The Monday Check-In ~ 5/11/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Wishing all the moms out there a happy Mother’s Day! My family treated me to a nice breakfast, fun phone calls, and a walk… which is about all we can do during these social distancing days. I enjoyed it all!

What did I read during the last week?

Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay: The follow-up novel to The Printed Letter Bookshop. Enjoyable and warm. My review is here.

Defy or Defend (Delightfully Deadly, #2) by Gail Carriger. So much fun! My review is here.

Past Prologue by Diana Gabaldon and Steve Berry: An Outlander-adjacent story collaboration. And yes, Jamie Fraser makes an appearance, making this short story a must-read for all Outlander fans.

Pop culture — Outlander, season 5:

Season 5 of Outlander ended Sunday night. And now Droughtlander begins again. Right after watching, I wrote up my reaction to the season finale. It was a really difficult episode, and I found it hard to talk about.

Outlander, episode 512, “Never My Love” — my reaction post is here.

Other TV watching:

Anyone else watch Netflix’s Hollywood ? It’s so… different from what I expected, and really, really interesting. I watched the whole thing over the weekend (only seven episodes). Patti Lupone’s fabulous performance is a highlight, but really, there’s a lot to take in and enjoy.

Fresh Catch:

No new print books this week… although my Kindle library is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to all the random price drops that have come my way over the past few weeks.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

If It Bleeds by Stephen King: I’ve read three of the four stories in this collection. Loving it so far! I think I’m going to need to buy myself a copy once I return this one to the library.

Now playing via audiobook:

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski: The audiobook narrator makes these stories so much fun.

Ongoing reads:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Woo hoo! I made a big effort this week, and now just need to read one more chapter to catch up to my book group!

So many books, so little time…

boy1

The Monday Check-In ~ 5/4/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Another week. What is there to say? Working hard (at home, of course)… but at least we had a good few days of sunshine, so I was able to get in some long walks and feel the fresh air on my face!

Oh, and I started a new jigsaw puzzle — first one in a while. It’s making me happy.

What did I read during the last week?

The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay: Uplifting novel with a bookstore setting — always a plus! My review is here.

Educated by Tara Westover: I listened to the audiobook of this memoir, and was completely fascinated by it. My review is here.

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi: An awesome wrap-up to a terrific sci-fi trilogy! My review is here.

Read but not reviewed:

Long Story Short by Lisa Brown: Lisa Brown’s 3-panel book review comics used to appear in the book section of my local paper (back when the paper still had a book section, which it no longer does…). Anyhoo, I always enjoyed these literary comics, so I thought I’d treat myself to the newly released book version. It’s fun, but I have to be honest and say that I’m a little mad at myself for spending money on this, when I’m trying to budget my book buying. I flipped through it in about 20 minutes, and now I’m done. Some of the comics are very clever, others made little impression. I think this would be a great gift for a booklover, but I’m not convinced I needed to buy it for myself. Moving on.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling: Yes, I’ve read the tales plenty of times already, but this is a new Audible production, featuring HP cast members such as Warwick Davis, Jude Law, Jason, Isaacs, and more. The audiobook is short (1.5 hours), and includes Dumbledore’s commentary on each story. Totally fun way to experience these “classic” tales all over again!

Pop culture — Outlander, season 5:

Season 5 of Outlander is almost over. As usual, I wrote up my thoughts on this week’s episode:

Outlander, episode 511, “Journeycake” — my reaction post is here.

Next week is the season finale!

Other TV watching:

Never Have I Ever on Netflix is sweet, funny, touching — a must-watch! And it’s only 10 half-hour episodes, so it’s easy to gulp down over a couple of days.

And… I watched Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Mixed feelings on this one. I binged all of GG’s seven seasons during the past year, and loved the characters and the story so much (except for certain parts and occurrences that I’d prefer to ignore). A Year in the Life takes place ten years after the regular series, and while it was great to see these beloved characters again, it also made me sad. Sad to see how much older everyone is, sad to see that life hasn’t turned out perfectly for everyone, and sad because of certain losses that have occurred. (Also, sad to see some body-shaming going on, which just is not in good taste, but that’s a different kind of sad!). I’m really glad I watched, but I’m left with some dissatisfaction too, and wish there could be more!

Fresh Catch:

My signed copy of Defy or Defend arrived! Thank you Gail Carriger and Borderlands Books! I’m so excited to start this!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Of Literature & Lattes by Katherine Reay: After finishing The Printed Letter Bookshop, I just had to start this book, which is set in the same small town and has many of the same characters. I’m at about 50%, and it’s charming.

Now playing via audiobook:

Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski: I was feeling the need for a little more Witcher in my life right now. These audiobooks are so much fun!

Ongoing reads:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: My book group is reading two chapters per week. I managed to read a little more, but I’m still six or seven chapters behind.

Past Prologue by Diana Gabaldon and Steve Berry: Also in book group, we’re doing a group read of this short story featuring the King of Men (Jamie Fraser).

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Take a Peek Book Review: The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reay

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Bronte

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy’s secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James’s wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy’s predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen’s wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters’ beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that’s been waiting for her all along.

 

My Thoughts:

I’ve enjoyed author Katherine Reay’s previous two novels, Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane, and I had high hopes for The Brontë Plot as well. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting elements, the overall story just doesn’t hold up.

Lucy is a flawed character, someone with obvious talent and enthusiasm, but who makes questionable choices when it comes to achieving her ends. Her actions eventually catch up to her and cause a rupture with the people she cares most about, but her trip with Helen seems to represent a second chance — even though Lucy goes right on fabricating stories to suit her needs even while trying to start fresh.

Lucy’s relationships with James and with her boss Sid are engaging, and it’s hard not to care while she deals with the fall-out once James discovers her dishonesty. Still, it’s difficult to feel a whole lot of sympathy for a main character who takes such foolish actions, and I felt that the resolution of the various conflicts and disappointments was a bit too easy.

The pacing of the book seems to sag once Lucy sets off for England with Helen, where far too much time is spent on the details of their tourism, their hotel accommodations, and their meals. I was never particularly engaged by the family secrets that Lucy and Helen seek to come to peace with, and the literary theme, walking in the footsteps of the Brontës and their contemporaries, with constant references to Jane Eyre, Heathcliff and Catherine, and more, felt forced and not an organic part of the story.

The author creates interesting, multi-faceted characters in this book, but the plot itself didn’t really go anywhere, in my opinion. While I’ll continue to follow this author and hope to read more by her in the future, I’d say The Brontë Plot is mostly skippable.

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The details:

Title: The Brontë Plot
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley

Take a Peek Book Review: Lizzy & Jane by Katherine Reay

A quick note: I thought I’d try out a new book review format! My “Take a Peek” reviews will be short and (I hope) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little “peek” at what the book’s about and what I thought. Tell me if you like!

Lizzy and Jane

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lizzy and Jane never saw eye to eye. But when illness brings them together, they discover they may be more like Austen’s famous sisters after all.

Lizzy was only a teenager when her mother died of cancer. Shortly after, Lizzy fled from her home, her family, and her cherished nickname. After working tirelessly to hone her gift of creating magic in the kitchen, Elizabeth has climbed the culinary ladder to become the head chef of her own New York restaurant, Feast. But as her magic begins to elude her, Paul, Feast’s financial backer, brings in someone to share her responsibilities and her kitchen. So Elizabeth flees again.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her gift, Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

As she tends to Jane’s needs, Elizabeth’s powers begin to return to her, along with the family she left behind so long ago. Then Paul tries to entice her back to New York, and she is faced with a hard decision: stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane, or return to New York and the life she worked so hard to create?

My Thoughts:

Lizzy & Jane is both sad and hopeful, a look at two sisters who have a seemingly impassable chasm between them after years of resentment, estrangement, and loneliness. Elizabeth is adrift in the world; she thinks that she’s put her painful family history behind her and that she’s found success as a top New York chef, but as the story opens, she’s forced to admit that her life just isn’t working any more.

Reunited with her sister and her father, Elizabeth slowly starts to find joy in her cooking again, as she cares for her sister, her sister’s kids, and even the other chemo patients she meets while keeping Jane company. As Elizabeth begins to open herself up to forgiveness and reconciliation, she finds her life taking on new meaning and finds a passion and purpose that she didn’t even know she needed.

I loved how neatly the author ties together literature and cooking in this lovely (and delicious) novel. I’m not a foodie, but even I appreciated Lizzy’s knack for understanding a person’s food tastes based on what they love to read. I don’t know if I’m quite convinced that it would work in real life, but in the context of fiction, it’s simply inspired!

Overall, I really enjoyed Lizzy & Jane. The main character is flawed and wounded, and it’s lovely to see her reconnect with her sister and rediscover herself in the process. The love story is a tad predictable, but still delicious in its own way. The portrayal of the fraught relationship between the sisters feels realistic and sensitive, and I couldn’t help cheering for the characters (and occasionally wanting to give them a little kick to get them talking again!). Filled with real emotion, satisfying personal growth, and a group of supporting characters who each add a little spice to the story, Lizzy & Jane is a great choice for anyone looking for a book to make you feel.

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The details:

Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 339 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley

 

Book Review: Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay

Book Review: Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay

Dear Mr. KnightleyThis debut novel combines the wit of Austen with the gritty pluck of Bronte, but with a modern-day setting that adds several unexpected twists and a deeper level of truth and examination than I’d expected.

In Dear Mr. Knightley, main character Samantha (who goes by Sam) is a college grad on the verge of aging out of the support systems available to former foster kids. With the prodding of her mentor, Father John, who runs the group home in which she lives, Sam applies for a grant from an anonymous foundation. This grant will enable her to enroll in graduate school, and will cover all expenses while she pursues her degree. The only catch is that Sam must write a series of letters to her benefactor, who uses the pseudonym George Knightley, knowing it will appeal to Sam’s inner Austen-phile and keep his true identity a secret.

Sam’s life has not been easy, and she is plagued by self-doubt. She’s spent all her life feeling unloved and unwanted, and has hidden herself away in the pages of her beloved books. When anxious or faced with a need to connect with people, she hides behind her characters, quoting Lizzy Bennet or Emma or even Edmond Dantes — which lets her keep her walls intact, and ensures that anyone who tries to reach out to her will run in the opposite direction.

But once Sam receives her grant and starts her graduate program in journalism, she realizes that her walls are crumbling — and that she needs to let them. She can’t succeed as a writer if she keeps her heart hidden away; she can’t connect as a friend if she refuses to let anyone know her. As Sam narrates her tale via letters to Mr. Knightley, we witness her fears, her doubts, her pain, and her glimmers of joy. We delight with her when she sees new possibilities, but we can’t help but want to cry every time poor wounded Sam seems to be making another counter-productive decision based on insecurity and lack of confidence.

I enjoyed the writing style here very much. The entire book is told via Sam’s letters to Mr. Knightley, so it’s all first-person and very immediate. She writes from her heart to her anonymous correspondent, allowing herself the freedom in her letters to reveal herself in all the ways she’d never do with a real person. While occasionally seeming more naive than seems reasonable for a 23-year-old, I could suspend my disbelief based on the facts of Sam’s life. If she seems to have odd ideas about friendship, connection, and relationships, it’s understandable, given that she bounced from foster family to foster family, experienced disastrous encounters with her real parents, and finally ended up at the group home for the remainder of her teen and early adult years.

If you happened to read my blog yesterday (here), then you may have seen my mini-freak-out about finding out that a book I was reading was listed on Amazon as “Christian fiction”. This is the book that triggered all of that. And it’s puzzling to me. Had I not come across that designation on Amazon, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to think of this book as anything other than contemporary fiction. Yes, there were passages, especially toward the end, where Sam is encouraged toward “surrender” and finding joy in faith. But it’s not heavy-handed, I didn’t feel like the book itself was proselytizing in any way, and the references to characters’ faith and beliefs felt organic and reasonable within the context of the story. What I had feared might be a problem for me really wasn’t. So, after much ado about nothing, all’s well that ends well! (Sorry… )

The book is a quick read, but it’s not fluffy. It does seem that things always work out for Sam in a big way. Too sugar-coated, perhaps? Yes, it can seem like a fairy tale at points, the way the grants, the internships, the supportive people always come through just when needed. But that is balanced, for the most part, by a refusal to gloss over the harder parts of Sam’s life, so truly, even if it seems unlikely that things could work out so well in real life, there’s no doubt that Sam has earned all that comes her way by the end.

I mentioned earlier that I liked the writing style — and I really did, except for a certain phrasing oddity that kept jumping out at me: Whenever characters use the work “couple”, it’s phrased as “a couple papers”, “a couple internships”, “a couple days ago”. What happened to the “of”??? Is this a regional quirk, perhaps? I have no idea, but it really bugged me. This is a minor quibble, though; for the most part, I enjoyed Sam’s voice very much. Some epistolary novels seem forced, using the letter format as a gimmick that doesn’t always allow for fully fleshed-out storytelling. This is not the case in Dear Mr. Knightley: Through Sam’s letters, we get insight into her heart and mind in a way that might not have worked otherwise, and because we know that Sam herself is a skilled writer, it makes sense that her letters are so articulate and thoughtful.

If you’ve read the 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, then the secrets and resolution of Dear Mr. Knightley won’t be a surprise. But even knowing how it would work out, I still enjoyed the author’s skill in weaving the backbone of the older book into this fresh novel, finding a way to take a set of circumstances that might seem old-fashioned and apply them to a modern setting in a way that’s believable.

I’m glad that I didn’t let the genre issue keep me from exploring and enjoying this touching, delightful book. Skillfully weaving together threads of classic literature into a modern-day setting that rings true, Dear Mr. Knightley is a lovely look at the journey of a special young woman. I’m happy to have read it, and I’m happy to recommend it.

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The details:

Title: Dear Mr. Knightley
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley