Reading Roundup: October 2016

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

One difficulty in writing historical fiction is making the characters at least somewhat relatable to modern readers, while still realistic enough for their setting. One thing authors often do is to make the protagonist some kind of outcast or rebel, which creates conflict and makes them more interesting to current audience. However, this can create a character whose behavior doesn't really fit with the time period. If a book is well-written I can just go along with it and enjoy the story, but sometimes it bugs me. Now that I type all that out, I'm not sure that was really the problem with this book. The main character was pretty immature and didn't really change much before the end of the story. I did feel like the historical details of the setting were well-done, however.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Jahren is a compelling writer and I loved the scientific vignettes about trees scattered throughout the book. They were both informative and lyrical, and I learned a lot of new things about botany. On the other hand, I struggled with the rest of the book. Memoirs provide a lot of leeway for writing creatively about oneself, but this book was just too disjointed and evasive for me to enjoy. For example, the first chapter talks all about her childhood, and yet nothing is ever mentioned about her family again for the rest of the book. There are similar omissions, and things alluded to that feel like the reader is expected to make assumptions and fill in the blanks without a lot of context. I think Jahren is a skilled writer and a talented scientist, but this book felt like it needed a bit more editing to work well.

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

This was a great escapist read for a lazy Saturday afternoon, but I could probably recommend several books with a similar premise that are better written. I figured out the central mystery fairly early on in the story and I thought that several of the characters were just too stereotypical for my taste. The descriptions of the setting were, however, a strong point of the book and made me want to plan a trip to Cornwall.

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

After reading a few less substantial books, it was a treat to dive into one that was much more 'meaty'. Vyleta's strength in this book is definitely world-building, and the book feels much like a Victorian novel in its prose as well as its setting. I thought the second half of the book got a bit bogged down as the plot became rather complicated, and it veered more towards horror than I was expecting, but overall it was a good read. 

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

The thing that surprised me most about this book was the lack of detail in the setting; it mostly focused on the characters and their interactions, and although I know it was set during the 1840s, it could just as easily have taken place fifty years later than that (or even fifty years earlier). The plot was nicely convoluted and I enjoyed watching all the pieces come together in the end in surprising ways; it's easy to see how this could become a television series (and perhaps it will), and maybe it would work better on screen. 

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith

I'm terrible at art, but I love to read books about art, both fiction and nonfiction. I really enjoy books that describe the creative process and art in detail, which this one does really well. It jumps back and forth in time, with some of the same characters at different times in their lives, and I thought that all three timelines were well done. This was not the best book I've read all year, but it was quite good and I would recommend it.

Desire Lines by Christina Baker Kline

This book was mostly forgettable--it's a mystery, but I figured out who the killer was fairly early on in the book. The protagonist was also annoying and didn't change much during the book, and many of the other characters were just cliches.

The Lost Girls by Heather Young

This is another mystery/thriller with parallel timelines that eventually intersect when someone in the present figures out new information that explains the past (I read a lot of these, don't I?). I often prefer the historical timeline for various reasons, but in this book I thought the contemporary story was much more compelling. The characters were more believable and sympathetic and I loved the setting; by the time we figured out what happened in the past, I kind of didn't care much, but I was really happy with the resolution for the present-day protagonist.

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