9

Falling off the cliff of my interest

I am a sucker for historical fiction.

Seriously. You tell me a story about some kind of country house or palace, a family grappling with some kind of external force and maybe throw in a war? GIVE ME THAT BOOK.

Write a stellar first book of a promised trilogy and I am yours for life. Especially when you follow that up with equally impressive non-fiction.

But trick me into reading a sub-par effort in said trilogy and I will be SO MAD.

I loved The Storms of War. I couldn’t get enough of Kate Williams’ Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte.

But The Edge of the Fall, the follow-up to The Storms of War actively made me rage.

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When we left the De Witt family, we weren’t at all sure what the fortunes of the war would do to them. The father had been incarcerated in an internment camp as an alien enemy, the younger son had been killed in battle, the older one had run off to Paris, Celia was back from driving ambulances and had her heart broken by Tom who was possibly her brother, and sister Emmeline had married her tutor and was living in London.

The Edge of the Fall literally starts with a young woman falling off the edge of a cliff.

The rest of the book tries to find out what happened to her: did she fall or was she pushed? Told from different viewpoints, jumping around in time, Williams attempts to fit the puzzle pieces together.

Except you already know exactly what happened, it’s not a mystery and it’s not even very interesting. Celia is so boring, she can’t be bothered to DO anything; Emmeline has twins and makes excuses for her socialist husband; big brother Arthur is a monster; and nothing really happens to anyone except this fall at the beginning.

For something billed as historical fiction, it tried really hard to be some sort of mystery. The whole thing was like that season of Downton when Bates is accused of murdering his ex-wife and everyone spends the season trying to figure out if he did or didn’t? Remember how tedious that was? This book is like that storyline.

I was so bored. I was screaming for something to happen, anything. The only interesting part was when Celia goes to visit the German relations, having been unable to see them for the entire duration of the war. Only then does Williams do any credit to the rich historical context of post-WWI Britain and relations with Germany. Shame that Celia was the least interesting, most self-absorbed and yet pathetic character in this book.

One of the most interesting angles of The Storms of War was how this Anglo-German family handled the split loyalties and how they were viewed in their community. None of that is really visited in this book, except when Celia goes to Germany to see firsthand the devastation the war has brought.

When, at the end of this book, Arthur declares that he and Celia should go to America to find their fortunes, it was too late for this reader. There’s no way I’m going to read the last book. I can’t put myself through another 400+ pages of this.

 

13

Lake Reads: Easter 2017

It’s been pretty quiet around here eh?

I’m going through another reading rough patch – I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on reading! It’s been really busy at work and we’re still house hunting (which is the most intense experience out here) so I don’t have much left for this space.

BUT.

That’s about to change because it’s Easter and you know what that means? I’m headed to my in-laws’ house and all that’s expected of me in the next few days is to read and have some drinks. Maybe also run to town for ice cream.

lake reads

I have been looking forward to this weekend for weeks and weeks, thinking about what books will come with me. I’ve changed my mind many times but in the end, these are the books that I’m taking with.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. You may recall that I wasn’t a massive fan of My Brilliant Friend. It took me more than a year to take a chance on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name. Well, that one converted me. I fell for that book hard and I think it’s safe to say that I’m obsessed by the friendship between Lila and Elena. I can’t wait to get into the third book.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. This account of a white journalist going undercover as a black man in the Deep South in 1959 is more serious lake reading but it feels important and timely.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter. What can I say? I’ve been in a murder state of mind. I’ve been listening to as many episodes of the My Favorite Murder podcast as time will allow. Given my non-focus abilities recently, I need something to grip me. I was haunted by Slaughter’s Pretty Girls. I look forward to her scaring the crap out of me again. This book needs to be back at the library on Tuesday – someone is waiting for it!

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. When I saw this post from Amy @ Read a Latte I was intrigued. I mean, it’s serious if you read a book twice in a week. When I was next at the library, I saw this book sitting out and felt like it was meant to be. I like the idea of an office duel between competing assistants who hate each other right about now.

The Secrets You Keep by Kate White. I don’t want to brag but I know the guy who took the picture that they used for this cover. When he told me about it I looked the book up and it sounded interesting: what would you do if your new husband is keeping secrets from you, ones that are potentially dangerous? I pre-ordered it (something I NEVER do) and now I’m taking it to the lake.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams. I read the first book in this promised trilogy (The Storms of War) quite a while ago. It was the story of a German-English family navigating society into the First World War and what it meant for their place in it. Kate Williams is an incredible biographer and she has taken equal care in crafting some solid historical fiction.

And that’s “it.” Three full days, 10 hours worth of car rides – I can do some serious reading damage this weekend. Promise that when I get back, I will actually post about some of it.

Happy Easter, friends!

9

A New Favourite: Three Sisters, Three Queens

A few years ago, I got really excited because one of Philippa Gregory’s new books was billed as her first sister story since The Other Boleyn Girl.

As you may recall, I loved The Other Bolyen Girl – it was my Philippa Gregory gateway drug. But The Kingmaker’s Daughter, although technically about the Neville sisters, was mostly about men making decisions around women.

In short, I didn’t like it.

I’ve tempered my expectations when it comes to Gregory of late. Most of the time, I take her books out from the library.

But, I think she might be hot again. Because The King’s Curse, The Taming of the Queen and now, Three Sisters, Three Queens were all amazing.

I didn’t post about The Taming of the Queen when I read it but know that Gregory’s depiction of Henry VIII’s clever final wife is excellent. Henry VIII as a stinking, cranky, brute of a man is vividly brought to life as poor Katherine Parr is forced into marriage with him and just wants to survive. I loved it – although finishing the book was bittersweet as you leave Katherine momentarily happy but if you are a student of history, you know she’s headed for a sad ending all the same.

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Three Sisters, Three Queens is mainly about Margaret Tudor, but Gregory weaves Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor (the Dowager Queen of France, not Mary I) into the story as well. This is incredibly effective for a couple of reasons: Katherine’s story has already been told and Mary’s wasn’t that interesting and this allows Gregory to play with the sister dynamics that are so fascinating given their statures and the times they lived in.

I had no idea about Margaret Tudor but now I love her. She was married off to the King of Scotland, James IV when she was barley 14. She was sent to live in Scotland, among a completely foreign court, forced to accept her husband’s many illegitimate children. When her husband was killed (on the orders of her sister-in-law, Katherine of Aragon who was acting as regent for Henry VIII), she became regent for their son, James V.

But then she went and married this guy, Archibald (Earl of Angus) and the rest of the Scots were like “right, you forfeited the regency by marrying him so we’re in charge now.” She spent the next 10 years fighting for her right to be regent, fleeing anytime it looked like she was in danger. Her marriage, to a younger man who she had married for love, complicated her ambition as his family was knownto be in the employ of the English, working for personal gain, against Scotland.

Throughout the novel, Margaret and her sisters write each other letters, admonishing each other over matters of state, faith and family, the loss of children, troubles in their marriages, the changing borders. Their sisterhood is complicated by their status as queens, as each fights for her kingdom, her children and her happiness.

When I posted about this book on instagram, I said that it elevated the historical fiction genre. I stand by that. Gregory has written a fast-paced interesting book about women that history pits against each other. Viewed through Gregory’s lens, you see that these women were as much a product of their times as the men they were married to.

PS This one was recently released in paperback!

7

Heartbreaker: The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was one of the early books my book club chose to read. I was completely taken in by the story of a gruff old man learning how to let go of his prejudices in a town that had always enforced them, of learning to open his heart to a most unexpected love.

That book was published way back in 2010. I wasn’t waiting for a new book from Simonson, but when it showed up on my radar, I was interested.

Then I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads and people didn’t seem to love it. I backed off.

I came across a copy at the library a few weeks ago and thought “why not?”

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The Summer Before the War is set in a village in England, in the summer of 1914. Beatrice Nash has taken the post of Latin teacher at the school, the first woman to ever hold the post. When she arrives she meets Agatha Kent, who has been instrumental in Miss Nash’s success in getting the job. Mrs Kent warns her that she has a lot riding on her doing well in the job. Mrs Kent has two nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Daniel fancies himself a poet, intent on running away to Paris and setting up a literary magazine with his titled best friend; Hugh is training to be a surgeon, the more serious of the cousins, he becomes a good friend to Beatrice.

The book becomes about the havoc that the war wreaks on a certain way of life in England at the time. Belgian refugees come to the village, straining resources and forcing people to confront the realities of a war they’d prefer not to think about too much. This book is less about whatever might happen between Beatrice and Hugh and more about how a whole village does or does not pull together in a time of crisis.

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into this one. Simonson lays a lot of groundwork of the time, the characters, their backgrounds, the rules that govern society – all on a backdrop of this idyllic, golden English summer. I found it hard to figure out how much time had passed – war seemed to very suddenly affect the village in a myriad of ways and it felt like more time should have passed. But you know, I wasn’t around in 1914, so maybe that’s exactly how it played out. Simonson probably knows better than me.

The strength of this book lies in the foundation. Before you know it, you are deeply invested in the lives of the characters that you’ve totally fallen in love with. Snout, a 15-year-old with a questionable heritage, a passion for Latin, who decides war will be the making of him; Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee who needs the support of the village when the full extent of her experiences become known; Eleanor, whose German husband is in Germany and who people suspect of possibly being a spy. And of course, Beatrice, Agatha, Daniel and Hugh.

And lest you think it’s completely character driven, know that Simonson also did an amazing job, like she did with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, of examining the prejudices of the day. Women’s suffrage, the plight of the Fallen Woman, antipathy towards the area’s Romani population, and class snobbery are all embroidered in the fabric of the story.

By the time I finished reading this one, tears were streaming down my face. Totally unexpected.

I meant to buy this one many times over and now that I’ve returned the library’s copy, I regret that I didn’t give in to that temptation. This is a book I would have liked to loan to others.

15

Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.

belgravia

Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.

10

Review: Pillars of Light

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

Jane Johnson’s Pillars of Light is billed as a “masterpiece of historical fiction” by none other than Anne Fortier, author of Juliet.

I am always looking for new historical fiction to get swept up in and the promise of a completely new era (this one takes place during the Third Crusade, in and around 1189) was more than enough to get me excited about this one. I mean, I love reading about Yorks and Tudors, Victorians and WWII but sometimes you need something new.

Pillars of Light is supposed to be a love story between Zohra, a young Muslim woman responsible for looking after her father and brothers after the death of her mother, and  Nathanael, a young Jewish doctor in the middle of a siege on their city of Akka, in Syria.

pillars

But their story is almost a footnote to the battle for control of the Holy Land, between Christian kings and the Muslims, who’s country it actually was. We meet the Sultan who is trying to wrest the port city of Akka back from the infidels, a band of thieves and con artists from England who travel all the way to Syria to take part in the battle and a host of other secondary characters that muddy the waters of what I had hoped was going to be a straight up love story in a historical context.

Johnson is a talented writer; she knows her subject matter and I suspect that were you to sit down with her to talk about the Third Crusade, you would come away much better educated than you went in. And I appreciated the theme of love woven through this tale: love of others, love of self, love as conquerer in a world torn apart by hate and misunderstanding. The fact that most of the action took place in Syria, among a people who were being starved out of their town, victims of a war that none of them wanted any part of, is obviously extremely topical and made me think about the plight of those same people now and what we have a responsibility to do to help.

But in terms of the actual reading…this one was middling for me. It felt at times like maybe Johnson had a hard time deciding if she was going to tell a story about the every day people or about the people making the decisions that affected the every day people. In the beginning, when we first meet Zohra and Nathanael and are appraised of Zohra’s life in particular, it seemed like maybe it would become a story of her asserting her personhood in the face of her family, culture and religion. I would have loved that story. There was a moment when one of the band of thieves, John Savage, realizes something about himself and his relationship with a mysterious man called just The Moor, that seemed like maybe it would become something bigger, a rare example of an LGBT relationship in historical fiction where the point of the relationship wasn’t persecution, but acceptance.

But none of it ever materialized.

I wanted more from this book than I got. Back to the drawing board for me and Crusade-based historical fiction.

Any suggestions for me?

12

Batch Reviews: An Actual Batch

I know when I started this little random collection of batch reviews, I made it seem like there would be more than 2 reviews per post. Today there actually will be.

We begin with Second Life by SJ Watson. Some of you may have read Watson’s first book, Before I Go To Sleep, which quickly found it’s way among the thriller heavyweights. I could not wait to get my hands on Second Life.

Julia is living a pretty ideal life in London with her son and surgeon husband. A photographer, one of her photos is now hanging in an exhibition in a major gallery. The shot, Marcus in the Mirror, has been replicated on postcards and is showing up all over the place. But then she gets a phone call that changes everything: her sister, Kate, has been murdered in an alley in Paris.

Julia struggles with Kate’s death. They were more or less estranged when Kate died and recently, Kate had been asking for the one thing Julia wasn’t willing to give up: her son. Kate is Connor’s real mum but Julia and Hugh adopted him when he was little. Turns out that Kate was spending a lot of time online and there’s a chance that the person who killed her was one of them. Intent on finding the person responsible, Julia starts her own profile and starts chatting with a man, Lukas. Kate’s roommate, Anna, becomes Julia’s confidante, as both struggle with what happened and how to move on.

Soon it’s about more than finding out what happened to Kate; Julia has fallen for Lukas.

Pacing was an issue for me in this one. It took a looooooooong time for me to feel anything. I just wanted to get on with it. But once you get there, it’s pretty good. Watson is adept at covering his tracks so that when he reveals the real story you are honestly gobsmacked. Like it’s predecessor, Second Life ends abruptly. You know everything that’s happened but that’s all you’re going to get.

If you’re willing to put in the work, Second Life has a pretty solid payoff but it’s not going to be for everyone.

The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I got a text from my librarian friend saying she was pretty sure this book would be right up my alley. She was so incredibly right.

Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne all became mistresses of Louis XV. It is a completely true story and The Sisters of Versailles tells it in English for the first time. Louise is the first. Married to a man she doesn’t care for she jumps at the chance to escape her country house and go to court. At first she is so good it’s almost a joke but eventually she learns how to navigate this world, embarking on her first affair. Soon she is strategically placed as the king’s mistress – the powers that be think she will do as they want and not challenge anything. She falls in love with the king and leads a pretty enchanted life.

But all is not so rosy for her sisters. After the death of their mother, they have been left to shift for themselves. Pauline and Diane were shipped off to a convent school, while Hortense and Marie-Anne were taken in by an elderly aunt with a very strict moral code. Marie-Anne manages to find a suitable match for herself and soon is living in Burgundy, bored out of her mind. For years, Pauline has been begging Louise to have her stay at court and when she finally relents, she will pay for it dearly: Pauline usurps her as the king’s mistress.

That’s a good start for anyone that thinks they may be interested. This book is littered with sister on sister crime, broken hearts, possible poisonings, court intrigue and all manner of delightful historical detail.

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The best part? The Sisters of Versailles is the first in a promised trilogy. The Rivals of Versailles should be out in April, while The Enemies of Versailles is expected in September.

Finally, let’s discuss the tiny powerhouse that is Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Phillips manages to cram a lot of book into 177 pages. Josephine Anne Newbury has moved to the big city and is desperate for a job, any job. She manages to land a data entry type gig at The Database, a deeply suspect, incredibly impersonal place that frowns on lunch breaks, personal touchs and speaking to your colleagues. (Pretty sure I worked here from 2008-2010, guys)

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But Josephine has a job and at the end of the day she can go “home” to her husband, Joseph. “Home” is a series of temporary sublet spaces, until they can get a little bit up on their feet. They also long for a child of their own.

As Josephine spends more time at her job, she starts seeing strange coincidences and takes it upon herself to investigate. One day she sees something she can’t ignore and when her husband doesn’t return home she risks everything to track him down.

This was a clever little book. A rumination on the kind of soul destroying work we’ve all done and it’s place in our world, the desire for a child and the struggles of infertility and the strains both of these things place on relationships. Joseph and Josephine have very similar jobs and both look forward to the day when their lives are different, committed to building a new life in this big city but they start to see themselves lose bits of humanity, the longer they work there like when Josephine starts referring to her husband by his social security number.

It was a strange little book and definitely not what I normally read but I loved it. I almost want to read it again and read it more closely but it has to go home to the library.