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Cariola's 2012 Books

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Club Read 2012

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Edited: Sep 3, 2012, 6:37pm Top

Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland (the 'Wizard Earl') by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1594-1595

You can read more about Percy and this painting, including its embedded symbols, here.

Just starting up my thread for 2012. Hope I read as many great books as I have this year!

Death in Summer by William Trevor
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir
Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith
Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Richard III by William Shakespeare
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The English American by Alison Larkin
Iago by David Snodin
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile by Julia Fox

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Five Bells by Gail Jones
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Bossypants by Tina Fey
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd
My Life in Pieces by Simon Callow
Macbeth by Willliam Shakespeare
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

Macbeth: A Novel by A. J. Hartley and David Hewson
I, Iago by Nicole Galland
No Tomorrw by Vivany Denon
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Time After Time by Molly Keane

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville
Dancing with Mr. Darcy, edited by Sarah Waters
Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
The Queen's Vow by C. W. Gortner
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Imagined Lives by Julian Barnes, Tracy Chevalier, et al

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
March by Geraldine Brooks
Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes
The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

Last Year's Jesus by Ellen Slezak
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
Venetia by Georgette Heyer
Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy
In Chancery by John Galsworthy

Dec 7, 2011, 4:25pm Top

What a splendid illustration to kick your thread off.

Dec 7, 2011, 6:06pm Top

It's Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, known as "The Wizard Earl."

Dec 8, 2011, 12:39am Top

Thanks for sharing! I've never seen that painting before, but I'm enthralled. Already downloaded a copy for my desktop. :)

Jan 8, 2012, 4:07pm Top

Death in Summer by William Trevor

It has been a bad summer for Thaddeus Davenant. His wife--who he married for her money, never loved, but had come to appreciate for her kindness--has been killed in a road accident. Left alone with an infant daughter, Thaddeus advertises for a nanny, but when none of the respondents seem to be acceptable, his mother-in-law moves in to care for little Georgina. But one applicant, Pettie, surprised that she didn't get the job, becomes obsessed with the much older Thaddeus, his sad story, and his privileged lifestyle.

Although they come from two different worlds, Thaddeus and Pettie have one thing in common: an inability to love, at least in a normal way. Thaddeus's upper class parents were distant and critical while Pettie, raised in an orphanage, only knew the kind of love extended by a "Sunday uncle." Surprised by his own feelings for his new daughter, Thaddeus begins to open his heart and to feel for others, including Pettie and a former mistress who calls him to her deathbed. Pettie's obsession, however, takes them all into darker, more dangerous territory.

Trevor is a master at depicting the broad divide between the upper and lower classes as well as the depths of the human heart and the psychological effects of a loveless childhood. Part of his mastery is that he is able to unfold all this subtly, without whacking his readers over the head with a purpose and a moral. While Death in Summer may not be Trevor's best novel, it is well worth reading.

Jan 8, 2012, 8:37pm Top

Nice review of Death in Summer, Deborah; I've added it to my wish list, but I'll read the books I already own by him first.

Jan 9, 2012, 2:20am Top

Your review makes the book sound so tempting! I've never read anything by William Trevor before - would Death in Summer be a good place to start or would you recommend others first?

Jan 9, 2012, 6:02am Top

>7 DieFledermaus: - Fools of Fortune is a favourite of mine. He is a great short story writer (to the extent that his novels are sometimes seen as secondary works) so his Collected Stories could be a good place to get a favour of his work.

Jan 9, 2012, 8:00am Top

Nice review, Cariola. My only reading of Trevor thus far has been Love and Summer, which I thought was lovely. I've been meaning to get to his short stories ever since I heard Jhumpa Lahiri read Trevor's "A Day" on a New Yorker fiction podcast.

Oh, and I do love that painting!

Jan 9, 2012, 9:18am Top

7> I've only read three books by Trevor myself. The one I liked best was The Story of Lucy Gault, but it seems to be rather unlike most of his books in that it's an historical novel, set in the early 20th century and continuing beyond World War II. I believe most of his books, like Love and Summer and Death in Summer, are set in contemporary times. Probably his best known novel is Felicia's Journey, which I've not read (but I've seen the excellent film version); it might be a bit dark to start with. But you probably can't go wrong with anything he's written; he has such a lovely, gentle, insightful style.

Jan 10, 2012, 3:47am Top

Jargoneer and Cariola - thanks for the list - I'll check Trevor out next time I'm in a bookstore. I was familiar with the name (maybe from the 1001 list) but didn't really know much about his books or style.

Edited: Jan 10, 2012, 10:55am Top

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

This is the story of a boy who survived the Holocaust and was raised by his Greek geologist rescuer, first on a small Greek island, then in Canada. The focus is not so much on trauma as on how it changes one's emotional life. Jakob Beer is haunted by his parents' murder, by not knowing what became of his beloved sister, and by months spent in hiding. As a result, he finds it nearly impossible to love; for example, his son feels his father takes more joy in a stone than his own child.

I'm somewhat less impressed by this book than were those who recommended it. I found the multitude of Greek words the author inserted--without definition--irritating, as if she was excluding me from fully understanding the novel. Ditto for a lot of geological jargon. Several readers mentioned that Michaels was first a poet and that the language here is therefore "poetic," but I found that at times the "poetic" bordered on flowery and/or incomprehensible. So much energy was being put into finding the perfect image or phrase that the story itself sometimes suffered. What she does convey well is a sense of loss and distrust, the lingering effects of trauma that can even be passed down to the next generation.

Jan 10, 2012, 5:19pm Top

I read Fugitive Pieces about 12 years ago and remember not being able to get into at all, which I thought strange because I was convinced I was going to like it from the reviews I read. Some books just don't suit.

Jan 10, 2012, 7:02pm Top

High five, Deborah. I was waiting to hear how you liked Fugitive Pieces, since we so often agree. I wasn't that thrilled with it when I read it, but there were things I did like. Several years later though, it's faded into the "meh" category.

Jan 10, 2012, 7:28pm Top

Nice review of Fugitive Pieces, Deborah.

Jan 10, 2012, 10:46pm Top

13, 14> Wow, I guess most readers who didn't get knocked over by this one just didn't submit reviews. There are only a few non-raves posted. I'm glad it wasn't just me!

Jan 10, 2012, 11:03pm Top

Deborah: no, it wasn't just you! Here are my comments from when I read it in 2008. Since then the book has slid, in my memory, down the negative side . . .

This novel has won a kabillion awards and is the darling of literary critics. Indeed, the language is beautiful, the imagery unique, and the message important. Yet . . . I was underwhelmed. Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me to read this one, or something. While I enjoyed reading it well enough, I never had any problems putting it down to do just about anything else. Maybe I'm just too distracted to concentrate on this sort of book. But I found the writing just too fragmented. The "pieces" from the title is very apt: this book was a series of poetic pieces strung together to loosely tell a story. The other thing that I didn't like is how each of the characters fits into one of four types. Really, the same story could have been told with only four characters. I'm sure this was intentional, though I don't know why. And the switching to a different narrator for the last third of the book was just odd. All those negative comments aside, I am willing to read this book again when I'm in a different frame of mind and giving it another try.

Edited to add:

I just thought of as aspect of this book that I really liked: several of the characters were involved in sciences, especially geology and archeobiology. Micheals wove in all sorts of interesting information about science into this otherwise very poetic book. Reminded me a bit of how Barbara Kingsolver weaves biology into her novels.

Jan 10, 2012, 11:06pm Top

Deborah - I was really interested in how you viewed Fugitive Pieces, because I thought I was missing something. And if I was, I knew you'd show me what it was. Yea! I don't have to reread it. There are just so many other books out there . . .

Jan 11, 2012, 12:18am Top

Well, there you go. Laura (on the 75-ers board) responded that she didn't connect with any of the characters, and I wrote back that it took a long time for me to start connecting with Jakob, and just when I did, she shifted narrators. I wrote about this title in response to Lois's Club Read question. I thought the "pieces" were the memories he was trying to escape (which make him an emotional fugitive). Maybe also the "pieces" he recalls Bella playing on the piano that haunt him, the names of which he can remember (making them "fugitive pieces"). Like you, I didn't like the fragmented style. I really got a bit hung up when she changed narrators. Ben keeps addressing "you," then talks about "my father," then mentions "Jakob Beer" as though it's another person entirely--which I suppose is again meant to show the persistent fragmentation of persons and the family, but I thought it was just messy.

Now for me, the science stuff was just another irritation. Like baseball and math in The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Jan 11, 2012, 6:16am Top

Thanks Deborah and Joyce - you have steered me away form a book in which I was interested.

Edited: Jan 15, 2012, 12:34pm Top

Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

In a word: DULL. When a 400-page biography starts out by telling you that very little factual information is known about its subject, I guess you should know what to expect: a lot of repetition (to the point of irritation), endless debunking of what others have stated as fact, and vague speculations about what "may have" happened, been thought, or been felt. The result was a real bore. The writing is flat and, again, repetitive, not only in details but in phrasing, and the chronology is fractured. There is so little focus as she jumps between persons peripherally related to Mary's story that at times I even forgot that I was supposedly reading a biography of Mary Boleyn. I kept thinking that Weir was finally running out of Tudor-era women to write about.

A number of readers have defended Weir's tedious style, claiming that it is simply because the book is not fiction but rather "academic." As an academic specializing in Tudor England, I can attest to the fact that an academic book can indeed be an exciting read--as have been several of Weir's previous biographies.

I'm giving the book 1.5 stars on the basis of her research but was sorely tempted to downgrade the score to only one. After reading the other reviews posted here, I'm surprised that so many readers, after making many valid criticisms of the book or stating outright that it was boring, still gave it three or four stars, resulting in an inflated overall rating of 3.69. Since most had received LTER copies, perhaps they fear that giving the book a score below three will affect their chances of getting future ARCs?

Jan 15, 2012, 10:12am Top

Nope. No thank you. Nice review, though.

Jan 15, 2012, 10:17am Top

I have completely given up on Alison Weir. I read 2 of her non-fiction biographies and found them very boring. I felt the entire time that she was trying to justify her positions by attempting to sound overly scholarly to the point that they were horribly boring to read (and her subjects - Eleanor of Aquitaine and Queen Isabella should be anything but boring). I read one of her historical fiction books, Innocent Traitor, in the hopes that in a fictional setting she could let go and write an interesting book, but it was terrible. One of my least favorite books of 2011.

Jan 15, 2012, 12:38pm Top

23> While they weren't my favorites by a long shot, I didn't think that Innocent Traitor or The Lady Elizabeth were all that bad--just run-of-the-mill historical fiction. But the novel on Eleanor of Acquitaine, Captive Queen, definitely goes down as one of my top five worst reads ever.

Edited: Jan 15, 2012, 6:24pm Top

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Sisters Imogen and Anthea both work for Pure, a Scottish bottled water corporation. While Imogen anxiously competes with her male co-workers on the creative team, Anthea would prefer to be anywhere else. Leaving work early one day, Anthea encounters the most beautiful boy she has ever seen . . . writing socially conscious graffiti on Pure property. Only it isn't a boy. And Anthea is smitten.

Told in alternating voices, Girl Meets Boy details Anthea falling in love and finding herself while Imogen dithers over learning that her sister is "one of them" and fears that others at Pure will find out. In the end, Imogen, too, learns something about herself and the importance of staying true to that self.

Smith is having so much fun retelling the myth of Iphis that she manages to sneak in some feminist and anti-corporate diatribe without it feeling overly heavy-handed. I've had mixed reactions to her 'experimental' style (loved it in There but for the and The Accidental, found it more overbearing in Hotel World and elsewhere). Here, where she is dealing with her characters' inner thoughts and immediate reactions, it works much better. Overall, a fast and fairly enjoyable read.

Jan 15, 2012, 6:08pm Top

Nice review of Girl Meets Boy, Deborah. I still have There but for the and The Accidental to read first, but I'll keep this one in mind.

Jan 15, 2012, 6:24pm Top

29>Darryl, that's exactly the order in which I'd recommend you read them!

Jan 15, 2012, 7:15pm Top

I've had Girl Meets Boy on my shelf for a couple of years -- guess I should pull it off.

Jan 16, 2012, 12:31am Top

A friend is reading the Weir biography right now and she was very excited about it, but your review does make it sound bad. Would you recommend any of her nonfiction?

Jan 16, 2012, 1:42am Top

I liked her novel Innocent Traitor and thought The Lady Elizabeth was OK. But Captive Queen, about Eleanor of Acquitaine, was really dreadful; it's one of my top five worst historical novels.

It's a shame--some of her earlier nonfiction was very enjoyable reading and fairly well researched. She is churning them out so fast now--plus attempting fiction--that it feels like she's relying on her past success to rake in the bucks, not really caring about her subject, her research, or her writing itself. Few authors can write a decent book in one year or less; she is obviously not one of them.

Jan 16, 2012, 7:47am Top

>27 Cariola: Will do. I mistakenly ordered the audio version of There but for the, which is on six CDs. I've never "read" an audiobook before, so this will be an interesting experience.

Jan 16, 2012, 9:39am Top

31> I hope the reader is a good one--they can make or break a book. I do "read" audibooks while driving and at the gym.

Jan 16, 2012, 3:48pm Top

>30 Cariola: - I have to ask - what are the other four in the top five worst list?

Edited: Jan 18, 2012, 8:37am Top

Well, I'll do better than that: here's my bottom 10, from worst to somewhat less dreadful.

1) The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn
2) Captive Queen by Alison Weir
3) How Do I Love Thee? by Nancy Moser
4) Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick
5) The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connnor McNees
6) Oonagh by Mary Tilberg
7) The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory
8) Hester by Paula Reed
9) Wideacre by Philippa Gregory
10) Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lapore

Dishonorable mention goes to two more by Suzannah Dunn, The Sixth Wife and Queen of Subtleties. I will never pick up another book by her again!

Jan 17, 2012, 11:25pm Top

Ha ha...Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl is one of my all-time most hated books. I'm not sure why she's one of the top authors mentioned for historical fiction - I thought it was possible that her other books were better but looks like she's well-represented on your list. Also, just clicking on a couple of those books made me wonder why there's not a campaign to get rid of the cliched woman-in-period-costume-with-head-cut-off cover.

Jan 18, 2012, 12:30am Top

Also, just clicking on a couple of those books made me wonder why there's not a campaign to get rid of the cliched woman-in-period-costume-with-head-cut-off cover.

Hello, kindred spirit! I've talked about this all over LT, and so many people are telling me to shut up! Okay, not really, but I sometimes feel I'm the only one bothered by this when I bring it up. I've resigned myself to looking at it as a cliched mark of our times....just like shoulder pads and neon pink say "80s". Have you ever found a novel at a used book store that you've been looking for forever, and then it's a dingy, mass market paperback with sappy cover art, tiny margin-to-margin text, and some thick-yet-swoopy font, and you pass it over anyway?

Jan 18, 2012, 2:44am Top

>36 Nickelini: - I'll sign whatever petition you have! I thought chicklit covers were too similar, but at least those will have a couple different items - shoes, a silhouette, a martini glass. I did think it might be a very quick way to say "Hey! Here's historical fiction!" but there should be other ways to get the message across.

Don't forget the giant hair for women as a marker for the 80's. Yes, I've definitely had that happen! I really like Alberto Moravia and a lot of his stuff is out of print. Sometimes I'll find one of his that I've wanted for long time in a used book store, but it'll be a horrible mass market paperback. Usually they'll have more tawdry/pulpy cover art though.

Jan 18, 2012, 8:36am Top

I see that five of the 10 books listed above have the cut-off head; four are in period dress, one is naked. All I could ever figure was that the reader is supposed to identify more with the faceless (headless) woman. Or maybe the focus on clothes is considered more chick-litish.

BTW, the wrong touchstone poppped up for Hester but has now been fixed.

Jan 19, 2012, 4:54am Top

That makes sense but it still seems as though the publishers should have been able to find a different design that could convey the chicklit sensibility and not show a face. I was also thinking that maybe a couple of very successful books used that design and everyone hopped on the bandwagon.

Jan 19, 2012, 10:49am Top

Hi! It's great that you've read and reviewed all of this historical fiction. Like mysteries and chick lit, you've got to wade through a lot of crap to find the good stuff. You've made it easier. Now I know I never have to try Alison Weir. I gave up on P. Gregory after The Other Boleyn Girl.

Enjoying your other reviews, too.

Jan 19, 2012, 11:12am Top

I was also thinking that maybe a couple of very successful books used that design and everyone hopped on the bandwagon.

Yes, I agree. In fact, I blame it all on The Other Boleyn Girl. And there the cover actually fit . . . the title is a mystery and makes the reader ask "what other Boleyn girl? who is she?". But then they just started using it for everything. Cliche.

Edited: Jan 19, 2012, 6:14pm Top

My friend enjoyed the Weir biography - I think she mentioned that it was well-researched (maybe the dry academic part) and that she thought the speculation was well-done (a good job getting into the character's head I think). Still, if I try a Weir biography I'll go with another one.

Nickelini - clearly someone needs to chart the rise of the headless period costume woman on covers. Maybe they could draw a conclusion that the headless period woman bubble is about ready to burst.

Jan 19, 2012, 6:47pm Top

Oh dear I have got The Wars of the Roses: Lancaster and York by Alison Weir coming to the top of my TBR pile. Suddenly I am not looking forward to it.

Edited: Jan 19, 2012, 7:45pm Top

42> Your friend might be interested in this review. which details the best and worst of this sketchy 'biography.'

43> That's an earlier one, so it may be pretty good. The stinkers have come in the past 8-9 years.

Jan 20, 2012, 1:28am Top

That's an interesting site - thanks. I'll send a link to my friend.

Jan 20, 2012, 5:53pm Top

Finally catching up with your thread. I really love your review Death in Summer, I mean I like all your other reviews, here and in general. Just stuck on that one.

My only problem with your bottom ten is that I see an author on there twice...

Edited: Jan 20, 2012, 6:46pm Top

46> Thanks--I did like Death in Summer quite a bit.

As to the list: the Philippa Gregory novels really were that bad. And the Wideacre series is vastly different from her Tudor novels, but even worse. I was ranking individual books, not authors, as several of those on the list, including Gregory, have written other historical novels that I enjoyed. If you'd like me to list another writer of historical novels who is quite dreadful: Carolly Erickson, whose style is nauseatingly florid and whose research is sloppy. And I'm not a big fan of the much-beloved Jean Plaidy.

Jan 20, 2012, 7:07pm Top

Oh, I was just kidding. It was just a jibe at your choice to read the same bad author twice. Since you enjoyed some Gregory novels, it makes sense that you would try several others good and bad. Just me being silly.

Edited: Jan 26, 2012, 10:44pm Top

Ah, but I read THREE by Suzannah Dunn (see dishonorable mentions), and all three were wretched! Sometimes I feel a little masochistic, I guess . . . ;)

Jan 26, 2012, 9:00pm Top

I prefer "hopeful."

Feb 1, 2012, 5:09pm Top

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

If you're looking for some insights into aristocratic Edwardian society, this is the book for you. Sebastian, a young duke and owner of a familial estate named Chevron, seems unhappy with his lot in life. Ah, the exhausting boredom of duty! Sebastian seems to want something more than the salons, fox hunts, coming-out balls and nights at the opera can offer--but he isn't really sure what that something more is. He begins to search for it through a series of affairs, telling us later that only four of the women he conquered ever really changed him in any way. The first, the renowned but much older beauty Lady Roehampton, taught him that people of his class in society will always put their position before everything else, even love. The second, a married doctor's wife who first encouraged but then spurned his advances, proved top him that middle class women had the same dull concerns with position. The third, the groundskeeper's daughter, was a lovely girl, but a girl who sucked her teeth could never be accepted by his peers. The fourth, a model, attracted him for her bohemian lifestyle, but in the end, she found Sebastian far too dull. Before long, Sebastian realizes that he has settled into exactly the kind of routine that the adventurer Angetil had predicted and warned him about. And he is trapped, with no means of escape.

Sackville-West, who certainly knew the ins and outs of high society, delivers a subtle but scathing critique of her own kind. While I can't say that I was blown away by The Edwardians, it was an interesting portrait of the duller side of the aritsocracy, with even a little sympathy for their lot thrown in.

Feb 2, 2012, 8:54am Top

Just checking on what you've been reading. The Sackville-West sounds intriguing...

Edited: Feb 6, 2012, 7:42pm Top

The English American by Alison Larkin

I've had this book in my audio library for at least five years. I'm not sure why I put off listening to it for so long . . . maybe because it sounded a bit chick lit-ish, or maybe because of the rather squeaky chick lit-ish voice of the reader, the author, Alison Larkin. So was it chick lit? Yes--and no. Pippa Dunn is a 28-year old single woman looking for love and looking for herself. It's her inability ot commit that leads Pippa, an adoptee, in search of her birth parents: she has abandoned a series of good relationships when she fears that her partner will reject her.

Pippa has know since she was 10 that she was adopted but knows nothing about her birth parents. The novel takes us through her journey: the complicated communications with the adoption agency, which is bound by law to withhold information; the arrival of a letter from her birth mother, written as she was being given up for adoption; the negotiations of an attorney who finally puts her in touch with her birth mother--an American! Eventually, Pippa moves to America to learn more about herself and her parents--and she gets more than she ever expected. In the course of her journey, she begins to question her own identity but ultimately finds herself.

This isn't the type of book I would normally read, but I did enjoy it. It's nice to take a break from more serious books every now and then.

Edited: Feb 10, 2012, 4:38pm Top

Iago by David Snodin

Although I'm a Shakespearean, I'm not the stuffy kind who puts the bard on pedestal and thinks that taking any liberties with the plays is sacrilege. I enjoy spinoffs and productions that set the plays in unusual times or places. Heck, I even directed a version of Hamlet set in a 1990s North Sea oil conglomerate. So I was willing to play along with Snodin's extension of Othello and take it on its own terms. But I was sorely disappointed. On the syle: Maybe Snodin was trying to recreate in prose the feeling of an ornate 15th-century Venice. If so, it didn't work. The writing was clunky, stiff, and convoluted, and it was one of the main reasons that this books rambled on irritatingly for at least 200 hundred pages more than was necessary. I simply got bored with being bombarded by details that were neither necessary nor, in many cases, interesting. Every Shakespearean character here seemed to have twenty-five relatives, and we were dragged through descriptions of and exposition for each one of them, however insignificant. I got the feeling that instead of writing the story that needed to be told, the author kept repeating a mantra to himself while writing: "Epic--I'm writing an epic." The style was also the reason that the main characters, including Iago, never got off the page or engaged the reader's interest.

The initial premise is good: discovering what turned Iago into a villain. But again, we're given far too little to come to any valid conclusions. Snodin gets bogged down in writing a combination of crime story, coming of age story, historical novel, and thriller. It's all action--too much action--at the expense of any real insights or psychological depth. Just not my cup of tea, I'm afraid, and it took quite an effort to force myself to finish it.

Edited: Feb 10, 2012, 8:28pm Top

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

(If you've never read Jane Eyre and might want to some day, you should probably skip this review as it may have some plot spoilers.)

I really wanted to like this book. But while I admire Livesey's style, I was quite disappointed in the overall story. The novel's publishers describe it as a "modern-day Jane Eyre," and therein, for me, lies the problem. I rather enjoy spinoffs or re-visions of classic novels if the writer is both true to the feel of the original and creates something believable but new. Here, however, Livesey sticks too close to Bronte. Instead of becoming engrossed in the novel, I felt like I was ticking off a series of similarities between the two. Gemma has a hateful aunt and three hateful cousins (tick). Gemma is blamed for a fight her cousin started and gets locked into "the sewing room" (tick) where she has some kind of cryptic vision that sets her into hysterics (tick). There's a kindly servant who tries to comfort Gemma (tick). The doctor recommends that Gemma be sent to boarding school as a "working student" (tick) where she makes friends with a sickly girl who later dies in Gemma's arms (tick). The cruel owner/headmistress extends a little kindness (tick) when she finally leaves for a new job as governess (tick) to an eight-year old girl (tick) in a remote, gloomy location (tick). She befriends the housekeeper, who seems to keep some secrets about the mysterious owner, Mr. Sinclair (tick). Her brother, a taciturn and creepy farmer, keeps hinting that he knows some secrets and that something untoward happened to the love of his life, little Nell's mother (tick--he's the Grace Poole character). Mr. Sinclair, a rather brooding, older man, appears to have the hots for a lovely socialite named Coco (tick), but he discovers an affinity with Gemma (tick) which leads to a proposal (tick). When his big secret (which isn't as awful as Mr. Rochester's) is revealed at the church on their wedding day (tick), Gemma flees (tick). She collapses by the side of the road in a strange town but is rescued by a scholarly young man (tick) who takes her to his sister's home where she and her girlfriend nurse her back to health (tick). The brother later assumes that Gemma has accepted his proposal; he doesn't love her but figures they can study Latin together (tick).

OK, STOP IT ALREADY!!!! I'm sure you get the picture. In the final section, Livesey finally starts to write a story of her own. But as others have pointed out, Gemma becomes extremely unlikeable at this point. She decides to seek out any living relatives of her dead parents--in Iceland, her father's home country, the place where they lived as a family for a few short years. (Let me interject here that when Andrew asked, "Would you go to Iceland with me as my wife?", Gemma was so eager to get there that she said yes without hearing the last three words . . . ) Since she won't, after stringing him and everyone else along for weeks, marry Andrew (she's still in love with Mr. Sinclair, who really seemed to me to have no personality at all), how will she get to Iceland? Easy: she steals from the kindly grandmother who has hired her to help watch their grandson while she visits her hospitalized and obviously dying husband! Oh, but Gemma leaves a note of apology in the drawer where the money had been, promising to pay it back when she can. Nice girl. And of course, Iceland is perfect. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody loves everybody else. So it doesn't take long for Gemma, now called Fjola, to find her aunt and cousin. As she says goodbye to Iceland, she hears a voice calling to her over the ocean. Of course, it is Mr. Sinclair (tick). And here we go again.

I did like Livesey's writing style and will probably look for more of her novels. But this one, as you can see, was a real disappointment.

Feb 10, 2012, 3:08pm Top

Deborah - what an entertaining review! Thumbs up to you!

Feb 10, 2012, 3:32pm Top

Fun review! I think I'll skip the book.

Feb 10, 2012, 8:21pm Top

Great review of The flight of Gemma Hardy and thanks for warning me off Iago. Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and so I might have been tempted by the Snodin novel.

Feb 11, 2012, 3:35am Top

I loved All Passion Spent but found Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir to be lacking. However, The Edwardians sounds like one that I'd like - good review.

I also found your bad reviews informative - and entertaining!

Feb 21, 2012, 1:02pm Top

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (reread).

Feb 21, 2012, 1:07pm Top

Deborah - I'm guessing you've seen the movie for that. What did you think? I bought it when I saw it on sale one day--I love Joseph Fiennes. But I haven't sat down to watch it yet.

Feb 21, 2012, 1:31pm Top

Yes, I have it and I use it in class. It's quite good. I love the scene where Bassanio arrives at Belmont. Talk about ironies! He borrows money because he has blown his inheritance and needs it to court a rich woman so he can get her money to pay off his other debts. So he shows up in a gold-trimmed barge with eighteen men in scarlet livery and a troup of musicians, and he himself is dressed in thigh-high white kid boots, ivory satin studded with diamonds and pearls, and an indigo blue velvet cape. When choosing the casket, he gives a speech (a very rhetorically ornamented speech) declaring that ornament can be deceiving and chooses the lead one because he appreciates inner value over outward show. HA!

Feb 21, 2012, 1:36pm Top

I will have to make time to watch it sometime soon.

Feb 23, 2012, 3:56pm Top

Sister Queens: The Tragic, Noble Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile by Julia Fox

Julia Fox came up with a fascinating idea in writing a dual biography of the most renowned of Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughters: Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s beleaguered queen, and Juana of Castile. The last work of non-fiction that I read (Alison Weir’s bio of Mary Boleyn) was tediously repetitious and digressive, a problem I’ve found with many historical biographies. Fox, however, has avoided that pitfall, creating an engaging and highly readable narrative.

Katherine and Juana have been reduced over time almost to caricatures, Katherine as the stubbornly Catholic wife who refused to let Henry go, and Juana as a wife so obsessed with her husband that his affairs and early death drove her to madness. But Fox shows that there was much more to each woman, and that, to a great extent, the restrictions of gender and the machinations of the men around them caused their downfalls. She details Katherine’s role as an ambassador concerned with the interests of both Spain and England, as well as her diplomacy and finesse in dealing with Henry. Fox does an admirable job of presenting fairly the events with which most readers will be familiar: her penurious widowhood following the death of Prince Arthur; the dispensation to marry Henry; the many miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths; her displacement by Anne Boleyn. In the case of Juana, Fox’s research demonstrates that existing letters and reports from those permitted to see her following her confinement for madness demonstrate that she behaved sanely and graciously. Fox contends that her husband and father schemed to keep her from exercising sovereignty over Castile, Ferdinand in particular unwilling to give up what he had jointly ruled with Isabella after she died and left the crown to Juana, her eldest daughter.

Through no fault of the author’s, the space devoted to the sisters is not balanced 50/50, simply because there is less documentation of Juana’s life. Near the end, Fox poses a fascinating question: What would have happened if the sisters’ roles had been reversed—if Katherine, so good at diplomacy, had been Queen of Castile, and if Juana, who produced six children (two emperors and four queens) had been Henry’s wife?

Feb 23, 2012, 5:02pm Top

Good review of Sister Queens: The Tragic, Noble Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. That is one for me to add to my wish list.

Feb 23, 2012, 5:25pm Top

Sister Queens sounds like a book I would enjoy. You make it sound very interesting indeed.

Feb 23, 2012, 8:45pm Top

Thanks--it was a good one!

Feb 24, 2012, 8:38am Top

Enjoyed your review, and what an interesting question at the end.

Feb 25, 2012, 6:57pm Top

Ok -- you've fatally tempted me -- just ordered Sister Queens from Amazon -- I'd far rather read good bios than novels about these women.

Edited: Feb 26, 2012, 8:43am Top

Jane, I hope you double-checked the author. Amazon has been pushing another book with the same title, but it's fiction about Eleanor of Acquitaine and her sister (see the touchstone that Poquestte used).

Feb 25, 2012, 11:27pm Top

>71 Cariola: – Oops! I did not even check. Good catch! Sorry.

Feb 26, 2012, 8:43am Top

Just caught it by chance. I wanted to look something up on the book page and clicked the nearest link. I've seen that book before, both here at LT and at Amazon (they keep recommending it to me).

Mar 12, 2012, 3:43pm Top

18. Five Bells by Gail Jones

What a lovely novel! I read 'Sorry' by Gail Jones several years ago, and her writing has gotten even better. This one is even more character driven, so if you're looking for big action, best look elsewhere. The novel focuses on four people, all a bit haunted, sad, and lonely in their own way, yet all but one also hopeful. Catherine can't seem to move past the death of her much-beloved brother. Ellie can't move past her first lover, James, and when they plan to meet again, her hopes are rekindled. But James is running from his own past and a tragic secret. Pei Xing was imprisoned and tortured during China's Cultural Revolution. While she is trying to shape a new life in Australia, she does so mainly be embracing the ghosts of her past.

Jones takes us inside each of these characters, each of them unique yet identifiable, and lets us feel their pain, their joy, their fear, their hope. Her style is perfectly suited to her introverted structure and to each of her characters. It's just lovely, spare, poetic, original. Here, for example, is Pei Xing remembering her father, a translator who had brought Doctor Zhivago to Chinese readers:

"Pei Jing's father, always a thin man, was becoming even thinner, living, it seemed, only on cigarettes, so that when the Cultural Revolution began and the Red Guards came to take him away, he was already half gone. As someone educated abroad and used to negotiating meanings in English and Russian, he was bound to be considered a class traitor and a running dog of imperialists. The weighty terms written in large letters on banners outside their house, the line on the door about the Four Olds, all seemed to bear no relation to her harried parents, but more especially to her father, whose skin was like parchment and who was already translating himself into another world when the Revolution began. He was already thinning in Chinese style, like lines of brushstrokes, a narrow falling vertical, and right to left."

This is a gentle but very moving novel, one I highly recommend.

Edited: Mar 12, 2012, 5:05pm Top

On to the wishlist it goes!

edited to add: I love that cover!

Mar 12, 2012, 5:51pm Top

Lovely paragraph you have quoted.

Mar 13, 2012, 10:39am Top

I keep planning to read something by Gail Jones, but for some reason I've yet to buy any of her books. Your review just might cause me to break my book-buying ban!

Mar 14, 2012, 8:11am Top

>74 Cariola: I have read all of Gail Jones's work, except one collection of short fiction which is in the TBR pile. Not sure Five Bells is my personal favorite, but I know amandameale probably thought it hers. I did enjoy it especially because I had been in the spot they meet, and it was so evocative of that location.

All of her work is so wonderfully lyrical, mostly spare and carefully crafted.

Mar 14, 2012, 10:02pm Top

You are a hazard to my bookshelves. Five Bells is on my wishlist.

Mar 16, 2012, 1:30pm Top

A reminder - I need to read more by Gail Jones. Great paragraph you quoted.

Mar 16, 2012, 1:54pm Top

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

Trollope has really mastered the art of creating irritating characters in this last volume of 'The Barchester Chronicles'--which doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Some are familiar to readers of the earlier novels. There's Mrs. Proudie, for example, the bishop's wife, who seems to think that SHE is the bishop, yammering on about "the souls of the people" while she bullies her husband and everybody else. The namby-pamby bishop is quite irritating on his own accord: he never silences or reprimands his wife until near the end, and then it takes the form of whining and blaming. The focal figure of the novel, the reverend Mr. Crawley . . . well, I wanted to whack him over the head with a 2x4! I understand his forgetfulness and his adherence to principles, but refusing to hire a lawyer (even taking on a free one) when you've been charged with a crime, thus putting your family on the brink of total destitution and disgrace, is unforgiveable, not to mention just plain stupid. Then there's Lily Dale, abandoned in an earlier installment by her lover in favor of a wealthier woman. Devoted not only to him but to her role as martyr, she refuses the love of a good man, refuses to marry the now-widowed lover, and takes a vow reflected in her diary: "Lily Dale: Old Maid."

By now, you're probably wondering why I didn't hate this novel. Well, while all of these characters are maddening, somehow Trollope also manages to makes their trials and tribulations quite intriguing. And at least one of them gets his or her comeuppance. Trollope weaves in several subplots as well, inlcuding that of Grace Crawley, a young woman as principled as her father who refuses the proposal of the man she loves, reluctant to tie his family to her father's possible shame. And John Eames, who has loved Lily Dale forever. There are plenty of other characters to admire, among them those trying to help the beleaguered Mr. Crawley. (Most memorable is the goodhearted lawyer Mr. Twogood.)

As others have mentioned, the subplot surrounding John Eames's friend, the painter Conrad Darymple, doesn't quite fit. Perhaps it's true that Trollope stuck it in to come up with the number of pages required by his publisher. Nevertheless, The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire is an entertaining and engaging book, a fitting conclusion to Trollope's delightful six-volume chronicles.

Mar 17, 2012, 8:08am Top

Enjoyed your review of The Last Chronicles of Barset

I intend to get to Trollope one day.

Mar 17, 2012, 11:44am Top

82> Oh, you should! He's quite wonderful.

Mar 17, 2012, 2:35pm Top

I'm with Barry — been meaning to get to Trollope forever it seems. Nice review, Cariola!

Mar 18, 2012, 7:00pm Top

And that makes three of us! Enjoyed your review, Cariola,

Mar 18, 2012, 7:12pm Top

Bossypants by Tina Fey.

Neither humor nor memoirs are my usual reading choices. But if you like Tina Fey, you'll probably love Bossypants. It's half memoir, half stand-up routine, which is why it may fare better on audio, read by Ms. Fey herself. As other readers have mentioned, it is a bit chronologically disjointed, as stand-up comedy often is, but I had no trouble following along. Fey regales us with stories of growing up half Greek/half Irish in a small, WASP-ish Pennsylvania town; her college days and first loves (including one she refers to as "Handsome Robert Wuhl," or "HRW"); getting her breaks with Second City, 'Saturday Night Live,' and '30 Rock'; her honeymoon on a cruise ship that catches fire; and the joys and icks of motherhood. She's tactful enough not to bash any of the SNL guest hosts and gives us insights into working with some of them, including Sylvester Stallone and Sarah Palin. Having just finished a massive Trollope novel, this was a fluffy, delicious piece of cake. Recommended for Fey fans; not sure how well it would sit with others.

Mar 26, 2012, 8:51pm Top

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute.

Initially, I was totally captivated by this story of Jean Padgett, a young English woman working in Malaya who became a Japanese prisoner of war. The hardships that the women and children endured during their trek to one nonexistent prison camp after another and the alternating kindness and inhumanity of their captors kept me reading (well, listening; this was an audiobook) at a rapid pace. Under such an unlikely circumstances, one wouldn't expect to fall in love, but we do sense that it is happening to Jean when she means a resourceful Australian named Joe Harmon. But the war intervenes . . .

The novel opens with the narrator, a solicitor, tracking down Jean to tell her that she has just come into an inheritance, and it is to Noah that Jean tells her story. After hearing all she endured, he could hardly be more surprised when Jean tells him her plans for the money: to return to Malaya.

I won't spoil the book by telling what happens next, but there are quite a few surprises in store. I have to admit that the last third of the novel--the part that reflects the title--was somewhat less interesting to me. Still, this is one of those books whose title was familiar but about which I knew nothing, and overall, it was worthwhile.

Mar 26, 2012, 9:05pm Top

I read A Town Like Alice -- along with most of Shute's books -- when I was in high school. This is the one I remember the best and liked the best. Thanks for the memory.

Mar 27, 2012, 4:33am Top

I, too, love A Town Like Alice. It was dramatized spectacularly for Masterpiece Theatre with Brian Brown several decades ago. Unforgetable.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 10:29am Top

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd.

Well, let me start with three confessions: 1) I don't much care for murder mysteries; 2) I've never read The Woman in White but have seen the dramatized version on DVD; and 3) I don't much care for the work of Charles Dickens. In fact, I'll make another more shocking confession: although I am a literature professor, I've never finished a Dickens novel. I've started several but could never get beyond the first 30-40 pages. So perhaps I am not the ideal reader for The Solitary House. If I had been able to make all the apparent character and plot connections to Bleak House and The Woman in White--which no doubt were very clever, or at least intended to be so--perhaps I would have appreciated this novel more. I'll leave that conclusion to others more qualified than myself. Confessions aside, let me say that this isn't an awful book, just one that I didn't particularly connect with. If you're a mystery buff and a fan of Collins and Dickens, you might love it; check some of the other reviews below.

On the positive side, I rather liked the main character, Charles Maddox, a young detective removed from the police force and now working as a private investigator. He's quiet, kind, intelligent, and a bit melancholic, and he owns (or, rather, is owned by) a cat named Thunder. When he learns that his elderly uncle has begun to suffer bouts of dementia, Charles doesn't hesitate to abandon his bachelor rooms, moving in with old Maddox, a retired crack detective, and promising never to send him to an asylum. You have to admire a man like that. Uncle Maddox is another engaging character; he helps Charles to solve cases in the flashes of brilliance that come between his incoherent rages.

But a lot about the novel frankly confused me, perhaps due to my lack of familiarity with Collins, Dickens, and the mystery genre. The story seemed to have a few too many subplots and sidetracks. "Hester's Narrative," told in three chapters that seemed to be randomly placed, made little sense to me until the overly-speedy wrap-up at the end, and even then, it left me with quite a few questions. (I guess that's OK, since we are left to assume that Hester is insane.) While we finally find out who the murderer is, we're never given a clear motive for his crimes, nor are we told anything about the history that might imply what led him to murder. Also, I found the narrative voice rather grating, mannered but with a mocking air at times that seemed out of character and thus distracted from the story. All these added up to the fact that by the time I was 3/4 into the book, I REALLY wanted to be done with it Just not my cup of tea, overall.

Apr 3, 2012, 4:42am Top

There are some big confessions there cariola, but I enjoyed your review of The Solitary House

Apr 3, 2012, 9:21pm Top

I've only finished two books by Dickens -- both of them in junior high school when they were assigned: David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. I disliked David Copperfield -- thought Tale of Two Cities was interesting for the view of the French Revolution. I've started and tried a number of others, but he just doesn't do it for me either. I appreciate his crusading spirit and certainly have seen many of the films (and plays) based on his work, but I just can't seem to justify the time to read what I really don't like.

Apr 3, 2012, 9:31pm Top

92> Whew! I thought I was the only one!

Apr 4, 2012, 6:22pm Top

My Life in Pieces by Simon Callow

My Life in Pieces is not your typical autobiography. It's a compilation of "pieces" written by the actor Simon Callow for various newspapers, books, programs, memorials, etc. Most of them, of course, revolve around Callow's work in the theatre and on film. If his name isn't familiar to you, his face probably will be, from movies if not the stage: he played the Rev. Mr. Beebe in 'A Room with a View,' Schikaneder/Papageno in 'Amadeus,' and Gareth, the gay man who dies of a heart attack at one of the receptions in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' He's also well-known for his one-man show on Charles Dickens, which was televised in the UK and is available on DVD here in the US. Callow presents insightful essays on many of the great actors of the twentieth century, most of whom he has acted with, including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Ian McKellan, and more. In addition, he writes about several directors and playwrights, classic 'schools' and 'methods' of acting, and his own views on the status of acting on today's stage.

Callow is a wonderful writer and a great storyteller. He can be funny, charming, reverent, and insightful--sometimes in the same piece. The stories he tells of working in the theatre are delightful, but they also give one an appreciation for the true art of acting. I listened to this book on audio, and with Callow himself as reader, it was a wonderful experience. I've always thought he was a fine, underrated character actor, and my admiration of his work has grown after reading/listening to these 'pieces.'

Recommended for anyone interested theatre arts.

Apr 4, 2012, 7:07pm Top

I love Simon Callow! I'm adding this to the wish list. Sounds very interesting.

Edited: Apr 4, 2012, 8:25pm Top

95> It is, Poquette. Since I posted the review, I've been remembering others he wrote about: Meryl Streep, Ismael Merchant, Samuel Beckett, Dickens, Milosz Foreman, etc.

Apr 21, 2012, 3:23pm Top

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

I picked up this book because 1) I enjoyed Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, and 2) the synopsis reminded me of several other books I've enjoyed that center on the residents of an Indian apartment complex, notably Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. At first, the novel seems to fall into a similar category, revealing the various personlities and daily interactions of the diverse residents with a wry humor. But their generally peaceful relationships are disrupted by the offer from a developer who wants to tear down Tower A and Tower B. Initially, most of the residents of Tower A want to accept what seems to be a generous offer; but a few holdouts either suspect the builder's honesty or see no reason to leave the place where they have lived contentedly. The problem is that, under their rules, 100% of the residents must agree to sell. Using first logic, then legal technicalities, then bullying and rumors, then threats, the builder's henchman and the residents persuade all but one man to sign the agreement. At this point, any humor that remains is very dark, indeed.

Adiga seems to be making a comment about the extent of human greed, especially in a cramped former 'third world' city (Mumbai) where prosperity has flourished more rapidly than such values as morality, empathy, justice, and a sense of community can allow. Tower A began to remind me of a colony of rats trapped in a sewer, climbing over one another to reach the only means of escape and resorting to the most primitive enactment of survival of the fittest. It's to Adiga's credit that he creates characters that are, initially, so likable, as this only makes the metamorphoses wrought by greed more despicable. His epilogue shows that, sadly, these changes were more than tranistory--perhaps a reflection on the changes success is bringing to the national character. If there is any light for humanity in the ending, it is in the fact that one character, over the course of what occurs, seems to have found a conscience.

While I wouldn't rate Last Man in Tower as a "must read" book, readers who enjoyed The White Tiger or any of the many other books written in recent years that deal with the changing economic, social, and political landscape of modern India would probably find it worth their time.

Apr 21, 2012, 5:10pm Top

Thanks for that excellent and useful review of Last Man in Tower, Deborah. I've had my eye on it for awhile, as I wondered how it compared to The White Tiger, which I liked, and if it was likely to be included amongst this year's Booker Dozen. I think I'll hold off reading it for now, but I'll certainly get it if it's selected for the Booker longlist.

Apr 22, 2012, 5:13am Top

Excellent review of Last man in Tower. Your review reminded me a little of Rohinton Mistry's Such a long Journey

Apr 22, 2012, 7:12am Top

I wasn't a fan of The White Tiger, so I probably won't read this Adiga either, but I enjoyed your review.

Apr 22, 2012, 7:36am Top

>90 Cariola:-93 Your 'confessions' made me laugh! And yes, you're far from being the only one (actually I thought that was me) - having been allergic to Dickens all my life, and, like you, never having made it past the first 30-40 pages, I recently listened to the whole of the audio version of Great Expectations, read by the wonderful Martin Jarvis...and I loved it. I really, really didn't expect to, but I was blown away by it. (Now I daren't attempt any more Dickens because I don't want to be disappointed!)

Apr 23, 2012, 9:35am Top

Great review of Last Man In Tower, Deborah. I'm not sure whether I am tempted to read it, but you did a great job of conveying a sense of the book.

May 3, 2012, 8:28pm Top

My reading has slowed down as the semester crunch began, but I've squeezed in a little time to watch the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Heron Cam. Here's one of the newly hatched chicks falling asleep after a dinner of regurgitated fish:

May 3, 2012, 9:00pm Top

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May 3, 2012, 9:17pm Top

Yes, it's worth it, but at the moment I have a week to grade 68 exams and 21 papers, and over 200 Discussion Board posts, plus calulating 76 participation and semester grades. So not a lot of spare time, even for reading. I read in bed every night but usually fall asleep in 15 minutes. Once all that work is done, I'll have the summer off to read more.

May 4, 2012, 7:09pm Top

Macbeth: A Novel by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson

There seems to be a run of Shakespearean adaptations in fiction of late. In addition to this one, I recently reviewed Iago by David Snodden for LTER, and I'm just about done with another LTER book, I, Iago by Nicole Galland. Macbeth: A Novel is the collaborative creation of British crime writer A. J. Hartley and David Hewson, a professor of Shakespeare who writes thrillers in his spare time. Although I'm not a reader of either genre, I am a Shakespearean and know the play very well. I wasn't quite sure what to expect of Macbeth: A Novel; after all, no one can improve upon Shakespeare, and many of the adaptations I've read are either laughable or maddening. So I was pleasantly surprised and even enjoyed this one--perhaps particularly because I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read by Alan Cumming, who for once was free to revel in his glorious Scottish accent.

Hewson and Hartley stick pretty closely to the bare bones of the plot that we are all familiar with, but they take free reign in filling in the "offstage" details. For example, the first third of the book puts readers right in the middle of the civil rebellion and Norse invasion that have been going on as the play opens. We see Macbeth and Banquo fighting in the field; we see Macbeth's capture of the rebel Macdonwald, the blow-by-blow fight to his bloody death preceded by a verbal exchange that prefigures Macbeth's own treacherous acts. Shakespeare, on the contrary, perfunctorily has messengers deliver the news of Macbeth's victories to King Duncan. Back on the home front, the authors give Lady Macbeth a name of her own (Skena). They provide an answer to the oft-asked question, "Where are Lady Macbeth's children?" And they give us plenty of chat between the couple that helps us to understand the powerful forces between them. Interior flashbacks also flesh out the Macbeths' individual biographies, and frequently we're made privy as to what is going on in their minds. Hewson and Hartley imaginatively--but not fantastically--fill in the blanks: why exactly Macbeth turns on Banquo, what happens to Fleance after his father's murder, who the weird sisters are and how they came to be witches, what daily life is like at Macduff's castle before the assassins arrive, and more.

I won't be recommending this book as a classic, or even a must-read. The style is probably better suited to crime novels and thriller: a bit too 'colorful' and 'overwrought,' shall we say, for my taste. Yet it fits just fine with the story of Macbeth. This was a fun piece to breeze through at the end of the semester, which is always a stressful time for me. If the idea of a thriller-crime novel version of Macbeth, read in a charming and authentic Scottish accent by a fine actor, appeals to you, I say, go for it!

May 4, 2012, 11:51pm Top

Sounds amusing, if not entirely Shakespearean. Just finished with all the discussion posts, essays, exams and pleadings myself -- can't wait to sit down and leisurely read a book that I'm not teaching!

Edited: May 5, 2012, 8:55pm Top

I, Iago by Nicole Galland

This is the third novelized version of a Shakespearean play that I have read in recent months, and it is by far the best. Two of these have been based on Iago, the villain of Othello. I found David Snoddin's Iago to be a bit of a bore: too many peripheral details and characters and a stilted, overwrought style. Galland's I, Iago hits just the right note for lovers of historical fiction.

Galland begins her study with Iago's imagined youth. As the least favored of three sons, his life is driven by an overbearing, unaffectionate father and a desire to please the same. A boy who loves his books, Iago is taken from school at a young age and placed in training for the Venetian militia. Part of his task is to make up for the embarrassment of his eldest brother, who died of an accidentally self-inflicted wound. In time, he gains a reputation as a fine swordsman and becomes ensign to Othello, an exotic Moor newly appointed as general of the Venetian army. From here the story proceeds to its anticipated end.

Galland fleshes out Iago's history with some of the play's secondary characters, including a boyhbood friendship wtih Roderigo, a spice merchant's son who refuses to give up his suit of Desdemona. While Shakespeare's Iago seems to be trapped in a stale and perhaps loveless marriage to his wife Emilia, Galland creates passion and devotion between the couple. As for Michele Cassio, he becomes even more of a foolish, pompous fop than Shakespeare allows. And Venice itself plays a much more significant role in this novel, its splendor, pettiness, materialism, and competitiveness on full display.

Overall, I, Iago was an enjoyable read, and Galland succeeds in providing enough motivation for the main character's evil deeds that, although he remains a bit of a monster, he is at least a humanized and therefore more recognizable monster.

May 7, 2012, 9:35am Top

Excellent review of I, Iago I will definitely keep this one in mind

Edited: May 7, 2012, 2:51pm Top

No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon

This slim novel (more of a short story at only 32 pages in length) is an 18th-century French classic. The cover blurbs place it alongside Dangerous Liaisons, and while it does have its witty moments and is definitely in the libertine mode, it lacks the emotional drama of the former. A man recalls an episode of his youth, his seduction by a married woman. Initially, he assumes that the intrigue is in avoiding her aging husband, but as morning breaks, he learns that he has been a decoy, and perhaps a friendly provocation, for her lover, the Marquis.

The New York Review of Books includes both the French version and an English adaptation by fiction writer Lydia Davis, as well as a lengthy but informative introduction by scholar Peter Cook. While there are some wry, witty moments and several instances of fine, subtle writing, overall, I was not too impressed.

Edited: May 7, 2012, 2:38pm Top

Thanks for that review of No Tomorrow. I'm normally tempted by NYRB Classics, but I'll pass on this one.

May 9, 2012, 8:21pm Top

If there is sufficient interest, I plan to host a long weekend "drop in" readathon from 10:00 EDT Friday to 10:00 EDT Monday. Here's the original link. If enough people let me know by Thursday night that they'd like to participate, I'll post a signup thread. Hope you're all up for it!

May 9, 2012, 9:43pm Top

You had me at "read by Alan Cummings", so I ll be looking for the audio version.

May 10, 2012, 12:14am Top

113> He was a fine reader, and I love that he doesn't have to hide his natural accent for this one. I looked on audible and see that he has actually read quite a few audiobooks.

May 10, 2012, 7:20am Top

I have No Tomorrow on the TBR, but haven't been motivated to read it yet.

May 10, 2012, 11:50am Top

It will only take half an hour, Rebecca--maybe more if you're reading it in French. But I'm sure you have more enjoyable books in your stacks.

May 10, 2012, 1:26pm Top

Here's the link to join the May 11-14 Drop-In Read-a-Thon. Everyone is welcome to stop by for whatever amount of time feels comfortable.

May 11, 2012, 2:42am Top

Good reviews of Macbeth: A Novel and I, Iago - I've enjoyed reading your opinions on the takes on Shakespeare.

I read No Tomorrow also and liked it more than you did - I enjoyed the evocative descriptions and I found that the final mood of gentle melancholy and bemusement contrasted nicely with Dangerous Liaisons.

I'll try to stop by the Read-a-Thon, though it will depend on my work, fun and family time schedule. I have a book out that has to be returned to the library soon and I'd like to finish it.

May 12, 2012, 7:35am Top

#116, Thanks for the encouragement -- and the optimism! I could have read it in French 40 years ago, not sure if I could today!

May 14, 2012, 9:03pm Top

Macbeth: a novel sounds fun, and I am always on the lookout for good audiobook recommendations - a good reading can really make the book worth listening to. (Best in this category: The Observations, read by the author, who was clearly having great fun with all the accents). Off to see if it's available on audible!

May 15, 2012, 12:11am Top

It is on audible; that's where I downloaded it. Enjoy!

May 15, 2012, 11:07am Top

Just listened to the sample on audible. Sounds marvellously over the top.

Edited: May 21, 2012, 12:16pm Top

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

This was my initial plunge into Graham Greene, and I have to say that I'm left somewhat unsatisfied. The writing itself is fine enough, and the bitter, cynical, obsessive cast-off lover, Bendrix, well drawn. But I found much of the story forced, unbelievable, as if the concept Greene wanted to get across overwhelmed the plot: lust begets love begets jealousy begets hatred begets faith.

Much of the novel falls under the "if there's a God" speculation. Sarah prays for God, if there is one, to spare Bendrix from a bombing and promises to give up her lover if God grants her wish. Bendrix wonders, if there's a God, why does he take Sarah away, and later, he wants to believe that there is a God so that he can hate him for taking Sarah away.

Sarah seemed a cypher throughout, both to Bendrix and to the reader. I suppose Greene wanted us to be surprised along with Bendrix at what he later learns about her, but she seemed a rather vapid character to have inspired such raging emotions. The friendship that develops between Bendrix and Henry is certainly an odd one, but Henry, being the most honest (and perhaps simple) character in the novel, is also the most easily understood and most empathetic.

I listened to the book on audio, finely read by Colin Firth. Overall, however, I was underwhelmed by The End of the Affair. I'll probably give Greene another try, but not for awhile. He seems to be one of those writers whose work is firmly rooted in an era--not one in which I have a particular interest.

May 21, 2012, 12:12pm Top

Nothing very useful to say, but feel like I should de-lurk for a moment and mention that I found your Graham Greene very interesting.

May 21, 2012, 12:21pm Top

I'll probably give Greene another try, but not for awhile. He seems to be one of those writers whose work is firmly rooted in an era--not one in which I have a particular interest.

Yes! Very well said. I recently read Third Man, and last year listened to Brighton Rock on audiobook, and there was something about it I liked. But yes, you've captured what I thought too.

May 21, 2012, 1:41pm Top

I think your perception that Greene is rooted in his own particular era is spot-on. I read a number of his books in the early 70s when they still seemed relevant, but I've no desire to go back and revisit them -- nor his wrestling with Roman Catholic morality.

May 21, 2012, 7:14pm Top

I read a lot of Greene last year and you have hit the nail on the head, when you say his work is rooted in an era. It has been called Greeneland and if you are not happy with going there, you will probably not like the novels.

May 25, 2012, 5:58pm Top

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I'm rather glad I didn't finish Wolf Hall last summer. Although I was enjoying the book greatly, it does, as many reviewers have noted, take some concentration, and I knew that once the rat race of a new semester began, I would have little time to devote to it. So I put it away and started over from the beginning a few weeks ago. One reason that I'm happy to have waited is that I have an LTER copy of the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. And I am delightfully free now to immerse myself in Cromwell's world.

What can I possibly add to all the accolades that Wolf Hall has garnered? Yes, it is beautifully written, at times smart and snappy, at other times almost lyrical. Mantel's concept--to take a slice of popular and well-known history and revisit it through the eyes of one who watched and manipulated events rather than one of the direct participants--is brilliant. Thomas Cromwell remains enough of a shadow figure in the history books that the author is free to imagine his inner world, the ticking of his mind and the workings of a heart most would never suspect that he had.

Henry's court is a dangerous and exciting place, one where even a smithy's son can move upward on his merit but where everyone constantly has to watch his or her back and think before speaking. Cromwell's conversations with Anne Boleyn and with Thomas More read like a chess match, each player trying not only to outsmart the oppponent but to anticipate the next move. And Mantel provides planty of details to draw in her readers.

I rarely give books a five-star rating, but I'd give Wolf Hall six stars, if I could. It's everything one could hope a historical novel to be--and more.

Edited: May 25, 2012, 6:38pm Top

Time After Time by Molly Keane

I'm not sure exactly what to make of this book, a rather dark comedy centered around decaying Irish gentility. The four elderly Swift siblings--Jasper and his fluffily named sisters, April, May, and June--live rather uncomfortably together, doomed by their domineering Mummy's will to share the decrepit family estate. Baiting one another seems to be their primary form of entertainment. Each has a particular handicap and a particular domain. Jasper, who lost an eye as a child due to Baby June's carelessness, rules in the kitchen and tends to his horticultural pursuits, often accompanied by Anselm, a lovely young monk. April, the only married Swift, now a widow, is deaf and spends her time coddling her dog and pursuing new health and beauty regimens. May, whose hand is deformed, presides over the local flower arranging club and restores Victorian doodads. And June, who didn't receive much of an education, lives for her smelly dog Tiny, her horse, and her pregnant pig. When their Jewish cousin Leda--who they thought had been killed in the Holocaust arrives on their doorstep, unexpectedly blind, the Swifts' world is thrown into chaos. Leda, it seems, is looking for a permanent residence; but she has revenge in mind.

This is the first novel by Molly Keane that I've read, and I have several others on my shelves. I will surely give them a chance. Although I can't say that I loved Time After Time, it had it's moments and kept me interested overall.

Jun 4, 2012, 11:59am Top

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Like many other readers, I was eagerly awaiting the sequel to Wolf Hall, and, overall, Mantel does not disappoint. Here, she again covers familiar ground, Henry VIII's dislluisionment with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, due in part to her strident and flirtatious personality, but more to the fact that she hasn't rapidly produced a male heir. The story is told again from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, who is charged for the second time with the task of discovering a way to cast off an unwanted queen. Cromwell appears to be an ambitious man who (like so many Nazi officers claimed) is just following orders; but there is an undercurrent of revenge towards the men he brings down along with Anne. Mantel gives him an imagined inner life that balances the cold, calculating politican against a man who has survived both hardship and tragedy. Not without heart, her Cromwell nevertheless has the ability, when necessary, to turn that heart into stone.

Mantel brings in a number of details that I either was not aware of or had forgotten, such as the irony that Henry's marriage to Anne was annulled for the same reason as his marriage to Katherine, prior sexual relations with a sibling (in this case, Henry's affair with Mary Boleyn). And she successfully ties in to the events of Wolf Hall through memories, as in the recurrent appearance of the peacock wings worn by his deceased daughter Grace in a Christmas pageant. Again, the writing is at times almost lyrical--another way of humanizing the man whose own son says that he looks like a murderer.

Two responses to repeated comments by other reviewers: first, on the insertions of "he, Cromwell" as a supposed attempt to answer criticism of the sometimes confusing use of simply "he" in Wolf Hall. Overall, I found this less helpful than it was disruptive. It was often unnecessary, and the repetition grew irksome; it was as if I was being reminded that I was a poor, confused reader who probably couldn't figure out for myself who was speaking or being spoken about. I would rather be a little confused on occasion than frequently irritated. Second, I don't agree with those who feel that Bring Up the Bodies is far superior to Wolf Hall. It's an excellent book with a tighter frame of action, but overall, I'd give the first novel in the trilogy an extra half star.

Like everyone else, I'll be eagerly awaiting the third installment in this awesome series.

Jun 4, 2012, 12:04pm Top

Another great review. I'll get to those books eventually, although I admit I'm still feeling pretty Tudored-out.

Jun 4, 2012, 12:12pm Top

131> I was Tudored out for awhile after reading some ho-hum novels. But these are really fresh because of the point of view and the lovely mastery of language.

Jun 4, 2012, 4:43pm Top

Excellent review of Bring Up the Bodies. So glad it is not a disappointment. It would have to be some book to better Wolf Hall. I rather enjoyed being a little confused at times.

Edited: Jun 4, 2012, 6:22pm Top

I haven't read any Mantel, but I've never understood why writers use constructions like "he, Cromwell" in the first place. If the pronoun is too ambiguous, why not just use the guy's name? Surely there's no need to use both.

Jun 4, 2012, 8:37pm Top

134> She didn't do this in Wolf Hall, and a lot of readers complained about being confused. I suspect that's why she's doing it in Bring Up the Bodies. I'm not sure why she initially felt tied to the pronoun, but it may have been to keep the feeling of being inside his mind. Even though both "Cromwell" and "he" are third person, the proper noun seems more distanced. When I think about myself, I use a pronoun, "I"; I never think of myself as my proper name. (Only Bob Dole does that.)

Jun 4, 2012, 9:46pm Top

I thought that she wanted the thinking to seem to be interior or familiar but objective. The third person implies another party who could be saying that Cromwell was indeed the person he thought he was. And I thought it worked superbly.


Jun 5, 2012, 12:03am Top

Very informative reviews of the Mantels and Time After Time. Time After Time does sound intriguing even though your review was lukewarm.

Jun 5, 2012, 7:53am Top

137> Yes, of course the books are written in third person--but that suggests an omniscient narrator or one with limited omniscience (knowledge of what only one character is thinking/feeling), not objective. The narrator would have to be omniscient in order to know Cromwell's inner thoughts and those of others; using "I" (first person) would have meant we were seeing things only from Cromwell's POV, which would be limited as well as perhaps at times biased or misinformed. The question is, why use "he" instead of "Cromwell," since both are third person? The majority of novels are written as third person narration, but they use the proper name of the main character much more often than does Mantel, and this confuses some readers.

I think that using "he" tends to allow Mantel to do both: be omniscient yet remain distanced--which kind of reflects Cromwell himself and the way he thinks, almost as if he is standing outside of himself.

There is such a thing as a third person objective narrator, but that's not at work here, since we do get to know directly what Cromwell is thinking and feeling. Not many writers use it, since they generally want to add depth to characters. I always think of objective narration as filming a scene on closed circuit camera--no comment on what's happening. It's hard to find objective narration, even in short stories, let alone novels. One example would be Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."

OK, that's the end of my English professor rant on point of view/narrator--sorry! I hope that eventually Mantel herself will comment on her choice.

Jun 5, 2012, 10:28am Top

This whole point of view thing is a very interesting topic.

And on the topic of pronoun usage, I found myself confused when reading The English Patient because Ondaatje used them a lot--I often didn't know who he was talking about. Because of this, I had problems getting attached to the characters. Good book, but I thought that was a flaw.

Jun 9, 2012, 1:14pm Top

Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville.

Third in a series based on the Thornhill family's settlement in Australlia, Sarah Thornhill is the definitely weakest installment. While it was a fast and fairly engaging read, I kept thinking to myself that I had read it all before. Grenville traces again the tricky relations between the white settlers and the black native inhabitants. At times, the blacks (and half-blacks) seem to be accepted--up to a point; at other times, prejudice is rampant. Sarah's Pa, who was "sent out" (meaning he was sent to Australia as punishment for crimes committed in England), has made his way up in the world, accumulating money, land, and a bit of class, including a second wife with pretentions of joining the hoi polloi. The first half of the novel centers around Sarah's growing love for Jack Langland, a half-black young man who seems to be accepted into the family circle. The two have pledged to marry, but when they make this known, Pa and Ma Thornhill make clear where the social and racial lines are to be drawn. As things start to fall apart, family secrets start seeping through the cracks--secrets that tear apart not only Sarah and Jack but the entire Thornhill family.

On the plus side, Grenville draws a sharp portrait of the hardships of life on a new settlement as she focuses on Sarah's newly married life with Irishman John Daunt. What she has to say about black-white relations, while painful, is fairly conventional and has been handled more deftly in other works.

I have to agree with the reviewer who complained about the substitution of the word "of" for "have" (or, more accurately, the contraction 've) throughout. Maybe the reason it bothered me so much is that, as an English professor, it's one of the perennial errors in student papers that really grates on my nerves. Ex: "They must of took her to the cemetary, I said." It's true that Sarah is illiterate; but then she's telling her story, not writing it down, so why not use the common contraction? By the time I got to the end of the book, I found myself starting to count "ofs" with my teeth set on edge. If it hadn't been for this, I probably would have upped my rating by at least half a star.

Jun 9, 2012, 1:47pm Top

The have/of thing would make me bonkers, so I'll definitely skip this one. I liked but didn't love the Secret River, and somewhere along the line I ended up with the second installment, but that will be it for me when it comes to this series.

Jun 10, 2012, 1:04pm Top

Dancing with Mr. Darcy, edited by Sarah Waters

A rather ho-hum collection of short stories selected by Sarah Waters as the best entries submitted to a competition sponsored by the Chawton House Library in 2009. All the stories were "inspired" by Jane Austen's life, works, home at Chawton, or the Chawton House Library itself. In the winning story, "Jane Austen over the Styx," the author descends into hell, charged with creating older female characters who are either snobs, scolds, harpies, or selfish manipulators--some of whom are there to give testimony. This is perhaps the best of the lot. I was at times at a loss to see the Austen connections in others, such as the fantasy-like "Broken Words." Overall, not a bad collection, but very hit and miss.

3 out of 5 stars.

Jun 10, 2012, 7:25pm Top

Overall, not a bad collection, but very hit and miss.

I find that about most anthologies, but a few really strong pieces will make me forgive the dreck. For example, I have great memories of reading Fantastic Women, which I reviewed last fall for Belletrista. And I had no problem writing about it, because the stories I wrote about were great. But recently I looked at it and thought "yikes, there was a lot of rubbish in this!"

Anyway, I own Dancing With Mr Darcy but won't worry about getting to it any time soon.

Jun 12, 2012, 2:45pm Top

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore

This was the first book I've read (actually, I listened to it on audio) by Christopher Moore, and it may be my last. It wasn't bad, just not the kind of thing I'd normally read. I picked this one up because it dealt with the Impressionist painters. I've heard that his books are hilarious; this one had a few rather juvenile snickers (e.g., Juliette's name for the color man, "poop stick"), but I didn't find it all that amusing. The 'mystery' of what happened to Van Gogh and so many other painters is not only a bit creepy but also borders on the fantastic, and fantasy is another genre that I really don't care for. If you're a fan of Moore, just ignore this review; it's a matter of taste. If you haven't read Moore before, maybe a different novel would be the place to start.

Jun 14, 2012, 11:39am Top

#140 - interesting. The Secret River was very good, but perhaps I won't pursue the sequels.

Jun 14, 2012, 2:22pm Top

145> Oh, The Lieutenant was excellent--don't give up on that one!

Jun 14, 2012, 2:30pm Top

Ok, noting.

Edited: Jun 20, 2012, 1:57pm Top

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I'm not sure that I would have admired this book quite so much had I read it several decades ago. But I'm now of an age where I'm thinking a lot about the past and about what I want to do with the years that I have left, so The Sense of an Ending really hit home with me.

The novel is written in two parts. In the first, Anthony Webster starts with memories--images really. As he says, "This isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." This is the first of Anthony's many insights on the passing of time. The section falls into reverie regarding his schooldays with three particular friends, Colin, Anthony, and Adrian; their efforts to keep their friendships solid while each continued on to a different university; and Anthony's relationship with his first love, Veronica. These memories are key to the novel's longer second part. "History," he tells us, "isn't the lies of the victors, . . . It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."

As sometimes happens in real life, the unexpected can trigger questions about the past. In the sixty-ish Anthony's case, it comes in the form of a 500-pound bequest from Veronica's mother, a woman whom he had met only once forty years earlier. The deceased woman's handwritten note is more confusing than explanatory. In addition to the cash, the will also, oddly, bequeaths to him his friend Adrian's diary--which seems either to have disappeared or been deliberately withheld. Anthony's quest to recover the diary leads to a re-examination of himself and the past, and to the realizations that one's perceptions aren't always accurate, or at least not always shared by others. "When we are young," he says, "we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."

I'll leave the description at that, as I don't want to give away any of the events, suppositions, and revelations that ensue, all of which add up to a moving and unexpected ending. Barnes's insights into human nature are brilliant. Although this is a short book, I did not, like other readers, race through it in a single afternoon. One of the reasons is that Anthony's musings and memories often triggered my own, and I found myself trying to sort things out a bit before returning to the novel. The Sense of an Ending is chock full of the kind of philosophical nuggets like those quoted above. Here are a few more:

"But time . . . how time first grinds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them."

"Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however, long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Anthony Webster may not be a man you particularly like, but he is one you'll grow to understand. This is one amazing book, full of insights, surprising, beautifully written.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:06pm Top

Excellent review of The Sense of an Ending, Cariola! This book seems to be causing quite a controversy amongs members of Club Read, with everyone having different opinions on its merits / demerits. I hope to read it sometime soon.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:06pm Top

Lovely review.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:08pm Top

#149 - Dewald, I was thinking about the "controversy" too. It's nice to come across a review like this one before reading.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:15pm Top

149, 151> I haven't read the "controversy" thread, but I wonder if the age of the reader has anything to do with his or her opinion. As I said, this might have bored me when I was 20, 30, maybe even 40.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:16pm Top

Wonderful review. I enjoyed The Sense of an Ending and found it to be, despite its brevity, a well of ideas for discussion and reflection.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:18pm Top

Lovely review -- you've made me want to the book. Thanks.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:48pm Top

Wonderful review. I had been avoiding this book, but after reading your review I think it's something I will read. Your quotes really fit your review.

Jun 20, 2012, 1:49pm Top

Great review, Deborah. I have not read it yet, but it is on my wishlist, and I believe it is one I can access as a library e-book.

Jun 20, 2012, 2:08pm Top

#152 - Deborah - There's no thread, or even an argument. There is just a mix of positive and negative opinions in various places around CR.

Jun 20, 2012, 2:25pm Top

157> Thanks--I saw several reviews that seemed to think the book was slight, at least one from an LTer that I know is under 35. Plus it seems the Booker debacle affected some opinions. People seemed to be so irritated with the short list (and I include myself here) that they had to hate the winner.

Jun 20, 2012, 6:08pm Top

Deborah, your review of The Sense of an Ending is the one that most closely captures my opinion about and feelings toward this wonderful book. Now that I've surpassed 50, I find myself reflecting on past mistakes and a particular lost love, and this book resonated deeply within me, even though I did read it relatively quickly (in no more than two days). The quotes you mentioned, particularly the first one in the second paragraph of your review, made me literally gasp and pause in reflection for several minutes. It's one of the few books that I'll be able to associate with a particular location, as I read most of it while sitting in a London cafe on a rainy Sunday afternoon last September. As I had mentioned, I definitely want to read it again, but more slowly the next time.

Edited: Jun 21, 2012, 5:52am Top

Good review of The sense of an Ending but I am one of the detractors and this is how I ended my review:

Surely there are novels out there that have more depth to them, or tell an unusual or interesting story or push the boundaries just a little. Lets get away from all this wit and lightness of touch. lets have some passion, some poetry, some writing that will make us think deeper than mere nostalgia and reminiscence. I would rate Julian Barnes novel at 3.5 stars as it is good of its kind

I did enjoy reading it, but felt that it was not a worthy winner of the Booker prize.

Edited: Jun 21, 2012, 8:46am Top

160> We'll agree to disagree on this one--but you might agree that it was better than the other short listed books. I don't know if the dreadful crew of judges passed up anything more worthy or if it just wasn't a great year overall.

Edited: Jun 21, 2012, 10:48am Top

Deborah, I've read 12 of the 13 Booker Dozen novels, and The Sense of an Ending was my favorite novel. I'm certain that the one book I haven't yet read, Far to Go by Alison Pick, wouldn't come close to the Barnes.

As we've discussed previously, last year's sorry lot of Booker judges overlooked several outstanding eligible novels, including Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, There but for the by Ali Smith, and several others that I haven't yet read, such as At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, Pure by Andrew Miller, and The Visiting Angel by Paul Wilson. I think I'd give Gillespie and I a slight nod over The Sense of an Ending as my favorite eligible book at the moment.

Jun 21, 2012, 11:03am Top

162> I agree that I might have put Gillespie and I over The Sense of an Ending. Both books had a strong impact on me, but Harris's novel was a real delight. There but for the might have been close, because it pulled off something fairly new in terms of style and voice.

Edited: Jun 24, 2012, 1:27pm Top

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Several years ago, a student emailed me a link to one of Kate Beaton's cartoons of Mary Shelley; we were reading Frankenstein at the time. Since then, I've browsed the Canadian cartoonist's work online, and I decided to indulge in this hardcover collection. Spending an afternoon reading Hark! A Vagrant was pure delight. Beaton takes on a number of literary and historical figures, including the Brontes, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kerouac, Elizabeth I, Montcalm, Ben Franklin, and more. I particularly enjoyed the section where she reproduces a popular book cover, then creates a three-frame comic of what the cover suggests the book might be about. If history and literature are not your thing, never fear: there are plenty of pop culture comics here, too: Wonderwoman, Wolverine, pirates, Canadian sterotypes, and hipsters, to name just a few. Beaton's comics display a wry, somewhat sardonic humor. Many of them are accompanied by brief background comments which are often just as clever.

If, like me, you're not a regular reader of comics, give Beaton a chance--she's hilarious. You can browse them by topic on her Hark! A Vagrant website.

Jun 24, 2012, 7:30pm Top

Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

Effie Gray was only twelve when she met the celebrated young art critic John Ruskin in 1841. A friendship developed, and within a few years, he proposed; the two married when Effie was nineteen, Ruskin 29. Effie imagined the two of them as the perfect couple, her social charm as asset to his brilliance. But on their wedding night, something went terribly wrong. Despite her innocence, Effie knew that there had to be more to marriage than taking walks along the riverbank: Ruskin either would not or could not consummate their union. In a letter to her parents, she wrote:

"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April 1848."

Ashamed, Effie remained in the marriage for six years before formally filing for an annulment. She was subjected to a physical examination to verify her chastity and humiliated by Ruskin's testimony that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." The doctor who examined her declared that she was normal in every way; it has been speculated that Ruskin might have been repelled by his wife's pubic hair, or that she was menstruating. As one would expect, the case created a scandal in Victorian England.

Fortunately, a happier future was in store. Effie had posed for Ruskin's friend, the artist John Everett Millais, who accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland. The two fell in love and were married a year after the annulment was granted. Fagence devotes the first half of her biography to the scandal, but the second details Effie's 42-year marriage, which, despite some losses and difficulties, was a happy one. Effie continued to model for Millais (as did her siblings, her eight children, and later their grandchildren), and "Everett," as she called him, eventually earned great success as a painter, as well as a baronetcy. But her one disappointment was that the queen would not receive "a divorced person" at court. It seemed she would never quite shake the scandal of NOT being a wife to Ruskin. And Ruskin, who apparently never learned when not to speak, publicly blamed Effie for 'ruining' Millais's potential as an artist, the necessity of feeding a family turning him to a more lucrative style.

Cooper does an admirable job of presenting this slice of Victorian scandal and a peek into the world of art. We learn not only about the three persons mentioned in her lengthy title, but also about her travels in Italy, the elder Ruskins, Effie's family in Scotland, the Millais children, and the friends who stood by her. I did find the second half a bit confusing at times, partly because of the profusion of Johns, Georges, Sophias and Effies, but also because of the author's tendency to jump back and forth through time.

*Spoiler* There is a bittersweet ending to Effie's story. On his deathbed, a visiting friend asked Millais if there was anything that she could do for him. His answer, scrawled on a slate as he had lost his ability to speak: "Please see that my wife is invited to court." Effie was received at an official function soon after, the queen's daughter having interceded on her behalf. She outlived her husband by only 16 months.

Jun 25, 2012, 1:51am Top

A very good review of Effie. I have Elizabeth Abbott's A History of Celibacy out from the library and was flipping through and saw that she had a section about Ruskin. It did sound like a good scandal so I've added this book to the list.

Jun 25, 2012, 9:08am Top

Effie has interested me since I first read of this scandal, so it was good to see a review like yours of a book that makes her more than a gossipy footnote. It is added to my list, too.

The Beaton books sounds like something to look for as well.

Jun 25, 2012, 5:23pm Top

Jun 27, 2012, 10:06am Top

What a touching endnote in the spoiler.

Jun 27, 2012, 11:51pm Top

The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C. W. Gortner

Isabella of Castile was one of the most powerful rulers of her day. This novel begins with the death of her father and ends with her considering sponsorship of the explorer Columbus in 1492. In between there is a lot of political wrangling and warfare, not to mention romance and childbirth. That's all to be expected, I guess, when a book's protagonist is both a ruler and a woman.

For me, the most interesting chapters were those that covered Isabella's return to the court of her half-brother, King Enrique. A weak king with dissolute habits who was controlled by his favcorites and his promiscuous wife, Enrique constantly feared that Alfonso or Isabella was plotting to kill him and take the crown of Castile. The lengths to which he went to keep that from happening were intolerably cruel. But in the end, as we know, Isabella did become queen, and she also, despite Enrique's threats and devious plans, got her man.

Oddly, once Isabella and Ferando were married and took their respective thrones, the novel started to get a bit dull for me. Their relationship was rather stereotypical and romancey as portrayed, and the continual series of uprisings, invasions, and ambushes became tedious, as did the constant scrambling for money and the push to exile the Jews from Castile (which were, of course, tied together). Yes, these were some of the difficulties that Isabella and her husband faced . . . but they weren't interesting enough to take up so much space.

Since Isabella remained on the throne for many years beyond 1492, I suspect that a sequel or two are on the way. Obviously, I'm not as enthusiastic about this novel as others have been. The author effectively creates the atmosphere of late fifteenth-century Spain, and the characters are fairly well drawn. But the ponderous last third brought down my overall rating. I suspect this opinion may also reflect the fact that the last two works of historical fiction that I read were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which were far superior to anything I've read in years.

Jun 29, 2012, 4:45pm Top

Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

This very moving, beautifully written novel really SHOULD have won the Orange Prize. Set in Romania in a period covering roughtly the late 1930s to the early 1950s, Painter of Silence focuses on the life of Augustin, a deaf-mute with an astonishing ability for drawing, and Safta, a young nurse. The two formed a friendship as children, despite their differences in class: Augustin's mother worked as a cook in Safta's family's upper class mansion. At the beginning of the book, the young man, in terrible physical condition, arrives in the city of Iasi, looking for Safta, and collapses on the steps of the hospital where she works. When she hears that a deaf and dumb young man has been admitted, she feels certain that it is Augustin. The remainder of the book traces the events of their lives from their first meeting through the horrors of World War II and the Soviet takeover of Romania and, in the end, sets Augustin on his path towards the future.

This could have been just a typical war story, but it is so much more. It's a story about how we communicate, how we see the world, how we continue to strive for our best when those around us fall short. It's a story that is both unique and identifiable, and it's beautifully written. Harding does an excellent job of depicting the details of the landscape and daily lives of her characters, and she creates a voice that is soft yet powerful, a tone that is melancholic yet hopeful. Very highly recommended.

(Note: I listened to this book on audio; it will not be released until September in the US. It's one of those relatively rare books that I will undoubtedly read in print as well.)

Jun 30, 2012, 1:45pm Top

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People by John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope, and Minette Walters

This clever little gem has found a special place on my bookshelf next to another, Helen Humphreys's The Frozen Thames. Published by the National Portrait Gallery in London, Imagined Lives is a collection of fourteen 'biographical' sketches based on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraits of unknown sitters. Eight well-known writers contributed to the book: John Banville, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Fellowes, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Joanna Trollope, and Minette Walters. Each has given the portrait sitter a name, and the sketches take the form of biographical entries, letters, and internal dialogues. One imagines the sitter critiquing his own newly-finished portrait. In another (my favorite), a young woman writes to her mother, asking for advice on a proposal from the man in the portrait. Tracy Chevalier's subject, an aging woman, muses on why she agreed to be drawn and on the passing of her years.

The book includes full color copies of the portraits plus a closeup of a significant detail in each. At the back you'll find a fine essay on how sitters in historic portraits are identified, using as models known portraits of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn, and Michael Drayton. Details of each portrait's provenance, media, and dimensions are provided, along with a brief history of former identifications.

This is a lovely and fascinating book, the kind to reach for in quiet moments or to take you away from the not-so-quiet.

Jun 30, 2012, 2:08pm Top

Wishlisting that one! Sounds like my cup of tea. Thanks for sharing.

Jun 30, 2012, 7:07pm Top

Nice review of Painter of Silence, Deborah. I gave a slight nod to The Song of Achilles when I ranked the Orange Prize shortlist, but I would have been happy to see Harding's novel come out on top.

Jul 1, 2012, 2:52am Top

Lots of new reviews. That is an inspiring review of Painter of Silence, taking note. Imagined Lives does sound fun.

Edited: Jul 1, 2012, 9:19am Top

I meant to mention that I hope to see Painter of Silence on the upcoming Booker Prize longlist.

Jul 1, 2012, 10:02am Top

176> It's probably one of the few potential long-listers that I will have read. Although I loved it, I'm not sure it seems like one the Booker judges would go for--maybe a little too sentimental.

Jul 1, 2012, 4:07pm Top

>177 Cariola: You may be right about that, Deborah. There seem to be plenty of strong contenders for this year's longlist, and Painter of Silence may fall by the wayside.

Edited: Jul 3, 2012, 9:07am Top

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

I picked up this collection of short stories on the strength of Barnes's Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. Similarly, most of these stories also deal with aging--but without the humor and touch of hope found there. Quite a few deal with artists, musicians and writers who have lost their talent; several others involve elderly people who suffer from Alzheimer's and their caretakers. Overall, I found it rather sad and depressing, although finely written.

Jul 3, 2012, 12:46am Top

Nice review of The Lemon Table, Deborah. I'll pass on it, though.

Edited: Jul 3, 2012, 11:12am Top

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

Tom Sherbourne, a decorated hero of World War I, is a haunted man: he's haunted by the men he killed, by the comrades who died alongside him, and by an unhappy childhood--none of which he is willing to talk about. In an effort to find peace, Tom takes a position as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, 100 miles out from the Australian coastal city of Partageuse. No one is more surprised than Tom when he finds love with Isabel Graysmarks, a beautiful and spirited local girl who is willing to marry him and move to the isolated island. Both of them grow to love the spare landscape and the magical light itself. But if there is one thing that blights their happiness, it is Isabel's inability to bear a child. She has suffered two miscarriages and, just two weeks earlier, a stillbirth, when a boat washes ashore, inside it a dead man, a woman's cardigan--and a live infant. As always, Tom feels obligated to do the right thing . . . but just what is the right thing?

Stedman has written a compelling novel, one that captivates the reader and moves him/her through a myriad of emotions, from sorrow to joy, from peacefulness to suspense, from anger to acceptance. Her characters are individual and believable (although I found the child Lucy just a bit too precious) and always deserving of empathy. Stedman's descriptions of the island and of the beloved lighthouse are so vivid that you can smell the salt sea, the polish, and the vapor. Overall, a fine novel--and an amazing debut. I look forward to her next endeavor.

Note: This would be an excellent book club selection.

Jul 3, 2012, 1:28pm Top

#181 - wishlist!

Jul 3, 2012, 2:14pm Top

182> Don't read the other LT reviews--they give away far too much! Judy is also reading and loving this one.

Edited: Jul 8, 2012, 9:21pm Top

Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

The introduction to these two novelettes tells us that the first was written for Sackville-West's friend and fellow author, Virginia Woolf, and the latter was a tribute to her beloved childhood home, Knole, which she could not inherit simply because of her sex.In Seducers in Ecuador, Arthur Lomax is asked to join people he hardy know on a yacht cruise to Egypt. Well, why not? Arthur has taken to wearing blue, brown, or black lenses that not only protect his eyes from the sun but have changed his view of the world. Suddenly, everything seems fine with him. Marry a woman who was seduced and impregnated by a man who ran off to Ecuador? Why not? Poison a man who claims to have a terminal illness at his request? Why not? Unfortunately, not all turns out well for Arthur, but he accepts the consequences--why not?

The Heir is perhaps a bit more conventional, but I enjoyed it more. The author's love for her family estate and its gardens comes through in Peregrine Chase, a man transformed by the inheritance of a Tudor estate. Perhaps that is what she hoped for the cousin who inherited Knole as well. The descriptions of a fading way of life are lovely but bittersweet. Already, in 1922, the upkeep of a family estate was an expensive matter, and many took advice similar to that offered by Chase's aunt's lawyer: break it into pieces and sell it.

On the whole, these were less than stellar stories, more notable for their social and historical commentary than as literature.

Jul 8, 2012, 2:30pm Top

Interesting review of the Vita Sackville-West. Knole is a huge house and estate now open to the public as it is owned and maintained by the National Trust.

Jul 8, 2012, 9:16pm Top

185> I just read a few articles published earlier this year about Knole. It's in pretty sad disrepair, but there is a ten-year project to fix it. I also read that the current Lord Sackville says he may leave the estate to one of his daughters instead of his ten-year old son.

Jul 9, 2012, 4:48am Top

I read Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir last year and completely agree with your review. I thought Seducers in Ecuador could be a bizarre metafictional story but it was just a bizarre story that became increasingly divorced from reality and quite disjointed.

The Heir was certainly more involving if rather predictable.

I really liked All Passion Spent though and I want to try The Edwardians after reading your review.

Jul 17, 2012, 10:57pm Top

March by Geraldine Brooks

I seem to have had this book on my shelf forever, and I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to get around to it. As everyone probably knows, this is an imagined background story to Alcott's Little Women: instead of focusing on the daughters, about 3/4 of the novel is about the March family patriarch, and the last quarter is told from the point of view of Marmee, starting when she goes to the union hospital to nurse her desperately ill husband. Mr. March, bolstered by his wife's near-fanaticism, is an ardent abolitionist--to the point that he has lost his fortune to John Brown's schemes. Even so, he still believes in the cause, in part due to his encounters years earlier with an inteligent, attractive young slave and her brutal master. An influential pastor, March encourages the young men of Concord to enlist in the Union cause, and his guilt ultimately drives him to enlist as well. His civil war service begins by ministering to the soldiers on the field, but he is later assigned to teach freed slaves how to read and write on an experimental communal farm. When Marmee rushes to Washington to nurse her husband, who is suffering from a deadly fever, she has to come to grips with his secrets and her own guilt.

Brooks has obviously done her research here: the book comes alive with real-life characters, including Brown, Emerson, and Thoreau, and the pictures she draws of the nation at war, both on the field and at home, are powerful. The March parents lose some of their ever-optimistic facade--but that's perhaps a good thing. Here, they become real people, caught up, as so many Americans were, in the fury of the civil war and its effects on the individual, the family, and the nation.

The writing here is as fine as it was in Brooks's earlier novel, Year of Wonders (which remains my favorite). Strongly recommended.

Jul 17, 2012, 11:17pm Top

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.

The book's subtitle gives a clear description of its contents: a collection of stories written during the war years (1939-45). Most of them focus on the lives of British women and the minor and major inconveniences they experienced, from rationing food to finding a safe haven, from opening homes to refugees from the city to having to say goodbye (sometimes more than once). In her understated way, Panter-Downes brings to the fore the quiet--often silent--heroism of these women in wartime, adding a touch of humor and poignancy. While I can't say that I absolutely loved the book, I did appreciate many of the stories in it.

Edited: Jul 17, 2012, 11:54pm Top

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Well, I was rather disappointed with this book. It begins with two interesting real-life characters, Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon and her maid, Sally Naldrett, but it soon resorts to conventional romance and a commentary on the hypocrisy of the British class system.

The ailing Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon has been sent to Egypt for her health, accompanied only by her long-time lady's maid, Sally Naldrett. The unconventional mistress (known for her travel writing and independent spirit) encourages Sally to follow her lead in removing her stays and adopting a semi-masculine Egyptian dress as they revel in what they consider the "free" life of the anceint country. Lady Duff-Gordon relies on male friends and letters of reference to secure help--most notably that of a very capable dragoman who not only guides and interprets but also cooks and shops for the two women. Soon my lady, Sally, and Omar form a triumverate as jolly as the three musketeers. That is, until Sally and Omar fall in love, and Sally gives birth to an illegitimate child. Omar is willing to take Sally as his second wife--but not to go against the wishes of Lady Duff-Gordon and lose his lucrative employment.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of life in mid-nineteenth century Egypt, a seething political hotbed despite its placid surface. The current dictator, bent on building the Suez Canal, confiscates and taxes the property of the poor and conscripts young men into his work force. Lady Duff-Gordon happened to be one of the few Europeans to speak out against this regime.

I suppose it should come as no surprise when a liberal "free spirit" reverts to the snobbish conventions of her privileged class. But Sally's naivete was equally annoying. There was enough of interest here to merit a mediocre rating, but, sadly, most of that interest came from outside of the two main characters.

Jul 18, 2012, 10:09am Top

I liked March, but apparently it didn't stick. I've forgotten much of what you mention...actually I've forgotten practically the entire plot. Think I'll pass on the next two, although the subjects interest me.

Jul 18, 2012, 10:50am Top

March was good, wasn't it? And now you've reminded me that I was planning to reread Little Women.

I really enjoy reading your reviews, even (or maybe especially) when I'm certain that I wouldn't like the book you're mentioning.

Edited: Jul 18, 2012, 11:35am Top

192> I'm glad you're finding the reviews helpful. I know that reviews from readers that I trust have prevented me from wasting a lot of valuable reading time (as well as steering me to books I might have missed otherwise).

Jul 18, 2012, 11:38am Top

Hmmm. I wasn't a huge fan of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, but I've always been curious about March since I loved Little Women as a young girl. Maybe I'll give it a try!

Jul 18, 2012, 11:42am Top

194> People of the Book just didn't sound very interesting to me, and reviews by several readers whose opinions I trust put me off it. But March and Year of Wonders were very enjoyable. As for Brooks's latest, Caleb's Crossing--meh.

Edited: Jul 26, 2012, 9:16am Top

The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey

Livesey uses an interesting structure: the book is divided into four parts, each from the point of view of a different character, all of whose lives are intertwined. First, Sean tells of his life with his girlfriend, Abigail, and their friend and neighbor Dara, his failed efforts at graduate school, his divorce, and his suspicions that Abigail may be cheating on him. Cameron, Dara's father, relates a tragic story from his youth, his years of hiding a dark secret, and his relationship with his daughter, Dara. The third and fourth sections focus on Dara and Abigail, two very different young women who have been friends since college. Overall, this was a fairly interesting character study--a good but not great book.

Jul 26, 2012, 10:05am Top

Margot Livesey is one of the authors I always mean to read but never do. Maybe it's the covers. This one doesn't sound like the one to start with. What would you recommend, as I see you have read others?

Jul 26, 2012, 10:17am Top

197> I wish I could be more helpful. I haven't yet read Eva Moves the Furniture, but I hear that it's pretty good. I read but did not like her latest, The Flight of Gemma Hardy; it's a heavy-handed update of Jane Eyre, and in the end, I hated the main character. She is a very good writer; I think I'm just not terribly interested in her choice of subjects, so, depending on your reading tastes, you might enjoy her work more.

Jul 27, 2012, 10:29am Top

Thanks Cariola. I never know what to make of those books where you really admire the writing but are completely disengaged from the narrative. I will give her a try and see what happens.

Jul 28, 2012, 11:33pm Top

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

This is one of those books that really hooked me in at first but fell off a bit towards the end. It's 1922, and Cora Carlisle, a respectable Wichita wife in her late thirties, is hired to accompany 15-year old Louise Brooks to New York City. Louise, who became a silent film star a few years later, had been accepted by the exclusive dance school run by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Despite their age difference, it quickly becomes clear that it's Cora, not Louise, who is the more naive. Wherever they go, the beautiful Louise attracts male attention--and seems to know just what to do with it.

The story is more that of Cora than of Louise. The main reason that she wants to go to New York is to find out about her birth parents. She vaguely remembers a dark-haired woman holding her and singing in a foreign language, but her earliest clear memories are of the Catholic orphanage where she was raised to about age seven. Cora was one of thousands of orphaned children who were put on trains and shipped to potential parents in the plains states. Fortunately, her adoptive parents were loving and kind, but as she grew, Cora's life was not untouched by tragedy. In a day when adoption records were sealed, Cora attempts to find out who where she came from, who she really is.

The confrontations between Cora and Louise are exactly what one would expect, Cora constantly reminding her charge that she mustn't allow herself to be "compromised," Louise scoffing at Cora's old-fashioned Christian morality. This leads to a lot of self-examination on the chaperone's part, including the revelation of family secrets. But it isn't long before Louise is invited to join the Denis-Shawn company, and Cora heads back to Wichita--but not exactly to the same life.

The last quarter of the novel rushes through 50+ years of Cora's life, with occasional mentions and sightings of Louise. Overall, it seems rushed, and rather formulaic, all the 'surprises' too anticipated: hence the 3.5 rating. The rush is even more pronounced because the section on Louise seems rather dragged out. Think about the balance: 3/4 of the book focused on a few months in 1922 (plus Cora's memories), 1/3 covering the next 50+ years.

Overall, it's not a bad read, just slightly disappointing in the end. One thing I did get out of it was a renewed interest in Louise Brooks, one of the most distinctively stunning and most controversial actresses of the silent film era. Netflix will be sending me a documentary on her life, based in part on her autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood.

Edited: Aug 5, 2012, 1:41pm Top

Last Year's Jesus by Ellen Slezak

Since I was born in Detroit, grew up in the suburbs, and lived more than half of my life in the area, Ellen Slezak's stories brought back a lot of memories of persons and places: Bob-Lo Island, Ernie Harwell, the Ford River Rouge Plant, Sonny Eliot, Bozo, Jerry Cavanaugh, Woodward Avenue, Hamtramck, Tiger Stadium, etc. That said, I think there's plenty in Slezak's stories that non-Detroiters will relate to. They are very human stories. Two aging sisters stuck working at a GM plant are both rivals and best friends. A young boy, abandoned by his mother, moves in with his father and new wife and finds comfort in the friendship of an elderly neighbor. Three sisters whose lives have taken different directions quarrel over whether or not to move the body of a sister who died young to be near her parents' graves. A young woman who tries to turn an abandoned building into a European-style hotel gets more than she bargained for from a Russian tenant. These are stories with a lot of heart, and the characters ring psychologically true.

The "novella," titled "Head, Heart, Legs, or Arms," is narrated by nine-year old Mona, whose little sister DeeDee has been hospitalized. Mona doesn't know what's wrong with DeeDee, and no one will tell her; in a diary entry, she ponders:

"Possible things wrong with her: 1. Amputation, 2. Blindness (one or two eyes), 3. Retardation, 4. Heart murmur, 5. Other? Possible body parts affected: a. Head, b. Heart, c. Legs or arms."

In a prime example of children's magical thinking, Mona believes that if she doesn't see DeeDee in the hospital, her sister will come home. In the background are the 1967 riots, a serial killer on the loose in Ann Arbor (where her sister Rose will move to attend university in the fall), and the Tigers' shot at the American League title, as well as ongoing family issues. Slezak's Mona is a narrator who thinks like a child and sounds like a child--something rarely done so effectively.

Recommended--and I plan to look for more of Slezak's work.

Aug 5, 2012, 4:20pm Top

That sounds interesting. You are a hazard to my wish list!

Edited: Aug 6, 2012, 8:40pm Top

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samulesson

I don't usually read memoirs, but a recommendation from another LT reader convinced me to give this one a try--and I'm glad that I did. I knew the bare bones of Marcus Samuelsson's story--that he was adopted from Africa by a Swedish couple and worked his way up to become a top chef in America--and I had seen him on TV. But his memoir proves him to be both a dedicated chef and, as an author, a brutally honest man who examines his own mistakes unflinchingly.

Samuelsson doesn't remember much about Africa; he was less than two years old when his mother, who was suffering from tuberculosis, walked many miles to get treatment for him and his older sister. She died in the hospital, and the children were quickly adopted by a forty-ish Swedish couple. Most of his memories are of a loving home, and of the grandmother who first sparked his interest in food. But as might be expected, there were also times when it wasn't easy being a black boy in a small Swedish town.

Samuelsson's early years as a rising chef were marked by absolute ambition, and he paid an emotional price. He missed the funerals of both his father and grandmother, and he neglected a daughter born out of wedlock until she was 14 (although his parents paid his child support--and billed him later--and kept in touch with Zoe). But there's no whining here: Samuelsson admits his mistakes and takes the blame for their repercussions. After he had achieved a good measure of success and had time to reflect on what was lost, it was too late to mend some fences. But Samuelsson worked to build a relationship with Zoe and with his newly-rediscovered Ethiopian family.

Samuelsson gives us a fascinating look into the world of elilte chefs, a world that is at one moment cutthroat and at the next takes the term "networking" to new heights. But Yes, Chef is more than a professional memoir; it's the very human story of a man I've come to respect.

Aug 6, 2012, 8:23pm Top

Catching up here -- I've been meaning to read March for a long time -- I really must get to it -- your review has inspired me. Yes Chef sounds intriguing. Too bad it's almost time to go back to school.

Aug 7, 2012, 7:55am Top

Interesting about the Samuelsson book. He is very much in the news in NYC as a celebrity. I haven't been to his new restaurant, the Red Rooster, in Harlem, but many years ago someone took me to the Swedish restaurant, Aquavit, where he first became famous, before a trip I took to Sweden. I am not sure whether I'll read the book, but I enjoyed your review.

Aug 7, 2012, 8:33am Top

I heard an interview on NPR with Samuelsson when his book was being released and thought he sounded very interesting. I've also seen him on tv. This is probably a book my husband is more likely to read than I am, but you might have convinced me as well. Thanks for the review!

Aug 7, 2012, 9:19am Top

He talks a lot about both restaurants. Red Rooster seems to have emerged from his desire to find his roots, to combine the best of African and European cuisines, and to give back to the community (Harlem) where he lives.

Aug 7, 2012, 1:28pm Top

I got Yes, Chef through ER and am planning to start it today. Red Rooster is high on the list of restaurants to try soon, probably while I'm reading it.

Edited: Aug 7, 2012, 5:15pm Top

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've never read anything by Ishiguro, so all the gushing on LT was making me feel a bit guilty. I thought I'd start with this collection of short stories--which may have been a mistake. It's what I'd call a "concept" collection, and the concept really didn't engage me. Each of the five stories centers on a musician: a young emigré cellist from a former Soviet bloc country, a once-great crooner, an itinerant guitar player, musicians whose dreams of glory have faded into part-time gigs in Venetian cafés. On the whole, I just didn't care about them, their often extreme efforts to get ahead, and their somewhat seedy, down-and-out lives. The writing was OK, but not as glorious as I had come to expect. I am underwhelmed. But I'll give Ishiguro another chance down the road.

Aug 8, 2012, 9:23am Top

I must agree with you about thNocturnes- I also didn't care for them although I liked his The Remains of the Day.

Aug 8, 2012, 7:25pm Top

When We Were Orphans is also quite a marvelous book.

Aug 8, 2012, 8:08pm Top

221> I have that one around here somewhere.

Aug 9, 2012, 11:49am Top

I've never read anything by Ishiguro, so all the gushing on LT was making me feel a bit guilty.

I'm confused. Didn't you read and hate Never Let Me Go? I'm looking forward to your comments after you read Remains of the Day. I liked it, but didn't love it, and got some flak for it here at LT.

Aug 9, 2012, 12:17pm Top

213> Ack--you're right, Joyce. I guess I hated that one so much that I tried to forget that I ever read it. Maybe I won't bother to give Ishiguro another try.

Aug 9, 2012, 12:22pm Top

Well, I think I've only read two, and Remains of the Day was an entirely different book. Personally, I would never have guessed they came from the same writer.

Edited: Aug 9, 2012, 8:33pm Top

Marcus Samuelsson will appear as a guest on PBS' The Charlie Rose Show tonight, and will talk about his memoir, Yes, Chef. The link below will take you to Charlie Rose's web site, where anyone who is outside of the US or who isn't able to stay up late to watch the show on their local PBS station can watch the video in a day or two.


Aug 9, 2012, 9:54pm Top

I'll be watching--later, if not tonight.

Aug 12, 2012, 7:47pm Top

Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys

I am a huge fan of Helen Humphreys' novels, having read and adored The Frozen Thames, Coventry, Afterimage, and The Lost Garden. No one writes more beautifully, and few writers have such poignant insights into the human spirit. Those are characteristics apparent in Wild Dogs, too, although its plot is quite a turn from what I've come to expect from Humphreys.

Each night a group of six very different people meet at the edge of the woods behind Cooper's farm. There's Alice, a sad loner who has recently left her boyfriend; Walter, an elderly man who was recently widowed; Jamie, a 15-year old who believes that his stepfather hates him; Malcolm, an eccentric 40-year old who lives with his mother; Lily, a young woman who was brain-damaged in a childhood accident; and an expert on wolves. Though very different, they all have something in common: their former pets are now part of a wild dog pack. Some ran off, some were dropped off by family members who couldn't or wouldn't keep them. And each night their owners gather in hopes of catching a glimpse of their dogs, calling to them in hopes that their calls might be answered. These six people, all emotionally damaged and, like the dogs, in hiding for reasons of their own, form a tenuous pack of sorts--a pack that, like that of the dogs, can be both supportive and destructive.

Humphreys begins with a lengthy narration of events by Alice, but in the end, each of the six characters (plus the father of one) gets the chance to summarize what happened from his or her perspective. Each of their lives has been deeply changed by their shared experience. Although Wild Dogs is harsher and darker than Humphreys's usual fare, it nevertheless shines at its heart with a small glimmer of hope and the sense that we might, if we dare to risk it, be one another's salvation.

Aug 13, 2012, 1:43am Top

Wild Dogs is now on my wishlist, but there are a lot of books ahead of it.

Thank you,


Edited: Aug 13, 2012, 4:56am Top

I will look for Wild Dogs in the bookstores. Nice review.

Aug 13, 2012, 8:02am Top

Excellent review of Wild Dogs, Deborah. I haven't yet read anything by Helen Humphreys, but am adding her to my wishlist.

Aug 15, 2012, 1:11pm Top

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

I didn't expect to care much for this book as I'm not all that interested in Greek myths and heroes--but what an unexpected surprise! I am so glad that I listened to the recommendation of other LTers and decided to give The Song of Achilles a go. Once I started, it was impossible to put it aside--a rare enough occurence, but rarer still when you already know how the story will end. That can only be attirbuted to Madeline Miller's gift for storytelling. Gone are the sometimes stilted characterizations of the original (due in part, no doubt, to weak translations). While the heroes here remain monumental, they are also complex men whose thoughts and emotions are all too human. While Miller never lets us forget that Achilles himself is the son of a goddess, we also see within him the vulnerability of the human condition.

The familiar story is narrated by Patroclus, Achilles's best loved companion. The son of a king sent into exile for making a tragic but shameful mistake, Patroclus befreinds the admired Achilles at the age of twelve. Miller takes us through their upbringing at the court of Peleus and their training with the centaur Chieron and on through the Trojan War, where both eventually meet their final fates. She fleshes out not only the shadowy character of Patroclus but also Thetis, Achilles's goddess-mother, his father Peleus, Chieron, Odysseus, Menalaus, Briseis, and others; and she even manages to make the exhausting battle scenes thrilling.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give to The Song of Achilles is that it has made me want to reread The Iliad. A truly remarkable read, well worth five stars and more.

Aug 15, 2012, 2:12pm Top

This has been one that I have had no interest in, but if you say otherwise ..... I might consider it. I had to read parts of The Iliad at university though, and I know I won't revisit that!

Edited: Aug 15, 2012, 2:21pm Top

I felt the same way, as I was never a big fan of The Iliad, but really, it is an awesome novel. I did listen to it on audio with a wonderful reader--but I think it would have snagged me just as much had I read it in print. In fact, now I want to read it in print, too.

Aug 16, 2012, 12:21am Top

Excellent! I'm glad that you enjoyed The Song of Achilles, Deborah. As you probably know it was my favorite novel from the Orange Prize longlist.

Aug 18, 2012, 12:09pm Top

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

After receiving a letter from a former coworker announcing that she is dying of cancer, Harold Frye leaves home to post his reply. But when he reaches the postal box, he keeps on walking, believing that he can keep Queenie alive, at least until he reaches her bedside. Along the way, he meets a number of kindly people (and some not so kind) and sparks national interest. And he begins to reminisce over his life with his estranged wife and son.

I liked this book well enough but didn't love it. Many have compared it to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, but aside from both main characters being men in late middle age, I see little similarity. There was a lot of wry humor in Helen Simonson's novel, her characters were much more developed, and, in the end, it was an uplifting story. By contrast, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry seemed bleak, if not downright depressing, although the ending hints at reneewal. In addition, the main plot seemd to rely on many previous novels and films: Forrest Gump's walk, the man riding a tractor across country to see his ailing brother, etc.

I listened to this book on audiotape; it was admirably read by Jim Broadbent, with the exception of one particularly jarring mispronounciation ("skeletal," pronounced as "ska-LEE-tul").

Aug 18, 2012, 12:15pm Top

Nice review of Harold Fry, Deborah. I'll eventually read this, but it will probably be the last one of the Booker Dozen I read, unless it's selected for the shortlist next month.

Aug 22, 2012, 12:34pm Top

The Giant O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

Mantel has discovered quite an unusual pair in Charles O'Brien, an Irish giant exhibited as a freak in 17th-century London, and John Hunter, the anatomist determined to secure O'Brien's body for his studies. (They are loosely based on real people.) She creates a fascinating but brutal picture of a slice of the underworld, a world where it's not against the law to steal a body from the grave, as long as you leave its garments in the casket; a world where girls as young as nine are auctioned off by pimps,a nd no one cares if they get pregnant or are beaten to death; a world where the unfortunate and disabled become forms of entertainment rather than objects of human empathy; a dog-eat-dog world in the treuest sense of the phrase.

Charles is a a gentle giant, one with the Irish gift of storytelling. He's smart enough to insist on "terms" with his agent and to keep his purse by his side at all times. Initially trusting of his companions and of the doctor who seems concerned with his failing health, he soon learns the sad truth of living in a world where it's every person for his or her self.

While I was moved by The Giant O'Brien, I can't say that I liked it as well as Mantel's more recent novels (The Cromwell Trilogy). But she has given us a brutally sharp view of life in the so-called Age of Reason.

Aug 22, 2012, 12:42pm Top

The Cromwell Trilogy? Please don't tell me she's planning to stop after the next book? I was anticipating a Wheel of Time-style series, one that would carry on through history for centuries and which would carry me along for decades.

Aug 22, 2012, 1:07pm Top

Well, she's at work on the next one, and if you know what happens to Cromwell, it would be hard to keep it going, at least with the same main character. But of course, there's no end to the Tudor era--always someone/something new popping up.

Aug 22, 2012, 4:57pm Top

Nice review of The Giant O'Brien

Aug 22, 2012, 6:39pm Top

Thanks for those reviews, Deborah. I suspect that Harold Fry will be an enjoyable read, but nowhere near as good as the other Booker longlisted novels, so I'll probably save it for last (unless it somehow makes the shortlist). I agree with you about The Giant, O'Brien; it was well done, but it doesn't come close to Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies.

Aug 23, 2012, 9:46am Top

I actually was a big fan of The Giant, O'Brien. Of course, it doesn't have the scope of Wolf Hall or A Place of Greater Safety, but I found it moving and insightful, and I loved the Irish story telling. As I've said many times, one of the things I love about Mantel is that she is brave enough to try many different genres and styles.

Aug 23, 2012, 11:58am Top

one of the things I love about Mantel is that she is brave enough to try many different genres and styles.

I couldn't agree more!

Edited: Sep 1, 2012, 8:28pm Top

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

I've been meaning to read The Forsyte Saga for years, having enjoyed both TV dramatizations (1967 and 2002). And even though I know the story, I very much enjoyed this first book in the saga. Galsworthy gives us a lush, detailed view of late Victorian England's upper middle class and their mania for property and respectability. Like every family, the Forsytes have their secrets and black sheep, and that makes them all the more intriguing. The focus here is the ramrod-spined solicitor Soames and his unhappy wife, Irene. Soames had courted Irene more for her beauty than for love, treating her like one of his exquisite objéts d'art. So determined was he to have her that he promised to let her go if she wanted her freedom. And here lies the crux of the story: Irene is dreadfully unhappy, yet Soames refuses to let her go.

Galsworthy has created a cast of one-of-a-kind characters (or if they now seem like sterotypes, they were one-of-a-kind when first created). There are the senior Forsytes, Old Jolyon, James, Roger, and the aunts; the "black sheep," Young Jolyon, who married beneath him and was cut off by his father; Winifred, married to the alcoholic bounder Monty D'Arty; June, Young Jolyon's philanthropic daughter from a first marriage, and her dashing architect fiancé, Philip Bossiney, secretly dubbed by the family "The Buccaneer"; and many, many more.

There's a reason why Galsworthy's novels were so popular--and why not one but two dramatizations have been made. Quite simply, The Forsyte Saga is a jolly good story. I'm looking forward to moving on to the next six books in the saga.

Edited: Sep 29, 2012, 2:22pm Top

In Chancery by John Galsworthy

This second installment of The Forsyte Saga didn't quite measure up to the first, The Man of Property, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It is mainly taken up with the marital difficulties of the second generation; Soames's indecision over whether or not to divorce Irene, who left him twelve years earlier, and Winifred's decision to divorce her alcoholic, spendthrift, philandering husband, Monty Dartie. In between we have second cousins Holly and Val falling in love and marrying against their parents' wishes, and Irene, Soames, and Young Jolyn each give love a second (well, in the case of Jolly, third) chance. I missed Old Jolyn and the aunts, and old James grumbles towards death with slightly less charm than previously. But alas, times are moving on: Queen Victoria has passed, and the flower of England are fading away in the first world war. Nonetheless, I liked In Chancery well enough to continue with the series.

This topic was continued by Cariola's 2012 Books.

Group: Club Read 2012

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