Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Back when I was putting together my Classics Club list, I knew that I wanted to include several books from the Victorian era. It's one of the literary time periods that I really enjoy, so after selecting several novels that I already owned for the challenge, I did a quick Google search to see if there were any notable authors that I was missing. The name that came up the most often that I didn't recognize was Anthony Trollope. I investigated a little bit further and learned that Trollope was a prolific author during his time and was probably the most well known for his Chronicles of Barsetshire, a collection of six novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, England. The first novel in the series, and his first major success as an author, was The Warden. Interested to try this new-to-me author, I put The Warden on my list and picked up a copy at my favorite used book store. As the novel is fairly short (only 284 pages in my edition), and as I knew that my reading time was about to be reduced by school back starting up, I decided that this month was the perfect time to give it a try.

The plot of the novel follows Septimus Harding, a clergyman in Barsetshire whose affable nature has made him a favorite of the community. His main duty is to serve as the warden of Hiram's Hospital, a small almshouse that provides medical care and living accommodations to old, infirm, and penniless men. The charity hospital was established in 1434 by John Hiram, who created the foundation in his will. He left land and money to the church for the maintenance of the hospital, and since that time, his bequest has greatly increased in value. In fact, the land now produces much more income than the almshouse needs. The excess funds have been used to increase the salary of the warden, and over the years, the position has become extremely well-paying. By the time Septimus accepted the position, the salary had ballooned to 800 pounds a year, plus a spacious home to live in on the hospital property. The money and benefits of the position, however, are not something that Mr. Harding thinks a lot about. He tacitly accepted the position and its salary when it was offered to him and has been performing his duties admirably for several years.  

His quiet, happy life is thrown into disarray, however, when a few other churches in the area are implicated in financial scandals. Local reformers begin looking for more examples of financial mismanagement in Barsetshire's religious institutions, and the large salary paid to the warden of Hiram's Hospital catches their attention. A young man named John Bold takes up the case and leads the charge against the inflated salary, claiming that the excess funds generated by the land should go to the hospital's patients, rather than be used to line a clergyman's pockets. Bold avoids attacking Mr. Harding directly, as his relationship to him is complicated. He has known and respected Harding since he was a child and is actually in love with his daughter, Eleanor. Even so, he feels compelled to correct what he feels is a grave, moral wrong, and he moves forward with his advocacy on behalf of Barsetshire's citizens.

Mr. Harding is devastated by this turn of events. He is distressed at the idea of people believing him to be a thief, and as newspapers begin to pick up the story and paint him in a negative light, he is depressed and humiliated. To make matters worse, he begins to doubt the fairness of his salary himself. He never stopped to consider if his 800 pounds a year was excessive before, and now that he is forced to think about it, he starts to think that maybe Mr. Bold has a point. Determined to do the right thing, Mr. Harding must decide how to move forward. Should he sit back and allow the church to crush the call for reforms with legal maneuvering, or should he give up being the warden of Hiram Hospital and put his conscience at ease?

I'm going to be honest. I struggled with The Warden. I'm not really sure why, because there isn't anything obviously wrong with it. It's the kind of classic that I should love, but I found myself consistently bored with it. It wasn't even 300 pages, which is amazingly short for a Victorian novel, and I took ages to finish it. Part of the problem was that this book had the effect of a powerful sleeping pill on me. I started nodding off almost every single time I picked it up. No matter how strongly I resolved to sit and make my way through it, I ended up disengaged within a few pages. I think the issue was that the story was about so little besides the warden's salary. Every page featured someone agonizing about it. Mr. Harding was always in a state of moral crisis over it, John Bold was always torn between duty and friendship over it, and various other supporting characters were always either upset or pleased over it. The plot was laser-focused on the moral questions surrounding this single issue and it didn't make for thrilling reading.

That's not to say that Trollope didn't make good points or paint a pretty picture with this story. His exploration of church hypocrisy and reformers raised interesting questions and his writing had a cheeky quality that frequently made me smile. Mr. Harding was a very sympathetic character and his firm sense of right and wrong was quite endearing. The relationships between the characters were complex, with lots of conflicting feelings to humanize them and add complications to the plot. I even appreciated the ending, which was a little darker than I was expecting. There were lots of things to like here. I just didn't particularly love any of it.

One more small, but frustrating difficulty I encountered was with terminology. Trollope used a lot of words that I was not familiar with in relation to the hospital and the church. I could figure most things out using context, but there was an usual amount of language that I was not familiar with throughout the novel. The fault for this frustration is mine, of course, but it did not help improve my reading experience. 

So obviously, The Warden is not destined to go down as one of my favorite classics. I'm not ready to give up on Anthony Trollope though. I feel like I haven't read the best of his work yet, and I definitely want to try a few more of his novels in the future. For now though, it's enough that I tried a new author and crossed another title off my Classics Club list.      

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#54 on my list): 77/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 68


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston


After really enjoying The Hating Game, I was in the mood for another light, fun read. I decided to continue chipping away at the StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge, as I knew that I had something perfect on that list. One of the prompts asked me to read a book that one of the challenge hosts, Tam or Nadia, had read and reviewed. I scrolled through Tam's reviews until I found a book that she enjoyed and that I was curious about. That turned out to be Casey McQuiston's Red, White & Royal Blue. This new adult romance was highly publicized when it was released last year, and every review I've seen for it so far has been extremely positive. This isn't a novel that I would normally pick up on my own, but this challenge gave me a good reason to satisfy my curiosity and give it a try.  

The plot follows Alex Claremont-Diaz, college student and first son of the United States. As the novel begins, his mother has been president for the past three years and he's been living an exciting and fairly glamorous life in the White House. He gets along with nearly everybody, but he harbors a strong dislike for Prince Henry, one of the current royal siblings of England. They interact with each other occasionally at various official functions, and even though they are of similar age, Alex finds Henry to be stiff and unfriendly. They've had a mildly antagonistic relationship for years and whenever both are in the same room, they generally avoid each other.

That arrangement comes crashing down, however, when an accident at a royal wedding causes the pair to tumble into the cake. They make a complete spectacle of themselves, and soon the tabloids are bursting with stories about how the pair are feuding. In an effort to repair American/British relations, both governments force the boys to start spending time together in the public eye, to give the impression that they are actually good friends.

After a few of these orchestrated outings, Alex begins to realize that he doesn't actually hate Henry as much as he thought. Not only that, but as he gets to know him better, he realizes that he has romantic feelings for him - feelings that Henry returns. Before long, the boys are carrying on a secret relationship. However, it isn't easy to be gay when you are both sons of world leaders, and worries about family image and reelection campaigns threaten their happiness. The boys must try to find a way to balance the demands and expectations of their families with their feelings, or break things off forever.

This was a very cute little read, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I thought that McQuiston did a nice job giving both Alex and Henry different, well-developed personalities. Each had their own issues to deal with and unique problems to overcome. They had hobbies and interests outside of each other. This wasn't just a story about the struggles of being gay, it was also a story about family relationships, politics, and self-discovery. Throughout the story, Alex is grappling with his own political ambitions and decisions regarding his career path. Henry is struggling mightily with the death of his father and the emotional absence of his mother. I liked the fact that there was a lot of detail in this novel that went beyond the romance.

Of course, the romance is the main focus of the novel, and I thought that was pretty well done too. Watching Alex and Henry come to realize their feelings for each other was sweet and engaging. I'm starting to like the "hate to love" trope more and more these days, and this was a great example of it. Once the pair was together, I was always rooting for them to find ways to stay that way, despite their difficult circumstances. There were several steamy scenes throughout the novel as well, which were nicely descriptive without being overly graphic. This was my first experience with a new adult romance, and I thought it was nicely done. 

Red, White & Royal Blue ended up being a really fun reading experience. It was an emotional and sweet read that managed to remain pretty light throughout despite its sometimes-serious subject matter. It was also nice to escape into a world where a democratic, strong woman won the 2016 election, but that's beside the point here. Much like the last romance I read for this challenge, It's not the sort of book I would pick up on my own. However, after having such a good time with it, I'm thinking that I may need to expand my reading horizons a little more and give more romances a try. It was nice to have the chance to read outside of my usual tastes for a while.

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 6/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 67

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

One of the prompts in the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge is to read a book that exactly fits another member's preferred book type. To make my selection for this category, I decided to pick a user with very different reading tastes to mine. I scrolled through users on the StoryGraph website until I found someone that had just finished reading a romance novel - a genre I don't generally pick up. Clicking on their profile informed me that this particular user reads mainly fiction books that are lighthearted, emotional, and funny. They tend to choose fast-paced books that are 300-499 pages long. Pretty much all of these preferences were the opposite of mine, so that's what I went with. I plugged those preferences in StoryGraph's filters and The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, a contemporary romance, was the first book to come up.

The Hating Game follows Lucy Hutton, a young woman with a job as an assistant to the CEO at a publishing house. She is good at her job and enjoys it, with one exception--another assistant at the company, Joshua Templeman. She and Josh do not get along at all, and they spend most days engaged in an endless battle of wills, purposely antagonizing each other to the point of big arguments and, occasionally, tears.  They push each other's buttons constantly, and their terrible relationship is the stuff of office legend.

As the story begins, a big promotion becomes available at their company. Both Lucy and Josh decide to pursue it. Whoever gets the job would be the other one's boss, so the stakes are high. Early on, Lucy decides that if she doesn't get the promotion she will resign her position. She can't bear the thought of having to report to Josh, who she assumes would make her life miserable. The tension between the pair builds steadily as they both start preparing for their interviews, and then a curious thing happens. Josh corners Lucy with a steamy kiss in their elevator one afternoon--a kiss that she thoroughly enjoys. Now, Lucy must figure out her evolving feelings for a person she's always hated and determine whether this kiss is a ploy to distract her from her professional goals, or the start of something more interesting.

This book ended up really surprising me, in a good way. Don't get me wrong, it was total and complete fluff that played to every classic romance trope, but I completely loved it. The relationship between Lucy and Josh was well-developed, with their initial negativity growing into a romantic connection at a good pace. Sally Thorne clearly knows what she's doing in this genre, as the story, while definitely silly and unrealistic in parts, was always engaging and provided an excellent backdrop for Lucy and Josh to play off of each other. The steamy scenes were well done and weren't awkward for me at all, which I was a bit concerned about as a newer reader of the genre. This provided the best escape reading I'd experienced in a long time, and it was really fun to get lost in this book.

There aren't too many layers or themes to discuss in a work like this, but what I can elaborate on a little bit is how relatable I thought Lucy's character was. She starts off the story as a competent professional, but is also deeply lonely and insecure on the inside. She is a people pleaser that is nice to everyone (except Josh) and she ends up getting taken advantage of because of this. I know I felt this on a deep level, and I am willing to bet that a lot of other women will as well. Throughout the course of the story, Josh helps her take more agency in her life, while appreciating the good qualities she has. I really enjoyed watching a character so like myself get caught up in a whirlwind romance with a sexy guy. It was a sweet, entertaining experience that I wouldn't mind seeking out again.

I'm really glad that I ended up purposefully looking for a book I wouldn't normally choose for this reading prompt. I got to explore a new genre and ended up really enjoying myself. The Hating Game is a much more lighthearted novel than I usually pick up, but it was kind of nice to leave the darkness and social issues I tend to gravitate towards behind for a while and get lost in something fun. This was a nice surprise! 

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 5/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 66

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

After re-reading and enjoying We Were Liars at the start of the month, I moved onto another of E. Lockhart's novels, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I bought this book ages ago purely because I loved Liars so much and was interested to see more from this author. I really enjoyed her writing and I was curious to see if this book might become another favorite. Accordingly, I started off my reading with high expectations.

The plot follows the eponymous Frankie Landau-Banks, a teenager just about to start her tenth grade year at an exclusive private boarding school. She's always been a pretty normal, unassuming girl, but a sudden growth spurt over the summer has transformed her into a beautiful young woman. Her new body gets her lots of attention, and when she sparks the interest of a popular senior named Matthew Livingston, she gets drawn into the popular crowd.

Before long, Frankie and Matthew start to date. Frankie enjoys her new friends and status, but she soon notices that Matthew disappears off with his guy friends an awful lot. One night, she follows him and discovers his secret. He is co-leader of the famous Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, a boys-only secret society famous for pulling all kinds of legendary pranks on campus. After sneaking around a bit and observing the Order's attempts at tomfoolery, Frankie realizes that they lack vision. She knows that she could do much better if she were in control, but as a girl, she's not allowed to participate in the fun. 

Frustrated, she continues to watch the boys and begins to quietly investigate the history of the Order. When an opportunity presents itself over the winter holidays, she manages to anonymously assert control over the group. Just as she suspected, she's a natural at the job. Under her directions, the boys pull off increasingly epic pranks and become school heroes. Frankie feels amazing and powerful, but as her involvement has to remain a secret, she starts to grow more and more resentful. She longs to reveal herself and show Matthew and the Order what she is capable of, but she knows that's not likely to go well. She continues operating from the shadows until a tough situation arises when one of the boys is caught while helping with a prank. Frankie must decide whether to let him take the fall for the Order, or reveal that she's been the mastermind all along.

When I first started reading this novel, I wasn't too sure about it. It starts off as pretty typical contemporary teen fiction. Not bad, just unexceptional. Once Frankie started taking control of the Order though, things started to get surprisingly interesting. This is one of those books that secretly has a lot of interesting points about gender politics. I was reminded a little bit of Stray by Elissa Sussman, another novel that has a surprising amount to say about feminism. I enjoyed watching Frankie's growth throughout the story from a typical, quiet girl to a bold leader that does what she wants and stands up for herself. Her secret participation in the Order helps her to really come into her own, and her frustration at the inequality between men and women on her campus was interesting to explore. Coming into her own necessitates a certain amount of sacrifice. She comes to find that some of her male classmates don't appreciate a woman who doesn't bend - who doesn't mold herself around their desires. She has to give up being liked by everyone to be herself, and I liked that she was ultimately okay with that.

This novel is definitely different to We Were Liars, my favorite Lockhart novel. It didn't have the same darkness or drama to it and I did not become emotionally invested in it. It was, however, fun and unexpectedly smart. While I didn't love the entire novel, I came to have quite a bit of respect for it by the end of the story. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this to my students, as I think young readers will be entertained by the elaborate pranks and benefit from reading about a strong female character learning to embrace her talents. This was a nice read with a great message. I didn't like it quite as much as We Were Liars, but it has something important to say and I'm quite happy to have experienced it.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 19/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 65

Thursday, September 17, 2020

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Hoo boy, it's the middle of September, and I am alarmingly behind in my blogging. Happily, I am not behind in my reading. It's just the blog posts that are suffering right now. In my defense, school just started up again, and there really is no tired like teaching in 2020 tired. Trying to get used to a strange hybrid schedule, teaching kids virtually and in-person at the same time, and struggling with projecting my voice through a mask all day is leaving me with little energy for writing. However, I must persevere! Onto the review for my first book of the month!

We Were Liars has long been one of my favorite young adult novels, so I knew that I wanted to include it in my Then Vs. Now Challenge this year. I remember being just blown away the first time I read this novel back in 2014. It was mysterious and suspenseful and had this amazing twist at the end that I didn't see coming. I was curious if I would enjoy it as much on my reread, since I already knew the ending. Is is possible to enjoy a book with a twist ending when you already know what's coming? Determined to find out if I would still be impressed, I got started.

We Were Liars follows Cadence Sinclair, a teenager from an extremely wealthy family. Despite her life of luxury, all is not well with her household. Her father recently walked out and her mother is engaged in a battle with her rich siblings over what she will inherit when Cadence's grandfather dies. She spends her summers with her cousins on a private island near Martha's Vineyard and those times are a major bright spot in her life, despite her mother and aunts' constant squabbling over family money. 

As the story begins, something terrible has happened. Cadence has had an accident over the summer resulting in a loss of memory about what led up to it. She's can't remember how she was hurt or the events that led up to the injury. She is desperate to figure out what happened and reconnect with her cousins, so she is relieved when the next summer arrives and her family gathers on their private island once again. However, when she reunites with her cousins, things are strange. No one wants to talk about the accident and the general vibe on the island is unsettled. Cadence must put together the pieces of how she lost her memory on her own and try to solve the mystery of why her family has changed in the aftermath.  

I was pleasantly surprised to learn while reading that my knowledge of the ending did not diminish my enjoyment of this novel. I was still completely engaged in the story and was able to pick up on foreshadowing in the text that I didn't catch onto the first time around. It wasn't the exact same kind of experience as before; instead of rushing through the story anxious to see the resolution, I was able to slow down and notice the little bits of foreshadowing that Lockhart integrated into the text. I was more able to appreciate how the story was crafted, rather than just read for plot. It was neat to see the pieces come together.

Despite my obvious enjoyment of the novel, We Were Liars seems to be a divisive book in the reading community. It's one that people tend to love or hate. I personally love E. Lockhart's writing. She has a dark, lyrical style that really appeals to me, and the drama, mystery, and suspense in the text pulled me in from page one. She revealed information at a good pace and kept dropping enough clues as the plot developed to keep me hooked in. The resolution is disturbing and hits hard. While I wouldn't say this is the most moving or emotional read, it is a deeply entertaining one. As I was in the mood for a little escape this month, this story was the perfect choice.

So, ultimately, We Were Liars definitely held up on the reread and remains one of my favorites. It was a great way to kick off my month of reading and I'm pleased to have gotten the chance to experience it again.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 18/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 64

Saturday, August 29, 2020

August Wrap Up

I feel like August went by more quickly than most months have this year. That probably is because I spent a lot of it trying to prepare myself to return to school, a daunting prospect that I tried to distract myself from by reading. I managed to finish quite a few books too. Here's the complete list:

I had two really fantastic reads this month. Both The Custom of the Country and The Poet X became new favorites, for completely opposite reasons. The Custom of the Country had a deliciously awful heroine, while The Poet X had a relatable and inspiring one.

My least favorite of the month was probably Mama's Last Hug, which was a little bit too light on animal content for me. I also didn't love In Dubious Battle or The Haters, a fact that surprised me as I generally love everything both of those authors write.

My reluctance to go back to work aside, there are a few things to look forward to in September. The weather is turning cooler, fall is on the horizon, and the leaves will start to change. The fall and winter months are the coziest reading times for me and I'm looking forward to curling up with a blanket and stack of good books. It won't be so hard to self-quarantine then.

I filled my next TBR with some shorter and lighter novels, as my reading time will be reduced. Here's the lineup:  

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

There are a few novels on this list that I wouldn't have picked without being prompted to by my reading challenges. I'm actually excited to give them a try and see if they surprise me. I'd like to add another classic on here too, if I have the time. I'm going to plan conservatively for now and see what I can add on later if I finish these early.

The Haters by Jesse Andrews

One of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge prompts is to read a book that another user marked as DNF (did not finish). So, I started clicking through random users that had DNF lists and scrolled through my options until I came across a book I already owned. I ended up with The Haters by Jesse Andrews. This was an intriguing pick for me, since this is the same author that wrote Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Munmun, both of which I read and loved a few months ago. Those were both 5-star reads for me, so I was really interested to see if I would feel the same way about The Haters. It's not a great sign that I found it on a list of books that someone didn't want to finish, but I couldn't imagine not liking something Jesse Andrews wrote. Accordingly, I went in expecting have a different experience from the reader that gave up on it.

The plot of The Haters follows Wes Doolittle, a high school student living in Pittsburgh. His life revolves pretty much entirely around music--he plays the bass guitar and spends hours listening to albums with his best friend Cody. Both boys have a tendency to be quite critical of different songs and artists, even ones that they truly like, which is why they consider themselves "haters." For them, hating on something is an extension of loving it. 

At the start of the novel, Wes and Cody are attending a summer jazz camp. Right away, they realize that they don't really fit in. They aren't as musically talented as the other campers and they don't feel very passionate about jazz as a musical genre. The one bright spot in their experience is Ash, a quirky guitar player and one of the only girls there. Ash isn't too thrilled with her camp experience either, so after a disastrous first practice, she convinces Wes and Cody to run away from the camp, form a band together, and go on a tour. 

The trio's tour is rife with misadventures from the start. They drive through several states, begging different venues to let them perform. They end up playing in some pretty strange places, including a Chinese buffet, a retired nurse's backyard, and a shady Southern bar. Some of their performances are terrible and some are epic. Along the way, they have to try and stymie the efforts of their parents, who are very worried about them, to find them and bring them home. This comes to include dodging the police after they wind up in some sticky situations. This tour changes their lives forever, and Wes, Cody, and Ash end up learning a lot about themselves, about music, and about the random imperfectness of real life. 

I had mixed feelings about this novel. The best way I can describe it is that it was like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but without the pathos. Andrews' trademark writing style was definitely on full display here. The characters were his usual mix of naive, sarcastic, introspective, and vulgar. Wes, Cody, and Ash have a lot of funny conversations throughout the story, and the parts of this that were lighthearted were genuinely a good time. However, there were a few moments that I felt like Andrews went overboard with the mature content. There is an overreliance on sexual jokes, gross-out masturbation scenes, and fairly graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. I am not against including these elements in young adult fiction by any means (it is realistic after all), but it grew tiresome here. It seems clear that Andrews intended The Haters to appeal to a male audience, and while I enjoyed most of the novel, I also consistently felt like this book wasn't for me. It seemed like it was exclusively for 15-18 year old boys.

Ash's character wasn't my favorite either. She was a low-level a manic pixie dream girl and seemed to exist purely to push Wes and Cody out of their comfort zones. While she does have some flaws and grows a bit throughout the novel, she's still that impossibly cool girl with the wacky ideas that all the male characters in the novel are chasing after. Wes and Cody are no exception here; they both have sexual encounters with her over the course of the trip and nearly end up destroying their friendship over it. There was also an uncomfortable age issue going on. Ash is 19 in this novel and has already graduated high school, while Wes and Cody are around 16. This isn't a huge deal--they are all still teenagers I suppose, but I couldn't help but wonder why Ash even wanted to mess around with either of them. It's not like they were examples of mature, cool guys. Quite the opposite, in fact. I also couldn't help but note that if the genders were swapped here, I would feel like the encounters were predatory. On top of all that, Ash was often oddly mean and made an absolutely incomprehensible and cruel decision at the end of the story that kind of made the whole plot seem pointless, so all in all, I didn't like her very much.

The Haters was clearly meant to be a more fun and lighthearted novel that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that's fine, but it also made it less enjoyable overall. I think that Andrews' immature humor and sarcasm works better when his characters are dealing with a serious topic. Then, those quirks become their way of dealing with something difficult. In this case, the characters were just behaving in a reckless manner, so their humor wasn't a coping mechanism, it was just who they were, and the endless dick jokes got old quickly. Andrews also ended the novel on a surprisingly sober note. I felt like he was trying to stir up emotions in the reader than he didn't really earn in the last few pages. 

So ultimately, I didn't like The Haters nearly as much as Jesse Andrews' other novels. It wasn't terrible, but it was too immature for me and didn't give me the poignant experience I have come to expect from his works. I can see why someone would abandon this one. It's definitely not for all readers. It was pretty funny a lot of the time though and, for me, it was very readable. It just wasn't Andrews' best work.  

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 4/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 63