Summer Reading: Whittling Away at the BBC Top 100 List


Summer is slipping through my fingers like a soft ice cream cone on a sweltering afternoon.  Can it really be the middle of July?  Where the heck did June go?

In my bewilderment at this unnaturally speedy passage of summertime, I completely missed writing about my little summer reading challenge when I actually started it.  So, while I’ve been purposefully reading specific books for a good month, I’m only now getting around to writing about it here.

And what is this reading challenge, you ask?  First, I believe a brief back story is on order.

I occasionally read the blog The Bookshelf of Emily J.  Among other things, Emily is working her way through The BBC Top 100 Must Read Books List*(her list is here). The BBC Top 100 is a Facebook meme** which has the audacity to claim most people have read no more than 6 of its 100 selections.  Reading Emily’s list prompted me to revisit my results of the same compilation which I completed about two years ago.  At that time, I’d read 33 of the 100 suggestions but I have since completed several more books.  I also realized that many of the books I still hadn’t read were languishing around my home just waiting for some curious soul to crack them open.

And that, dear readers, was when The BBC Top 100 Summer Reading Challenge was born.  The goal: to read as many unread books on The BBC Top 100 as I can this summer and still live a somewhat productive life.  No buying, borrowing, bartering or stealing allowed; books must to be located somewhere in my house.  I’m posting my list below with the books I’ve read so far in bold type.  Books with an asterisk beside them are ones I’ve read since the the Summer Solstice (only three so far).  Italicized books are selections I’ve started but not finished.

Stephany’s BBC Top 100 Must Read Books List 

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë*
  4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  6. The Bible
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
  8. Nineteen Eighty-four – George Orwell
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
  19. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Baugh
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  26. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll*
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma -Jane Austen
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville 
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker*
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
  76. The Inferno – Dante
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession – A.S. Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom*
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

When I began this challenge, I’d read 38  selections (40 books total).  To date, the tally is up to 43.5.  After reading Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (not part of the challenge but I couldn’t help myself), I felt my reading was taking a definite turn down a very dark road.  To lighten things up, I chose The Ultimate Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  And, I’m struggling with it a bit.  When I’m in the mood for light and fluffy, the book is fine.  However, sometimes I find myself craving more substance and then reading it feels like a chore.  This is not a criticism of the book, by any means. It’s more an observation of my capriciousness.

Once I finish The Guide, I have several other choices:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling
  2. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
  3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis
  5. A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
  6. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  7. The Count of Monte Christo by Alexander Dumas
  8. Oliver Twist By Charles Dickens
  9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  10. The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
  11. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The BBC Top 100 List Summer Reading Challenge ends on September 21,2013.  Looks like it’s going to be a classics kind of reading adventure and that’s just fine with me.  Wish me luck!

What are you reading this summer?

*The BBC Top 100 Must Read Books List was probably designed by a Facebook user and doesn’t have any official ties to the BBC.  The list slightly resembles The BBC’s Big Read compilation from 2003 but that is probably is as far as the connection goes.  Even though the origins of the list are sketchy, it contains many worthy books and that’s why I decided to use it for my little challenge.  

**meme:  an Internet chain letter that is sent from person to person.

Fictional Places I Would Love to Visit

It is true that when I’m reading a great book, I often develop such an attachment to the characters that I think about them for weeks after I finish the story. They become dear friends that I truly miss when our time together is over.  Well-developed characters are not the only parts of a book that can capture my affection, though.  When an author presents a creatively imagined and richly detailed setting, I can just as easily fall in love with the where of the story as I can with the who.

Over the course of my reading life, I’ve wandered through many such crush-worthy places – extraordinary pieces of pretend real estate that I would gladly sacrifice youth, beauty, wealth something really valuable to experience in person if I ever had the opportunity.  Some of these places are whole worlds, some are neighborhoods, and some are single structures.  Regardless of size or complexity, they are all magical, mysterious, and/or especially atmospheric.

Because I enjoy a good list, and because The Daily Post suggested that I should make a list about anything under the sun, I thought I’d take this opportunity to list my favorite fictional places.  Perhaps, after reading my list, you will think of favorites of your own.  If you do, please share!  I would love to hear about them – I’m always looking for new travel destinations.

And so, without further delay and in no particular order, I give you:

Fictional Places I would L-O-V-E to Visit

  • Middle Earth (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien). Anyone who really knows me isn’t the least bit surprised by this.  Some places of particular interest include Bag End and the Shire, Fangorn Forest and the Ents, Beorn’s home, The Lonely Mountain (preferably with Smaug and the treasure still inside), the Great Hall in Moria, the plains of Rohan, and, of course, Rivendell and Lothlorien.  A year would not be enough time to travel around Tolkein’s world, savoring the natural beauty and the varied cultures of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and men.
  • Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis).  I would want the whole experience including entrance by wardrobe, a tour of all the historical places (the lamppost, Mr. Tumnus’ home, the beavers’ dam, the stone table, the battlefield, etc.) and meeting Aslan in person.  This would definitely be a dream come true.
  • Le Cirque des Rêves (The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern).  Who could possibly resist a sophisticated circus that is only open from dusk to dawn, is created and maintained by magic, and contains tents that delight the senses and stimulate the imagination?  Certainly not me.  My favorite tent, Bedtime Stories, Eventide Rhapsodies, Anthologies of Memory has a black ceiling of twinkling stars and is filled with bottles full of complex, memory-inducing scents.
  • Fairyland (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente).  The version of Fairyland described in this book is delightful and I want to explore every inch of it.  However, I think I would spend the most time in the Autumn Provinces, where the light is always perfectly golden late afternoon sunshine and the wind smells of baking bread, apples, and smoke.
  • The monastery library (The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco).  For some strange reason, I find this library, with its booby traps and difficult navigation, to be very intriguing.  Not to mention, of course, the actual books that would be housed in such a library in 1327.  Add to that the ability to witness the monks creating their illuminated manuscripts, and I would be in bibliophile heaven.
  • The chocolate factory (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl).  Willy Wonka doesn’t just make the most delicious chocolate and candy in the world, he does it in the most creatively beautiful factory in the world.  He says, “I insist upon my rooms being beautiful! I can’t abide ugliness in factories!”  Sign me up for the Golden Ticket Tour that includes the chocolate waterfall and eatable landscaping in The Chocolate Room, a cruise on the chocolate river in a candy boat, a peek into The Inventing Room, and a ride in The Great Glass Elevator that can go anywhere in any direction.  Include tons of samples (The Inventing Room excepted) and end the tour with a toast of Fizzy Lifting Drinks and some singing and dancing with the Oompa-Loompas.  What a day to dazzle the senses that would be!
  • The underground home of the rats (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM by Robert C. O’Brien).  Admittedly, ordinary rat dwellings don’t interest me at all.  But these are no ordinary rats.  They are extremely intelligent research subjects who escape their science institute prison and make a home beneath Mr. Fitzgibbon’s old rosebush.  Their home of tunnels and rooms is lighted with small Christmas tree lights covered by pieces of colored glass.  The floors are covered with plush carpeting.  And a fresh breeze keeps everything from smelling dank and musty.  With an elevator, a library, a grand meeting hall, and door after mysterious door begging to be opened, this compound is perfect for some serious exploration.

If I could, I would also add Harry Potter’s world to my list.  But, since I’ve only seen the movies and never actually read the books (gasp!), I will refrain from discussing how very much I would enjoy spending some time at Hogwart’s and the surrounding environs.

Now, the only tricky bit is figuring out how to travel to one of these places.  Does anyone have an old wardrobe filled with fur coats they aren’t using?  Or how about a magic ring that will send me to the Wood between the Worlds.  Just thought I’d ask…

And now, what are your thoughts?  What fictional world would you most like to visit?

(Image found at

Books I Loved Reading to My Kids (Part 2)

A few several months ago, I shared a post describing some of my favorite children’s books.  (You can check it out here if you like).  To my utter amazement, the post was Freshly Pressed.  I’m still delighted that a subject so personally meaningful to me was appreciated by the WordPress gurus as well as by the many wonderful people who stopped by to like the post and/or comment on it.  I promised at the end of that post to write another one about my favorite novels for reading out loud to my kids.  After months of procrastinating, I’m finally getting around to it.  For those of you who have been hanging around Whimsey Pie just for this post, I apologize for the delay.

The Whimsey family graduated from picture books to novels at bedtime with the acquisition of Despereaux, purchased from the now extinct Zainy Brainy toy store.  My munchkins were about 7, 5, and 3 at the time and although that may seem a bit young, the switch worked well for us.  Each night, I (or my husband) would sit in our darkened hallway, reading by flashlight to our sleepy children who had been scrubbed clean, prayed over, and tucked snuggly in bed with their stuffed friends.  In those last wakeful moments of the day we would embark on thrilling adventures, travel to far away lands, and encounter heroes large and small.  Many times when I stopped reading, thinking everyone had fallen asleep, a little voice from one of the bedrooms would say “Just one more page, Mommy”.  The whole family eagerly anticipated the next chapter of our bedtime book in the evening.  Over the years, I (and my husband) have shared numerous tales with our kids in this way and enjoyed every second of it.

It never ceases to amaze me how the stories we read together during that time have become part of the my family’s unique collective history.  We often talk about the books we experienced in those quiet hours and have even been known to quote favorite lines.  I’ve picked out a few gems to share with you here, but I have to say that editing the list to a manageable size was no easy task.  And please note: the books aren’t organized in any particular sequence other than the order in which they popped into my brain.

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DeCamillo.  Despereaux Tilling is a tiny mouse with big ears who behaves in a most un-mouselike manner – he’s born with his eyes open, he reads books instead of eating them, and he loves a human princess.  Understandably, this causes him all sorts of problems – among his fellow mice and in the castle at large.  The story has the feel of a fairy tale and celebrates individuality, courage, forgiveness, and redemption.  The style of writing, with the narrator speaking directly to the reader, makes for an engaging listening experience.  It’s a great read-aloud book and was the first novel we read as a family.  We just couldn’t help falling in love with Despereaux the mouse.

My Father's Dragon   

My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett.  To be honest, the cover art hooked me even before I knew what treats were hidden inside.  Imagine, then, how tickled I was to discover that the contents of each book were as quirky and delightful as the packaging.  The stories revolve around Elmer Elevator, a young boy who runs away from Nevergreen City on the coast of Popsicornia to save a blue-and-yellow-striped baby dragon named Boris from cruel slavery on Wild Island.  Their subsequent adventures take them to many interesting places where they must use their cleverness to manage very difficult situations.  These enchanting vintage tales (written in 1944) are pure imaginative fun and are timelessly sweet.  This is make-believe at its believable best!

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.  I first encountered this book in second or third grade when my teacher would read a chapter of it to us after lunch every day.  I loved it.  When I happened upon it in a bookstore several years ago, I knew my kids would love it, too.  The story revolves around two young boys, David and Chuck, who answer an unusual ad in the newspaper to build a small spaceship without adult supervision.  With the help of Mr. Tyco Bass, who placed the ad in the paper, the boys fly their completed spaceship to a small undiscovered planet called Basiduim located close to earth.  After reading this book in the evenings, my kids literally dreamed about flying their own homemade rocket ships to little planets in outer space.  This is another vintage book (published in 1954) that still has the ability to spark an impressionable imagination.  It’s timeless kid-style science fiction.

Inkheart (Inkheart, #1)

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. Inkheart is a stellar fantasy of epic proportions for book lovers.  We began this story as an audio book on a trip to Niagara Falls and finished it by reading at night.  Mo and Meggie are a father/daughter duo who make the care and keeping of books their livelihood. Mo’s nickname, Silvertongue, describes his ability to “read” characters and objects out of books and into to real life.  Some unsavory characters that Mo accidentally reads out of “Inkheart” kidnap him to use his special skill for their evil gain.  This magic-infused book is filled to the brim with interesting characters and suspenseful plot twists.  Even so, be warned: Inkheart is a long, meandering tale (a quality that makes it perfect for bedtime reading) so patience is a virtue that will bring a satisfying reward at The End.

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis.  During the time that we were reading novels together at bedtime, we devoured several of the books from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series and enjoyed them all.  The Magician’s Nephew became a favorite because it chronicles the creation of Narnia.  Aslan (the lion), Queen Jadis (the White Witch), and even the lamppost are introduced through the adventures of Digory and Polly.  With the help of a magic ring, the children are able to travel to the Wood Between the Worlds, a place dotted with puddles of water which are portals to fantastical places.  Through these portals they accidentally bring the White Witch first to England, with disastrous results, and then ultimately to Narnia, just as it is beginning to come alive.  Although Lewis’ style of writing can feel a bit old-fashioned, the mystical quality of the plot, the infusion of magic, and the idea of the Wood Between the Worlds are the stuff dreams are made of.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.  I’ve already talked about this book here but it deserves another mention.  If your family likes humor and isn’t turned off by children behaving badly (because they can’t help it) this is a great Christmas read.  My kids love it and have since read it numerous times on their own.  Very funny!

Eragon (Inheritance, #1)

Eragon by Christopher Paolini.  Eragon an epic tale of dragons, fairies, and destiny that borrows heavily from Tolkein and McCaffery.  As a lover of Tolkein and someone acquainted with McCaffery, I personally felt the borrowing bordered on obnoxious at times.  However, my kids had no background for comparison so they couldn’t wait to go to bed to hear more of the story.  Eragon, a poor farm boy, finds a blue stone that turns out to be a dragon egg.  He and the dragon hatchling, Saphira, find themselves in the middle of an epic battle between good and the evil forces of the Emperor. The story is filled with action, adventure, and magic that my kids ate up like candy.  There are some rather violent sections, but I just skimmed over what I thought was inappropriate and they were none the wiser.  A caveat: This is a long book and the material is best suited for older kids.

The above list of favorites is by no means an exhaustive one.  As an honorable mention, I’d like to suggest the Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osbourne. These easy-read books subtly educate about history through the surprisingly thrilling adventures of brother/sister team Jack and Annie, who travel through time in a treehouse.  Also, between big novels, we sprinkled in fairy tales, Greek myths, legends like King Arthur and Robin Hood and many, many Bible stories (favorites included David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Queen Esther, Daniel in the lions’ den).

My final suggestions for this post are books I have recently read myself but have not shared with my kids.  Please consider The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, and The Giver (and its series) by Lois Lowry as bed time reading material for older kids.  Although I can’t speak to the popularity of these books in relationship to my family’s tastes, I loved them all.  Sadly, the Whimsey family no longer reads together at night.  With teens and tweens, bedtimes and agendas vary so much that it is impossible to find everyone in bed at the same time at a reasonable enough hour to do some reading together.  It is a very sad thing to realize that season of my life is over but I also feel blessed to have experienced it at all.

I’ve spent many hours of my life on this post.  But honestly, the specific books don’t really matter.  It is in the intentional and active pursuit of reading with our children that they learn the value of it and develop a love for it.  And I believe that far more important than the actual type or quality of story or even the development of a life-long love of reading is the focused time spent together in each other’s company.  My fourteen year old son, Buddy, summed it up in a few words that caught me completely off guard and made my heart melt.  When I asked him what he remembered about The Magician’s Nephew, this is what he said:

“I don’t really remember much about that story, Mom.  I just know I loved listening to your voice when you read it to us.”

What books do you think make great read-aloud novels for kids at bedtime?  I would love to hear your suggestions.

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: September Books

With the start of school at the end of August, the pace of my life transitioned from a leisurely Sunday drive to a Formula One race.  Football, fall baseball, marching band, and a new full-time job conspired to send the Whimsey family’s schedule careening into overdrive.  When I say September is a blur of shapes, colors, and dream-like memories, I am not exaggerating.

It would be easy to surmise that all the endless mad dashing around would have obliterated my leisure time for reading books.  There certainly wasn’t time to cook a nutritious meal, wash a go of laundry, clean a bathroom, or mow even one blade of grass.  And forget about time to engage in any blogging activities, which accounts for the dirth of posts here at Whimsey Pie.

Surprisingly, though, I found ample pockets of time for reading – while I was waiting for football or baseball practice to end, during orchestra rehearsal, waiting for the band bus to return from games and competitions, during my lunch break, etc., etc., etc.  So much waiting time was mixed in with the craziness that I was able to finish five books in September and begin a sixth one.  There’s nothing like a little schedule overload to focus my priorities – I can’t possibly make a proper supper for my family, but I sure as heck can find time to read one more book.

Just because I’ve read five books doesn’t mean I have hours to write lengthy reviews for each one.  (Yes, it takes me hours.)  But I really want to give these books the thoughtful attention they deserve.  My plan is to review each book in three sentences or less.  Wish me luck!  Breviloquence is not my writing forte.  (How is that for a twenty-five cent word?)

September Books

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.  By simply naming the 1,000+ things she loved, Ann Voskamp comes to a deep understanding of the goodness of God and His desire for relationship with us.  Her strange phrasing and overly descriptive style of writing tested my patience and my attention span several times to the point of almost throwing in the towel.  This was a slow go for me, but well worth the effort.   (3.75/5 stars)

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  After his family is murdered, Nobody Owens is raised by two ghosts, has a guardian named Silas who may or may not be a vampire, is educated by a Hound of Hell named Miss Lupescu, and spends his childhood in the protection of a graveyard.  Neil Gaiman offers an incredibly imaginative take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and creates a compassionate and, believe it or not, relatable tale of the struggles of growing up.  I loved it!  (4.5/5 stars)

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  The author tells the story of Achilles and the battle of Troy through the voice of Patroclus, Achilles’ constant companion (presented as his lover in this version).  Patroclus is a far more admirable and likable character than most of the other players, including Achilles, whose hubris is his ultimate downfall.  Madeline Miller offers a vivid retelling of the Greek myth, seamlessly meshing human experience with legend.  (4/5 stars)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Ender Wiggins, a seven year old genius, is believed to be the one person capable of defeating the aliens that almost destroyed the earth in earlier battles.  Ender’s intense training experiences often led me to forget he was only a child.  I understand why Orson Scott Card’s book won so many awards and is well on its way to becoming a much-anticipated movie.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Children’s Story by James Clavell.  Buddy read this book in his eighth grade English class this year and wanted to talk with me about it.  In less than a half hour, a newly appointed teacher from a new government manages to sweet talk the children in a classroom to tear up the American flag, question their parents’ authority, give up their individuality, and disregard God for government.  Quite a thought-provoking read on what we really believe, the values we hold dear, and the insidious nature of brainwashing.  (4/5 stars)

Breviloquence accomplished.  Who knew I was actually capable of it?  My book tally for 2012 is now at 35.  If I read five books a month for the rest of the year I will meet the reading portion of the 50/50 Reading Challenge.  I already have one book finished for October and am well under way on the second.  I’m really feeling the need for some light entertainment – perhaps some Kate Morton or Sara Addison Allen.  Life is too stressful right now for books that struggle with the big issues of life.  Please don’t judge….  We all need a marshmallow of a book every once in a while.

50/50 Reading Challenge Update: March Books

The Month of the Wife

This month unexpectedly acquired a theme: Books That Have “Wife” in the Title.  It  started innocently enough with a Barnes and Noble book sale several months ago.  You know the sale I’m talking about – the ubiquitous Buy 2 Books, Get 1 Free.  I’m weak.  I gave in to the temptation.  First, I chose the Time Traveler’s Wife because I’ve had this nagging feeling that I should read it.  After all, it shows up on many must-read book lists I’ve been known to glance over.  The Zookeeper’s Wife, a story based on a true events in Warsaw during WWII, was my second choice I’d never heard of the book before but the premise of the story intrigued me.  Thankfully, the third book of the trio is unrelated to this post so I won’t have to strain my brain trying to remember what it was.

Anyway, I brought the books home, put them on my large “to read” pile in the closet, and promptly forgot about them.  Just a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the books while I was digging around for some flip-flops and decided that it was about time to read them. And then, a light bulb flickered on and I thought to myself, “Why not pick two more books with wife in the title and give March a theme.  So, that’s exactly what I did.

The Time Traveler's Wife

  • Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  The Chicago Tribune calls The Time Traveler’s Wife “a soaring celebration of the victory of love over time”.  Even though I think this book was incredible, I certainly wouldn’t describe it in such a light-hearted way.  The main characters, Clare Abshire and Henry deTamble, are complex people who live strange, complicated lives.  The ribbon of sadness woven through the fabric of this story is overwhelming at times.  Beneath the imaginative and thoroughly realized concept of time travel lies the reality of life with a chronic disease which affects every area of life, straining relationships, causing mayhem, and worsening over time.  I’ll grant that The Time Traveler’s Wife is a very good (albeit very weird) love story.  To say it is only a love story, though, is to sell it very short. (4.5/5 stars)

The Traitor's Wife: A Novel of the Reign of Edward II

  • The Traitor’s Wife by Susan Higginbotham.  I love historical fiction, especially anything connected with the British Isles. In looking for another book to fit my theme, I happened upon The Traitor’s Wife.  It is a 2008 Gold Medalist in military/historical fiction category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards.  Although reader reviews at were mixed, I decided to give it a go.   Based in the early 1300’s during the reign of Edward II and Isabella, the story revolves around Eleanor de Clare, wife of Hugh le Despenser the Younger and  niece to the king.  Eleanor was married twice, had ten children and spent time in prison – once because her husband was a traitor, and once for theft of the king’s treasure.  Ms. Higginbotham has researched the time period extensively but has also taken some serious creative license with character development and situation.  The book is filled with war, intrigue, treason, and gruesome punishments and deaths.  While I don’t actively seek out this kind of stuff as reading material, it is historical fact and appropriate to the story.  The main characters of The Traitor’s Wife were in turn likable, admirable, despicable, and worthy of sympathy.  At one point in time, I hated them all.  If even half of this book is true, Eleanor de Clare lived quite the life and I don’t envy her one moment of it (except for maybe her dresses and jewels).  (3.75/5 stars)

The Zookeeper's Wife

  • The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. Jan and Antonia Zabinski oversee the Warsaw Zoo before and during World War II. After the zoo is bombed by the Germans and most of the animals are either killed or taken back to Germany, the Zabinskis use the zoo to hide people, mostly Jews, from the Nazis.  Over the course of the war they are able to help over 300 people escape.  The zoo earned its code name of “The House Under a Crazy Star”.  Through journals (Antonia’s and others), court testimonies, interviews with living survivors, and visits to the area, Diane Ackerman creates a beautiful but harrowing story occurring in the midst of one of history’s darkest periods.  She has an uncanny knack of connecting apparently unrelated topics to offer the reader a detailed understanding of the breadth and depth of the Nazi’s evil and destructive philosophy.  The story reads more like a documentary than a novel and the technique suits the material very well.  As expected, this is not an easy book to read.  For me, it was so worth the effort.  I want to believe that I would be as willing to risk my own life to save the lives of others as the Zabinkis were.  They are true heroes. (4/5 stars)

Wives and Daughters

  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose I should confess that I’ve only recently discovered Elizabeth Gaskell.  Should I be embarrassed about this?  I’m feeling like I should.  Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this story set in the town of Hollingford in the early 1800’s.  Molly, a seventeen year old girl living with her widowed physician father, is the central character.  She is happy in her life until her father decides to marry again.  The additions of a vain, self-centered step-mother and a beautiful, flirtatious step-sister turn her life inside out and upside down.  The almost 600 page story is about growing up, keeping secrets, and falling in (and out) of love.  I was caught completely by surprise that the book was unfinished due to the author’s untimely death.  It was a bit unsatisfying to be cheated of the tidy ending I was anticipating.  Even though I was certain that Molly and her love would be joined together in a wonderful happily ever after, I wanted Ms. Gaskell to describe it to me in her own words.  Jane Austen will always be my first choice for this kind of classic romantic literature.  However, I’m already looking forward to devouring North and South, another of Ms. Gaskell’s books, when I have my next old-fashioned love story craving. (4/5 stars)

To tell the truth, the books in this theme turned out to be pretty interesting.  Other then the title connection, the books have almost nothing in common.  Nothing.  The stories range from science fiction to classic literature to real events.  They span the historical timeline from Plantagenet England of the 1300’s to the present day and beyond.  The heroines, or wives, could not have been more dissimilar, which certainly kept the reading fresh and interesting.  Between the four books, I’ve encountered the best and worst experiences the human condition has to offer and the gamut of emotions that accompany them. All this, and a few surprises tossed in for good measure.

I wonder if it’s significant that not a single how-to-be-a-good-wife self-help selection made an appearance this month.  That’s probably because I’ve already got that skill mastered.  Just kidding.  (Mr. Whimsey probably wishes one of those books had made the cut.)  It’s been a most enlightening and thought-provoking month.  However, I think something less emotionally taxing should be the next order of the day.  I’m ready for some lightweight, easy reading.  Does anyone have the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid?