Thursday, August 11, 2016

Quick Takes

Just popping in here with some quick thoughts about a few of the books I've read recently. First up is Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Part of Hogarth's Shakespeare series, which commissions current authors to reinterpret some of Shakespeare's classic plays, this novel offers a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew. This was my first time reading anything by Anne Tyler, who is one of those quietly but widely renowned authors, and I was really impressed with her writing. Her style, at least in this book, manages to convey a compelling drama while still being rooted in the ordinary little facets of everyday life. I also appreciated the direction went she with the story. A modern reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew could easily go a very cliche route--I'm imagining something in which Kate is portrayed as some kind of driven "career woman" who needs to be softened. Instead, Tyler takes a more subtle, unexpected route, casting her Kate as the 30 year old daughter of an eccentric scientist whose blunt personality starts to veer toward bitterness as she feels increasingly trapped by her life circumstances. The romantic lead she clashes with is her father's research assistant, an Eastern European immigrant whose visa is about to expire. It's the type of pairing you don't read about every day, and it plays out in a very satisfy way.

Next is a Persephone book, Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diary of Vere Hodgson that spans the years 1940-1945. You might say that this falls at the more utilitarian end of the diary spectrum. It's not a memoir in which Hodgson has wrapped up her experiences in a neat and tidy package, nor is it secret diary in which she's revealed her innermost thoughts and feelings. Instead, this is a diary that she wrote and circulated among relatives living abroad as a way of updating them on her life in London during the war. She chronicles each day in a brisk way, succinctly recording the work she does, the increasingly skimpy food rations that she eats, and the endless air raids she experiences. There is very little plot beyond this sometimes repetitive chronicling, yet it is compelling in its own way. It gave me a new and deeper understanding of World War II from simply absorbing the daily grind of it through Hodgson's eyes. In a similar way, I also grew to love Hodgson as her wonderful, resilient character was revealed from witnessing several years' worth of her daily activities. At around 600 pages, I'll admit this may not be a book for everyone, but it's a real treasure for anyone who's interested in WWII and the female writers of the period.

Finally, a book that didn't quite his the mark for me: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I was excited to read this mystery after seeing it highly praised on a few of my favorite blogs in recent months. It's widely thought of as one of Christie's best, with a completely unexpected ending that was apparently very innovative for its time. Unfortunately, I think the vague allusions I had read about this amazing ending were exactly what spoiled the novel for me. From page one I found the characters to be a little dull and the plot a little hard to get into, but I kept reading on high alert, looking at the book from every angle to try to guess the ending. I did eventually hit on it, which made the end of the novel feel like more of a big letdown than a big reveal.

What are you reading these days?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Fancies

Last week, the structure shown in the picture below suddenly appeared in front of one of the buildings on my block. I believe it's a Little Free Library, although the lack of any kind of label means that it might only be meant for a select group of people already in the know. I took a chance and added two books to the 3-4 that were already in there. Over the past week they've all disappeared, but the box has yet to be replenished. What to you think--was I correct in my assumption or did I just clutter up a neighbor's mailbox?

Here are a few other things that have caught my eye recently:

Test your book smarts with this quiz that The Strand bookstore requires of its prospective employees. (I scored a 46/50!)

The origin of publishers' names.

I just discovered this children's book by a favorite artist.

And I recently finished Trollope's Miss Mackenzie, which was enjoyable and might arguably be described as an early precursor to some of Barbara Pym's work. As always, Trollope's delightful character names were out in full force: Mr. & Mrs. Fuzzybell, Dr. Slumpy, and the law partners Mr. Slow and Mr. Bideawhile.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Enchanted August

As someone who has experienced a fair number of Augusts in Maine, I was eager to read Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen, a modern day retelling of Enchanted April. Like Elizabeth von Armin's original, the novel features a group of four near strangers who rent a house together for a month, this time replacing the Italian villa with an island cottage in Maine. There they form a sometimes rocky friendship with one another, reflect on issues they have been experiencing with their respective husbands, families, and careers, and begin to reassess their own lives.

It's been quite a while since I read Enchanted April--long enough for me to wonder if I actually did read it or if I just saw the movie--so it's hard for me to give a complete assessment on how  Enchanted August pays tribute to its source material. It does capture the eccentric group of four, successfully updating each of the characters while retaining their key traits from the original novel. Bowen's plot relies on a lot of coincidences that happen among the four vacationers, especially toward the end of the novel, that probably require a bit more suspension of disbelief than von Arnim needed. A few of these plot points made me roll my eyes a bit, but wouldn't be too distracting for anyone who's reading for pure summer entertainment. Another thing that Bowen absolutely does capture is the atmosphere of summer in Maine. The fictional island is set somewhere near the vicinity of Bar Harbor, so many of Bowen's references were familiar from my past vacations there, as were her descriptions of the characters' long trip up to the island, with drives along wooded roads in the rainy dusk and parking lots filled with the "official state car", the Subaru. It all provided a fun way to relive a Maine adventure.

Have you read any novels set in your favorite vacation spot?

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Shuttle

I just finished reading The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett and I have to say, it might be my favorite Persephone book yet. I know for a fact that I have said this before about other books, but I may really mean it this time. It combines elements that are reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Edith Wharton, features a heroine that is equal to any of their classic characters, and just may be the latest addition to my list of favorite books of all time.

The Shuttle takes place in the early 20th century, when American heiresses were just beginning to marry into the British aristocracy. The shuttle of the title refers to the steamer ships that crossed the Atlantic, ferrying prospective brides and bridegrooms back and forth across the pond. The novel opens during the first wave of this phenomenon. The wealthy Vanderpoel family (fictional counterpart to the Vanderbilts) marries their eldest daughter Rosalie to Lord Nigel Anstruthers, an evil philanderer hiding behind the mask of a respectable title. As soon as the sweet, simple Rosy reaches England, she's easily overpowered by her husband, cut off from her family and money, and forced to live a reclusive life in Nigel's dilapidated manor house, Stornham Court. This section of the novel is pure Gothic fare.

Cut to twelve years later when younger sister Bettina Vanderpoel enters the scene as both the heroine of the novel and the hero of the day. Unlike Rosy, Betty is clever, composed, and courageous. She is close with her millionaire father and has inherited his practical business acumen along with his money. She brings both with her to find and rescue Rosy. She sweeps into the Gothic decay of Stornham and immediately begins to rehabilitate both the house and her sister. Gothic elements reappear as Nigel tries to plot and scheme against Betty, but they are always counterbalanced by her modern outlook, one that comes from a world where there's law and order and where people cannot be held captive against their will. This push and pull between the Gothic and the modern reflects the similar dynamic that occurs as American and English cultures mingle throughout the novel. Of course, there is a climatic scene in which Betty nearly does fall prey to Gothic horror at Nigel's hands--I won't reveal any spoilers, though. This is a true page-turner that's satisfying on many levels. (Did I mention that there is a romantic male lead who is at least as dreamy as Mr. Darcy? And characters with wonderfully ridiculous names like Ughtread and Mount Dunstan?) I can't recommend  this book highly enough!

Do you have a "favorite" Persephone book? Or at least a current favorite that has yet to be dethroned?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is the story of a group of kindergarten parents whose seemingly petty schoolyard dramas hide deeper secrets that escalate into a criminal act. That's not exactly the kind of story that would normally attract me, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try after learning that Reese Witherspoon had optioned the rights and is making it into a miniseries starring herself and Nicole Kidman. Still, I was skeptical as I started the book. I had just come off a string of mediocre reads and, for the first hundred pages or so, it seemed like this might be another one. As the momentum began to build, though, I found myself more and more drawn in. This turned out to be a completely enjoyable book that left me thinking about it days after finishing.

My initial lack of interest in the book stems from its synopsis, which makes it sound like something campy and melodramatic. Instead, it's smartly written on many levels. Moriarty's characterization and dialogue is pitch perfect. She balances out the novel's darker plot points with many funny moments, as well as with scenes that offer spot-on commentary on various modern-day social issues and themes. Even better is the way the novel is structured. In most mysteries, the plot surrounding a crime leaves the reader trying to figure out who did it and what the motive was. Here, not only are those two questions unknown, but the actual details of crime itself it a big unknown until the end of the novel. Moriarty cleverly unravels this bit by bit throughout the book. There are a few surprise twists that I was able to guess, plus one final twist that I did not see coming at all. This is a perfect summer read that's thought-provoking in an entertaining way. I can easily imagine this translating onto screen and can't wait to see the miniseries adaptation.


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