Archive for August, 2013

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.

Library LootThe Two Mrs Abbotts by D.E. Stevenson – I’m reading Miss Buncle Married now (and, shockingly, having more success with it than I did with Miss Buncle’s Book) so it’s only right to have the next book ready to go as soon as I’m done.

Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord – As Hector travels from Paris to China to the United States, he keeps a list of observations about the people he meets, hoping to find the secret to happiness. Combining the winsome appeal of The Little Prince with the inspiring philosophy of The Alchemist, Hector’s journey around the world and into the human soul is entertaining, empowering, and smile inducing-as winning in its optimism as it is powerful in its insight and reassuring in its simplicity.

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon – No.  I checked this out and started to read it, but no.  Just no.  I am sure it will be the hit everyone expects it to be but it is not for me.

What did you pick up this week?

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Anna and Her DaughtersWhen their father dies, none of the three Harcourt girls (Helen, Jane and Rosalie) is particularly upset.  Gerald Harcourt was a distant figure in their lives and he is easily forgotten.  The loss of the family’s income, however, is not something so easily overcome.  When their mother Anna discovers that they have been left penniless, she decides to move them out of London and back her hometown in Scotland.  Suddenly the girls, brought up on dreams of coming-out balls (in Helen’s case) and studies at Oxford (for the bookish Jane), are forced to grow up very quickly.  It all makes for a very promising beginning to Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson.

Helen, the demanding and selfish eldest sister, decamps almost immediately to Edinburgh in search of the excitement and refinement Ryddelton cannot offer but the others remain and begin to make very happy lives for themselves.  Rosalie, having always lived in her more beautiful eldest sister’s shadow, begins to come into her own.  Anna, freed of the formalities of her London life, is happier and more relaxed than her daughters have ever known her.  And Jane, our narrator, finds an education she could never have gotten at Oxford in her work as a secretary for Mrs Millard, an eccentric biographer currently residing in the village.

After a nice slow start, lots of things happen: Helen marries the man Jane had, albeit from afar, fallen in love with and then, in the manner of D.E.S.’s evil sisters, does her best to make his life miserable.  Anna gets remarried.  Jane becomes an author of dramatic historical novels and uses her newfound wealth to travel the world.  And Rosalie, lucky girl, fades boringly into the background.

I loved reading about Jane’s development as a writer.  To me, that was much more interesting than the world-travelling dramatics of the Helen-Ronnie-Jane semi-love triangle.  It is fun to read about Jane’s excitement when she gets hold of the idea for her first story and stays up late into the night each day, writing away in her attic bedroom.  It was this part of the book that felt the most alive, the most believable.  I particularly loved Mrs Millard’s assessment of the bestseller appeal of Jane’s first novel:

“You see, my dear Jane, The Mulberry Coach provides an escape from the drabness of the modern world.”

She took a long breath and continued, “Housewives will leave piles of unwashed dishes in the sink and revel in the richness and prodigality of the banquets which you have provided; miserable little clerks in lawyers’ offices will neglect this dusty duties and be transported to a wider life and more colourful surroundings; girls imagine themselves swept off their feet by the wooing of your masterful hero; fashionable ladies will say to each other, “My dee-ar!  You don’t mean to say you haven’t read The Mulberry Coach, by Jane Harcourt?  It’s abso-lootly thrilling!  Everyone’s talking about it!’  Young men will choose it for Aunt Fanny’s birthday and read it with avidity before despatching it by post with a suitable card…and of course people who haven’t got twelve and sixpence to spare will rush to the nearest public Library and clamour loudly for a copy of The Mulberry Coach.”

As usual with D.E.S., the book can be split into two parts: the first is always the most encouraging, when I am caught up in the warm, undemanding story and foolishly believe that Stevenson might manage to pull off one of her all-too-rare competent endings.  And then there is the second part, with the needlessly dramatic climax and hasty (or sometimes nonexistent) denouement.  In terms of disappointing endings, this book might have one of the worst (best?).  I don’t know whether she was constantly rushing to meet a deadline or only enjoyed writing the establishing part of a novel but I do know that you cannot rely on Stevenson if you want a satisfying conclusion.  Yes, she provides happy endings but in a lazy, deeply unsatisfying way.  I much prefer when she just sort of runs along until she hits the end quite abruptly to when she attempts to plot a conclusion, as she does here.

Anna and Her Daughters has so many elements of a delightful story but, at the same time, it also has all the things that make D.E.S. such a frustrating author.  I quite liked it but, at the same time, there was a certain point beyond which I spent all my time swearing at Stevenson in my head, damning her for always failing in exactly the same way.  Perhaps I just need to stop in the middle of her books from now on, savouring the good sections before allowing the bad to disappoint me.  But I do want to get to those happy endings, I just want to get to them in a more graceful way.

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Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

I spent the weekend reading books off my own shelves, bouncing back and forth between High Wages by Dorothy Whipple and The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1907-1964.  While High Wages was undoubtedly my most successful Whipple encounter to date, the diaries were what delighted me most.  I had enjoyed what I had read of Nicolson’s diaries and letters in the past (he shows up frequently in history books focused on wartime Britain) so was looking forward to this but enjoyed it even more than I had expected to.

I plan to write more about this wonderful book soon but for now I just wanted to share a snippet that I found charming and which reminded me of A.A. Milne’s wonderful “Margery” pieces from his Punch days.  It is a letter written by Harold Nicolson to his infant grandchild, Juliet Nicolson, shortly after her christening (July 31, 1954):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

Wouldn’t you love to have a grandfather who could write such letters?  The importance of and thankfulness for a close-knit family is something Nicolson mentions throughout his life, whether he is thinking about his relationship with his parents, with his wife (Vita Sackville-West), or with his two sons and, eventually, their children.  It was so nice to read an interview with Juliet Nicolson and hear how fondly she remembers him.

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Library Lust

Credit: Smith and Vansant Architects

Credit: Smith and Vansant Architects

Love this clean set of shelves – and, of course, the rolling ladder.

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A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

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Happy Day


It is a happy day, friends.  To be honest, I am happy most days but today I am especially so.  I was offered and have accepted the job I was interviewing for last week.  It was the first and only job I have applied to since leaving my old company earlier this year (having taken a wonderfully long break in between those two events) and I am thrilled to have got it.  It is the dream the job and I’m going to get to work for a company and a boss that I really admire.  I start at the beginning of September and am very excited!

So, to celebrate my happiness, here’s a list of a few other things that are making me happy right now:

The impending arrival (November is coming up fast!) of Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell, a collection of stories Thirkell wrote during the 1930s and 1940s, none of which I have ever read

Christmas at High Rising

The return of The Great British Bake Off and with it the return of Simon’s hilarious GBBO recaps

Spending time with my favourite canine companion (sadly borrowed, not owned)

Reading the fabulous River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
River of Stars

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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!

 Library Loot

Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson – another semi-delightful, semi-frustrating effort from Stevenson, this time about a widow who returns to Scotland after her husband’s death with her three teenage daughters in tow.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay – Kay’s newest book, set in the same world as Under Heaven.  I have cleared my schedule today so I can devote myself to reading this.  So far, it is magnificent.

A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting by Guy Delisle – a short and funny book about parenting from my favourite cartoonist.

Library Loot 2

The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson – discovered among her papers after her death, this children’s story about the flight of a family of Yetis across Asia and Europe is vintage Ibbotson.

One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh – a retelling of 19 stories from One Thousand and One Nights by Lebanese author Al-Shaykh.

High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver – A collection of essays.

What did you pick up this week?

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Under HeavenI have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars.  I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.

Kay is the master of historical fantasy.  He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain).  In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.

Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead.  Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried.  A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there.  But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.

The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor.  She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:

You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life.  Or, as Tai knows, end it.

But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead.  Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family.  Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai.  Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why.  In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.

Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own.  Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son.  It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians.  A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:

Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women.  More than most men, he’d added once.  She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.

She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges.  She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering. 

She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her.  But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai.  Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.

Kay does everything perfectly in this book.  Really.  He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself.  Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations.  With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before.  He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions.  Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.

Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate.  As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei.  And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary.  Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court.  But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders.  Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes.  And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai.  Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best.  When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.

Oh, it is all so good.  I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it.  But first, on to River of Stars!

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photo via author's website

photo via author’s website

I was sad to hear of the passing of Barbara Mertz at the age of 85 on August 8th but only as sad as you can be about the death of a woman who has lived to a ripe old age and written more books than the world has the right to demand of any one author.  I love her Amelia Peabody series (written under her most famous pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters) but have only just begun to sample her other books.

I have never read any of the gothic, supernatural novels that Mertz wrote as Barbara Michaels nor have I read the more scholarly non-fiction that Mertz, who earned a PhD in Egyptology, wrote under her own name.  But for many years I have been an admirer of her most famous creation, that parasol-wielding terror of the desert, Amelia Peabody Emerson.  I wasn’t an immediate fan; I remember starting Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first book in the 19 volume series, a few times in my early teens and giving up in frustration.  Amelia, forceful and blunt, was not the kind of instantly sympathetic heroine I was accustomed to and it took a few more years until I could appreciate her unique charms.  In the summer of 2005, I read all of the 17 books published at that point, one after the other.  It was a bit mad but it was wonderful to be immersed for so long in Peters’ Egypt, tracking the changes in both the country and Amelia’s family over the almost forty-year period that the books cover.

He Shall Thunder in the SkyThe Falcon at the PortalThis summer, I reread two of my favourite books from the Amelia Peabody series while I was travelling in Europe: The Falcon at the Portal and He Shall Thunder in the Sky.  These books are set between 1911 and 1915 and, as fans will know, their appeal has less to do with Amelia than with her dashing son Ramses.  When younger, Ramses was one of those precocious children who are either delightful or infuriating depending on your mood.  Grown up, Ramses is proper brooding action hero material, always engaged in dangerous covert activities.  These books are just as swoon-y as I remember them being (which is to say very) though the bleak ending of The Falcon at the Portal has always made me happy that I discovered the books long after the rest of the series was available.  How did fans endure the wait for He Shall Thunder in the Sky and the longed-for happy ending?

Legend in Green VelvetImmediately after reading those two books, I had my first delightful encounter with one of Peters’ early stand-alone mysteries.  Legend in Green Velvet was published in 1976 and though it is a little rough around the edges and more madcap than I’m usually prepared to tolerate, it was great fun.  Susan, an American archaeology student obsessed with all things Scottish, finds herself in trouble almost as soon as she arrives in Scotland.  After receiving a mysterious note from a man who is later found murdered, Susan becomes an object of interest to both the police and an odd group of people who seem to want her dead as well.  In the company of Jamie Erskine, a handsome young Scot, Susan finds herself fleeing through the hills and hiding in the heather in a delightful send-up of all those novels that take an overly romantic view of Scotland and Scottish history.  I could not stop giggling while I read this, which is always a good sign.  Peters writes marvellous banter and Jamie is a fabulous non-alpha hero (another thing, I’m learning, Peters excelled at).

Devil May CareBut as much as I enjoyed Legend in Green Velvet, Devil May Care, released in 1977, was even better.  It has equally well-written banter, an even better non-alpha hero, and the sort of easily explained away supernaturalism that even I can enjoy.  When Ellie comes to housesit at her Aunt Kate’s large home in Virginia, she is looking forward to being left alone with the cats and the dogs and, to be honest, having a bit of a break from her boring fiancé.  But when ghosts start appearing, all seemingly members of the town’s founding families, even the level-headed Ellie is a bit spooked.  With the help of Donald, a handsome young neighbour, and a few of Aunt Kate’s other friends, Ellie begins to work out what is going on.  It is wonderfully fun to read, especially the interactions between Ellie and Donald, and I can’t help but suspect that Peters, already an established author of suspense novels as Barbara Michaels, had great fun writing a satirical take on the genre.

With so many of Peters’ books left to discover, I can only feel thankful that she was so prolific as well as so talented.  She may be gone but I still have much of her legacy left to discover.

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I am on a baking bender this month, which, as far as benders go, has to be the most enjoyable kind.  There is something so soothing about baking, which means I’m drawn to it most when I’m busy, as I have been lately, as a sort of relaxation exercise.  I love to cook but the strictness of baking makes it a much calmer process.  And you end up not only more zen-like but with a delicious cake to hand.  The very definition of a win-win situation.

Last weekend, I was using up mammoth zucchinis and turning out perfect zucchini loaves studded with walnuts and currants and delicious, chewy shreds of coconut.  This weekend, I turned to my favourite baking fruit: the Italian prune plum.  The local plums have just started appearing in stores and while some are still a bit too firm to be perfect for eating they are ideal right now for baking.  Rather than turning to one of my tested plum recipes, I tried Dorie Greenspan’s Dimply Plum Cake (recipe via Luisa Weiss).  It turned out perfectly.  The smell of the cooked plums is almost better than the taste of the cake itself.  Almost.

Meet Me at the Cupcake CafeSince it is impractical to bake all the time (at least without having a team of hungry rugby players to hand to eat the results), I’ve also become a bit baking-mad in my reading and television watching.  Last weekend, while baking the zucchini bread, I read Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan, a delightfully frothy little novel about a young woman who opens a small bakery.  Issy Randall grew up in her grandfather’s chain of bakeries and has always been a favourite with friends, coworkers and even the people who stand in line for the morning bus with her for the wonderful cupcakes and treats she bakes and shares with them.   When she loses her job and a small storefront in her neighbourhood becomes available, she takes the plunge and decides to open her own bakery.  This is 100% wish-fulfillment fantasy, which made it perfect for a lazy early morning read.  I particularly enjoyed how Issy’s story was complimented by those of the people around her, whose lives were also impacted by her decision to open the bakery.

The Great Australian Bake Off

To fill the great big Mary Berry-sized hole in my life as I wait for the new season of The Great British Bake Off to start (only a couple of days now!), I have been watching The Great Australian Bake Off.  While the America riff on the GBBO was dire and best banished entirely from the memory of those unfortunate enough to witness it, this Aussie version has been wonderfully fun.  It feels louder and younger than the British version and, in earlier episodes at least, we get to see more of the participants’ shenanigans but the set styling and format is very familiar.  And it has the marvellous Dan Lepard, whose recipes have never failed me, as one of the judges.  It is the semi-final this week and my two favourite bakers (Maria and Monique) are still the in the running.  Has anyone else been watching?

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