4

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).

Advertisements
1

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

3

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.

10

Stolen Beauty

You know how there are some book covers that are just gorgeous? And you want to read the book because you want to possess the book just because it’s pretty?

That’s how my lust for Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty started. I mean, look at this book! In person, it’s even better. That gold shine!

stolen beauty

This was one of two books I received for Christmas (what even is my family?) and I read it pretty much right away.

It’s the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the beautiful young Jewish woman who became something of a muse to Gustav Klimt. She was the inspiration for his Judith and later sat for a portrait. Stolen Beauty tells the story of Adele as she was, brilliant, a patroness of the arts in Vienna, before she died suddenly in 1925. She wanted the Klimt portrait to be left to Vienna, so that all people could enjoy the piece.

But when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, Adele’s surviving husband Ferdinand fled, leaving much of his wealth behind. Including the portrait. It is up to Adele’s niece Maria, to try and regain her family’s heritage, to restore the painting to Vienna as her aunt had wished.

Alternating between Adele and Maria’s experiences, decades apart, Stolen Beauty tells the story behind one of the most famous paintings in the world.

This book does an incredible job of bringing Adele to life, fully realized as a young woman who wanted so much to be a part of the intellectual circles of Vienna. She loved her city, she wanted to make a difference to artists and helped to establish a gallery so that all people, no matter their station in life, could enjoy it.

I loved getting to know the woman in the painting – I’d watched the Helen Mirren movie, Woman in Gold but that one is more about the battle of Maria to get the painting back for her family. Adele was this glamorous shadowy figure in that movie. Stolen Beauty brought both sides together for me. I also appreciated that the Maria sections of the book kind of blew threw WWII. Although a pivotal part of the history of these two women, it wasn’t the focus and it easily could have been.

For those of you who are looking for a different kind of historical fiction, I would definitely recommend this one.

11

Review: The Address

As you know, I’m done apologizing for occasionally dropping the ball on this blogging lark. For a variety of reasons, this year has been challenging and some things have been neglected as a result.

However, I’ve been reading (albeit more slowly) and I’ll be posting some fresh content in the coming weeks.

First up: Fiona Davis’ The Address.

the address

When Sara Smythe, head housekeeper at a fancy hotel in London, saves the life of Theodore Camden’s youngest daughter, she finds herself the recipient of a job offer: to be the manager at the hotel apartment he’s building in New York City. In 1884, the chance to move to New York, the chance to be defined by her work instead of her station is massive. She takes the job. Sara soon becomes very close with Theodore, especially since his wife and three children have yet to move into The Dakota.

A hundred years later, Bailey Camden is at a loose end. Fresh out of rehab, after a humiliating night out on the town, Bailey doesn’t have a job or a place to live. When her cousin asks for her help redecorating her apartment at The Dakota, Bailey jumps at the chance to rebuild her interior decorating career. She’s also always loved the apartment and the history of the building. Unfortunately, since her grandfather was just the ward of Theodore Camden, Bailey doesn’t stand to inherit anything from the estate. But when she finds old suitcases in the basement, she may have stumbled onto some of the answers of who killed Theodore Camden in his apartment all those years ago.

So this book should have been right up my alley: a murder mystery, a woman doing a man’s job ahead of her time, some historical context, it wasn’t told in the first person.

But.

(You knew there was going to be a but)

Sara is framed as a modern woman, one who rose above the murky origin of her birth, who survived the advances of man who was in charge of her at a delicate age. But she throws all of that away to be with a man, who is married to someone else. Bailey is frustrated by everyone around her not giving her what she thinks she deserves, is jealous of her cousin’s wealth and will do just about anything to pretend she lives at the same level.

These are not the kinds of heroines that I enjoy spending time with.

There is a whole story arc about how easy it was to dispose of troublesome women, through asylums, making women seem crazy or hysterical and then locking them up. It felt like as soon as I was settling into this part of the story, I was taken back to 1985 and Bailey trying to figure out her life, and her family history.

I was frustrated by both Sara and Bailey as they each sacrifice things for the men in their lives. Bailey has just finished a stint in rehab and knows she needs to stay away from any relationships for a year and as soon as she’s out she finds herself attracted to the building manager at The Dakota. And Sara risks a lot more in 1884, even though she knows from her mother’s experience that this is not the smartest thing to do.

I think The Address could have benefited from more time – had the book been longer, there would have been more room to fully realize the characters and the settings. Instead, it felt rushed and incomplete. The murder mystery, while sometimes intriguing, wasn’t that skillfully drawn out. There was a complete lack of tension as Bailey tries to figure out what happened.

In the end, everything is tidied up a little too well but not in any way that gave this reader a modicum of satisfaction.

I didn’t reach my “throw the book across the room” level of frustration with The Address but there was a lot of muttering and sighing as I read.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book.

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.

edgefall

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!