Posts tagged ‘English Countryside’

Don’t worry this will happen again – “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

9780316176491_custom-c831234cef792e71b1cd218d07c98edfbd8d2ddd-s2-c85“Life After Life” by Kate Akinson, Published in 2013

When I finished this book I could almost hear the sounds of my own disappointment *insert sad trombone here*.  I don’t want to diminish the writing or the concept of Atkinson’s story but like a lot of things what starts as a good idea at the beginning can often fall flat and for me that is what happened here. To be fair, I was really looking forward to reading this book knowing it had received so many accolades so perhaps the book was doomed from the beginning of our relationship.

This book has been reviewed to death but, regardless, a quick summary: Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910, in the English countryside. She dies. Reset. She is born again in 1910. She narrowly makes it but she lives.  And thus begins her lives of dying, narrowly escaping death, living, moving to Germany, moving to London, having a child, being childless – often a frightening feeling in her gut that this has all happened before.  Sometimes this feeling changes her decision-making and of course changes the lives of the whole cast of characters around her.

I am just going to be honest here, though the first 80 pages felt a bit repetitive, my main issue with the book is I just got confused. Was this the 1922 where she had the affair with the married guy or the 1922 where Ursula was raped? Is this the WWII where Ursula lives in a dismal apartment, working as a secretary, or lives with her friend or has a child or…I think you get the point.  And yes, in part I was a lazy reader with this book. But honestly, I didn’t feel like I should have to make a flowchart to keep up with what Atkinson was throwing at me.

I went through the last fourth of the rather large book just reading and accepting each new chapter as essentially a new short story about the same character. Maybe that was the plan all along.  I have to say, it is romantic – this notion that we will have the chance to do it again, better, maybe even wiser.  I predict that we are going to see this technique again and Atkinson is a solid writer so I worry what would happen with this idea in less capable hands.  But what do I know? I just recorded an episode of “True Tori” so there is no accounting for taste.



April 30, 2014 at 8:17 pm 7 comments

Keeping it all in the family – “The Camomile Lawn” by Mary Wesley

“The Camomile Lawn” by Mary Wesley, Published in 1984 

Though this review may not make it sound like it, I did love this book.  Wesley has a nonplussed British writing style that I really enjoyed.  This was my first Wesley novel so I look forward to reading more of her work.

Five cousins, Oliver, Calypso, Walt, Polly and Sophy, have a tradition of spending a month each summer at books-1their Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard’s house in Cornwall.  The summer we are introduced to the cousins is the last summer before England enters WWII and, coincidentally, the last summer they will spend all together. They are all in their late teens – except Sophy who is only 10 years old – and they are ready to take on the world.  They spend their time sprawled on their aunt’s camomile lawn, swimming, sunbathing, and planning elaborate games.  It is the last summer of their innocence.  The novel jumps forward 40 years as each of the cousins and Aunt Helena are on their way to a funeral.  It becomes a story woven as each character reminisces about those years during the war and everything that has happened since.

There are things in this novel that made me laugh out loud – Aunt Helena’s utter annoyance with Uncle Richard’s wooden leg, the cow running into the plate glass window (not terribly injured, don’t worry), ironing newspapers, Calypso’s honest claim that she is going marry a rich guy because she wants to be rich.  I suppose there were also touching moments but the characters don’t really take any of them very seriously so it is hard for the reader to either.  Wesley’s take on the war is that once it started it was a live-in-the-moment mentality.  This includes cousins sleeping with cousins who are sleeping with their aunt’s lover who in turn is sleeping with..well, everyone.

There is something deeper here -that family becomes your normal, that war and danger can be exhilarating, that sometimes memories are not the truth.  But you can choose to ignore the depth and just enjoy the romp, not unlike the characters themselves.  But really, you shouldn’t sleep with your aunt’s boyfriend. That is just weird.

March 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm Leave a comment

The Summer Reading Finale

imageI ended the summer with a lot of fast reads.  Admittedly, they were all breezy and some were more enjoyable than others.  But to be fair, some of them were read on the beach in Hilton Head and that might have made them even more enjoyable.

1. “The Other Typist” by Suzanne Rindell (Published in 2013) –   This is set in 1920s New York.  Rose is a typist at the local police precinct. She is plain and her life is simple.  When Odalie is hired on as another typist, Rose becomes intrigued by her and they become fast friends.  Odalie’s life is exciting and Rose finds herself very quickly sucked into it.  But as time passes it seems that Odalie is not who she says she is and very quickly Rose’s life spins out of control.  I was so interested in reading this book but it was truly beyond me. I would absolutely love it if someone else read this book and could explain it to me. I am serious – if you can please make a comment to this post. I finished it and thought “what just happened?”

2. “Reconstructing Amelia” by Kimberly McCreight (Published in 2013) – Kate has spent her life trying to balance being a single mother with a successful career as a litigator.  Her teenaged daughter, Amelia, always made it seem that Kate was making it all work.  Amelia was bright, pretty and seemed to tell her mother everything.  So Kate is surprised when she receives a call from Amelia’s school that she is being suspended for plagiarizing. Kate immediately heads over to the school only to find that between the phone call and Kate arriving at the school Amelia has committed suicide by jumping off the school’s roof.  As Kate deals with Amelia’s death she receives an anonymous text that merely says “she didn’t jump.”  And from there Kate begins trying to piece together what really happened to Amelia.  This book is fun but I was stunned by the writing at the end.  It could only have been written by a mother (sorry guys) – it is beautiful and touching though a little out of sync with the rest of the book.  This is a thriller with a bit of a predictability problem but that didn’t make it any less fun.

3. “Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjahian (Published in 2010) – The same day that Alice is baptized by Reverend Stephen Drew she is strangled by her husband, who then commits suicide.  Rev. Drew, who knew that Alice’s husband was abusive, finds himself losing faith when he is suddenly visited by Heather, a best-selling author who writes about angels.  Heather and Drew have an immediate connection – particularly since Heather’s mom was also killed by her father who then committed suicide.  As the investigation of Alice’s murder takes place, it seems that her husband was shot from 2 feet away – making impossible that it is a suicide (you totally saw this coming didn’t you).  And thus the investigation begins and everyone is a suspect.  Okay this book is pretty good and does pull you in but I was unclear what the purpose of some of the characters were.  Bohjahian addresses the issue of domestic violence in this kind of round about way that is not as poignant as it could be.  I do love the way Bohjahian writes, I just have yet to be amazed by his books. But for some reason I am compelled to keep trying.

4. “A Half Forgotten Song” by Katherine Webb (Published in 2013) – Zach owns an art gallery in Bath, England but it is a failing art gallery and his wife has left him, taking his daughter to America.  His publisher has called him and said that the book he is writing about the famous author Charles Aubrey must be completed in the next four months or they will go with another author.  And so aimless and lonely Zach heads to a village on the Dorset coast where Aubrey spent his summers for many years to try to find a new angle for his book.  There he meets Mitzy, an old, eccentric woman, who spent a short time as Aubrey’s muse when she was sixteen.  As her story about her relationship with Aubrey unfolds Zach finds that Mitzy really is the story he was looking for.  This sounds absolutely cheesy but it is definitely worth the read.  I did not love Webb’s book “The Legacy” but in this book I feel like she has found a great story that showcases her writing well.

And so the summer ends and I am fine with that.  It is time for beautiful leaves and pumpkin lattes and apple pies. Chilly nights and lots and lots of books.  Happy Autumn my fellow readers.

Other reviews to check out:

September 16, 2013 at 7:56 pm 3 comments

The moment that changes everything – “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

“On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan, Published in 2007

This was one of the books that Will and his mother read in “The End of Your Life Book Club” and so I picked it up at the library.  It is written impeccably.  It is also wistful and terribly sad.  It is perfect.

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the outset of the book, it is 1962.  Florence and Edward have just gotten married and it is the first day of their honeymoon.  They are being served dinner at a private table in their hotel located on Chesil Beach in Dorset.  There is a tension between them because they are both virgins and are anxious about the physical intimacy that is expected from the honeymoon night.  McEwan then takes the reader back and forth between what is occurring between Florence and Edward at the hotel on this one fateful night and their lives leading to that moment.

Edward has come from a humble background.  His mother suffered a dramatic brain injury when she was pregnant with Edward’s twin sisters and ever since she has not been quite right.  The family lives in a kind of ordered chaos with a mother who drifts in and out of a dream world and a father who tries to do absolutely everything for the family.  Edward is studying history at college and is obsessed with the incidental particulars of historical figures.

Florence is raised in an ordered Victorian styled home.  She has wanted for nothing, except for maybe a less frigid mother.  She is a talented violinist, she is beautiful and she is admired.

The two meet and fall in love at first sight.  But as they sit down to dinner on their honeymoon night it becomes clear that they truly do not know each other.  They have been all politeness and smiles, without substance.  They are awkward together and as Florence leads Edward to bed she is just hoping to get the dreadful act done and over. After the fumbling and the pivotal moment where everything physically goes wrong, the couple find themselves on the beach both embarrassed and infuriated. This all leads to a heated argument and a confession where things are said that cannot be taken back, their meaning cannot be erased and the future course is set for their relationship.

McEwan’s genius is in full force here.  He is able to deftly take the reader back and forth between the different pieces of the relationship.  You can see the characters and feel the tension.  He has also keyed into that human element, that struggle we all have of second guessing our choices and running our mind in circles about what we should have, could have done differently.  But of course, when everything happens, we don’t always know that it was that moment that would change everything.

(Warning: please note that, though the title has the word beach in it, this is not a fun summer romp of a read. But we would expect nothing less from the tragic tales of Ian McEwan I suppose.)

Other reviews to check out:

June 7, 2013 at 5:52 pm 1 comment

Sometimes cheese is good, even without crackers – a few books with few thoughts

I believe April has been my frivolous reading month.  I have enjoyed every book but I must admit there has been a lot of silliness that may or may not be corrected in May.  This Spring need not be the time for the mandolin read I guess.  So, if you are looking for the shallow but fun I really would suggest checking out any of these books:

1. “Mariana” by Susanna Kearsley, Published in 2012: This book is about a woman torn between two different periods of her soul (she is reincarnated) and trying to find love in both the 1700s and the present.  That is seriously what this book is about and I absolutely loved it.  It had just the right amount of romantic ridiculous and time travel and suspense to make this girl very happy.  Of course all readers who enjoy a good love story probably remember Kearsley from “Winter Sea.”  Set in the English Countryside, Julia keeps running into the same farmhouse in her country travels.  Each time she drives by it her car stalls.  One day she decides to ask about the house, only to find out it is for sale. Of course she buys it and of course there is a reason she is drawn to the house.  Her soul has been there in a previous life – obviously.  Did that just give you the chills? No? Oh well, you still should read it.

2. Sharp Objectsby Gillian Flynn, Published in 2007: From the marginally good author who brought you “Gone Girl.” Flynn is good at suspense but her earlier books before “Gone Girl” are weighted down with a lot of story.  It is almost like she wants to fit every episode of “Law and Order” into one book. She is still fun to read.  The main character Camille is a reporter for a suburban Chicago newspaper.  When two girls from her hometown in Missouri are killed and found missing all of their teeth, Camille’s editor sends her home to cover the story. Of course, for Camille, returning home has all kinds of implications. Suffering from severe mental health issues, Camille’s recovery is tested by her wacky mother and her sadistic half-sister.  Flynn likely read a lot of V.C. Andrews during puberty so she has a great handle on creepy.  But I promise no one gets locked in the attic.

3. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agencyby Alexander McCall Smith, Published in 2005:  Out of the three this book is wonderfully well-written (honestly, it should not be included in this review of fluff pieces).   When Precious receives her inheritance after the death of her father she decides to open Botswana’s first detective agency owned by a woman. Making her agency the top agency owned by a woman in the country – not unlike being valedictorian when home-schooled.  While there is one case that runs through-out the book, each chapter is a vignette of a mystery that Precious solves for her neighbors.  The characters are endearing, the end of the book is sweet, and it is not a surprise that readers wanted more so this became a series.

And there you have it.  My final reads for the month.  All fun, no real substance but one very happy reader.  On to the next book…

Old schoolbooks

Photo by Kerstin Frank

April 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm 4 comments

The honor of calling someone “Sausage” – “Snobs” by Julian Fellowes

“Snobs” by Julian Fellowes, Published in 2004 

I admit to reading this in honor of the return of “Downton Abbey” – almost like I am honoring all things Julian Fellowes, if you will. This is the second novel I have read by Fellowes – the first being “Past Imperfect”.  This book can be a bit slow at times but over all it was an interesting look at high society in England and just snarky enough to make me love it.

Set in the early 2000s, the narrator is an unnamed British actor who, while staying with his friends in the English country, meets Edith Lavery.  The novel then becomes the narrator’s spin on the story of Edith, who sets her sights to climb to the top of the social stratosphere.  And she does by marrying Charles, the Earl of Broughton. But Edith soon finds that living in the English countryside in a large  manor, dabbling in philanthropy and having tea with other nobility can be rather dull.

What can a poor social climber do once she has discovered that her new aristocratic life is dreary?

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take up with a British actor who is also interested in making a name for himself within the elite circles of England, of course.  So Edith meets Simon while he is filming a mini-series, which also stars our narrator, at Broughton Manor. Edith shames Charles’ family by running off with Simon.

Meanwhile the narrator is continually roped into the drama by not only Edith but also Charles and his mother, Lady Uckfield, who all want the family scandal dealt with in different ways.  Of course, Edith quickly realizes that she only had risen in class because of her marriage to Charles and she finds that she has lost a lot of so-called friends because of her affair.  Suddenly, life doesn’t seem as interesting without being able to walk into any private London club.  Certainly having to sit in the back row when attending a fashion show is not what Edith had planned for her life.  All of this leaves Edith with a choice – should she stay with the exciting, sexy actor but remain in the middle class or return to boring, average Charles but enjoin all of the perks that come with money and title.  Life is tough for Edith, as you can imagine.

The story itself is purposefully insipid  but the narrator’s observations of the upper-class of society and all of the characters’ ridiculous actions keep the novel grounded and stunningly hilarious.

On the upper-class passion for nicknames:

“Everyone is ‘Toffee’ or ‘Bobo’ or ‘Snook’. They themselves think the names imply a kind of playfulness…Certainly the nicknames form an effective fence. A newcomer is often in the position of knowing someone too well to continue to call them Lady So-and-So but no nearly well enough to call them ‘Sausage’…”

On how the upper-class always get things for free:

“They were shown into the Bridal Suite which they had not requested but was their anyway – the difference in price being compliments of the management, following the age-old principle ‘To them that hath shall be given’.”

All in all, I couldn’t help through-out being extremely jealous of the life-style of even the lowly actors but honestly the people themselves sound exhausting.  So I guess the lesson is I should be grateful for my simple middle-class life. Because in my life the people that I would call “Sausage” I truly love and even like.  In fact, I like them so much I will not call them “Sausage.” And instead, tonight I will be enjoying “Downton Abbey.” Happy Sunday.


January 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm 3 comments

The inescapable past – “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

“The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton, Published in 2012

(As an aside: I would like to start with the question why did Morton title this book “The Secret Keeper”? It just makes it sound like this salacious, torrid, Danielle Steele novel with a large breasted woman in a torn corset on the cover.)

Morton has a formula. In her novels there is always an old woman in her last days suffering from guilt/sorrThe Secret Keeperow/grief over a secret that she has kept all of these years but then someone must uncover this secret to give the old woman forgiveness/peace/comfort.  For many other authors this type of repetition would become tedious BUT Morton’s writing and her amazing gift of story-telling makes her formula great almost every time (“Distant Hours” is the exception).

In 1961, when Laurel was 16 years old, she saw her mother kill a man. And though her mother (Dorothy) and the police have both told her it was in self-defense,  there is something about that day that has always bothered Laurel.  Forty years later, Dorothy is in the hospital facing death and Laurel and her siblings must return home to make decisions about her end of life care.   Returning to her childhood home, Laurel finds herself immersed in memories of her happy childhood:

“The landscape of one’s childhood was more vibrant than any other. It didn’t matter where it was or what it looked like, the sights and sounds imprinted differently from those encountered later. They became part of a person, inescapable.”

But as Laurel comes to terms with her mother’s inevitable death, she begins to realize that, though her mother made her childhood magical, she knows absolutely nothing about who Dorothy was before she had her children.  All she knows is that Dorothy left London during WWII. And there is always that lingering question: why would her mother have been so fast to kill that man on that summer day years before?

Morton then takes the reader back to the late 1930s/early 1940s and begins narrating Dorothy’s life.  Raised by a boring country family Dorothy longs to embrace a different life. As soon as she is old enough she rushes off to London to fulfill her dreams.  Dorothy finds herself in the middle of war-torn London working for an old, rich, and infirm woman.  Dorothy is vivacious but self-absorbed, narcissistic and  difficult to like. As she begins to see how the “other half” lives she starts to long for more than just a simple life by the sea that she had planned with her boyfriend Jimmy.  But time passes and it appears that Dorothy’s dreams of living an elegant life are just not possible. Her wealthy friend Vivien seems to have betrayed her and Dorothy decides she is going to have to make her fortune for herself. Of course, in true Morton style, Dorothy foolishly makes a poor choice that, while seemingly harmless enough, ends up destroying the lives of those around her.

The narrative bounces back and forth between what Laurel is discovering about her mother and the actual story of Dorothy.  Laurel digs deeper into her mother’s past and also revisits many of her childhood memories.  As Laurel finds out more about her mother her own memories take on a different hue and the meaning of certain events in Laurel’s life change.  And of course truth changes everything.

There is a secret in this book (hence the title) which I figured out pretty quickly. But even knowing where the book was headed it was still engaging.  Morton’s writing is lovely. It has a lilt to it.  And she has a way of writing about regret that makes her narrative beautifully tragic.  Her novels always make me cry, and this one was no exception.

Morton has written before about how the choices we make ultimately lead us down the path to who we become and how often those choices haunt us.  Revisiting that theme in “The Secret Keeper” makes it certainly worth the read.  Because, as they say, “if it isn’t broken…”

January 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm 2 comments

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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