Book Review: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This book was a wild ride!!! It was another one of my Christmas books and I was very happy to see it! I saw this in the same bookstore as “Hidden Valley Road”, which was Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia. This being said, I implore you all to try and patronize your local or independent bookstores as much as you can during this never-ending pandemic. Often books from local or independent sellers can be pricier than Amazon or other larger sellers, but when I have the extra money to do so, I try to think of the higher price as part of an investment in my community. Local bookstores provide so much more for their communities than Amazon can ever do so try to support them if you can! Back to the book! As I mentioned, reading this book is a journey and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed with some minor misgivings about the author’s style. As a novel about opera singers, it is written as a love story to the art of opera and I would highly recommend listening to the operas or just specific songs as they are mentioned in the book. I didn’t do this and I think my reading would have been richer for doing so because I am not super familiar with opera.

The book follows Lilliet Berne, a fictional soprano from the Fin de Siecle in France. The book follows her recollections of her curious ascent to the heights of operatic fame and the cost of such a journey to herself and others. I loved the story which was inspired by Jenny Lind who ended her career touring America with PT Barnum and his circus. Lilliet’s life is full of twists and turns that were delightful to explore! My only issues with the book were stylistic. Mr. Chee chooses to not differentiate his lines of dialogue from the rest of his prose which can be confusing. I did get used to it eventually but not without irritation on my part. Furthermore, Mr. Chee writes the novel in a mix of past and present which can be jarring but I didn’t take as much umbrage at this as I did with the dialogue. I really loved the story, it absolutely drew me in but I was so frustrated with Mr. Chee’s style at certain points that I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel was delicious to devour but future reader, be warned! Happy reading and please support your local bookstore if you can! (My copy of The Queen of the Night was from Vroman’s in Pasadena, a fabulous bookstore that ships nationwide!)

Book Review: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

So in the past few days, I finished this book and it was really a delightful escape to the Paris of many years past. A Moveable Feast was published posthumously and is a chronicle of Hemingway’s time in Paris after the First World War with his wife Hadley and the people they encountered during their adventures. The last section is devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald and their friendship. Despite the title, there is not much feasting going on but the book contains beautiful and melancholic descriptions of Paris. I choose this book because it came highly recommended from several expatriate sites when I was looking for books about France. As it was written about life in the twenties, I’m not sure how relevant it will be for my journey to France but I really did enjoy the book. This is yet another one of my secondhand reads which I love but please, please, please go buy something full price from your local bookstore! I love saving money on books but if you can spend it, your local bookstore could really use the support with the lack of walk-in traffic these days. I know that my favorite southern California bookstore was really struggling and they ended up asking people for business which really helped! But don’t let your local bookstore get to that point please! Bookstores are a super important part of the community so please support them! Now back to Hemingway!

I have never read any of Hemingway’s work but I was aware of his very “macho” reputation and propensity for being called Big Papa. Coming into this book with those assumptions, I was absolutely floored by the tenderness and melancholy that I found in this book. Not only was Hemingway emotive in the extreme, he also recognized his own foibles and didn’t shield them from the view of the reader. I really enjoyed just reading the little vignettes about his various experiences in Paris. In other parts of the novel, he was coarse and rude and terrible but overall, he wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps because he was in Paris during a period of relative peace and was yet building up his reputation as an author, he was more free to write about his entire experience and emotions. Hemingway’s last view chapters are dedicated to his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and it’s clear that Hemingway cared both a great deal for F. Scott while vehemently hating Zelda Fitzgerald. Overall, I enjoyed the book because it was very refreshing and I felt that I got to experience Paris as Hemingway did. However, as any author, Hemingway takes liberties with the personalities involved, twisting them to suit the story. I would just caution the reader to not judge all the persons presented based on Hemingway’s account of them. I would recommend this book, especially to people who read a little before bed. The chapters are more like self-contained stories and are read quickly. If you’re looking for a little literature at night, this is an excellent place to start!

Book Review: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

WOW!!! What a ride this one took me on! I devoured this book in a few days after finishing from Dawn to Decadence. I was desperate for a good read to take my mind on an adventure and boy did I find that here! Also, I must add a disclaimer that I loved reading this book but I also really enjoy the genre of true-crime in books, podcasts, or even television shows. If you don’t love crime or are not a huge fan of thrillers, this book will not be for you. It’s definitely got a deeper exploration into the suburban mentality that some may enjoy but it is very heavy on the crime drama and the suspense!

The book follows the perspective of the husband who has been married to his “lovely” wife Mildred for fifteen years. The pair have to hustle everyday for a place in their suburban paradise of Hidden Oaks in Florida and to raise their two children. However, their relationship takes an interesting turn when they decide to begin murdering together! Normal spousal fun right? Things take a turn for the worse when the pair resurrect a serial killer to cover their crimes and their deadly romance takes a turn for the worse.

As mentioned, I really enjoyed this one. It kept me on the edge of my seat but I was a little disappointed in the end. I felt that Millicent wasn’t as fleshed out as a character as she could have been but if she had been, the final twist wouldn’t have caught me like it did. I would recommend this but probably not to younger readers! It’s one to take on a nice long road trip or just to bring with you to the beach! Happy reading and let me know what you think if you happen to pick up a copy!

Book Review: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

All I can say is OMG I FINALLY FINISHED!!! This book is a WHOPPER of a read and it was recommended to me by a very dear family friend. This family friend has recommended many books to me over the years and it was a treat when he was able to drop this book off for me during the early months of our societal quarantine. I started this book in April which both seems like yesterday and like a lifetime ago! This book is around 800 pages, give or take a hundred additional pages for the references and notes. I’ve been reading this in the background as I couldn’t tackle it all by itself without a serious headache. I feel very accomplished that I was able to finish it but I don’t know if I volunteer for the task again anytime soon.

This tome by Barzun is truly a masterpiece of Western cultural life. I am glad that I read this book; just by reading a few pages a day I’ve learned so much more about the history of culture in the West. While I’ve always treated culture as an interesting footnote in my historical studies, Barzun shows how culture plays such a meaningful role in shaping history and the course of the world. My biggest issue with the book was that Barzun did such an excellent job of describing the first 450 years covered in his book and did such a poor job describing the most recent years that his book purported to cover. I felt that the last fifty years have been done a great injustice by Barzun. Perhaps he was writing from a spot that made him too near to something to write objectively. Barzun’s description of the last fifty years before the close of the work, 1995, was a confused diatribe against modernity. Barzun did a wonderful job of shedding light on the cultural pathways of the west before World War 1 but after his writing is disorganized and extremely critical. Perhaps in the last fifty years, our society has descended into such a state of decadence that it will collapse but I felt that Barzun didn’t do the recent past justice. I enjoyed the experience of reading Barzun’s work but would not recommend this to be consumed by the average reader.

Book Review: The Orchid Thief

I’m writing this post after just finishing this book less than ten minutes ago. It was such a thought-provoking read that I feel like I both digested it as I read it but also have no idea what kind of literary journey I just took. The Orchid Thief was Susan Orlean’s debut novel after being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years. I actually read her second novel, The Library Book, over the summer. The Library Book was such a poetic tribute to the power that books and the literary arts hold over ordinary lives that I limited myself to a certain page count per day in order to stretch out the reading experience and savor the words. I enjoyed The Library Book so much that I couldn’t help but search out Orlean’s first book in an effort to repeat the experience. While I was disappointed that The Orchid Thief didn’t evoke such an emotional response for me, it was a great book. Orlean spends the novel both detailing her experience with the exotic plant world of Florida while recounting the history of exotic plant collection. She interweaves the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title, with a larger reflection on the existence of Florida as both a part of the United States that stands truly alone.

Some of the description in this book didn’t resonate with me very much but I’m also not an attentive plant lover. Orlean’s writing was powerful in this first novel and I think that she really perfected her prose in The Library Book. I’m also from California and was able to find resonance in her words about California and its history more than I was able to relate to the story of a state that I have never visited. Orlean does meditate on a lot of the elements of modernity in this novel and I would say that for that alone, The Orchid Thief deserves a read. Orleans passes no strong judgement upon the people that populate her book which I think is part of the fun. Orlean’s presence as a neutral narrator makes the reader think harder about their own biases in life. Definitely a book for an adults, The Orchid Thief is a unique reflection on life and plants and everything in between.

Book Review: Monsters of Men

I could not believe how fast I finished this book. It’s the third in the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness that I posted about about a week ago. Wow!!!! This was a thrilling conclusion to the books and most of it was totally unexpected and the action kept coming! I started on a Wednesday and finished by Thursday evening! I absolutely ripped through this book and am still reeling from the ending!

The last installment of Ness’ trilogy brings us right back to the end of the second book, The Ask and the Answer. Just as Mayor Prentiss and Mistriss Coyle are about to have their epic showdown, their rivalry has to be put on pause to combat the massive Spackle army that has marched on their city. The Spackle previously appeared in the trilogy but not as main protagonists. When the settlers from the Old World settled on the New, a massive Spackle war ensued with several thousand Spackle being enslaved to the settlers as part of the peace agreement. These enslaved Spackle are slaughtered wholesale by Mayor Prentiss in the second book, leading to the mobilization of the Spackle across the planet. In the third book, the settlers face extinction in the face of the imminent arrival of more settlers and the rivalries of the second book haven’t gone anywhere. Tension is high and Todd and Viola are doing all they can to save each other while saving the rest of humanity but will they succeed and keep their lives?? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I talked over the entire trilogy with the aforementioned friend who introduced me to the trilogy and we both had some pretty strong opinions about each of the characters in a world where nothing is quite black and white. I found that this trilogy is incredibly insightful in its treatment of humans and the basic moral battle of good versus evil that has faced humanity for many millennia. Ness does a really good job of showing how easy it is for evil to seep into our lives but encouragingly shows how to confront that same evil. I cannot believe how much I enjoyed reading these books and would recommend them to YA lovers. It provides a layered and nuanced story that makes you question even your own perceptions of the world.

Book Review: The Ask and the Answer

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve had time to review a book but I absolutely raced through this one! I started in on a Sunday night and was finished by the next evening, I just couldn’t put it down! This novel is the second in the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. I was introduced to this trilogy by a dear friend from high school who kindly provided the first one, “The Knife of Never Letting Go”. Unfortunately, I was hooked on that book and finished it with similar speed and my friend did not have the rest of the trilogy so I had to wait! I was able to find the second and third books on Thriftbooks at the end of July and was very excited to dive into the world of Patrick Ness once again!

The Chaos Walking trilogy tells the story of the settlements on a New World after the inhabitants of the Old World had to leave it. The series specifically follows Todd, a young man born in the New World settlement of Prentisstown where there are no women, and Viola, a scout from a new group of settlers from the Old World. “The Knife of Never Letting Go” follows Todd and Viola as they race to stop Mayor Prentiss from conquering the other settlements of the New World. The second book focuses on what happens after they fail and Mayor Prentiss becomes President Prentiss of the New World. Viola and Todd are separated and have to find themselves before they can find each other once again.

This novel is nuanced and absolutely devastating at points. It asks the questions that we are often afraid to ask in our day and age of the Trump Presidency. It asks how far will you go to save your own skin? Ness also explores the power of the individual throughout the novel which I found very thought provoking. I think this book is appropriate for 10 and up and especially for adults but it does contain dark topics so read with discretion. I cannot wait to read the next one to learn the final fates of Todd and Viola.

Book Review: Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

Wow! I just finished this book a night or two ago and wow! We love a book that sets up the next one in a series….Honestly, it was a great read for me but I do get a little frustrated when it feels like the whole book is just the lead up to another book. That being said, this book was absolutely action packed! There are queens and assassins and ambushes and prisoners and a little bit of history! This book is actually the fourth in a series by LaFevers and I have thoroughly enjoyed both this book and the preceding novels.

LaFevers recreates Brittany during the war torn years before it merged with the larger state of France. The main characters, Sybella and Genevieve are daughters of death in a literal sense that the Breton god of Death is their actual father but they’ve also been schooled in the killing arts. Honestly, this book is absolutely classic Young Adult fiction and I absolutely devoured it. Sybella is definitely my favorite character of the book, she had her stand alone novel as the second in the series but she is no less a delight to follow in this novel. I also find her character highly relatable and wish that I had her AMAZING skills. I would recommend this novel and series to a reader on the older end of the young adult reading spectrum, probably no one younger than 15 as there is some content of a sexual and adult nature. That being said, I did start the series when I was slightly younger than 15 so who am I to say anything about it. I hope that you enjoy LaFevers’ work just as much as I did, there’s really nothing like diving into the rich world of Brittany and the complex female characters that populate this series.

Book Review: A Bite Sized History of France

Ah yes, yet another book review regarding my research on France! Oh boy! Actually, my mother very kindly got me this book while I was recovering from my wisdom teeth surgery, which took much longer that I had thought. She is a thoughtful and wonderful person and I am so glad that she found this book! It was an absolute delight to read and can be read very fast or very slow. The book is structured into small chapters that each contain an anecdote about French cuisine and its’ link to French history. As I haven’t done that much research into the past of France, it was a good primer on French history for a foreigner. It also featured all sorts of regional French cuisine and was a tasty exploration of French food.

This book can be read by readers of all ages and enjoyed by all! It did make me a little hungry every time that I cracked it open but that’s a minor problem and not a bad one to have! It was a joyous celebration of the role of food in the storied past of France while tastefully acknowledging the darker side of French history. One of the things that I thought was well-addressed on a surface level was France’s colonial past and direct role within the North Atlantic Slave trade. This book was also a good debunker of many french myths surrounding their own cuisine and was an all-around good read! I would absolutely recommend this book to all and hope that many more get to enjoy the delights of this particular tome!