A prayer for a good book

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Hurrah!

The first week of my 50 Book Challenge and I finished the book! Is that too many exclamation points to kick off a post? I don’t care because I’m off to a good start with this challenge and I’m feeling pretty excited!

Seriously, every time I have a dry spell in finding a good book, I need to remember that I can always turn to Sarah Dunant. With reading Sacred Hearts I’ve finished all of her historical fiction, so I’ll have to try her earlier work, which is in the thriller genre, unless the follow up to Blood & Beauty comes out (fingers-crossed).

For now, I just enjoyed devouring Sacred Hearts. Published in 2009, Sacred Hearts was shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The story takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina in 1570 in the city of Ferrara. Serafina, a novice, is entered into the convent against her will and is placed in the care of Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. While Caterina and Zuana bond as they work side by side in the dispensary, the head of the convent, Madonna Chiara, manoeuvres to fix the novice’s place in the convent while maintaining peace within its walls. Through all this, Serafina is used as a conduit through which convent struggles to find a balance between the warring forces of the counter-reformation and a more well-rounded experience within the strictures of convent life.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 22.43.06At two moments in the book, I really wasn’t sure how the story would unfold and could see the plot spinning off in totally different directions. This is one of Dunant’s great skills – presenting the possible outcomes before pushing the chips in one decisive direction. The first break takes place as Serafina carries out a plan of escape from the convent and is confronted by Zuana. The second is as Suora Umiliana, the sister in charge of the novices, makes moves to unseat Madonna Chiara and change the lives of all who dwell in the convent. The way Dunant is able to unfold both these plot lines feels unforced and true to the world she has created. All at once, you believe the contradictory thoughts that everything is both an inevitable progression as well as the consequence of random decisions and moments.

Dunant’s other great strength is her ability to weave historical detail into the story in a way that doesn’t just provide context but also enhances the characters’ personalities and moves the plot forward. The opening chapter sets the stage and players so clearly, you feel completely immersed in their world very quickly, mostly due to her eye for detail for the lives of the women whose story she is telling. On another day, I’ll do a close read of the opening scene and try to highlight the layers of history and character that Dunant uses to set the scene and lead in the reader.

Having finished this book makes me regret that I only put in one book from each author (excluding David Adams Richards) for my 50 Book Challenge. I count Dunant in my top five favourite authors and I’m really glad that I started this challenge off with such a strong book. I hope it bodes well for the rest of my choices.

One down, 49 to go!

BJL

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A Journey of 50 Books

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Happy New Year!

I hope everyone got in some good reading time over the Christmas holidays. Sneaking in some time for a few pages of a good book is how I de-stress in the midst of multiple big holiday gatherings.

Finding more time to read is one of my goals for 2016 and to that end I am I taking part in a 50 Book Challenge. I spent some of my December putting together a list.

I have already organized which books I will read in each month (though not in any particular order) so that could build in reading breaks between heavy subjects or longer reads and will be able to prepare for what is coming up. Also, I primarily use the library to get books and, as good as the Toronto Public Library is at having a lot of copies of in-demand books, I didn’t want to have to worry about my holds coming in on time, so I don’t have any new fiction coming out in 2016 on my list.

With so many great books from so many lists and recommendations I had to narrow my choices. Here are some of the deciding considerations I used to make my list of 50 books.

A lot of my choices came in groups of six to help get me going without overwhelming me if I didn’t take to any particular group.

  • David Adams Richards: I love his writing and want to get through more of his work but the stories are not easy reads in content or style so I wanted to space them out every other month.
  • Non-fiction: I am challenging myself to read more non-fiction since I so rarely pick any up
  • Young adult: To balance out the non-fiction, I found six interesting young adult books to read. I don’t really read YA, but so much great work is coming out of this group that I didn’t want keep missing out.
  • Canadian: Even with Richards on my list, I added six additional Canadian writers to bring my country home
  • TBR: I have books on my shelf that I have never read, so six of them got added for this challenge

The rest are all a mix of books I found just in looking for this list, rereads of old favourites, and recommendations from one friend or online list or another. I’m really looking forward to tackling this project and sharing all my reads with you.

Let me know what you think of my list, if there are any books you loved (or hated) on there, and if you’re taking part in any reading challenges this year.

Happy reading!

50 Book Challenge Sword in the Stone

Sword in the Stone

50 Book Challenge 2016

January

Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The Sibyl by Par Lagervist

Getting Things Done by David Allen

 

February

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

March

Nights Below Station St. by David Adams Richards

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

An Orange From Portugal Editor Anne Simpson

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

 

April

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundarsan

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

 

May

Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace by David Adams Richards

The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland

Cosmopolis by Don Delillo

The Hours Count by Jillian Canter

 

June

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

Scary Close by Donald Miller

 

July

For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down by David Adams Richards

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All the Rage by Courtney Summers

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

 

August

60 by Ian Brown

The Imperialist by Sarah Jeanette Duncan

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Artic Summer by Damon Galgut

 

September

Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald High by Gordon Korman

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

 

October

An Inconvenient Indian by Tom King

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

November

The Bay of Love & Sorrows by David Adams Richards

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

 

December

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

All I Need is Love by Klaus Kinski

A wish, a dream, a concrete plan

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I love structure and organization. I get excited when I see pretty boxes and I have different coloured pens and papers for making notes. So why I never wrote out a plan for my blog is a mystery to me. I had ideas. General expectations of when and about what I would blog. This hasn’t worked out for me too well as the consistency of my blogging is not strong, to say the least.

For 2016, one of my goals is to change that and to that end I am putting together a real plan with weekly scheduled posts, complete with topics, for the next few months. I am on an organizing kick and I must say it feels pretty good.

The first step in my plan is to make a commitment to the 50 Book Challenge. I will read 50 books over the next year, roughly a book per week, and blog about them for re: read pages. Knowing myself, I can’t just leave that to chance, so I am compiling a list in advance. I’m aiming to have a diverse list, with a balance between heavy and light reads (to give myself a break). I am keeping my focus on debut novels, historical fiction and David Adams Richards, but I’ll also try some books outside my usual interest, such as non-fiction and YA.

I am somewhat limited by my desire/need to source my books from either the library or my bookshelf as buying 50 books is not something I am prepared to commit to, thanks. This means that I probably won’t be reading the hot new title of 2016, unless I get a gift card this Christmas or score the top spot on the library’s hold list. But, in my mind, a good book is a good book no matter the year, so that shouldn’t hold me back.

I’ll share the complete list in a post to kick off the new year.

I think having a concrete goal with stages and objectives will really go a long way to helping me stay on track and be a more consistent and productive reader and writer. I’m hoping that the results I see will spur me to better work overall.

  1. I’m already excited.

#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?

Things that make you go hmmm

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I feel like I’ve read a series of books in which important plot points defy the laws of coincidence. Meaning that an event occurs or a detail is revealed that makes me say hmmm? It’s too neat or too unlikely and I am incapable of truly accepting the information no matter how great its impact.

Longbourn by Jo Baker is, unfortunately, full of such moments. Subtitled, Pride and Prejudice: The Servants’ Story, the novel tells about the hidden lives of the servants in Jane Austen’s beloved tale.

The details of the work, how the lives of the Bennet girls impact their day, is well done. Notes of tea leaves sprinkled to clean floors, lye burning their hands as they scrub dress hems clean, or recycling washing water to clean the flagstone outside are neatly incorporated. In one passage Sarah, the housemaid at the centre of this novel, feels as though her job has seeped into her very skin:

She lifted her hands to sniff them: grease and onions and kitchen soap. This must be the smell she carried with her wherever she went, whenever it was not something worse.

Sarah is aware of herself and how she is seen or, more accurately,  not seen by her employers. The servants presence and work are both taken for granted and ignored by the Bennet girls, but Baker does a good job of showing how the servants’ fears about their future are as equal to Mrs. Bennet’s and her girls. Baker falters when describing the lives the servants try to make for themselves outside of work, making choices that seem out of touch for the time period and forced for dramatic purposes.

The love life of the characters is the best example. The servants from the various households interact as the Bennet daughters are courted. A footman from the Bingley household is eager to make an impression on Sarah – but Ptolemy is not just a footman with grand ideas for his future (he wants to open a tobacco shop), he is a black footman.

Why Baker felt the need to include this twist is beyond me. Pride and Prejudice is set in the early 1800s, which means the slave trade (but not slavery itself) had only just been outlawed. The likelihood of an upper class, original old-money family having a black footman seems impossible, especially in a position that, if Downton Abbey has taught me anything, requires some training.

But Baker doesn’t stop there. I went from hmmm to whatever when the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, started looking to Ptolemy as a potential husband for Sarah. I know the rules were different for the servant class, but I’m pretty sure mixed-marriage was off the books for a long time coming. And the reason Mrs. Hill was even looking to Ptolemy for Sarah was the sudden absence of the housemaid’s suitor, the sometimes footman and general labourer at Longbourn, James Smith.

The Bennet women forget that James was even a part of their lives. They even forget his name. His importance is secondary to the pursuit of marriage for the Bennett daughters. The strain of his disappearance pulls at the household as Lydia has run off with Wickham.

I admit I enjoyed that his name could be anybody’s. Even today, James Smith would turn up a lot of Google hits. The blandness of his name makes people think he is a nobody, but to Sarah, to Mrs. Hill, to the people who love him – he is irreplaceable.

Smith’s story is also somewhat of a misstep, in my opinion. Baker fills out his back story from a rough sketch of his childhood through the rough years of living as a solider in the Peninsular War to just as he joins the Bennet household. His story is interesting and well told but it also takes you far away from Longbourn. The twist in his history (another thing to make me go hmmm) and his connection to Longbourn don’t really make up for the amount of time spent away from Sarah and the storyline provided by Pride and Prejudice.

The time taken for Smith’s story is especially frustrating after Sarah decides to quit her job with the newly married Elizabeth to find the long absent Smith after she gets an idea of where to find him. Sarah’s journey north, on foot, on her own is completely skipped over and the story picks up when the two lovers are reunited. The story flashes forward again to wrap up with the two of them arriving back home to Longbourn.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Longbourn or that Baker isn’t an accomplished writer, just that I couldn’t lose myself in this story.

Be Our Guest

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Today, I am guest blogging on Girl of 1000 Wonders. Thanks, Charlie, for letting me be a part of your book discussion!

So go check out my post, Another Side to the Story, on the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As is obvious from the title, it tells the story of the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, starting on the day that Juliet is born. Leveen does a great job of creating a history and rounded character for Shakespeare’s bawdy nurse.

And be sure to check back here at re: read pages later this week for an update on my writing plans and my thoughts on Jo Baker’s Longbourn.

BJL

This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.