Victorian Scandal: Becoming Belle

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

love  reading about Victorian aristocrats. Their codes of conduct, their society rules are fasctinating and there’s nothing better than reading about scandals of the time.

So when I heard about Nuala O’Conner’s new novel, Becoming Belle, about the woman who would become the Countess of Clancarty after acting on the stages of London, I knew I’d be reading it ASAP.

becoming belle

Isabel Bilton is the eldest daughter of a military man. She clashes with her overbearing mother and eventually, with the help of her sympathetic father, goes to London to follow her dream of making a living on stage. She finds work immediately and, after bringing her younger sister Florence to town, headlines her own sister act. It isn’t long before Isabel is the toast of the town.

Initially Isabel is completely naive and is taken in by a con man. But eventually she falls in love with the young Viscount Dunlo and it’s their secret marriage before he reaches the age of majority that kicked off one of those notorious court cases that I love so much.

Usually, I read about these in a non-fiction context, generally when I’m reading about Queen Victoria or one of her children. Becoming Belle brought the people involved to life, full of their contradictions and foibles. O’Conner’s portrait of a young woman following her dreams, who falls in love, colours in so much more of the story and the players. When you read about these cases in passing, it’s easy to forget that these were real people with their entire lives on display for everyone to pass judgment on.

As much as Belle (as she eventually styles herself) is held to the codes of conduct of her time, she blazes her own trail. After being burned by a man she thought was in love with her and forced to make a decision that would allow her to continue to live as she chooses, she wants to be in control of her own destiny. While she loves Viscount Dunlo and wants to share a life with him, she doesn’t want to put herself in a position of being dependent on her.

Becoming Belle is the story of a singular woman following her heart at all costs. It’s exactly the kind of book I hoped I’d be reading when I picked it. I think it could make for a delightful mini-series (ahem, Julian Fellowes).


Literary Wives: First Love

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read First Love by Gwendoline Riley.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

first love

First Love is the story of Neve’s marriage to Edwyn. They live together in London and are definitely not suited to each other – Edwyn thinks that Neve is dirty and trashy and Neve is self-conscious of her origins compared to Edwyn’s. They go through cycles of calm, where neither are particularly interested in being involved with the other but aren’t at each other’s throats, and explosions of temper than end in threats of leaving each other.

The book looks at Neve’s life and the decisions that ultimately brought her to Edwyn. There’s the relationship with her parents with eerie echoes of her own marriage, the musician she keeps coming back to, thinking that with him she could have had something different, the crushing loneliness of finding herself on her own for the first time.


My Thoughts

So this book isn’t long – my copy was 166 pages – which was probably a good thing as I read it in the early newborn days. I read it while nursing or bouncing her around the garden in her baby wrap. How much I was able to focus on what I was reading is about to be determined.

I do remember thinking that this book is exactly the kind of book that would be shortlisted for a literary prize (Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017). I didn’t find it particularly emotional considering the subject matter. There’s always such a distance in books that are considered for such awards, as though emotion is unseemly and unworthy of consideration. One must focus on the craft.

I did feel anger towards Edwyn and Neve’s father for gaslighting the hell out of Neve, making her think that the things she was feeling were invalid, that the things she remembers happening never did. Neve learns to make herself small, to tread softly so as not to incite the wrath of her bullying and overbearing father, traits she brings into her marriage to Edwyn.

I honestly wanted to shake Neve out of her submission and I wanted to slap Edwyn. Reading the conversations between Neve and her husband, where he twists everything she says to make her feel stupid was honestly one of the most infuriating things.

Ultimately, it felt like the kind of book that looks at the cyclical nature of our most important relationships. Neve is treated terribly by her father and when the same comes to pass in her marriage, she doesn’t seem to think she deserves any better.


What does the book say about being a wife?

First Love is a book about being trapped in a marriage, in the role of wife. Neve is unable to see her life without Edwyn in it. She believes his ideas about her, that she drinks too much (she got really drunk once and vomited when she got home, something Edwyn has never let her forget), that she’s trashy, she’s dumb even though she supposedly reads.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that Edwyn suffers from a heart condition, the same one that killed her father. Neve feels intense guilt even thinking about leaving Edwyn, has guilt over her father dying, believing that visiting him more often could have somehow changed the outcome.

Neve has loads of baggage from her relationship with her father, which interferes in her marriage. Even though Edwyn is never physically violent with her, there are echoes of her parents’ marriage in her own and in some ways that makes Neve feel safe. She knows what kind of husband Edwyn will be even as his behaviour becomes more erratic. She believes that as his wife, she’s the only one that can provide him with comfort as he struggles with his health. For Neve, her role as wife means giving over everything of herself in service to her husband.


In October, we’ll be discussing An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.


Lake Reads: BC Day 2018

We have a long weekend coming up in Canada (hooray for BC Day and whatever you call it in your province!) and even though schedules and weekends no longer actually mean anything in this household (my husband works shifts that jump week to week), we’re still heading out of town for it.

It’ll be the first time we take our small lady on the road and I have no idea how much time I will actually have for reading but I can’t go unprepared. I’m hoping that the addition of some extra grandparent hands will mean I have the chance to sneak off and get some reading done.

Even though I hate packing (you should see the lists for this trip), I loooooooooove packing books. There’s no flight involved so there’s no weight restriction. If I bring it and it doesn’t get read? Oh well.

So, here are the books I’m planning on bringing with me!

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I’ve been meaning to read this book about generations of a Korean family for AGES. Ever since Roxane Gay said it was her favourite book of 2017. But it’s an intimidating size and I think I need TIME to spend with it. So here’s hoping that the lake provides the perfect setting to finally get into this one.

When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger.  I hated the sequel to The Devil Wears Prada so I don’t have terribly high expectations for this third book. But it’s a quintessential summer book, I’ve seen people I trust read it and enjoy it and honestly, aside from that one book, Lauren Weisberger hasn’t let me down yet. 

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. I haven’t read a book written by a man in something like 20 books. I think Larson, one of my absolute favourite non-fiction writers, is one of the only men that could induce me to break this streak right now. His book about the deadliest hurricane in history has been hard to find (I’ve read everything else he’s written). When i came across a copy recently, I didn’t even hesitate in buying it. I’m hoping to get it read while I’m up there and leave it behind for my father-in-law.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Ah, another book by a man. OK this is maybe becoming a Thing. When you’ve read a lot of crime fiction, it becomes difficult to find books that are original. Horowitz putting himself into this book makes it stand out and it feels like the kind of book that I always crave when I’m at the lake.

Educated by Tara Westover. Everything I’ve heard about this book makes me think it could be kind of a heavy read. So it feels like a good idea to bring it to a place that makes my heart happy. A memoir about growing up thinking the End of Days was coming, cut off from the world with a father who was growing increasingly violent? That sounds like the kind of book that needs to be read in the sun.

I think I’ll probably cap it at five books this time. A year ago, this list would have been a good start, now it’s definitely aspirational. But we wouldn’t be bookworms if we didn’t spend our time thinking about all the books we’d like to read.

Happy long weekend, friends!


Backlog reviews

In an effort to clear my reviewing backlog and ease my conscience, I’m going to batch up a couple of books today. There’s actually no rhyme or reason to the books that I’ve chosen to pair up – wouldn’t it be nice if I had a lovely theme today like Italy or historical fiction or books about awesome people?

Sadly the books that I’ve chosen to pair up today were ones that were just OK for me.

game of hope

First up, young adult historical fiction, a genre I had high hopes for. Sandra Gulland has written some incredible adult historical fiction set mostly in France. She is responsible for a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and I’ve read some great ones set at the court of the Sun King. I was excited about The Game of Hope about Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense.

In The Game of Hope, Hortense is a fifteen year old girl relegated to a drafty boarding school on the outskirts of Paris. She is the victim of circumstance, dependent on her mother’s floundering relationship with her stepfather for the outcome of her own life. Desperately in love with a friend of her brother’s, she hopes she will be allowed to marry him. It is 1798 and Napoleon is trying to win power in France – over the course of the book he achieves that.

But Hortense spends the whole book, a book about her, waiting around for things to happen. She waits to be told she can marry, she waits to go home, to go back to school, for the return of her brother and the man she thinks she loves. Nothing happens to Hortense.

It’s a shame because in real life, Hortense goes on to become the Queen Consort of the Netherlands, after marrying Napoleon’s brother Louis. Instead Gulland decides to paint her as a kind of serious, ultimately uninteresting teenager waiting for life to happen to her. I wanted so much to like this, was hopeful that my eyes were about to be opened to a glorious new genre. But alas, The Game of Hope just left me wishing for a different book.

the house swap

I thought that I had some glorious baby-and-work-free days ahead of me when I started Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. But I ended up starting it the day before I went into labour and then it took me two weeks to finish (see: life with a newborn). How much the circumstances contributed to my feelings about this book is unknown. I do think it would have been a more enjoyable read had I been able to read it in one or two sittings.

Caroline and Francis are giving their marriage another go after some difficult years. Caroline was unfaithful and Francis had been in the middle of addiction but they are looking at their week at a house in a London suburb as a fresh start, a chance to focus on each other. While they are in this house, the home’s owner is enjoying their own time in Caroline and Francis’ home up north.

Right away, Caroline notices strange things about the home: there doesn’t seem to be any personal effects in the home and she could swear that some of the things that are there are messages to her. But that’s crazy right?

The novel is broken up into sections telling the story from present-day Caroline’s view, Caroline from two years ago and Francis-then. Slowly a full picture forms of what exactly happened two years ago.

Like I said, I think if I’d been able to sit and read this book in one shot, it would have felt different. It could have been a fun light thriller. But partly because I dragged it out and partly because the solution to the mystery was pretty obvious, The House Swap just wasn’t what I hoped it would be. It had some of the ingredients to make for a decent thrill ride – infidelity, death, sinister house, neighbour with a ‘vibe’ – but mixed altogether it was missing something crucial to make me care.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews


Hemingway as a footnote: Love and Ruin

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

In the early days of having a new baby, I wasn’t sure I would ever have the mental capacity to be able to read properly again. In the month after she was born, I finished two books. It was hard work and I’m not convinced I could tell you more about those books than “good.”

But then the days started to take some kind of regular shape and my brain started working a little again. Which is when I decided to read Paula McLain’s Love and Ruin.

I’m one of the only people (I think) that didn’t love The Paris Wife. I hated that the book was so much about Hemingway, rather than his wife who the book was supposed to be about. But then I really liked Circling the Sun about female aviator and all around sh*t disturber Beryl Markham. So even though Love and Ruin has to do with another of Hemingway’s wives, I decided that I did want to read it.

love and ruin

Martha Gellhorn is 28 when she travels to Spain, alone, in 1937 to cover the events of the Spanish Civil War. She lives in derelict hotel rooms trying to find her voice in the cacophony of male journalists reporting on what’s happening. She focuses on what the events mean to the people, the women and children in particular, who live in the affected areas.

And while her days are thus spoken for, her nights are spent with new friend Ernest Hemingway, the writer she most admires who she met back in Florida. Their friendship soon becomes something more and eventually, Martha becomes the third Mrs Hemingway. Ernest and Martha retreat to Cuba after the devastation they witnessed in Spain and spend months fixing up their little house there, a respite from the events unfolding in the world. But both are restless, each working on their next story.

When Martha finds journalistic success by writing about conflicts around the world, thus becoming more than just ‘Mrs Hemingway’, she must navigate the new realities of her marriage. Her husband isn’t used to sharing the limelight.

Love and Ruin reminded me of Z: A Novel. That book too was able to spotlight the wife of a famous man, to show the realities of living with such a talent and show Zelda’s story in her own right. Martha Gellhorn was herself a talented writer, a woman who reported on basically every major conflict over the SIXTY years of her career. Her marriage to Hemingway was a blip in her life, arguably one of the least interesting facets of her life and McLain is able to show that. Hemingway becomes a kind of footnote to Martha’s life, no small feat in my opinion.

I was hooked on this book immediately. The opening pages echoed sentiments that can be found today, of watching history happening and not being able to sit quietly by and watch.

It may be the luckiest and purest thing of all to see time sharpen to a single point. To feel the world rise up and shake you hard, insisting that you rise, too, somehow. Some way. That you come awake and stretch, painfully. That you change, completely and irrevocably – with whatever means are at your disposal – into the person you were always meant to be. […] There wasn’t any choice to be made, in the end. I would have to go to it, with my eyes wide open, and my hands open too, willing to pay the price.

I’m not sure that Love and Ruin will be found in too many people’s beach bags this summer (although it wouldn’t be the worst thing to read in the sun!) but I think people will find this one in the fall and feel like it was the perfect time to read it. Love and Ruin manages to balance the perceived frivolity of a love story with the gravity of current events. It was a powerful novel about finding one’s voice and vocation and I really enjoyed every page.

For once, I was sad to finish reading a book featuring Ernest Hemingway.


Some personal news


Remember me? I have (once again) been woefully absent from this space. May was a fairly decent reading month and I was taking notes and planning for blog posts, including a Literary Wives post that just never happened.

I have the best possible excuse this time: I had a baby!

My daughter was due in mid-June, but she showed up at the end of May and turned our entire life upside down (in the best possible way). I thought I had more time to get my life in order.

I’ve been brain-dead, sleep deprived, unaware of days, unshowered and often trapped under a sleeping baby for three weeks now which hasn’t left a lot of space for here. I wanted to pop on quickly (my girl is sleeping in her bassinet after terrorizing me all night with hourly feedings) and let you all know that I’m not ignoring this space, I’m just putting it on pause.

I will try to post some content in the coming weeks – for my own sanity if nothing else (newborns are adorable and sweet but kind of boring?) – but there probably won’t be tons here for a few more weeks.


I’ll definitely be back though!


A very pleasant read: Women in Sunlight

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You know how sometimes you are just in need of a solid three star read? Something that doesn’t really need anything from you, it doesn’t stoke strong feelings either way, is just thoroughly pleasant?

That’s kind of what Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunlight was for me. Completely and totally pleasant.

women in sunlight

Kit Raine is an American writer living in a village in Tuscany. Her neighbour is renting out her house for the next year to a group of older American women – after the year, they will have the option to buy. Kit witnesses their arrival and becomes a part of their quest to upend expectations and figure out what the next chapter of their lives look like.

Julia, Camille and Susan meet as they all tour a retirement community, thinking it might be the next logical step. Camille and Susan are widowed, Julia has left her husband and a tragic situation. Instead of signing up for little homes in this community, Susan convinces the other two to follow her and move to Italy. And so these three women move to a small hillside Tuscan town and jumpstart the next phase of their lives: through food, art, gardening and learning to embrace an Italian way of living.

Nothing unpleasant happens in this book – everything bad or tragic has already happened before the story begins. In this way, the story doesn’t really have a huge impetus to move forward. It’s more a meandering through a year in Tuscany, living in a glorious villa, making friends with locals, eating all the greatest food and discovering the delights that Italy has to offer.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – shouldn’t something happen?

But then I realized, I actually really like these kinds of books, the ones that are just a collection of everyday happenings that together make a life. I really appreciated the representation of mature female friendships – these women don’t compete with each other or tear each other down. They are supportive of the others’ desires and need for space or time to work through what is going on. Each allows the others to live this life on their own terms, working together to create a paradise of their own making.

I mean, this is the dream no? Retire and move to Italy for a delicious and beautiful second act?

If you end up reading Women in Sunlight, for the love of all that is holy make sure that you have good food on hand. You will die if you have to read this book without food. The description of eating and drinking in this book will end you. So consider yourself warned on that score.