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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

credit: Billy Cotton (via Desire to Inspire)

credit: Billy Cotton (via Desire to Inspire)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

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To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey – a little too complicated for me to attempt to blurb, so I’ll let the publisher have the pleasure.  I am three quarters of the way through and completely in love with this book.  I don’t want to stop reading but I certainly don’t want it to end.

The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore – murderous, mad Russians!  Fun times lie ahead.

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett – I’d been looking forward to this since Sarra Manning mentioned it back in January.  Read it quickly and have to say it didn’t make much of an impact.  Probably suffered from comparison to To the Bright Edge of the World (since my reading overlapped).

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A Killer in King’s Cove by Iona Whishaw – slight cheat here: this title and cover is the soon-to-be-released reissue.  I have the original.  But no matter, the story is the same and it sounds intriguing.  A post-war mystery – with spies! – in small town British Columbia is not something I even knew existed before.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel – a hold I’d completely forgotten placing (placed, I think, after reading this LA Times review).  Sounds like fun.

Naga Path (also published as Drums Behind the Hill) by Ursula Graham Bower – I was 90% certain I’d heard about this book from Slightly Foxed.  But then I checked their index online and Bower is nowhere to be found.  So that’s a mystery.  Regardless, I’m very excited to read Bower’s story about her experiences in the Naga Hills, both as an anthropologist and, during the Second World War, guerrilla fighter.

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The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood – you know me, can’t turn down any sort of social history about the inter-war years.

I Was a Stranger by General Sir John Hackett – An account of Hackett’s experiences during World War Two, after escaping from a German prisoner camp and being taken in and hidden by a Dutch family.  This was reissued several years ago as a Slightly Foxed edition.

Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets by Jessica A. Fox – I saw this memoir about a young woman who left her job in LA to go work in a Scottish bookstore recently and was intrigued (just not quite intrigued enough to buy it at the store where I spotted it).

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The Daughters by Adrienne Celt – I’ve had this on my radar since reading the NPR review last summer.  As autumn begins, it seems like the right time for a story about women, their families, and the stories they share.

My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy – very, very excited to get my hands on this cookbook.

The Lady with the Borzoi by Laura Claridge – a biography of Blanche Knopf (of the publishing house) and her role as a literary tastemaker.

What did you pick up this week?

Source: Architectural Digest (home of Amanda Brooks)

Source: Architectural Digest (home of Amanda Brooks)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Library Loot

Off on holiday at the end of this week with plenty of books to hand!

What did you pick up this week?

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Library Loo

What did you pick up this week?

Mount House and Garden, Alderley, Gloucestershire, England - Marianne North

Mount House and Garden, Alderley, Gloucestershire, England – Marianne North

Every so often, I wonder what it would be like to leave the city behind and go live in a country village.  To a place where you could thrown open French doors onto a beautiful garden, where you can’t hear construction noise from dawn until dusk, where cars aren’t clogging the streets, and, ideally, where entry level housing costs are less than the $2.5 million it would take for me to buy in my neighbourhood (a pleasant but simple 1940s bungalow down the street from me has just been listed for $3.7 million, in addition to the tear-down around the corner going for $5.5 million, so I am feeling even more fed up with Vancouver than usual).

But then I remember that all my fantasies about country homes come from books set in England or my travels in Europe, where there really are charming small towns where you can live in easy proximity to civilization, and not in Western Canada, where, with the possible exception of some very expensive island communities, village life is non-existent.

So, as usual, I turn to books to sate my desire for country life.  Especially the lovely, everything is cosy and wonderful type of village life that I expect is particular to fiction (as opposed to the everything is stifling and all my neighbours as nasty gossips who know all my business type of village life, that I suspect is more realistic – see Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton).

Now, my reading is never short on the sort of books where people buy/inherit lovely country homes but this summer seems to be even more overwhelmed by them than usual.

1947433_120304105728_odThe weakest of my recent sampling – and the only one where the heroine actually purchases a house with her own money – was The House That is Our Own by O. Douglas.  After helping her friend Kitty, a charming middle-aged widow, find a flat in London, twenty-nine year old Isobel decides she needs a change of setting.  On Kitty’s recommendation, she goes to stay in the Scottish Borders and falls in love with a house there, put up for sale by its young owner who has recently moved to Canada.  Isobel throws all caution to the wind and purchases it.  My financially responsible self shuddered whenever Isobel blithely commented that she didn’t really have the money to keep the house going in the long run but I read on regardless.  It is classic O. Douglas, with lots of lovely, sensible tea-drinking, Shakespeare loving characters of Scottish extraction being lovely together en masse, but I found it numbingly dull.  The final act, with a journey to Canada and the inevitable romantic conclusion, was a little more fun but overall not a keeper.

The Scent of WaterI had been a little hesitant picking up The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge because of its religious overtones but was delighted to discover a beautifully-written story with interesting, developed characters.  When fifty-year old Mary Lindsay inherits a country house from a distant relative, she decides to embrace her inheritance recklessly.  She retires and sets out, after a lifetime of town living, to enjoy country life.  And along with rural quiet and rich new friendships, she finds herself reflecting on the relationships she has had, learning to love even more deeply those who have now passed out of her life.  A really lovely book.

The LarkThe best by far, as will come as no surprise to those who have read Simon and Harriet’s reviews of it, was The Lark by E. Nesbit.  When Jane and Lucie are mysteriously withdrawn from school and directed to a small country cottage by their guardian, they imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities.  Instead, they learn their guardian has made unwise investments with their inheritances and regretfully fled the country, but not before doing his best to see that they are as well set up as possible.  Between them, they are left with a charming country cottage and an annual income of £500.  Jane is determined this is to be an exciting new chapter in their lives, the start of a new adventure – a lark, in fact.  Lucie, a delightfully skeptical and level-headed foil for Jane, is not so certain but she is young and hopeful and soon just as excited as Jane about possible ways to improve their lot in life.

First, they settle on a flower stall, before moving on to running a boarding house – all out of a large house located near their cottage.  They charm the owner, an eccentric world traveller, into giving his consent to their activities, but cannot shake his nephew John, who hangs round being, in Jane’s eyes at least, irritating despite his usefulness.  Flawless businesswomen they are not but the results are perfection.  This was written in 1922, two years before Nesbit’s death, and it the sort of book that screams out for a companion volume – one that, sadly, never came.

All in all, a well-chosen trio to meet my desire for stories of country living.