Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oldies But Goodies

So, a few weeks ago I was browsing the shelves at my library to see what Mary Stewart books they have. My eyes glanced upwards and I happened upon a small selection of books by D.E. Stevenson. Stevenson has been experiencing a bit of a popularity boost, with two of her books being republished in 2009, Miss Buncle's Book and Mrs Tim of the Regiment, so I recognized her name immediately and decided to bring one of her books home. Now I have six checked out. Don't you love those vintage covers?

The first Stevenson book I read (and my favorite of the two) is called Blow the Wind Southerly which is apparently also known as Charlotte Fairlie and one other title which escapes me. Miss Fairlie is the headmistress of a girls school in England and is a particularly young headmistress with a somewhat lonely private life. Despite her youth, Miss Fairlie has an even temper and a sensible head on her shoulders. The first half of the novel takes place mostly at and around school. Miss Fairlie has a new student this year, Tessa who is away from her beloved home for the first time, and they form a particular bond. The school year passes successfully, despite discord from a grumbling teacher who wanted to be headmistress and overly strict parents. Tessa invites Miss Fairlie and some friends (children) to visit her at her home in the summer in Scotland (I think!). The path of the tale really becomes clear from this point midway through the book, and the reader can see what is coming, but of course obstacles must be overcome first. All ends well.

The second book I read is The Musgraves. This is a rather more complicated tale with more characters and storylines. Widowed mother Esther has three daughters, one a difficult spinster, one happily married, and one young and fresh, just leaving school. Each has their own storyline and issues. Then there is Walter, Esther's husband's son from his first marriage whom she has only met once - he was not happy about his father's remarriage but has returned to mend hard feelings. Throw in a drama club, a mysterious woman with a scandalous past, and a suspicious young man and you will see what ensues.

What struck me at first about these books, is that they reminded me of books I read in my childhood, that is to say, that they were 'uncomplicated'. The more I thought about it, I wasn't sure if this was the right word, for these books are not saccharine, there are certainly issues and problems to overcome, and unpleasant characters are present and seen by all as troublesome (a take home message, perhaps?). Perhaps the right word is comfortable, for these are books to fall into on a snowy afternoon, they are good books to read when you are tired and don't want to think much. They are there simply to be enjoyed.

As you can see in the photo above I've since borrowed more Stevenson books from the library, even sending a grumpy librarian down to their storage to find Mrs Tim and Vittoria Cottage. I was expecting her to return with old, dusty, falling apart books yet Mrs Tim is in pristine condition! All in all the library has 28 of Stevenson's titles, I consider this a lucky event for me as it seems these books are hard to find and expensive to come by. There is another Stevenson fan locally; I can tell from the catalog that someone else has borrowed their own stack of Stevenson titles. Perhaps they will bring more titles out of storage? I can hope.

If you have a particular favorite D.E. Stevenson book, I'd love to know about it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Great License Plate

Sorry it's so dark.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I find it interesting how our expectations about a book, or a movie, or anything really, colors our experience of them and determines how we react to them. Sometimes, I prefer to go into reading a book with very little information so that my reaction can be my own and unaffected. This was not the case with two books I read recently.

It seems like I've been hearing and reading about how amazing Jayne Pupek's Tomato Girl was for years - and it has only been out since 2008! Every review I've come across has been glowing, and I expected to feel the same way. Well, I am going to bravely buck the trend. Tomato Girl is a story filled with dysfunctional people. Adolescent Ellie Sanders has had a difficult childhood as her mother suffers from mental illness. Her father has been supportive for many years, but his patience has run out and he has taken up with an abused and epileptic teenage girl, finally running away with her and leaving Ellie alone with her very, very ill mother. Bad stuff happens. More bad stuff happens. The last 50 pages are almost comical in that every horrible thing that could happen to a young girl does - in one day. There was a phrase that kept coming to my mind while I read this.

Hopeless Trainwreck.

I almost stopped reading 2/3 of the way through because I lost sight of the point of this book. I know bad stuff happens, and frankly I happen to read and 'enjoy' many particularly depressing books. This one crossed the line for me I guess and felt unnecessarily hopeless. It reminded me of a young adult novel bloggers raved about in the past year about a young teen being held hostage by a pedophile. I wonder, why do we need to read the fiction about this? We know it happens and the reality is bad enough. I am also reminded of another book that seems like a trainwreck, everything bad that could happen does, yet in the end there is hope. That book was A Fine Balanceand is a particular favorite of mine. In the end, I know everyone loved Tomato Girl but I didn't.

On a lighter note, The Monsters of Templetonby Lauren Groff is a book that seems to elicit strong reaction. Readers seem to either love it or hate it. I've had this book for some time now, and the feeling I had based on reviews was that I wasn't going to be crazy about it, but I was pleasantly surprised. In a nutshell, pregnant grad student Willie returns to her hometown of Templeton to get away from her life. She discovers that her father is not who she thought he was and sets out to explore the town's history to figure out who he was. There are photographs of Willie's ancestors, old letters, and chapters from the point of view of long dead relatives. All this tells the story of Templeton and Willie. Oh, there is a lake monster too. My sense was that the author doesn't take herself too seriously, there were many unique elements in this book. Overall I enjoyed this book, though it wasn't a love affair. By the end I was ready to be done (editing?). I'll be interested to see what Groff comes up with next.

Friday, January 15, 2010

How to Start the Year Off Right

For one, I'd suggest beginning with some Dorothy Whipple. As 2010 began, I had a nice little stack of books on my nightstand, each of which was making me happy. They Were Sisterswas pleasing me most of all. This is the story of, yes, three sisters, and their relationships with one another and with their own families. One sister became caregiver to the others quite early on so she remains a bit of an authority figure to them. These three sisters are married, one to a somewhat dull but very solid presence, one to a loving husband whom she does not respect, and one to an abusive and degrading man. It is worth mentioning that Whipple creates a sense of fear surrounding this abusive man, and yet there is no physical violence, he abuses with his words and attitude.

How very difficult it is to describe what is so wonderful about Dorothy Whipple, why her books are just so readable, for that is what they are. Characters are fully and honestly drawn, and the drama all happens at home or in the minds of the characters. Whipple's books are not the sort that would be termed cozy; there is a great amount of discord and unrest here, and one hopes that there will be a happy ending for someone, at least. All in all, totally satisfying for me and it is all I can do to stop myself from plowing through my other Whipples right now.

Another book that started off my year right was John Harwood's The Seance. I had wanted to read this ever since I first heard about it, despite my slight disappointment in the ending of his previous novel, The Ghost Writer. The Seance has many elements that I enjoy; a Victorian setting, a mystery, somewhat of a story within a story. In a nutshell, Constance Langton has had a disappointing childhood, and as a young woman finds that she has inherited an old country mansion Wraxford Hall. But this is no ordinary mansion, as Constance is advised, amongst other strange occurrences, people have vanished into thin air. The middle part of the book is told from several perspectives, detailing the mysteries surrounding Wraxford, then for the ending we go back to Constance for a final adventure. I liked this book a good deal, but something occurred to me; I think I like John Harwood's writing better than his plotting. Sometimes things get a bit far-fetched, or complicated, but it's all beautifully told. Another book to recommend, and an author to watch, for sure.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Remnants, Part 2

The reading of Louise Penny's second book in the Inspector Gamache series was to be a treat to myself while I would be at my in-laws over Christmas. The snow arrived and I stayed in Minnesota (yeah!) but I decided to go ahead with A Fatal Grace (Three Pines Mysteries, No. 2). What perfect timing! In three pines it was Christmastime - Check, snowing a lot - check, and absolutely freezing - check! As always, the villagers are out in force here as is the delicious sounding food and of course there is murder. I had a suspicion about the perpetrator here early on, whom I dismissed, and then later turned out to be The One. A divine and cozy read all around and I had to hold myself back from reading the next.

What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipesis one of those books you come across unexpectedly and then pay *gulp* full price for. This is one gorgeous hardcover by Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrick McFarlin. This book is exactly as advertised; the authors have asked friends, acquaintances and everyone else what they eat by themselves. From those who live alone, to those who are rarely alone, the answers were, to me, fascinating.

A few things that interested/surprised me were:

*Men are much more likely to prepare meat, such as a steak, for themselves than women.

*Women are much more likely to prepare a big pot of something, such as soup, and eat it over the course of many days.

*Not many people are cooking pasta for themselves. WHAT???? I am always cooking pasta for myself. Am I all alone?

If you like cooking, eating,or have that sociological curiosity like I do about what people are eating, pick this one up. There are recipes, too!

Finally, Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World Waris a book that was pretty great but because I read half of it last August and the rest in the Fall I can't say much that's coherent about it. In Britain these women were known as surplus women and there were one and three-quarter million of them. Singled Out is history, told by the people who lived it. Author Virginia Nicholson brings these women to life through a vast number of personal stories exploring lack of a mate and childlessness, to careers and retirement, and even that most delicate subject...pleasure. One subject of particular interest to me, was that of the many women authors in this position and how that translated into their writing; many Virago Modern Classic titles are mentioned. If you're interested in a more concise review Danielle has written about Singled Out here, here and here. If you're an Anglophile like me, if you love women's history, or books about WW1, you'll love this. Seriously.

So that's it! I can happily shut the door on 2009 and begin writing about the books of 2010. So far, there have been some good ones.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Remnants of 2009

These books are some of the leftovers from 2009, unreviewed but not unappreciated. I just want to briefly share my thoughts on them for myself, perhaps you will find something that interests you.

Little Monsters by Charles Lambert - Reviewed by another blogger (who are you?), I ordered this one from the UK. An adolescent girl's father murders her mother and she is sent away to live with an uncaring (to put it mildly) aunt, uncle, and cousin. Her story goes back and forth from her growing-up years to her unconventional and what felt to be, fairly unstable adult life. This was okay for me.

A Northern Lightby Jennifer Donnelly - Cath always knows what I like, that's for sure. She told me I should try this, despite the fact that I thought the author's The Tea Rose was melodramatic. This young adult novel set in 1906 is gorgeously written, those who love books and words and learning will sympathize with main character Mattie who dreams to go away to college. Her mother's death makes her father want to keep her at home. I never fail to be surprised by the parent who wants their child to stay home and work on the farm, follow in their footsteps, get married and on it goes. Was it fear of education or they just wanted the extra hands? Mattie is torn between education and love and this all takes place as the backdrop of a very real and publicized murder of a young woman in the Adirondacks. Highly recommended.

Half of a Yellow Sunby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - A complex novel set during the Nigerian Civil War, from the perspective of several characters including twin sisters, an academic, and his houseboy. I thought it was very, very well done and absorbing though I was a little disappointed in the ending.

Cherries in Winter: My Family's Recipe for Hope in Hard Timesby Suzan Colon - Lovely memoir by a woman whose life and career as a magazine editor were turned upside down by the current recession. In the interest of saving money, she goes back to those family recipes used during other hard times. I appreciated the author's candor and enjoyed this story of her life in and out of the kitchen. Many thanks to Doubleday for this review copy.

Four down, four to go!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nothing in Common

The two books I'm writing about today have nothing in common other than the fact that I was reading them at the same time. I had such different reactions to these books and the experience really sort of 'highlighted' my tastes.

Daphne: A Novelby Justine Picardie was the darling of the British book bloggers some time ago and I waiting for US publication, then paperback publication to finally find out why. The wait was worth it! I'm a little, okay a lot, embarrassed to say that I've never read Daphne du Maurier's work, the person this novel is based on. But to tell you the truth, that didn't really matter at all, when it came to enjoying this book. I mean, I think if I'd read Rebecca (I know the story, just haven't actually read it!) I would have gotten more out of it, but it was a very compelling story nonetheless. The story goes back and forth between three characters. Daphne herself is living a solitary life, researching the life of Branwell Bronte as her marriage is seemingly coming apart. Branwell Bronte scholar J.A. Symington is disgraced, and fielding letters from du Maurier requesting information about Bronte. The present day character is a female graduate student who is keeping her fascination with du Maurier and the link she has discovered with Symington a secret from her much older and distant husband.

Let us cut now to the other novel I was reading, The Ivy Treeby Mary Stewart. You might or might not remember my first experience with Mary Stewart. It was a good one and I expected nothing less with The Ivy Tree. Well, this is one of those times that I disagree with everyone else on Amazon who adored this book. The story sounded good; a young woman from Canada is minding her own business in England when a man comes upon her and declares her the dead ringer for his cousin, long thought to be dead. His cousin who apparently is entitled to the inheritance he is hoping for himself. Thus begins this tale of mystery and deceit. It would be an understatement to say I did not enjoy this very much. I am not a huge fan of looooong stretches of dialogue in books. This book, I felt, had the following structure. Long stretch of dialogue between young woman and one other character;loooong description of place and of the countryside; repeat. And the big twist? It wasn't hard to figure out.

So when the dialogue laden The Ivy Tree was juxtaposed with Daphne it was so easy to understand why I enjoyed Daphne so much more. Yes, there is of course dialogue, and yes, the characters go places and do things, but Daphne was a much more cerebrally driven novel. It's all about what everyone is thinking, not what they are saying. Apparently, I like that more. But for the record, I haven't given up on Mary Stewart.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Books Read in 2010

This post will be routinely updated as an ongoing list.

1. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
2. The Seance by John Harwood
3. Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek
4. Blow the Wind Southerly by D.E. Stevenson
5. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
6. Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
7. Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
8. Day After Night by Anita Diamant
9. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
10. The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson
11. Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson
12. The Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein
13. Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson
14. 1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy
15. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell
16. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
17. One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
18. Celia's House by D.E. Stevenson
19. Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth
20. Sumerhills by D.E. Stevenson
21. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
22. Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson
23. The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor
24. Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson
25. Fletcher's End by D.E. Stevenson
26. The Spare Room by Helen Garner
27. Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
28. Her People by Kathleen Dayus
29. The Baker's Daughter by D.E. Stevenson
30. The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson
31. The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier
32. The Art of Eating In by Cathy Erway
33. The Corner Shop by Elizabeth Cadell
34. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
35. Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor
36. Learning to Swim by Clare Chambers
37. The Girl in the Green Sweater by Krystyna Chiger with Daniel Paisner
38. Small Island by Andrea Levy
39. The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill
40. Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig
41. This World We Live in by Susan Beth Pfeffer
42. An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
43. The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly
44. This is How by M.J. Hyland
45. Searching for Home by Mary Stanley
46. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
47. Someone Knows my Name by Lawrence Hill
48. Secret Daughter by Shipi Somaya Gowda
49. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
50. Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood
51. Mr. Rosenblum's List by Natasha Solomons'
52. The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah
53. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
54. An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor
55. Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
56. Kisses on a Postcard by Terrence Frisby
57. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
58. They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
59. Room by Emma Donoghue
60. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
61. Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
62. In a Far Country by Linda Holeman
63. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
64. A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King
65. The Legacy by Katherine Webb
66. Purge by Sofi Oksanen
67. Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
68. Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin
69. The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler
70. The Sisterhood by Emily Barr
71. An Unpardonable Crime by Andrew Taylor
72. A Dry Spell by Clare Chambers
73. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
74. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
75. Oral History by Lee Smith
76. Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
77. Breaking Dawn by
78. The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi
79. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
80. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
81. A Hidden Life by Adele Geras
82. Unbroken by Laura
83. Starting From Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins
84. The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear