Sunday, November 8, 2020

An Open Book: October 2020 Reads

Our internet was down last week, so I'm a little later than usual with my monthly book reviews. But it's never too late to discuss books, right? 

I'm joining Carolyn Astfalk's link-up at An Open Book to chat about what I read during October (and the first few days of November). Something about fall time and recognizing our mortality with the celebration of Hallowtide really put me in the mood for memoirs, so a couple of those made their way in here. Some fun novels snuck into my reading stack as well. Let's dive in!  

The Elusive Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.

This story picks up one year after the events of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and it was delightful. It follows the vengeful Chauvelin, as he seeks to craft a plot to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel once and for all. It took me a couple chapters to get into this book, but once it caught me I was hooked. I really loved seeing how the characters and story developed now that Chauvelin and Marguerite both know the Scarlet Pimpernel's identity. I also really loved seeing Marguerite and Sir Percy's relationship develop. This was an extremely fun sequel, that also brought up some great questions, like "how should one weigh a work that endangers his life against staying home to safely be with his wife?" and "is it worth saving one man's life if it endangers the lives of many other people?" I recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the first in the series! 

Our House, by Louise Candlish.

Fiona Lawson comes to her home one day to discover that all traces of her belongings are gone, and that a new family is moving in. Confused, she discovers that her estranged husband sold them the house without her knowledge. Through a series of excerpts from a crime podcast that features Fiona's story, coupled with extracts from a document written by her husband, the story and truth behind what happened is unveiled. This is, according to a statement from the author in an interview I read, a "cautionary tale," so don't expect it to be happy-but it is pretty interesting and suspenseful! The tone reminded me a little bit of the novel Something in the Water, so I especially recommend Our House for people who liked that one. 

I Will Repay, by Baroness Orczy.

This story takes place before the events of The Elusive Pimpernel, but it's not really a direct sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel, since it provides the backstory to characters who are slightly involved in the storyline in The Elusive Pimpernel. It gives the backstory of Juliette Marny, who as a very young girl is forced into swearing an oath that she will avenge her brother's death-by-duel. This revenge-story dives into Juliette's struggle of feeling the need to seek revenge, while at the same time, becoming attracted to the man who killed her brother. The Scarlet Pimpernel enters this story a couple of times, which is very fun. I thought this was a great installment in the series, and I look forward to reading more by Orczy! 

Spirit Run, by Noe Alvarez.

A child of immigrants, Alvarez worked with his mother in a fruit factory in Washington before he found a way to college. However, once he became a student, he learned about Peace and Dignity Journeys--a group of indigenous people who run 6,000+ miles together once every four years. Alvarez decided to join them, spending four months running thousands of miles from Canada down to Central America. I picked up this book partially because I wanted to learn from the experiences of immigrant laborers and indigenous people. The memoir begins by introducing many of the indigenous people whom Alvarez ran with, and it was fascinating (and sobering) to read their stories. I also was moved by reading about the work done in fruit factories. However, I would have liked to learn more about the running aspect. For instance, how did this college student--who was a casual runner--suddenly jump into running up to 30 miles a day for 4 months straight? Also, a big focus of the book is the infighting among the people who travelled together as part of the Peace and Dignity Journeys. It was interesting, but a little tiresome to read about all of the fighting, arguing, and violence-though I guess that was a testament to how important the mission was, that these squabbling individuals (mostly) stuck together for the sake of completing the run. I'm glad I read this book, but it honestly didn't enthrall me (though the prose was beautiful). 

Wine Girl, by Victoria James.

At 21 years old, Victoria James became the youngest sommelier--at a Michelin-starred restaurant--in America. This book walks through her tumultuous childhood, experience of abuse, and the way she worked her way up and used all of her life experiences to grow in her restaurant expertise. This was a really interesting story, and I learned a whole lot about wine that I never knew before (such as: all of the gross additives that companies are legally allowed to put into wine). It was neat to see James push through so many challenges and learn about the work she is doing now to help other women who wish to grow in this profession. I do want to caution readers that James very graphically details some of the rape scenes (to the point where I skipped some parts). I do think it is very important that she brought up the horrors of working in the food industry, because I think we can try to forget about what so many people go through every day (or we can assume that employees at fancy restaurants won't experience harassment like employees at bars). This book is a sobering reminder that working in the food industry is not a simple feat on any level, particularly for women. 

The Rescuers: a fantasy, by Margery Sharp.

This was a super fun children's novel about about mice who run a Prisoner's Aid Society. They are seeking to rescue a Norwegian poet who has been imprisoned in a dungeon, so they enlist the aid of Bianca, a high-class mouse (who is the pet of the ambassador's son) to find a Norwegian mouse so they can contact the poet and help him escape. I watched the animated movie of this story when I was a kid, but didn't remember much about it. I had so much fun reading this, and I highly recommend it!  

Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, by Erin Khar. 

This memoir was intense. It follows the author's fifteen-year struggle with heroin (and other drugs, but mostly heroin). It walks through her broken relationships, her journey into rehab, and her relapses. It shows the process of healing that she's gone through. This book was a hard read, and I did skip over some parts where the language or sexual content was too intense for me, but I found this worthwhile. It really helped me see how addiction affects people, and how recovery is a long, hard path. 

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir, by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman.

While studying music at Columbia, Hindman needed to earn money to supplement her financial aid. When she discovered a job opening in a performing troupe, she thought she had struck gold. She, a decent-but not great-violinist would get to play with a group and get paid! However, soon after she was hired, the author discovered that her job was not to play the violin for audiences to hear; it was to "fake play" the violin before audiences as music was played from a CD player. Using her experiences in this group as a backbone for the story, this memoir covers Hindman's experience as a young adult during the Bush presidency and her experience with anxiety. This book was a mixed bag for me. I loved hearing about her experiences in the not-orchestra, and I also thought it was cool that this book was written from the second person point of view. I did find some of the content off-putting, and the language was pretty coarse. Some of the resolution in the book seemed a little vague to me. This was an interesting read, but probably not one that I would pick up again. 

A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. 

This classic children's novel tells the story of Sara Crewe, a young girl who leaves the home she shares with her widowed father to attend boarding school in England. Sara's father dotes on her endlessly, and Sara has an abundance of clothes and luxuries-like a princess. When she receives news that her father has died, leaving her penniless, Sara is cast from her life of luxury and is forced to be a servant in the school. I grew up watching the Shirley Temple adaptation of this book, and I loved reading this novel. It's wonderfully charming and has some great wisdom in it about mindset and striving for goodness and virtue, even when the world has turned against us. I highly recommend it! 

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

This short book, a collection of writings from a Carmelite, has been on my list for the longest time, and I am so grateful that I finally picked it up! It's a very simple book, but some of Brother Lawrence's reflections on living in the present moment, recognizing God's presence, nailed some particular issues that I've dealt with. This is a wonderful book to read and take to prayer. 

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh.

Three years before writing this book, Waugh suffered "a brief bout of hallucination." In this novel, Waugh tells the story of Gilbert Pinfold (who, I've read, is based a bit on Waugh): a middle-aged novelist who is suffering from lack of motivation and lack of sleep. Running off a cocktail of various substances, Gilbert books passage on a ship that is heading to Ceylon. All of his hopes to write his novel are dashed when, upon embarking the ship, he begins hearing voices. Swept up in these voices that he hears-which speak of murder, conspiracy, and deeply intimate knowledge of Mr. Pinfold-Gilbert finds that his journey is anything but uneventful. I thought this story was hilarious at parts, at other parts incredibly deep and revealing, and I really enjoyed it-especially reading it with the knowledge that this work was semi-autobiographical, and seeing how Waugh put himself and his own thoughts and struggles into it. The last couple paragraphs of the book were particularly fantastic. I have read incredibly mixed reviews about this book online, even by fans of Waugh. It's an odd story, so some people will love it and some will dislike it. I will probably read it again sometime! 

Thanks for joining me in this literary discussion! Feel free to drop any book recommendations in the comments; I always love adding to my reading list. 


  1. I just finished reading a novel, Masquerade, by Nancy Moser. It was hard to put down, but is really a testament to the adventure of life God can lead us on & the unexpected ways He can work in our lives.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I don't think I've heard of that one before. Historical fiction is so fun, I'll add that one to my list :)

  2. I didn't know the other scarlet pimpernel stories were in print. I'd love to read more

    1. I hope you enjoy them, Ellen! I should mention that the view towards Catholicism isn't the most glowing, but the stories are really well done and tons of fun to read. Our library has several of them in print, and one or two additional ones as e-books. Hopefully you'll be able to pick them up sometime!