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Review: A Spark of Light

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

More than ten years ago, a friend gifted me a copy of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for Christmas. After devouring that in the Dublin airport, I made my way through her back catalogue. At this point, I’ve read nearly all of her books, seen her speak in a bookstore and follow her on Twitter. I’d stopped reading them as religiously as earlier – I felt like her books had become somewhat formulaic.

But Small Great Things was incredible and got me back on the Picoult bandwagon.

I expected another tour de force with A Spark of Light and was somewhat disappointed.

picoult

A Spark of Light is the story of a shooting at an abortion clinic, of the person doing the shooting, the people stuck inside, and those who are affected on the outside. The book begins with the climax of the shooting and works backwards, hour by hour, to fill in the gaps of how that day came to be. The story is told by the hostage negotiator whose daughter and sister happen to be in the clinic, by the daughter, an older woman who has just received bad news, a nurse doing her best to help those injured, a doctor who always feared this day would come and a protester who is undercover, trying to get dirt on how the clinic really operates.

Picoult is not known for shying away from big issues. She always thoroughly researches her stories, her characters are always fully formed. Picoult specializes in taking big issues and breaking them down so that they are digestible, so that readers can see things from a perspective they hadn’t necessarily considered before. She didn’t do that with Small Great Things – it was clear where the right side was. Unfortunately, it felt like Picoult was going out of her way to balance the scales in A Spark of Light.

I went back and forth on this one. A Spark of Light starts with the adrenaline running and I found myself immediately invested. But the further back we find ourselves, the less exciting the story is, the further from the action we are. I thought maybe Picoult was trying to show both sides initially so that she could come down on the Pro-Choice side in the end, but she didn’t.

I guess I expected more from Picoult in this instance. At a time when women’s rights are under attack, when men are increasingly legislating women’s bodies, it felt a little irresponsible to give a voice to those who would support those politicians. I guess the bottom line for me is that I don’t really care about what would motivate a man to shoot up an abortion clinic. I do think Picoult tried to work around the shooter but I’m not sure that it totally worked for me.

Had this book been released five years ago, I probably wouldn’t have an issue with it. It’s classic Picoult in a lot of ways. But in light of the state of the world, it was a little too much reality for me.

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Odd Duck: The Victorian and the Romantic

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

We’re working on sleep training which is great and terrible. On the one hand, my tiny girl cries by herself in her room and I have to let her work it out herself. On the other hand, I have time to myself for eating, showering, laundry, reading and yes, even blogging.

So let’s get to it before she wakes up.

victorian

The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time by Nell Stevens is a quirky take on the genre. At once a memoir about her time doing her PhD on Mrs Gaskell, it is also the story of a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life. Stevens decides to look at Mrs Gaskell’s time in Rome, shortly after the publication of her biography of friend Charlotte Bronte. There she supposedly had a romance with the American critic, Charles Eliot Norton. While working on her PhD, Stevens finds herself distracted by her own romance with an American screenwriter living in Paris.

If you have been a reader of this site for any length of time, you will know that I despise it when women, in fiction or non-fiction, put their dreams and lives on hold because of a man. Or even just rearrange their entire lives to suit the needs of a romance. So there were definitely moments reading The Victorian and the Romantic where I was rolling my eyes, willing Nell to not give up on her own dreams to suit the guy’s.

But then her heart is shattered and she must pick up the pieces and I found myself drawn to Nell and her story. I enjoyed the way she wrote Mrs Gaskell’s story, as though she were talking about a friend. In writing about her own relationship with a man who came into her life at the exact wrong time, she aligns herself with Mrs Gaskell and her very conservative Victorian “relationship” with Norton. Stevens illuminated a part of Mrs Gaskell’s life that I had no idea about (although to be fair, I knew she was married to a minister, lived in Manchester and died before she finished Wives and Daughters…)

This was an easy non-fiction read that had spirit, was beautifully written and made me want to learn more about a woman whose work I have enjoyed since I was introduced to Mary Barton in first year university. It’s a bit of an odd duck of a book (for example the Mrs Gaskell section is written in second person which you almost never see) but for all it’s quirks it’s also a solid little book written with heart.

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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).

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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

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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.

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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.

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Beach Bag Read: Other People’s Houses

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

We’re getting to the time of year where we all start dreaming about uninterrupted reading time in the sunshine, preferably near a body of water.

Which means that we need to start thinking about what titles are going to be included in said time.

I think I have a good one for you today: Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses.

From Goodreads:

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

other people

This is the kind of book that’s all about the things we don’t know about other people’s lives and relationships. Waxman has created a neighbourhood cast of characters that all have things going on that they don’t necessarily share with each other. Nothing bad or nefarious or life-destroying, just things that they aren’t totally comfortable bringing out into the light.

I liked how easy this was to read, how realistic it was about it’s portrayals of relationships without depressing the sh*t out of you. Other People’s Houses admits that life isn’t always what you think it will be but you will come out on the other side of whatever crap it throws at you.

I was charmed by Frances and her neighbourhood, how with all the residents’ foibles they still all pitched in and helped each other out when it was needed. I laughed out loud a few times at the situations that they all got into – not like Lucy and Ethel level shenanigans, more like Mad About You level misunderstandings.

This was a book I devoured in a couple of sittings and I think it would make for entertaining airplane reading, a great companion on a road trip or tucked into a beach bag for a glorious summer day of doing nothing.

My copy is about to be loaned out, potentially for some combination of all three.