Archive for June, 2012

Library Lust

Loft in Birmingham, Alabama (via Bookshelf Porn)

Usually, I don’t see the appeal of loft living. Now, seeing that massive wall of books taking full advantage of the ridiculously high ceilings, I completely get it.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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.

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

In a strange turn of events, I did not pick up any books at the library this week.  Not one.  I didn’t even go and browse.  Quite unnatural.  I did, however, have a few of my e-book holds come in so, for the first and possibly only time, this week’s loot is devoted solely to those electronic books currently residing on my e-reader.

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay – I read and loved 5 of GGK’s books last year and cannot wait to start this.

There is nothing soft or silken about the north. The lives of men and women are as challenging as the climate and lands in which they dwell. For generations, the Erlings of Vinmark have taken their dragon-prowed ships across the seas, raiding the lands of the Cyngael and Anglcyn peoples, leaving fire and death behind. But times change, even in the north, and in a tale woven with consummate artistry, people of all three cultures find the threads of their lives unexpectedly brought together…

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – Yes, my first three encounters with Willis were less than successful but am I an incorrigible optimist and was not going to give up before reading this.  It is the one Willis title I’ve really wanted to read and it languished on my To-Read list for more than a decade.  I read it over the weekend and enjoyed every minute!

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin — barely of age herself — finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips – SEP’s books are probably the fluffiest ones in my reading diet but she can do fluff extremely well.  I don’t love all of her books – some of them, mostly the earlier ones, I find too embarrassingly clichéd to read more than a chapter of – but this one was very fun.  It has also made me desperate to reread Glitter Baby (about the parents of Meg, this book’s heroine), which is one of the most absurdly trashy, ridiculous, over-the-top  things I have ever read and which I adore for that reason.

Meg knows breaking up her best friend’s wedding is the right thing to do, but no one else agrees. Faster than Lucy can say “I don’t,” Meg’s the most hated woman in town—and stuck there with a dead car, an empty wallet, and a very angry bridegroom. Broke, stranded, without her famous parents watching her back, Meg believes she can survive by her own wits. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? She’ll lose her heart to Mr. Irresistible?

Not likely. Not likely at all.

What did you pick up this week?

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I long ago lost count of the number of bloggers who I’ve seen rave about the novels of Susanna Kearsley.  I know Eva, Marg, Teresa, Jane, Danielle, and Lyn have all enjoyed her works.  With such stellar recommendations from such trusted sources, I knew I had to try her for myself.  Luckily, because Kearsley is Canadian and if there is one thing Canadian libraries love it is stocking books by home-grown authors, I had no trouble tracking down her books and I am pleased to say that, having now read four of them, I can completely understand what all the fuss is about.  Kearsley writes beautifully and has that most coveted gift of being able to draw a reader in, quickly and completely.  I, who am usually am to put a book down in the middle of a sentence never mind a chapter, found myself whispering “just one more page” and “just one more chapter” to myself as I read late into the night.

Of course, not all books are created equal.  While I loved The Rose Garden, I only liked Mariana.  I enjoyed The Winter Sea but I adored The Shadowy Horses.  Still, each and every one had its good points (sometimes extremely good) and I enjoyed reading them all.

Counting them down in order of preference, here are my thoughts:

4. Mariana (1994)
Mariana was the first of Kearsley’s books that I read and I really do think it was a perfect introduction.  I didn’t adore it but it certainly eases the uninitiated reader into Kearsley’s realm, introducing you to her interest in the supernatural and captivating you with her skilful, easy writing style.

Shortly after Julia Beckett moves in Greywethers, a sixteenth century house she’s been drawn to since childhood, she begins having alarming hallucinations.  She suddenly finds herself slipping into the seventeenth century, where she is Mariana, a young woman caught up in a passionate affair with the local squire.  Of course, the logical deduction here is that Julia is actually Mariana reincarnated.  No big deal.  (This is the point where I warn all my fellow sceptics that suspension of disbelief is essential for the enjoyment Kearsley’s work.)  The memories come on unpredictably and hold Julia in a trance – in them, she is Mariana and remembers nothing of her 20th Century life.  But when she comes out of them, Julia remembers everything and can’t help but wonder if the attractive current squire, Geoff, is the reincarnation of Mariana’s lover, Richard.

To me, it seemed obvious from his first introduction who Julia’s romantic match was going to be (good rule of thumb: writer’s rarely waste that much time and detail on secondary characters who are going to languish in the background), which rather spoiled some of the suspense I think I was supposed to feel later on.  This book actually combined a number of things I loathe: fated lovers, reincarnation, and poorly-drawn, red-herring love interests, and yet, somehow, in Kearsley’s hands I enjoyed it.  I came away not particularly impressed by the plot or characters but very impressed by Kearsley’s skill as a storyteller and desperate to read more of her work.

3. The Winter Sea (2008)
Carrie McClelland is a best-selling historical novelist who has come to Scotland to research her new book.  Her intent is to focus on the attempted Jacobite uprising of 1708 and she chooses to centre her story around nearby Slains Castle, which belonged to Jacobite supporters.  When her editor encourages Carrie to add a female character, Carrie draws on her own family history for a name, inserting her ancestor Sophia into the tale.  But once Carrie begins writing about Sophia, the story takes on a life of its own.  Carrie starts having unusually vivid dreams about her characters, full of details and people who never appeared in her research.  Confused, she decides to fact check these imaginings, only to find that her ancestor Sophia had in fact lived in the castle before the uprising and that all the details that Carrie dreamt of or which came to her while she was writing are true too.  As Carrie delves into Sophia’s story, she is troubled by the question of how she can know so much about a distant ancestor of whom the family barely had any documentation.  And, as she discovers Sophia’s passion for the outlaw John Moray, she can’t help but wonder what happened to him, knowing that Sophia would go on to marry a man named McClelland…

Jacobites are always a romantic topic and I am always happy to read about them.  The story shifts back and forth between Carrie’s life and the passages from her novel detailing Sophia’s life at Slains, including her romance with John Moray.  At first, I was far more concerned with Carrie’s life and found the snippets from her novel intrusive but Sophia’s story soon takes possession of the reader’s attention and it is Carrie’s sections that end up feeling superfluous.

The story is intriguing but never quite as absorbing as it really should have been.  Kearsley clumsily tries to create parallels between Carrie and Sophia’s lives, a technique that completely backfires.  While it made sense for Sophia, given John Moray’s status as an outlaw, to keep her lover secret, it makes absolutely no sense for Carrie to do the same.  The unnecessary slyness exhibited by Carrie and her otherwise unobjectionable lover reflected poorly on them both and soured me against them.

But my main issue with this story has to be the obvious, the absurd reason why Carrie knows so many details about Sophia’s life: genetic memory.  That is, the idea that we inherit our ancestors’ memories along with their genetic traits: I get grandmama’s hands AND great-great-great-grandpapa’s memories.  With all of  Kearsley’s books, I kept having to remind myself to let go and just accept the story, however absurd I thought the paranormal element, but this was a step too far for me.

2. The Rose Garden (2011)
This was the book every single Kearsley fan told me I had to read.  I had been promised something impressive but, picking it up just after Mariana, I wasn’t quite sure.  Having read enough reviews by then to have a rough idea of the plot, I rather expected a workmanlike romance with perhaps a touch of heavy handed time travel.  Instead, I was presented with this enjoyable book.

When Eva’s beloved sister Katrina dies, she returns to the house in Cornwall where they spent their childhood summers to scatter her ashes.  Once there, she connects with her old friends and meets new but much older ones when she finds herself occasionally and uncontrollably slipping through time to the 18th Century.  As you do.  There, she meets Daniel Butler, who kindly and surprisingly calmly accepts her presence when she appears and with whom, unsurprisingly, Eva soon finds herself falling in love.

The difficulties of building and then maintaining a relationship across the centuries, particularly given the unpredictability of Eva’s movements and the danger posed by Daniel’s smuggling activities – and his Jacobite sympathies –, are intriguingly considered.  Eva has no control over when she moves between her time to Daniel’s, though she does come to realise that her movement is tied to the house when Daniel lived in the 18th Century and where her friends the Hallets live in the 21st: only when she is in or near it can she travel.   But as their relationship intensifies, Daniel’s situation becomes more and more dangerous in England.  Eva can only travel between the centuries when she is near the house – if Daniel has to leave, she will never see him again, and if Eva leaves with Daniel, she will never get back to her own time.

Kearsley misses nothing.  All of the details in her descriptions of people and places are absolutely and absorbingly perfect from the opening sentence.  No one, even the supporting characters, is poorly drawn.  They behave just as they ought, given what we know of them and of human nature, and Eva and Daniel, the time-crossed lovers, are wonderful.  The way they relate to one another, the way their acquaintance progresses, makes their growing attachment seem natural in the most unnatural circumstance imaginable, given that Eva is from the 21st Century while Daniel lives in the early 1700s.

The Cornish setting is wonderfully evoked and made me desperate to visit, though I did find Eva’s description of it as “wild” a bit amusing, especially since Eva is supposed to have grown up in British Columbia, where it is not unheard of for bears and cougars to find their way into the cities, never mind what you’ll find in the legitimately wild remainder of the province.  There is some wildness to any place by the sea, obviously, but I can’t help it: to me, Cornwall seems pretty tame.

1. The Shadowy Horses (1997)
As much as I enjoyed The Rose Garden, my fondness for it pales in comparison to my obsession with The Shadowy Horses.  I adored this book.  It had just the perfect level of the paranormal to make me completely comfortable, which, I have to admit, is the main place the other books fell down.  I find reincarnation ridiculous, genetic memory absurd and time travel intriguing but far-fetched.  A simple ghost and a boy with second sight, on the other hand, seemed humble and common enough to be believable.  It also helped that the ghost was particularly unthreatening, being very fond and protective of our heroine and on friendly terms with a local dog.

When Verity Grey receives the call to come to the Rosehill estate in Eyemouth, Scotland for work on a mysterious archaeological dig, she can’t resist.  But this dig is not like any she has ever worked on before.  The aged and eccentric Peter Quinnell is determined to find evidence that the Ninth Legion of Rome was there, his only evidence coming not from scientific or historical sources but from a small boy with second sight who claims to communicate with the ghost of a Roman legionnaire who guards his comrades’ final resting place.  As the dig begins yielding finds, the archaeologists, particularly Verity and historian David Fortune, begin piecing together what they’ve found – but what does it all mean?

First of all, let us get one thing perfectly clear: David Fortune is perfect.  He is, without a doubt, the most appealing romantic lead I have come across in ages.  If Kearsley had consulted my personal list of traits that a romantic hero should possess, she would have found David Fortune reflected there.  He is tall with black, curly hair; he has blue eyes; he is Scottish; he is kind and polite; he lectures at the University of Edinburgh…he is, in short, perfect in every way.  The plot does not revolve around his and Verity’s romance, which is perhaps the most brilliant choice in this book, and it plays out with a minimum of fuss.  He and Verity both have fascinating work to do and it is delightful when they are together but not of major note when they are not.  Unlike so many female characters, Verity does not spend all her time moping about when her love interest leaves the room: she has exciting work to do, not to mention ghosts to cross-examine, and it absorbs her attention.  David and Verity treat each other well, with both respect and affection, and sadly that is remarkable – far too few books from any genre show healthy relationships like this.

Unlike Kearsley’s other books, where the heroine is the one experiencing paranormal phenomena first had, Verity is only a witness, which I think is a very clever choice.  Verity sees extraordinary things but, unlike young Robbie, cannot see the ghost or hear him.  Like the reader, she has to trust what she is told and suspend her disbelief, making her instantly more relatable than any of the other characters in the books reviewed above.

*   *   *

Kearsley’s books are fun.  Whatever quibbles I might have had with some of them, that never prevented me from enjoying the reading experience and that, after all, is the most important thing.  And I will certainly be rereading The Shadowy Horses – I cannot wait to get my hands on my own copy.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Is there anything more certain of putting a smile on a reader’s face than the works of A.A. Milne?  I say this having just finished Once a Week, a wonderful collection of his pieces for Punch, which had me giggling all Sunday morning, but it is equally true of Mr Pim Passes By, a delightful play from 1919 which I read back in May.

When Mr Pim, an absentminded traveller, drops by Marden House one afternoon, he leaves chaos in his wake.   Having innocently mentioned the name of a fellow traveller on a recent sea voyage, he has set the household on its end.  Is the first husband of Olivia Marden, the lady of the house, still alive?  Her conventional, rigidly proper husband George is horrified that his beloved wife might, the horror of it all, be a bigamist and not his wife at all.  As Mr Pim returns at intervals to amend his account – his memory being rather sieve-like – George and Olivia face a revealing crisis point in their relationship.  Will George be guided through this turmoil by his innate sense of honour and fair-play, which would have him wave his rights to Olivia and return her to her first husband, or by his affection and love for the woman he married, which would urge him to fight for her?  How improperly is he willing to behave to keep Olivia?

Meanwhile, in the background George’s niece and ward Dinah, an eager, typically Milne-esque young lady with a passion for the dramatic, has fallen in love with the young artist Brian.  Olivia is beguiling and enigmatic – one adores and admires her without ever knowing her completely – while Dinah is entirely open and simply adorable.  Her enthusiasm is exhausting and her fancies idiotic but, at the same time, it is this expressiveness and passion that contrasts so starkly with her Uncle George.  Dinah is most assuredly not a staid, conventional girl with her uncle’s desire for everything to be strictly above board, as her fiancé Brian well knows:

BRIAN. Of course I know what you want, Dinah.
DINAH. What do I want?
BRIAN. You want a secret engagement, and notes left under door-mats, and meetings by the withered thorn, when all the household is asleep.  I know you.
DINAH. Oh, but it is such fun!  I love meeting people by withered thorns.

Dinah and Brian allow Milne to indulge in the silliest sort of exchanges, which he is particularly gifted at writing and which I adore reading.  (I would adore going to see them performed live even more, should the opportunity ever arise.)  Dinah coaching Brian on what to say when asking George for permission to marry her particularly amused me:

DINAH. Yes, darling, but you must be more dramatic about it than that.  ‘George,’ you must say, with tears in your eyes, ‘I cannot pay off the whole of the mortgage for you.  I have only two and ninepence; but at least let me take your niece off your hands.’  Then George will thump you on the back and say gruffly, ‘You’re a good fellow, Brian, a damn good fellow,’ and he’ll blow his nose very loudly, and say, ‘Confound this cigar, it won’t draw properly.’ (she gives us a rough impression of George doing it)
BRIAN. Dinah, you’re a heavenly idiot.  And you’ve simply got to marry me, uncles or no uncles.
DINAH. It will have to be ‘uncles’, I’m afraid, because, you see, I’m his ward, and I can get sent to Chancery or Coventry or somewhere beastly, if I marry without his consent.  Haven’t you got anybody who objects to your marrying me?
BRIAN. Nobody, thank Heaven.
DINAH. Well, that’s rather disappointing of you.  I saw myself fascinating your aged father at the same time that you were fascinating George.  I should have done it much better then you.  As a George-fascinator you aren’t very successful, sweetheart.
BRIAN. What am I like as a Dinah-fascinator?
DINAH. Plus six, darling.
BRIAN. Then I’ll stick to that and leave George to Olivia.

Leaving the difficult George to Olivia, as Brian proposes to do, is a very solid plan.  George, though he the kind of gentleman I like best, is not an easy man to live with – as the story opens he is arguing with his wife about the orange curtains she wishes to order, which he decries as too modern – but Olivia clearly knows just how to deal with him.  She is frustrated by him, disappointed in him at times, but she does love him and, I think, is entirely confident of her ability to bring him around to her way of thinking – eventually.  That is precisely why it is significant that she largely leaves George alone to puzzle through how he should react to Mr Pim’s shocking news.

Milne has brilliance for writing female characters.  His men are useful to have around but never enchant or delight, beguile or provoke the way his women do.  Belinda is still probably the best example of this from the few plays I’ve read, but Dinah and certainly Olivia both severely outclass their male counterparts.  Dinah does this purely in terms of charm and vitality but Olivia…Olivia intrigues the reader.  Initially, I found her behaviour irritating, thought her too passive given the situation.  Then I thought her almost cruel.  Then clever.  She is warm but, at the same time, reserved.  Writing this review has made me want to reread the play just to encounter her once more.  Or, better yet, to read the novelisation, which Simon reviewed last year, for a slightly different approach to the story and its characters.

Though bigamy is – as George would tell you – a serious issue, the plot and characters here are typically light.  Serious issues are discussed flippantly but intelligently and though the potential for disaster is certainly there, there is little doubt in the reader’s mind that everything will end well.  Lovers will be united, marriages will be strengthened, and, in this particular play, curtains will be bought.

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Library Lust

credit: CHR Dauer

I love this look of this home office but know that I would never get any work done if it were mine. I love being surrounded by walls of books but, when I need to get anything done, I find them far too distracting. Who wants to work when there are so many books waiting to be examined?

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I find, a bit to my surprise, that I am in a rather chatty, light-hearted mood today, making this the perfect time to finally tackle all of the Katie Fforde novels I have been meaning to talk about for months.  I love Fforde’s books and count her as one of my go-to comfort read authors.  Her books are fun and frivolous, just the right thing for a lazy summer day at the beach, a sick day at home under the comforter, or just any time you feel the need for a bit of highly improbably but deeply satisfying romantic escapism.  Yes, her male characters are consistently flat, her romantic pairings are varying degrees of improbable, and the overall results vary widely in quality but when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is not, she is still far better than most.

I tend to read Fforde’s books in great, dizzying gulps, picking up handfuls at a time and reading them one after another.  I am not a reader who believes in moderation, particularly when it comes to light books like these.  Where is the fun in reading just one?  I love reading half a dozen over the course of a week or two, until my appetite for Fforde’s writing is more than sated, at which point I abandon her for a few months or a year, however long it takes until I feel the need to do it all over again.  Clearly, this is not an approach that works for everyone but I find it delightful.

This year, I started my reading off with Wild Designs (1996), which I always enjoy rereading.  Part of what I love about it is its “older” (at least older for these sorts of novels) heroine.  Althea, a divorced mother of three, is in her late thirties as the novel begins and, as in any Fforde novel, the focus is not just on getting her a man but on getting her life sorted out as an individual.  Gardening is Althea’s passion and the story, including her romance with handsome architect Patrick, revolves around her efforts to establish herself as a garden designer.  As a budding gardener myself, I was able to sympathize more with Althea now that I share her interests than I ever had on previous readings.  The descriptions of her garden designs make them sound atrocious but I was willing to just suspend my disbelief and have fun with the story, which I of course did.

As always with Fforde, the book is jammed with characters and full of events.  Althea goes to France, entertains her ex-husband, loses her job, wins the chance to show a garden plot at the Chelsea Flower show, helps her controlling younger sister through her first pregnancy, takes care of her three teenagers, watches her ex-husband take off with the girlfriend of the gorgeous Patrick, sells and moves house, and, of course, blunders through a romance with Patrick.  How does she find the energy to do it?

Some of the details felt strangely distant, moments where I thought “hey, I’d forgotten all about that”, but served as fun reminders of the not-so-distant past.  The book came out in 1996 and Althea’s ex-husband, having spent years in Hong Kong, comes home so as to be gone before the 1997 transfer of sovereignty.  When checking into a hotel with a man, Althea is conscious and vaguely embarrassed that the desk clerk knows they are not married.  How the world has changed.

Thyme Out (2000), which I moved on to next, might have replaced Flora’s Lot as my favourite of Fforde’s books.  It is the story of Perdita, who runs a market gardening supplying local chefs with fresh produce.  In her late twenties, Perdita has a successful if not particularly profitable business and friendly relations with her customers.  She is best friends with the 87-year old Kitty, Perdita’s mother’s godmother (what an illegible description) who always took young Perdita in on school holidays, while her diplomatic parents were abroad.  She also took Perdita in after a hasty, disastrous marriage and divorce in her late teens and helped the younger woman build up her confidence and get back on her feet.  There has been no man in the picture since Perdita’s divorce but she promises she’ll get on to that.  Eventually.

But then Lucas, her ex-husband, appears, no longer the stressed City boy she was married to but a rising young chef at the local high-end hotel.  Slowly, the two get to know one another again, clashing all the way, and Perdita, who has spent the last decade blaming Lucas entirely for the divorce, is finally able to see the role she played in their marital woes.

Even more than Lucas, this book is about Perdita’s relationship with Kitty, the one person who has always been there for her.  She cannot come to terms with the prospect of the elderly and ailing Kitty’s death and Perdita pushes herself to the breaking point while caring for Kitty after she suffers a series of strokes.  When the inevitable happens, Perdita goes to pieces.

As usual, there are suitably random moments that seem to exist entirely to bulk up the novel (Perdita’s Christmas spent with an old school friend’s young family is particularly unrelated to the main plot) but part of what I love about Fforde’s novels is how busy her character’s lives are.  These people all have things to do aside from having complicated emotional entanglements; they spend just as much time focusing on friends, family, and especially work as they do love interests.

Restoring Grace (2004) and Summer of Love (2011) both deal with multiple protagonists (though the division of attention is far from equal in Summer of Love) and I never find this setup particularly satisfying.  All of the characters suffer, coming across as slight and unbelievable, making it difficult for me to sympathize with any of them.  Restoring Grace has fun details about art restoration but that’s really the only thing that stands out in my mind about it.  Summer of Love, which was my least favourite of the six of Fforde’s books that I read this spring, did do one thing very well: it had a believable child character.  Rory, the protagonist Sian’s four-year-old son, is thankfully unprecocious and behaves in a completely normal, unexceptional way.  It is amazing how rarely that happens.

Reading Living Dangerous (1995) after having read so much of Fforde’s later work, it is easy to spot that this was her first novel.  Polly, the thirty-five year old, aspiring potter protagonist, is the recognizable prototype for future Fforde heroines.  The romance, however, is a bit of a mess.  David is a distant hero, whose character seems to shift from chapter to chapter.  He is blandly inoffensive and though Fforde’s male characters have never really evolved into rounded, compelling individuals, he is definitely the flattest of the bunch.

The supporting cast is excellent though, from the uppity Melissa, at whose dinner party Polly and David meet, to Patrick, David’s teenage son, to Tristan, the bad boy radio journalist (an amusing contrast), who provides an unthreatening touch of excitement.  It was also interesting to see Fforde play with ideas and settings she returned to in later books (all generally to be used to better affect than they were here).

Finally, after a bit of a break since I was at the mercy of the library, I read Fforde’s most recent book: Recipe for Love (2012).  I adored it.  I giggled and laughed my way through it in one evening, thrilled that after string of disappointing recent efforts Fforde was back on form.  I also honestly liked the main characters, which, as much as I enjoyed reading the other books, has not always been the case (the obvious exceptions being my two favourites: Flora’s Lot and Thyme Out).

The premise is fantastic: Zoe is a contestant on a television cookery show and falls for Gideon, one of the judges.  I loved reading about the cooking challenges and was thoroughly entertained by all of the other contestants, from the very nice to the very nasty.  Most of all, I loved reading about Zoe’s growing friendship with Fen and Rupert, supporting characters from Fforde’s earlier novels, who are hosting the cast and crew on their struggling estate.  The friendly Zoe is always popping in and out of the big house, helping out the pregnant Fen when Rupert is away or busy, and when Gideon comes to stay in the house the progression of their relationship makes sense (not always a given in Fforde’s books).  Zoe’s helpfulness, always pitching in to avert crises even when it means she might do poorly in the competition, only made her more delightful.  I do like nice characters, especially ones like Zoe who prove you can be nice without being a pushover.

After all of those, unsurprisingly, my need for Fforde’s fiction was met.  Looking back on my reading notes from February and March, which is when I was working my way through these books, the most common word I used in my write ups was fun.  And that they absolutely are.

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Oh, how easy it is for books to sneak into my house! A mail order here, a package from a publisher there and that’s before I even venture out to face the temptations poised by my favourite bookstores. But these books do all pile up and, looking back, I find that I somehow accumulated 22 new ones in April and May.  (0 so far in June, I feel compelled to note.)  That number reflects many happy hours spent sifting through book tables at school fairs and church rummage sales as well as attending, for the first time ever, the public library’s massive spring book sale. I also finally used up all of the credit I had remaining at the used bookstore down the street from me, much, I think, to the relief of the gentlemen who work there; I used to go and browse, contemplating how to spend my vast wealth, and then, having got their hopes up, leave without having made a decision.

But, let us be serious, you are interested in what books I picked up not where I got them. Here they are:

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith – Of the Dodie Smith titles reissued this year by Corsair, this is the one I was most eager to try.  I know nothing will ever live up to I Capture the Castle but I am still excited to have this – from all the reviews I’ve read on other blogs it sounds like excellent comfort read material.

The Talisman Ring, The Quiet Gentleman, Pistols for Two, and Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer – reading Jennifer Kloester’s biography of Georgette Heyer a few months ago (which I really, truly am going to review one day) reminded me of the gaps in my own collection.  The Talisman Ring and The Quiet Gentleman are among the small handful of Heyer titles I have never read.

Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann – a review copy from House of Anansi

A Night Like This by Julia Quinn – Quinn’s newest book, the second in her Smythe-Smith Quartet.  I have enjoyed many of her books and was so excited for this to come but ended up not liking it at all.

The High Path by Ted Walker – I fell in love with my first shipment of Slightly Foxed books and almost immediately ordered three more that had been tempting me.  I love childhood memoirs but particularly happy ones, which is what SF seem to specialise in.  The High Path, about poet Ted Walker’s 1930s and 1940s childhood, is absolutely delightful (and I will be revewing it.  Promise).

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts – another Slightly Foxed edition.

Mango and Mimosa by Suzanne St Albans – and one more.

Virginia Woolf: A Biography by Quentin Bell – I may not be particularly attached to Woolf’s writing but I do find her life fascinating and I have heard good things about this biography by her nephew.  And what the heck, it was only $2 at the library sale.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear – I borrowed this from the library a few months ago, enjoyed what I read of it, but had to return it before I was done.  I picked this mint condition copy up for $1 at a school fair – I love getting new books but I particularly love when they are cheap!

Letters to a Friend: 1950-1952 by Rose Macaulay – An exciting find at the library sale.

A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mosley – I am always happy to expand my Mitford collection (especially when I can do it using store credit, as was the case here)

Under a Cruel Star by Heda Margolius Kovály – a review copy from House of Anansi

Why We Act Like Canadians by Pierre Berton – I emitted a most unbecoming shriek when I spotted this in the book tent at a local school fair.  I adore this book and am thrilled to have finally found a nice hardcover copy in good condition.

The Making of a Peacemonger by George Ignatieff – I have had my eye on this at the local used bookstore for almost a year now, being as you know a fan of books by Canadian diplomats (Ignatieff was a colleague of  my favourite diarist Charles Ritchie), and snapped it up after having accumulated an absurd amount of credit at the store.

Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg – I have had this on my wishlist since it was published last year and was stunned to find it at the used bookstore already.  Stunned, but thrilled to be able to put the last of my store credit to such good use.

Gardens of the National Trust by Robert Lacey – this may be the prettiest book I own (having knocked Anna Pavord’s Blub out of that coveted position).  It was a splurge but it is so beautiful and interesting.  It is, however, making me desperate to plan a garden touring holiday of the UK.  Maybe in 2013…

The Laskett by Roy Strong – I loved this too much not to want my own copy of it.

The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek – ditto.

We Made a Garden by Margery Fish – this was on my Garden Reading Lists in both 2010 and 2011 – having thought about a book for so long, it seemed time to finally acquire it!

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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.


County Chronicle by Angela Thirkell – not only am I thrilled to have my hands on another Angela Thirkell but I am delighted to have finally borrowed a book through the interlibrary loan system!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson – so many of my favourite bloggers received review copies of this from Bloomsbury this spring that I couldn’t help but be intrigued after hearing it mentioned everywhere.

It is 1923 and Evangeline English, keen lady cyclist, arrives with her sister Lizzie at the ancient Silk Route city of Kashgar to help establish a Christian mission. Lizzie is in thrall to their forceful and unyielding leader Millicent, but Eva’s motivations for leaving her bourgeois life back at home are less clear-cut. As they attempt to navigate their new home and are met with resistance and calamity, Eva commences work on her book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar

In present-day London another story is beginning. Frieda, a young woman adrift in her own life, opens her front door one night to find a man sleeping on the landing. In the morning he is gone, leaving on the wall an exquisite drawing of a long-tailed bird and a line of Arabic script. Tayeb, who has fled to England from Yemen, has arrived on Frieda’s doorstep just as she learns that she is the next-of-kin to a dead woman she has never heard of: a woman whose abandoned flat contains many surprises – among them an ill-tempered owl.

A stunning debut peopled by unforgettable characters, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is an extraordinary story of inheritance and the search for belonging in a fractured and globalised world.

A Glimpse of Empire by Jessica Douglas-Home – the story of a young Anglo-Irish beauty’s visit to Delhi for the 1911 Royal Durbar, where a new King, George V, is to be proclaimed Emperor to reinforce the loyalty to the Crown of India’s ruling Princes. For a fortnight of relentless ceremony, unheard-of extravagance and imposing military spectacle, in the setting of a vast Tented City complete with its own farms, railway, telegraph and post offices, Lilah Wingfield meets many of the most remarkable colonial characters of the day, including some of the foremost Indian Princes, vying to stage the most lavish display to prove their devotion to the Raj.

As the tents are dismantled, Lilah travels through India – to the dangerous Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, to Rajasthan, to the gory sites of the Mutiny and to stay with India’s only female Ruler, the Begum of Bhopal. Her diary shows her deepening awareness of the ambivalence of certain maharajahs towards British Rule even while she is being entertained royally in their lakeside palaces. Her Irish upbringing gives her an instinctive feeling for the mixture of their longing for independence and an affection for the mother country. The book is copiously illustrated by her own photographs.


Jerusalem: Chronicle from the Holy City by Guy Delisle – though I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels or cartoons, I adored Delisle’s earlier graphic memoirs of his time spent in Pyongyang and Burma.  Delisle finds himself living in Jerusalem for a year when his partner, who works for MSF (Doctors Without Borders), is transferred there.  With her at work and their children in school, he has ample opportunity to explore and ponder the cultural conflicts that define the region.  I read this in one sitting, beginning immediately after picking it up from the library, and was again very impressed by Delisle’s writing.

What did you pick up this week?

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If there is one fictional character I wish could be brought to life, it would have to be the unflappable Psmith.  Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse, published in 1915, though not my favourite of the Psmith books, does a wonderful job of highlighting all of the characteristics that make Psmith so irresistible as he calmly bounds through a rather eventful trip to New York, involving the reinvention of a saccharine newspaper, a crusade against slum landlords, and the less-than-friendly advances of dangerous gangsters.

Mike Jackson is touring America with his cricket club and, loathe to be left behind, Psmith has accompanied his friend across the Atlantic.  However, counter to all laws of nature, it is Mike who is the center of attention once they arrive in New York, leaping from match to match, from party to party, with Psmith in the unfamiliar role of hanger-on.  The high life he had envisioned has not materialised and Psmith is becoming less and less enthralled by the reality of this American tour:

I have been here a week, and I have not see a single citizen clubbed by a policeman.  No negroes dance cakewalks in the street.  No cowboy has let off his revolver at random in Broadway.  The cables flash the message across the ocean, ‘Psmith is losing his illusions.’

Luckily, at just that moment he becomes entangled in the life of one Billy Windsor.  Billy is the temporary editor of a particularly awful publication called Cosy Moments.  The editor and owner are both abroad, leaving Billy in charge of the loathed newspaper with its sentimental columns and complete lack of anything that could be called news.  But, a honest and forthright young man, he feels duty-bound to hold up the standards and traditions of the newspaper that was left in his charge.  Psmith feels no such compunctions.  He is enchanted by the newspaper world and charmed to meet Billy:

‘I had long been convinced that about the nearest approach to the perfect job in this world, where good jobs are hard to acquire, was to own a paper.  All you had to do, once you had secured your paper, was to sit back and watch the other fellows work, and from time to time forward big cheques to the bank.  Nothing could be more nicely attuned to the tastes of a Shropshire Psmith.’

Having in only a few moments discovered the extent of Billy’s power and his dissatisfaction with the paper’s current offering, Psmith exerts his considerable charm to convince Billy to change the paper to be as he would like it.  The twee articles are cut, new sensational writers are hired, and, with Psmith as an honorary co-editor, the paper takes off.

One of the first issues the paper takes on in its new guise is the atrocious slum housing that abounds in certain parts of the city.  It is not long before their investigative journalism and outraged editorials catch the eyes of those in power.  As they pursue their chosen cause, Psmith and Billy find themselves in direct and often violent conflict with gangsters.  If Psmith had longed for local colour, he certainly found it.  But Psmith does not flinch in the face of such opposition.  He is as witty and languorous as ever, but there is steel in him:

Psmith was one of those people who are content to accept most of the happenings of life in an airy spirit of tolerance.  Life had been more or less of a game with him up till now.  In his previous encounters with those with whom fate has brought him in contact there had been little at stake.  The prize of victory had been merely a comfortable feeling of having had the best of a battle of wits; the penalty of defeat nothing worse than the discomfort of having failed to score.  But this tenement business was different.  Here he had touched the realities.  There was something worth fighting for.

For me, this is the weakest of the Psmith books.  The story does suffer from the absence of Mike, who disappears early on with the rest of the cricket team while Psmith decides to remain in New York with Billy and the paper.  Psmith needs a good straight man to play off of and Billy Windsor is a poor substitute for the easily embarrassed Comrade Jackson.  Wodehouse’s particular brand of Psmith-honour is best appreciated in long speeches and this tale is so action focused that there is little opportunity for the lengthy ramblings that Psmith excels at.  Wodehouse’s New York is an absurd place and can at times grate.  It is peopled entirely with men, all of whom have an uncertain understanding of English and are blessed with incomprehensible accents, all gleefully and painstakingly recorded by Wodehouse.  I understand the allure of local colour but it got a bit excessive.  Still, it is a fun, fast-paced story and I can never come away from an encounter with Psmith without being reminded of my deep affection for him.

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June here has been full of grey skies and lots of rain.  To be fair, it has been relatively warm but that’s about it.  When I was volunteering at the botanical gardens this week, there was a brief period where the sun (almost) burst out and I dashed about taking photos.  The weather might be depressing but the flowers are certainly bright and cheerful this time of year!


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