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Archive for May, 2013

New Georgette Heyer Covers

Have you seen the striking new covers for the six Georgette Heyer titles Arrow is releasing in June? Regency BuckThe Convenient Marriage, The Grand Sophy, Faro’s Daughter, Frederica, and Friday’s Child are all wonderful books (The Grand Sophy and Frederica are particular favourites of mine) and, for those just discovering Heyer, this collection would be an excellent introduction.   I love how many of the details from the book are included in some of the designs: the theatre setting for Friday’s Child is perfect and it is wonderful to see all of Sophy’s animals on the cover of The Grand Sophy.  Personally, I’ll stick with the older Arrow editions, where the covers are illustrated with paintings (compare: The Grand Sophy, Regency Buck and Faro’s Daughter), but I do think these new covers are pretty.

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badge-4Library 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.

With so much going on in my real life between preparing for my upcoming trip to Europe, working on the course I am taking, and talking to people about the career path I’m interested in, I have not been reading a lot lately.  So many of the books I’ve picked up over the last few weeks are piled up on my desk, taunting me.  And, rather than work through them methodically, I decided to pick up even more books and grow the pile.

Library Loot 1The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley – I discovered Kearsley last year, thanks to recommendations from many other bloggers, and read four of her books in quick succession.  No surprise then, I was first in line for this newly-released title, which focuses on the Jacobite community in 18th Century Russia and a 21st Century English art dealer trying to track down the history of a small wooden carving of a firebird that might have once belonged to Empress Catherine.

The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn – Study trips to the Holy Land, frustrated pilgrimages as a young mother and internal journeys of soul all feature in this beautiful and inspiring memoir. Exploring both the past and the present of pilgrimage, it is a compelling invitation to all on the journey of faith

Betsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace – as much as I haven’t been wowed by the two Lovelace books I have read (Emily of Deep Valley and Betsy and the Great World), I can’t resist finding out how Betsy’s story ends.

Library Loot 2At the Yeoman’s House by Ronald Blythe – my library is overrun with Blythe’s books and I have always wondered about them.

Gardens of Delight by Erica James – I am reading this now and it is kind of awful but in the semi-irresistible way of chick-lit.

Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi – I stumbled across my 2010 review of Persepolis a few days ago and, seeing this sequel on the library shelf, thought it was time to see how Satrapi’s story continued.

 What did you pick up this week?

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The English AirThe English Air by D.E. Stevenson might just be my new favourite DES book.  It might even surpass the Mrs Tim books in my affections.  No, that’s ridiculous, I love Mrs Tim too dearly see her supplanted even by this book.  But The English Air is excellent and is even better than Sarah Morris Remembers, another of my favourite DES books and one which, with its WWII-era setting and Germanic hero, shares many similarities with The English Air.

Franz von Heiden arrives in England in the summer of 1938 to stay with his English cousins.  The product of a “mixed” marriage, Franz’s English mother died when he was a small boy and he was raised by his strict German father, now a prominent member of the Nazi party.   A reserved young man in his early twenties, Franz has come to England to improve his English (he is a talented linguist) and learn about the English character and culture.  He is not precisely a spy but there is the expectation that whatever he learns will be useful to the Reich in judging the mood and examining the weaknesses of the English people.

Fritz’s early confusion about English culture was delightful.  The English sense of humour is beyond him and the casual use of understatement makes it difficult for him to judge what is meant seriously and what is meant in jest:

Franz sighed.  It was so difficult.  What were these people really like inside?  They made fun of everything, they insulted each other…and laughed; they reviled their superior officers and criticised their government and its administration.  To Franz they were like people from another planet and the more he saw of them the more incompetent he was to understand them.

His English cousins and their friends seem so young and foolish.  It takes a while for Franz to see and respect their strength and loyalty, traits hidden beneath their carefree exteriors.  In the Germany where Franz has grown up, no one is carefree.  His attempts to tell his new friends about life in Germany, about the Wandervögel, for instance, only make him see more clearly the things that bother him about his homeland, things he has been too afraid to admit even to himself:

These feelings of doubt and vague discontent were far below the surface, and indeed, if the truth were told, Franz had never before acknowledged them to himself.  It was only now, when he looked back and saw it all in perspective, that he knew his own mind.  He realised, as he spoke, and described the Wandervögel outings in glowing terms, that Roy and Harry were made of different stuff – he had been faintly disgusted, but they would be horrified; he had been a trifle bored, but they would be bored to death. 

Far from home, Franz initially feels defensive of his country but, when he finds people willing to believe his exaggerate descriptions of the wonders of the Reich, his own loyalty starts to falter.  He falls in love with his cousin Wynne and, having agreed with her uncle not to tell her immediately of his feelings, finds a job and sets to work in London.  The tensions between his homeland and the country he has come to love trouble him; no one, with the possible exception of Mr Chamberlain, is more ecstatic over the outcome of the Munich Crisis – or more devastated when he realises that Germany has no intention of abiding by the terms of the agreement.

When Germany does violate the Munich agreement, Franz (now anglicised to Frank) is horrified.  He rushes back to Germany, intent on getting his beloved great-aunt Anna and party-member father out of the country.  Things do not go according to plan but, for once!, D.E. Stevenson surprised me with an ending that felt well-paced rather than abrupt.

One of the most charming aspects of the book was Franz’s relationship with his delightful cousin Sophie, Wynne’s mother.  Years before, Sophie and Franz’s mother had grown up together and been best friends.  When Franz’s parents were married, his mother moved to Germany, the First World War began and the two women lost contact.  By the time the war had ended and communication was possible again, Franz’s mother had died.  Sophie and Franz are immediately sympathetic to one another because of this bond; Sophie provides Franz with a link to his long-dead mother and he provides Sophie with a connection to the best friend lost to her by marriage and a world war.  By virtue of her age and the times she has lived through, Sophie is more serious than her children and, at first, a more natural companion for the sober-minded Franz.  Their early conversations as Frank stumbles to make out the English character are wonderful, particularly when they descend into the kind of domestic details that D.E. Stevenson did so well.  I especially loved this conversation about Sophie’s reading material; you can practically see D.E.S. winking her eye at her readers:

“What have you been doing all day, Cousin Sophie?”

“I was very lazy.  I got a new book from the library and I’ve been reading all afternoon.”

“It is very interesting?” Frank inquired.

“Yes…no,” said Sophie in a doubtful tone.  “I mean you wouldn’t like it, dear.  It isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but it’s the sort of book I like.  It’s about nice people and it ends properly – she marries the right man and they live happily ever after.”

“Have you looked at the end?”

“Of course not, but Elaine Elkington’s books are all like that.  You can trust her to end it all happily – such a comfort!  Some of the books nowadays begin quite nicely and cheerfully and then, half way through, they go all wrong and make you miserable.  You’ve begun to like the people by that time, so it isn’t fair.”

Published in 1940, it is refreshing to see how fair and positive a portrait D.E.S. paints of her German protagonist.  There is no question that Franz (or Frank) is the main character.  Wynne is nice and good but as bland as most of D.E.S.’s heroines and firmly in the background for most of the story.  Instead, we see everything through Franz’s eyes; it is his outsider perspective and the moral challenges he faces when his allegiances begin to shift that makes this book so engaging and enjoyable.  Franz’s struggles – both humourous and serious – make him a far more intelligent and compelling focus than I am used to in D.E. Stevenson’s novels.  She can write a good gentle, mindless romance (and goodness knows she wrote enough of those) but when she adds some intelligence the books reach a whole new, wonderful level.

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Lunch With Jan WongIn a post-TMZ and Perez Hilton world, where the gleeful spreading of celebrity gossip and slander has become part of peoples’ daily lives, it is almost difficult to believe that the columns collected in Lunch with Jan Wong upset so many readers on publication.  Once called the “Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set”, Wong is a Canadian journalist who, from 1996 to 2002, interviewed celebrities over lunch for her column in the Globe and Mail newspaper.  Her aggressively forthright accounts of those meals enraged many of her subjects (and a fair number of her readers) but mostly serve to highlight the writing skills that so many “lifestyle” or entertainment columnists and gossip bloggers today lack.  She is funny and observant, sharp and, despite her reputation, sympathetic.  These are interviews, not fluff pieces; Wong was not there to write only flattering, glowing things about her subjects.  She was there to write about interesting people in an interesting and intelligent way.  And that is exactly what she did, making this a very entertaining book.

The majority of her lunch dates are with other Canadians, though a fair number of international figures also appear.  Wong is good at explaining each of her subjects’ backgrounds and accomplishments though, so it hardly matters if you’re familiar with the person already.  She talks to an impressive range of people, from all walks of life: there’s a hostile Margaret Atwood, a brawling beauty queen, sex therapist Dr Ruth, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, hockey commentator Don Cherry (this was the only interview that made me cry), pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, cartoonist Lynn Johnston, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Hong Kong political activist Martin Lee, actor Anthony Quinn, and others.

Wong is tough on her subjects, there is no question about that, and, unsurprisingly, actors and writers caught up in the exhausting conveyor belt of public appearances and press interviews sometime snap under examination.  But, let’s be honest, that is where some of the fun lies.  The book begins with Wong’s very first “Lunch with” subject: Margaret Atwood.  Neither woman is at her best: Wong was given the story last minute and didn’t have time to do sufficient prep and Atwood is easily offended, by both Wong and their surroundings.  That is what makes this sort of interview fun: Wong is recording what happened during the brief period she spends with these people, not trying to provide a fair or balanced in-depth portrait of them.  If they were rude to the wait staff, if they were picky eaters, if they had bad table manners, Wong is sure to say.  She does not go off the record.

One of the best features of the book are the endnotes Wong provides to each interview, describing how the subject and the public reacted to the piece.  Delightfully, she quotes some of the complaints she received from readers, which sometimes seem founded and sometimes not.  Wong is marvellously thick-skinned about it all and I loved the balance these other perspective provide.

Though her subjects may complain and threaten to sue after publication, the majority of the pieces are positive.  Some of them are not quite as detailed as you might hope (her interview with Yo-Yo Ma gives a wonderful impression of his hectic schedule and impressive energy but very little insight into the man himself) while others are fascinating glimpses into the lives of less famous but no less interesting figures.  My favourite interview in the entire book was with John Cleghorn, then the chairmen of the Royal Bank of Canada, who admitted to having teared up (as I did) while reading Wong’s earlier interview with Don Cherry.

I have to admit that there was really never any chance I was not going to enjoy this book.  Wong was the reason I started reading the Globe and Mail as a teenager.  It is a paper with many flaws but, while Wong worked there, I always had something to look forward to, both in these interviews and in her more intensive feature pieces.  I have loved her four other books (three about her time in China as first an exchange student and then a journalist and one, which I will be reviewing soon, about her workplace-caused depression) and Lunch with Jan Wong, by far the lightest in terms of subject matter, was no exception.

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Library Lust

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I am still not a big fan of colour blocking when it comes to arranging my bookshelves (I prefer a more functional approach), but I also can’t deny that it is a striking look, especially in an otherwise neutral room.

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Betsy and the Great WorldI only discovered Maud Hart Lovelace after I started blogging.  Her Minnesota-set Betsy-Tacy series of children’s books have insipid titles that would have earned my contempt if anyone had tried to press them on me when I was young (Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Heaven to Betsy, and Betsy Was a Junior) but she had so many fans in the book blogging world that I had to try her for myself.  I started with a non-Betsy-Tacy book (Emily of Deep Valley) and thought it was fine.  At the time, I remarked that I didn’t think, based on the brief glimpse of Betsy provided in Emily of Deep Valley, that I could face any of the books focused on her.  But then I found a copy of Betsy and the Great World for sale at the library for 50 cents and decided to take a chance.

After two years of university, Betsy Ray has had enough.  She convinces her parents that, as an aspiring writer, she is not getting a lot of value from her math and science classes.  They agree and instead offer up an education of a different sort: a year abroad, travelling in Europe.  (Note: this was not the offer my parents made to me whenever I complained about my university classes.  Tragically.)  Unsurprisingly, she is ecstatic and, in possession of a flashy wardrobe and lots of enthusiasm, she sets off for Europe.  It is January 1914, she is twenty-one years old, and the world seems full of possibilities.

The book follows Betsy through her shipboard adventures, her travels on the continent (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France), and her arrival in England – just in time for war to be declared.  Through it all, she does her best to make new friends and keep up her writing even as she struggles with homesickness and a longing for Joe, the boyfriend she had parted from before leaving and is now fearful of having lost forever.

The highlights of the book for me were the descriptions of the places Betsy visits.  Betsy herself was wildly uninteresting but I loved hearing about her walks through Munich, her wanderings around Venice, and her instant love affair with London.  The only part of Betsy’s journey I did not enjoy was her brief stay in Oberammergau, where the piety of the citizens, many of them actors in the village’s famous Passion Play, was taken far too seriously by the young American (and her creator).

Though I developed absolutely no interest in or attachment to Betsy over the course of the novel, I was impressed by Lovelace’s descriptions of Betsy’s mood changes and the frequent waves of homesickness that plagued her.  Lovelace has a disarmingly honest was of talking about unpleasant or negative emotions (which were also a feature of Emily of Deep Valley).

But there were things that outweighed the honesty and the enchanting travel details: so much of the story is focused on Betsy’s new friendships (both platonic and romantic) and the episodic and repetitive nature of these relationships felt lazy.  Yes, Betsy seems to be a young woman who makes friends (and conquests) easily but I longed for some more substantial development.  Her need to surround herself with a group of people, to form a clique (or, in her words, a Crowd) in each new place, saddened me.  By the end of the book, Betsy has seen many places and had many wonderful experiences but it is not clear how much she has actually learned, particularly about herself.

There is one feature I cannot decide if I should classify as a positive or a negative: Betsy’s garish wardrobe.  Maud Hart Lovelace describes her heroine’s costumes in loving detail and the vast majority of them are awful – laughably so.  Betsy has a particular fondness for a red-green hat, worn with a pale green dress and a scarlet jacket.  There is also a matronly-sounding maroon silk evening dress.  And she wonders how people know she is an American even before she speaks!  The illustrations don’t help either, making her look either ten years behind the fashions or forty years ahead of them.

Clearly, this was not an instant favourite with me, though there is something intriguing about Lovelace’s writing, though it is very uneven.  I am even a little bit tempted to read the final Betsy-Tacy book, Betsy’s Wedding.  But while I can somewhat stomach grown-up Betsy, the idea of reading about her childhood escapades sends a shiver up my spine.  No.  Just…no.  I cannot face that.

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badge-4Library 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.

Reading has been put to the wayside lately in favour of practical, career-related activities.  I have to admit, I was having so much fun with those tasks that I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t picked up a book in four days!  Sometimes it is fun to read and sometimes it is fun to be productive: the two don’t necessarily overlap well.  But I’ve worked through what I really needed to get done and should be able to spare a little more time for books going forward.

Library Loot 1

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks – I need to finally read something by Sacks and this sounds like a fun place to start (but then all his books sound fun).

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? by Rhoda Janzen – I am incapable of passing by any sort of personal narrative about faith.  It is an entirely foreign concept to me and, probably for that reason, endlessly fascinating.

The Sunshine Years by Afsaneh Knight – Alex in Leeds reviewed this book about angst-ridden 30-something Australians last month and I immediately placed a hold on it.
Library Loot 2

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – Simon S’s review of this last year brought it to my attention and Library Loot co-host Marg’s equal enthusiasm for it made me certain that I had to try it.

A Thousand Farewells by Nahlah Ayed – I borrowed this last September when I already had too many other books checked out and too many reviews needing to be written.  Now I have the time to do this book, a memoir about Ayed’s experiences in the Middle East, justice.

Capital by John Lanchester – I borrowed this at the same time as I first picked up A Thousand Farewells and ran into the same problems.  This is one of the only books published in 2012 that I was really excited about so I am looking forward to it.  What I’ve read so far has been very promising.

 What did you pick up this week?

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The Bannister GirlsHow to review a book that skirts the line between being a ”good bad” book and simply a “bad bad” book?  Most of my reading falls into the good bad category: books that are not going to win prizes for their experimental structure or complex themes but which, as Orwell wrote, remain “readable when more serious productions have perished.”  The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, originally published in 1991 and recently reissued as an e-book by Bloomsbury Reader, aspires to be a good bad book; it doesn’t quite get there but it is a fun, more than slightly soapy historical romance.

Set during the First World War, The Bannister Girls follows the members of the Bannister family from 1915 to 1918, focusing in particular on Angel, the youngest daughter.  The novel opens with Angel meeting a young French pilot currently on leave in London.  Within a few hours, she has abandoned the rigid social rules her mother tried so hard to instil in her three daughters, finding herself with him first at a nightclub and then at a hotel.  Their relationship builds from that day forward and is a dominant feature of the story…which would have been more enjoyable if either Angel or Jacques had been remotely interesting.  Angel becomes a far more interesting person when she’s interacting with her sisters (though, since she spends most of the war nursing in France, that’s rare) or with her father.

The eldest sister, Louise, is largely absent from the story, with other characters providing updates on her life while the middle sister, Ellen, is still seen all too rarely for my tastes.  Ellen is a passionate and idealistic young woman, attracted to controversial social issues: she begins the book as a vocal supporter of women’s rights and, after a German shopkeeper is murdered in the village near the Bannister’s country home, begins advocating for the rights of foreign-born residents.  But before too long, the war does intrude on her causes and she takes up work at one of the neighbouring farms, becoming even closer friends with the farmer there, having initially befriended him while protesting.  Unlike Angel, Ellen’s love life is actually interesting: she makes a bit of a muddle of her relationship with her farmer and her embarrassment at having confused attraction and love felt more real than most of the emotions in this book.  Her struggles are less dramatic than Angel’s but more impactful for that reason.

While I would have preferred more of a focus on Ellen and cheered if any attention at all had been given to Louise, I must say that Saunders does do an excellent job of describing the hospital and nursing conditions in France, where Angel spends most of the novel working.  This partially makes up for the general flatness of the characters and the ridiculously overdramatic twists in Angel and Jacques’ love story.  For all my complaining, I did have fun reading this.  I may not remember it a month from now, but I also couldn’t put it down when I was reading.

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Library Lust

credit: Eric Staudenmaier

credit: Eric Staudenmaier

I love a good book-lined hallway but I always wonder: would I ever get to where I’m going if I had to pass along one? Or would I just end up distracted by all those beautiful books?

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I woke up this morning thinking “yes, today I will finally blog about one of the many, many books I’ve read recently.” I really did have the best of intentions, planning to talk about The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, a light romance from Bloomsbury Reader which I sped through Thursday morning about the lives of three sisters during the First World War, but then I got a better offer: to take advantage of the rain-free morning (a rarity this week) and go tour the local botanical gardens.  So, instead of a review, here are a few photos:

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I may (still) not be reviewing but I am reading.  Right now, I’m in the midst of Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey, a profile of Saudi Arabia from the 1970s to the present, and Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace, in which twenty-one year old Betsy leaves Minnesota in early 1914 to tour Europe.  I am loving the Lacey so far and, when I need a break, Betsy is a most entertaining distraction, although the frequent descriptions of her outfits are driving me slightly mad.  (These sartorial details were also a distraction for me in the only other Maud Hart Lovelace book I’ve read, Emily of Deep Valley.)  Betsy, bless her, has some truly horrific sounding outfits in the most garish colours.

Tonight I’m off to the theatre but I really (honestly!) will spend some of this weekend working on reviews.

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