Stevenson and Sharma

I’ve decided to only post my thoughts on two books at a time instead of three. I think writing about three books at a time makes a post too long. Also I am feeling pretty loopy due to allergies so I hope these following thoughts make sense.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson (Bloomsbury Group, 1932) – While browsing through my library’s eBook collection one day I discovered that several of the Bloomsbury Group books are available to check out in digital format. I was surprised and more than a little thrilled to have instant access to Mrs. Tim of the Regiment and immediately downloaded it. Set in the early thirties, Mrs. Tim is written in diary format by Hester Christie, the wife of Captain Tim and mother of Betty and Bryan. She writes about her domestic arrangements, relationships with the other regiment wives, the day to day scrapes and scrambles of a family with wit and lots of good nature. I really enjoyed the first part of the novel, but the second half (when the family moves to Scotland) is pretty weak. I learned from reading other sources that it wasn’t part of the original novel, but rather a separate story called Golden Days. My problem with Golden Days is that it veers very far away from the endearing domestic life of the Christies while Hester and Betty spend time in the Highlands. I found it boring and very different in tone and style from Mrs. Tim. I am now reading Mrs. Tim Carries On and I absolutely adore it because it is a return to the everyday life of a regiment wife.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma (W.W. Norton, 2014) – Family Life is one of the many (many) eGalleys that I’ve downloaded since joining Edelweiss. I prefer reading print books, but you can’t beat being able to read about a wonderful-sounding book one minute and have it on your iPad the very next. This book was a very quick read, more of a novella, that packs a powerful punch. It is a novel about immigration and assimilation and how families deal with new experiences and tragedy when far from their support system. The Mishra family moves from India to Queens in the eighties in order to give their two sons, Ajay and Birju, better educational opportunities. The boys are old enough to miss India and struggle with the adjustment to American life, but their parents push them to fit in at school and excel. When tragedy strikes during summer break the Mishra’s dreams for their sons are crushed and they never quite recover the optimism and hope that propelled them to America. The tone of this novel is very clear-eyed and truthful. It isn’t happy, there isn’t a rainbow at the end of the storm. The family is nearly destroyed by their misfortune and they don’t endure it with dignity. Sometimes such realistic and painful novels are just too depressing, but I thought this was compelling and beautiful misery. This novel will be released on April 7.

More about Mrs. Tim at:

Stuck in a Book

Tartt, Thirkell and Sigurdardottir

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) – There’s not much to say about The Goldfinch that hasn’t already been said, but I can tell you that it is a book full of ups and downs, highs (literally) and lows that completely entraps the reader with its mesmerizing, epic story. At nearly 800 pages, this novel maintains quite a slow pace yet the writing is so bewitching that I would categorize it as a ‘fast read’. It tells the story of Theo Decker who as a young boy becomes, through tragic circumstances, the caretaker of a Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius. We follow Theo through his adolescence and early adulthood as he struggles with creating a place for himself in the world and with his intense fear that he’ll be discovered with the painting. Memorable characters (especially his friend Boris) tantalize and distract, but, for me, this novel was always about the painting and about the human need to create and to appreciate beautiful art. I enjoyed this novel immensely, but I’m afraid I didn’t love it. However, I do believe that it is a story that will stay with me for years to come.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell (VMC, 1933) – And now for a novel that is about as far from The Goldfinch as you can get. I’ve only known about Angela Thirkell for a few years now; I’d never heard of her before several bloggers started posting about her books. I bought the nice, colorful VMC edition of High Rising last year, but only decided to read it after I finished The Goldfinch and needed a little palate cleanser. It is the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, of which there are 29. The main character in this book is Laura Morland, a widow with four sons who, to pay the bills, writes popular formulaic novels set in the fashion world. Her three oldest sons are off exploring the world and her youngest son, Tony, is at school. The novel takes place during Tony’s breaks at their country home in High Rising and we follow along with the (mis)adventures, romantic entanglements and merriment of their friends and neighbors. The humor is first-rate, self-deprecating and silly. The novel is dominated by really witty dialogue – there aren’t many descriptions of the countryside or of the interiors, but the characters are vibrantly drawn. I think I had a perpetual smile on my face the entire time I was reading this and laughed aloud frequently. It’s just pure fun. I will definitely be reading more books by Angela Thirkell.

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Minotuar Books, 2014) – I seem to have developed a taste for supernatural mysteries. I loved Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton and The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, both of which have a similar feel to this book. When I saw this available as an eGalley I couldn’t resist its description as a mixture of crime fiction and ghost story. The novel is set in Iceland and has a dual narrative. Half of the book follows a psychiatrist named Freyr who is investigating a woman’s suicide while coping with his continuing grief after his son disappeared several years earlier. The second storyline is set on an island where three friends are renovating an old house during the tourist off-season. All of the characters start experiencing eerie sightings of a young boy and hearing malevolent voices. At first the two narratives feel very different, but as the novel progresses the strands start to combine until the stories collide in a spectacular way. The fright factor is very high here – it is terrifying, heart pounding, nightmare inducing creepiness. I tried not to read it at night, but I wanted to know how it ended so badly that I invariably found myself sneaking chapters before bed. If you like being scared, this is a must-read; if you don’t like being scared, I’d stay far away from this cleverly written mystery. It will be released in the US on March 25. 

More about these novels:

The Goldfinch at dovegreyreader scribbles

The Goldfinch at Harriet Devine

High Rising at Pining for the West

High Rising at Desperate Reader

I Remember You at Savidge Reads

I Remember You at Farm Lane Books

A salute to Angela Thirkell in the NYT.

Last Mini Thoughts of the Year

angel

These are the last three books I’ve read, but hopefully not the last of the year – I’m determined to finish The Goldfinch by Wednesday.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – The premise of this book could have been brilliant – three different women in different years, 1985, 1942, and 1918 all switch places after having electric shock therapy. Every time one of them gets a treatment they move to one of the different eras. We see the story from the viewpoint of Greta, who originally lives in 1985.  I read this book in two days and I would call it a ‘throw away’ novel. Entertaining, yet ultimately forgettable and not at all brilliant.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey – This short Persephone Classic, which is the length of a novella, takes place in one setting and in one day – the home of the Thatcham’s on daughter Dolly’s wedding day. It is really a small series of sketches that give us a glimpse into the family, but only that – the reader is left to assume an awful lot. This vagueness is made up for with cutting humor and a sense of chaos and urgency that propels you to the end. I liked this book, wanted more and think I will probably read it again some time to pick up on the subtle details I’m sure I missed on my first read.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – I’ve saved the best for last. Angel is my third book by Elizabeth Taylor this year and cemented my devotion to her writing. I completely adored this story about a delusional, narcissistic girl who becomes a famous and quite wealthy romance author at the beginning of the 20th century. Once you encounter her, you will never forget Angel Deverell – she epitomizes the terms ‘living in her own little world’ and ‘blind to reality’. Everything revolves around her, everyone exists to satisfy her needs and wants and she’s completely oblivious to how her actions affect those around her, not that she has many friends as you can imagine. Reading this felt almost like a fairy tale to me as Angel has created her own version of the perfect world and blithely refuses to let reality creep in. Her gowns, her houses and her relationships all conform to the notions she’s created in her head from childhood. The last third of the book is especially beautiful as Angel confronts aging and poverty and the reader is allowed to pity her. This is a spectacular book and a great place to start with Elizabeth Taylor if you’ve never read her.

More about these novels:

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding at The Captive Reader

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding at The Worm Hole

Angel at A Work in Progress

Angel at Stuck in a Book

And here is a short essay about Elizabeth Taylor in the NYT Book Review.

Enjoy the last Sunday of the year!

Mini Thoughts on Recent Suspense Reads

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During my recent flirtation with suspense novels I finished these three very different books. Here are my mini thoughts:

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon – This dual narrative novel has one part set in modern day and the other storyline set in the early 20th century. A young women returns home to find her mother missing and begins to unravel the truth about her family, her old house and the creepy woods on her property. It is part suspense, part horror and all chilling. I had to sleep with the light on the first night I was reading it because it introduced a zombie element that was crazy scary. If you like being frightened, this is a novel for you. It will be released in February 2014.

Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant – Narrated in the first person by Gaby Mortimer, a TV presenter who finds a woman’s dead body on her morning run, Under My Skin is a twisty tale that examines marital jealousy, the nature of fame and how childhood trauma can affect adults. I was surprised by the ending, but found this, overall, to be just an average suspense novel. Already out in the UK, it will be released in the US in February.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – Libby Day is a survivor. Her mom and sisters were murdered when she was just six and her brother was convicted of the killings. She’s never questioned that her brother did it until she’s nearing thirty and meets an amateur detective. His doubt and her desperation for money spur her to re-investigate the crime to uncover the real story about what happened to her family. Flynn’s writing is so brutally dark and unforgiving that I find it both exhilarating and revolting to read. She has a gift for plotting and for creating unforgettable characters so I’ll probably read her first novel, Sharp Objects, (I’ve already read Gone Girl) at some point. She is one of those authors I’m not sure I like, but I am fascinated by her work.

Have a wonderful Sunday – and a wonderful week!

Mini Thoughts on Recent Reads #4

I’ve been reading so much lately that I have a small backlog of books to tell you about so I am going to break them up into several Mini Thoughts for the next few posts until I am caught up. Here are the first two titles:

songs willow

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford – I really enjoyed Ford’s first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so this book was a natural choice for me to read. It takes place in 1930’s Seattle and tells the story of William, a little boy in an orphanage, and his discovery that the mother who abandoned him is now a budding movie star, Willow Frost. The majority of the novel takes us back to Willow’s teen years as a singer and abused daughter as we learn why she gave William up to the orphanage. I find Ford to be a compelling writer who tells a very swiftly moving story. This time I was half-way into the novel before I realized that I wasn’t liking it much. The plot was a bit generic and bland – I’m afraid to say almost like a Hallmark channel movie. It contained all the elements of a good historical novel, but it lacked that certain something that would make it memorable.

Moonstone
I apologize for this cruddy photo.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – According to Goodreads I started reading The Moonstone on November 12, 2012. I read about half of it right away and then put it aside for some unknown reason. I didn’t pick it back up again until July 2013. Do you ever do this? I can’t believe I didn’t finish it at the time. Anyway, I really liked it and found it to be a fantastic investigation into who swiped the famous moonstone diamond from Rachel Verinder. Collins uses four narrators to uncover the mystery that I wasn’t able to figure out until almost the end. Gabriel Betteridge, the caretaker of Rachel’s family home, is the best narrator by far. He is funny and opinionated and loves Robinson Crusoe. I was sad when his narration ended. I was also sad that we didn’t get more of Sergeant Cuff, the character based on Inspector Whicher, the real life detective who is featured in the book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. He was very vivid and rational – a nice contrast to the emotional young characters who dominate the novel. If you like sprawling Victorian sensation novels, this one should not be missed.

3 more days until Mary Stewart Reading Week – are you ready?

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

me before you

Me Before You is not the type of book that I’m usually drawn to. I had seen the multiple glowing reviews and testaments from bloggers and other readers, but it just didn’t appeal to me when it was released last year. So I’m not really sure what drew me to pick it up when I was walking through the stacks a few weeks ago and saw it on the shelf, but I am very glad that I did.

When down-on-her-luck, endearing Lou gets a job as the companion to Will, a paraplegic, she breaks him out of the self-imposed isolation he has been living in. Taking him on adventures, outings, and day trips she manically tries to help him enjoy himself because she’s learned something about his future plans that she can’t accept. As she tries to understand him and his struggles they inevitably grow closer and form a bond that Lou hopes is stronger than Will’s unhappiness with his life.

This is a book that I think many might confuse as a romance, but it isn’t really. It is more a book about life choices, making the most of the days you have here on earth and the question of whether we should have the choice to decide for ourselves when our own days will end.

The characters, especially Lou, are realistic and heartbreaking and life is is portrayed in all of its mundanity and glory. It is funny and sad, absurd and somber – a really perfect contemporary ‘issue’ novel that is much more human that any Jodi Picoult book.

Moyes’ next book, The Girl You Left Behind, comes out in the US tomorrow and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine

fin and lady

“Fin’s funeral suit was a year old, worn three times, already too small”.

I knew I wanted to read this book when I saw that it takes place in the mid-sixties, one of my favorite time periods. I love the music, the fashion, the films and the changing social and cultural norms. Fin & Lady opens in 1964 with the death of Fin Hadley’s mother. As his father has already died, he is left in the care of his 24-year-old sister, Lady. She sweeps him away from his Connecticut farm to her home in Greenwich Village where the bohemian, beautiful and fickle Lady raises him in a most unconventional manner (he goes to a progressive school that doesn’t teach math, etc). She enlists Fin to help her find a husband by the time she turns 25 and collects a trio of suitors who endure when everyone else falls away. But Lady doesn’t love any of them and searches in vain for the right man to marry her.

The problem lies with Lady’s obsession with freedom. She doesn’t like anyone or anything to restrain her lifestyle and has a habit of ruthlessly disentangling herself from emotional attachment. It makes her relationship with Fin a challenge and causes him to constantly question Lady’s commitment to raising him. As the years pass they broker a stormy yet mutual adoration until Lady’s 28th birthday. That’s the day that Lady disappears and the day their lives change forever.

Fin & Lady is such a joyous and funny book. I constantly chuckled and grinned over the clever dialogue and the banter. Fin is a great character – very precocious, curious and a huge reader. He is practical minded, but adapts to Lady’s erratic lifestyle and thrives in the chaos. Lady is also a wonderful character. She is one of the ‘beautiful people’ yet a free spirit and true sixties creation. Her unpredictability can be maddening but she has enough charm and wisdom to temper the crazy.

Most of the book is set in Greenwich Village and it is energetic and quirky – it must have been quite amazing in the sixties. Another chunk of the novel takes place in Capri and it is a lovely contrast. Peaceful, sunny and magical – Lady loves it and Schine makes the reader fall in love with it too.

800px-Capri_coastline
click photo for credit

The novel is narrated by an unknown ‘me’ and part of the enchantment of the book is finding out who the narrator is – and it is a bittersweet discovery.

The more I think about Fin & Lady, the more fond of it I am. It really is sweet and fun and sophisticated and beautiful. Vibrant characters, fascinating setting and lots of humor – perfection.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

bernadette

“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.”

This very charming novel was short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It didn’t win (the prize was awarded to A.M. Homes last week) and I don’t think it should have, but it is entertaining, quirky and wonderfully funny.

Using an epistolary format, Where’d You Go, Bernadette tells the story of the crack-up and disappearance of Bernadette Fox. She’s a middle-aged former architect who lives in a dilapidated Victorian in Seattle with her husband and teenage daughter, Bee. Bernadette is prickly, opinionated, anti-social and sarcastically funny about her neighbors and the denizens of Seattle. When a series of missteps and really bad decisions threaten her marriage and her very sanity she leaves without a trace. The documents that make up the novel – letters, emails, official school and FBI correspondence – are assembled by her daughter, Bee, to help her understand why her mom left and maybe how she can be found.

I raced through this novel in a couple of days (something I rarely do) because it is compelling and humorous. Reading about the events that lead up to Bernadette’s disappearance had me laughing and snickering with every page. Bernadette says the things we all think and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks about her. She adores her family, but her stifled creativity drives her to frustration with the world and her community. She is a great character and the best drawn of anyone in the book so when she disappears it’s a bit of a let down. I wanted more Bernadette!

Filled with a satirical edge and a tone that mocks hipster culture, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a great contemporary novel about creativity, forgiveness and authenticity. If you are looking for a quick, funny summer read I sincerely recommend it.

Do you like epistolary novels?

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility

“It was the last night of 1937.”

Rules of Civility was the third book that we read for my new book group. It had a bit of a mixed review from the book group members with the majority of us liking it, and other members being a bit put off by some of the plot turns and themes, but overall I think it was a hit.

The novel is set in the late ’30’s in NYC and centers on Katey Kontent, a young, ambitious woman who lives in a boarding house with her wild friend Eve. Katey works at a law firm as a typist and goes on adventures with Eve at night. One New Year’s Eve they meet Tinker Grey who appears to have money and class – something both Katey and Eve are attracted to. When they join Tinker’s wealthy set life changes for both of the girls, tragically for Eve and advantageously for Katey. As the year goes on, Katey, who is bright and curious, makes the most of the opportunities that come her way yet endures heartache and sadness along the path to discovering herself.

The two best things about this novel are the setting and Katey. Towles conjures the allure of city with his vibrant descriptions of the buildings, the streets, the nightlife, the energy and bustle. Katey is described with the same enthusiasm. She is smart, funny, clever, sassy and self-reflective. It is a joy to watch her make her way in the world and discover who she wants to be and how she wants to live. She narrates the story and her voice is completely endearing and authentic.

The other characters are also very polished. For a debut novelist Towles does an amazing job of creating distinct and colorful people who are full of complexities. He also writes fantastic dialogue that reads like a movie from the 1930’s sounds.

This is a first-rate coming of age story with wit and intelligence. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to see what Amor Towles writes next.

For those of you who’ve read Rules of Civility, did you know that Towles wrote a short story collection called Eve in Hollywood? It will soon be available as an ebook (Thanks to Melissa from Life:Merging for letting me know about it).

Other thoughts:

Ciao Domenica

Lakeside Musing

Miss Bibliophile

Tiny Library

A Work in Progress

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

woman upstairs

“How angry am I?”

The Woman Upstairs is quite a remarkable book, but I am finding it very hard to write about. Many of its themes and subjects hit much too close to home. I will do my best, though, to give you my thoughts though I’m afraid they are a ramble.

Nora Eldridge is approaching forty, a frustrated artist, single, childless and a third grade teacher at a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She refers to herself as ‘a woman upstairs. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors never makes a sound’. When a new student, Reza Shahid,  enters her classroom she is intrigued by his quiet beauty and soon meets his mother, Sirena. Sirena is a sophisticated Italian artist, on the brink of major stardom in the Parisian art world. Her husband, Skandar, is teaching at Harvard for a year and the whole family, though charming and attractive, is out of place and a little bit lost in America. Nora takes the opportunity to assist them with some of Reza’s problems at school and slowly befriends Sirena. It is not long until she is completely immersed in their lives and even falls a bit in love with both husband and wife.

On an interview on NPR Messud states that she wanted to write a ‘rant’ novel from a woman’s viewpoint. The Woman Upstairs is told in the first person as Nora relates her growing dependence on the Shahid family and the almost fawning devotion she feels for them. As the end of the school year approaches she realizes that the Shahid’s are going to return to Paris and she desperately yet subtly tries to wedge herself into their lives, to make them never forget her, but they are incredibly aloof and selfish. She makes some really poor decisions so the tone is not only bitter toward the Shahid’s – Nora directs most of her anger and bitterness toward herself. A truly shocking betrayal at the end of the novel massively fuels her rage and the reader can feel the heat of hatred coming off her words.

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Claire Messud (click photo for credit)

Nora Eldridge is no Mildred Lathbury. This novel portrays single women in quite a different way than Barbara Pym does. In some ways it is more realistic, but in others it is just too true to life. As a single, childless woman myself I identified so much with many of the feelings and regrets that Nora has. It was upsetting for me to read at times, but also utterly fascinating to see aspects of my situation reflected in a contemporary novel. But this is not only about the plight of single women. In fact, the major theme of the novel may be the exploration of what it means to be an artist. Is Sirena a ‘real’ artist because she exhibits in galleries and has an agent? Does Nora’s art count because she doesn’t? And does being an artist give you license to use and betray people if it benefits your work?

These themes and others (including the subject of women’s anger) meld into an exciting and fascinating story that left me reeling at the end. I did like this novel very much because it tackles uncomfortable subjects in a wry, descriptive, passionate tone and it has so many layers that I am still thinking about it all a week after I finished. I love authors that can make me think and books that make me want to discuss them with others for hours and hours. This would be a fantastic novel for book groups!

After reading this I am having a hard time engaging with any other novels, especially contemporary ones. I’ve turned to non-fiction to purge my brain of Nora and the Shahids. I would like to read more by Claire Messud, but probably not right away. Have you read her? Do you like novels that completely take over your thoughts?

BTW – my spin book for the Classics Club spin is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.