The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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After my marathon month of reading galleys for the Fabulous Fall Reads presentation I gave at the library yesterday, I needed something absorbing, old-fashioned and satisfying to sink into – and I definitely found that with this novel. The Light Years is one of those books that is complete and total cozy comfort reading – but comfort reading that is very insightful, has realistic, well-drawn characters, is observant and funny. Lots of people are just now discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard, probably because after she died last year there was a flurry of interest in her books. Hilary Mantel wrote a passionate endorsement, which certainly got me interested in reading her, and lately Rachel from Book Snob, has urged us to give EJH, and specifically the Cazalet Chronicles, a try on the Tea or Books? podcast.

The Light Years is essentially a family saga featuring the Cazalet family – Brig and the Duchy, their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. This first novel in the five part series begins in 1937 and ends just as summer is waning in 1938. In this book we’re introduced to all the members of the family, their struggles, fears, joys and interests. The looming war influences a lot of the action and interior thoughts of a majority of the characters, but they’re also plagued by such human concerns as aging, unwanted pregnancy, school hatred, infidelity, forbidden love, illness, etc. It’s absolutely riveting and I so enjoyed losing myself in the lives of this complex family.

I started the second book in the series, Marking Time, the day after I finished this but I had to drag myself away in order to speed read My Cousin Rachel for book club on Tuesday (which is not a hardship, I admit). As soon as I’m finished, though, I’m right back into the lives of the Cazalet clan.

Have you read Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Cazalet Chronicles?

Book Club: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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In Crooked Heart we’re placed right in the middle of WWII-era London during the Blitz. Ten-year-old Noel is an orphan who’s been evacuated to the home of Vee Sedgwick, a woman who just can’t seem to get it together. She can’t hold down a job, makes enemies of her neighbors, and none of her money-making schemes yield results. When Noel enters her life she at first doesn’t see him as anything but a way to make ends meet (by using his ration card) and Noel sees her as something to be endured. Yet as the chaos of war upsets everything around them, even family ties and familiar surroundings, Vee and Noel create a bond that withstands the turmoil. This funny novel explores the dark side of the home front yet is ultimately heartfelt and endearing.

I loved this one! Thanks to Darlene for encouraging me to read it.

Book Club: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

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My book club is continuing to take turns choosing our discussion titles each month. We’ve read some really varied things this year, including a lot more non-fiction than we’ve ever read (we have another non-fiction title up in August), a golden age mystery, a historical literary novel and a classic novel. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the members chose a Regency romance for our July discussion. The member who chose it wanted to read it because it is her mom’s favorite book and she thought it would be fun to read it with the group. Her mom lives in Manchester, England and we wanted to Skype her in for the discussion, but she was understandably nervous about the reaction to her beloved novel (also it would have been 3:30 am in Manchester when we started our discussion).

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried because we all loved it! Heyer’s blend of humor, clever dialogue, a brisk moving plot, historical accuracy and, of course, romance, is an absolute delight. The Grand Sophy starts when Lady Ombersley is asked by her brother to take in his daughter Sophy who has lived abroad for much of her life. Lady Ombersley is hesitant as she, her husband and her children are all under the thumb of her eldest son Charles, who’s recently become heir to his uncle’s fortune. She doesn’t think that Charles will want the expense and hassle of trying to find a husband for Sophy, but reluctantly agrees to accept Sophy into her home anyway. Little does she know what she’s in for – Sophy turns out to be a very high-spirited manager who handily fixes the family’s problems and easily discerns what would be best for them better than they really know for themselves. She’s confident, doesn’t take offense and is lots of fun – a really memorable character.

I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go since The Grand Sophy isn’t deep literature, but we actually had a very lively conversation about what the novel says about womanliness, romance, motherhood, and manipulation. It was one of the best discussions that we’ve had this year.

Next up we’re reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

 

Someone by Alice McDermott

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At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

 

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I consider Sarah Waters to be one of my favorite authors so of course I started reading The Paying Guests back when it was released last fall with much excitement. However, I didn’t finish it before I went to London and had to return it to the library before I left. While walking around Windsor after visiting the castle I saw a copy for sale in a bookshop and bought it with the idea of reading it on the plane home. Yet I didn’t finish it then either. Finally a few weeks ago I started it again and this time I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading and finished the novel with that wonderful sense of satisfaction you feel after living in a truly wonderful story.

The book is set in London in 1922 when the aftermath of the war is still radiating through society. Frances Wray and her mother are left alone in a big, demanding house with little money and no servants. To make ends meet they take in ‘paying guests’, Len and Lily Barber, a young couple who come from a different world, a different class, a different social status.  Inevitable awkwardness and discomfort accompany their arrival to the Wray’s home, especially as Len is a bit slick and there is an odd undercurrent of bitterness in his relationship with Lily. As the weeks go by they all try to adjust to the strained situation and Waters brilliantly creates that feeling of unease for the reader that sits at the heart of all of her novels.

Frances and Lily are eventually drawn together – out of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction – and their relationship takes a dramatic and erotic path that leads to murder. The plot then turns from a simmering love story to a tense police investigation and courtroom drama that only made the novel more interesting and complex. Waters is so good at examining the shifting state of relationships when they’re put under pressure and how her characters react to tragedy and anxiety felt so right to me.

I love the domestic details in this book – the descriptions of the cleaning, the meals, the everyday chores that bring the novel to life and transport us into the post-war society that was so rapidly evolving. These details ground the novel in reality when the characters and the plot take unfamiliar paths and helps to ratchet up the suspense and sense of terror that would plague anyone involved in a forbidden romance or a murder investigation.

I wasn’t disappointed with this latest novel by Sarah Waters and it seems to be the book that will earn her the huge readership that she deserves. She is really gaining a following here in the States – I’ve had conversations with two different patrons this week at my library about how they can’t believe they just discovered her writing. One of the patrons was sad to learn that Waters doesn’t crank the novels out and there was a five year gap between The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for her next novel.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Copies at my local Barnes & Noble.

I had no plans to read this book. I usually stay away from the overly hyped books of the year, not so much because I think they’ll be a fraud, but because it’s so hard to get my hands on a copy and they usually don’t seem worth giving up a precious spot on my holds list for. This one, though, kept calling my name so I put a hold on my library’s digital copy. I got the notification of its availability on a day when I was between books and as soon as I started reading it I knew it was going to be a wonderful journey.

The novel uses a dual narrative that alternates between the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, and Werner, a German boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in a depressed mining town. Their lives before the war are ripe with discovery and curiosity: Marie-Laure about whelks and other shelled creatures, Werner about science and radios in particular. As conflict between the two nations approaches Werner is recruited into the Hitler Youth and sent to a school to learn how to be a perfect soldier and his skill with radios is utilized to further the efforts of discovering resistance broadcasts in Russia and Poland.

When the German army marches into Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee and turn up in Saint- Malo at the home of her great-uncle Etienne, a man still suffering from the trauma of serving in WWI who is also obsessed with radios. Marie-Laure’s father constructs detailed, miniature models of the walled city to teach her how to navigate the streets and alleyways on her own though she is rarely let out into the occupied city. Madame Manec (my favorite character in the novel), her uncle’s caretaker, handles the intricacies of finding food, complying with curfews and orders and sharing information with the neighbors. She also recruits her female friends into resistance efforts by partaking in small rebellions like baking loaves of bread that conceal secret communiques that they pass along to key resistance figures, efforts that Marie-Laure also supports.

In August of 1944 after living for years under occupation Saint-Malo is bombed by American planes. Amazingly, the paths of Werner and Marie-Laure finally intertwine amid fire and destruction. Doerr seamlessly brings these two incredible characters together through a series of believable coincidences that underlie the plot.

The writing is incredibly lyrical with beautiful imagery and a perfect, understated tone. Describing both living under occupation in France and serving in the occupying German army brilliantly shows the humanity of both sides and doesn’t demonize the Germans or glorify the French. The emotions, decisions and motives of the characters are complex and layered as is this story. There are many, many levels of enchantment here, too many to mention, and the way they combine makes a gorgeous, robust novel. I was completely engrossed and am happy that this was the last book I read in 2014. I ended the year on a high note, indeed.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See?