December 2017 was definitely among my most successful months to date in terms of my Book Of The Month picks. I gave each of the titles I selected 4 stars or more, including a 5 star rating to modern classic The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
Each of the titles fulfilled its promise and also the purpose for which I selected them, from the more literary tones of The Poisonwood Bible, to the lighter historical mystery of The English Wife, to the scary but not too scary thriller vibes of The Chalk Man.
I would recommend each of these books for different reasons, but I think that at least The English Wife and The Chalk Man would likely appeal to most readers, as they are broad and universal iterations of their respective genres. Read my full reviews below!
Book Of The Month is a subscription service that sends you one hardcover book per month out of five selections for a low monthly subscription fee. You can add 2 more titles to your monthly delivery for $9.99 each, and the price overall is very cheap for full-size hardcovers.
Book Of The Month is not paying me to promote their service. I just love it so much that I’ve turned my monthly deliveries into a feature on my blog 🙂 I do encourage you to try it though, because if you like hardcovers it’s a great deal. You can use my referral link to sign up if you’re interested in trying it. You’ll get your first three months for just $9.99 each plus a cute tote. And I’ll get a free book when you join. Win, win!
The Poisonwood Bible
Publication Date: September 24th 1998
Published By: Harper Perennial
Length In Hardcover: 546 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.03
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
The different protagonists’ voices. I definitely had high expectations for The Poisonwood Bible, considering that it’s thought of as a modern classic and that it’s a weighty tome, at over 500 pages. Those expectations were met and exceeded. When I started reading the novel and realized that each chapter was told through the voice of one of the four Price daughters or their mother Orleanna, I was worried that Kingsolver would not be able to make so many different narrators feel unique and interesting. She proved me wrong, however. Each one of the female characters was completely actualized, with idiosyncrasies specific to her, a very different and engaging style of expression from the others, and strengths and weaknesses that made her eminently relatable.
Nuanced and complex. The story that unfolds in the novel addresses extremely delicate and significant topics, from the effects of religious, cultural and economic imperialism, to racial discrimination, gender discrimination and domestic violence (among others). The author could have kept the narrative focused on the personal and only hinted at the larger social and political context of the story, but instead Kingsolver plunges head first into connecting the family’s experiences to the overarching and often shameful history that they become a part of. There’s nothing trite about the way in which the everyday details of the lives of the Price family and the Congolese people they meet are mixed with the history of the Congo itself. Some reviews on Goodreads took issue with the author having a clear opinion she was expounding on some of these themes, but I guess it worked for me because I mostly agreed with her characterizations.
Action, pathos and emotion. For a mix between literary and historical fiction, this novel packs a punch on the plot side. There are definitely a few points in which the Price’s family struggle to survive in the Congo and the starkness and hardship of the village life around them become a bit repetitive – likely accurately simulating the mind-numbing experience of spending days on end simply carting water over to the house in order to boil it for cooking, cleaning and washing. But the majority of the novel includes clashes between family members, joyful or heartbreaking events, a large and extremely varied cast of characters to get to know, and plenty of surprising plot twists. It’s a big, bold story that will keep you turning the page to find out what happens while it informs you and makes you think.
The closing chapters. There’s a major event in the narrative (no spoilers) about four fifths of the way into the novel that clearly delineates a moment after which the author speeds up the pace to relate what happens to each of the characters in the Price family in the years following the turning point. This wrap-up section, though it actually felt quite necessary and a good source of closure for an invested reader, just went on for far too long. I would have welcomed a short to medium-length chapter per sister to tie things up, but more than that seemed needless and like it muddled things rather than resolving them. Much of this final portion of the novel also involves the politics of the Congo after its decolonization from Belgium in a way that felt somewhat forced and excessive.
Sprawling, thought-provoking and gorgeously written, with careful explorations of very serious social, economic and political themes alongside the purely personal relationships of the siblings, parents, friends and neighbors at its center.
The English Wife
Publication Date: January 9th 2018
Published By: St. Martin’s Press
Length In Hardcover: 376 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.79
Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, and they had a whirlwind romance in London.
But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel.
Slow burning mystery. I really enjoyed the mix of historical fiction and mystery in this novel. For the first few chapters, I was worried that it would end up being too light and focused on romance for my tastes, but then the complex relationships between the characters and the murder mystery facet of the narrative started to unfold. The plot is definitely rolled out on the slower side, with a drizzle of clues being dispensed chapter by chapter to keep the reader interested. I probably would have loved it even more if the narrative had been just a tad tighter, but overall I was gripped by the quest to find out the motive of Annabelle and Bay’s murder. There’s also just enough of a twist at the end that I didn’t see it coming until a few chapters out.
Entertaining lighter read. I think this book will suit those who are looking for a lighter read in between some heavier or darker fair. If you’ve been knee-deep in thrillers or serious nonfiction books, this kind of novel has the right balance of quality, convincing plotline, historical detail and entertaining romance to keep your interest while feeling like a bit of a break for your brain. I actually was really surprised at how the author expertly kept each element of the narrative reigned in so that none of it became too melodramatic (definitely a potential pitfall of both historical fiction and mysteries). It’s true that some of the characters felt slightly caricatured, but I think that contribute to make this novel fit the requirements for some easier reading.
Annabelle and Bay. The protagonist of this novel is Bay’s sister Jane, a uptight spinster type character who slowly explores past the confines of her tightly controlled life throughout the novel while trying to discover the identity of her brother’s murdered. You’ll read in the next section that I didn’t really care for Jane’s character, and in fact, I ended up feeling much more connected to the deceased characters in the narrative – the murdered couple Annabelle and Bay Van Duyvil. The author tells the story of how they met and married through flashbacks taking place in Europe (England and France). Both Annabelle and Bay’s characters are full of mystery, intrigue and adventure, and in some ways they end up feeling more real and nuanced than the living protagonist herself.
Forgettable protagonist. This was my one fundamental issue with the book, but I should say that it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of The English Wife overall (hence the 4 star rating). Jane was a dull and prissy protagonist, constantly worried with propriety and right versus wrong in a way that could have been portrayed as endearing but ultimately just felt uninspiring next to the other much more exciting characters of Bay, Annabelle and even their cousin Anne. (As an aside, why have to main characters in a novel called Annabelle and Anne?). The author tries to make Jane a bit more captivating by giving her a romantic plot line, but unfortunately that ends up feeling thrown in for that very purpose. In the end, Jane serves her purpose as a mirror through which the other characters’ much more engaging lives play out.
A convincing mix of historical fiction and mystery that more than serves its purpose as easier and more entertaining reading between weightier genres.
The Chalk Man
by C. J. Tudor
Publication Date: January 9th 2018
Published By: Crown Publishing Group
Length In Hardcover: 280 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.81
You can feel it in the woods, in the school and in the playground; you can feel it in the houses and at the fairground. You can feel it in most places in the small town of Anderbury . . . the fear that something or someone is watching you.
It began when twelve-year-old Eddie met Mr Halloran – the Chalk Man. He gave Eddie the idea for the drawings: a way to leave secret messages for his friends and it was fun, until the chalk men led them to a body. Thirty years later, Ed believes the past is far behind him, until an envelope slips through the letterbox. It contains a stick of chalk, and a drawing of a figure. Is history going to repeat itself? Was it ever really over?
Different from other thrillers. The Chalk Man really fits comfortably right in between a thriller and a mystery, as the plot is slower-paced than you might expect from a more straightforward thriller. I loved the eerie, atmospheric, quiet ambiance of the book, and the slow build of the mystery at its center, which the author pieces together bit by bit. There really aren’t many of the huge plot twists you might be used to from your run-of-the-mill thriller, but the novel more than makes up for it with quality writing, a carefully crafted setting, and captivating characters.
Switching between past and present. One of the ways in which The Chalk Man still leaves you guessing even without huge surprise moments is by having the narrative unfold while alternating the time frame from past to present. Each chapter in turn focuses either on the protagonist Eddie’s childhood or his life in present day as an adult. Having these dual timelines unravel slowly and in parallel really drew out the suspense of what is otherwise a relatively straightforward multiple murder mystery. Right when you’re about to learn something about the present day murder scenario, you’re catapulted back to Eddie’s childhood friendships and the beginning of the Chalk Man phenomenon.
Past story line. Between the two timelines, I definitely preferred the one set during Eddie’s youth. There’s something extra creepy about a murder mystery that involves children, whether as the victims, culprits or bystanders. I really appreciated the way in which Tudor mixed the mundane experiences of puberty – positive and negative – with the abnormal, somber and even gruesome scenarios Eddie ends up involved in as a kid. In the end, I felt that the child version of Eddie’s character came across as more compelling and real than the adult version, which made me gravitate towards the portions of the plot that focused on his past.
Present story line. This also means that I didn’t feel as strong of a connection with the adult Eddie. He actually seemed caricatured to me – the generic portrayal of an alcoholic, rumpled, dirty old man professor type. Maybe it’s that sometimes I find it hard to relate to adult male protagonists in general – but there’s definitely a deftness on an author’s part that influences my ability to bridge that gap as a woman or not. Another sticking point I had with the novel was that the ending was unexpected, but it still didn’t feel satisfying. I would have wanted more of a psychological twist in line with what the beginning of the novel promised, with the creepy nature of the Chalk Man pictures and Eddie’s lucid dream sequences.
An unusual mix of mystery and thriller with an exceptionally well crafted creepy ambiance and an intriguing dual plot line that will keep you turning the pages.
Have you read The Poisonwood Bible, The English Wife or The Chalk Man? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to read my previous reviews for my Book Of The Month deliveries here are links to my November 2017, October 2017, September 2017, August 2017, July 2017, June 2017, May 2017, April 2017, March 2017, February 2017, and January 2017.
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