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Spring Cleaning Challenge Update

Spring-Clean-SadIt’s time for an update on our Spring Cleaning Challenge! New followers and readers, there’s still lots of time to join in the fun for the chance to win some fun book prizes! Find the instructions for the challenge here. If you’ve been with us from the beginning, you have one more month left to rack up your points. Remember the more you read, the more you stack the odds in your favor.

It’s a tough race for first place between Tracy and Kate although in the last 2-3 weeks, Kate has pulled ahead slightly — although we may have slowed her down with her latest book pick. Will she make it through her current book? And, how will the battle for 3rd play out? Will Ellen keep her slim lead for third?

IMPORTANT INFO: I will be away traveling to Prague next week (May 24-31) so will have limited access to my email. If you finish a book while I’m away, just respond with a comment on the main challenge post (here) saying you are done with the book and my co-blogger, Book Worm will make sure to get you your next book assignment. I’ll check the reviews when I get back.

Final day to submit a review will be June 20th at midnight EST (or before I wake up on the 21st). We will announce the winners on the first day of summer!

Current Standings:tbr
Kate – 15
Tracy – 13
Ellen – 5
Andrea – 4
Becky – 4
Lynsey – 4
Nicole D – 4
Sushicat – 4
Anita -2
Brandy – 1
Charisma -1
Tessa – 1
Tricia – 1

What do you think of the challenge thus far? Have you been surprised by any books (pleasantly or unpleasantly)?

Please take the time to read the reviews of books read thus far (since last update). You might find something you’d like to read. I’ve included hyperlinks to the book titles if anything strikes your fancy. You can also find all the books in our Amazon store here – under the spring challenge tab.

 The Sparrow by Russell. Read by Kate
5 stars

Physically and mentally broken, barely alive, Father Emilio Sandoz SJ is the sole survivor of an audacious mission privately sponsored and sent by the Jesuits to a newly discovered extra terrestrial civilization. As the story opens Sandoz is a pariah on Earth, accused of despicable crimes and refusing to cooperate with his fellow Jesuits. Gradually the Sandoz’s relates his experiences and a classic story of first contact with the inevitable pitfalls of cultural misunderstandings unfolds.

I loved the premise of the Jesuits jumping on the opportunity to reach out to the aliens almost the instant that SETI picks up their signal while the rest of the world basically twiddles their thumbs. I can’t imagine that any individual country, the EU, or the UN would have made a better job of it. God help us if first contact ever does occur because it is bound to be a bureaucratic disaster. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel.

Anne of Green Gables by Montgomery. Read by Andrea

Marilla and Mathew, a pair of middle-aged siblings, wanted to adopt a boy to help them in the farm, but because of a misunderstanding, received an 11 year old girl.  Anne, a red-haired with freckles, who can talk and talk for hours and has an ability to use her imagination in every moment of her life, came to change the siblings’ lives.  Anne sometimes gets in trouble, every other time forgets her chores at home or let time pass by while imagining things.  At the beginning neither Marilla nor some other neighbors have much faith in Anne, but at the end they asked for forgiveness because of their misjudgment.

While reading this book, with Anne innocence and kindness, I was reminded of the best things in life (sometimes you just take them for granted); the greatness of nature, the importance of a true friendship, the positivism in every situation of life, forgiveness, to keep alive the imagination and to stay simple.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.

When I left Queen`s my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road.  I thought I could see along it for many a milestone.  Now there is a bend in it.  I don`t know what lies around the bed, but I`m going to believe that the best does.  It has a fascination of its own, that bend, Marilla.  I wonder how the road beyond it goes – what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows—what new landscapes – what new beauties – what curves and hills and valleys further on.

“DID you see all the diamonds those ladies wore?” sighed Jane.  “They were simply dazzling.  Wouldn`t you just love to be rich, girls?” “We ARE rich”, said Anne staunchly. “Why, we have sixteen years to our credit, and we’re happy as queens, and we’ve all got imaginations, more or less.  Look at that sea, girls – all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen.  We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.  You wouldn’t change into any of those women if you could.

A Man Called Ove  by Fredrik Backman. Read by Ellen
5 stars + favorite

Ove sees the world in black and white, right and wrong, a proper order to everything with no gray areas whatsoever. At age 59 all Ove wants to do is join his beloved wife Sonja who died and left his world without any color or companionship. His plans to facilitate his own departure are put on hold as a new family moves in next door to Ove. The young couple and their two little girls literally back their way into Ove’s life and his mailbox with their U-Haul trailer that Ove furiously ends up maneuvering himself. He is astounded that the young father, Patrick, can be so incompetent and that the young, very pregnant mother, Parvaneh, is so oblivious to Ove’s wishes to be left alone. Not only must Ove put up with his boisterous new neighbors but a mangy cat has decided that Ove needs a pet. Now, Ove’s oldest friend is about to be forced into a nursing home and, although Ove has not spoken to his friend in several years after another of their myriad arguments, Ove is angry. Ove is always angry – at the world, at his neighbors, the cat, cars that are driven on his street despite a vehicles prohibited sign. But Ove also has a heart that is “too big”, literally and figuratively, and the world outside his house cannot be denied entry forever.

If Ove lived on Sesame Street he would be in the trashcan next to Oscar but how I would love for him to be my next-door neighbor. Yes he is a grouch and staunchly regimented but people who care to look can easily see the sweet man inside. I loved the characters in this book and Ove’s backstory is wonderfully detailed. It’s laugh out loud funny at times but I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby at the end. Read this one!

 by W.G. Sebald
. Read by Tracy
2 stars

Vertigo is a combination travelogue and homage to the lives of a few famous authors. Sebald pays tribute to his favorite artists as well, as he seems to ramble through Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and other places that I probably missed or didn’t identify, because my geography skills are bad. If this is intended to make the reader dizzy, I suspect the center of the wheel is Tyrol, as it is mentioned in some way in each chapter.

I didn’t love this, but I didn’t hate it either. I can see that Sebald has a gift for writing- his descriptions of place are vivid. But this felt like a slideshow of your brother-in-law’s vacation. There were hints of intrigue, like the two men following Sebald earlier in the book, but the possible plot lines didn’t materialize. The pictures were an interesting addition, and broke it up a bit, but I’m not quite sure why they were included. All in all, it gave me vertigo. Hmm.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Read by Kate
Mary Joseph Praise is a nursing sister in “Missing” Hospital, a shoe string operation in 1950s Addis Ababa. No one knows that Sister is pregnant until it is too late to save her life and nearly too late to save the lives of her co-joined twins, Marion and Shiva. The presumptive father, Dr. Thomas Stone, nearly kills the twins whilst botching the chaotic delivery and then flees the hospital and the country upon the death of Sister Mary Joseph. Marion and Shiva are raised by Hema, the gynecologist who saved their lives, and her erstwhile suitor Dr. Ghosh who almost single handedly keeps Missing Hospital running under the administration of a very capable British Matron. This unique blended family is at the heart of a sweeping story that chronicles the turmoil of late 20th century Ethiopia before moving to New York as young Marion, the main narrative voice, pursues a medical career.

I enjoyed the story the most while it was set in Africa, the last quarter in New York was a bit of a let down. Verghese is at his best when portraying the characters with Indian backgrounds such as Hema and Ghosh and less successful with the Ethiopian and Eritreans such as Genet, perhaps because he never makes a prolonged attempt to examine their motivations. As a result the main female character of the younger generation seems to exist merely to create conflict.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Read by Charisma
4 ★s

From the book cover:

“A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant.”

The first hundred and some pages of the book I couldn’t stop reading. I was so engrossed in the story, it literally hurt to put it aside and do my everyday chores. Then suddenly “Clair meets real time Henry” and the story comes to a halt and if it’s not enough, it starts dragging at a wounded turtle’s pace. It was quite dreadful at times, and even though I knew I wanted to continue, I wasn’t in a rush to pick up the book right that second. (I’m not sure if it’s the lists everybody seems to brag about, or something else, but it surely wasn’t as “new and unique” as the beginning.) And finally there was an ending, another hundred or so pages, where I didn’t want the story to end. Not only for the reason of what the ending was bringing to the main characters (because I was already aware of what was coming), but also for the story’s sake. I didn’t want the story to end, period.

In one sentence: This is the story that one might perceive to be realistic under certain circumstances, that has both a happy and a sad ending, blended together by love, hope, and fate.

The Night Circus by Morgenstern. Read by Sushicat

Two Magicians pitched against each other from early childhood. Their stage is the Night Circus – a collection on tents that allows the visitors to choose which one they want to visit, some with shows, some inviting the visitor to explore to the point where reality is suspended. In short: an interactive, magical circus, where everything is possible. As the two main characters challenge each other to add new fascinating features to the circus, we are introduced to the supporting cast that provide the starting points for new features – costumes, fanciful mechanical clocks, shows featuring kittens or contortionists.

This book has a gentle flow and pulled me into this magical, dreamlike environment. Gorgeous.

Open City: A Novel by Teju Cole. Read by Tracy
4 stars

Let me start by saying I love to go to museums, and hear the guides tell me all about things that I see. With that in mind, this book is like a museum tour. Our narrator, Julius, takes frequent walking tours of his adopted city, New York (he came to the states to go to college, a transplant from Nigeria), and also Brussels, where he spends a month for vacation. Along the way, the reader is treated to what Julius is seeing, doing, and musing about on his solitary walks.

And his musings cover memories, philosophy, history of the things he sees, art, music, literature, his work as a psychiatrist, and a plethora of other things. Always, though, at the core of his wanderings, mental and physical, is the pervasive sense of his loneliness in a place where it is impossible to be alone.

I had mixed feelings about this book as I read: I am not from New York, so I have no idea where Julius was wandering, so I felt a bit lost myself. But the writing made that a very pleasant feeling. There was no plot, no real storyline, and that is not my favorite type of book, but, again, the writing was beautiful. I had a few a-ha moments, as well. When Julius was in Brussels, he met a Morrocan, who was a Muslim. They had some very interesting and deep discussions about culture and religion, and I realized again that the American/Christian way of life is not always how others see things. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is. All in all, this was a very good read, that I would recommend to others. It didn’t completely blow me away, but I wish more people would read it- it may cause a paradigm shift in their thinking, too. Or at least treat them to some gorgeous writing.

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway. Read by Nicole

This is a simple, sad, sweet book.  It really paints a picture of time and place.  As I always do when reading about war, I think to myself – “What a horrible war!”  As if there was a war which wasn’t horrible.

It’s hard to believe this could have happened in the 90’s.  And yet, that was around the same time as the first gulf war.

I really admire the bravery of the Cellist.  What a beautiful tribute.
Sea of Poppies: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy Book 1) by Amitav Ghosh. Read by Kate
There is certainly a good deal about British trade policy in the 19th century that we were never told in high school World History.  The opium trade has to be one of the most cynical, hypocritical, disgusting examples of empire policy that I’ve ever come across.  Much as American slaveholders pretended to be benefiting the slaves by exposing them to Christianity and civilization the British traders waved the flag of liberation and cynically claimed a God given right to force narcotics on the Chinese.

Ghosh develops multiple characters involved in the trade. Deeti is an impoverished Gujarati farm woman whose husband is a hopeless addict.  Zachary is a young African-American who sets to sea as a ship’s carpenter and ends up an officer when literally everyone of higher rank aboard his ship the Ibis dies before they reach Calcutta.   Jodu Naskar, a Moslem teenager who dreams of becoming a lascar and his foster-sister Paulette Lambert who dreams of becoming an exploring botanist like her late father are reunited aboard the Ibis, The well-educated but deeply indebted Raja Neel Halder falls afoul of the rapacious British trader Burnham and finds his life destroyed.  Ghosh manages to get the reader invested in the lives of each of these characters and more as their lives intertwine into one fateful voyage.

On the downside this novel ends in a cliffhanger without a satisfying resolution.  I knew when I started it that it was the first of a trilogy but I had been anticipating that each novel would be more of a stand-alone than this seems to be.  Ghosh is also very liberal in his use of words from multiple languages especially with the colorful mish mash jargon aboard the ship. He does provide a glossary of sorts at the end of the book but the kindle version I was reading did not have footnote links to the glossary and book marking your place and going back to the glossary each time to sort through hundreds of words alphabetically was far too unwieldy.  He also chose to get a little artsy with the glossary turning it into a semi-extension of the narrative which was rather frustrating when all I wanted was a quick definition so that I could get back to the story.  Now of course I need to read the sequel just to see what happens to everyone.

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion. Read by Ellen
3 stars

Don Tillman, a genetics professor at a university in Australia, has decided that it is time to find a wife. His life is regimented down to every minute so he has devised a 16-page questionnaire to be filled out by prospective mates and titled it the “Wife Project”. Don believes this is the perfect solution to his quest for a wife but soon sees that very few women meet his high standards. When he meets beautiful Rosie Jarman he knows immediately that she is totally unsuitable as a partner but he finds himself intrigued by her free spirit. Don decides to help Rosie with her own research, which he dubs the “Father Project” so that Rosie might learn the identity of her biological father. As the two work closely together Don realizes that he has so much fun with Rosie that he is willing to overlook the fact that she is not his idea of a perfect wife and that just maybe he should loosen up and change some of his own idiosyncrasies.

Although this was a fairly humorous and charming book I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I thought I would. I liked Rosie very much but Don is almost too cartoonish to be believable. I don’t think I will be reading the next installment.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Read by Lynsey
Five stars

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is a contemporary gothic novel that reads like 19th century fiction.  Margaret Lea, a quiet young biographer and daughter of a bookseller is hired to write the biography of a world famous, yet reclusive author.  Margaret goes to live with the author in her mansion by the moors.  The scene is set perfectly for a ghost story and Setterfield’s writing evokes the desolation and loneliness of the moors perfectly.  Within this suspenseful gothic novel is another side story about books and the people who love books, both writers and readers.  Setterfield’s descriptions of being a reader rang true to me.

A big thanks to Bookworm for picking this book off my tbr shelf.  Every once in awhile you just need a really good story.  One that gets you up in the middle of the night to continue reading where you had left off when you were too tired just a few hours earlier.  For me, The Thirteenth Tale filled this need.  I will confess I had had a string of 1001 list reads that made me go “ugggh!” and want to swear off literary fiction forever.  I was in desperate need of an entertaining story with good writing and interesting characters and I got it.  Is that to say this is a perfect book?  No, when I look back I know where the flaws lie but while reading the story I was riveted.  I so rarely give out five stars that I am hesitant to do so.  I started asking myself why I am giving this five stars when I recently gave some other well deserving books 4.5 stars.  I think it just comes down to being the right book at the right time.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Read by Sushicat

This must be the weirdest bookstore – open 24 hours a day, with a tiny selection of regular books for sale and a huge selection of books that are not bought, but lent by a select group of individuals. The newest night clerk for the bookstore is Clay Jannon, next to a regular store clerk’s duty he is tasked with keeping a detailed log of the borrowers – what they borrow, what they wear, their mood, any little detail that strikes him. And of course he is curious about the whole setup and starts digging. In doing so he becomes entangled in a centuries old puzzle.

The book is told from Clay’s perspective. We are introduced to his friends as they come for a visit in the bookstore and get entangled in his quest to solve the puzzle of the strange books. This is a gentle tale with some surprising twists, but mostly it’s about relationships and what counts in life.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Read by Kate

When centenarian Allan Karlsson takes that fateful step out the nursing home window into the flowerbed he starts off a remarkable road-trip. From an initial encounter with a clueless young thug in possession of a small fortune through subsequent alliances with an eclectic group of improbable eccentrics (including an elephant) he has a more eventful month than most of us have in a lifetime.

Allan Karlsson, however, has not led an ordinary life. Episodes from the modern day odyssey are interspersed with chapters from Allan’s remarkable biography. Over the course of the past century he has saved Generalissimo Franco’s life, given Oppenheimer a tip on how to make the atom bomb workable, gotten drunk on tequila with Harry Truman on the day Roosevelt died, and had equally memorable encounters with Stalin, Churchill, Mao, Lyndon Johnson, de Gaulle, and Kim Jong Il. The end effect is sort of a cross between Forrest Gump and Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Read by Tracy
4.5 stars

This book starts with Dellarobia deciding to go through with an ill-thought out affair. As she is hiking up the Tennessee Appalachian mountain, without her glasses, to meet the younger man, she sees what seems to be a floating cloud of fire. This cloud turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, and they change everyone’s simple life.

Dellarobia’s family is struggling to make ends meet, and a logging company wants the trees that are housing the butterflies. Her father-in-law wants the money, despite the trees holding back mudslides. The government, press, and the rest of the family want the butterflies left alone, for different reasons.

The bottom line is that this an aberration in their flight pattern. The disruption is blamed on global warming, which doesn’t sit well with Dellarobia’s husband, or her father in law, because “it’s a lie”, the press says so.

There are many issues tackled within this book. The environment, ecology, politics, religion, education, poverty, relationships. And Barbara Kingsolver manages to blend the whole into a cohesive and well-thought out book.

One of the high points, for me, is when one of the environmentalists comes to the mountain in his SUV and his new, environmentally sound clothes, and starts handing out flyers to the tourists and locals on how to do their part to save the environment. Dellarobia is working for a researcher, and she asks him to read the list to her. He starts with tips for eating out- which she hasn’t been able to afford for over 2 years. He discusses secondhand clothes, making do with your car, local food, investments, etc. Every bullet point is something Dellarobia’s family has been doing, or not doing, for generations. Yet, “you people up here on the mountain should be more environmentally conscious.” It made this farm girl laugh!

There are many discussion points that could easily be contentious if a book group discussed this, and it was well worth reading, because it makes a person think.
I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith. Read by Kate

I began this fictional biography of Livia Drusilla with no background knowledge of the real woman. Therefore I knew nothing of her negative reputation and my understanding of the events surrounding the ascent and reign of Octavius were confined to the broad overview without personal details. Phyllis Smith makes a compelling case for the talents and decency of Livia while de-romanticizing the hi-jinx of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. The novel concentrates on the years between the assassination of Julius Caesar and Octavius’ consolidation of power following the Battle of Actium. I learned a great deal more about Roman history and enjoyed the process.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Read by Andrea
Rating: 4 stars

Vianne Rocher, along with her 6 year old daughter Anouk, arrives to a small village in southern France, and decides to stay and open a chocolate store.  This is not common to her, for she is use to move from city to city, from country to country as she used to with her mother during her whole life.  But something in the wind makes her stay in Lansquenet and with the help of the chocolate flavors, bring some changes to the village lifestyle, even though the priest is against these changes and tries to bring the people against Vianne.

Chocolat is a book with a simple plot, with some flashbacks that help the reader understand the main characters.  This book reminded me of “Like water like chocolate” by Laura Esquivel, both authors used  food, its smell and flavors to describe the environment and feelings of the characters.

Definitely a must!
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Read by Tracy
3 stars

The authorized biography of Jim Henson is pretty good. It has plenty of interviews and anecdotes that made me smile. It brings back so many memories…I was a member of the initial target audience for Sesame Street, and I remember so many sketches from this show, The Muppet Show, and the newer Muppets from the 90s. The Muppet Movie and all the movies featuring Muppets are perennial favorites, even for my adult children.

There weren’t many revelations, though. Everything I read, I have read somewhere else before, and the writing was a bit sterile. Maybe I was expecting something more Muppet-like, a more Cookie Monster style book. Jim Henson is one of the brightest visionaries of the 20th century, and he was one of the kindest people, despite having a penchant for blowing his Muppets up. This was very complementary to him, his family, and his coworkers. All in all, a good book, but a bit bland.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lynsey #

    I love this challenge but I have added more books to my tbr than I have completed after reading all the great reviews! Have a great trip, Jen!


    May 21, 2015
    • Ha ha! That’s been my problem too. It’s killing my TBR not cleaning it although I am not officially participating! Well I’m glad you added some good ones. We probably added the same ones


      May 21, 2015
  2. I’m pretty sure that my TBR has grown over the last few months as well but I’ve enjoyed clearing out some of those titles that have been languishing for too long. Enjoy Prague Jen. As for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading the same book when you get back 🙂 Page long sentences, four page long paragraphs …. Oy!

    Liked by 1 person

    May 21, 2015
  3. Tessa #

    I emailed you,Jen …. have finished book 2 and ready for my next assignment!


    June 2, 2015
    • I think I posted it for you in the original challenge thread. Let me check


      June 2, 2015

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