Break Time!

Hi friends! Just a short note to say that I am taking a week off from the blog, and hopefully from social media in general. It’s my son’s Spring Break and we’re going to have adventures together. I’m going to try and unplug from social media as best as I can! Wish me well, I’m a bit addicted, I admit!

colorful-chairs-free-beach-wallpapers-beach-backgrounds-587fb9eb5f9b584db31f75d4I’ll see you lovely bookish unicorns in a week or so! Happy Reading!


Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

A sense of purpose, strange and sweet to him, carried him along in an irresistible current. Merely in gazing out the window, he felt a new coordination of mind and eye. He began to realize what he intended to so. He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her! The realization of his importance dazzled his mind, and for a long moment he felt completely and happily drunk. 

51eqhnR+VGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first pick from my Classics Club list was a good one. Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train was a creepy, tense, psychological read. I had watched the Hitchcock film for the first time a few months ago, and wasn’t quite impressed. I found it overly long and lacking in star charisma. The book was better in my opinion, because it gives the reader a more revealing look into the minds of both its main characters, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines. Tension builds slowly as both men become more and more unhinged.

Guy and Bruno meet on a train to Metcalf, TX, where Guy’s mother lives. Bruno is on his way to meet his own mother in Sante Fe. Bruno is pushy and lonely, fueled by alcohol, and convinces Guy to dine with him in his private drawing room. There he regales Guy with tales of how unfairly he’s treated by his father, who controls the purse-strings and disapproves of Bruno’s gadabout, lazy ways. Guy humors and observes him, and when Bruno tells him he’s committed a robbery, Guy believes him.

Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

51YICz8X2yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Bruno gets Guy to open up about his own troubles, the fact that he’s trying to get his unfaithful wife Miriam to divorce him (partly so he can move on with his girlfriend, Anne, which he doesn’t tell Bruno at the time.) So Bruno offers what he considers an unbeatable idea: Bruno will murder Miriam and Guy can return the favor by murdering his father. They just met on the train, after all, so there will be nothing to connect them to one another in the investigations. A foolproof plan, right?

I don’t want to spoil any of the developments in case you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book. As the two men’s lives become more entangled and things go awry, Highsmith does an excellent job conveying the deteriorating mental conditions of both men. Bruno is practically in love with Guy, hounding him for attention and friendship. Guy is repelled by Bruno and wants nothing to do with him but can’t seem to be able to tell Anne or the police what’s going on. At one point Bruno sends him letters detailing how Guy should carry out the murder of his father. Then he burns them, thinking no one would believe him. I exasperatedly wrote in my notes, “IDIOT!” But of course, if he had gone to the police, the novel would have ended at about 130 pages. Bruno keeps tightening the screws on Guy until he becomes a sleepless, depressed mess, and then…

Despite the ingenious plot device at the beginning, I wouldn’t say this was a plot-driven novel. It’s more of an interior, psychological character study of two men – one with an alcohol problem and deep-seated mental problems that reveal themselves over time and one who is seemingly “normal” but is slowly driven mad by guilt and secrets and perhaps his own unacknowledged rage.  It reminded me in a way of the standalone novels I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite mystery writers. She has a way of making unlikable and possibly deranged characters at the very least understandable. Highsmith wasn’t quite there yet, in my opinion, with this debut novel, but the quality of the writing and the depth of the main characters elevate it to four stars in my eyes. Can anyone really be capable of murder, as Bruno believes?

Have you read this or seen the film? Have you read any other of Patricia Highsmith’s novels?

Reading Ireland Month: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

ri18Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.

Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.

11917193Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.

I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play. 

Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.

It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.

‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’

He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.


He only grinned.

‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’

819524The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.







Mini-Reviews: Swing Time and Letter From New York

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 18 books so far in 2018. This includes audio books and two chapter books I’ve read with my son (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.) Currently my son and I have been reading more of the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborn. I haven’t included those in my tally since they’re so short but I’m thinking perhaps I should. After all, I’m reading them aloud to him a few chapters every night, and I’m enjoying them! Why should book length have anything to do with if it “really counts” as reading?

Anyway, I don’t review everything I read because, frankly, I want to do other things at night after he goes to sleep and I have a couple of hours to myself, including yoga, painting my nails, watching Netflix/movies, and – oh yes – reading! 🙂 So in the interest of catching up, here are a couple of quickie mini-reviews of recent reads.

51hi92m66BLSwing Time by Zadie Smith. When this came out in 2016 I added it to my TBR list and then in 2017 I took it off. Well, it was chosen as my book group choice last month so I ended up reading it after all! I gave it three stars but feel like it might really be closer to two for me. Parts of it felt like a total SLOG. The last 50 pages or so redeemed it a bit and brought up the star rating. It’s about two young mixed-race British girls growing up in a poor part of town, taking dance classes together and watching old dance movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others. Our narrator (first person) is unnamed, but her more talented friend is named Tracey, and she is more of a vibrant character at times as well. As they come of age, they do grow apart for many reasons, like their families and general paths in life. Our narrator ends up being the personal assistant to a super famous pop star named Aimee, an utterly obnoxious woman (almost a caricature.) Aimee has a notion to open a girls’ school in Senegal and Our Narrator helps get that running. We go back and forth with chapters about the friendship and chapters about Aimee and Africa. I never felt like I really got to know Our Narrator very well. I felt like she was passive, aimless, and very afraid to let herself really love or care deeply about anyone.

There was some beautiful writing, and I feel like Smith is so talented on a purely sentence quality level. I just wish her stories were better, more focused. To be fair, I’ve only read two of her books, this one and White Teeth. But I also felt like White Teeth started strong and petered out by the end. So I’m frustrated with my experiences of reading Smith, and it makes me not want to waste my time with any of her other novels. If anyone else out there has read NW or On Beauty, tell me what you think. My book group meeting is tomorrow (Sunday,) and I’m certain that this book will offer us plenty to discuss.

231256Letter From New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts by Helene Hanff. This was a yummy blueberry muffin of a book. Enjoyable, sweet, kind of forgettable. I found my copy of this slim collection of essays last fall in a used book shop in Black Mountain, NC called Black Mountain Books. You may recognize Hanff’s name from her beloved book 84 Charing Cross Road, which every book lover should read in my opinion. Letter From New York is a collection of essays she read on a BBC radio show called The Woman’s Hour. They are short pieces detailing her life in New York City in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Her friends, neighbors, neighbors’ dogs, neighbors’ tiny patio gardens, dinner parties, New York City parades, the wonder and splendor of Central Park – all of these and more are chronicled in charming vignettes that take about five minutes each to read. I read one or two every day, parceling them out in the morning like little mini-muffins of a time gone by. I enjoyed them, but I didn’t take any notes or really even single out any particular paragraphs. I’ll say that if you’re a fan of reading about New York City, or if you enjoyed Hanff’s Charing Cross Road, you should seek out this 140-page collection.

Do you sometimes not “count” certain types of reading in your yearly Goodreads tally? Should I give Zadie Smith another try? Is the movie version of 84 Charing Cross Road worth a watch? Share your thoughts on this or anything else in the comments!


Classics Club Spin #17 Result!

classicsclubToday The Classics Club Spin number was announced. It was #3, so my book is…

The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorker by Maeve Brennan!

This is one I didn’t even have in mind as I mulled over what my spin result might be, so I’m pleasantly surprised. I discovered Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan last year during Reading Ireland Month, thanks to Cathy at 746 Books. I read her novella The Visitor, which was haunting and lovely. (My review here.)


A description from Goodreads: From 1954 to 1981, Maeve Brennan contributed to “The New Yorker’s” “Talk of the Town” department under the pen name “the long-winded lady.” Her unforgettable sketches–prose snapshots of life in the streets, diners, and cheap hotels just off Times Square–are a timeless, bittersweet tribute to what she calls the “most ambitious, most comical…saddest and coldest and most human of cities.”

I always enjoy reading about New York City, and knowing what an intelligent, observant writer Brennan was, I’m sure this will be a good pick.

If you participate in the Spin, what book came up for you?



The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song. He wasn’t talking a full-blown symphony. I would be a few notes; at the most, a strain. And it didn’t happen all the time, only when he let go of being Frank and inhabited a space that was more in the middle. It had been this way ever since he could remember.

34203744My first Rachel Joyce novel was a home run! The Music Shop is a page-turning, earnest, feel-good novel, something I’d say we all could use more of these days. It helps if you’re a music lover, but even if you aren’t this novel has plenty to offer. In fact I could see myself someday reading this again for comfort in a time of stress.

Most of the book takes place in 1988, around a struggling record shop that’s on a shabby, quiet street in a nondescript (I think unnamed?) British suburb. It’s owned by Frank, a man who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right album to shake up a person’s life in the way that they need. As good as he is as connecting people with the right music, he is a failure in the love department, not letting anyone get too close to him emotionally. We get hints of past trauma in his upbringing but it’s not until later in the book that the mystery of his past is revealed. Meanwhile, the CD age is upon him, and his record vendors are pressing him to stock CDs in his shop. He refuses, affronted by their lack of character.

But CD sound was clean, the reps argued. It had no surface noise. To which Frank replied, “Clean? What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish?”

Add a cast of quirky, mostly sweet fellow Unity Street shopkeepers and a bumbling, adorable shop assistant named Kit, and you have a winning atmosphere for the action of our story. A beautiful woman named Ilse Brauchmann faints outside Frank’s shop one day, and his life is never the same. Unable to face what he really feels for Ilse, he starts giving her “music lessons” at a nearby cafe, bringing her albums to listen to with accompanying listening notes. Frank’s shop business is not so good, as people start to want CDs and the city falls on hard times in general. People just aren’t shopping on their little street like they used to. As we watch Frank try to find ways to save his shop, and as he gets closer to Ilse, we also get glimpses of his past in chapters that depict his unusual upbringing by his less-than-maternal mother, Peg. She is the one who makes music so important in his life, but she also does a lot of emotional damage to young Frank with her parental shortcomings. And we come to find that the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann has some secrets of her own.

I just loved this book! I was occasionally frustrated with Frank, for being too guarded and obtuse, but I forgave him when I found out what had scarred him from wanting to love again. The novel had a cinematic feel to it, sort of like a combination of “High Fidelity” and a good rom-com like “You’ve Got Mail” or Notting Hill.” A couple of scenes made me laugh out loud. And the writing is really lovely, not overly descriptive but evocative all the same.

The water was blue-gray with the day’s reflection and trees, and dimpled as far as they could see with the falling rain. They sat for a long time, just watching the rain and smiling, her with one oar, him with the other. By now their hair was so wet it stuck to their heads, and the shoulders of her coat were more black than green, but they stayed out there in the middle of the lake, until the cloud shifted and the evening sun came out, and everything around them, every leaf, every blade of grass, every rooftop in the distance, shone like a piece of jewelry. 

This is the kind of book that made me want to sit down and listen to music the way I used to listen to it in high school. I’d sit on my bedroom floor and do nothing else but let the music wash over me, playing my favorite songs over and over, for hours. I’ve never had a record player of my own, I came along too late for that; my first music was cassette tapes and then the first ones I bought on my own were CDs. And now almost all of my new music purchases are from iTunes. But record albums are making a big comeback, and I’m actually considering getting a record player for the first time.

In any case, whether you’re a music lover or not, this is a heartwarming book that celebrates community and friendship, and taking the risks necessary to live a full life filled with love and relationships. If you’re searching for a lighter contemporary read, one with heart and wit, look no further than The Music Shop.


My First Classics Club Spin! (Classics Spin #17)

I’m delighted that there’s a new Classics Spin just a few weeks after I decided to join the Classics Club! If you don’t remember, the Classics Club is a reading challenge (sort of) that celebrates “classic” literature and when you join you make a list of fifty titles you want to have read and written about in five years. For the Spin, I take twenty of my chosen books and number them 1-20. On Friday, March 9, the leaders of the club will post a number. I then have to read the book that corresponds with that number by April 30!

I like this idea, because I haven’t yet begun to read any of my classics. This is the push I need! Here’s my list of 20:

  1. Gather Together in My Name – Angelou
  2. Giovanni’s Room – Baldwin
  3. The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker – Brennan
  4. The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
  5. Great Expectations – Dickens
  6. Count of Monte Cristo – Dumas
  7. Love Medicine – Erdrich
  8. Wives and Daughters – Gaskell
  9. Life Among the Savages – Jackson
  10. Quicksand -Larsen
  11. The Gowk Storm – Morrison
  12. A Good Man is Hard to Find – O’Connor
  13. 1984 – Orwell
  14. Less Than Angels – Pym
  15. Ceremony – Silko
  16. Crossing to Safety – Stegner
  17. The Warden – Trollope
  18. Brideshead Revisited – Waugh
  19. Island of Dr. Moreau – Wells
  20. Native Son – Wright


I don’t know if there are any that I don’t want picked at the moment. Well, maybe not the Bulgakov. I’m kind of hoping for #18 or #9. But I’ll be happy with whatever number comes up! Then I’ll be on my way. 🙂 I’ll be sure to let you know the verdict after March 9!