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Cariola's 2016 Reading Log

Club Read 2016

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Edited: Dec 31, 2016, 11:48am Top

Anne, Lady Pope with Her Children by Maurice Gheeraerts the younger (1596)

Anne's father was the lieutenant of the Tower of London. She was married twice, and the children in this portrait are those of her first husband, the third Baron Wentworth. The two on the left are both boys (Thomas and Henry). It was the custom for boys to wear skirts until they were "breeched" at about the age of seven, but note that Thomas wears a short sword while his little brother holds a bow and arrow. Their sister Jane, dressed in miniature adult clothes, is on the right. If you think Anne looks pregnant, you are right: she married her second husband, Sir William Pope of Wroxton, the previous year, and the portrait was designed to display, through her rounded belly and her living children, her fecundity. Childbirth was a dangerous venture for any woman of her day, but at 35, Anne was at even greater risk, and it is likely that her husband commissioned the portrait as a remembrance in case of her death. (She survived and gave birth to two more children.)

Best of 2016 (so far):
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Best of 2015:
Galore by Michael Crummey
The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
The Green Road by Anne Enright
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Stoner by John Williams
Cold Mountain by Charles Fraser (reread)
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Currently Reading:

Taking Liberties by Diana Norman
Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

She Rises by Kate Worsley
Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Toibin
Pure by Andrew Miller
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley
Sea Lovers: Selected Stories by Valerie Martin

The Secret Son by Jennifer Burke
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Felicia's Journey by William Trevor
The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir
Les Liaisons Dangereuse by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark
Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories by Charles Baxter
Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
A Likeness by Sonia Overall
Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian
Modern Art by Evelyn Toynton

The River Wife by Jonis Agee
The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou by Susan Higginbotham
Billy Connolly's Tracks Across America
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Blue Angel by Francine Prose

Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Amherst by William Nicholson
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
The Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and The Great War by Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and others
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
The Promise by Ann Weisgarber
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
The Mistresses of Cliveden by Nancy Livingstone
Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
The Outlander Kitchen by Theresa Carle-Sanders
Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray by Dorothy Love
Monticello by Sally Gunning
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Freemantle
Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel by James Bone
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Freemantle
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien
Charles the King by Evelyn Anthony
Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Shop Cats of New York by Tamir Arslanian and Andrew Marttila
Barkskins by Annie Proulx

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

Jan 1, 2016, 11:17am Top

Looking forward to your reviews, Deb. Happy New Year!

Jan 1, 2016, 12:24pm Top

Happy New Year, Deborah. You always have great pictures at the top of your thread. I'm looking forward to your reviews.

Edited: Jan 8, 2016, 9:53pm Top

First book completed for 2016!

She Rises by Kate Worsley

Initially, I got very caught up in this book, but it took a turn in the last quarter that just didn't work for me. Set in the 1700s, the chapters in the first 3/4 alternate between two narrators. Louise Fletcher is a dairymaid who is hired to learn to be a ladies maid to a sea captain's daughter. The two women form a special bond. One of Lou's hopes is to find out what has happened to her brother, whom she assumes has gone off to sea, and to send the news back home to her mother. The alternate chapters are told by Luke Fletcher, who was conscripted into His Majesty's navy. The descriptions of Harwich, the shipping town, and of life aboard a merchant ship are detailed, vivid, and often harrowing, and both the main and secondary characters are intriguing. I can't explain what happened near the end that disappointed me without giving away a big part of the plot; I just felt it was a bit gimmicky and unrealistic, and Lou's final actions seemed out of character to me. However, on the basis of very fine writing and the first 3/4 of the novel, I would probably read another by Kate Worsley.

Edited: Jan 22, 2016, 1:58pm Top

Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Toibin

This was a fairly good summary of Lady Gregory's influence on Irish theatre and the nationalistic movement. I was a bit surprised at how anti-feminist this woman was. She seemed not only to distrust but to dislike other women. Nevertheless, she played a major role in the resurrection of Irish literature and culture, and she was friend and patron to Yeats, Singh, O'Casey and others.

Edited: Jan 9, 2016, 10:36am Top

Interesting about Lady G's antifeminism.

Jan 12, 2016, 12:09pm Top

You always fid the most interesting pictures to top your thread. It's always a pleasure to visit.

Jan 12, 2016, 1:36pm Top

>7 Nickelini: Thanks, I try!

Jan 12, 2016, 11:04pm Top

>5 Cariola: I'm interested in her and would think that Toibin is a good fit. I'm going to add this one to my wishlist.

Jan 13, 2016, 12:32pm Top

>9 theaelizabet: His writing is always so enjoyable, here as well as in the fiction. Enjoy!

Edited: Jan 18, 2016, 11:14pm Top

Pure by Andrew Miller

This tale of a young engineer working in chaotic pre-revolutionary Paris came to me highly recommended by LT friends, but it fell quite short for me. Jean Baptiste Barratt is assigned the important but unpleasant job of excavating and evacuating the contents of Les Innocents cemetery, partly because the smell of rotting bodies has become unbearable, but partly so that a bridge can be built upon the land. Naive but ambitious, he quells his apprehensions, including putting the priest, sexton, and organist of the attached church out of jobs and, of course, the fact that he is told not to rebury but to destroy the corpses.

I would have to agree with the reviewer who described the novel as "obtuse." And it was about half again longer than it needed to be. I found my attention wandering . . . then something surprising would happen (an attempted murder, a rape, an affair, a suicide), and I would wonder where that came from. The plot was disjointed, the characters fairly shallow, the overriding idea foggy, and the writing stilted. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for this one (but I don't think that was it). I will give Miller some credit for describing the social and political atmosphere and the chaos behind the oh-so-refined surfaces of the time and place.

Edited: Jan 22, 2016, 1:59pm Top

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I did not expect to like this book, mainly because most of the reviews and blurbs I read called it "an anatomy of a marriage," leading me to expect something Ann Tyler-ish (and I've gotten REALLY bored with Anne Tyler). Well, this was not the typical tale of domestic woes, self-discovery, and renewed vows--NOT AT ALL. The book is divided into two sections, "Fates," which focuses on Launcelot (Lotto) Satterwhite, and "Furies," which focuses on his wife, Mathilde. But Groff again defies the descriptions that claim these parts are a simple his pov/her pov.

Lotto comes from a family of Florida hicks turned nouveau riche when his father discovers springs on his land and launches a successful bottling company. His father died while Lotto was still a child, and his overbearing mother, Antoinette, becomes an odd mix of lower class with money, staying in the same run-down house on the coast, sending Lotto to an elite school, and spending her time watching a home shopping network and buying everything she sees offered. At his Ivy League university, Lotto studies to become an actor. He's handsome enough and has a je ne sais quoi that attracts both men and women. He's known as quite the playboy--until he meets cool, elegant, and somewhat mysterious Mathilde. (I imagined her as looking something like JFK Jr's wife Carolyn.) His first words to her are "Marry me." In Lotto's account, her answer is "Sure"; in hers, it's, "No." Two weeks later they tie the knot. I don't want to give away too much of the rest; suffice it to say that Lotto struggles until he discovers his real talent is as playwright , and Mathilde is the perfect, patient, supportive wife.

But there's a lot to Mathilde that no one really knows, and we learn about it in "Furies," her story. It will change the way you think of her and the way you view some of the people and events in "Fates." Enough said. (And I hope you don't read any of the reviews that give too much away!)

Some readers have complained that Groff's writing is at times "overblown." It may be, but I believe that is purposely done and helps to create the atmosphere and develop the plot and characters. The only thing I could really have done without is the long passages supposedly taken from Lotto's plays. Maybe they were just a little too avant-garde for me, but I found them too precious, too self-consciously "artsy" and obscure, and I couldn't imagine that I (or anyone else, for that matter) would ever pay to see them.

This book grabbed me and then surprised me, and I'm happy to recommend it.

Edited: Jan 22, 2016, 2:20pm Top

>12 Cariola: I skimmed your review since I'm reading this right now, but like you I expected not to like it but am finding myself surprisingly invested in it already.

Jan 22, 2016, 2:28pm Top

>12 Cariola: That does sound intriguing.

Jan 22, 2016, 2:54pm Top

>13 japaul22: Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. You're probably safe to read my review--I make it a point NOT to include spoilers.

Jan 22, 2016, 5:05pm Top

putting the Groff book on my wish list

Jan 22, 2016, 5:06pm Top

I think I shall have to read this one. I liked Groff's The Monster of Templeton.

Edited: Jan 22, 2016, 5:59pm Top

>12 Cariola: I didn't find the writing overblown as much as epic, not literally, obviously, but pulling from that tradition. I loved this book, too.

Jan 22, 2016, 8:41pm Top

Please tell me how you insert photos and book covers. Thank you. PS I have no trouble uploading author photos on author pages (which have upload buttons that I don't see here).

Jan 23, 2016, 2:42am Top

>19 Micheller7: It's a bit of a process. I copy the cover from the book's page here on LT and save it to an album on my computer. Then I upload it to an album on Photobucket. From there, I can copy links to either a thumbnail or somewhat larger photo of the cover and then paste it into my message.

I think there are other ways to do it, but this is the method I've gotten used to, and it works for me.

Jan 23, 2016, 6:57am Top

>19 Micheller7: if you check out this thread, there's loads of tips on what to do in posts.

Jan 23, 2016, 8:24am Top

>12 Cariola: Great review of Fates and Furies. I read it last weekend and really enjoyed it. I didn't want to put it down.

Jan 23, 2016, 8:29am Top

I am intrigued with sea lover! Is it a novel or stories?

Jan 23, 2016, 8:52am Top

>11 Cariola: That's a shame. I really liked his first book Ingenious Pain, but his later books haven't quite matched up. However, I still keep buying them on the strength of that first one, so I have Pure somewhere in my TBR.

Jan 23, 2016, 11:00am Top

>22 cabegley: I felt the same way!

>23 CRYSTALLOVEE88: Sea Lover is a collection of short stories that were published previously. I put it down after the first four, which all involved an animal being killed. But I will give the rest a try before giving up on it entirely.

>24 wandering_star: I don't think I'll be reading anything else by Andrew Miller for a quite while. Getting through this one was a bit like self-torture.

Jan 24, 2016, 11:23pm Top

>12 Cariola: great review. Wondering if audio would work (or if it would get killed by overly dramatic narrators).

Jan 24, 2016, 11:42pm Top

>26 dchaikin: I read it on my kindle, but Ilana (Smiler69) listened to the audio version and loved it.

Jan 25, 2016, 2:59am Top

I'm planning to try again with Fates and Furies soon. I'd begun it at a point when I was growing jaded about reading so many books set among the beautiful and wealthy in New York and I couldn't do another. I think enough time has passed to allow another try.

Jan 25, 2016, 8:06am Top

>12 Cariola: Chris already put Fates and Furies on my wishlist, but your review seals the deal.

Edited: Jan 30, 2016, 10:11am Top

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

This is an enjoyable but fairly run-of-the-mill fictionalized biography of Jane Austen, told from the point of view of her sister, Cassandra. The author stays pretty true to the known facts of Austen's life--which doesn't necessarily make for an exciting read. If anything is expanded upon here, it's simply some of the family quarrels and Cassandra's jealousy over sharing Jane with others. We learn little, either real or imagined, about Cassandra's own life, aside from her engagement to a young clergyman who died before their wedding, her stints of caring for ailing and about-to-deliver relatives, and her assistance in reading, making copies of, and giving suggestions for Jane's manuscripts in progress. Overall, it was a fast and enjoyable read but might be appreciated more by those who haven't read any deeper biographies of Austen.

Edited: Feb 6, 2016, 9:37pm Top

Sea Lovers: Selected Stories by Valerie Martin

I've enjoyed Valerie Martin's novels; this collection of previously published short stories, not so much. The writing is fine enough, and she has come up with some interesting characters, so for someone else, this may have been a good read. But overall, I found the people and stories mean, selfish, and depressing, and those aren't the types of people that I want to spend my time with these days. The twelve stories are sorted into three sections. Those in "The Animals" all involve killing an animal. A woman euthanizes a young, healthy dog to get back at the husband who left her but still cares about the dog; a father chops a rat in half with an ax, and his daughter becomes fixated on the gory remains; a man closes a cat in an attic where it starves to death; a woman finds a dead cat in her yard, a can stuck on its face. Lovely topics for fiction for any animal lover. The four stories in "The Artists" all focus on egotistical and nasty painters/writers who treat the women in their lives horribly. They are verbally and emotionally abusive, they lie, they steal, they push people down stairs, they're simultaneously lazy and ambitious. Again, do I want to read about people like that? NO! "The Lovers"--well, let's just say that in their cases, love should mean having to say you're sorry, whether it's the nasty menopausal woman who rejects her husband or the mermaid who literally rips her men apart, balls first, or any of the other extremely unpleasant so-called "lovers." I'm not someone who reads Pollyanna stories, Christian romances, etc.--but I like to take something with me from a good book, and there was nothing here that I care to think further about. Forcing myself to finish it (why, oh why, did I do this?) was near-torture. If I wasn't repulsed, I was bored.

I'm giving this book 1.5 stars based solely on the quality of the writing.

Jan 31, 2016, 8:38am Top

Yikes. I'm not sure how much you would have to pay me to read Sea Lovers. Thanks for your good review and for taking one for the team, Deborah.

Jan 31, 2016, 8:57am Top

Hmm, I just read another review of Sea Lovers. I'm now weighing them in my mind. I do like Valerie Martin's writing a lot.

Jan 31, 2016, 1:48pm Top

>33 RidgewayGirl: I like her writing, too--but the content were was dreadful and the characters, for the most part, more unlikable than intriguing.

Jan 31, 2016, 1:51pm Top

I picked up a free copy of Cassandra and Jane and my SIL has read it. She said pretty much the exact same thing you did. I may get to it one day, but won't cry if I don't.

That Sea Lovers sounds awful.

Jan 31, 2016, 2:02pm Top

>35 Nickelini: My copy was free, too, so no loss--just the same old same old.

If it hadn't been for good writing, Sea Lovers would have earned 1/2 star from me.

Edited: Feb 7, 2016, 2:21am Top

The Secret Son by Jennifer Burke

I started out liking this book, but for a number of reasons, my opinion changed considerably. Sean Murtaugh, a young Irishman who has been living and working in New York, is called home when his wealthy father suddenly dies in an early morning car crash. Things go from bad to worse when the family learns that the dead man's will gives his entire estate to Andrew, the product of a one-night stand with a married woman, that no one but his best friend ever knew about. Sean's mother and sisters risk being put out of their home with nothing to live on. By shifting the narrators, however, the author also allows readers to sympathize with the other family. The husband died several years earlier, and Andrew is in desperate need of a kidney transplant, and his sister, a nurse, has devoted her life to caring for him. His mother abruptly moves the family to Ballylough, where the Murtaughs live, in hopes of pressuring them not to contest the will and to abandon their home. Members of each family are determined to fight the will.

So what went wrong? Well, first, there are too many coincidences. For example, Sean stops by a local pub and is mysteriously attracted to a young woman--who (you guessed it) turns out to be Tor, Andrew's sister-carer. When Sean's youngest sister, depressed from her father's death and all the quarreling, attempts suicide, who do you think rescues her? Right, it's Tor. And who do you think turns out to be the perfect match for Andrew's much needed transplant? (Ho-hum.) I could give many more examples, but suffice it to say that it started getting on my nerves, and that's when I began to notice irritating flaws. Like the phone call in which the person in New York says it's 8:00 p.m., and the one in Dublin says it's 4:00 in the afternoon there. Since when is New York 4 hours ahead of Dublin? Or when a character says (and I don't believe this was meant to be part of the characterization), "Don't let anyone pressurize you into donating a kidney." The predictability started to get worse--plus the injection of too many overly dramatic moments (convulsions, confessions of abusive boyfriends, guilt over a dead neighbor and more) when the going got slow. My two-star rating is probably overly generous; I may go back and revise it downwards. It was a short book that ultimately seemed very, very long.

Feb 7, 2016, 2:45pm Top

Too bad that you had a couple of duds in a row. Chances are the next will be a winner!

Feb 7, 2016, 5:06pm Top

>38 VivienneR: I sure hope so!

Feb 8, 2016, 1:47am Top

There is nothing so annoying as the book whose flaws pile up until that's all you can see. Thanks for warning us off of this one.

Feb 17, 2016, 3:51pm Top

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I enjoyed Lauren Groff's latest novel, Fates and Furies, earlier this year, so I thought I would give Arcadia a try. The two books couldn't be more different--with the exception that they both showcase the author's fine writing. Arcadia takes us through roughly 40 years in the life of Bit Stone, the fist child born in the commune of Arcadia. Groff paints an idyllic if makeshift childhood for Bit amongst the waterfalls, forest, birds, and hippies. The Arcadians welcome anyone and everyone, which sometimes gets them into a bit of trouble; yet they generally eschew the outside world--except when money is short and their charismatic leader goes off on a tour of singing engagements.

Of course, as Bit matures, he begins to see the snakes and thorns in paradise: the privileges accorded to their leader despite an "all for one" philosophy, the growing drug abuse among his peers, his adored mother's weariness with a life of poverty, and more. Fast forward about 20 years. Arcadia has fallen apart, and Bit now lives in New York with his young daughter, making his living as a photography professor. Bit fills in the gaps on all the characters from his past life, and the reader gains insight into how the clash between his unconventional upbringing and the world he has had to adjust to have shaped his life. The story takes a somewhat apocalyptic turn towards the end that I don't want to give away. But overall, Arcadia is a novel built upon the power of memories, hope, and love, and in Bit Stone, Groff has created a character both recognizable and unforgettable.

Feb 17, 2016, 5:09pm Top

Nice review of Arcadia. I still need to read Fates and Furies.

Edited: Feb 20, 2016, 11:34am Top

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

This is the first in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, and I look forward to more—even though this one didn’t impress me quite as much as it has some other readers. The opening scene is an attention grabber: while visiting his mother’s grave, Simon Strulovitch sees a man in a fedora who seems to be talking to his dead wife, Leah. It’s Shylock, of course, and Strulovitch promptly takes him home. The two have men have much in common: like Shylock’s daughter Jessica, Simon’s teenaged daughter Beatrice seems determined to run off with a gentile (in this case a married footballer), and although his wife Kay still lives, she has been seriously disabled by a stroke. And both suffer from the weight of centuries of resentment suffered by their people. Strulovich has never been a religious man, but a part of him clings to his Jewish identity, while for Shylock, his faith was everything. During the course of the novel, the two men engage in long philosophical conversations about what it really means to be a Jew and how one should respond to the way they have been treated by society.

There are plenty of humorous moments in Jacobson’s revisioning of The Merchant of Venice, and all of the play’s original characters are there in distinctive guises. Portia becomes the bored, manipulative heiress Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Shalcross (known as Plury); her suitor Bassanio is Barnaby, a mechanic; the merchant Antonio is now the art dealer D’Anton; etc. And the pound of flesh--well, I'll leave that for you to find out. Jacobson weaves in plenty of lines from the original play (as well as a number of other Shakespearean plays).

But for me, the long-winded conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock began to get rather tedious, and, in time, they began to detract from the more engaging strands of Jacobson's reimagined plot. Caught up in the concept, I quickly read the first 2/3 of the book. I read the last third just as quickly--because I wanted to reach the end and move on to something more enjoyable.

Feb 20, 2016, 3:02am Top

Nice review of Shylock is My Name, Deborah. As I mentioned elsewhere I hope that it isn't chosen for this year's Booker Prize longlist, so that I don't have to read it.

Feb 20, 2016, 11:28am Top

I hated The Finkler Question so much I've avoided Howard Jacobson ever since!

Feb 20, 2016, 11:33am Top

Thanks, Darryl. I didn't read Jacobson's last two books as I kind of figured he wouldn't be my type of writer, but this was an LTER book. Had it not been for the humor and some clever plot twists, my rating would have been at least a point lower.

Feb 21, 2016, 10:02pm Top

I think I've felt the same way as Rebecca in #45 (and so with the same sentiments as Darryl, although the award list wouldn't affect my reading). But yet, Deborah, this is an intriguing review.

Feb 21, 2016, 10:15pm Top

>47 dchaikin: I just got an LTER of another book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew. I'm enjoying it much more than Shylock Is My Name (even though I'm not a bit Ann Tyler fan). I doubt that I'll be looking for anything else by Howard Jacobson, Booker Prize lists or otherwise.

Feb 21, 2016, 10:21pm Top

Oh, the series is multiple authors. I don't know anything about it. Would this be a good first try of Anne Tyler? I guess you should finish the book before answering that.

Edited: Mar 9, 2016, 6:44pm Top

>49 dchaikin: I'm about 1/5 into it--so far so good. Hopefully, it won't fall flat like the last one. Because she's somewhat bound by the original plot, it's funnier and less the kind of whiny "woman who wants more out of her marriage and life or has a family crisis" type of novel that I associate with Tyler. I hadn't read anything by her in over 20 years--I got tired of the same old thing. But I recently read A Spool of Blue Thread and felt it was pretty much more of the same.

This book has a list of the entire anticipated series on the inside cover. I believe the only ones currently on sale in the US are the Jacobson and Jeanette Winterson's A Gap in Time The Winter's Tale). The Tyler is due to be released on June 21. Here are the rest--don't have release dates yet, and some have yet to be assigned modern titles.

The Hag Seed (The Tempest) retold by Margaret Atwood
Othello retold by Tracy Chevalier
Hamlet retold by Gillian Flynn
Macbeth retold by Jo Nesbo
King Lear retold by Edward St. Aubyn

Edited: Feb 24, 2016, 9:53am Top

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler's updated, novelized version of The Taming of the Shrew was a light, fun read--nothing earthshaking, but a nice break from heavier reading. Her characters are considerably toned down from the original. Kate is the 29-year old daughter of the widowed scientist, Dr. Louis Battista. She takes care of the household, watches over her precocious 15-year old sister Bunny, and works at a day care. She resembles Shakespeare's Kate only so much as being rather blunt with people, saying what is on her mind rather than being politically correct or polite, but most of the time she is just quiet, giving one or two word answers to questions or comments and wanting to be left alone. Her father fears that if his 30-year old Russian research assistant doesn't get his visa renewed, his project will go down the tubes, so he cooks up the idea of arranging a marriage between Pyotr and Kate. Pyotr is in no way as outrageous as Shakespeare's Petrucchio: he merely suffers from a foreigner's unfamiliarity with language and customs, which annoys Kate but seems to charm everyone else.

If you know Shakespeare's play, you can pretty much figure out what happens next. As I said, this is a light, fast, and amusing read, but since I generally like my books to have a bit more substance, I'm only giving it a three-star rating.

Feb 28, 2016, 9:30am Top

Interesting about the series Deborah. I think i'll give this Tyler a pass though. Too bad there wasn't more to it.

Feb 28, 2016, 1:14pm Top

>45 rebeccanyc: same feeling about the same author, just a different book. I listened to Zoo time and haven't gone near Howard Jacobson since. They sound good, but I was sorely disappointed, it never got going.

Feb 28, 2016, 2:41pm Top

>53 Helenliz: He got too lost in his own religious philosophizing to keep my attention.

Edited: Mar 2, 2016, 12:53pm Top

Felicia's Journey by William Trevor

This is probably Irish writer William Trevor's best-known novel, perhaps because it was made into a film starring the great Bob Hoskins. Mr. Hilditch, a rotund bachelor in his fifties who works for a catering company, is on the lookout for a lonely young woman to befriend when Felicia walks into his view. Felicia has left her home in Ireland to search for Johnny Lysaght, a local boy who got her pregnant while home for Christmas. Johnny, who would not give Felicia his address when he left, told her that he was taking a position in a lawnmower factory in this industrial English town, but no such plant seems to exist. Mr. Hilditch worms his way into Felicia's confidence with sympathy, advice, and his story of a wife dying in hospital, and their relationship quickly progresses through a series of offered rides to cups of tea in local cafes to an offer to stay temporarily in Hilditch's house. What will happen to Felicia? And what has happened to Jakki, Gaye, Edie Covington, and the other girls to whom Hilditch often refers in his personal musings?

This is a creepy story in the Hitchcockian vein--well written and suspenseful, but not my favorite Trevor novel. Still, his keen perceptions of human nature and his fine writing come through.

Mar 2, 2016, 2:33pm Top

I want to read Felicia's Journey. I like Trevor's writing style and I really liked The Story of Lucy Gault.

Edited: Mar 4, 2016, 5:14pm Top

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir

Margaret Douglas was a niece of Henry VIII, born of his sister Margaret Tudor's second marriage to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus; her first was to James IV, King of Scotland (making her the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots). In the drawn out battles of Tudor succession, Margaret Douglas played a prominent role. As a Catholic, her possible claim to the throne was supported by many of her faith, both at home and abroad, but the fact that she was born in Scotland excluded her. However, her son Henry, Lord Darnley, who was born in England, gave hope to the Catholic cause, particularly after his marriage to his cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Weir outlines Margaret Douglas's heritage and the difficult years she had under the reigns of her uncle and, subsequently, her cousins Edward and Elizabeth. (She was, for the short time that Mary reigned, in favor at court.) Her plans for marriage to two men of the Howard family were thwarted, but she finally married Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, a prominent Scottish nobleman who had pledged allegiance to Henry VIII. Theirs was a long and loving marriage--but not one without its problems, both personal and political. Margaret, who had suffered several miscarriages and the deaths of infant children, never got over the murder of her son, Lord Darnley, in Scotland, and she suffered from being kept from ever seeing her grandson, James, child king of Scotland and later successor to Elizabeth I.

Weir's biography, while interesting, is long, minutely detailed, and somewhat repetitious. Anyone researching the religious and dynastic issues of sixteenth-century England will find her to be a lesser-known but important figure. It is not, however, light reading for the casual Tudor junkie. Still, Margaret's story emphasizes the difficult lives of women in the period, even wealthy women of royal blood.

Edited: Mar 7, 2016, 5:25pm Top

Les Liaisons Dangereuse by Pierre Cholderos de Laclos

This was an audio dramatization of the well-known French novel, most likely based on Christopher Hampton's play of the same name. It features the main players who starred in the play on the London stage last year: Dominic West, Janet McTeer, and Elaine Cassidy. NTLive has been broadcasting the production--but unfortunately nowhere within thousands of miles from my home. If you've seen the excellent movie with John Malkovich and Glenn Close (or the somewhat less excellent 'Valmont,' starring Colin Firth and Annette Benning), you already know the story: in pre-Revolutionary France, the Viscomte de Valmont and his one-time lover, the Marquise de Mertueil, use their formidable powers of seduction and manipulation for revenge and amusement at the expense of others.

I tried to read the novel, which is composed entirely of letters, a few years ago but found it dry in comparison to the play and film. This 2-hour audio dramatization is fine enough, but if you'd like to see what is perhaps Malkovich's best performance on film (as well as the decadent splendors of the French court), don't miss the 1988 movie.

I only wish I had been able to see Alan Rickman onstage as Valmont in the original Hampton production.

Edited: Mar 9, 2016, 5:49pm Top

Catching up here after a long gap!

>41 Cariola: I've just finished The Monsters of Templeton which I think is Groff's first book. It was interesting enough to make me think of trying more by her, and your review of Arcadia is tempting.

>50 Cariola: The Hogarth Shakespeare series looks really interesting, although I started and then stopped reading the Jeanette Winterson. The Tempest retold by Margaret Atwood sounds promising though, as does King Lear retold by Edward St. Aubyn.

Mar 9, 2016, 6:44pm Top

>59 wandering_star: I just got a copy of The Monsters of Templeton, which I plan to start soon. I guess you could say that I'm reading her books in reverse order!

So far, the Hogarth Shakespeare series has been rather mediocre, but I still have hopes that one of them will be a real winner.

Edited: Mar 10, 2016, 1:53pm Top

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

Wow, reading some of the other reader reviews, I started to wonder if we had read the same book. I've enjoyed several other books by Muriel Spark, including A Far Cry from Kensington, The Girls of Slender Means, Memento Mori, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This one, however, had none of the wry humor I've come to expect from Spark; it was just a bit creepy. The main character, Lise, is an ill-tempered woman who puts on airs. She barks at a salesgirl who recommends a dress's stain resistant fabric, claiming she is insulted by the thought that she would ever spill food on her clothing. She pairs a dress with a bright yellow bodice and multicolored skirt (predominantly purple) with a red and white striped coat and belittles others for not realizing how well dressed she is and how well the patterns and colors go together. She leaves for a trip to a southern country (Italy, I believe), telling anyone who will listen that she is meeting her boyfriend--but she has no boyfriend, she just assumes she will know her "type" when she sees him. She fixates on two different men during the plane ride, neither of whom have any interest in her. Some readers have said that Lise is having a mental breakdown, but I saw no evidence that her behavior, for her, was in any way out of the ordinary: she's just an eccentric, artificial, self-important woman. We learn early on that, due to her stupidity (or is it her secret desire?), she will end up dead. Can't say that I was sorry to see her go.

Mar 10, 2016, 3:24am Top

>61 Cariola:. Well then.

I'm not sure if this sound intriguing, or conversely, one to avoid at all costs.

Mar 10, 2016, 6:43am Top

>61 Cariola: Hmmmmm. :)

>57 Cariola: I have a couple of Alison Weir's books on my shelf. I'll get there eventually.

Mar 10, 2016, 1:54pm Top

>62 Nickelini: I gave it a rather generous 2.5 stars.

Mar 11, 2016, 6:57pm Top

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This is yet another book that suffers from a serious lack of editing. I was eager to read the story of Lilliet Berne, who was orphaned in the American frontier in the latter half of the 19th century, joined a circus as a rough rider known as the Settler's Daughter, became a registered prostitute in Paris, was a member of the Empress Eugenie's household, and rose to become a celebrated operatic soprano. The story begins when Lilliet, known as La Generale, is given a novel that appears to be based on the secrets of her own life. The giver hopes to have it turned into an opera, withe the principal role designed especially for her. Lilliet is determined to learn which person from her past has revealed her secrets. As she approaches each with a gift of the novel, she reveals to the readers her own story.

While this sounded like a great story (and it was, at times), I got bogged down in the pages and pages and pages of repetition and description. Yes, the author does effectively recreate the atmosphere of the French imperial court, but it could have been done with a lot less frivolous detail. Halfway through, I started skimming and skipping pages, looking for something to happen or a character to show some development--and I am not an impatient reader who focuses solely on plot. The writing was fine enough, so I will pass the blame for this meandering disaster on to the book's editor. Ultimately, this is another sad case of lost potential, I'm afraid.

Mar 12, 2016, 5:00am Top

That's too bad about The Queen of the Night. Alexander Chee is such an engaging and kind guy that I want his big book to be the best thing ever. He's been using his current fame to bring up various women authors he thinks deserve more attention.

Mar 12, 2016, 12:50pm Top

>66 RidgewayGirl: I really wanted to like this one. :(

Mar 12, 2016, 5:38pm Top

There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter

Baxter gives us a competent set of connected short stories. The collection is divided into two parts, the first titled after virtues, the second after vices. Characters drift among the stories, reappearing to play different roles. At the heart of each story is a request. For example, a young Asian American falls in love with the woman he saved from jumping off a bridge; she later agrees to have sex with him, but only if he will agree not to kiss her. A mother, dying of cancer, asks her daughter to accompany her to the end. Baxter's character studies are fine, and he makes the interlocking frame work in telling their stories. I liked but did not love this collection. Perhaps that was due, in part, to the fact that I listened to them on audio; I think I might have appreciated them more in print. I may see if my library has it downloadable for kindle--I'm willing to give it another go.

Edited: Mar 21, 2016, 8:15pm Top

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

I have reading a streak of mediocre books for the past month, so Blue Asylum was a pleasant surprise. As several reviewers have pointed out, the book's themes are nothing new; but to reduce it to "war is bad," "slavery is evil," or "women were repressed" is to do it a great injustice. Hepinstall writes very well, creating interesting, complex characters and situations and settings that, while perhaps familiar, are nonetheless poignant and absorbing. Iris Dunleavy, an attractive young wife, is sent to an asylum on remote Sanibel Island to regain her sanity. The manifestation of her madness: her objection to the cruelty involved in slave owning, including that doled out by her husband. To return to plantation society, Iris will need to accept her role as a slave owner's wife. But what she had seen was so horrific that she ran away with a group of slaves, and there is no turning back for her.

Hepinstall gradually introduces us to the other patients in the asylum, as well as to the English superintendent, Dr. Cowell, his petulant wife Mary, and his son Wendell, who suspects that he himself is going mad. And Iris befriends a troubled young soldier, Ambrose Weller, who suffers "fits" related to his role in the death of his friend Seth. The secrets of each character are revealed with slow precision, adding suspense to the story.

The mere fact that I finished this book in less than two days speaks to how it engaged me. I was up late two nights in a row, eager to find out what happens next. I will definitely be looking for more books by this author.

Mar 14, 2016, 2:24pm Top

Interesting review of Blue Asylum. I'm intrigued that it's set on Sanibel Island.

Mar 14, 2016, 2:35pm Top

So happy for you that you found a good book. Judging by the cover, I wouldn't have expected much (even though it is pretty).

Mar 14, 2016, 2:46pm Top

>71 Nickelini: Yes, another headless woman! Fits maybe a bit more since she is considered to have lost hers. Or thinking back to the Renaissance interpretation, she is a woman without an acceptable man (a "head") to reason for her.

Mar 14, 2016, 5:44pm Top

>68 Cariola: the Baxter book sounds like something I would enjoy. I hope it's more enjoyable in print, as your review intrigued me.

Mar 14, 2016, 5:54pm Top

>69 Cariola: Blue Asylum sounds really good. I'm glad you found a good one after the slump.

Mar 21, 2016, 8:00pm Top

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

What a remarkable book! Flanagan mingles two stories, both based on real persons, who meet in 1854. Charles Dickens is at the center of the first. He is despondent over the recent death of his daughter Dora, and his marriage is falling apart. There seems to be no joy in his life, and he has no idea how to get it back. Dickens is contacted by Lady Jane Franklin, who wants him to write a defense of her husband, Sir John Franklin, former governor of Tasmania, who disappeared on an arctic expedition. Although 10 years have passed, she still has hopes that her husband survives, and she is outraged by a recent article claiming that he cannibalized his crew. The English, according to Lady Jane, just don't do that kind of thing, and she wants Dickens to write a piece that will restore his reputation. Inspired by the tale, Dickens also joins with his friend, Willkie Collins, to write and perform in a play, 'The Frozen Deep.'

Flanagan also takes us back in time to tell of the Franklins' time in Tasmania, where Lady Jane tries to instill English culture via imported statuary and paintings. She adopts a lively aboriginal girl, Mathinna, taking her from her family and doing her best to turn her into a proper English lady. For her, Mathinna is an experiment, but she also fulfills the "wanting" left by three miscarriages; for Sir John, she comes to represent another kind of "wanting"; and Mathinna herself is stuck between "wanting" the love of a new mother who believes that displays of affection are indecent and the freedom of the life she once knew.

A number of readers have complained that the two stories don't really connect, but I believe they do, on a number of levels. The book is, of course, in part a commentary on English colonization and its treatment of native peoples. It's also a statement on what is lost, both at home and abroad, in adhering to the rigid restrictions and morals of Victorian English society: not only Mahinna but Dickens and the Franklins suffer as well. Flanagan cleverly plays on the double meanings of the word "wanting" as both what one desires and what one lacks.

This book just shot to the top of my list of Best Books of 2016. It's brilliant, poignant, and beautifully written. I can't wait to get to the other two books I own by this author.

Mar 23, 2016, 12:32pm Top

A Likeness by Sonia Overall

While this book had its interesting moments and some clever ideas, overall, it fell short for me. Set in the reign of Elizabeth I, the main character, Rob, longs to become a portrait painter and to develop his own style, one that will reveal "truth" as compared to the popular mannerist style of the day. But breaking into the court, particularly one that prefers flattery to truth, isn't so easy. After finding an apprenticeship, Rob' talents are first noted and then suppressed by jealous fellow painters, until he is taken under the wing of a courtesan named Kat. She introduces him to patrons, and although they never consummate their relationship, Kat takes odd pleasure in having Rob paint upon her body (and having him watch her encounters through a hole in the arras. It is through Kat that he meets such notables as Sir Walter Raleigh, miniaturist Nicholas Hillyard, and Simon Foreman. The latter provides him with a substance that transforms Rob's paints so that they may better render lifelike portraits.

While telling Rob's story, Overall brings in a number of well-known artists, courtiers, and other celebrities of the day: Drake, Essex, Walsingham, the Gheeararts, even Marlowe. And we see the politics of the times at work in the constant spying, jostling for favor, and persecution of Catholics. But somehow, the novel just didn't grab me. Maybe it tried too hard; maybe it was that Rob was not a very engaging character. And it just ended, almost as if the author said, "Well, that's it, 300 pages," and jumped to a 1-1/2 page epilogue with no explanation.

Mar 26, 2016, 6:55pm Top

Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian

As someone who was born in Detroit, grew up in the city's suburbs, and had many relatives who lived closer to downtown, reading Michael Zadoorian's work is always a bit like going home, or going back in time. I know that he will mention places and events that resonate with me, and this book is no exception. The protagonist of Second Hand is a somewhat reclusive, socially awkward thirty-ish guy, Richard, who owns Satori Junk in downtown Detroit. He pretty much spends the first half of his days going to estate and garage sales and the occasional Salvation Army store, looking for something for his store--not actual junk, in his eyes, and not the kind of "score" that others might be looking for, but something that might be better described as kitsch or hipster-junk. The rest of his time, Richard is at his store. There he meets Theresa, an oddly attractive girl who works at a local animal shelter. Their relationship evolves during the course of the book, from "just sex" to friendship to "I hate you" to love, maybe?

Richard also has a strained relationship with his bourgeois sister, Linda, and her cheating, aging jock husband, Stu. When their mother dies, Linda makes an agreement with Richard: she will take anything that might be sold for a good price, and he can take anything that might be labelled junk before she holds an estate sale and sells the house. In sorting through decades of boxes, Richard makes some surprising discoveries about his parents and philosophizes about how objects can really be memories.

Overall, I liked Second Hand, but not as much as Zadoorian's short story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, or his other novel The Leisure Seekers. For one thing, I just didn't like the character of Theresa, who was moody, self-centered, and psychologically damaged; I wanted Richard to do better than that. For another, the long lists of all the supposedly wonderful junk Richard finds got tedious and started to feel like little more than a gimmick.

Zadoorian draws much from his own life. For example, like Richard, he found photographs taken by his father that opened up a whole new side of the man he thought he knew. I don't know if he's into junk, too, or if he ended up with a woman like Theresa, but he does have a keen eye on the city and the surrounding suburbs.

Warning: If you are sensitive to animal abuse and death, you'd be best to avoid this one as you'll find Theresa's descriptions of her work very disturbing.

Mar 28, 2016, 2:03pm Top

Wanting sounds great - firing that one onto my wish list. Great reviews!

Mar 28, 2016, 4:30pm Top

>78 AlisonY: Thanks!

Mar 28, 2016, 5:33pm Top

>75 Cariola: Flanagan's book sounds great. Onto my wishlist.

Edited: Mar 29, 2016, 4:54pm Top

Modern Art by Evelyn Toynton

Toyton's novel is inspired by the relationship between Jackson Pollak and his wife, Lee Krasner (although she changes all the names). Belle Prokoff, widow of groundbreaking painter Clay Madden, lives as a relative recluse, fending off would-be biographers and collectors who believe she has some juicy memories to share or some of his last paintings hidden in her house. She hires a college girl as her companion, not knowing that the girl's significant other is a struggling painter who worshipped Madden and would do anything to get a show of his own. An unscrupulous British biographer, failing to get the dirt he wants from Belle, approaches everyone who knew the couple in Madden's last alcoholic years, even going so far as to bed the aging woman who was in the car with Madden when he was killed. His meddling does have a few positive outcomes, such as Belle's renewal of friendship with a woman (perhaps lover) who had warned her that caring for Madden would ruin her own career.

If all this sounds dismal, well, there are some bright moments, such as the loyalty of Belle's friend Ernest and her housekeeper Nina and the kindness of her new companion, Lizzie. While I enjoyed the book, in the end, I would have preferred to read a good biography of Madden and Krasner instead. Or maybe watch the excellent film with Ed Harris once again.

Apr 1, 2016, 4:30pm Top

>75 Cariola: Thanks so much for bringing Wanting to my attention! I loved Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish, but somehow have never sought out any of his other books.

Apr 1, 2016, 7:18pm Top

>82 cabegley: You're very welcome. It's a stunner!

Edited: Apr 6, 2016, 1:38pm Top

The River Wife by Jonis Agee

I started out liking this book, but halfway in, I couldn't wait to be done with it. A modern-day bride finds a series of notebooks in the family home and reads the story of Annie Lark, a young girl who became trapped by a felled beam during a a Missouri earthquake in the early 19th century. Her family leaves her to die on her own, but she is rescued by Jacques Ducharmes, a French fur trader, and Annie lives with him as his wife. Jacques begins to play out his dream of building a hotel to serve passersby on the Mississippi. All of which is interesting enough, but then I hit a series of grisly scenes of animal abuse, stabbings, and a baby ripped open by dogs. Ugh. And this pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book, which follows the Ducharmes women through the decades. Each one is married to a violent man with criminal dealings. Plus the story keeps jumping back and forth through time and family additions (half brothers, slave mistresses, etc.). Maybe if I hadn't been so bored and disgusted, I wouldn't have had such a hard time keeping track of who was whom and how they were all related. But the bottom line is that I hated them all and really didn't care. Not to mention that Agee throws in a bit of mumbo jumbo as Jacques supposedly has made a pact with the devil and barely ages. It has been a long time since I was this glad to have finished a book.

Edited: Apr 15, 2016, 9:16pm Top

The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard

Overall, I liked this tale of a young widowed midwife living in Braintree, MA during the American Revolution. Elizabeth Lee Boylston (Lizzie) begins the novel as a relatively new bride whose in-laws were opposed to the marriage. Jeb and Lizzie are trying to make a go of a farm of their own when he hears the call to arms. When he dies in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Lizzie extends her efforts to get work as a local midwife while trying to keep the farm going with the help of young Martha Miller, whose parents have left her an orphan and whose brother is suspected of being a spy for the British. Lizzie is befriended by Abigail Adams, whose husband and son have sailed to France to negotiate assistance for the colonists. As the war continues, Lizzie becomes more deeply embroiled in political espionage.

The author has done excellent research and presents a fascinating picture of what life must have been like for the women left to fend for themselves while their men went off to war. She brings in a number of historical figures and events as well. Many of the secondary characters, such as Martha and Lizzie's old family servants Giles and Bessie, are well-drawn and engaging. The only flaws for me were a swoon into romance about 2/3 through the novel and some rather silly episodes where Lizzie goes in disguise.

A pretty good and fairly light read with a lot of interesting background research.

Edited: Apr 22, 2016, 3:22pm Top

Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

I was intrigued by the premise of this short story collection. Tracy Chevalier asked 21 well-known woman writers from around the world to contributes a story inspired by the famous line from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: "Reader, I married him." Among the contributors are Helen Dunmore, Sara Hall, Tessa Hadley, Jane Gardam, Emma Donahue, Elif Shafak, Francine Prose, Evie Wyld, Susan Hill, Esther Freud, Audrey Niffenegger, Lionel Shriver, Linda Grant--an impressive list indeed! Several of the stories dig deeper into Bronte's novel, giving us narratives from the points of view of Mr. Rochester or Grace Poole; the latter, by Dunmore, is, in my opinion, the best of the lot. Others move into more contemporary times and situations, focusing variously on relationships happy, not so happy, and mundane. The characters are represented in youth, middle age, and old age, in traditional marriage and in gay relationships, and their stories take place on four continents. At least two are about marriages that never take place. Not every story will please every reader, but there's enough here, I believe, to interest most short story lovers and fans of Jane Eyre.

NOTE: Amazon offers the individuals stories for Kindle download at 99 cents each, for those who might like a taste before diving in.)

Apr 22, 2016, 8:59pm Top

>86 Cariola: Definitely sounds like one for me. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books.

Apr 23, 2016, 2:03am Top

I'm halfway through Reader, I Married Him and have to wait until the library lets me have it back (the downside of reading short story collections slowly) but I'm finding it excellent. It's rare for all the stories in a themed anthology to be so strong, but the selection of the authors was really well done.

May 8, 2016, 3:05am Top

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

Well, I finally finished this much admired book that has been sitting on my shelf for years, on my second try. I'm left feeling somewhat disappointed and a bit unsure of what all the fuss was about. The book has received numerous awards and has been acclaimed as a masterpiece and the progenitor of something entirely new in the genre of historical fiction. It was published back in 1998, so perhaps it seemed more original then than now. I take it the structure is the novel's hallmark, but by now, telling a story from the first person perspectives of several characters has become rather commonplace. George Hardy is an aristocratic young doctor who seems to be adored by all. His story is told in six chapters by three characters: Myrtle, a foundling taken in by the family as a maid, who loves Georgie excessively and follows him everywhere, even to the battlegrounds of the Crimean War; his friend Dr. Potter, a pedant who can't stop spouting lines from Greek and Roman classics; and Pompey Jones, a street urchin with sticky fingers and a knack for photography. Each chapter focuses, in part, on a photograph and, in part, on a death (or many of them)--another part of Bainbridge's structure. The first chapter sets the tone: Myrtle is posing for a portrait with Georgie's dead father. The senior Mr. Hardy collapsed in a brothel, and the novel's four main characters conspire to move his body back home and to cover up the salacious circumstances. When Georgie, a surgeon, decides that he might be of use in the Crimean conflict, the others join him. Their narratives create a small commentary on class, love, and war. But however clever the structure might be, and however devastating the verbal portraits of death from warfare and disease, I never felt very engaged with any of the characters. One review I read after finishing the book said that it needs to be read at least three times to appreciate its brilliance. Maybe that was the problem--but I'm afraid I'm not inclined to give it two more readings.

May 8, 2016, 3:24am Top

The Queen of Last Hopes: The Story of Margaret of Anjou by Susan Higginbotham

I ditched this one after reading about 2/3 of it. To sum up what I read: battles, battle reports, beheadings, more battles, more beheadings, retreats, heads on pikes, more battle reports, mob executions, pirate beheadings, a wimpy king, more battles, more retreats, and, at the point where I left off, an unexpected and very sappy romance. I just couldn't take any more. Having taught Shakespeare's Richard III for years, I was curious to read a novelized version of the prophetic harpy Margaret's life, but this one was both boring and disappointing. Having read that far that painfully, I'm taking credit for it in my annual book count.

May 8, 2016, 8:38am Top

>89 Cariola: I have read Master Georgie and Every Man For Himself and was similarly baffled as to what was special or outstanding about Beryl Bainbridge - both were fine, but didn't seem to me to justify the critical praise.

Edited: May 8, 2016, 2:24pm Top

>91 wandering_star: The average LT rating for Master Georgie is only 3.4; I gave it 3 stars. As you said, it was OK, but I saw nothing spectacular. There's an undercurrent in the professional reviews that suggests that if you don't love it, you just aren't intellectual enough to appreciate it. Well, as a recently retired English professor, I think that I qualify as being intellectual enough; I just didn't find it all that engaging or original.

Edited: May 15, 2016, 2:57pm Top

Billy Connolly's Tracks Across America

Scottish actor-comedian Billy Connolly takes a trip across America on The Sunset Express. He makes quick work of big cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Baltimore but lingers in in the more out-of-the-way, quirky locations, relishing his time with the unusual people and places that he runs across. One example: Rayne, Louisiana, the Frog Capital of the World. They used to supply frog legs for worldwide consumption; now the industry supplies specimens for biology classes. Connolly was made an honorary citizen, given the keys to Rayne, judges the Frog Queen competition (based on the most originally and best dressed frog), and participates in a frog jumping race. Whether talking to the woman who held the key to the nuclear red button in the 1960s, visiting a pop art museum where the creations appear on toilet seats, or getting fitted for custom design cowboy boots, the personable Connolly manages to to wheedle great personal stories and local histories out of his companions. A light and entertaining read.

May 9, 2016, 1:01pm Top

>90 Cariola:

My opinion about Higginbotham is that she is not ready to do the research to call her books history so she masquerades them as novels - this way noone comes after her for the inaccuracies and she still writes what she had researched. I may be wrong of course but....

Edited: May 9, 2016, 5:09pm Top

>94 AnnieMod: In that case, she should just go with the fiction. The problem with this one is that it read like a tedious history text (and history doesn't have to be boring!) with fluff stuck in here and there. I don't mind fiction writers taking some liberties, as long as they aren't too egregious, and they can certainly skip all the minute details in favor of character development. This was godawful. I can't believe how many 4 and 5 star reviews it has gotten here. A few confessed that it was rough plodding through the first 2/3, which is where I stopped. It might have gotten better, but it just wasn't worth my time to continue reading.

May 9, 2016, 5:22pm Top

>95 Cariola: I do not disagree :) She is trying a mix of the two and it does not really work.

May 12, 2016, 2:33pm Top

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Well, I see that I'm in the minority on this one: I loved it. I can understand why it isn't to everyone's taste. As another reviewer noted, not much happens: it's just the story of one woman's life, and not a particularly extraordinary life at that. She makes friends, does well in school, argues with her mother and resents her stepfather, falls in love, gets pregnant, drops out of school, works as a housekeeper and then a waitress, joins a commune and gets pregnant again, witnesses the murder of her baby's father, returns to school but ends up dropping literature in favor of occupational therapy, has an affair with a married man, gets married, adopts a baby, watches her kids grow up. So no, not a very exciting plot. But what makes this novel exceptional is Hadley's brilliant, sensitive writing and the subtle way that she reveals Stella's thoughts and emotions. Each chapter is a short story in itself (and some were published independently), yet each links somehow to those that went before; and in each, we see how events have changed Stella perception of the world, of the people in her life, and of herself. In some ways, it's the very ordinariness that comes across as extraordinary. At the end of the book, Stella is 50, and she is both the same and much changed from the "clever girl" of the first few chapters. I suspect that readers much younger than Stella will appreciate this novel less than those who are over 50--at an age when one begins to reflect on the past with greater understanding and to develop much more tolerance for and acceptance of the present as the future grows shorter. Hadley's descriptions are perfection. For example, she describes the experience of skipping as a child so well that someone my age can actually feel it again. Marriage is described as feeling like a yin and a yang crammed into a space that is too small for either--perfect! By the time I reached the last page, I felt like I really knew this woman. This is a book that I am sure I will return to in a few years.

Edited: May 29, 2016, 4:11pm Top

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye

"JANE STEELE is an homage to Jane Eyre, yet infinitely better, since Jane Steele is no one’s victim."--Crimespree Magazine

Um, no, NOT better than Jane Eyre (though I will agree that Miss Steele is no victim). While I appreciate the author's efforts to come up with an entirely new spin on Bronte's classic, this is pretty much a crime/mystery novel--and those rarely interest me. So I will have to respectfully disagree with those who say that anyone who loved Jane Eyre will love Jane Steele. Faye uses the novel mainly to cull touch points: young Jane lives with a mean aunt and a revolting cousin; she is sent to a boarding school run by a depraved headmaster, and she crushes on a schoolmate (who doesn't die); she becomes the governess for Mr. Thornfield's charge, a young Indian girl, and falls in love with him. But Jane Steele's personality (aside from her independent streak) and circumstances couldn't differ more. A self-described murderess (her first murder was by way of accident), Jane does in several victims as revenge and another in self-defense; and her intention in joining Thornfield's household is to get back his home--the very house in which she spent her earliest, happiest years until her aunt took it over. In between school and her employment as a governess, Jane practices a number of other shady occupations.

I liked the black humor in the book, but, overall, the story just didn't interest me. Mr. Thornfield was born in the Punjab and has a history with the East India Company. I admit that I started to get lost in the deluge of battles and persons and stories related to India, and that left me somewhat confused as to just what is going on in the last third of the novel. I suspect that listening to it on audio was also not a great idea, especially since the reader goes very fast and there's no time to absorb names, connections, and events. All this probably affected my overall rating, but I'm just not interested enough in what I heard to want to give Jane Steele another go in print.

Edited: May 15, 2016, 11:23pm Top

JANE STEELE is an homage to Jane Eyre, yet infinitely better, since Jane Steele is no one’s victim.

Such a silly and arrogant comment when someone claims this sort of thing. Check in 150 years and see how your remake holds up.

Edited: May 27, 2016, 5:10pm Top

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This was a quick afternoon read. Lucy Barton, now a successful novelist, looks back on her life, most notably a childhood lived in poverty and her relationship with her emotionally distant mother. Some of the memories are looked viewed from the present, but most go back nine years, to the time when Lucy, seriously ill, was hospitalized, and her mother, who she hadn't seen or spoken to in years, suddenly shows up at her bedside. Lucy takes this opportunity to ask some significant questions and to try to better understand her estranged family. It's also a chance for her to better understand how events shaped her own personality and life choices.

I was not much of a fan of Strout's Olive Kitteridge, and I did like this one better. Strout is a very fine writer, very insightful into her characters' minds, emotions, and motivations. But she seems to be drawn to unlikable--even mean-- characters who spend their lives trying to hide some lack in their own life experience that causes them to hurt others who don't deserve it. And for me, this gets a bit tiresome. It's not that I'm looking for Pollyanna all the time; in fact, I'd be bored with that. It's just that it takes more for me to empathize with a very unlikable character than what she offers.

Edited: Jun 19, 2016, 3:32pm Top

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This short memoir delivers quite an impact--or at least it did for me. I am not one that usually reads memoirs, particularly if they are promoted as "inspirational." But I had seen a piece on television about Paul Kalanithi and the experiences detailed in his book, and several LTers whose opinions I respect also recommended it. I'm glad that I went out on a limb and borrowed this book from my library. It wasn't at all what I might have expected from some of the blurbs and reviews that I had read, which led me to believe that it would be some sort of "finding spirituality in the face of death" memoir. Yes, in part it is about Kalanithi's experience, as a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist, dealing with a cancer diagnosis at the age of 36, and how he comes to terms with the inevitability of death. But it's so much more. He tells us how, after earning BAs in English literature and human biology, an MA in English literature, and an M.Phil in history of science and medicine, he found his calling as a neurosurgeon and returned to medical school. He explains to us the other side of the doctor-patient relationship and how his own philosophy of dealing with patients and their families evolved. And in his journey through cancer and its treatment, he learns how to be a patient, how to rejoice in and rely upon the love of family and friends, and how important it is not just to accept death but to know that the life you have lived a life has been worthwhile. This is NOT a touch-feely memoir that ends up relying on some higher power to see one through, so if that's what you're looking for, seek elsewhere. It's not a boo-hoo story about a man dying young, nor is it the story of such a man becoming strong in the face of death. Kalanithi asks himself tough questions and doesn't shy away from the tough answers. But what comes through, even in his last weeks, is his intelligence, his sensitivity, and his amazing spirit. I can't praise it enough.

May 31, 2016, 12:30am Top

Blue Angel by Francine Prose

Ted Swenson is in a rut. He hasn't written a book since his one and only novel broke into the best seller list 20 years ago; he's disdainful of the small college where he teaches creative writing, of his colleagues, and of the students in his class. He has settled into a comfortable middle-aged life with the wife he swears he adores. His only child won't speak to him since she left for college. But is all this reason enough to fall into a trap set by a student? Maybe, maybe not. Angela Argo is the first student who has produced what Swenson considers really good writing: a novel about a teenager who has sex with her music teacher. Uh-oh. Ted spends half of the book telling himself that he is only trying to help a potential writer, and the other half obsessing with Angela, a not particularly attractive goth girl laden with decorative hardware.

I guess you could say that Blue Angel is a satire of campus women's empowerment movements and, in particular, the delicately defined issues of sexual harassment and consent. While I initially found the book interesting, I got somewhat bored when it an Oleanna turn of sorts.

Edited: Jun 8, 2016, 9:45pm Top

Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran

I didn't learn much new from this book, but it was a good review of who was who and what went on at court. I especially liked the structure of the book. It is divided into three parts: Kin, Courtiers, and Councillors, and each section is divided into chapters focused on small groups or specific persons. "Kin" has chapter on Parents & Siblings, The Suffolk Cousins, Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI of Scotland (Elizabeth's eventual heir to the English throne). Three favorites are the chapter subjects of "Courtiers": Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Sir Christopher Hatton; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The section has an additional chapter on the noblewomen who served as ladies in waiting to the queen. Part Three, "Councillors," includes chapters on William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Sir Francis Walsingham; and Burghley's son, Robert Cecil. In the course of the book, relationships between the various subjects and Elizabeth are analyzed and important events (the succession, Elizabeth's "marriage game," the Spanish Armada, the Dutch wars, religious dissent, etc.) are discussed in detail. In short, it's a nice primer or reference book on Elizabeth's reign.

Note: If anyone is interested in this book, Amazon's "Look Inside" feature is particularly good: it gives you several pages from each chapter, as well as the bibliography and index, so you will get a good idea of exactly what the book is like.

Edited: Jun 19, 2016, 3:36pm Top

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This book was way too sugary for my taste, but it had its moments. For starters, it's a book about books, reading, and an independent book shop. I had to laugh when I read A.J.'s statement to a publisher's rep about the kind of books he likes to read, because it was a near duplicate of a post I left in answer to a similar question in a social network book group ("Are there any genres or types of books that you will not read?"). But overall, it was an improbable feel-good story, in my opinion. A.J. Fikry runs Island Books, a small independent bookstore on the isolated New England island of Alice. His young wife was killed in a car accident, and A.J. has become a virtual recluse and early curmudgeon. Then one day he finds a baby abandoned in his shop, and his life makes a 360-degree turn. He becomes a lovable character that everyone in Alice adores and admires.

The problem: Would Social Services really agree to allow a mean, financially struggling widower to adopt a little girl just because the mother left the child in his store with a note saying she wanted her child to grow up loving books?

Another problem: Does having a child in one's life really make everything hunky-dory and entirely change one's personality and the reactions of everyone around them? (Ask any of the many divorced parents who thought having a baby would solve all their problems.)

I feel a bit like a curmudgeon myself pointing out these issues, but they did rather color my impression of the entire happy-happy-joy-joy novel. If you're up for a quick, fluffy feel-good read, this might be the book for you.

Jun 10, 2016, 9:58am Top

>103 Cariola: I did "look inside" on your recommendation and it looks like a good book to have around for reference when you want/need more than a few lines. Unfortunately it is still only in hardcover over here, but I am a patient sort when it comes to waiting for good books.

Jun 10, 2016, 3:09pm Top

>105 SassyLassy: Yes, that's what I thought--a good reference for me in that I'm working on a historical novel in which Essex and Walsingham play fairly large roles.

Edited: Jun 19, 2016, 3:36pm Top

Amherst by William Nicolson

This was just awful (I only gave it 1/2 star.) Would-be British screenwriter Alice Dickinson (no relation) visits Amherst to research her project: the affair of Austin Dickinson, poet Emily's married brother, with Mabel Loomis Todd, a much younger married woman. She is convinced not only that this was a true passion but that much of the sexual action took place in Emily and Lavinia's house with the sisters getting hot and bothered listening outside the parlor door. And let's not forget that the affair had the approval of Mabel's husband, who liked to watch while masturbating. Alice is invited to stay in the guest suite of a much older married professor--and you can guess what goes on there. Nicholson tries to make a passionate parallel between the two affairs, one of which went on for years while the other lasted a few days. Oh, and let's not forget that on the modern couple's first meeting, his friend tells Alice, "Don't fuck him." I should have known at that point that this book would be a real loser. I'm no prude about sex in novels, but I prefer it to be part of the story, not the reason for it. Nicholson includes quotes from Dickinson's poetry and Austin and Mabel's letters, plus a bibliography, in hopes of convincing his readers that this is a scholarly, well-researched novel. It doesn't work, especially since his modern characters, Alice and Nick, are both silly, selfish, and totally unlikable. Spare yourself the pain of reading this one.

Jun 10, 2016, 9:33pm Top

>107 Cariola: thank you for the warning, Deborah.

Jun 11, 2016, 11:01am Top

>106 Cariola: Essex and Walsingham ---intrigued by that one. As I said, I'm patient.

Jun 11, 2016, 4:58pm Top

>107 Cariola: sounds like a romance marketed as a novel. bummer

I'm catching up and enjoyed all these reviews. Too bad Blue Angel didn't really work. I was interested in your review of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, although I'm not that I would want to read it.

Edited: Jun 11, 2016, 5:31pm Top

>107 Cariola: Much worse than a romance, since it involved totally selfish people. Instead of loving someone else, they were all about having someone adore them, and the sex wasn't the mushy or bodice-ripper stuff I would expect of a romance--more on the kinky side with not much of what I would call love involved.

Blue Angel and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry weren't awful, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read or recommend either. I'm about to start the new one by Tracey Chevalier and am hoping it's better than my recent reads.

Jun 15, 2016, 10:20am Top

Noting Clever Girl amongst some other great reads - sounds like something I might enjoy.

Jun 19, 2016, 3:33pm Top

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

I've had mixed reactions to Tracy Chevalier's novels. I loved Girl with a Pearl Earring (one of the first to emerge in what's now an industry of painting-based novels), and I quite liked Remarkable Creatures, was less keen on Falling Angels and Burning Bright, hated The Virgin Blue, and didn't care much for The Lady and the Unicorn. (I chose to pass on The Last Runaway after reading a number of negative reviews.) At the Edge of the Orchard joins the ranks of the mediocre Chevalier books in my library.

In the 1830s, the Goodenough family has moved from Connecticut to settled in the wilds of Ohio, attempting to establish an apple orchard in an area know as Black Swamp. The name alone should tell you that it will be a difficult venture. This family puts the "dys" in dysfunctional. Father James seems to love his apple trees--especially the sweet Golden Pippins--more than he does his wife and children. But he is a saint in comparison to his wife Sadie, a mean, vengeful, drunken slut. When she isn't drinking or knocked out from applejack, trying to get into another man's pants, or making her children feel like crap, she's plotting to destroy James's pippin grafts. If Chevalier's design was to create a truly despicable character, well, she succeeded on that score. But it's a little hard to enjoy a novel when you keep hoping a main character will just die already. There's not much motivation for Sadie's meanness, aside from the fact that she would prefer to grow "spitters," which are good for making applejack and hard cider, to "eaters." Sure, five of her ten children have died of swamp fever, but I never got the impression that she cared much about them anyway. As for the remaining children, well, at one point Sadie says the only reason she had them is to do work. James at least says that he doesn't want to leave the swamp because his children are buried there, and he has some kind words and an occasional hug for his surviving children. Sadie keeps trying to seduce John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), who frequently stops by with free seed, saplings to sell, and more applejack; she also gets drunk and has sex with a stranger on a road in the middle of a fair (James catches her) and makes frequent insinuations that she has slept with James's brother (and that he was a lot better in the sack).

Aside from the parents, youngest son Robert is the novel's main focus. His father teaches him how to graft striplings of Golden Pippins to the "spitters," and Robert develops a true love of the natural world. In the book's second section, something has happened (we're not told what until much later), and we find that Robert has left home and moved west. He has worked through a number of different places and jobs, but he has found a niche in California redwood territory, assisting William Lobb, an English horticulturalist who ships seeds and saplings home for rich landowners hoping to cultivate unusual species in their vast gardens. Several chapters consist of Robert's annual New Year's letter home to Black Swamp, and one is comprised of his sister Martha's similar letters to him (although he never receives them). In between these we find out what happened to drive Robert from home and learn more about his independent life. I'm not sure this structure is the most effective way to tell the story. Yes, it creates some suspense, but maybe not enough to keep the reader engaged.

It's obvious that Chevalier did a lot of research on horticulture, Chapman, Lobb, the Gold Rush, etc. But at times I admit that I sped through some of the sections on the differences between sequoias and redwoods, the best way to transport saplings, etc.--it just didn't interest me as much as it seemed to interest the author. My hatred of Sadie and some minor (but majorly sadistic) characters overwhelmed any other response I might have had, so, unfortunately, At the Edge of the Orchard is getting only 3 stars from me (and I seriously considered 2.5).

Edited: Jun 30, 2016, 11:31pm Top

The Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and The Great War by Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and others

Sadly, this collection of stories by nine different writers was so disappointing that I couldn't finish it. I generally love short story collections, and I've read some great novels about World War I, so this should have been a winner. What put me off after the first five stories was the bad--often REALLY bad--writing, the cliché plot lines, the often downright sappy dialogue, and a string of annoying main characters. Interested in the masks created for facially wounded soldiers? Read Life Class by Pat Barker or The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields; either is SO much better than "All for the Love of You" by Jennifer Robson. And if you want a taste of sappy, try these line from Evangeline Holland's "After You've Gone":

"I suppose I might have moved first, but he was the one to touch me, his fingers sinking into my hair as he swept me into a kiss from the ages. The kind of kiss that Cleopatra must have given Caesar and Mark Antony. One that toppled kingdoms and moved mountains. A kiss that shattered and healed in equal measures. I turned away, entirely overwhelmed by his touch."

That may be standard romance fare; if so, it explains why I avoid that genre like the plague.

I'm moving on in hopes of finding something more enjoyable (I seem to have hit a vein of mediocre to bad ones lately).

Jun 26, 2016, 4:47pm Top

Dropping by to catch up. Excellent reviews! I especially enjoyed the blistering ones! Now I know what to avoid.

For my wishlist I have taken note of When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Edited: Jun 26, 2016, 5:38pm Top

>114 Cariola: I'll make sure to avoid that one!

Jun 26, 2016, 5:40pm Top

Too bad about the Chevalier. I loved Girl with the Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures, and liked The Lady and the Unicorn. Some of her topics don't interest me though, and this is one of them so I probably wouldn't have picked it up anyway.

Jun 26, 2016, 9:39pm Top

>115 VivienneR: Thank you, and happy to help you avoid a few losers. When Breath Becomes Air was wonderful.

>116 torontoc: Definitely--I don't think you'd enjoy it at all.

>117 Nickelini: I don't think anything she has written has matched Girl with a Pearl Earring, although I have liked a few others more than this one.

Jun 27, 2016, 12:55am Top

>118 Cariola: I don't think anything she has written has matched Girl with a Pearl Earring

I agree with you, and I've read it twice, but I've often wondered if I like it because Vermeer is one of my top 2 favourite painters. I have long been fascinated by the room (most of his paintings are set in a room with the light coming from the window on the left), and that so little was known about him, so there was the mystery. She addressed all that, and I loved her take on it. I didn't have that sort of attachment to her other subjects.

What did you think of the film? I think it's lovely, but it's one you have to actually watch, because so much is visual and unsaid. It's not the sort of movie to throw on while I'm tackling a mountain of ironing or crafting or anything. Scarlett Johanson is not my idea for Greet, but I think she was very good in the role, just different than what I expected. Visually it's lovely. Colin Firth, to me, was sort of bland as Vermeer, and doesn't really seem like Colin Firth. I felt more like I was watching Gary Sinise.

Jun 27, 2016, 6:54am Top

You really have had a stretch of books that have disappointed you, Deborah. Hopefully the second half of the year will be filled with wonderful reading surprises.

Jun 27, 2016, 10:22am Top

>119 Nickelini: I really liked the film, too, and agree with your casting comments. I used the novel and film in several courses; it was particularly useful in Intro to Interdisciplinary Arts, where we could approach it from the standpoint of literature, film, and painting. I even showed the featurette on how a scene was created. Not the best performance by Colin Firth--you're right, he did seem to be doing a Sinese version of Vermeer, and I really didn't think there was much chemistry between him and Johanssen. I can't think of anyone else I might have cast as Vermeer.

>120 NanaCC: Thanks, Colleen. I'm hoping something good will come up soon! I'm reading Lilac Girls right now, and it isn't doing much for me.

Jun 27, 2016, 11:31am Top

>121 Cariola: I really didn't think there was much chemistry between him and Johanssen.

Yes! I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right. I have no idea who else they should have cast though.

Jun 27, 2016, 12:31pm Top

>122 Nickelini: I thought of Richard Armitage--he's the brooding type but not really right for Vermeer. Maybe Gary Oldman?

Jun 30, 2016, 11:31pm Top

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My overall reaction to Lilac Girls is a mixed one. The book is divided into three parts, the first focused on the early years of World War II and on through the defeat of the Nazis, the second on the years immediately following the war, and the third to the late 1950s. In addition to this division, each part is divided into chapters narrated by three different characters. If you suspect that this leads to some disjointure in the plot, well, you would be correct. It's not that it creates any confusion about what is going on, but rather that I kept wondering exactly how all of these various parts were connected. We don''t really find that out until nearly the end of the novel. In fact, I was left wondering about the significance of the title as the only mention of lilacs that I can recall is that in the final chapter, two of the characters are in a garden that includes lilacs.

The other issue I have is that the three women's stories are neither of equal length nor of equal development and interest. Perhaps the largest share is based on a real-life socialite, actress, and philanthropist, Caroline Ferriday. As it became clear that Hitler's invasion of France was inevitable, she took it upon herself to send relief packages to orphans and worked with the French Embassy to help citizens in the US gets visa, either to return home to France or to bring family members to the US. After the war, she was instrumental in securing medical care and reparations for a group of women know as the Ravensbruck Rabbits--women who had been the victims of Nazi medical experimentation. All of this should have been interesting enough, but the author for some unknown reason decided she had to create a grand passion for Caroline, making her fall in love with a married French actor. This entire plot line seemed both sappy and out of character, as did Caroline's reactions to the ups and downs of that relationship over the years.

Much more interesting was the story of Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager involved in the underground resistance. Her carelessness led to the arrest not only of herself but of her sister, her best friend, the boy on whom she had a crush, another schoolgirl, and her mother, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pietryk, the young man, disappears, and the women are put on a train bound for Ravensbruck, the Nazi regime's only concentration camp designated solely for women. The detailed descriptions of life in the camp are truly harrowing; many are based on interviews the author conducted with a Ravensbruck survivor. In the novel's post-war sections, Kasia attempts to return to a life of some normalcy, but her psychological scars are as deep as her physical ones. Kelly's examination of her wounded psyche is one of the book's great strengths.

The third woman focused on is Herta Oberheuser, another real-life character. An ambitious young doctor, she was recruited by the Nazis to work at Ravensbruck where she willingly participated in the atrocities. There isn't much exploration of her character, whose chapters comprise less than 1/4 of the novel. Perhaps we are just meant to accept her as a brainwashed monster, but I am sure that I'm not the only one who wondered what really motivated her actions, how she felt about rejecting the Hippocratic oath, and whether what she had seen and done had any lingering effects on her. But Kelly gives us very few answers.

The end result is that I appreciated the atmosphere that Kelly describes in detail in each section and location. Some parts of the story kept me reading eagerly while others had me skimming and skipping. The romances (there's one for Kasia, too, and even Herta is on the lookout for a pleasant male companion) and a number of unlikely coincidences were distracting and annoying. The cover photo of three women walking arm in arm suggests the theme of women working together, supporting one another--which made the emphasis on romance even more out of place. A good effort, not a bad book, but one that, due to the flaws outlined above, I can only give a mediocre rating.

Edited: Jul 4, 2016, 7:33pm Top

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Book recommendations sites keep steering me towards Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls, but The Little Red Chairs is the first of her novels that I have read. Although it seems to be quite different from her earlier works, on the basis of her wonderful writing and character development, I will definitely be seeking out more.

The Little Red Chairs is not a fun easy read (although it has its moments of humor). The story revolves around a charismatic foreigner who arrives in the small Irish town of Cloonoila to set up practice as an alternative healer. The townsfolk are wary of him at first, but when he alleviates a woman's arthritic pain, others begin to visit Dr. Vlad's office. His mystical abilities, his stories, his philosophical conversations, his knowledge of the natural world, and his grounding in the arts all draw them in--one woman in particular, Fidelma, a young wife who desperately longs for a child. As the novel develops, it becomes more Fidelma's story than Vlad's. It's a story of faith, love, betrayal, secrets, brutality, kindness, revenge, perseverance, justice, and, above all, hope.

If you've read anything about this book, you know that the character of Dr. Vlad is presumed to be based in part on war criminal Radovan Karadzic. The book is prefaced by a short paragraph explaining its title:

On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege or Sarjevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11, 541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.

O'Brien could have taken the easy path and made this a simple tale of Evil (with a capital E) comes to town. Instead, she gives us the more complicated story of Fidelma as a means of showing us precisely how a man like Vlad (or Karadzik) gains people's trust, how it affects the lives it leaves in its wake, and how this one woman comes to terms with what has happened and learns to rejoin the world of the living and (hopefully) the good.

I don't want to give away any more plot details; suffice it to say that this is a totally absorbing read, at times horrifying, at other times frustrating, or maddening, and sometimes even hopeful. I hear from others who are longtime fans of O'Brien that this book is nothing like her others--which is probably why a number of them, their expectations shattered, disliked it. But for me, it's a definite 5-star read. It has been awhile since I've actually felt like I was experiencing a character's emotions and mental states, and even though these were not always pleasant, I was completely wrapped up in Fidelma's progress. That, to me, is the sign of an effective writer. As for comments about the book's three parts seeming disjointed, well, not for me. Everything isn't wrapped up in a happy little knot at the end, and Fidelma's emotions are wide-ranging and often ambiguous. But isn't that really the way life is? There are indeed meaningful connections between the parts of the story and the people in it, but O'Brien wisely leads her reader along, giving him or her the task of finding those connections instead of spelling them out. In other words, The Little Red Chairs is a book that asks you to think, asks you to feel, asks you to intuit. And its an exhilarating task indeed.

Jul 4, 2016, 8:25pm Top

>125 Cariola: The angle of that reminds me of the same author's In the Forest. although the subject matter perhaps not so much. That one was very different from the author's famous Country Girls Trilogy (The Country Girls, The Girl with the Green Eyes, and I can't remember the third as I haven't read it yet). I tried her Wild Decembers and couldn't get into it, but will try again some winter day.

Jul 4, 2016, 8:49pm Top

>126 Nickelini: You know, I'm pretty sure I have Wild Decembers on audio, and I think I may even have started it and given up. And I may also have In the Forest in a box somewhere. Need to check my LT library--it really is good for something!

Jul 4, 2016, 11:38pm Top

Jul 5, 2016, 12:23pm Top

>128 janeajones: Thank you so much for that link, Jane. I hadn't read the article. It left me wanting to read more by O'Brien . . . and also gave me the satisfaction of feeling that I had really tapped into what she intended to do with this novel. If you haven't read it, I hope that you do. And I do hope she is considered for the Nobel Prize for this wonderful book.

Jul 6, 2016, 2:59pm Top

I've already got The Little Red Chairs on my wishlist (I've read In the Forest, but no others), but you've moved it higher. Excellent review.

Jul 7, 2016, 12:36am Top

>125 Cariola: terrific review.

Jul 7, 2016, 12:53pm Top

>131 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan--hope you read it!

Jul 8, 2016, 6:54pm Top

Loved your review of The Little Red chairs

Jul 8, 2016, 8:08pm Top

>133 baswood: Thank you. It's a wonderful book that has stayed with me in the days since I finished it. I hope you read it.

Jul 12, 2016, 7:10pm Top

Excellent review of The Little Red Chairs, Deborah! I'll add it to my wish list.

Jul 13, 2016, 3:37pm Top

Your review made the list of Hot Reviews. I've thumbed it ;)

Jul 14, 2016, 5:54pm Top

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

The best part of this novel was the descriptions of life in and around Galveston, a thriving seaport in 1900, and of the deadly hurricane that destroyed it. Catherine, a professional pianist living in Dayton, has become an outcast, due to her affair with her cousin's husband. With nowhere else to go, she accepts the proposal of a young man from her past with whom she has kept up a correspondence. Oscar Williams, son of a coal delivery man, has moved through a series of jobs out west but has settled as a dairy farmer in the outskirts of Galveston. A widower with a five-year old son, Oscar has Ben helped by Nan Ogden, a young woman who has lost two finches to accident and disease. The story is told by alternately by Nan, Catherine, and a third person omniscient narrator rather awkwardly stuck in. The focus is mainly on Catherine's adjustment to her new life and the rivalry between the two women, but the hardship of settlers in this rough, often dangerous location is also detailed. A fast and generally enjoyable read, but, like Nan, I was often annoyed by Catherine's wimpiness.

Jul 14, 2016, 5:58pm Top

>135 kidzdoc: Thanks Darryl--I think you will like it.

Jul 23, 2016, 1:37pm Top

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sarah Baume

Well, this book leaves me a little unsure of just what to say about it. It's an unusual book, to say the least. It opens with a short prologue in which we see an ugly, bloodied dog running in the dark, one eye hanging from its socket. The primary narrator, a 57-year old outsider living alone in his father's house in a small Irish town, leaving only to cash his monthly check at the post office and to pick up groceries in a local shop. We soon learn that there are rats on the roof, rats in the attic, and when he sees a flyer posted for this same ugly dog, he adopts it, hoping it will rid the house of rats. From that point on, the focus of the novel is the growing relationship between man and dog. While it may sound like an inner dialogue, It takes the form of the man talking to Oneeye, the dog, spilling his every thought, plan, feeling, and secret. Through this one-sided conversation, we learn how the man (whose name we deduce is Ray) came to be such an oddball loner and how, in time, he comes to realize that his life is only worth living because of Oneeye. The dog, unfortunately, has a killer instinct that can't be tamed, and after several encounters with local dogs, a warden arrives at the door. Knowing that his dog will likely be confiscated and his secrets perhaps uncovered, they go on the run, travelling through Ireland and living in Ray's somewhat unreliable car.

The writing is quite stunning, almost poetic at times. While there are some moments of humor in the novel, for the most part, I found it sad and depressing. Not the greatest choice for a bedtime read. I can't give it a strong recommendation, but I wouldn't try to persuade anyone not to read it, and I would definitely look into this author's next work.

Edited: Jul 25, 2016, 3:53pm Top

The Mistresses of Cliveden by Nancy Livingstone

Sometimes a hit, at other times a miss, it's a little hard to tell if this is a biography of a house or its mistresses--or just another history lesson. The great house of Cliveden was originally built by the Duke of Buckingham for his mistress, but she never actually lived there; it was his long-suffering wife who became its first mistress. The house passed through the ownership of four other women, from Elizabeth Villiers, one-time mistress of King William and admired friend of Jonathan Swift, through Nancy Astor, who, though American born, became the first women elected to Parliament. The lives of the women, when sufficient detail was available, makes for interesting reading, but the various renovations to the house and grounds became a bit tedious by the time I reached Princess Augusta. I really wasn't that interested in which owner hired which architect, sculptor, landscaper, etc. to provide a specified number of panels, columns, fountains, trees, statues, etc., etc., etc., and where each of these was placed. (More photographs or diagrams would have been helpful here.) Even more tedious were the long accounts of Whig v. Tory disputes and the various battles led by the Dukes of Orkney or Marlborough. Thankfully, Livingstone always came back around to the interesting lives of the inhabitants themselves. For me, overall, this was a spotty read. It was easy to caught up in the scandals and entertainments, but I frequently found myself passing over long sections that held little interest for me.

Jul 25, 2016, 9:22pm Top

>139 Cariola: intrigued by Spill Simmer Falter Wither. For whatever reason, the title itself appeals. Nice review.

Too bad the Cliveden book didn't fully work.

Jul 26, 2016, 12:15am Top

>141 dchaikin: I know, it's a great title. As I said, I had mixed feelings about it, but others may like it more than I did.

Jul 29, 2016, 12:46am Top

Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen

I enjoyed Miller's Crossing well enough, but it seemed a lot like other coming-of-age stories that I've read, most recently Tess Hadley's Clever Girl. Mimi Miller's family has owned and worked a dairy farm in the valley for generations, but now a developer wants to buy out all the residents and flood the valley to create a recreation zone. Mimi's mother is a nurse, her father a hardworking farming and fix-it man; one older brother, Ed, has left town for marriage and a business career, and the other, Tommy, his mother's favorite and a chick magnet--well, Tommy seems to be heading in the wrong direction. Her mother's never-married sister, Ruth, who suffers from agoraphobia, lives in a smaller house on the property. As for Mimi, she's at a crossroads. Her best friend, Donald, moved away when his mother remarried, and her other sort-of friend, LaRhonda, found Jesus and sorority life simultaneously (neither of which agrees with Mimi). As the end of high school looms, Mimi has to make a decision: to go away to college, to marry considerably her older boyfriend, or to stay home and help with the family farm.

Quindlen has created fairly interesting characters, even though the situation sounds familiar. She does throw in a number of rather unexpected turns towards the end. In one way, these seemed stuck in, but in another, they echo Mimi's maturing understanding of life, of others, and of herself. While I wasn't stunned by this Miller's Valley, it kept my interest. Recommended for those who enjoy coming-of-age stories.

Aug 2, 2016, 12:34pm Top

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Modern day revisions of classics like Pride and Prejudice are always hit or miss. Let me start by saying that I understand why other readers might like this one more than I did. The writing is smart, snappy, and often funny, and Sittenfeld tosses in a myriad of contemporary cultural references: reality TV (especially shows like "The Bachelor")," cell phone reliance, lesbian and transgender issues, adult children living with their parents, racial prejudice half-hidden by attempt to be PC, popular music, the free use of condoms, career women, a cousin who is a Silicon Valley geek, yoga classes, single women who long to be mothers artificially inseminated, couples jumping into bed or moving in with one another at the drop of a hat, etc. Yes, times sure have changed since Jane Austen's day. She retains the generation gap between parents and daughters, including Mrs. Bennett's desire to see each young woman married of to a man who is 1) rich, 2) of high social status, and 3) handsome. And Mr. Bennett's sardonic humor and long suffering of his wife's foibles remain intact.

The problem for me was that this novel is contemporary chick lit, plain and simple--and that's not a genre I often read and even less often enjoy. I know, I know, Austen's original is chick lit of a sort, but it also brims with social commentary and the characters are much more complex and more deeply developed. Men also delighted in her novels when they were originally published, and I can't think of a single man I know that would delight in Eligible. It just doesn't have an edge beyond chick lit.

That said, if you like Jane Austen AND contemporary chick lit, this might be the book for you. Sittenfeld fairly faithfully follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice, and most of the characters bear at least one primary trait of the originals. Jane is pretty and sweet, Lizzie is the clever one and the family "fixer," Mary is a perpetual scholar who spurns society, Kitty and Lydia are pretty young things still living at home (except when they are at Crossfit, which is a lot of the time). There is a Charlotte Lucas, plump and pining for a husband; a geeky rich cousin who visits in hope of finding a wife; a bitchy sister, Caroline Bingley; and a sweet, anorexic sister, Georgie Darcy. Wickham has transformed into Lizzie's coworker and longtime on again/off again married boyfriend, a former Stanford classsmate of brain surgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy with a secret waiting to be revealed--but Lydia elopes with someone else entirely. And Darcy--well, I found him terribly disappointing here compared to Austen's original.

So: chick lit fans, go for it, you'll probably enjoy it. Austen fans, I'd skip this one unless curiosity gets the better of you.

Aug 2, 2016, 1:15pm Top

>144 Cariola:
I'll definitely read this book but will wait for the paperback. The Slate audio book club podcast liked it, and I think there was a guy on the panel. I may be misremembering though. It's a fun listen if you want to entertain yourself whilst folding laundry or something.

Aug 2, 2016, 5:07pm Top

>145 Nickelini: I just read a couple of professional reviews.. The NY Times loved it, it got totally crushed by The Washington Post, and Ursula Le Guin killed it in The Guardian, saying it relies on insults that are expected to pass as wit (I agree, for the most part).

Aug 2, 2016, 6:09pm Top

I'm a sucker for modern chick-lit based on Austen's novels. I don't know why. Most of it is terrible. I've been wary of this series, though. I may try one if I run into a copy at the library, but I'm not in a hurry.

Edited: Aug 2, 2016, 6:26pm Top

>147 RidgewayGirl: I downloaded a library copy to my kindle--forgot I had it and ordered a copy from audible, which I returned last night, unlistened to. Glad I didn't pay for it. As I said, if you do like chick lit in general, this novel will likely appeal to you. But there were a few things that seemed way, way outside of Austen. For example, Liz hates Darcy after she overhears what seems to be a bashing of Cinncinnati girls at a party, yet when they run into each other on a morning run, she ends up saying, "Do you want to go to your place and have sex?" They do--on several occasions, and what Liz calls "hate sex" is apparently pretty good. Maybe a little TOO contemporary?

Aug 2, 2016, 7:19pm Top

>148 Cariola:
Sex and Austen can be fun but that's just ugh!

Aug 2, 2016, 8:13pm Top

Ok, that sounds dreadful.

Aug 2, 2016, 8:35pm Top

It comes out of nowhere. Well, maybe she has been ogling his pecs through his sweaty T-shirt. Hardly the same as that famous scene with Colin Firth emerging from the pond . . .

Aug 4, 2016, 11:48am Top

Just catching up after vacation, Deborah. I have The little Red Chairs on my wish list, but you've pushed it further up the queue. I read her Wild Decembers, and while I didn't love it, I did like it well enough to finish it.

Aug 7, 2016, 8:29pm Top

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

I really liked Chris Cleaves's Little Bee and Incendiary, and I quite liked this new novel as well. Cleave seems to have a knack for digging into horrifying situations and the psychology of people who have no choice but to live through them. In Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, he tackles the second world was, particularly London in the Blitz years. Mary North, a young woman from an upper crust family (her father is an MP) volunteers with the war office as soon as England enters the fray. Her first assignment is as a teacher, and she is particularly drawn to young Zachary, son of an African-American entertainer who emcees the local minstrel show. Almost as soon as she begins, the children are evacuated to the countryside, and Mary applies for a position to teach the few misfit children who remain in the city (some of whom, like Zachary, have been sent back from the country). Here she meets and falls in love with her supervisor, Tom, a decent sort who hasn't yet felt the compulsion to enlist, as his flatmate, Alistair, had done on the first day that England went to war. Everyone seems to believe (or wants to believe) that the war isn't real and that the city will never be bombed. When Alistair returns on leave, Mary and Tom set him up with her friend Hilda, a young woman rather vain of her looks and focused on the exact arrangement of her pompadour. But the bombs do fall, and their world begins to fall apart. The novel traces the effects of the war not only on these four young people (and Zachary) but on society itself. Be prepared for a lot of tragedy, despair, and uncertainty as people drift apart and come together. Yet the novel is not without elements of hope as the characters learn that change, while perhaps inevitable, is not always the same as loss.

Overall, I liked this book, and there are a number of particularly moving scenes and horrific scenes. (I did not know that the British army on Malta was under siege, for example, and the description of life for the men as supplies dwindled was quite an eye opener.) Cleave goes a little heavy on "smart" conversation, which sometimes makes his characters seem irritatingly artificial; perhaps he means to use this as a cover for their insecurities, but I wish he had used it more sparingly. I felt at times like I was watching one of those horrid late 1930s British films where everyone is so darn phony and you just want to smack them. That's the main reason my rating (3.5) is down a notch from the 4+ average.

Edited: Aug 8, 2016, 4:58pm Top

>153 Cariola: I read The Other Hand by Chris Cleave some years back and I felt very disappointed by it - the characterisation felt very flat, and although the story itself was a good idea I remember feeling that his writing just wasn't up to it.

Maybe he's got better with the passing of time...

Aug 15, 2016, 7:24pm Top

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

The saga of Jamie and Claire continues--what more can I say? I didn't start reading this series until the STARZ dramatization got me hooked. This second installment gives of more of the same: time travel, romance, men in kilts, political intrigue, battles, Scottish scenery, 17th century customs, social conflict, secrets, and a stint at the French court to boot. We're introduced to Jamie and Claire's daughter Brianna, born after she time traveled from the 1740s back to the late 1940s; it's 1968 when Dragonfly in Amber begins. Claire and her daughter return to the Highlands after her husband Frank's death; she hopes to learn more about the fate of Jamie Fraser (when she left him at the end of Outlander, he was about to go into the doomed Battle of Culloden). I listened to the audiobook and can honestly say that I wondered if it would maintain my interest for almost 40 hours of listening. It did--and the reader, Davina Porter, is wonderful. If you are into the televised series, the second season sticks quite closely to this novel. On to Voyager!

Edited: Aug 27, 2016, 3:47pm Top

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

My feelings on this one are a bit mixed. I think that may be because it functions (or, tries to function) on so many different levels. It's part coming of age novel, part immigration novel, part contemporary romance, part the story of a family in crisis, part chick lit. The main character, Amina Eapen, is a would-be art photographer/now wedding photographer who lives in Seatlle with her prettier, livelier cousin, Dimple. Her mother calls to tell her that something is wrong with her father, a brain surgeon, and she needs to come home. Thomas, it seems, has started conversing with his deceased mother.

At this point, the novel starts jumping back and forth in time. There is a long section about a family trip to visit family in India, where we learn that Thomas's mother never approved of his marriage and blames his wife, Kamala, for the fact that they did not move back to India after he completed medical school. All kinds of family dysfunction starts to come out of the walls, both in India and, when the Eapens return to the US, at home, and a number of tragedies occur. A second trip down memory lane focuses on Amina's teenage years: her relationship with her now deceased brother, their teenage romances, quarrels with and between her parents, etc. And then we return to the present day crisis and how the family deals with it.

While I can't say that I loved this book, it did keep me interested, and I thought some of the characters, particularly Amina's parents, were very well drawn, and it's more the story of a loving family in distress than the typical immigration story.

Aug 18, 2016, 8:34am Top

Nice review of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, Deborah. From your description it sounds like a lighter version of books like Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

Edited: Aug 21, 2016, 3:08pm Top

Outlander Kitchen by Theresa Carle-Sanders

Overall, this is a fun cookbook with a number of recipes that I plan to try. Many of the recipes are pretty basic, and if you have a cookbook or two, you probably already have recipes for them (Beef Stock, a salad dressing that is a basic vinaigrette, Puffed Pastry, Roast Beef, Roast Chicken, Buttermilk Biscuits, Whiskey Sour, Sweet Potato Pie, etc.). But there are plenty of easy-to-follow recipes here that sound appealing, even if they aren't all traditionally Scottish (a chapter on Pizza and Pasta?). A few, like Jenny's Hare Pie, Pheasant and Greens, or Rolls with Pigeon and Truffles, require items that might not be too easy to get here in the US (but don't expect a recipe for haggis!). I'm especially drawn to the recipes for scones (Oatmeal, Cinnamon) and other breads (Pumpkin Seed and Herb Oatcakes, Raisin Muffins), side dishes (Auld Ian's Buttered Leeks, Fergus's Roasted Tatties), and desserts (The MacKenzies' Millionaire's Shortbread, Lord John's Upside-Down Plum Cake, Banoffee Trifle).

Many of the recipes are named for characters and places in the Outlander novels, and each is prefaced by a brief excerpt that connects to the recipe to follow. Initially I thought I might give this book to my sister-in-law, but I'm tempted to keep it myself. (She loves the series but isn't really into cooking.) It would make a nice gift for Gabaldon fans OR for cookbook collectors.

Edited: Aug 26, 2016, 1:59pm Top

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Well, I'm sorry to say that the Outlander glow is starting to wear off. I really enjoyed the first two books in the series, but I found this third one much harder to engage with. For one thing, it's complicated. By that, I don't mean complicated in a sophisticated way but rather just too darn busy. The plot goes in too many directions, the characters end up in too many places (and there are too many characters), and there are more digressions than I can count. And even in a novel tagged as "fantasy," I expect the plot to at least feel like it really could happen. The best part was the beginning, which explains what happened to Jamie after the Battle of Culloden; the second best part was the next, in which Claire goes back in time to Edinburgh to find him. But once they are together again, it's busy, busy, and more busy. I've already purchased the fourth book in the series and will likely read it, but this one convinced me to pass on the "Lord John" books, which even readers who adore everything Outlander admit are not as good.

Edited: Aug 27, 2016, 3:49pm Top

Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray by Dorothy Love

This historical novel is based loosely on the friendship between Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis, and Selina Gray, a slave that Mary taught to read as a child. Selina became a friend and comforter to Mary and was instrumental in preserving some of the family's treasured artifacts during the Civil War. Although the title suggests that the friendship is central to the story and the chapters alternate between the two women, the novel really promotes what the author identifies as a goal in her afterward: to redeem Mary Custis Lee from the negative reputation that history has bestowed upon her. Her chapters are much longer and focus on her suffering, sacrifices, and faith--which explains why, when I added the book to my library, I saw the designation 'Christian Fiction' in parentheses. Mary comes across as a bit of a wimp, in my opinion, accepting that her husband puts his career above the family and always willing to agree to whatever "dear Robert" wants and worshipping her pompous father, who later turns out to be not as deserving of her adoration as she had thought. She is constantly being called by one relative or another to nurse someone through an illness or await their death, despite her own crippling arthritis. If Mary has any minor rebellions, they are with the slaves--and are very minor. She teaches several of the children to read, despite her father's disapproval, and she and her mother were advocates of freeing the slaves and sending them to Liberia.

I can't say that this book was one that I will remember now that I've put it aside. It was just OK, but I did learn a few things. I did not know that Mrs. Lee worked to deport slaves to Liberia, nor did I know that her father was related to George Washington through his wife Martha Custis. This was how many of Washington's private papers and other valuables were passed down to her. Mary and Robert were cousins--not unusual for married couples at the time, but, again, something that I didn't know previously. Interestingly, C-SPAN ran a tour of Arlington House, the family home, this morning; much of the novel takes place there.

I doubt that I will seek out other books by this author.

Aug 27, 2016, 7:54pm Top

I remember reading the first two Outlander books when they first came out in the 1990s and I enjoyed them, but my interest also waned after the 2nd and I don't even recall if I read the third(!)

I keep telling myself I should reread them and try to read the whole series, but that feels more like a chore to me.

Aug 27, 2016, 8:22pm Top

>161 Sace: Maybe it's just that I enjoyed the Scottish part of the story so much. This one went into smuggling and pirates and kidnappings and islands in the Caribbean . . . way too busy and not as interesting. I'm one who prefers depth and detail to a lot of action.

Edited: Aug 30, 2016, 10:59am Top

Monticello by Sally Gunning

I was not a big fan of Gunnings's Sawtucket novels, but since I have a great interest in Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would give her another try. Sadly, this one was worse. The problem I had with the Sawtucket novels was that she creates female protagonists who are very passive and then suddenly become empowered. I felt like I was getting hit over the head with anachronistic feminism (kind of like that really bad film version of The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore). She does her research but then lets her theme/agenda get the better of her. In this story of Martha Jefferson Randolph, passivity reigns supreme. It seems her agenda this time is to show how oppressed women of the times were, even the daughters and wives of wealthy, famous persons. And of course, there is a parallel made between Martha's suffering and the Jefferson slaves. This will be the last time I read a novel by Sally Gunning.

Edited: Sep 1, 2016, 10:13am Top

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

It's Mothering Sunday, 1924, and Jane Fairchild, orphaned housemaid, is given the day off. Conveniently having no mother to visit, Jane is free to rendezvous with her lover, rich young heir Paul Shefington. Paul's parents have scheduled a lunch date to meet his fiancée's parents, so the house is empty. It will be the first time she has met Paul at Upbridge, and the first time he has asked her specifically to come in through the front door--signs, she believes, that this will be a farewell tryst as the wedding is only days away. Throughout the novel, there are hints that, although written in the present tense, the story is a retrospective, and that Jane has become a famous author. The events of this day have apparently become life-changing for her.

There's a dreamy quality to the description of the lovers' meeting--yet I have to admit that I was getting tired of the repeated image of a map-shaped post-coitus stain on the bed sheets, which was mentioned over and over again with various details. Please. Spare me. The lovemaking itself is left to the imagination, but afterwards, Jane admires the way Paul walks, naked, through the room. It really never occurred to me, however, that this was a love relationship, at least on Paul's part. There's a moment when he lights each of them a cigarette as they lie naked in bed, and he places the ashtray on her belly, between navel and pubis. How romantic. And they never talk--no conversation at all. It just seemed to me that Paul was using an impressionable young woman of lower social class for sex, treating her more like an object than a person he loved. But Jane's interpretation of their meeting and of later events is quite different. After Paul leaves, Jane remains in the house, walking naked through every room with a sense of wonder and ownership, even eating the ham and veal pie that has been set out for Paul's snack.

So what is there to admire about this book? Well, Swift has mastered the art of getting inside his main character's head. The novel is told by a third person narrator but strictly from Jane's point of view, so we're privy to her eye on every detail and to her thoughts, present and past, on that particular Mothering Sunday. Swift does a fine job of developing Jane's practicality, tempered by her youth, and of conveying her mixed emotions. While I found myself focusing mainly on the events and her character, after I finished the book, I found myself thinking more about its various themes: the effect of The Great War and the loss of so many young men, the changing relations between the social classes, the increasing opportunities for woman to be independent, the way memories can transform themselves and transform lives. And Jane discusses how, as a writer, she had taken the people and events of that Mothering Sunday and transformed them into her own novels. In that last regard, many readers have noted a similarity to Ian McEwan's Atonement. But I would also note similarities to McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, in which the main characters are also greatly affected by a single sexual encounter. Both books also uniquely and unexpectedly link a private moment to the larger social changes occurring in the era.

Overall, I can't say that I loved Mothering Sunday, but I do appreciate the way it lingered in my mind and opened up deeper meanings than were apparent on the surface.

Sep 1, 2016, 10:30pm Top

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Freemantle

Elizabeth Freemantle's novel focuses on two fascinating women who lived in Jacobean England: Lady Arbella Stuart and the poet Aemilia Lanyer. The only historical links between the two are that Lanyer dedicated a poem to Arbella, and the two women were at one time both at court and in Queen Anne's coterie. Here, Freemantle has tied their stories together in an engaging, imaginative story.

The real Arbella's life was quite a sad one. Descended from Henry VIII's sister Margaret (and therefore the granddaughter of Henry VII), she was considered a likely successor to Elizabeth I. In addition, her uncle was Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, which made Arbella cousin to the future King James. Arbella's father died when she was an infant and her mother when she was only seven; she was raised by her redoubtable grandmother, known as Bess of Hardwicke. In Freemantle's version, Elizabeth named James as her successor because she felt that England had had enough of a female monarch; the truth is that more likely that the queen's advisors, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, pressed her to favor James. Although extremely well educated, Arbella was infrequently at court, more often kept under her grandmother's thumb at Hardwicke Hall. She showed little interest in becoming queen, but James suspected her of ambitions to the throne. There were several plots in her lifetime to remove James and make her queen, but she was a loyal subject, even revealing one such plot to the king herself. Quite cruelly, both Elizabeth and James kept Arbella from marrying. They used her as bait in several marriage proposals but likely feared that if she produced an heir, that child, too, could become a threat. In 1610, at the age of 35, she secretly married the much younger William Seymour without the king's permission. Arbella was fourth in line to the throne, and Seymour, who also had Tudor ancestors, was sixth; James clearly saw the marriage, and any future children, as a threat. When James discovered the marriage, he imprisoned them both, Seymour in the Tower of London and Arbella under house arrest. The two were able to exchange letters in secret and planned an ill-fated escape. Seymour succeeded, but the two never met up, and Arbella was captured and imprisoned in the Tower. In despair, she starved herself to death.

Freemantle sticks fairly close to the factual details of Arbella's life but takes a freer hand with Aemilia Lanyer. The facts: Her father, an Italian, was a musician in the court of Elizabeth I. As a child, she was sent to live in the household of the Countess of Kent, where she received an education. Already known as a poet, she frequently stayed at court where she was often called upon to read her work. At the age of 18, Aemilia became the mistress of the queen's cousin, the Earl of Hunsdon. When she became pregnant, she was banished from court, and her family married her off to a first cousin. It was not a happy union, and when her husband died, Lanyer opened a school to support her children. She published her first book of poetry, dedicated to Lady Arbella, at the age of 42 and was frequently called to court to read for Queen Anne. Although Lanyer and Arbella may have been acquainted, there is no evidence of a friendship between them.

Freemantle, however, imagines a sympathy between these two educated, literary-minded women that blossoms into friendship; that is her main invention and the hub of the novel, and Lanyer is inserted into several of the key episodes in Arbella's life. Lanyer is given a personal life as well: we see her interactions with neighbors both kind and cruel, her relationship with her son Henry, her efforts to provide for herself as a widow, and more. As the author's creation, she comes alive on the page; as a woman granted a measure of freedom, she becomes a lively counterpoint to the confined and oppressed Arbella, but both serve as reminders of the limitations placed on women at the time.

Overall, the book was a fine combination of fact and fiction, well researched and engagingly written. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction set in Tudor and Stuart England. I listened to the book on audio, which was wonderfully read by Emily Watson and Rachael Stirling.

Sep 1, 2016, 11:21pm Top

>164 Cariola: Despite your reserve, I still want to read this one. I'm waiting for the paperback edition though, so it won't be soon. (And "map-shaped post-coitus stain on the bed sheets, which was mentioned over and over again with various details" eeww, and no thank you).

>165 Cariola: This sounds pretty good, but I'm pretty Tudored out and trying to store up any Tudor interest I have left to read the Hilary Mantel duo.

Sep 2, 2016, 12:30pm Top

>166 Nickelini: As I said, Mothering Sunday made me think about a lot of things after I finished it, which is always a good sign. It's worth reading.

The Girl in the Glass Tower was really good--but nothing and nobody compares to Mantel, in my opinion. Are you saying that you haven't yet read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies? I'm surprised, even though I know you've long been Tudored out. I can't wait for the third installment of the Cromwell saga. And BTW, I thought the dramatization of Wolf Hall was quite good, but I think viewers who have read the book first probably appreciate it more. My brother and sister-in-law thought it was slow-paced and didn't care for it. Mark Rylance was perfect in the lead role.

Sep 2, 2016, 12:51pm Top

>167 Cariola: No, I own both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but they just languish on my shelves. In fact, they aren't even in my proper TBR pile, but down in the basement. I'm not a fan of long books, and the older I get, the less patience I have for a long book. I do try to get through one or two a year, but I'd rather not. I just finished the 600 page In the Woods, which was bloated, so it's short novels only for a while now.

Sep 8, 2016, 1:29am Top

Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

This was a nice little fluff piece of humour, readable in an afternoon. While it has been compared to An Uncommon Reader (both novels have Queen Elizabeth as a main character), it's not quite as good, in my opinion, perhaps because it takes on too many subplots. Caught in the rain after visiting her favorite horse, the queen borrows a hoodie from Rebecca, a young woman working in the mews, and tries to make a dash for the palace. One of the guards she encounters doesn't recognize her and puts her outside of the gate. And so her adventure begins. She decides to visit a shop to purchase some of the cheddar cheese that her horse relishes, and Rajiv, the clerk recognizes her but doesn't let on. Concerned about her safety, he accompanies her to the train station and surreptitiously follows her as she decides it would be nice to take a train up to Scotland to visit the former royal yacht, now a tourist attraction. In addition to Rajiv, a cadre of employees is also in search of the queen. Rebecca, on whom Rajiv has a crush, joins him on the train; their budding romance is one of the novel's secondary plots. Lady Anne, a lady-in-waiting and longtime friend of the queen, joins unlikely forces with one of the queen's dressers, Shirley MacDonald, who suspects that the queen may have gone to Scotland. William de Morgan, senior Butler, and Luke Thomason, Equerry, also enter the fray; their also becomes a love story of sorts. During her journey, the Queen displays a surprising naiveté about the lives of the ordinary citizens she encounters, and she comes across as quite charming. Imagine the queen in a stained hoodie with a skull and crossbones on the back, being mistaken for Helen Mirren by her neighbors on a train and you'll have a pretty good idea of the flavor of this book. There's nothing very serious going on here, but it made for a fun afternoon.

Edited: Sep 8, 2016, 11:26am Top

55. An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Shobha Rao has given us a beautiful collection of 12 subtly interconnected stories that revolve around the Partition of India and Pakistan and the far reaching effects of that event. The book shares its title with the first story. As the author explains, after Partition, the Indian government passed the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act to assist the many women who became victims of the violence between Hindus and Muslims. Here, she has chosen to use the word restored in place of the more commonly used recovered. While woman and children felt the brunt of the conflict, men were not immune, and Rao tells representative stories of a wide variety of persons. An abused child bride, believing her husband has been killed in the burning of a train, experiences a few brief days of peace, love, and freedom. A disgraced British officer, sent to a small, obscure Indian town to serve as lead constable, faces the task of telling his Sikh assistant's wife that she is a widow--and faces secrets of his own. That same man shows up in New York 40 years later as a hotel doorman, a secondary character in the story of a failing marriage and sisterly betrayal. A young man surveying part of the new borderline uses his position in a ploy to wed the young woman he desires--with disastrous consequences. A Hindu teenager, abducted by a brutal Muslim, fears for the safety of the daughter she bears him. A young Hindu woman, grieving a stillborn child and drifting away from her husband, makes a bold move when Muslim raiders board the train they are riding in. A child who survives an attack during Partition violence but hasn't spoken since shows up decades later as the grandfather of a married woman struggling with her own losses. These are not, for the most part, happy stories; they are stories of loss, love, passion, of the struggle against change and the inevitable adjustment to it, and of the perseverance of the human spirit. As one character puts it, the body's will to keep on living overpowers all obstacles. An Unrestored Woman is beautifully written and will take you on an emotional journey that you won't soon forget.

5 out of 5 stars.

Sep 8, 2016, 10:46am Top

>169 Cariola: She decides to visit a shop to purchase some of the cheddar cheese that her horse relishes,

That's just really really weird.

Sep 8, 2016, 11:27am Top

Well, it is a comic novel . . .

Sep 12, 2016, 5:08pm Top

>164 Cariola: adding Mothering Sunday to my wish list - sounds good.

Sep 12, 2016, 6:54pm Top

>173 AlisonY: Hope you like it. I have to admit, it grew on me even more after I finished it.

Edited: Sep 16, 2016, 2:59pm Top

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I'll start by admitting that I put off reading this book for quite some time. It just seemed like one of those overly hyped books targeted for women's book clubs. There were elements of that, but overall, I liked The Orphan Train.

Molly is a girl in trouble. Already abandoned by her mother and rejected by three foster homes, she's currently living with a kind but henpecked man and his bitchy, critical wife (who constantly lets it be known that she'd throw Molly out if she didn't like the monthly checks). She's a loner at school, except for her Dominican boyfriend Jack, and she embraces her isolation as she does her Goth identity. But Molly gets in trouble with the law for stealing, of all things, a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre from the local library. Her punishment: 50 hours of community service. Jack's mother arranges for her to complete her penalty by helping her elderly employer, a woman named Vivian, clear out her attic.

Despite her hard shell, Molly is a rather sensitive soul. Almost nothing is being discarded from the many dusty boxes in the attic, and Molly understands that for Vivian, the real purpose is simply to remove each object and consider its place in her memories. Like Molly, Vivian had a difficult childhood. When her parents, Irish immigrants who had settled in New York, and siblings were killed in a fire, she became one of the thousands of children rounded up by children's aid groups and sent west on trains to find new homes. Some would be adopted into loving families; more were taken in purely as free labor.

The novel alternates between Molly's and Vivian's stories. As these two seemingly disparate beings open up to one another, they discover that they have more in common than might be thought. And they help one another in unexpected ways.

The plot, involving each woman's story and the story of their friendship, is certainly an interesting one, particularly since Kline has done her research on the orphan trains that shuttled an estimated 200,000 children from eastern cities to rural locations in the Midwest. Kline adds a dose of humor here and there, and one has to admire her focus on her characters' resilience in the face of what could have been a very bleak tale.

Edited: Sep 15, 2016, 11:52pm Top

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.

McEwan's latest novel (more a novella, really) is a wickedly funny riff on Hamlet. "So here I am, upside down in a woman," the narrator--a fetus--begins. (He's "bound in a nutshell," so to speak.) If you're going to enjoy this book, you have to be willing to go with this premise; if you keep asking how a fetus could have such an extensive vocabulary and sophisticated thoughts, or how he could know so much about what is going on in the world outside the womb, you'll miss the fun.

Trudy is roughly nine months pregnant. Although she separated from her husband John, a not very successful poet and publisher, she still lives in the dilapidated family home in London that he inherited., while John has moved to a flat in Shoreditch. Trudy initially told him that they needed time apart to make the marriage work--but she is deep into an affair with his younger brother Claude, a real estate developer (who has about the same level of class as the current Republican presidential candidate). Despite her advanced pregnancy, Trudy and Claude engage in regular and vigorous sex, leaving our narrator to worry that he will have his fontanel poked in or will absorb some essence of the deplorable Claude into his being. He does, however, enjoy the finer wines that his mother imbibes and has developed quite the connoisseur's palate.

The trouble begins when John announces that he knows about and accepts Trudy and Claude's relationship, confesses that he has a new lover of his own, and states that he wants to move back into the family home. The plot thickens as Trudy and Claude decide that John must go--permanently. And our narrator is positioned to eavesdrop on their plans to murder his father and give him up for adoption. If Shakespeare's Hamlet was hampered by indecision, well, this protagonist is even more incapacitated by his unborn state. Literally and emotionally attached to his mother (he experiences every hormonal and adrenal shift), he is nonetheless horrified by the plot against his father's life and by the thought of Trudy giving him up to live with the detested Claude.

In addition to the obvious parallels to Hamlet, McEwan weaves well-known lines from the play into Nutshell, although the words are sometimes put into the mouths of unexpected characters and sometimes subtly changed, a word here or there. If you're familiar with the play, the effect is delightful--reminiscent of the way in which famous lines by the Bard keep popping up in Tom Stoppard's screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." And McEwan brings it all to a climax that, in its own context, rivals the final scene of Hamlet. "The rest is chaos."

Sep 16, 2016, 12:40pm Top

You've just made two books that I had decided I wasn't interested enough to read look much more promising. Good reviews, especially for The Orphan Train.

Sep 16, 2016, 2:59pm Top

>177 RidgewayGirl: Thanks! I've been on a streak of good books after a streak of dismal to mediocre ones.

Sep 17, 2016, 1:30pm Top

>176 Cariola: great to see yet another sterling McEwan book.

Sep 19, 2016, 3:14am Top

Great reviews of An Unrestored Woman, The Orphan Train and Nutshell, Caroline. I didn't realize that the McEwan was a riff on Hamlet! I have yet to see that great play, so I think I'll read a synopsis of it before I read McEwan's book, which I bought last week.

Sep 19, 2016, 11:07am Top

Book bullets... I'm glad to see you have been able to find some good books at last.

Edited: Sep 22, 2016, 8:21pm Top

The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel by James Bone

In the early 20th century, Audrey Munson, an artist's model and would-be actress, was so well-known for the statues that she posed for or inspired that she has become known as "America's First Supermodel." Munson was discovered by a photographer while window shopping in New York and eventually posed for more than a dozen landmark NYC statues, including The Three Graces in the Hotel Astor Grand Ballroom, and "Miss Brooklyn" and "Miss Manhatan," originally placed on the Manhattan Bridge but now posted on either side of the NYC Library main entrance. She was also the model for the 3/5 of the statues in the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915. Her likeness also adorns buildings and plazas in San Francisco, Colorado, and other cities worldwide. Munson's other distinction is that she was the first woman to appear nude on film.

Despite her notoriety, Munson became a rather sad, tragic figure, cheated and exploited by many who promised to make her financially secure as well as famous. People flocked to see her films--but not for her acting talent. She made only three films and claimed to have been cheated out of several contracts. In one case, the production company sent a look-alike to promotional appearances to avoid paying Audrey the posing fees she was promised. Although engaged several times, it seems she never married (although her domineering mother claimed that she wed Herman Oelrichs (the Comstock Silver Lode heir), who had the legal power to refute the claim and leave her penniless). Audrey also wrote a rambling, antisemitic letter to the FBI in 1919, stating that Oelrichs was part of "a Jewish network" that was out to destroy her career. She held similar beliefs about a number of producers and editors, including William Randolph Hearst. In one of the most bizarre events of her life, Audrey was implicated in her landlord's murder of his wife. The prosecutor claimed Dr. William Wilkins had fallen in love with his tenant, but this biographer could find no evidence that there was any salacious connection between the two. Fearing the publicity that a court appearance would stir up, Audrey and her mother fled to Canada to avoid her being subpoenaed. Wilkins was found guilty without her testimony, but the damage was already done in the papers.

Audrey's mental health was always fragile and grew more so over the years. She attempted suicide at least once, and in 1931, after she went after a farmer who was beating his horse with a pitchfork, her mother had her committed to an insane asylum where, sadly, she lived out the rest of her very long life; she died at age 104, having spent almost 65 years institutionalized.

We tend to see celebrity as a more recent phenomenon. Audrey Munson's life story not only shows it to be something as old as film, print, and word of mouth but explains the tragic effects that relentless pursuit by the press and photographers can have on a person's psyche. Overall, a very interesting story. One can't help but wonder about the role that poverty and a broken home played in Audrey's sad life.

As a side note: the book is packed with photos of Munson and the people in her life, the art she inspired, film stills, etc.

Edited: Feb 2, 2017, 3:43pm Top

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

Dutton's novel is a fictionalized biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. A shy and imaginative girl who enjoyed pondering the "unseen worlds" in cobwebs, stones, and drops of water on her family's country estate, Margaret's world changed forever with the onset of the English Civil War. She was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting to queen Henrietta Maria; her family believed (and rightly so) that she was ill-suited to court life, but they also knew that she would be safer in the queen's retinue, which eventually fled to France. Margaret's family home was demolished, two brothers died fighting for the royalists, and even the bodies of her ancestors were dragged from their tombs and desecrated. Times were, indeed, dangerous.

At court, Margaret captured the attention of William Cavendish. Although thirty years her senior, he seemed to understand her and encouraged her inclinations towards philosophy and writing and often brought the greats of the day to dinner--Descartes, Hobbes, John Evelyn, and many others. In despair over her childlessness, Margaret began to write and became obsessed with the desire for fame. She published collections of poems, her thoughts on natural history and philosophy, and stories that are now considered the forerunners of modern science fiction. In her day, she was as notorious as she was famous: people called her "Mad Madge," in part because of her outlandish self-designed dress. Her work has sparked a renewed interest in recent decades; Virginia Woolf was one of the first to bring her to attention in the last century. She was also the first woman invited to address the Royal Academy.

Dutton does a fine job of creating Margaret's shaky world and of fleshing out her unusual personality (and that of her indulgent husband). I would encourage anyone interested in this book to also peruse some of Cavendish's own writing. As fantastical as it is, some considered her examination of "atoms" and other scientific phenomena to be quite logical and innovative in her day.

Sep 22, 2016, 7:00am Top

>183 Cariola: This one does sound interesting, Deborah. I love stories about women who showed their intelligence, even when they weren't supposed to have any.

Sep 24, 2016, 1:54pm Top

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

Penelope Devereux Rich is best known as the muse behind Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella. When she was only 13, she was betrothed to Sidney, who was the nephew and only heir of Queen Elizabeth's favorite, the Earl of Leicester. But when Leicester wed the queen's cousin--Penelope's mother--without permission and she gave birth to a son, Sidney lost both his inheritance and his future bride.

That, however, is not the end of Penelope's story, and Fremantle fleshes it out with both imagination and fact. As a lady-in-waiting, a great beauty, and sister to the queen's next favorite, the Earl of Essex, she wielded extraordinary influence. Fremantle comes up with her own intriguing explanations for the unhappiness in Penelope's marriage to Lord Rich and the unparalleled freedom she gained. (She conducted a long-term affair with Charles Blunt, Baron Mountjoy, giving birth to at least four children by him; seven others were acknowledged by Rich, but some may have been fathered by Blunt.) Penelope was also politically influential: Freemantle builds on suspicions that she may have been working to secure King James of Scotland as the queen's heir and that she was deeply involved in her brother's fateful 1601 rebellion. He, in fact, declared her a traitor before going to the block.

The novel is narrated from two alternating points of view. Robert Cecil, son of Elizabeth's longtime chief advisor, Lord Burghley, appears as a first person narrator who is both attracted to Penelope and, because of his jealousy of Essex, antagonistic towards her. Penelope's own story is told in the third person by a narrator privy to her thoughts and actions. Unexpectedly, this divided narration works quite well. The story is an intriguing one and has inspired me to read a biography of Penelope Rich that has been languishing on the shelf for several years.

Sep 27, 2016, 7:14pm Top

Book bullets! The Girl in the Glass Tower, An Unrestored Woman and Margaret the First all onto the wishlist.

Sep 27, 2016, 8:51pm Top

>186 wandering_star: Great choices! I have been on a roll of good books lately.

Sep 28, 2016, 12:35pm Top

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Let me start by saying that I did not finish this book. But it was so painful to read the first three stories that I am counting it as a book read. George Saunders is considered a master of the short story by many. Not me. If your definition of mastery is coming up with irritating style quirks and topics that no one else would want to write about (let alone read about), then I guess he is a master.

I did not finish the first story, which is about a beautiful teenager. The overwrought, self-conscious style was just too annoying. The second story, which covered only two pages, was about a mean-spirited man whose only joy was dressing two crossed poles in front of the house for the appropriate season. In the end he dies, a young couple buys his house, and the poles are put out in the trash. The end.

It was the third story that did me in. The main character is a woman with two spoiled children and a sicko husband. She is in the habit of bringing home small animals offered to good homes--so that her husband can kill them. A ferret, an iguana, a whole litter of kittens, and now she is considering a puppy. Maybe I'm living in a fantasy world myself, but I do not want to read about people that torture and kill defenseless animals and the people that enable him. That is just SICK!!!

I will not finish this book, and I will never read anything written by George Saunders again.

Sep 28, 2016, 1:44pm Top

>188 Cariola:. Okay then. I think that's on my wish list. If so, I'll be taking it off asap.

Sep 28, 2016, 3:23pm Top

>188 Cariola: Yeah, it was on mine for a long time. Fortunately I didn't pay for this one; I won it on Goodreads. They may never give me another book after this review.

Sep 28, 2016, 5:07pm Top

>188 Cariola: I am sorry this collection wasn't for you; it was one of my favorite books in the year I read it. I had a different interpretation of the two stories that drew the strongest reaction. In fact, "Puppy" was my favorite of the collection.

Sep 29, 2016, 1:36pm Top

>191 ELiz_M: I just could not continue after the description of crying kittens hauled off to the pond in a bag, the killer crying because he felt sorry for himself, and his wife comforting him. I'm only glad that she decided not to take home the puppy. And I just did not enjoy Saunders's style. In reading descriptions of the stories I didn't get to, I don't think I missed anything; I am not at all a fan of magical realism, fantasy, or sci fi. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, and I know I'm in the minority on this one. That's OK.

Sep 29, 2016, 1:40pm Top

Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel

Mantel's memoir focuses on three main aspects of her life: her dysfunctional family, her relationship to Catholicism, and her ongoing health issues. She, her parents, and her two younger brothers lived with her maternal grandparents during her early years; she was particularly close to her grandfather. Later, her parents moved into a home of their own, and her mother's lover moved in; Hilary and her father shared a room. There is some hint of sexual abuse, but it is rather obscure. At one point she says that everyone expects this to be mentioned in a memoir, and she relates a "vision" she once had of a child lying in her grandfather's garden until the ground covers her and the grass grows over her and she disappears. Maybe if you've had this experience, you know what she is hinting at, but it was all rather cryptic to me. Perhaps it's a memory that she was trying to bury, but I'm not sure.

Like a lot of Catholics, Hilary shifts between deep faith and resentment or guilt. Most of the nuns at her school were cruel. She relates one story of a nun hitting her so hard that her head turned around the wrong way. One nun in particular kept telling her that she would amount to nothing and was astonished when Hilary passed exams and was able to attend university. Her mother had pushed to get her into a better school, but other girls who knew her also attended, and they spread the stories about Hilary's "sinful" mother, leaving her rejected. But at other times, she seems to have found comfort in prayer, and she admits that reading prayers had an effect on her writing style.

The greatest amount of time is spent detailing her sad battles with ill health. She was afflicted with pains in her legs and abdomen and excessive menstrual bleeding. After seeing the university clinician, she was sent to a psychiatrist who determined that her complaints were psychosomatic; all they ever tested her for before putting her on a series of mind-muddling drugs was anemia. It was the 1970s, and she was encouraged to give up law school as the focus on "details" was supposedly affecting her mental state. Years later, she read about endometriosis and felt sure this was what she suffered from; finally, she found a doctor who agreed. But by then, at age 27, she had to undergo a hysterectomy and had several inches of her bowel removed as well. Although she had never particularly wanted children, nor did her husband, she lamented the loss of choice. Because of her youth, the doctors kept her on hormones to delay menopause, but this fed remaining endometrial cells that had wandered to other parts of her body, leading to renewed and continuing pains.

It's quite amazing that during this time, Mantel began to research and write her French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Despite a difficult life, she managed to develop into a wonderful, Booker Award-winning writer. (Wolf Hall is my favorite historical novel of all time.) Rather than this being a first-rate memoir, I got the sense that Mantel needed to get her past out of her system by writing Giving Up the Ghost. I can only recommend it to fans who want to know more about her life and the endurance that brought her to where she is today.

Sep 29, 2016, 2:28pm Top

>193 Cariola: i was fascinated by your excellent review. So I was also surprised that you don't recommend it. Perhaps the story is more compelling than the telling.

Sep 29, 2016, 8:27pm Top

>194 dchaikin: Dan, it's not that it was awful (it wasn't). But aside from her health issues, the other two areas she focuses on were pretty typical of the Irish Catholic memoir. And she really doesn't talk a lot about her writing, which I would have liked to know more about. She's still my favorite historical fiction writer. I'm just not sure this memoir would have a wide appeal.

Oct 4, 2016, 7:17pm Top

Useful review! I have this already, as an audiobook, which is unfortunate as I find those harder to skim. I think Mantel is an interesting person - her essays eg in the LRB are really worth reading, and I've heard good radio interviews with her as well where she talks about her writing. Sorry this didn't deliver for you.

Oct 8, 2016, 8:04pm Top

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad was just short-listed for the National Book Award--and boy, does it deserve it! Whitehead focuses mainly on the story of Cora, a slave born on a Georgia cotton plantation. He begins with a brief overview of her grandparents' kidnapping from Africa and her mother Mabel's escape, which occurred when Cora was only eight years old. Young Cora struggles to keep the tiny garden patch that her grandmother and mother handed down, but she soon finds herself living in Hob, the lodging for slave women rejected by the rest. The details of life on the Randall plantation, as witnessed by Cora, are as expected, horrific. Eventually, a slave named Caesar asks her to escape with him. When she later asks why he chose her, his answer is simple: "Because I knew that you could do it."

The critics are all in wonderment over Whitehead's creation of a literal underground railroad--not just a secret network of safe homes, but an actual railroad built underground to carry runaway slaves to safer places. It's an interesting idea, but the real story, of course, is Cora's will to survive, along with the suffering both she and her helpers sustain. I admit that I'm no expert in the topic, so I'm not sure how much of Whitehead's depiction of the various states is based in fact. South Carolina, for example, was considered a progressive state in the novel because they provided cheap housing, literacy, and employment assistance for people of color; but they also pushed a program of sterilization onto young black women. North Carolina, according to Whitehead, "abolished" slavery by banishing blacks from the state, on pain of hanging, and by hiring cheap white labor to do the work of slaves; whites who harbored runaways were subject to the same punishment, carried out in public celebrations. Tennessee was a terrifying place running rampant with slave hunters. The relatively new state of Indiana was still in the throes of labor pains, unsure of how to handle large numbers of black settlers.

I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot. Let me just say that Whitehead has created an indomitable and believable character in Cora, and her story will suck you in. If the fact that this book is an Oprah selection turns you off, just black out that big O on the front cover and keep reading. (Honestly, I don't get this snooty response, since many of her picks have been wonderful.) This one is a definite winner.

Oct 9, 2016, 9:26am Top

>197 Cariola: I will have to put this novel on my list-thank you

Oct 9, 2016, 10:05am Top

The Underground Railroad really is an extraordinary achievement and it doesn't surprise me that it keeps turning up on "best of" and prize short lists.

Oct 9, 2016, 12:44pm Top

Great review of The Underground Railroad, Deborah! I plan to read it two weeks from now, and I anticipate that I'll enjoy it as much as you did.

Oct 9, 2016, 3:37pm Top

>198 torontoc:, >200 kidzdoc: I know you will both really like this one. I'll be very surprised if it doesn;'t win the National Book Award.

>199 RidgewayGirl: Couldn't agree with you more.

Oct 15, 2016, 5:43pm Top

Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien

This collection of short stories is rather bleak: there are no happy endings for the characters, and for some, there are no endings at all. The settings move from Dublin to London to New York and back to the Irish countryside. Dashed hopes, sad memories, aimless wandering, impossible dreams, broken relationships, the mouldering past--this is the stuff that O'Brien's stories are made of. The writing itself is melancholy, precise, and quite beautiful, and although few of the characters are what one might call likable, the author gives us sufficient insight into their lives and minds to understand and empathize with them.

I listened to Saints and Sinners on audio. Suzanne Bertish is the perfect reader for this rather bleak collections.

Oct 20, 2016, 1:19pm Top

Charles the King by Evelyn Anthony

This novel, published first in 1961, focuses on the relationship of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria, and the English Civil War. The author does a good job of making these historical figures both realistic and empathetic. (Cromwell and the Roundheads don't come off as well, but I guess that's to be expected.) At times, as the war continues, I felt a bit bogged down by the details of the battles, negotiations, etc. The heart of the story is the royal family. Two characters that were particularly memorable were the king's nephew, Prince Rupert, a soldier who came to England to help his uncle hold the throne, and Lady Fairfax, wife of the Puritan general, who burst out in anger at the king's trial. Her complaint was, first, that these appointed Puritan judges had no authority to try the king, and second, that Charles was not given the right to speak in his own defense. For her eruption, she was almost shot on the spot.

While I liked this novel well enough, I'm not sure that I will seek out others by Evelyn Anthony.

Edited: Oct 28, 2016, 8:02pm Top

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

The narrator of Past Imperfect accepts an unexpected invitation from Damian Baxter, a one-time friend and Cambridge classmate that he now considers an enemy. Back in the 1960s, the narrator, who had lived on the fringe of posh society, opened the door for Damian, who was of an even lower social status, but something pushed them apart. Damian is now filthy rich, alone, and dying. He had received an unsigned note telling him that he had fathered a child back in the day but never bothered to pursue the claim. Now, he asks the narrator to find out which of the seven women he had bedded back in the debutante season of 1968 had borne his child. The chance to see how his old companions had turned out is too much to resist.

Fellowes moves us back and forth from the swinging 60s to the present day, exploring the complexities of class, friendship, and love along the way. Two events are pivotal: a debutante ball where someone serves hashish brownies, and the picnic that blew apart the narrator’s friendship with Damian and left them both expelled from their social circle. The narrator’s quest is sometimes amusing, often bittersweet. It's interesting to see how each woman has dealt with her lot in life. Overall, the novel is engaging, sometimes amusing, and often bittersweet.

Edited: Nov 7, 2016, 12:26pm Top

Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the first fiction I've read by this author. It's a series of five short stories, each inspired by an old photograph of unknown persons. I've read and enjoyed similar series based on paintings, so the concept is not exactly new. Smith is a fine writer, but overall, the stories left me somewhat underwhelmed. A photo of a frumpy woman in a train station leads to the story of a woman leaving her vows as a nun and searching for the right man. A portrait of three children--a standing girl, a girl on a pony, and a kilted boy on a tricycle--inspires a story of love lost and regained. A man sitting on a woman's lap develops into the tale of a lady ventriloquist and an animal tamer. A man and a woman sitting in a vintage plane inspires another love story, this one set in Australia. And a photograph of a woman standing beside a white roadster, a man at her side, tells the tale of love that crosses class and religious barriers. All in all, small but interesting stories, but nothing to write home about.

Edited: Nov 18, 2016, 12:04pm Top

(Cover photo coming as soon as Photobucket gets its act together! Haven't been able to upload for two days now.)

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.

I don't often read or listen to biographies, and when I do, they are more likely to be of historical figures than of contemporary celebrities. But I was curious to learn more about Trevor Noah, who replaced the much-beloved Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. I knew that he was born to an interracial couple when South Africa was still under apartheid--hence his title, "Born a Crime." But I knew little more about him or, in fact, much about apartheid beyond the basics. I learned a lot about both in listening to this book. Since Trevor is still quite a young man, the thrust of the book is the effects of apartheid on a biracial child and teenager. For one thing, the young Trevor never quite knew where he fit in. He was too white to be black, too black to be white, and uncomfortable in the category "colored." During his childhood, there was not only conflicts between the two races but also between the various tribes. He tells one story of his mother, walking home from church with he and his baby brother, being harassed by a white man. Seeing a minicab with a black driver, she jumped in with the children, feeling that they would be safe; but the driver was a member of the opposing tribe and threatened to kill them. Patricia, who comes across as a strong, brave, no- nonsense woman and the single most positive force in Trevor's life, made a dangerous decision that likely saved them all. This is not an isolated story: similar episodes occur throughout the book. Some of them are particularly sad, such as Trevor being in a park and calling after his white father as the man ran from him, in fear of being exposed. When he was young and staying with his grandmother, he was not allowed to play with his black cousins in the front yard and had to remain inside or in the walled back yard. The reason? If the authorities had seen a light-skinned child in a black neighborhood, they could legally sweep him up, sever all ties with his family, and place him in an orphanage. These are just a few examples of the many incidents that were commonplace under apartheid, and it is clear that they left a lasting impression on young Trevor.

But please don't think this memoir is all doom and gloom and fear. After all, Trevor Noah is a comedian, and he finds plenty of humor in his own story. And that's a very good thing: we need it, as he did, to endure the sadness and nearly intolerable constraints under which he grew up. There are the usual stories of teenage angst: falling in love, trying to find a date for the prom, falling in with a "bad crowd," trying to pull a fast one on his mother or stepfather, etc.

And behind it all is his mother Patricia. Her strength and wisdom, and the love between her and her son, come shining through.

I recommend the audio version, perfectly read by the man who lived it and wrote it.

Nov 18, 2016, 12:30pm Top

Fates and Traitors is a fictionalized account of the lives of several people--particularly women--involved with John Wilkes Booth. The novel is divided into several sections, each taking a different point of view. The first is Mary Ann Holmes, wife of the renowned English Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth. Through her, we learn that Booth abandoned his wife and child and, to avoid scandal, sailed for America with Mary Ann. (The two were only able to marry after many years and the birth of seven children.) Mary Ann's first section details her life as the wife of a travelling actor, trying to make ends meet on a Maryland farm in his absence. We hear from Mary Ann again, later in the story, and learn of her concerns for her children--particularly her favorite, known as Wilkes in the family, who resented his brothers' success on the stage and was determined to make a name for himself.

There are also several sections focused on Mary Surratt, a widowed tavern/boarding house owner with Confederate sympathies. It was in her home that the Lincoln assassins met to conspire, and her son was deeply involved in the plot as well. The author makes her own decisions as to the role that Mary herself might have played, but these sections make her a sympathetic mother to Junior and Anna, one who had survived abuse at the hands of their father and relied heavily on her Catholic faith.

Only one section presents the specific point of view of John Wilkes Booth; another focuses on his beloved sister Asia and is particularly moving in presenting her reactions to the aftermath of the assassination. Finally, there are a number of sections centered on Lucy Hale, daughter of a New Hampshire senator and reputed fiancée of Booth. I knew little about this woman and found her sections--Booth's courtship, her parents' disapproval, her reaction to the murder and Booth's death, and, finally, her life 25 years later--to be the most intriguing.

All of the characters are very well developed, and Chiaverini gives much insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. These, rather than the Lincoln assassination itself, take center stage. Due to moving among several points of view, the story makes a number of shifts back and forth in time, but the author handles this well. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven historical fiction.

Nov 18, 2016, 5:36pm Top

Thanks for the review of Fates and Traitors. Every time I run into a copy, my reaction is that they really tried hard to get it to look like Fates and Furies.

Nov 18, 2016, 9:36pm Top

>208 RidgewayGirl: I hate the same reaction!

Edited: Nov 20, 2016, 9:32pm Top

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Well, I whizzed through the audio version of this book in a day and a half, so that should tell you something! It's 1869, and a brutal triple murder has occurred in a small Scottish village. Young Roddy Macrae is clearly the killer; he doesn't try to hide his guilt. But what was his motivation? And was he sane at the time of the murder?

Burnet's novel takes the form of a case study based on documents. The primary source is Macrae's own account, written at the behest of his lawyer, who hopes to spare his life by proving him insane. But the novel also relies upon neighbors' statements taken by the police, the medical examiner's reports, psychiatric evaluations, and the complete transcript of Roddy's trial. Along the way, we're given a detailed picture of the hard, bleak, cruel life of the poor in 19th-century Scotland. It's these details, as well as the opposing views of young Roddy, that make the novel both complex and fascinating. His Bloody Project reads a bit like a true crime story--a genre that I'm generally not fond of. Yet it also creates an engaging story with memorable characters that draw the reader in, and the fine writing is both distinctive and appropriate to the content.

I don't want to say much more because I don't want to give any spoiler, and I want to encourage everyone to read and discover this books for themselves. I listened to the audiobook, which was perfectly read by Antony Ferguson (who has a wonderful Scottish accent).

This book was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

Nov 20, 2016, 5:02pm Top

>210 Cariola: I think you just delivered my traditional New Year's Day crime read! Now to actually find the book.

Nov 20, 2016, 9:31pm Top

>211 SassyLassy: You should have no trouble finding it--it has been quite the sensation. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

Nov 21, 2016, 7:57am Top

I'm back on the waiting list for The Underground Railroad. Real life has not been conducive to reading paper books. I've mostly been doing audio. I'm glad to see that it is worth the wait.

Nov 21, 2016, 11:54am Top

>213 NanaCC: It's most likely going to top my list of Best Books of 2016. You might enjoy the audiobook of His Bloody Project, too.

Nov 21, 2016, 12:10pm Top

Shop Cats of New York by Tamir Arslanian and Andrew Marttila

Confession: I bought this book as a Christmas gift for my daughter but couldn't resist reading it beforehand. It's a lovely little collection of photographs and stories featuring the resident cats at a wide range of New York establishments, from the Algonquin Hotel to a yoga studio and everything in between. Great book to pick up when you need to relax for a few moments, especially for anyone who loves cats. Thanks to Ilana for recommending it!

Nov 23, 2016, 10:34am Top

>212 Cariola: Just found it on BD's Black Friday list.

Edited: Nov 30, 2016, 2:11pm Top

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Barkskins is one of those sprawling sagas (the print version is 756 pages!) that perhaps sprawls a bit too much for its own good. Or at least for my taste and convenience. I borrowed the kindle version from my library, and just when I got engaged with the story of the Duquets and the Sels, it had to be returned; I couldn't renew it because another reader was waiting for it. So I put another hold on it and had to wait two weeks before plunging back in, and by that time, I had begun to forget who was who. (The book follows the descendants of these two families over 300 years and down several branches.) So if you plan to read this book, just be aware that it is one HUGE door-stopper, so unless you're a speed reader, you'd be better off getting your own copy or waiting until interest dies down before downloading it from your local library.

The story begins with two young men, Charles Duquet and René Sel, indentured to a Quebec timber company as cutters. In return for three years of labor, they are promised land of their own--a promise that the crafty Charles realizes will never be made good on. He runs away and eventually strikes it rich, first as an international fur trader and then as owner of a vast timber business. René sticks it out but fares less well: he is forced to wed a much older Mi'kmaw woman and dies a violent death.

The story follows Charles, his descendants, and the Sel descendants over time and continents. Charles travels to Holland, where he finds a wife, and to China, where he purveys furs and secures new varieties of wood to bring back for sale on the North American continent. His wealth relies on the unbridled flattening of the land, clearing whole forests without conscience, believing that forests of Quebec and Maine are so vast that they will never be extinguished. (So yes, one theme of the book is ecological--and it gets more heavy-handed as the story moves into the 20th century.) His descendants expand the business into New Zealand and begin to consider the South American rain forest, by this time one of the last true forests remaining on earth. The Sels, on the other hand, suffer from a lack of identity: part white and part Mi'kmaw, they find they don't fit well into either community. The young drift back to the Mi'kmaw (who are becoming fewer in number as they are starved, infected, or outright murdered by whites taking over their land) and into relative poverty. Along the way, the two families intertwine, both in events and in blood, and add a third line, the German Breitsprechers.

With so many characters and over so many years, I found it difficult at times to remember who everyone was and how they were connected. One positive aspect is the strong female characters: Mary, René's Mi'kmaw wife, a noted healer; Beatrix, one of the first to unite the two families by marriage; Lavinia, who takes over the lumber business with a ruthlessness worthy of Charles Duquet himself; and Sapranisia Sel, a PhD conservationist determined to save the healing Mi'kmaw plants and to reforest the land before it is too late.

As stated above, the novel's main theme, in addition to the fates of two families, is the effect of the rapacious stripping of the North American forests, first in the northwest, then westward into Michigan and beyond. While it is an issue that concerns me, it becomes overly didactic in the last sections of the book as several young Sels and one particular Breitsprecher become dedicated conservationists. There are a lot of technical/scientific details that I found dull and digressive, and it seemed rather a shame that an intriguing family saga evolved into a bully pulpit for forest conservation.

Edited: Dec 2, 2016, 1:59pm Top

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

I've been a fan of Billy Collins's poetry for quite a few years and have especially enjoyed some of his earlier collections. This one, at least for me, falls a bit short. Collins is known for his down-to-earth style, offset by some startlingly brilliant imagery. The Rain in Portugal is heavy on the down-to-earth, even to the point of flatness, and when it varies, it veers into the fantastical or even silly. There are a few gems and selected moments. "Dream Life," for example, begins:

Whenever I have a dream about Poetry,
which is not very often
considering how much I think about her,
she appears as a seamstress
who works in the window of a tailor's shop
in a sector of a provincial city
laden with a grey and heavy sky.

"Hendrik Goltzius's 'Icarus' (1588) is an intriguing comparison of this painting to Breughel's, on which Auden based "Musée de Beaux Arts":

It's hard to read the expression of a pair of legs,
but here we have the horrified face
contorted with regret not unlike the beady-eyed
Wile E. Coyote, . . .

Well, Collins started out well, but he lost me here. The poem picks up again when he imagines Breughel's Icarus "run / backwards to produce an amazing sight--"

a wet boy rising into the sky,
and then a sudden close-up to show the sorrow
or the stupidity, however we like to picture
the consequences of not listening to your father,
of flying too high, too close to the source of heat and light.

This poem is a good example of what works and what doesn't in this collection, the highs and the lows. On the silly end, "The Bard in Flight" imagines Shakespeare as the tipsy traveler in the next seat. Much better is "2128," in which he celebrates the 200th birthday of Donald Hall (another of my favorite poets). "Early Morning" begins with a timely commentary:

I don't know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them
on the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I'm at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

"Note to J. Alfred Prufrock" is artificial and just plain silly. "December 1" is a touching reverie on the poet's deceased mother's birthday. So, as I said, a mixed and rather disappointing collection. Hopefully the next one will have more of those surprisingly perfect moments that I look forward to in Collins's work.

Edited: Dec 9, 2016, 10:00pm Top

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Belgravia is exactly what you would expect from Julian Fellowes, the creator of 'Downton Abbey.' A ball is held in Brussels on what will become the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Two families, one aristocratic, the other headed by a wealthy social-climbing merchant, launch into a strained relationship when titled heir Edmund Bellasis wrangles an invitation to the famous Duchess of Richmond's ball for Sophia Trenchard, the young lady he is courting, and her parents. Can love conquer all, or is Edmund just toying with a pretty girl beneath his station? Alas, we don't find out for quite some time as the battle ensues, Edward joins his regiment, and a double tragedy ensues that will affect both families for decades.

It's a bit difficult to talk about this story without giving too much away: suffice it to say that it slowly unravels over the years. Like so many of Fellowes's stories, it is based on the fine points of the British class system, acceptable manners, sibling rivalries, long-held secrets, and scheming both upstairs and down. Many of the characters are the usual stereotypes--the haughty Duchess, the trusting but clueless merchant, the disgruntled younger brother, the rake, the scheming lady's maid, the honest industrialist, etc. Nevertheless, the story they populate is catchy--particularly the audio version, which is read by the wonderful Juliette Stevenson. As it develops, the plot gets increasingly intricate, knotting the characters to one another, bursting into a dénouement that leaves almost everyone with a happy ending.

Overall, a fun. light read, nothing earthshaking, but certainly entertaining.

Dec 9, 2016, 10:39pm Top

>219 Cariola: I'd read that, but then that's my little escapist world.

Dec 10, 2016, 9:23am Top

>220 Nickelini: I think you'd enjoy it. Lots of twists and turns and some fun (if a little heavy-handed) characters. I especially liked Ann Trenchard, the merchant's wife.

Dec 10, 2016, 4:28pm Top

Belgravia sounds like a good book to sink into on these short winter days. I'm not one for audiobooks (at least as far as fiction is concerned) but hearing that the reader is Juliette Stevenson makes that tempting. (Did you ever watch Truly, Madly, Deeply?)

Dec 10, 2016, 6:39pm Top

>222 RidgewayGirl: Absolutely love Truly, Madly, Deeply. I also had the good fortune to see Juliet Stevenson in two plays back in 1985, As You Like It and Troilus and Cressida. She's a wonderful reader for audiobooks. I listen to them less often now that I'm retired and don't have a daily commute, and I've gotten pickier about the readers.

Dec 12, 2016, 6:52am Top

>219 Cariola: I listen to quite a few audio books while I'm knitting, cooking, or at this time of year, decorating or wrapping packages. This sounds like a good one.

Dec 12, 2016, 9:54am Top

I loved Truly, Madly Deeply! and have put Belgravia on my book wish list

Edited: Dec 12, 2016, 2:35pm Top

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

After reading several novels by Bainbridge, I've come to the conclusion that I will never be a huge fan. I didn't outright dislike them; they just didn't do much for me. Aside from a few moments, this one was pretty milquetoast until the very end, when something unexpected occurs--and then it just stops with no satisfying conclusion. I guess the point she is making is simply to show how insular this particular family is. Nellie, the dressmaker of the title though perhaps not the main character, is in a love/hate relationship with his sister, Margo. The two share their home with "our Rita," the seventeen-year old daughter of their brother, Jack. When his wife died, Jack sold his house, gave Rita into the care of his sisters, and moved into a flat above a butcher shop. He is still extremely involved in all of their lives, but Rita, who knows he is her father, calls him "Uncle Jack," probably just to go along with Auntie Nellie" and "Auntie Margo." Nellie is the reserved, responsible one; Margo is the daring and sometimes wild one. She had been married to a soldier who came back from the trenches suffering from the effects of gas attacks. It was Nellie, however, who nursed him until his death.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, the story revolves around young Rita falling in love with an American GI named Ira. As teenage girls still do, Rita initially hides her beau from her family, using the ploy that she is visiting her friend Cissie--whom the aunts have never met. If you like reading about the sappiness of teenagers in love, this part of the story should appeal to you, because Rita is one of the sappiest. There are the usual dreams of marrying Ira and flying off to live in the US. And a lot of worrying about whether or not Ira will call, show up for a scheduled rendezvous, write her a letter, doesn't talk enough, wants too much, wants too little. It becomes clear early on that this is an ill-suited pair and a one-sided romance. The remainder of the novel, as one would expect, focuses on what happens when a neighbor tells Nellie that Rita has been stepping out with an American soldier and when Ira decides that she is way too young (i.e., immature) for him. And as I said above, there is an unexpected and rather unresolved conclusion.

Good writing, fleshed out if stereotypical characters, but nothing to get excited about.

Dec 14, 2016, 12:30pm Top

Hi ! Stopped by your thread to see you letting down your hair! 🙂 I decided to make a Club Read thread next year after all. Like I said on Darryl's thread, I enjoy the longer, more thoughtful reviews over here.

Dec 20, 2016, 10:50am Top

>217 Cariola: - interesting thoughts on this Annie Proulx novel. I loved The Shipping News (one of my favourite reads last year (or was it this year? How they merge into one...)), and I love a good saga. But... just at this point, I fear it's doorstep size would be off-putting.

Edited: Dec 26, 2016, 8:05pm Top

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is named a Non-Person by a Bolshevik tribunal. His sentence: to live under permanent house arrest in the Metropol, one of Moscow's oldest and most elegant hotels. However, he is not allowed to remain in his spacious suite but is removed to a 110-square foot space on the fifth flow that has obviously never housed a human being before, and he is allowed only to take with him as much furniture and as many belongings as he can fit into his small space. The novel follows the ups and downs of Rostov's confined life for more than three decades.

While all of us would prefer to be free to go wherever we like, in some ways, life at the Metropol is not as bad as it might seem. All the necessities of life lie within: two restaurants (one formal, one more casual) and a hotel bar, a barber, a seamstress, and a roster of employees who, over the years, grow to be friends. As resident connoisseur, the Count engages with visitors both foreign and domestic, ranging from journalists, industrialists, and ambassadors to spies, Communist Party bigshots, and a rising actress. And there is Nina, a bright, inquisitive nine-year old girl who becomes the Count's best friend, with consequences that resound to the end of the novel.

I wasn't expecting to like this novel, and it did take some time for me to warm up to it, but I was surprised to find it in my top ten books of the year. While it sounds quite bleak (and at times, it can be), it's also enchanting, clever, full of humor and intrigue, and each character is distinctively drawn. It's a privilege and a joy to witness Alexander's emotional blossoming, despite his constricted circumstances and the grey world of Moscow in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. The writing is splendid; so many scenes keep playing over in my head that I know this book will eventually make it to the big screen. Highly recommended!

Dec 26, 2016, 8:00pm Top

I didn't think A Gentleman in Moscow looked that interesting when it first came out, but it has been getting very positive reviews. I'll have to take a closer look.

Dec 27, 2016, 10:14pm Top

>231 Cariola: Ultimately, it made it into my Top Ten for 2016. I think you'll like it.

Thanks for recommending Doc to my Secret Santa. The other two books she chose, unfortunately, weren't my cuppa.

Dec 27, 2016, 10:14pm Top

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Let me start by saying that it probably would have been better for me to read this book in print rather than listening to it on audio. It covers a LOT of ground--multiple centuries, continents, many characters (some of whom have more than one name), etc. That made it sometimes hard to keep up with what was going on and who was who, especially if I had set the book aside for a number of days. I suspect that if I had read a print copy, my rating would be at least four starts, maybe higher.

The focus of the story is two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who live in 18th-century Ghana. Through them, the author shows the influence, sometimes good but most often the opposite, of white colonists in Africa. But she doesn't hesitate to show the brutality of the tribes and the role that they, too, played in the expansion of slavery. Effia marries an Englishman and lives a life of relative comfort, but the wars between the Ashante and the Fante continue to wage brutal warfare. Esi is captured in one of the raids, sold to a slaver, and shipped off to America. Homegoing follows the fates of the sisters' descendants, on into the 20th century.

The strongest line running through this novel is the effect on generations of Africans of the disruption of home, the loss of home. Whether ripped from their homes to serve as slaves, to suffer, post-emancipation, as second class citizens living in poverty, or stay in their homeland only to see it torn apart by warfare, slavery, and colonization, the characters inherit the damage done by the past. If I was to describe the book using a single emotion, it would have to be sorrow. There is so much loss for everyone. Gyasi's novel makes it a little easier for people like me to understand why it has taken so long for many African Americans to break away from the inheritance of slavery and its long-lasting effects, and why, in some ways, they may have no desire to assimilate in the way some white Americans would like

Edited: Dec 31, 2016, 12:19am Top

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

I whipped right through this fascinating collection of photographs and stories in a single afternoon. Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York blog will be familiar to many; I know it mainly from Facebook friends posting excerpts now and then. In this collection, Stanton decided to ask the subject in each photograph a question, such as "What was your happiest moment", "Who do you most admire?", "What is your greatest dream?", "What frightens you?", "What was your saddest moment?", "What makes you most like your mom?", etc. The responses range from longer stories to a single short sentence. I'm sure most readers of this book do as I did: study a photograph for a while, then read the story. Sometimes you read what you expected, but other times the story is quite surprising. New York is a big, diverse city, and Stanton includes people from all walks of life. There are socialites and schizophrenic street people, elderly married couples and gay couples, children and adults, successful businessmen and struggling maintenance workers, drug dealers and evangelists--you name it, that person can be found in New York and more than likely in the pages of this book. Many of the stories that grabbed me the most are also the saddest. But the one thing that draws together all of these humans is their perseverance, their hope that maybe tomorrow will be at least a little better than today--if not for them, then maybe for their children.

This is a fascinating study in a community and in human nature, and the photographic portraits are wonderful. Very highly recommended!

Dec 30, 2016, 10:43am Top

>232 Cariola: I can imagine Homegoing being tough on audio. In the print version there is a very helpful family tree that I referred to quite a bit. And sometimes I would go back and skim the previous generation for each side of the family tree as a refresher. Having the two sides alternate was effective for comparison, but sometimes it took my brain a few pages to remember the line going back. Homegoing was one of my favorite newly published books of 2016.

Dec 30, 2016, 11:08am Top

>231 Cariola: At least you can return them and get something else. I have one to return, but that's no one's fault by my own - I checked it out of the library after the 20th.

I hope you love Doc at least half as much as I did.

Jan 1, 2017, 3:26pm Top

Noting A Gentleman in Moscow - one for the list...

Group: Club Read 2016

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