. Before the weekend was over we’d watched the whole series.

First of all, the series is excellent. If you haven’t already, you must watch it. And it is on Netflix, could it be any easier? Second, you don’t need to have read the stories to watch, and watching doesn’t ruin the stories. Yes there is additional context if you already know the characters, but the stories have been adapted and modernized and while there are similarities and parallels, they are different. (The characters have been extremely well adapted, with the possible exception that the original Sherlock while reserved was not quite as anti-social as the new TV Sherlock. Based entirely on my newfound ‘expertise.’)

I must admit I am a mystery fan again. There were many surprises from Sherlock’s adventures. First: he never utters the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I kept waiting for it. It didn’t happen.. Second: he used/abused both opium and cocaine. How very Victorian of him. Third (and this also came from the TV series) he is far younger than I expected. I don’t think an exact age is given, but early-to-mid-thirties is implied. I always thought he was middle-aged or older.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the stories is that unlike many detective  novels which slowly reveal clues allowing the reader to work alongside the detective, Doyle leaves his readers pretty nearly as in the dark as his hapless clients and Inspector-Detectives. When Holmes puts it all together at the end, the nuances are revealed and you are stunned and amazed along with Watson and Scotland Yard. Occasionally annoying, I still think I like this better than the traditional detective novel, as frequently I  guess the conclusion long before the detective, making me wonder what makes him/her so special in the first place. (Lest I sound like I am bragging, this is a complaint I hear often from other readers. I don’t think it makes me special either.)

The most notable of the stories, in my opinion, was the last: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. I find it hard to say exactly why, but this more than any of the others really pulled me in, creeped me out, and kept me guessing. It is worth mentioning that while Holmes always solves the case, the result is not always a happy ending. Sometimes he is late, sometimes there is nothing to be done to fix things. He does “save” the lady in question in this instance, but as with many real life mysteries, it leaves you with an unsettled, “how could someone do that to someone else” feeling. (Also worth noting, but not why it was my favourite: my Nova Scotia hometown gets a very brief mention in this story.)

Whether you choose to read Sherlock from beginning to end as I have, or want to pick away at a story from time to time, you really can’t get a better mystery story than a Sherlock Holmes adventure. Classics are classics for a reason, after all.

Format: Kobo Edition (eBook)
Published: July 29, 2009, Library of Alexandria
ISBN-10: 1613104693
ISBN-13: 9781613104699
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was originally published in the United Kingdom 1892 by George Newnes, and was 307 pages long.

A wardrobe in forty-plus pieces

So, the big cull has been competed, and I got myself down to about 45 items. Not so bad. Not 30, but not so bad. As I said, I wasn’t about to throw out perfectly good items that I am wearing. Of course now that I took the time to consider and justify everything I am keeping, I may not replace all 45 pieces when they wear out.
What made it hard was not knowing my job situation yet. The two most likely scenarios are going back to school, or working from home. Neither of which requires the work clothes I have packed. But I am still applying and hoping for a full-time salaried job, so can’t just pack it all away.

Since so many seemed to enjoy the photos last time, I logged into Polyvore.com to create an approximate version of my new leaner wardrobe for you.

Wardrobe in 40+ pieces

These are not my actual clothes, but the closest approximations I could find in colour and shape. I love you guys, but not enough to photograph and collage everything I own. A couple of pieces are missing as I couldn’t find anything even resembling them in the database… and I ran out of patience.

One thing you may notice after looking at the above picture … this is still a lot of clothes. Seriously. This represents about a third of what I had before this process began. I am embarrassed. Will I think twice before buying more? That remains to be seen.

But I have nothing to wear… (Minimizing the closet)

Well, the kitchen is done, and we are eight days away from moving to a new home, with less than 1/3 of our dishes, gadgets and appliances. But along with a lack of kitchen cabinets, the new apartment has a decided lack of closet space and bedroom storage  Where we currently have a closet and dresser each, and keep overflow in the spare room, I will be sharing a closet and a 3 drawer dresser with my husband. I have no idea where to put everything, and can’t possibly bring all of it. Which is fine, because like most women I know, I have a tonne of clothes, yet never have anything to wear. Clearly something needs to be fixed.

There are a few things that I just won’t need and so I am leaving them behind: fancy dresses bought for weddings or other events, the extra winter coat, etc. But then there is just a lot of stuff I know I don’t need and so should really just toss.

I started the process last week with the initial culling of the closet and dresser. All the things that were easy to toss. The things that didn’t quite fit right, or weren’t flattering, or were no longer in style. The stuff I just hadn’t bothered to toss yet. That was two large bags worth of clothing. Cringe-worthy. Especially because I know I am not done.

Phase two starts tomorrow. Maybe even tonight if I finish procrastinating researching. The next decisions will be tougher. As I did with the kitchen, I have been online, looking for tips on building the ultimate minimalist wardrobe. There are lots of tips out there, usually complete with helpful images:

Could I live on just 30 items? Maybe. But limiting myself to one Batman shirt will be hard.

Could I live on just 30 items? Maybe. But limiting myself to one Batman shirt will be hard. (Source: The everyday Minimalist: http://www.everydayminimalist.com/)

Could I live with just 22 pieces? Less likely.

Could I live with just 22 pieces? Less likely. (Source: A Geek Tragedy http://www.ageektragedy.net/)

Could I live with just six items? A bit extreme for me - though I would love to try the one month challenge!

Could I live with just six items? A bit extreme for me – though I would love to try the one month challenge! (Source: The Dernier Cri http://www.thederniercri.net/)

My first realization is that I will not meet any of the definitions I found. Mostly, because it would require tossing perfectly good clothes to replace them with neutral basics. If I were starting from scratch that might work, but I am not. I have to work with what I own. Also, most post which suggest a limited number of pieces are not designed for the Canadian climate. I can easily justify another 5-10 items for seasonal variances. My life requires a down winter jacket for the really really cold months, a regular winter jacket, a dressy winter coat, a fall/spring jacket, a spring/fall dressy coat, a rain coat, and a summery jacket/coat.  I also have a running jacket. And that’s just outerwear. Then there are summer vs. winter dresses. Lined wool trousers and linen ones. (I walk to work, in all seasons. I have summer pants and winter pants.)

If nothing else, the research has been fun and inspiring. I will be applying it to my closet tomorrow, to see how close to 30 items I can come. This will not include shoes, underclothes or accessories, though I am trying to cut back on those categories as well.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

annabelWayne is growing up with a secret that he doesn’t fully understand, and secrets are hard to keep in small, remote towns where everyone knows your business. A baby is born in Labrador in 1968, a baby who by all appearances is both boy and girl at once. A quick decision is made, the child is christened as Wayne, and despite the concoction of pills and hormones he is treated with, something is never quite right.

As a confused young child, he doesn’t understand why his likes and desires – preferring synchronized swimming to hockey, or playing ‘house’ with a neighbour’s daughter instead of building a fort – aren’t the same as his friends, and are embarrassing to his father.  He is raised as a boy in a man’s world, but has no interest in his father’s life of hunting and trapping. Like all teenagers, and yet many times more problematic, he struggles to make friends, to fit in.

Wayne’s mother is never happy with her husband’s decision to raise the child as a boy. She loves her son, yet mourns her daughter. Her friend, the midwife and only other person to know truth about Wayne, secretly christens the child Annabel, in memory of the daughter she lost years before. Kathleen Winter has done an incredible job with the creation of Wayne/Annabel, in drawing the reader in to feel his angst, pain and gender confusion. His is such a heartbreaking story, but not without its own beauty and sense of hope.

This novel was mesmerizing. I wasn’t sold on it based on the book jacket or marketing summaries. Having read “Middlesex” (Jeffrey Eugenides) a few years back I guess I thought a novel about a hermaphrodite was already done, nothing to get excited over. I’m embarrassed to say it sat on my shelf unread for almost two years. But consistently, I heard rave reviews from people whose opinions on books I take very seriously. I knew I had to read it, and so finally did.

I have joined the ranks of the rave reviewers. This book was excellent.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc.; 1st Edition edition (May 31 2010)
ISBN-10: 0887842364
ISBN-13: 978-0887842368

The Dinner by Herman Koch

dinnerWell.

Where do I even start? I guess a synopsis of some kind is a good idea.

The Dinner takes place in one evening. Through the course of one meal (um… the dinner). All we know when it begins is that two couples are meeting for dinner at a fashionable restaurant. It’s a last-minute reservation, but one of them has the clout needed to get a table, and the others resent him for it. That in itself was an intriguing set up.

Conversation is banal and awkward, but generally polite. Meanwhile the reader is aware there are things unsaid. Big things. Things that must be discussed before the meal ends. I have to say, Koch has done an incredible job here at building and maintaining the tension. I was so stressed while reading I booked a massage before I finished. My upper back and neck are holding all the tension of those 304 pages.

Each of the couples has a fifteen-year-old son. The sons have done something terrible. No one at the table seems to know how much the other three actually know about it. Each is desperately trying to protect their family. Each seemingly trying to pretend this is not that big a deal.

The Dinner looks not only at the actions of the boys and where these may have come from, but at how parenting styles, family relationships, genetics and mental illness may have each played a role. As the evening progresses we see through flashbacks how the families have reached the situation they are now facing. Prepare to be shocked – horrified even – and touched by the words and actions of all characters. You will judge the parents and the children, and at some stage, place the blame in each of the characters’ hands.

Incredibly written, hard to read yet impossible to put down. First really good, thought-provoking novel I have read in a while.

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Hogarth (Feb 12 2013)
ISBN-10: 0770437850
ISBN-13: 978-0770437855