Reading Challenge Recap: Part 2…looking ahead

The year 2019 has come and gone but before I put it to rest, I decided to finish off my reading challenge reviews. Yes, I know we are nearly a week into halfway through January 2020 and I’ve started a brand new reading challenge. But, the ghosts of last year’s reads are haunting my brain, rattling around and moaning to be released. In essence, I needed to finish what I started.

**Same as in Recap Part 1– linking the reviews I’ve already posted in their titles.

My ratings:

16. Wuthering Heights / Emily Bronte (gothic tale) ★★☆☆☆

For a classic novel that eluded me for many years, I am disappointed. I may be too critical on WH, but my antipathy toward it doesn’t hold a candle to the scathing nature of the characters toward each other. Knowing it’s status as a tragedy, I wasn’t expecting happy-go-lucky handholding through the moors. But seldom have I encountered literary figures who’ve exhibited such abhorrent behavior, yet are so beloved. What am I missing? I’ll attempt to break it down:

A well-to-do man informs his family he found an orphaned gypsy child and adopts him. His bitter jealous son torments the foundling, but his precocious daughter takes him as a confidant. The boy, Heathcliff, vows revenge on his tormentor and devotes his life and (I assume) love to his adopted sister, the selfish Catherine. When she marries a wealthy neighbor, Heathcliff runs away to plan his revenge–on everyone. His return stokes a family feud as ill-fated as the Hatfields v. The McCoys, by the end of which, he has intermittently held his older brother, nephew, sister-in-law/wife, son, niece and nursemaid captive. All in the name of obsessive love and as punishment for never getting the one thing he wants.

Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, for an evening’s amusement.”

P. 278 – Heathcliff Earnshaw, Wuthering Heights

I applaud Bronte for her provocative prose, both captivating and infuriating. The reader moves fluidly between the opposite households and windswept landscapes, encountering devastatingly beautiful passages. Heights contains complicated, flawed characters and breathtaking language, but for me, I guess it’s not enough. Heathcliff is no antihero, however, he is an asshole. Utterly lacking tenderness, the character’s motivation seems derived from the seven deadly sins, as he personifies wrath entire. Fleeting moments of sentiment exist; younger Catherine’s defiance, unfortunate Edgar’s kindness and sacrifice, while Hareton is sympathetic as a boy raised to extol vice and avoid virtue. The strongest criticism I have is the poor choice of narrator. Nelly Dean is unrelatable, daft, and the worst diplomat ever between the families. By never experiencing Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s innermost feelings, their soul-baring monologues were news to me. I felt like a spectator in an increasingly bizarre soap opera. Barring a final scene of redemption for a couple characters, Wuthering Heights left me cold.

Rant over.

17. The Boneless Mercies / April Genevieve Tucholke (a retelling) ★★★☆☆

A dark YA standalone of four mercenary young woman. Tired of the death trade, they seek glory previously reserved for male warriors when they heed the call to kill the ravaging Blue Vee beast. As a loose reimagining of Beowulf, it’s a condensed saga, and quite bloody. Overflowing with sea witch magic, death scenes both quiet and howling, and the fierce desire of young girls to be exalted as the heroes of epic tales they’ve been told. Although I never felt passionate about the characters, it was fast-paced end of year entertainment.

18. What Made Maddy Run: the Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen / Kate Fagan (a guide) ★★★★1/2☆

I couldn’t not pick up this book after coming across the title and looking into the hauntingly pained face of Madison Holleran. Once started, I couldn’t put it down. Maddy’s story is one of too many young athletes and artists who achieve greatness in high school only to feel lost and unmoored in college. Saddled with demands of a prestigious athletic scholarship she no longer wants and faltering under the weight of expectations she can’t attain, Madison spirals into dark desperation. At age 19, despite the concern of her parents and coach, she takes her own life by jumping from a parking garage.

Originally appearing in an ESPNW article, titled Split Image, journalist Kate Fagan sifts through Maddie’s electronic correspondence and social media pages to piece together her final fateful weeks. Fagan’s use of candor in relating her own experience with mental health issues provides clarity. Insights on the Rules of Suicide and media responsibility and the contrast between Maddy’s heavily filtered Instagram posts with her disturbing real-life thoughts are revelatory. That shocking disconnect between outward perception and inner turmoil, between glossed-over text conversations and heartbreaking reality, is the reason I chose WMMR for the guide prompt. More than a riveting account, it is a call to attention and to arms. This should be a guidebook for parents, aunts, uncles, educators and coaches, or anyone who advocates for the protection of young people struggling with mental health.

19. Thunderhead / Neal Shusterman. (BINGO Free Space- pick your own) ★★★★☆ 

20. The Gown: a novel of the Royal Wedding / Jennifer Robson (A book discovered by scrolling #bookstagram) ★★☆☆☆

21. The Nickel Boys / Colson Whitehead (Bildungsroman: a coming of age tale) ★★★★☆

22. The Darkwater Bride / Marty Ross -Audible original (Turn and face the strange-an out of your comfort zone read) ★★★☆☆

23. The Testaments / Margaret Atwood (A last book written by your favorite author * I went with latest book, and hope this isn’t Atwood’s last) ★★★☆☆

Conflicting emotions kept me from reviewing this highly anticipated follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale sooner. Since the first book achieved such a purposefully vague ending, I wondered how the story could be recovered. I checked my expectations and attempted to read with an open mind. Despite this wish, I believe The Testaments slipped into fan service and failed to capture my imagination.

Three witnesses testify to the events leading to the fall of Gilead. Aunt Lydia, one-dimensional in the first book, becomes the lynch pin of secret resistance, undermining the powers-that-be from within by any means necessary. Agnes, a child being groomed for perfect wifehood begins to question the corruption and hypocrisy surrounding her. And Daisy, a typical angsty teenager growing up in relative freedom in Canada, gets pressed into service for Mayday and must infiltrate the enemy. The chilling history of how formerly empowered women become “Aunts” by forced submission is by far the best written and most harrowing aspect. While Daisy’s character seems shallow and Agnes’s portrayal doesn’t add much not already hinted at in the original tale. I understand what Atwood was aiming for in making the younger characters less specific; therefore inhabitable by readers putting themselves in their place. Yet, doing so sacrificed complexity. Despite this unevenness, the three narratives are tied together with a taut atmosphere and powerful central theme: In order to topple the male dominated society, risks must be taken and sisters gotta be doing it for themselves. A worthy follow-up that doesn’t quite evoke the narrative skill of Atwood at the height of her powers.

24. The Awakening of Miss Prim / Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (Hygge: a book for comfort) ★★★1/2☆☆

25. Blood, Water, Paint / Joy McCullough (A happy little accident…or a book that has a title Bob Ross would appreciate) ★★★★☆ 

26. The Two Towers / J. R. R. Tolkien (numeric title) ★★★★☆

27. Beastie Boys Book / Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Crossover) ★★★★★

**As my most satisfying read of the year, Beastie Boys Book has earned it’s due. Check back for a full review tomorrow.

28. Educated / Tara Westover (character who loves to read) ★★★☆☆

In this acclaimed memoir, the daughter of survivalists, who is kept out of school, educates herself enough to escape her surroundings and attend university. Tara Westover’s story is astonishing. Not only because she accomplishes Cambridge grad school on a pea-sized pre-education, but because she survives childhood under the extreme recklessness and neglect of her parents. Raised on an isolated Idaho mountain, she preferred exploring the family junkyard rather than reading. When seeking more opportunity, she takes learning into her own hands, turning to the Book of Mormon’s dense sermons to develop critical thinking skills. As if being limited and undervalued for being female isn’t bad enough, adding to her turmoil is the re-appearance of an older brother who is domineering and sadistic.

Westover writes with striking self-awareness, especially considering her sheltered upbringing. The recollections of physical and emotional abuse are vivid and disturbing. As is the moralizing gaslighting by her parents. I admire Tara’s resilience and daring choice when the odds seemed stacked against her. But there is danger in relying on one’s memory to tell a family history and she readily admits some details are cloudy. Joyless and ironic, as circumstances cast as tragic become celebrated and the family’s manipulation tactics prove profitable. I didn’t love reading Educated but it is a powerful tale regardless.

29. Far from the Madding Crowd / Thomas Hardy (Victorian vintage) ★★★★☆

Thomas Hardy illuminates his novel with voluminous description, emotional decadence, abundant dialogue and deep dives into timeless dilemmas. Through formal language that isn’t too ‘wither thou go’est’, the minutiae of the pastoral Wessex community became fascinating to me, even the care of sheep. A layered story dripping with symbolism, it deals with themes of love, honor and betrayal. I enjoyed exploring the pitfalls of womanhood in Victorian England. For Bathsheba Everdene, a plucky young lass with agency and more than a little conceit, the struggle is in making the best choice among three suitors. Her decision is juxtaposed with less fortunate Fanny Robin, who, as a consequence, is left with no choice at all. Many different types of love are expressed. Bright blinding infatuation, unrelenting obsession and quiet devotion battle for the heart of Miss Everdene. As Bathsheba’s life becomes more entwined with faithful sentinel Gabriel Oak, a tender portrait emerges and Hardy’s subtle romance wins me over.

30. The Starless Sea / Erin Morgenstern (celestial object on cover/title) ★★★☆☆

Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a book that tells of a 10-year old boy who comes across a mysterious door painted on a wall and feels compelled to open it, but doesn’t. He was that boy and his indecision haunts him to the present day. An impromptu trip to NYC to hunt for the book’s origins lands him in his own adventure story, with a labyrinthine underground depository, and in possible love. There’s also pirates, video game design theory, owl kings, fancy cocktails, portals, metaphors, infinite harbors, the personification of fate and time, bees, and a honey sea. And if that sounds like a lot, it is.

Whereas, The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s debut was effortless, The Starless Sea felt daunting. Crammed with too many ideas, at turns, intricate and intoxicating, the twists became exhausting. Some plot threads made my heart beat faster, as in, The Ballad of Simon and Eleanor. Morgenstern navigates skillfully through time, however, all the story-inside-a-story subplots, myriad endings and literal sea of honey weighed heavily on the thin plot. It never coalesced; proving a book can be thrilling and unsatisfying at the same time.

Reading goals

And with the flip of a calendar page we are in a brand new year, decade even. I have high bookish hopes in 2020 and beyond. Thanks for following along with my reading recap. Fun, new Reading Challenge can be found here.

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